As a renowned 3D Artist, creating stunning visual effects seen by audiences around the world, China’s Xin Yi is incredibly adaptable in her work. She does not have a specific style or trademark, but rather focuses on creating the most stunning imagery she can in whatever style the project demands. She can make visual effects look as realistic as a photograph, blending seamlessly with their surroundings, or a stylized animation that captures the hearts of its viewers.
This outstanding versatility is evident in all of her work, no matter the genre or medium. Whether creating the virtual set for NFL Redzone or modeling, materials, lighting, and some transitions and characters for the World of Warcraft Arena World Championship, Yi focuses on the details to create artistic effects.
Recently, millions around the world saw Yi’s work in the Rocket League: Radical Summer trailer, although they may not know it.
Rocket League is a vehicular video game developed and published by Psyonix. It is like soccer, but with rocket-powered cars and has up to four players assigned to each of the two teams, using rocket-powered vehicles to hit a ball into their opponent’s goal and score points over the course of a match. Released in 2015 for Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 4, with ports for Xbox One, macOS, Linux, and Nintendo Switch being released later on, it is a now iconic game, with its own professional league and a vast worldwide following.
Radical Summer is an extension of the game, a celebration of ’80s movies, television and culture. The extension has new items, game modes, DLC, and more. Available From 6/10 to 8/12 on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
“It is a pretty fun game to play with friends, even though I am not usually a gamer. The Radical Summer pack is super fun and cool as well,” said Yi.
After previous success on the Rocket League: McLaren 570S Car Pack Trailer in late 2018, Yi and her team at the motion graphics design and animation production studioCapacity were once again invited to create captivating cinematics to promote this new development of the game.
Before beginning work on the trailer, Yi did some research on Rocket League to know more about their style and at the same time, she watched movies from the ’80s and listened to music from that time period. Understanding more about the time period was essential in creating an ‘80s appearance and style in her work.
Yi did all of the rigging parts and exported them to let other teammates make an animation out of them and she also helped to animate one of the shots. She worked tirelessly to make the trailer both stunning to watch while matching the game’s style. She also did transition work to make the shot transfer to the next shot smoothly and did a composition for the TVs in the trailer to allow other artists to replace the footage easily.
“It is a really interesting project to work on. It brings us back to the ’80s, the rock music years. The pack is also using many elements from some 80’s culture, television from the decade and blockbusters,” said Yi.
Yi’s work on the rigs, animation, composing, materials, scene transitions, and renderings of this trailer paid off. The trailer was released on Rocket League’s official website and YouTube in June 2019. It received many positive comments and a lot of people were looking forward to playing the newly released pack. It has over 3.6 million views on the official YouTube link so far, and greatly contributed to the Radical Summerpack’s ongoing success.
You can check out the Rocket League: Radical Summer Trailer to see some of Yi’s beautiful 3D artistry.
For Ranran Meng, compositing is like decorating a building; as the final step of the filmmaking process, her role as a compositor, is to make a scene look complete and beautiful, just as an interior decorator would a room. She makes the footage look the best it can possibly look, ready for audiences all over the world to be taken in by the story, transported to different places and time, and to be purely entertained.
Meng has put her extraordinary touch on many of the world’s most popular recent films and television shows. These include Netflix’s hit rom-com Set it Up, Amazon’s award-winning television series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the Emmy-nominated film Fahrenheit 451, to name a few. Her talents extend to commercials, collaborating with iconic brands like Microsoft, as well as virtual reality, having worked on the Harry Potter franchise award-winning video game The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them VR Experience in 2018.
Last year, Meng also worked on the second season of HBO’s Golden Globe nominated series The Deuce, starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Based in 1970s New York, this show gives a raw and gritty portrayal of the prostitution business that was so publicly executed at that time. As a result of police crack-down, the characters are forced to venture towards relatively safer and more discrete forms of the same work.
Meng, already a fan of the show’s first season, was happy to use her talents on such an enticing story, even if it meant she would be exposed to some spoilers.
“I have not watched any show talk about the porn industry before, so this was a really unique project to be a part of. The story involves the government and police corruption, the violence of the drug epidemic and the real-estate booms and busts that coincided with the change. It really allows viewers to imagine what 1970s New York City was like,” she said. “I love the old stories and the older looking sets, it’s like seeing something from the past, even if it is not a true story. It gives an idea of what the old society was like, making it real for audiences.”
When working on The Deuce, Meng had a tremendous amount of responsibilities, making sure the VFX would really allow audiences to transport back in time to the 1970s without being noticeable. To do this, she used compositing techniques like 2D tracking, 3D tracking, roto and paint skills. In the original footage, there were modern things in the background that wouldn’t work with the time period, so she used her software to replace this with older images, making every detail work for 70s New York City.
These small details included erasing modern road stripes or signals and replacing them with the older styles, which meant she had to 3D track the scene and simulate a 3D scene of it, and then use paint techniques to paint out a newer, cleaner, no-stripes road image. She would then project the new painted road image on the 3D space and bring in a 2D plate, and then add new render stripes footage. Finally, after bringing back the cars, she used 2D tracking and roto/paint skills to do the motion work and to simulate the exact same traffic lights and shadows to bring them back to the scene. This made the scenes still have the same shooting elements, but with a perfect, older environment. Viewers may not notice things like the road signals in the background of a dramatic scene, but they would notice them if they were modernized, which is why Meng takes such care and pride in her job.
“This project is the story about the 1970s in New York, so it is interesting to make a modern city into an old-time city. I enjoyed the process of seeing how the city changed. It let me know how accurate the scene should be for output, as even a little light sign should be changed back to that period. It really magnified my attention to detail,” said Meng.
Meng’s work allowed The Deuce to be more believable and precise, allowing viewers to have the ideal entertainment experience from the couch of their homes. She used advanced high compositing techniques to achieve photoreal effects, making her indispensable to putting together such a high-end television show.
“I am proud of myself to have been a part of this great project. The post-production did a very good job and presented a real 1970s New York City to the audiences. I had a good experience working with my team and I am very much looking forward to the show’s next season,” she concluded.
One of Jie Meng’s most distinctive childhood memories is watching The Lord of the Rings movies for the first time. After watching the first film, he was left speechless. Not only were these movies entertaining, but also artistic masterpieces. He began watching the films over and over again, constantly overcome by the magnitude of the stunning visual effects. He realized, even at that young age, that filmmaking could make fantasy a reality, and that was when he knew he had to be a part of that world.
Now, Meng is an in demand Visual Effects Artist. He is known for his work on countless films, including Avengers: Infinity War, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and more. His talents extend to television, such as The Americans, and Freaky Friday, as well as video games, like Quake Champions and Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
“I worked with Jie on Call of Duty: Black Ops IIIand later on Captain America: Civil War.
Jie is a talented FX artist. He strives to create the highest level of quality and is constantly pushing himself to learn new techniques, either independently or from the team around him. He listens to positive feedback and can build FX setups and tools that are used by multiple artists. This makes him extremely productive, a pleasure to work with and I hope to work with him again in the future.” said Peter Claes, FX supervisor and Lead VFX artist at The Mill.
Captain America: Civil War was Meng’s first true taste of movie blockbuster success with his work. The film, the third Captain America movie and the 13thof the Avengers franchise, grossed over $1 billion at the box office. It was nominated for 17 awards at various festivals and award shows and took home five. Meng worked tirelessly to make this a possibility.
“It was a huge pleasure and honor working on this film. The success made me think of those days when I devoted myself to the work, and now I realize that all my efforts paid off,” said Meng.
The movie sees the beloved Captain America pitted against Iron Man due to political differences. A vast array of Avengers appear throughout the film, taking sides. It’s a story about friends and brothers. It’s a debate between freedom and obeying the rules. Meng had always been a fan of the Marvel franchise and the Captain America films, but he knew this film would be something special and that he had to be a part of it.
“After watching the movie, I thought a lot. It actually reflects a lot of problems in our current society, an individual always wants to be free but also needs to follow the laws. I like movies that reflect the social status and will bring up a topic and let me think about it, and Captain America: Civil War is one of them,” said Meng.
When it came to the effects, Meng worked on many shots in several different sequences. His focuses were the roof helicopter fighting sequence and the final battle scene. He finished all different kinds of effects for various sequences, with little touches that dramatically added to the film.
Meng’s main task, however, was developing the Ironman thruster tool in the final combat sequence between Captain America and Ironman, the climax of the film. Therefore, he knew that his role was of the utmost importance for the film’s success. The tool needed to be packed and shared with other artists at both Los Angeles and Vancouver studios to finish every shot that contains Ironman’s thruster. It needed to be designed as a “one-click and automatically build the thruster” tool, but also contains all kinds of functions to modify and art-direct the thruster effects. Meng re-designed the thrusters from Iron Man 3and packed in a whole new digital asset. Every time he modified and polished the tool, he optimized it and made the tool easier to use. In doing this, he gathered the feedback from different artists and made it more and more productive. The whole process of building the tool was a very valuable experience for Meng and bettered the film as a whole.
“Being part of this feature film, witnessing the whole VFX workflow in the post-production made me completely understand that the VFX process is never easy. The most comforting, and also most important part was I have learned a lot from this project about how to build a digital asset tool that can be used in the visual effects production and was inspired by all the VFX artists around me,” he said.
Meng also worked on other different effects like the debris, smoke, sparks, snow, etc. Those photo-realistic effects elements completed the movie sequence and created a stronger visual impact on the audience. The experience, overall, was a great honor for the visual effects artist, and he wouldn’t change a thing.
“When I saw the film premiere and my name on the credit list, I was so proud of myself and the whole crew members, and that was the most exciting moment to me for watching all my effort paid off and it was so worth it,” he concluded.
It probably comes as no surprise that the VFX industry is among one of the many tech related fields that has been dominated primarily by men since inception; and that’s not to say that women haven’t played an equally powerful role, they just haven’t received their due credit. Though the media in general has shone somewhat of a lesser light on women in VFX, there is hope for equality in the industry now more than ever before. But this is just the starting point.
Women like Victoria Alonso, who earned the Visual Effects Society Visionary Award last year, and VFX artist and compositor Charmaine Chan, who created the video series “Women in VFX,” have both used their position in the industry to draw attention to the lack of diversity in the workforce. In order to play ball in such a male dominated arena, women have to go the extra mile to prove their worth; and one woman who’s managed to carve out a place for herself in the industry despite the obvious challenges is Brazilian born VFX artist Tati Leite.
“I think what separates me from the rest is that I have my background in computer engineering. I used to be more technical before moving to LA. But I never felt completely satisfied only using my technical skills. My artistic side was always there trying to show up too. And that’s the main reason I chose VFX,” explains Tati.
A story that proves once again that women are just as capable as their male counterparts, Tati’s journey serves as an inspiration to push ourselves as women to follow our dreams, even if it means that we have to push harder at this point in history. This is how we are going to change the face of the industry so future generations of women can be judged based on skills rather than gender.
Creating artistic videos was a passion Tati discovered at an early age. She carefully learned how to shoot, modify and craft different effects at a time when technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Her close examination and methodical approach to the videos she created drove her desire to understand how it all worked.
“Every movie I watched I paid attention to all the details and watched it over and over to see the effects, the animation and all the aspects that had been introduced to the footage,” recalls Tati. “Even my choice for majoring in computer engineering was based on the fact that I wanted to acquire a deeper knowledge in computer graphics.”
This perfect fusion of art and technology is what drew Tati to become a VFX artist, and it’s one of the major assets that sets her apart. Backed with a computer engineering degree Tati was not intimidated by male dominated spaces. Not only was she well prepared to take on this highly technical position, but she realized that, in a way, it made her part of a movement towards equality for women in the industry.
“Having a wide background helped me to navigate through this world easily. But, this industry is still male dominant and we have a long way to go until we see some real changes. The future is promising, every day I think we move one step forward, but it’s far from equality,” Tati admits.
Pioneering the way for other women to delve into VFX, Tati has paved a trail of outstanding work on various projects that range from high profile motion picture films, such as the highly-anticipated film “The Lion King,” which is due out in 2019 and directed by Jon Favreau, to a plethora of award winning video games.
Video game projects not only challenged Tati and revealed her power behind the screen, but they also prepared her for the bigger tasks she’s undertaken as a VFX artist on major feature films. One of Tati’s favorite video games so far has been Making Campcreated by the award winning company 7 Generation Games. It was there she found the freedom to add her own visual design and concept to the game as an animator.
She says, “This game is very special to me. Not only because I created VFX for some of the videos played in the games, but also because we completely remodeled the game visually. Icons, buttons, effects, all the assets were remade and/or adapted to a new look.”
Project manager Diana Sanchez, who worked with Tati at 7 Generation Games, quickly recognized Tati’s inspiring work ethic, her capacity to effectively communicate with her team, and her ability to elevate the creative process overall. When it came down to creating games for the company, it was never a competition but a fruitful collaboration.
Sanchez says, “What makes Tati good at what she does is her ability to collaborate… When you have an idea of what you want such as an animation or image for an icon, she then takes that vision and puts her great skills to work, but the best part is her flexibility if modifications need to be made. That’s a great quality to have when collaborating on a project.”
Executing work for 7 Generation Gamesis where Tati’s creativity and intelligence went hand in hand, and her background in computer engineering coupled with her keen artistic eye have her the power to produce the best visual designs.
“Creating VFX for games is exciting because you can be very creative, but at the same time you need to be smart about how you are going to do it without consume too much memory or processing.”
The 3D educational video game Fish Lake was another video game where Tati’s VFX prowess was a leading force in the game’s creation. As part of an Indian tribe, the game’s player has to overcome roadblocks related to math and history, so it’s not only fun for users but it teaches them valuable skills. For Tati, Fish Lake was not only an exciting project that utilized her seasoned skill, but it is one that challenged her in new ways.
She explains, “The big difference of this game is that it is 3D. The tools and the skills required for 3D are completely different. This was the main 3D game we had at the house at the time so it was very special to have the opportunity to work on it.”
Tati’s creativity and VFX expertise have led her to be an invaluable force in the ever evolving design concept of countless many games like the project Aztech. This educational math and social studies game for kids was sparkled with magic where students would go back in time to try and survive challenges in order to move forward, and Tati was key in creating the visual effects that kept them playing.
Tati says, “This project was really nice to work on because I could see the idea of the game evolving until it became real. Putting together the concept to create a game is a big challenge.”
When it comes to design and creating concepts in the ever growing field of visual effects for video games Tati ha become a sought after force. She’s adapted to new advances in the field at every turn, and her work makes her stand out as one of the best, but her work is by no means limited to the world of VFX for video games.
The adept nature of her talent as a VFX artist has led the film industry to take note, and though the industry department is still considered by many to be more of a ‘boys team,’ she’s definitely made her way in, and her contributions have been key in creating the incredible visuals we see on the bigger screen.
With only three women nominated in the VFX field for an Oscar, Tati aims to raise the conversation about this problem but also lead the charge in creating stellar work, proving she is just as good as any man.
“I love working on feature films,” admits Tati. “It’s very gratifying when you see the final result on the big screen helping to tell a story better.”
Aside from “The Lion King,” Tati has played a key role in the VFX departments on some of the biggest feature films of this year, including “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Christopher Robin,” “Mission: Impossible – Fall Out,” “Book Club” and many more.
To play on the boys team Tati realized early on that has to be the best at every aspect in the field, and that means staying on top of every new technique, but her passion for the craft and her individual creative eye has made her unbeatable. There are somethings that can not be taught like work ethic, cohesive collaboration, and artistic skill, and Tati possesses all of these traits in spades.
At the end of the day, Tati says, “For me the secret is always do your best. Never consider any of your jobs smaller or less valuable. In every job you will get something from it, it can be learning something new, improving some skills, experience dealing with a tough client, or even if it’s just making money. It does not matter. If you consider that all the jobs are very important and you give them your best, you will grow and build the bridge to the next level of your career.”
It is not often that one individual is both technically and artistically inclined. Such skills normally find themselves separated, considered two different ways of thinking entirely. However, this is not the case for China’s Qiao Wang, where the fusion of both technology and art have led to a dynamic skill set that most do not possess. As a Character Technical Director (Character TD) or Character Effects Artist (CFX), Wang combines his technological way of thinking with his innate artistic talent. Compared to other roles in a CG animated film or a visual effects driven film, a Character TD tends to be both artistic and technical, and most of the time requires more technical knowledge and skill sets than other roles. As Wang was trained in both art and science, he knew those two roles would be a great fit for his career path, and he has dedicated himself to it ever since.
Wang now finds himself as a leader in his industry, having worked on several prolific projects. Whether he is working on films, such as Avengers: Infinity War, music videos, including the hit “Filthy” by Justin Timberlake, or commercials, including a series of recent ads for Lexus, Wang’s talent is evident, using CGI to create extremely realistic looking characters and objects.
“To me, design is to create a better experience or better life for users. The artwork, character animation system or whatever I design, is simply trying to make the users happy, to create the most efficient setup to make their lives easier. I think that’s my design style,” said Wang.
One of Wang’s ongoing professional relationships is with the iconic department store Target. He has worked on many commercials for the company over the past couple of years and enjoys it every time. They were one of the first series of projects that he did at Method Studios and they incorporate many aspects of what he likes about his job. The commercials offered a variety of digital characters, from Marvel superheroes, Lego characters, Trolls, ponies, Barbie dolls, etc. They all have different body types and they all require different rigging and character FX setups.
The challenge was creating such an array of characters, and Wang was eager to develop them.
“All these spots are all over the internet and TV, and they’ve got millions of views, with very positive reviews. It feels great that consumers love the creative content that we did for our clients. I was so happy reading the reviews on YouTube, kids are very into the toys, cartoon characters, and the short stories. I feel very happy to see all these characters come to life, and I’m very excited about getting ready for the new Target holiday commercials in 2018 and creating more fun characters,” he said.
On every commercial, Wang jumped into production and started creating characters’ rigs including skeleton animation system, cloth and hair/fur simulation effects right away due to the tight schedule and large amount of CG content. He built characters and wrote thousands of lines of code for tons of different types of digital characters, props, vehicles, and massive environments.
Wang was also responsible for cloth and hair/fur simulation, muscle effects along with various other character finishing tasks and shot finishing tasks. He essentially is a groomer for the hair and fur, and characters like Trolls have a lot of hair to be managed. His skills in hair/fur simulation were essential. There was only one groomer in the studio besides Wang, who was quite busy at the time, so he stepped up and helped deliver high quality hair grooming and simulations.
One of Wang’s greatest accomplishments for the Target commercials was the system he developed to create generic rigging templates for Lego characters, Minions, and Barbie doll characters, which he was then able to apply to many other characters that had similar body types. It helped create facial rigs, and lip syncs to improve characters’ facial workflow and performances. The cartoon character facial setup system saved Wang and his team a lot of time, as the old system was broken. Wang’s new system saved the entire production.
“I really like how the commercials merged characters from different worlds, different productions into one story, and made them look like they belonged to the same world. I like to work on different types of characters to face different challenges. I really enjoyed being able to contribute to the character technology pipeline and workflow for the studio. The story and the lines are very entertaining and working on them makes me feel like the holiday season is right around the corner. Even though these are VFX commercial projects, we really treated them as top-notch fully CG animated short films,” he described.
Keep an eye out for the 2018 Target Holiday campaign to see more of Wang’s outstanding work.
If you’ve ever been curious about the design process of some of the insanely intricate and high-tech sets in many of today’s blockbuster films, then you’ll definitely be interested in the work of specialist set designer Haisu Wang.
A sought after force behind the scenes, Haisu has been a key counterpart in designing some of the incredibly stylized sets in big budget films, such as the recent and upcoming Marvel films “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and the 2019 “Untitled Avengers Movie.”
“It is always very exciting to work on films like this… I know that for these types of movies, I can always fully express my creative voice,” admits Haisu. “You work with the best team in the industry to achieve new ideas and hopefully inspire the next generation.”
From designing the Escape pod used by Rocket and Thor in “Avengers: Infinity War” to the cockpit and galley of the Benatar ship, the new spaceship that the Guardians of the Galaxy fly in, which we learned in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Haisu’s unique blend of creative and technical skill have led him to be tapped to work on some of today’s most popular films.
Prior to making his mark as a specialist set designer Haisu spent many years as a leading art director and production designer on indie films with comparably lower budgets; but he says, “The design process of big blockbuster films is pretty similar to my previous work.”
With an all-star ensemble cast, including household names such as Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Don Cheadle, and a layered and exciting story that makes it watchable over and over again, “Avengers: Infinity War” pulled in over $2bn, making it another one of the Marvel superhero films to reign at the box office.
While the fact that the frenzied films he works on these days will be watched by millions of viewers doesn’t make a huge difference to Haisu as a designer, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still aspects of collaborating on projects of this caliber that get him excited.
“Now I am more inspired by the level of talented artists and designers I work with more than the actual projects themselves,” admits Haisu.
For “Avengers: Infinity War” Haisu worked directly with Primetime Emmy Award nominated production designer Charles Wood (“Doctor Strange,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) to design the Escape Pod and the Benatar Ship’s cockpit and galley.
“As the production designer Charlie has a more comprehensive understanding of the story and how the vehicles fit into the visual arc so he gave me pretty clear set of goals of what the vehicles were supposed to feel like,” explains Haisu. “He gave me enough freedom in terms of designing the form and details of the vehicle and then guided me towards the right texture and color combinations.”
As a specialist set designer, Haisu’s carved out his niche in designing vehicles and special equipment, an area of focus where his artistic genius has not only flourished, but one where his vast technical knowledge has been integral in the multi-phase construction process of actually bringing the designs to fruition.
Giving us keen insight into his technical design process, Haisu explains, “I use Cinema 4D to block out rough concepts and render them in Octane Render. Sometimes I bring the model to Unreal Engine to set up a VR walk through. I use Solidworks and Rhino during the set design phase mainly because they are designed to work with a CNC machine really well, which becomes very important to the construction department.”
Taking something based on a comic book and turning it into a physical form that fits the filmmakers’ vision that can be shot by the film’s camera crew is no easy task. These designs undergo numerous transformations from the initial concept to the actual construction, and the vehicles Haisu designed for “Avengers: Infinity War” are no exception.
He explains, “The early version of the Escape Pod had a really slick form compared to the final version, and the surface detail was much more simple and minimalistic. But Charlie preferred the surface to look more like an insect and for the exposed equipment to look a little more complex to match the personality of ‘Rocket,’ the owner of the pod.”
As a specialist set designer, developing these sets to serve the story is the most vital element of Haisu’s work behind the scenes, and his ability to innovate on past designs taken from ‘reality’ has proven to be a powerful contribution– something that is readily apparent in the impressive pilot’s chair he developed for the Escape Pod.
“I spent a good amount of time designing the Gyro Pilot Chair,” says Haisu. “We thought a lot about how to make the pilot seat to be self stabilized so that the pilot would not spin with the ship and lose consciousness like what happened to Neil Armstrong during his first space flight.”
Using his knowledge of design and industrial technology, Haisu was critical in designing a seat that could rapidly spin around a mounted axis, making it free to move according to the pilot’s desires despite the changing directions of the ship.
Beyond the creative talent it takes to design the kinds of sets that grab viewers attention and serve the story, those in Haisu’s particular field of work are required to have an incredibly broad and comprehensive skill set that includes understanding the manufacturing processes for these sets, such as vacuum forming, laser cutting, and using a multi-axis CNC and waterjet, which Haisu say are integral in ‘building sets that are visual effect friendly.’
He adds, “The set design phase and the construction phase are very well integrated. I design the aesthetic of the set with the sense of fabrication always in my mind. Since the vehicles of this type of movie tend to have a complex forms. The fabrication process is less labor intensive but more automation based. Preparing clean and fabrication friendly model is the key to saving time and money.”
Giving him an additional edge over others in the field in terms of knowing how to communicate with the VFX department, which plays a huge part in massive productions like “Avengers: Infinity War,” Haisu also spent several years as a VFX artist at the three-time Emmy Award winning company Base FX before transitioning into his work as a specialist set designer.
Drawing from his experience as an art director and production designer while bringing a refined skill set to the table that allows him to design elaborate and highly technical sets for some of the most watched films today, Haisu Wang has solidified a strong position for himself in the industry.
Haisu is currently working on the eagerly anticipated continuation of the “Avatar” film series. With “Avatar 2” expected for release in 2020, fans of “Avatar” have waited nearly a decade to find out what happens next; however he won’t be the one to disclose any of that information. But he does say, “I am very excited about the world that we are creating and very proud to be part of the ‘Avatar’ team.”
Coming from a background in fine arts, Aaron Wei had been training in traditional painting since he was only a child. He spent his life imagining what he could do on the canvas, sitting in front of the blank slate for hours before commencing his first strokes. As he grew, he began using his artistic eye for photography. However, when he’d take a picture, he found himself manipulating it into something more. This is what thrilled him; sitting in front of his computer and fusing images together, taking a work of art and turning it into a masterpiece. As this hobby began taking over his life, he began wondering, what if he could do this with a moving image? It was that moment when his astounding career as a VFX compositor began.
With an extensive background in the arts, Wei knows just how to transform a scene in post-production to make his work look like it was part of the original shot. Whether working on the next anticipated blockbuster, like Zoolander 2 or Our Souls At Night, or an award-winning television show such as Quantico or The Affair, Wei knows how to transport an audience with his work. Working with The Molecule, Wei does what he loves on a daily basis.
“Aaron is one of the best talents that I have come across in my many years in the business. He stands out as an exemplary compositor who will make considerable contributions to the industry. He has a great eye and instinct that merges technical and creative skills to achieve a desired look that is extraordinary,” said Andrew Bly, CFO of The Molecule.
Wei’s all-encompassing career has him not only working on prolific film and television productions, but also national commercials. One of the highlights of his career came in 2016 crafting a spot for Toyota.
“It was the best project I hoped I could work on. It meant a lot to a relatively newcomer in this industry, like a milestone, so to speak. This project included some futuristic scenes with spaceships, space and planets, the scale of visual effects work I had never touched at the time. I was crazy about it,” said Wei.
The commercial for the Toyota Prius followed a boy that always looked into the sky, and one day, he realized his dream. He went to another planet and watched earth from there. Wei was lead compositor in this project. He composited the planets in the main scene, and a number of other shots.
One of his shots was from the World Trade Center observation deck, where the child ran over to the window and he looks into the sky. When looking at the city from such height, everything on the ground is very tiny. In the original shot, the view in the window was not recognizable, so Wei had to ensure that the viewer could understand that it was Manhattan. In the shot, he swapped the window view to a much closer up photograph of the Manhattan skyline so that audiences could see everything.
He worked on almost every other scene, responsible for the majority of the visual effects for the commercial, which relied heavily on this.
After the success of the Toyota commercial, Wei once again worked with a car brand in 2016. This time, it was for Smart Car. This commercial project was made to focus on the features of the Smart Car. They turn fast, are easy to park, and capable of going uphill. There were a lot of shots, and Wei helped to clean-up the background, from editing trees and removing the crowds. Smart Car is owned by Mercedes-Benz, and Wei was more than eager to collaborate with such a renowned brand.
“You know when you shoot something in public, there will be a lot of brand names on the street, air conditioners on the wall, satellite disks on the roof, pedestrians, trees etc. I had to clean up all those. I did a matte-painting for the White House background shot. In DC, it’s not possible to shoot a commercial in front of the White House, so for that, I had to recreate the scene from a bunch of photographs. I cleaned up the crowds in the photo, painted the lawn in front of it, and wiped out all the cars in the street,” Wei described.
The entire experience was awesome for the compositor, who loves the fast-paced working environment of a commercial. He looks forward to working on many more throughout his career.
Beginning in the 1990s, a promising new technology kicked off a period of revolutionary change in the film industry. The advent of computer generated imagery made it possible to create worlds and characters that could never have been dreamed of before. From epic superhero blockbusters to beloved animation franchises, filmmakers across every genre rely more and more on visual effects artists like Zhouyu Zhou to bring to the screen what cameras alone can’t.
Years of experience, a background in photography and design, and a mastery of the complex technical aspects of the post-production process are what make Zhou such a powerful force in the field. Seamlessly weaving art and science in equal measures, he sculpts and breathes life into each production using cutting edge technology and the eye of a visionary.
“[Visual effects] consists of CG production such as modeling, rigging, look-development, pre-visualization, post-visualization, animation, lighting, rendering, and compositing in the typical pipeline,” Zhou explained. “All these aspects and elements are crucial to making the tremendous and surprising imagery.”
His skill set has proven to be an invaluable asset, particularly on projects like the ambitious 2016 film “Dancing Blue.” A creative tour de force that lies somewhere between an art exhibition and an extended length music video, “Dancing Blue” is a mesmerizing and at times abstract story told in three parts.
“‘Dancing Blue’… consists of everything from celluloid animation, computer animated graphics, and hand-drawn artwork,” Zhou said, describing the laborious process. “First we got the music, then started brainstorming and visualizing the motion and design based on the sound and music.”
Much of “Dancing Blue” is whimsical and surreal. The film starts in the vacuum of space, shifts focus to the inhabitants of a living painting, and ends with an absolutely hypnotic sequence of abstract animations. Zhou’s painstaking attention to detail is apparent in every frame, an incredible feat given the staggering amount of work he was faced with.
“One challenge was to create a 2D look by using 3D techniques… I used dynamic simulation and animated the smoke trail’s travels through space. However, in order to create the fluid experience I decided to animate the camera along with the strokes,” he said. “It was hard to pair both, so I went into the timeline to match them perfectly.”
Zhou was also the driving force behind “Reunion,” a heartwarming animated film about a young boy looking for his father after the two become separated. The film uses visual cues and a haunting score in place of spoken dialogue, making its stark, expressionist style that much more profound. The most striking thing about the film, however, is the method Zhou chose to use for the animation.
“Unlike most of the films that I’ve worked on, ‘Reunion’ is primarily a sand animation, shot frame-by-frame using a live-action camera. I shot footage on the camera and then ended up compositing CGI into it to create an organic and unique aesthetic to the animation, as well as to the entire film,” Zhou said. “This film has a supremely unique and original feeling.”
In addition to handling the visual effects, Zhou also wrote, directed and animated “Reunion,” giving him complete creative control over the production. The result is a truly one-of-a-kind animated experience and a pure, unadulterated representation of Zhou’s artistic vision. Of course, having control doesn’t mean the undertaking would be easy by any means.
“Shooting frame-by-frame was a big challenge, especially because I had to deal with loose, soft sand,” Zhou said. “In post-production, all the pain from shooting live-action was relieved because I could composite all those frames and added frame-blending and re-timing some shots. Even though it was sand animation, VFX in post definitely enhanced the final look of the film.”
His expertise as an animator and mastery of CGI have made Zhouyu Zhou among the most highly sought-after visual effects artists in the industry today. But it’s his artistic and creative instincts that give him an added edge. As visual effects continue to become more and more prevalent in film, it will be up to artists like Zhou to lead the industry forward.
It can be during difficult times where one discovers what they are truly passionate about. When people are pushed to their limits they find happiness, no matter how old they are.
This is what happened for Simone Lombardo, who is now an internationally recognized 3D artist in visual effects in both film and video games.
As a young boy growing up in Liege, Belgium, Lombardo was frequently very ill, and was limited on what he could or could not do, and where he could and could not go.
“I couldn’t go outside and play until I was about 8 years old, but even then I was a bit weak, so I would stay inside,” he described. “One of my teacher’s setup a computer for me during lunch time at school so I didn’t feel bored or lonely. That is when I fell in love with computers.”
It did not take long for Lombardo to start discovering different software that the school computers had to offer, such as Logo and Turtle Graphics and later Klick & Play which would let him do mini-game, and finally 3D Studio 4, which he says made him discover 3D.
“I was always interested by Japanese animation because of my grandfather’s love of it, as well as Walt Disney, but when A Bug’s Life was released I knew this was the future of animation, and I knew this is what I wanted to do, this and video games.”
Lombardo has achieved his childhood goal. He has worked on the blockbuster films The Maze Runner and its sequel The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, the Academy Award winning film Hugo, as well as the largely successful video games Resident Evil and Soul Caliber V.
“I love the fact that if I have an idea late at night, I could just jump on the computer and quickly prototype something. I went to art school, but I always have had problems learning how to draw. many of my friends tried to teach me, but somehow it never works. But, when it comes to visual effects, everything is possible. It’s like magic,” said Lombardo.
Lombardo is an award-winning member of his field. He was an honorable mention at the CG Society International Challenge Spectacular, and first runner up at the Journey Begins. He won the Vocation Foundation Price in Belgium, in the CG Animation category in 2007, and is in the official 3dsmax Bible Book of 2008 and 2009
“Simone is an elite visual effects artist and animator of extraordinary ability,” said Saku Partiamies, the VFX supervisor at Pixomondo Shanghai, who worked with Lombardo on Hugo. “Simone possess excellent interpersonal skills and is a natural leader on set, instructing a large team of people how to achieve the most effective results to make the best film possible.”
Despite his overwhelming success and accolades, Lombardo says there are still challenges he faces each day.
“VFX is a young industry, and it keeps changing almost every day. It can be difficult to jump in the middle, as it is difficult to keep up to date with it. It has so many branches and variations,” he described.
But Lombardo has done a good job at keeping up-to-date with his chosen field. While studying advertising at a young age, he mastered programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and branched into 3D Studio 4, despite there not being any access to it in his hometown.
“I just learned by reading the documentation and finding really rarely some book at the library. I ended up knocking on the door of the only company in my country at the time that was doing 3D Animation at the time, Neurone Animation, and asked them how I could learn more,” he said.
This sheer determination led Lombardo to a night school where he could refine his skills.
“They had computers, and software like Alias, and 3dsmax. I was freaking out,” he said. “For 3 years I made the trip from my hometown to the school every day. It was one hour on the bus, two and a half hours on the train, and then a thirty minute walk each way.”
A four hour commute to school has paid off for Lombardo, who worked on Take Back Your Power, which was done under Reuben Langdon at Just Cause.
“It was a really great project to work on, because the time was short, and I could test some game engine render with it. While 80 per cent of it was done with traditional CGI, the other 20 per cent was done using a really early version of my Game Engine Hybrid pipeline, it was a really good warm up. And the director was really nice,” he described.
Langdon, the founder of Just Cause Productions, knew from the time he met Lombardo that he wanted him to work at Just Cause.
“I can honestly say that working with a visual effects artist of Simone’s caliber has been one of the high points of my career,” said Langdon. “Simone’s work changed the way the industry looks at game engine.”
Working with Just Cause, Lombardo also worked on Resident Evil and Soul Caliber V, which many gamers recognize for their outstanding visual effects.
“Working on an amazing game like Resident Evil taught me a lot about motion capture and game tech. It re-connected my visual effect knowledge with my game engine root from Amsterdam. Working on Soul Caliber V, I could learn from the amazing team at Just Cause, and their amazing knowledge of Facial Motion capture and voice-over,” described Lombardo.
Lombardo has ambitious goals, from wanting to become a director for a movie or game, as well as release his own IP he wrote called HOPE, which will consist of three movies, two games, one comic book series, and a television show.
“Once that is done, I think it will be ok to take a break,” he concluded.
Small is beautiful—the economy and discipline of the short form, whether a haiku poem or one minute television commercial can be as rewarding, in its own way, as a feature length project. But that spare intimate moment also poses a tremendous creative challenge, one which only an acutely capable craftsman can master, and Pavel Khanyutin epitomizes that nuanced, subtle skill.
The Russian-born film editor-visual effects supervisor’s instinct, delicacy and precision have allowed Khanyutin to build a solid professional reputation as a master of both thirty second TV spots and feature length films. Navigating such a broad spectrum takes a very special gift, and the ease with which he manages it only underscores Khanyutin’s natural talents.
Khanyutin’s earliest experience was cutting documentaries, a genre where the straight expositional narrative succeeds largely due to how the editor frames and delivers that information.
“I started doing advertising at the beginning of my career in 2000,” Khanyutin said. “At that time I already had experience in editing documentary films and I’d been working with computer graphics for several years.”
“Advertising, of course, can’t be compared with films in complexity,” he said. “Time spent in the editing room and the tasks differ a lot. However, advertising is strongly connected with film. To my thinking, this goes both ways and dozens of techniques move from ad to film and back, improving and gathering sensibility along the way.”
Khanyutin soon found himself working for all the top Russian ad production companies—DAGO, Bazelevs, Robusto, Action Film , Park Production and international agencies like Instinct (BBDO Group) and Leo Burnett Worldwide.
“These gave me fantastic opportunities, within a short time, to edit dozens of TV promotions in many genres, to work with different directors and studios, for various brands and in different formats.” Khanyutin said
The ability to infuse cinematic qualities into a television commercial gained Khanyutin a great advantage in the field and he has done successful spots for such major international clients as Mars, P&G, Garnier, Pepsi, Toyota, Google, IKEA, Tele2, Megafon cellular and many others.
“The skill of editing commercials has a lot to do with one’s ability to pinpoint the soul of a story and convey it in the most economical way possible,” commercial director Rachel Harms said. “Pavel’s brilliance is evident at every stage of the editorial process. He’s a master at uncovering the choice moments, shaving them down to their essence, establishing rhythm and musicality, and finally juxtaposing images in a way that achieves maximum impact.”
Khanyutin relishes the challenge television ads present. “During editing, I consider a TV ad to be like a short film,” he said. “There are many possibilities in spite of the very restricted format, but you also face a limitation of possibilities. As an example, there are ads with a lot of dialogue or an overload of text information, and you must always consider the strict time limit of 30 seconds to one minute.”
“Another type is the ‘branding’ or ‘mood’ ad. These have a much less strict structure. The characters do not speak much or don’t speak at all. Here you almost unlimited possibilities for editing, with many variants on how and where to put focuses–to solve the task rhythmically. All small details are of great importance. One flash of half a second may finish the composition in full, if you find its right position in editing.”
Khanyutin’s focus, dedication, comprehensive vision and innate knack for conceiving and presenting the ideal cut on any given assignment has kept him in demand as a TV commercial editor for more than fifteen years
“I’ve worked with countless editors across the globe in the course of my career as a commercial director,” Harms said. “It’s rare to find such extraordinary intelligence and insight wrapped in such a collaborative heart. Pavel listens well and quickly attunes to a director’s vision, yet he never loses his own strong point of view.”
“After a shoot, I know that my material will either live, die or thrive in an editor’s hands. This is the final critical stage where everything will either come together or will be derailed. With Pavel as my editor, I’m always confident the finished product will be exceptional.”
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