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.”
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.
Well, he has definitely earned it.
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.”
Over the past few years Andres Vergara has worked as an editor and VFX artist on some of the biggest films alongside some of the industry’s biggest names.
A citizen of both Canada and Mexico, Vergara moved to Vancouver in his youth to pursue his career as an editor and visual effects artist in the film industry. Today he has edited and produced visual effects for films featuring Academy Award winners Denzel Washington (Safehouse), Liam Neeson (Battleship) and Mickey Rourke (Immortals).
As a VFX artist, Vergara has also been tapped to lend his expertise to blockbuster titles such as Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and the 2011 prequel/reboot of John Carpenter’s classic sci-fi/horror masterpiece The Thing.
Although Vergara has clearly become a sought after talent for big budget feature films, his latest project, Stray Dog, took him back to the format that originally established his presence in the industry – documentary film.
Stray Dog is a “portrait of the life” of Vietnam veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, and was recently shown at the New York Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival. The film won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards as well.
“The documentary makes a strong social commentary on America, and modern society, without the need to explain or narrate things to viewers,” Vergara said. “Rather, the film lets audiences draw their own conclusions about the events and gives viewers a unique opportunity to find their own angle on it.”
Vergara worked hand-in-hand with Stray Dog director Debra Granik to select shots, edit sequences and classify scenes from the hours of footage shot in Branson, Missouri and Mexico City.
“Granik was very clear on what she was trying to find, and she communicated her vision and ideas in a way that was profound enough for me to understand the core idea of the documentary,” Vergara said.
For Vergara, editing has been an especially gratifying experience.
“To me, the privilege of being the first viewer of a project, while also making substantial decisions with the director on which scenes have to stay or go, is a hugely rewarding process to be a part of,” Vergara said.
But the talented editor hasn’t married himself to a single genre. Instead, he’s fluidly moved between non-fiction (documentary) and fiction throughout his career, which has allowed him to diversify his talents and excel far beyond those who play it safe and remain in the same genre.
“My experience in both genre’s has constantly proven to me that there is a big reward, and competitive edge, to know the rules of both games, which has lead me to exciting projects and opportunities,” Vergara said.
One of those exciting projects was the gritty, action-packed film Safehouse. Directed by multi-award winning director Daniel Espinosa who is known for the films Easy Money and Child 44 (Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace), Safehouse was set in Cape Town, South Africa, and starred two-time Oscar Award winner Denzel Washington (American Gangster, The Book of Eli, Training Day) and Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Smokin’ Aces).
As a lead VFX artist for Safehouse, Vergara seamlessly added a full crowd of people into a partially empty South African soccer stadium. He used real footage instead of CGI, which added a level of excitement and a layer of realism to the sequence that CGI could not have accomplished in such a seamless manner.
Vergara also worked as a lead VFX artist on the CGI-heavy blockbuster film Immortals. Based on Greek-mythology, Immortals was directed by iconic Indian director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror Mirror, The Fall) and starred Academy Award winner Mickey Rourke and Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, Stardust).
Shot almost entirely on green screen, Immortals took full advantage of Vergara’s talents as a VFX artist to achieve the overall stunning look audiences experienced on the screen.
But Vergara’s favorite project so far has been Stray Dog.
“The narrative of the film was structured unlike few, if any, other documentaries ever done,” Vergara said.
Andres Vergara’s refined talents as an editor and VFX artist promise to keep him successfully working in the industry for years to come; and, thanks to his ability to handle diverse projects with ease, his career will continue to be one that is assuredly dynamic in scope.
The true mark of a movie’s success is making its audience forget that they’re watching a movie. As we’re brought back in time to say World War II, or to outer space, for a span of time in a theater or a living room we’re supposed to forget about everything else. That is dependent on the kind of visual effects in the movie. And that is where Nikola Todorovic comes in.
Originally from Serbia, Mr. Todorovic grew up working in his Uncle’s video-rental store in the summers, which ignited his passion for film. Once Nikola arrived in Hollywood, he quickly found work as a visual effects artist, impressing and dazzling his coworkers with his talent.
For his work on the upcoming film Little Boy, which stars Academy Award nominees Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, Nikolai was tasked with helping create visual effects that would illuminate the journey of the main character, a 12 year old boy, as he undertakes the seemingly impossible task of bringing his father back from the Second World War.
One of Nikola’s most important tasks, for four final shots in the film, was to recreate a sunset that would take your breath away. Nikola rose to the occasion, and then some, by creating over thirty-five different possible shots for the director to choose from. The film’s producer was so impressed he believed that without Nikola’s work the film would not have been believable.
For the film When Kings Battle, Nikola supervised the filming when it was done with green screens, and then in post-production he was able to recreate a world that transported the movie’s audience to the ancient ages. The film is about an emperor who becomes obsessed with a woman who already has a husband, and it nearly brings his empire to ruin. The film was honored with an array of awards, and had its premiere at the historical Grauman Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The film’s director, John Bucher, was so taken by Nikola’s work he plans to work with him on all of his future projects. Nikola’s work on the film was so incredible that he gained the respect of the Hollyshorts Festival, whose organizers invited him back as a jury member for the festival’s future editions.
Movies are an escape, especially the kinds of movies that bring you to a different time – whether it’s in the past, or in the future. But the success of these movies almost completely depends on their visual effects, and Nikola Todorovic is the guy whose shoulders you want to be leaning on if you’re making a movie about World War Two, ancient Egypt or any other subject intended to transport the audience.