Working on big-budget films as a VFX artist is a job filled with challenges and unique opportunities to combine technology and creativity. While not all visual effects pros work in movies, many have found their way to the profession through a love of film. Stefano Farci, Gnomon School alumni and digital matte painter at MPC, is one such artist.
We sat down with Stefano to learn more about matte painting and the world of movie effects.
How did you first get involved in the world of visual effects?
I always wanted to work for movies since I was a little kid. In my country, the panorama of the VFX film industry is pretty small, or, I must say, almost does not exist. So I was about to give up to that dream, thinking it could only remain a dream. I got in touch with 3D when I started to work for an architectural studio after the Academy of Fine Arts. It was there there I put my hands on the first 3D software (Rhino) and first 3D renderer (V-Ray and Mental Ray).
While I was there, I started to do matte painting…or better, integrating 3d renders on 2d plates and concept visualization. After a little experience in that field, I decided to give a last chance to my dream. The problem was that I knew it was hard to get into this industry without any experience and preparation (I bought my first computer a couple of years before and I barely knew PhotoShop). I had a lot of friends always talking about Gnomon School, so I started to gather information about it and decided that it would be the best place to start.
Tell us a bit about your VFX background.
I didn't really have a VFX background before Gnomon. I studied for five years at the Academy of Fine Arts of Turin as an illustrator/engraver. I had mostly a traditional background, not technical at all. I was new to Maya once I started the school. I knew only a little bit of NURBS modeling and how to place light in a scene. No more than that. I found in Gnomon the best compromise where to learn technical aspects of software connected to a peculiar attention on developing the artistic path of an individual, allowing him to use new tools and widening his horizons. I came with a sort of solid artistic background, and I was able to continue an artistic path that I started years before.
What is your primary role at MPC?
In MPC I'm an environment TD. At the moment, I'm sequence lead for a big build MPC is working on, a full 3D city that will be seen in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. The team and I followed this build for 10 months, from the modeling process to the rendered and composited result.
What responsibilities does a matte painter have?
Here in the environment department of MPC, most of the matte painters are also environment artists. Some of us work more toward the 3D, some work more toward the 2D part of it. The DMP artist is responsible for painting photorealistic environments, elements, and textures for matching into live action plates or to stand on their own as DMP plates. Sometimes they paint textures that will be mapped onto geometry for particular critical shots.
What is your average day like?
First thing I do, as soon as I arrive at work is to check if anything came out of the farm during the night. If so, I start to slap comp the elements together in order to be able to show the result to my lead and the environment supervisor. Most of the time the feedback is about the look of the frames, light position, quality, or overall layout. After the rounds with them, I try to address their feedback on the scene or I release the elements for comp if there is an internal department approval. So, I would say, the morning is quite regular. The afternoon, though, is where the real fun starts. I have the luck to work with a great team of really talented and proactive people. During the afternoon we update the assets, try to solve any technical problems that arise, make the scenes lighter for the farm, and run here and there to make everything better, and at the same time renderable.
Right now, almost at the end of production, we stay till the last minute to check if everything is all right and if any improvement can be done on the fly. Is quite amazing, I must say. You can never get bored. Also because MPC introduced V-Ray as a render engine on this particular project; it has been an amazing experience and a great asset, since the beginning we pretty much built a pipeline to work with it. We faced some trouble in the beginning making it work with the standard MPC pipeline for a big project like Guardians, but now we've gotten to a point where it can be considered pretty solid (and still evolving).
What would you say has been your most challenging project so far?
Due to the fact that this is my first experience in movies and the project is really big (1000 shots for our company), this is certainly one of the biggest challenges I've been through. The most challenging, but a great experience.
What would you consider a dream project?
Aaaah. I'm a romantic, so, movie-wise, I would love to work on a Star Wars episode. It was a mind-blowing movie when I was a little kid and I grew up with it. I never got bored watching it. Life-wise, I've a series of projects in mind that I wish to realize; but I prefer not to talk about them yet because I don't want to bring bad luck (I know, I'm silly). Plus, I'm curious to see how the near future will evolve. One thing at the time.
How did your VFX education impact your ability to work in the field?
Going to Gnomon was the best investment I've made so far. Without it, it would have been much harder to get in contact with this industry. I chose the generalist track, and even though in most of the studios they are looking for specialists, I actually ended up in an environment where generalists are really required. So…bingo! Knowing a little bit of everything helps you in opening your mind and to think not only in your own yard. In a studio, communication is really important and you are not the owner of a shot; 10 or 20 other people will work at it from different departments, so you want to give them something you would like to work with if you were in their position.
How did you approach landing your current position?
I worked really hard. I gave the best I could to prove that I was the right person to do that job. I need to say it again, but I also had the great luck to work with amazing people in here. We created a really proactive and enthusiastic team. So, I never felt that working late was heavy or tiring. We have all learned a lot from each other's experiences.
What advice would you give to aspiring VFX artists?
Do it because you really like it. Don't think about the money; if you think only about the salary, you'd better change jobs. Give the best you can; when you are at the beginning, you need to give everything you have. Don't be the smartest in the room; find a place where there are real challenges and where you can learn a lot. Don't do it only to have pretty images in your reel. If you work in movies, don't be selfish; you don't own a concept or a shot — as I said, 20-100 other people are working at it at the same time and everybody does a little bit of it, so be very openminded about it. If you are still at school, try to cooperate in projects with as many people you can. No matter what, if things go right or wrong, you will learn something from cooperating with someone else. Share as much as you can. Don't be selfish in this job.
Thanks for your time!
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