Founded in 2002, Luma Pictures - leading provider of visual effects services to Hollywood located in Santa Monica, California, has contr...
Founded in 2002, Luma Pictures - leading provider of visual effects services to Hollywood located in Santa Monica, California, has contributed to more than 60 films. They include such blockbusters as Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Green Hornet, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and all four films in the Underworld series. Additionally, Luma has worked with the Coen Brothers on four films, including True Grit, and No Country for Old Men, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2007. And today our Co-Founder: Maryam Nademi talks with Vince Cirelli, VFX Supervisor at Luma Pictures about their missions on "The Avengers" and about the Studio. Here we go!
Can you tell CGRecord readers a little about your background?
Vince Cirelli, VFX Supervisor at Luma Pictures: From an early age, I was always addicted to technology and art. Even more so, I was entranced by the intersection of the two. I'm self-taught and I strongly believe in learning by doing. I find that throwing yourself into a project with a deadline (emphasis on "deadline") will push you to learn faster than what you'd get spoon-fed to you in a class. I started my professional career in the marketing/agency sector, creating media concepts and animation for major brands. During that time, I developed a generalist's mindset, exploring every aspect of CG and then executing what I had learned in subsequent projects. I climbed the ranks and ultimately left that world as a creative director to explore film. My first film industry job was working for Stan Winston in the digital department at his model shop in Van Nuys, California. It was inspiring to walk through that sprawling space, filled with a vast array of FX gems like animatronic dinosaurs, life-size Terminators, and a myriad of creatures. After that came Luma Pictures, where instantly I knew I'd found a home and would never want to leave. Luma is anti-corporate, it's a company that's anti-this-is-the-way-things-need-to-work-because-that's-how-everyone-else-does-it. We question everything, assume nothing, and have a great culture and a wonderful staff who genuinely care about one another as well as everything they lay their hands to. I can't say enough about this special crew of people we've collected over the years. I lead this crazy bunch creatively and technically, in addition to overseeing our producing staff.
How was your collaboration with Marvel pictures on "The Avengers"?
Cirelli: Marvel has a similar mentality to ours in that they hire very smart people, retain them, and employ them on every project. They maintain structure, clarity, and quality instead of taking the risk of rebuilding new teams on every show. Their VFX crew truly understand visual effects from top to bottom and that shows in the end product. We find them very easy to work with and we appreciate their incredible attention to story and character. Simply put, we're big fans.
Luma’s work on "The Avengers" includes the creation and extension of the Helicarrier ship bridge during pivotal scenes, tornado effects and donning of Thor’s mystical armor, and multiple exterior environments. What was the most technically challenging part of the job and why?
Cirelli: The interior of the Helicarrier was probably one of the more exciting and challenging CG environments we did for this show. We received some concept art early on from Janek Sirrs, from which we drew inspiration. None of it had been approved by Joss or Marvel at that point, leaving it wide open for us to get in there and pitch our own takes on the extension. We mocked up various designs for the upper floors, the catwalk, and the ceiling of the bridge and began presenting them to Janek. They built an incredible set, a single story, surrounded by blue screen. Since their art department had put so much detail into every aspect of it, we knew we'd need to build out very dense geometry with a multitude of texture resolutions in order to make it seamlessly transition into CG. Everything above the first level and outside the huge bridge windows is entirely generated by us. That said, the set was partitioned into quadrants and rendered through our in-house Maya-to-Arnold interpreter. We R&D'd illumination caching in Arnold in order to push the sets through without having to recalculate for every frame. The interior of the ship was modeled in Maya, textured in Photoshop and Mari, then composited in Nuke. To populate the ship, we created a Nuke gizmo that allowed artists to position various cycles of people walking, running, or just milling about in a proxy of the ship. All of the clouds outside the large windows were CG volumes generated in Houdini and FumeFX, mostly using our own flavor of FumeFX for Maya that our developers helped create along with Sitni Sati.
Can you tell us what you were provided to create the scenes? Having previously worked on “Captain America,” and “Thor,” Luma has developed a strong understanding of the project but typically what are you expecting to get from the clients?
Cirelli: Generally with Marvel, we receive excellent Lidar scans and HDRI for each set or character, as well as tons of high-res photography that they shoot. We also shoot our own imagery of the sets if location and scheduling allow.
What references do you use? How do you brainstorm ideas within your team?
Cirelli: We always tend to start by collecting as much reference from the net as possible. We spend some time nerding out, talking about the images that everyone has collected, what we like from some and not from others, and how it could answer the design question at hand. Once we have an underlying story about how the effect works within the confines of the film's world, we create a rule book that helps ground the effect and allows all of us to collaborate towards a common goal. We generally start in 2D concept, developing the idea there before moving into motion tests. We present to the client, get their input, refine, and begin implementing into a single test shot.
How many people work in your team? What are their roles and what are your expectations from people you work with?
Cirelli: We hire generalists that understand everything both upstream and downstream in the pipeline, but who are also experts in a given area or two. I find this keeps us very nimble. It allows us to turn around shots very quickly because everyone understands how the widget they're creating will work when they deliver it to the next person in the pipeline. We're collectively learning, theorizing, and building new tools and techniques together everyday.
What was your favorite moment and what could have been done better?
Cirelli: My favorite moment, and I would assume the same for most VFX Sups, is when a show's final shot is approved and we know the client is happy. There is and always will be a better, faster way of doing something that yields a higher quality product; it's our continuing job to find our way to that solution.
How long did it take to finalize this project? How many minutes were used in the final movie?
Cirelli: We completed about 12 minutes of running time for the show, over the span of 7 months.
What is next for Luma Pictures?
Cirelli: We're currently wrapping up "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" and starting work on an incredible film that I can't talk about yet.
Can you walk us through a work day at Luma Pictures? How many people work there? How do you keep updated with technology?
Cirelli: Well, if that day happens to be a Monday, it starts with breakfast for all of our employees, freshly made. There's probably a game or two of ping pong, followed by announcements of upcoming events. Since we carry a large staff of about 70 or so, we don't often ramp up and then back down per project like a lot of VFX companies. We have many people who have made this place a home and consider their peers to be their family. Because of that, we participate in lots of activities together, everything from taking (all expenses paid) trips to Hawaii together, to go-kart racing and paintball matches. (I don't go to the paintball tournaments; I'd probably be the number one target!) After the Monday breakfast and meeting, it's "go" time. Artists refer to Big Brother, our own tracking system that outlines their tasks and priorities for the day. Coordinators follow up with them to make sure their tasks are clear and determine whether they need reviews with our very talented CG Supervisors, Richard Sutherland and Pavel Pranevsky. At the same time, I'm very hands-on and believe in a closed-feedback scenario where artists don't have to wait long to get feedback. My door is always open and people stream in and out all day long.
In terms of staying on the forefront of technology, well, we have an incredible Dev team led by the brilliant Chad Dombrova. They're always theorizing what tomorrow's tools will be and what they should look like. I believe that much of Luma's success is directly tied to the innovation and forward thinking of this team as well as to that of the company's owner, Payam Shohadai. He's Luma's backbone and the one giving it its unique flavor.
What is the workflow you have at Luma Pictures? Is it different from project to project?
Cirelli: We maintain the same workflow and the same pipeline for every project. Our pipeline is always being refined, but never rebuilt. It's robust and tied to a comprehensive database which allows artists to do what they do best: make art. Everything is accessible, but not cluttered. Elegant simplicity.
How do you predict the future of vfx?
Cirelli: It's interesting to me that post facilities are not actually "post" anymore. VFX companies have their hands in every aspect of filmmaking now, from pre-production through production and post... There's a convergence happening, in which the entire process of making a film on a technical level is digital.
What effects don't you like to see in films? How do you maintain artistic integrity alongside technical complexity?
Cirelli: I like effects that propel the story or characters forward. We always try to create and design effects that are in service to the filmmakers and their vision.
Who are your favorite colleagues/ fellow artists?
Cirelli: There are many wonderfully talented artists in the VFX community. Too many to name, but if I must… One of my Luma fellows that I get into trouble with is a gifted concept artist named Loic Zimmermann.
What advanced technology would you like to see in the future helping vfx companies?
Cirelli: I'd love to see a "final shot" button.
What was the smallest project Luma has ever worked on? Which one was the best project you ever worked on during your time at Luma?
Cirelli: We work on a wide range of shows, check out our site! There is no "best project" in my opinion because every project has so many aspects that make it special.
How important is to be a multi-faceted artist? What advice do you have for young artists, what capability do you see they lack the most?
Cirelli: I find that young artists compartmentalize themselves too often. For example, they decide they want to model but then never learn about anatomy, rigging, texturing, lighting, or rendering. Any great modeler should understand anatomy, the guiding principals in rigging and texturing, foundational shader setup, and lighting so that they can better develop their model in context. Lighters that don't understand compositing, or compositors that don't understand lighting, are doing themselves a disservice in my opinion. I think the motto should be "apprentice to all, master of maybe one or two things." I also find that some young artists don't know how to play well with others. VFX is a team sport, so make sure you temper that ego and try to enjoy the process of collaboration. Nobody makes "The Avengers" on their own.
Thank you Cirelli for your time!
Cirelli: Thank you Maryam and CG Record team!