Interview: Davide la Sala

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Davide La Sala is the guy who rewrote the rules of the italian music video scene.

He was the first in Italy to make a music video with live-action-integrated computer animation, and he did so on a low budget and with just a handful of resources.

The video we’re talking about is Blue (1999), by Turin-based band Eiffel 65. The song’s huge success is probably to a large extent due to the video’s ability to portray the right atmosphere.

He also worked  on some big animation movies for Dreamworks, such as The Croods, Turbo and Underdog.

His 2012 showreel is on YouTube.

Authors:Carbone Dario, Daniele Virginia, Ibba Manuel, Quaranta Luca

Interview with Davide La Sala

1)        When and how did you approach the world of visual effects for the first time?

One night I watched an old tv program by Maurizio Nichetti: the episode was based on computer graphics and animation. I was thrilled, and I started gathering information on the topic.  Then, in 1997, at a SMAU event in Milan, I was given a 3DstudioMax demo CD, so I started playing around with 3D graphics. My pc wasn’t that powerful, yet I still managed to get some nice results.

2)       How old were you when you first approached the VFX world? What were your initial skills and what did you think you were supposed to learn? How did you plan your studies?

I wanted to study electronics, then robotics for cinema animatronics, then possibly apply to Carlo Rambaldi’s school, but in the mean time 3D was moving forward in the movie industry, and after watching Jurassic Park I realized I ought to change perspective. I got my secondary school diplom anyway, but every night I was studying the magic world of 3D graphics. Another reason I ended up choosing 3D instead of robotics (which I still love) was the economic factor: if something went wrong with 3D, you could just reboot your machine, whereas for the robotics, every error was a potential source of danger and a big waste of time and money.

3)      Is there someone who inspired you in your career?

Yeah, several people. Some of them I even got to work with, and it was very rewarding. I think of myself as a confident man, so these people, rather than inspire me on an artistical level, gave me strength and courage to pursue my goals. Thanks to them, I used to think: “I can do it, too!”

4)      How did Dreamworks get in touch with you?

CG world is not so big, so professionals in the field generally know each other; at least, that was the case some years ago. So I always met people who worked all around the world, for popular companies. Having built this network, I was always aware of the jobs that were being offered at the time. Funny thing is, when this friend of mine unofficially told me about this open position at Dreamworks, a HR secretary had already contacted me on LinkedIn.

5)      What is your typical workflow?

Rigging requires different phases, as you go from the static model to something animators can work with. I always start with a review of the model, to verify that it’s ready to be deformed; if it’s not, I give feedback to the modeller who fixes the problem. When a model is ready, you start to put the bones in place, then  you decide what controls to add to move the character; finally, you spend time fine-tuning the model deformations, keeping in mind volumes, muscles, facial expressions, etc… I summed it up real quick, but i’d need several hours to explain the whole thing in detail.

6)      Do you work alone or in a team? Which option do you prefer?

Working in team is always the best choice, because you can learn a lot from your co-workers, and you can split up work so that everyone has to do only what he does best, focusing on a certain bit of the character. If you do it all alone, on the other hand, the final quality of the product can be compromised. That depends heavily on the total amount of time you have on your hands though.

 

7)      What is, in your opinion, your best accomplishment? What job has motivated you the most?

I personally love all the things I’ve done for work, because in  each and everyone of them I found something challenging. Right now I’m working on Disney’s Cinderella live-action movie; I’m most motivated by the fact that I have to supervise an entire team and deal with all the hurdles one usually encounters during production.

8)      Are you involved in the scripting/storyboarding process for scenes which you are creating the VFX for? Do you take part in the filming or do you intervene in postproduction only?

My role is stricty coupled with postproduction. I don’t get involved with scripting or storyboarding: instead, I get a lot of say in the creation of digital characters, although, as I said before, it really depends on the time you have on your hands and on the project you’re working on. If a character looks cool on paper, but not in 3D, we are often the ones who get to decide, together with our supervisors, that a design has to be changed in order to make the character really “function” in the movie.

9)      Which tools do you use the most while working (hardware/software)? We have been trained in Blender, what do you think about it?

At the beginning of my career I used to work with 3DstudioMax; then, after five years, I switched to Maya, which still is the world standard software for 3D. As for hardware, I’ve got a Macbook Pro Retina back at home for my tests, while at work I use HP or DELL workstations. I never seriously tried Blender, but I think it’s amazing for something that’s completely cost-free.  Personally, I never got myself too involved with Blender because of the complicated interface, but sooner or later I will certainly get to it.

10)    Should you recommend an educational path to someone who freshly graduated from college, what    would be your advice?  Were you to start a career now, would you turn to online tutorials for help or…?

In my times, there was absolutely nothing, not even the internet… there was me, an old Pentium, 3DstudioMax with its handbook and a TV turned on in the background while by night I played with 3D. Nowadays, everything’s changed, there are thousands of online tutorials, online academies, courses… way too much stuff. I do not have a bachelor’s degree, so I wouldn’t know what to recommend to someone who went to college, but what I can suggest is: take lessons (online, offline, it doesn’t matter), make yourself a good, original portfolio, and try to get into some big company. There is no course in the world that can give you the same experience you’ll get with an internship in a medium or big company.  Another thing I can’t recommend enough is to always keep yourself updated on companies, go to CG shows,  meet people, in general bust your ass…

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