Interview with Enrico De Palo

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Enrico de Palo, born in 1966, is an italian VFX artist, specialized in compositing. He has worked for big international productions such as Furious 6, and After Earth, as a compositor. He also has experience as VFX supervisor for smaller productions.

Visual effects are Enrico’s passion, and this passion was so big that he decided to become a VFX teacher at Event Horizon School of Digital Arts.
In this interview we are going to see how hard it was for him to reach the top of his career, how his passion helped him and the way he tries to infuse this passion into his students.

You are a renowned compositor. How hard has it been to reach this level? What are the main steps of your growth?

The main goal of a VFX supervisor is to work on an international production. You reach that goal when you work for an american blockbuster, but this forces you to move abroad because if you stay in Italy, you will only work for italian productions.
If you want to work for important productions, you have to move to the USA, but this is almost impossible because American market isn’t open to foreigners, unless you have connections.
Fortunately, american productions are also developed overseas, they delegate their work to english-speaking countries like Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
I tried to move either to Canada or London to join the american visual effects market and become a professional compositor. After you do this, then you can move freely both in the american environment and in the european one.
I started with the movie “After Earth” in Berlin with Pixomondo and then I moved immediately to London with Double Negative.
You need to be lucky and have a great willpower. With a little skills and two or three years of experience in Italy, you can find a job as a decent compositor and then it gets easy. But I had no intention of spending my life in London so I moved back to Italy. Sometimes I move abroad to work for two or three months and I consider this as sort of holiday.

How does it feel to work for very important productions?

It feels satisfactory. It feels fulfilling when you speak with someone and you can say “I made THIS movie” and people know about it.
It feels a lot different to say that you made movies like “Il mercante di pietre”, “il 7 e l’8” or “Baaria” rather than “Furious 6”, “Kingsman” or “Hercules”.
This means that you’re filling your own ego. It is a personality matter because I don’t work for money but for passion and I must give the best of me on something that will live for a long time.

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How do you define your job compared to others? Is it a kind of hobby?

It depends on the point of view, to me it is an hobby. It’s a matter of personality, I look it and say it’s a cool thing, some others say that they would never do my job. Each shot has a result, you create something that doesn’t exist and this is the great part of the work, you make a shot and it becomes something that’s partially yours, it’s something that you created!

Do you consider your job a form of Art?

On the one hand, i consider it a form of art. Sometimes we are artists because the role of compositor is very wide. On the other hand, when you work for big companies, it isn’t an artistic job, we are labourers because you work on a single shot made of 50 frames and this situation can be discouraging. Working on a big production isn’t always satisfying. Furthermore a high quality job is required in London. The supervisor controls every single pixel of your frame. However, my job is a sort of Art when I am the supervisor or when I work on the concept of a little shot in a little or medium production. Skills alone are not enough to reach this level, an artistic sense of the image is required.

Speaking of the comparison between artist and laboureur, do you prefer big productions or small ones?

Small productions, without a doubt. You can create, handle, edit and adjust your shot freely. The director only provides you some guidelines. In big productions, obviously, the work is ironclad and controlled. There is a supervisor that manages your job, the vfx manager that controls the supervisor, and the director that controls the vfx manager. You can try suggesting something but it’s all tied. You must do your job and that’s all.
In small or medium productions, you are asked make up and define the whole shot, which is a lot more fun.

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Are the visual effects you produce always imposed by the director, or do you put your own mark on them?

That depends on what i have to do. In a big production we usually do nothing but follow the director’s idea, he already knows how his shots have to be, so changes are not appreciated. I try to do something more: sometimes the director approves my ideas, sometimes he doesn’t, it also depends on who the director is.
I remember one time, when i was working on a film by Martinetti. There was a shot in which a gun fired at a man’s head. I added a rivulet of blood coming out of his head, the director liked it and put it into the movie.

What is your relationship with the directors on the movie set? How much can directors influence your work?

It is a complex topic. The purpose of a supervisor is that of setting the director free from anything that concerns the creation of visual effects during a shot. The supervisor will try to make a shot that can be edited in a reasonable time and with fair costs, but the director doesn’t care. The director wants to take his shoot freely, this means that supervisors need to reach a compromise.
The relationship between director and supervisor should be based on mutual respect, but this doesn’t always happen. Directors shoot what they want and problems come up during post-production.

Is there any director who you are in a good relationship with?

Not at all! It’s difficult. I won’t speak ill of anyone because I don’t have enough experience on a movie set to do so. However I made some italian and foreign production and in both cases the consideration of visual effects is low. Many directors consider a “movie” only what has been shot and not the result of the whole. Directors sometimes shoot without considering the director of photography or visual effects supervisor’s instructions. I remember one time when, after the shooting of a sequence which involved visual effects, the director shouted: “OK! Real filming start now!”.
The relationship between VFX artists and directors has never been fine and it will never be. VFX artists appear last in the credits not by chance, being considered after everybody else: it’s a practice that is reasonable sometimes, but not when a movie has, like, 300, 500 shots that require visual effects and couldn’t be done without the work of VFX artists.

Well, you still do appear before soundtracks credits.

Yes, you’re right about that, we’re last before soundtrack credits.

Cinema today is full of special effects, especially if you think of the past. What are your expectations for this profession, considering Italy? Do you think there will be a growth in the demand for this field?

No, we will always be the bottom of the barrel of special effects, and we will never be taken into consideration, but it’s a mere matter of business. We don’t have enough budget to make movies with special effects: an italian production doesn’t make enough profits to allow millionaire investments in visual effects. The production must be international, meaning that it has to be filmed in english. Besides, every time a blockbuster is filmed in co-production between Italy and foreign countries, there’s a very high chance that it won’t be a success. So, if once in a decade an international production with visual effects is made, and half the time it’s not a blockbuster, the result is poor and further investments are discouraged.
Another problem is the reputation of american blockbusters among italian directors, which are not considered as actual cinema products. This generates a complex argument, so that Italy will neverreach such high levels in visual effects design; there are a few cases, in which the director chooses to make a movie rich in visual effects, either because he’s used to that world or directly comes from it, but it’s one production in a hundred I’m talking about. We keep making Checco Zalone movies because they will keep selling.

Which one, among your works, gave you the greatest satisfaction, on the technical side, and why?

Technically speaking, the works I made for small productions always gave me the greatest satisfactions, mostly because when I worked in big blockbusters I never had the chance to work on really complex or challenging shots. Medium and small productions, or even some I made entirely by myself, are the ones that fulfilled me the most: the shots are more complete, more articulate and allow me to work more freely. I take the experience of working in big movies in order to apply it in minor productions where I can work on more challenging shots.

Is there any work you’d like to talk about, among big productions?

Even if it was a brief experience, I remember the first movie I made in Berlin, “After Earth”, by M. Night Shyamalan: that time I discussed via mail directly with America and Tippett Studios. Phil Tippett is a guru of visual effects and creature design, so having his feedbacks on the shots and the approval straight from America was the best thing ever. The rest of the shots was frustrating to do, sometimes because the supervisor’s demand was excessive, some other times it was nonsense, it always depends on who takes care of it: it may happen that the person in charge of shot supervision is someone who has a great knowledge of theoretical basics, but he is at the same time poorly skilled on the field, so that the shot gets difficult to make for no actual reason.

Which problems have you encountered more often in these situations?

The quality of the materials is a big issue, for sure. Even though we talk about blockbusters, the filming that is sent to compositing, or screening when you have a green screen, is poorly realized most of the times. On the movie set the goal of filming an entire scene prevails on the thought of the work the compositor will have to do afterwards. Then, he has to manage blue and green screens made with differently colored canvases, with shadows, wrinkles, and so on, even if it’s a production with very high budgets.

Did you ever happen not to be able to manage something? If you did, did you delegate the assignment to someone else or did you try a workaround?

During my early years, of course, I tried to apply the wrong techniques to get a certain result in movie shots, since I wasn’t skilled enough skilled. Now I manage to make nearly any shot with no difficulties. Sometimes it’s the lack of material to work on the real problem, but that aside, softwares today can realize pretty much everything you can think of, and my skills are now complete in this field.

Have you ever missed a deadline or been in critical situations?

Not when I worked for London productions, no, for they consider the deadline as a priority, so it’s really important for me to respect it; you end up working on weekends, but that’s pretty common. Typically I respect deadlines, because my job depends on it. However, sometimes it happens, and it occurred to me, to miss a deadline in minor productions, or in productions managed entirely by me, because the number of shots was way more challenging, having to deal with 60, 80 shots has caused me to miss some deadlines without any dramatic consequences, because – in a good or bad way– I was my own manager! Even what I’m doing at the moment is out of deadline of a few months, but this is part of the game.
This happens in big productions too, but with months of delay, the majority of blockbusters come out with a two month delay although post- production duration had been estimated to six months. This happens because you don’t know how complex is a shot until you take it up.

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How do you spend your time while a render is in progress?

A: I’m used to take advantage of idle times, at least this is what I teach to the kids. You won’t render in the daytime, nor in working hours, but during lunchbreaks, in the evening and at night. I schedule to render when there’s nothing else left to do, since I really cannot spend half an hour or an entire hour for a single shot. In big productions this won’t happen, as every computer can use a multiple number of render farm machines, so you send a render to ten, twelve machines and in about a quarter of hour the work is done. On such a level, idle times are very low, but when you’re at home or at studio and you got to use a single machine you can wait up to two hours per shot, so you have to do something in that spare time.

 

Do you prefer to be a teacher or a compositor?

Teaching is a passion, a diversion that allows me to take a break from my work. My goal is to continue to work and produce movies, following all phases and a team that works at the project itself. The ultimate aim is to be a director and then I’m continuing along this path. The school is just a pastime, I like teaching this profession because it’s fine, it’s nice to see, dialogue and interact with young people all the time.

Regarding your experience at the Event Horizon School, how is your relationship with your students? And what are you trying to teach them?

I teach a cool subject, so it’s easy to be a good teacher, this means that teaching a fun subject makes it easy to pass down this job as a passion to others. What we try to infuse into our students is in fact the passion for this job, consisting above all in taking every shot as a challenge, because every shot is different from the other and so it has to be handled in its own way, you have to invent a procedure that doesn’t exist. We teach them to see this profession not as a job, but as something you must feel like doing, otherwise you can’t take it the right way and, as stressful as it can become, it will drive you crazy in no time. You either have to be a real geek and take everything positively, or you’re just not right for the job. It’s you against the shot, it may seem trivial, but without this challenging feeling it’s just a job a monkey could do. Each shot has several hidden problems, which you must see, analyze and solve, that’s the fun part, the challenge is to deliver the sequence as quickly as possible with just your knowledges.

How much do you see yourself in your students? Are you afraid that they could steal your job someday?

No, it is actually the opposite! My goal is to find young people who are better than me. This because I believe my level isn’t so high, so I demand to my students to reach my level at the very least, for it is easily accessible. Indeed I get angry when they don’t achieve to do the minimum stuff they’re required to do, the average level must be higher than that.

Nowadays there are many ways of learning visual effects, such as specialised courses, which didn’t exist when you took up your career. Do you envy your students for the chances they have?

Of course. When I graduated in 1985, i had to give up on my dream of having an education in the field of cinema: there was no chance to take up this career, since the only cinema school was in Rome.
In 2003, when visual effects first came to Italy, i finally found a way to study what i really wanted.
I truly envy my students, because they have so many possibilities, they also have the chance of learning from a teacher who has worked for international productions, and this was impossible ten years ago.
Nowadays students can grow a lot faster. They can learn in a six-month course what i had learnt in three years of work.

What do you think of the chances given by the internet and social media, such as youtube, to aspiring VFX producers?

The web surely helps in many ways, both in producing visual effects and in finding a job. Nowadays those who can share a complete product made on their own, such as a short movie, have the chance to be known to the international cinema market, and find an highly desirable job.
This is what i always tell my students: the purpose of my course is not to have them learning a technique, it is to have them showing what they can do and what their skills are. They need to make a decent product, no matter how short, as long as it gives them the chance to expose themselves to the international market

We can assume, from what you’ve been telling us, that you are satisfied with your career so far. Is there a bigger dream you want to fulfil?

I am very happy, but not because of the quantity of things i’ve made, some friends of mine have made a lot more than me. I have produced two full-length films, which are the final goal for me. They are b-movies which have been distributed on dvd, but they’ve been sold in a lot of countries. My goal is to keep making cinema, even on this level.
My dream is to make an international movie as a supervisor or maybe as executive producer.
I follow my goals and dreams not because of the money, but to achieve self-fulfillment, so I’m satisfied as long as I’m doing this.

What kind of advice would you give to a young person who wants to undertake a similar career?

Advices? The usual one: to really commit to the job. Giving 100% is implicit as long as your job is your passion. If you do this because you need any job just to survive and you want to do something else in your life, then I’m telling you to just let go, because you’ll never advance in your career. As I said, it takes a lot of passion to do this. If you have it, I don’t have any advice. The only tips are to be passionate at what you do and willing to make things, then you can become good and stand out at whatever you want to do.

Reel EDP 2013 from enrico de palo on Vimeo.

Enrico Greco, Cristian Gurra, Jessica Manetta, Claudia Rolletto.

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