interview with Franco Valenziano – VFX supervisor (Complete)

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Good morning Mr. Valenziano, could you please introduce yourself?
I am Franco Valenziano, a VFX Supervisor.
I have been working for years on visual effect in different areas: from advertising to television, from cinema to fiction, from general events to theme parks.

What does it mean to work as a VFX Supervisor?
The visual effect Supervisor is involved, or at least should be involved, in projects which contain digital interventions only in the preproduction phase. During the examination of the script with the production, he has to define which are the best technical solutions by mixing, if necessary, special effects (the ones made on the set) and visual effects (the digital effects made in postproduction phase). He discusses about the budget with the eventual VFX producer, follows the shooting phase on the set, which is important in order to have information about the set. For example, if you need to rebuild the camera movements, the lens used, the lighting, or if you need to check the numbers of the takes and the necessary interventions, he supervises all the postproduction work and coordinates the team until the final delivery, in which he confronts his work with the producer, the director, the video editor etc… This work surely requires technical skills, but also a good taste and devotion for image and cinematography, knowing the possible outcomes you can obtain by using different techniques.

You began to interconnect with the CGI world only in the 80s, so you have seen the special effects progression from the analogical to the digital: can you tell us what actually changed in the use of special effects or in the way of shooting films? What changed from the technical point of view?
My experience has always been digital, I am a computer expert, I started working by chance in a telecommunication company, where the majority of my friends were employed to program telephone software. As I wrote in my CV I loved drawing and as they wanted someone for the cad group, I was assigned to one of the first graphic workstations of that company, even before the Silicon Graphics.
So, we started developing codes in C or Pascal writing simple programs for two-dimensional drawing purposes in order to help engineers make printed circuit boards; then we discovered 3D libraries in those stations so we started using them too. This experience lead me to work for a little computer graphics company, the Eidos, it was 1985- 1986. We wanted to develop a 3D animation software, as we saw there were already some types of them around the world: Wavefront, an older one named RobertAbel; we worked with the University “Politecnico di Milano”, where they had just developed a rendering raytracing software. Under these circumstances I worked on the interface part, writing codes, but I was the only one able to use that software –obviously I wrote it myself- I knew which button should be pressed and which one should not. Later I started having fun drawing images with that software so I left the developing part for the production one, it was much more fun to use rather than write. Unfortunately that project was never completed. Later I kept working with the first digital post production company in Milan, where the digital effects were still limited to the 3D ones. There were the first compositing softwares, some concerning the workstation of Quantel (like Paintbox, Harry, etc…) in which the 3D PAL images were written on 1 inch type videotape. During the early 80s- 90s, we had a lot of fun, we were a small group of people working on these workstations because only a few companies could afford the investments in graphic hardware and software which cost hundreds millions liras. I remember we went to the SIGGRAPH in USA because the company had us sent there to attend courses and conferences and many associates never came back.
I got to know the special effects only on the cinematographic set, but I had never had any experiences in that field, I just want to make it clear.

So, when did you actually start working in the VFX effects field?
Firstly, I started working in the advertising sector. Then I managed to work for a movie in 2000s: Gabriele Salvatores called me to work on a film named DENTI, a strange story, quite hallucinated, where different visions came out as the main character started his trip…

How did you deal with this new environment?
Well, I did not have much experience in that field, with all the due respect! There were professionals who had been working on the set for 30 years for international projects too, while our digital effects team was one of the last coming on the field. Our job concerned the integration of some digital contributions, but the special effects department was born together with the cinema and its history is longer than that of the digital. By the way, I would like to talk about the “David di Donatello”; in 2004 the award for a new category – special visual effects – was established. Its aim is to mix both special and digital effects departments, even though usually the digital effects category wins, maybe for its wider visibility. The fact is that the Italian special effects department always hated the digital one, not because of us: the awards, in fact, are chosen by a jury. We never wanted to steal awards to the special effects department.The best solution for us would be to create a category for the special effects part only, but no one has ever been able to do that in 50 years of history of the David di Donatello. This year the “Machinarium” company won the award for “Il racconto dei racconti” by Matteo Garrone, which mixed special and visual effects in the same company. I think this is the right trend, and big companies like “Weta” in New Zealand are already working on the proper integration between the two types of intervention. This is the best choice, like the integration between the real explosions made on the set and the digital contributions, which give more interesting results than the ones given by a simple digital explosion.
About what you said earlier, we know you won a David di Donatello for the film “Cantando dietro i paraventi” by Ermanno Olmi.
Yes, I was lucky enough to work on a film that the academy loved, in the same year this category was born. Actually, Ubik (the company I was working for as VFX SUPERVISOR at the time) technically won the award. That was a wonderful experience, Ermanno Olmi got excited like a child seeing the possibility that digital interventions offered. For that film we created different effects: for example we multiplied the the imperial fleet which had to block the pirate ships.

With Ubik you also worked for the film “La tigre e la neve” by Roberto Benigni, how was that?
Yes, two years later, in 2006 starting in 2005, I was lucky enough to work an entire year with Roberto Benigni, that was a wonderful experience either, he is a wonderful person. That is the exact example of how I image the VFX supervisor work: I went to Rome, to the “Melampo Cinematografica”, to talk with the scenographer, Benigni (that was the director too) and the rest of the staff. In several parts of the film we needed to help the production and the director to tell his story, which was actually the main purpose of the movie. Some effects were the so called “transparent” which actually help the production solve certain set issues, the number of extras… they are mostly used to save money; other effects deliberately more recognizable, like the situations in which the visual interventions are the only possible solution, things you cannot do differently (a flying superhero) .
So, in a sense, this is the most artistic part, isn’t it?
In the second part, there is actually a greater creative component although you have to deal with the director’s requests, the production… Well, an interesting thing about the cinema is that, compared to advertising for the cinema, you have to deal primarily with the director. Everyone’s opinion is important of course, but the director’s one is fundamental. In other sectors this is not that easy, for example for advertising you have to deal with the advertising agency (which has 2-3 members), with the production company, with the client (and the client has some members who oversee the project). Lastly, the boss may turn the situation around.

Did you happened, in your career, to find these kind of problems?
A couple of years ago I worked for a
Valfrutta advertisement: a fruit juice, where agency brief was recreated a sequences of anthropomorphic animals, like Madagascar. We realized characters design, informed that we couldn’t create the same characters of the Dreamworks, so for each one there was a series of evident differences. Characters was approved, both design and modeling and texturing phase. Because there are always some presentation steps.
But, at the end, when we presented the characters to the director, all together, inside the circus, they seems exactly like Madagascar!
Anybody had seen that pictures said: “uh, looks! How wonderful, Madagascar 3!”, “No, looks! The lion is completely different, the monkey is completely different!” and all characters was really different, because was born aware of the problem. Maybe a lion, a monkey, a tiger and some parrots under a circus’ marquee remember always Madagascar 3, in everybody’s thought, whatever you can do. Then client asked a legal advice, we got scared, at this point it was too late to redo all work. We had to change something with the rigging, for example, we made a panda that reminds a Dreamwork’s character, so we change him into a polar bear, other characters too were modified using the rig possibility, next we had to texturing all gain. We made a series of justified changes in a hurry!
Another example fo
r the television is the 2005 show Rock Politic, Adriano Celentano call us (Ubik was one of the leader society for the visual effect in Milan), he wants talk about the Milan of 19th century, when the navigli were yet uncovered and navigable. Navigli should be modeled based on old photographies, daguerreotypes, paintings etc; there were the Leonardo da Vinci’s sluice to recreate too. We started with a shot of the modern Milan, and turn the clocks two century back.
We rebuilt in digital all the buildings, with a fade out we blend the modern shot with the reconstruction, and we animated the landscape with clouds and birds, in spite of this the ambient was damned empty! When I show our reconstruction to Celentano’s wife, she say to us that it doesn’t work. Her husband’s question focused on what beautiful were the city in the 19
th century and how ugly is now, but it doesn’t work, the old city was nice but sad, empty. So we asked to RAI if we could use a theater with a blue screen, in a hurry, and recorded some people spread inside the ambient, at the end we had several minutes of material, we were really proud of it!
The video was edited by Celentano, whom used only 30 seconds, the part about the Leonardo’s slice, but since it was too short was playes on reverse too, with a waterfall effect the water went up.
We were really perplexed, but Celentano have the 50% of share, on television, so he was right, there’s no question.

Why did you used blue screen and didn’t used green screen?
Because we had only that, usually choice is quite banal, if you have dresses or objects that contain blue motif, you have to use green screen and vice versa, otherwise you do like Caccamo
1, that had a transparent necktie because it was blue on bluescreen. Technically there’s a bit of difference, even if green had a wide array and is brighter, is achieved.

Is this simplest to illuminate? Doesn’t darken too much the shoot?
Depend on the ability of the director of photography, that have to illuminate characters on the right way. Actors shouldn’t be located near the green/blue screen, otherwise they will be colored of green or blue by the diffuse light. It also need a back-light that lighten figure’s border. But I’d say that the most important thing is to have a well illuminated background, as homogeneous as possible, without folds in the fabric. The color screen question is irrelevant, depends on what you’ve got and on what you have got on stage.

We knows that you have worked for Anna Karenina and Aladino and Sherazade, a television miniseries, on 2012-2013
Yes, that of
Anna Karenina was a beautiful experience on set, but I hadn’t the possibility of curate the post-production work. The director was Canadian and after the shoots post-production was made away. That was a missed opportunity for me, because our aim is, on one side, stay on the set and on other side finalize the production. Anna Karenina was produced by Luxvide, for which few months before I followed Aladino e Sherazade. We shoted in Tunisia in August, on 14 August we were in an oasis on the south of the country, the heat melted our cameras, sometimes they needed to be placed inside the refrigerated truck. The heat melted us too, but we couldn’t go inside the truck.
Tis was August, break, they recall me on December to shoot
Anna Karenina in Lituania, so I went from 50° in the shade to -10°. If we want the visual effects supervisor should be equipped to survive in extreme conditions too. But, this happens on the set, we spent the most of time sitting in front of a computer. With Aladino and Sherazade work begun with a pre-production phase, we built some models on case, some assets, meanwhile the shoots were starting.
Later I followed all the shooting period, more than six weeks in Tunisia; among other things in some places I was already before, during the shoots of
la Tigre e la Neve, a film partly shoot in Tunisia too.

How could you define you experience in Ubik? What it left to you?
During that span I had the biggest professional satisfactions, because before of that I had worked basically for advertisement, except for
Denti, a Salvatores’ film. With Ubik we were able to work for both advertisement and cinema.
Work for the cinema isn’t easy, above all in a city like Milan, this kind of works are placed in Rome; but we were able to put a team together, that in the happiest moment counted about twenty people, all valiant talents.
Next, unfortunately, economic problems dissolved the group, anyway I can say that with Ubik I became a real visual effects supervisor. My role became to change through 5 years, because I became visual effects producer, with a more administrative work. Then I had to menage the budget, decide where and how put it and I had deal with a little bit boring part of drawing work-flow to define who works, the tasks, the assets, all organized with available resources. I spent most of the time with clients, bookings, preventives, so I pull myself away from the operative work, I never learned Maya so well, for examples, because since the beginning I had a monitoring and coordination work; at the time I learned to use Softimage, in Ubik they used Maya.
Unfortunately with Ubik a very happy interval of my life is closed, in which I collaborated with another society, the Crakcartoon, that made animations. We joined all kind of animation tecniques, 2D, 3D, stop motion, animated clipping, 2D and half with Aftereffects, we made a lot of projects with the aim to produce our contents, not just make service.
Moreover I wasn’t the boss in Ubik, I was only an employee, and with the Crakcartoon we could produce a film for a homevideo distribution in style: the footage were made in celluloid, we had an English cast and the location were in Piedmont. This film, however, was never distributed, or at least for a long time it wasn’t distributed, and this fact caused a lot of trouble, we moved assets to follow this project and in 2008 arrived the economics crisis that hit us hard. Furthermore the technology improvement increased the competition, it was easier invest on this branch.
This means that if on one side there is a constant demand of special effects because contents are increasing, however we are talking about the Italian market, whose numbers are very restrictively, on the other side there’s an agencies and structures fragmentation which work on this branch.
Nowadays structures are smaller, maybe because once important groups dealing with all the post production process, with their laboratories to develop and print celluloid films, no one of them lasts in Milan, in Rome even Technicolor has failed, because it’s a market that have been through a deregulation, a continuous low-ball offer.
About that we are trying to create a visual effects association where one of the aims is define ethical codes for those who works, inside an unregulated market, and growing the visual effects market made in Italy, maybe managing to bring international projects in Italy like happens to Canada, that lived the boom since several years, thanks to national subsidy, and this has allowed them to take a lot of projects away from California.

How did you finish to take care of the theme parks?
When I left Ubik I wanted to try something different and I finished in Rome to collaborate with Rainbow CGI, which is the digital part of the Rainbow but in Rome. They were working on two films: Winx 2 and The Gladiators of Rome.
They called me because I had experience on stereoscopy, in Ubik we made advertisings for Gardaland and in that year there was a new attraction called Time Voyager (a 4D cinema), for which they asked us to create the stereoscopic content for the CGI shooting. Since 2009, I followed a project for the Marche region, which wanted to use the Winx to make a stereoscopic movie to show the regional beauties during the Shanghai Expo 2010.
It was very funny, we attached two cameras under a helicopter, we carried on the shoulders two cameras (2red) inside the Frasassi caves. The pre-production part was done in Rome while the final one of lighting, rendering and compositing was done in China, so I went to Shenzhen to follow the project. In 2011, Rainbow entered in partnership with Rainbow MagicLand, in which Rainbow thematized several attractions with the Winx and other proprieties of their cartoon series. They assigned me one of these, again because stereoscopic, it was an interactive dark raid 5D much more complicated than the 3D
2. Untik darkraid, an indoor attraction with very beautiful scenery developed and designed by Thomas Gomez, a Rainbow’s very fantasy designer, 9 large stereoscopic back-projected screens are embedded in these scenes. So 8 players travel on a vehicle on the rails, equipped with polarized stereoscopic 3d glasses, armed with infrared laser gun and shoot the sets and the screens. The screens are the virtual extension of the real scenes.

Working on special effects for a theme park is different compared to a movie?
Yes, I have never worked for video games, but this was a project similar to video games of old technology in the sense that everything is pre-rendered and composited at the moment from the show server, you must render all individual layers (with video alpha), which is overlapped. It’s Totally different compared to movies or advertising productions, in this case you have to put together ten companies on the same project in a one-year work.

Considering your relationship with the CGI, do you believe there is abuse in contemporary cinema?
I was lucky enough to follow the
CGI from the beginning, I thought we would be five years later than Pixar. Over the years the gap has widened rather than narrowed, because in Italy there is not a lot of research. We have to deal with a market and the possibility of smaller resources and the “brain drain”. The races for acquiring a job become an international competitions, so you have to compare yourself with European and Extra-European realities. The hardware and software capabilities have grown exponentially. Rendering time have remained more or less the same, more and more detailed quality lengthens the time. Is there abuse in all this? No, it is an open question, but basically the CGI has become the only way to tell fantastic stories, there would be no other way to tell them. Furthermore there are other ways to make effects like Forest Gump and Amelie that have a lot of visual interventions. I see no abuse, there are those who say that it will replace the actors, but I do not think so; it is just the right way to use the technologies.
The Life of Pi won the Oscar three years ago, it was a digital movie from the beginning to end. They spent much more money than the initial budget for the production and the company that was in charge of the special effects went bankrupt the same day it received the Oscar. One of the supervisors who went to collect the prize began to talk about the problems they had to achieve the visual effects. During the live show the direction died audio and brought him down from the stage. He could not talk about the problem. This event has created a cascading series of protests of what was the world of visual effects. A film doesn’t exist without visual effects.

What are the elements to achieve a good integration cgi-liveaction, in your opinion?
This is the fundamental work you do on the set. Now the director tends to move the camera as he wish, with no consideration for what he might generate in post production, so you have to be always very careful. It’s a habit to say “they will fix it in post-production” as if the post-production budget was infinite. On the set, you have to take all the data about what is doing the camera, very advanced systems, which I have never used (in Italy we don’t know when it will come), like the laser scanner, Lidar, allow you to acquire scans, a cloud of points around the set, in which it is possible to reposition the virtual camera in a much more coherent way than the real one, much more advanced camera tracking systems but they need a set of information taked on the set to work, such as the lens used, the focal distance and in the background objects. All of this is crucial to place CGI items in a consistently prospectively way. So proper perspective, considering any optical aberrations and lightning information, HDRI techniques are very useful to use a lighting system congruent with what you have on the set. Other tricks like putting references on the set, photographing them. Use more cameras in different place to have more points of view, putting tracking points on the greenscreen, essential when the camera moves. There are not many tricks in the end, the compositor’s skills can make the difference.

A supervisor must possess advanced skills in all different VFX techniques definitely, where would you recommend to start to one fan who decides to take this path?
You can start by compositing, from the 2d and later become a supervisor. I do not think there is a standard path to become a visual effects supervisor. Supervisor is who does this work for more years than others. The experience to make more consistent choices considering available resources, budget and time; sometimes you have to find compromise between the solutions you get, having an overview of the project and how to fix the resources.
You are the engineers so you have a technical background absolutely more important than most of those working in our market, because many of those who make our work, including myself, historically are not graduated; to become a good modeler or 3D animator a degree has not required. Instead what you are acquiring is a very broad background. As you examine all the issues in terms of visual and special effects, it gives you an overview many do not have. You could be visual effects supervisors, but you might decide to do the director, the editor or the producer. Talk about 3d in a generic sense is simplistic because there are many specializations inside: you could be an animator, one that makes textures, one that makes lights, one that makes models, a tracking expert or a pipeline expert, software development is very important too, especially for big companies. At the end, the best solution is doing a job which combines work and passions. Furthermore you have to consider the possibility of going abroad to work, so a good knowledge of English is very important. I have no other great tips, in addition to make astonishing work, which does not mean necessarily make complicated things: if you’re an animator, to show that you are a good one, you can do it even animating just matches. So focus on what you want to show and then show it around, crossing your fingers.

 What is she working now, or what will work in the near future (if you can tell us)?
Right now I’m waiting for them to call me for the next project, I can not deny that in the last period I can not have a good business continuity.
Working as freelance we are always waiting to be called for some project but not always the projects we are contacted start really, or they are races won by other agencies or production companies. The last significant project I worked, is dating back to last year: the film “Mine” directed by Fabio Resinaro and Fabio Guaglione, an USA, Spain and Italy co-production, which I hope it will come out in theaters this year.

[Historically there was a reality that are the virtual reality multi media park, where there was Lumik who had made a film in cgi. Of Turin I have great advice to give you, there is another school of cinema that makes animation too. ]

Character performed by Teo Teocoli that represented a sports reporter from Naples. Appeared first time in 1990 with Paperissima and begun a pillar to Mai Dire Gol. He’s represented with red hair, big glasses 60’s style and a blue jacket that does not fit to his body.

 

Felice Balzano
Alessio Calvo
Silvia Spacca

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