My name’s Pedro Andrade and I’ve been working in VFX for around 10 years and out of a complete accident. I have a background in Mechanical Engineering and I effectively worked as one in different countries until I took a chance and left that field to pursue a career as a Music Producer in London – which I also did for a while. Then, in London in a sort of twist of fate, in a completely unplanned way, I came across with VFX, an industry in which I’ve been working as a 2D supervisor for some time now in companies like Milk VFX, Cinesite and more recently DNEG.
A couple of months ago, fuelled by the current pandemic situation, I’ve started a little project in the form of a live show on YouTube called ‘Comp Lair’.
Apart from that I love traveling (!!!), food, spending time with family and friends, playing and hearing music, holidays, etc.
Tell us about the first person or studio who paid you to do VFX. How did the opportunity come about?
I started in VFX in a completely random and unplanned way, which I think is important to explain to give some context to your question.
I have a background and a past career as a Mechanical Engineer, in which I worked for some years and even in different countries. Although, deep down I always knew that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life… Also, since my teen years, I was obsessed with music, first as a player and later on, I started developing a real interest in how music was being made, as in what was happening at the recording studio. So, I took a chance and decided to leave my career as a mechanical engineer to go to London to pursue a new career as a music producer — an idea to which my then-girlfriend (now wife) was also keen on, as she wanted to further develop her skills as a modeller (she was working as a product designer at the time) and decided to do it at Escape Studios. Because of it, she ended up working in VFX for Prime Focus Broadcast shortly after finishing the program at Escape Studios.
Before that event, when she was making her first showreel, she would ask my opinion about the different shots she was putting together and I would offer my opinion in the best way I could, given the fact that I had zero knowledge of whatever software was used or any imagery knowledge. Although, when it came to the compositing part, I realized that it had a lot to do with engineering, not only visually as its aspect resembles some engineering systems schematics, but also in the way you attack the problems, piece by piece, mini system by mini system for a greater and bigger overall system. So I started to get interested in the software and in the craft of compositing. While I was playing with it, I also found out that it had a lot to do with what I was doing in music because part of what I did while in that world was mixing, it was actually what I wanted to become – a mixing engineer. So, here I was again looking at a tool that mixes different inputs for one final output, except instead of different sounds I was dealing with different images. At the same time, I was becoming a bit disappointed with the music business, so I was permeable to other crafts. After a while, studying compositing by myself was my priority, I was having fun with it and my understanding of it was going well, probably because I had found all of those similarities with other things that I also knew. I always liked the making-ofs of all those movies that we all grew up with, so I was happy learning something that was new to me that could lead me to do something like that, therefore I was always thriving for the end result and becoming progressively better at it.
So, I gave myself 3 months to learn as much as I could, I looked at the syllabus of different schools and books that were teaching compositing and I drew a plan of all the themes and subjects I wanted to know as best as I could, so I could do my first showreel. And so, after that period with no weekends, days off, and between 12/15 hours per day of study, I was able to make my first compositing showreel. Thinking about this again, I actually find it crazy, that I put this enormous effort into something that I didn’t know what could happen…
While at a housewarming party at a friend’s house, there were some people there that were working in VFX and, because my girlfriend was also working in that industry, the approach was really natural and I was asked by someone who worked in production (Carmen Perez-Marsa Roca) if I wanted to join an apprenticeship at Jellyfish Pictures – unpaid!
I had just finished my showreel a week before or so and I felt that I was prepared for an entry-level job, so I immediately said ‘yes, of course!’ Had the interview and got the gig, again unpaid to start with. Around 1 month after that, I got my first proper contract as a compositor.
After a year or so, my girlfriend decided that VFX was not her thing and I decided that VFX was probably mine, so she got out and I got in. My girlfriend became a UX Designer and I became a compositor.
So, Jellyfish Pictures was where I had my first break and Luke Dodd was my first ever Supervisor that to this day I remember as being a very good person and a very good leader.
What piece of knowledge or advice do you wish you had in your early years of working in VFX?
This will be a fairly technical answer, but I wish I had paid more attention to maths and linear algebra when I was in college.
Although I have a technical background and I’m a fairly technical guy when it comes to compositing, I saw myself stuck more times than I would like to, while developing some more advanced tools. And, more frustratingly, I knew that I had come across the great majority of the mathematical themes that I needed while I was in college, but I couldn’t remember them properly.
So, I had to go on the hard path to re-researching, re-learning, basically re-discovering all of those subjects to make it happen. It’s a more painful road, but it’s also possible and I, fortunately, had the focus needed to go there. Although sometimes, I have been close to just giving up on a specific thing that I’m trying to develop, every time that I’ve been close to it, there has always been some light that kept me going to solve the next piece of the puzzle.
Do you have a favourite tool or technique that makes your work faster / easier / more efficient?
I can’t say that I have any favourite tool because I’ve been developing a lot of tools over the years and I use them all for different situations. Very rarely do I use other tools apart from mine, but don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that there are great tools out there in different mediums.
Although, my approach to the tools subject, from very early on in my career has always been ‘if you don’t understand it fully, don’t use it’. This is simply because, I’ve never believed for myself in using something that you can easily take for granted that it’s gonna work always in any given situation, and then, the situation changes slightly and the tool that you thought would save the day doesn’t respond as you’d expected. So you now see yourself in a difficult situation that you might not be able to untangle yourself out of, because you took something for granted that you’ve never understood 100% so you don’t know when or how it breaks.
Compositing is all about problem-solving so the ‘one size fits all’ approach is dangerous in that respect. The same problem to solve in different contexts might require different approaches and solutions.
Jokingly, I often say to my teams that they should face themselves and a swiss army knife. You should have different blades, saws, screwdrivers available to you, so you can apply them more efficiently depending on the situation you are facing.
Also, oftentimes I see a lot of complicated setups to achieve something fairly simple, which is ok if that’s the preferred way for that person to work, as long as it doesn’t impact the schedule and they’re not making their colleagues’ lives difficult. We know that the end result is king, but we can’t forget that we’re working on a team either.
So, my approach and mindset to this subject is ‘simple is good’ but to achieve the ‘simple’ part of this sentence, every compositor should understand the ‘behind the scenes’ of any tool that they use often, whether it’s their own, mine, yours or anybody’s. You should know when and how it breaks, so it does not break you!
What is a misconception you think less-experienced artists have about senior artists or supervisors?
I think there are a few misconceptions about that subject. The most generalized one is that if someone was made a supervisor and is good at it, that means that he/she was offered the position because he/she was the best artist within the team. First of all, people tend to forget that VFX is all about a team, it’s not an individual’s game, it’s all about a group of people working together. So there’s no such thing as being ‘the best’ — that level of perfection does not exist anywhere with anyone in the context of a collaborative work environment. Within a group of people there can be one person that is the best at something, but there’s another individual that is better at something else. It’s the marriage of those individual skills that makes a winning team!
Less experienced artists might tend to think that if you’re a senior or a supervisor, especially if you know a programming or scripting language, that you’re some sort of genius or preset to be a more accomplished individual just because you were born with a brain like that. Not only is that not true at all, but that way of thinking can also make the younger guys feel intimidated by asking questions to the more senior artists, which can contribute to limiting their own progression to get there. I’m sure I was a pain in the ass to my fellow more senior colleagues when I was starting out. I was careful not to ask the same question twice and to find out the answer by myself as much as I could, but that never stopped me from trying to find the answer more directly with people.
So in that regard, my message to the younger artists is clear: ask away!
Another very usual misconception is regarding the ‘years of experience’ and what makes a senior and/or a lead or supervisor. Experience is very important but it cannot live in a vacuum. Experience is not the beginning nor its the end of everything. There can be good experience and simply bad experience. We’ve all come across artists with a lot of years of experience that are no different from other artists with half or even less of their experience. Plus, depending on the individual, sometimes too many years on the job. Although experienced, this individual can start to cut some corners in learning new things. His/her enthusiasm can get deflated over time. Whereas, younger artists are normally really keen and really enthusiastic to learn everything because everything is new to them and they are enthusiastic about everything. So, younger guys can take advantage of that situation and ‘buying’ some years of experience, by studying more, by risking more, by putting themselves in different situations if they don’t lose sight of that thirst for knowledge.
Another misconception that younger artists might have is that there must be a point in everyone’s career that you reach a point on knowing everything that there is to know and so, everything from a certain number of years is just bliss knowledge-wise. That’s also wrong and not true. Let’s not forget that we deal with computing technology, which is something that due to its very nature, has an exponential growth when it comes to development, which means that the software that is used to develop VFX in this day and age naturally adopt those developments, so there’s always things to catch up on. At the same time, all productions are different whether it’s on technical specifications, schedules, mediums, etc. so there’s always room for improvement whether it’s project management methodologies or custom techniques that need to be developed for a certain project. All these variables will always be there and will never stop.
Once in a while, there’s this one project that shows off new things, whether it’s technology-based or purely visual-based, that pushes the competition to do at least something as equally as good and hopefully better. That exercise requires a lot of hours in research and a lot of trial and error and in some situations might be completely uncharted territory for everyone involved. So the learning curve should never be flat, whether you’re just starting out or if you’re a veteran. This aspect is actually one of the things that I like the most in VFX, the learning never stops – and you can learn with literally everyone, independently of their level of seniority.
Finally: you don’t need to know a scripting language! You don’t need it to ascend to a leadership role. At the same time, by knowing a scripting language, that does not make you a better artist! Although I stand by all of these sentences, I should also say that you should try to learn a scripting language, namely python (as it’s the most commonly used across platforms). Knowing a bit of programming transforms your brain, makes you think more about systems, makes you be more organized in your thinking process, and transforms your understanding of the software you’re using. So, although it does not make you a better artist, it certainly can make you a more complete artist, it certainly can make you a more valuable asset in a team because you can do more than the task you were primarily asked to do. And so, indirectly it can contribute for you to stand out as a professional if that’s your desire! Yes, it can be intimidating at first, but if you stick with it, it’s like learning how to speak English, French, Japanese or Portuguese. These days the documentation and resources are so much better than when we were starting out, so you’ll have a much better time learning it compared to when I started to build my python knowledge and that’s the silver lining you should retain!
If you are a young artist, you should always thrive to be the best you can be, after all this is a very competitive field, but you should never confuse competitiveness with arrogance, there’s a fine line between the two that younger artists may tend to confuse. Being great at something comes with the marriage of both technical and human qualities.
Where do you draw the line between fixing things in comp vs. kicking it back upstream?
That’s a good question because it’s something that we deal with so often. Although, it’s not our sole decision; as it can involve costs, production oftentimes is involved in these decisions. But I would say that, as a general approach, I draw the line on the speed and integrity of the fix. If it’s something that we can quickly fix in comp that still looks good for the purpose of the shot, and isn’t a recurring issue, then we can try to do it in comp. On the other hand, if it’s something that although we can fix in comp, even if quickly, if it happens too often, then fixing in comp it’s not cost-effective.
Let me give you an example, If in comp we see ourselves in need of a PRef pass that is not included in the AOV’s of a CG render, depending on the situation, we might be able to create one in comp within seconds if we can have a 3D locator tracked to the CG. That locator can be either tracked in comp but it’s even faster if you just ask your fellow 3D colleagues to give you one. Then this fix is enough and accurate. Also, it’s way quicker for our colleagues from 3D to give us a locator than to render that pass again. Although, if this happens too often or if the project is still in a phase of possible changes in animation, then it’s not worth it because this fix, although quick, it becomes too dependant of too many departments too many times for something that should have been done right to start with.
It’s the same thing as you’re riding a bike in which sometimes the tire gets a puncture. We know that can happen and we know that we can fix it, at least to get to our destination. Although, if we have a puncture every day we ride a bike, that fix, although effective, stops being feasible because it’s not cost-effective. It’s better to swap the tire at once!
Things like technical errors, noise, bad lighting integration, missing light groups, flickering lights, rig collisions, etc. etc. That’s something that should be avoided to fix in comp though…
On this subject, there can also be differences between the type of medium you’re working on: Film, TV, commercials. Although the quality separation between them, especially between Film and TV, is getting more and more blurred, the pace between the two can be quite different. So, the schedule will also naturally push you to adopt different approaches depending on the situation.
All in all, flexibility is a keyword here, without ever missing the quality standards that should always be royalty in what we do!
Artists generally get promoted into leadership positions because they’ve shown to be a valuable asset to a team as an artist. However, leadership roles require totally different skills to that of an artist. What advice would you give to more-senior artists, or artists in leadership positions, on how to effectively support, teach & mentor others?
On this topic, I should start by mentioning and thanking Sara Bennet (Milk’s VFX Supervisor / Oscar winner) for trusting me with that responsibility for the first time shortly after I had joined Milk a few years ago. My first break as a 2D supervisor was on Dracula Untold, at the time a relatively small project for Milk, but a great way for me to start that new chapter in my career.
This is a topic in which there are also some misconceptions. As I alluded to above, being a supervisor is much more about a team and less about you as an individual. As a supervisor, you might not do any shot, but you do them all – because you need to study them all in advance to know requirements, to adopt strategies to avoid pitfalls, to do tests, to know the different requirements so you can do effective assignments that involve different people in your team that have a different set of skills.
Also, being in any leadership role is about the first 4 letters of that word: L E A D. Leading something requires a specific set of skills that can either be natural to the individual or learned, but most and foremost, they need to be in practice. And that means, at least, liking people, being good with people, being patient. It also means that, although there are different styles of leadership, I believe it should be always about the big picture, about the greater goal!
As a supervisor, it’s our prime responsibility to deliver a project with the technical and visual required specs and on time – at least! Within the process we know that things can get difficult, can get hairy, can get messy. All of that can affect the moral and the delivery of the members of the team, so it’s up to the supervisor to always give, as much as possible, a sense of control, calmness, stress-free and to push the individuals to their maximum capacity and even make them surpass what they think it’s their limitations. A supervisor should always be a stress blocker and not a stress catalyst.
On this subject, every individual is different, meaning they react and respond differently, so the approach can never be the same for different situations or different individuals. Also, people like and respond better if you treat them as a true individual person that they are. Nobody likes to be treated the same independently of who you are and what your angle is, so context matters and it’s often missed.
Then, on the technical/creative side, of course, any supervisor needs to be well accomplished and their minds need to be a ‘well-oiled machine’ because it’s also his/her job to constantly provide fast and multiple solutions, whether it’s toward his/her direct team or on helping other teams, via their own supervisors to finding best and/or more efficient overall solutions for a certain shot/sequence. But that does not mean that people that are hierarchically below the supervisor can’t offer the best solution for a particular challenge. If that’s the case, then that’s great! The train is moving as it should and the team is responding as desired.
Also, not every artist that has a lot of years of experience should be expected to become a lead or a supervisor. That’s an individual choice that should never be a way of labelling an artist in terms of quality. Working as a supervisor involves a completely different type of mindset and in a lot of situations, is a completely different type of work when compared with an artist’s work, so there’s obviously no problem or harm at all that some people just like to remain being artists and never progress to a leadership role.
Everybody seems to understand the relation coach/athlete when it comes to sports – the two were probably born out of the same environment, but they require a completely different set of skills, so it comes down to the individual on liking or not that type of different role. Although this seems of basic understanding in sports, this is often missed or confused when it comes to working relationships – and this is not a VFX industry-exclusive confusion.
Micromanagement can be a tendency especially in the beginning of any leadership role because we’re still so attached of the individual role as an artist, but I think it should be avoided at all costs because, not only it does not solve the bigger picture, it also introduces frustration and doubt in the members of your team, which ultimately will condition their creativity. This type of role is all about lead and let breathe. It’s about being demanding yet gracious. It’s about being open to learn from anyone without hurting your ego, It’s about teaching, not patronizing. It’s about trust and care. It’s not about competition whatsoever, but rather a more selfless mindset. Do I do all of those things? Maybe not all of them all the time, but that’s how I try to live by.
So, if you like project management, if you’re good with people, if you like to manage them, if you remain calm in stressful situations, then a leadership role might be for you; give it a try if the opportunity arises. Be prepared! On the other hand, if you think that you’d rather do your shots on your corner, focused, making them beautiful all the time, obsessed with individual precision, then that’s great, there will always be a place for a person like you! But maybe a leadership role isn’t your thing, and that’s more than OK!
Who inspires you, and what valuable lessons have you picked up from them?
I get inspired by so many different sources and mediums, maybe the majority of them not related to VFX.
I love to see people working in manual crafts, the attention to detail associated with art is something that really gets me going independently of the medium. At the same time, I love watching comedy and to laugh at things that I can even see myself being the subject of the joke – We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. I love love love ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ for example, and there are so many good lessons to take from that show, one of them being: a good ‘fuck it’ goes a long way for the good and for the bad! Speaking of comedy I particularly like Ricky Gervais, Zack Galifianakis, Conan O’Brien, and Larry David for the same type of reasons!
Kind of recently I read a book about Trevor Noah, called ‘Born a Crime’, which I found to be really inspiring. It’s sort of his bio told in a completely different way. There’s tragedy and serious matters about the human condition in South Africa in the book, but it’s written in a comedic and light sort of way that only a guy like that could do. If you’re looking for inspiration in difficult times, this is a good one!
Music was and still is a great part of my life and growing up I was always thriving to get struck by melodies, technical, and original approach to arrangements. On this front, I have too many heroes to count but I’ll give you a few: David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Corgan, John Frusciante, Trent Reznor, Alan Moulder, Chris Lord-Alge, Iggy Pop, and so, so many others…
VFX wise, it’s always great to see and hear things from top guys that were part of the origins of the industry like Dennis Murren. There was a recent live talk he did for VES that I think people should watch. Although we do everything digitally these days, which opens endless possibilities, I always liked to watch the old school ways of doing things because there’s so much imagination there due to the lack of resources or of technology. And that by itself is a great source of inspiration! That mindset can also be inspiring in coming up with more simple yet effective solutions for your comps, or on the understanding of some of the digital techniques that in some ways are mimicking what can be done in an analogic way. On this point, watching the Disney Classics, especially for a compositing artist, there are great lessons there too. The way that they sell a shot that has refraction, reflections, shadows, morphing, thunders, underwater scene, etc, etc. All done in 2D and some of those techniques, although coming from a sort of cartoony kind of source, can be really inspiring when coming up with simple techniques for a great effect — that’s what they were doing anyway.
Still on VFX, a few years ago I came across a video with Sheena Duggal about VFX supervision that I really liked, and another one where she’s describing the thinking process and execution of the mirror scene on ‘Contact’ – just great!
A kind of an odd one: ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ by Maya Deren in 1943. This is a really creepy, unsettling short-movie with very powerful yet simple imagery. When I came across with it I was struck! So inspiring in so many different ways
More recently I really liked the technical aspect in ‘Dr Strange’. I didn’t work on the movie, so that made me study new and different things.
I absolutely love the universe and directing on Stranger Things, technically speaking the creature is just amazing, one of the best muscly rigs I’ve ever come across. Plus, it’s being lit always in the dark and flickering light which is always a challenge to do it right.
‘Better Call Saul’ is another kind of imagery and directing that I love. Great directing, photography, and grading!
But where I really find inspiration on a daily basis is all about people. I’ve been really lucky to work in very good teams of people, for the majority of the time! When you have a great team, everything flows and the inspiration comes and goes out naturally.
We often endure long and hard crunch times in our industry — How do you remain upbeat, positive & productive, and generally maintain a decent quality of life during these times?
Well, this depends a bit on how hard and for how long the crunch time lasts. Let’s not forget that we’re humans so there’s only so much we can endure.
Most and foremost, you need to be having fun in what you do. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a job for at least 8 hours per day if you’re not having fun. With no fun, there’s no commitment, there’s no extra mile. And there are multiple things that can affect it, so it’s also important that you have other sources for getting fun. As a supervisor, nurturing your team will help everyone on this front too and in both ways. Again it’s about being a team and not individuals.
Believe it or not, to a certain extent, I think that showing up at the office on time, regardless of whether or not you had to put in some extra hours on the previous night, helps to keep the momentum and to feel energized throughout the days. On the other hand, I also think that having leisure time is just as important, whether it is going to the gym, going to the pub, spending time doing other things apart from work. It can get easy to go around in circles during hours on end trying to solve something within a shot and very often, the more time you spend uninterruptedly on it, the less close you’ll be to solve the issue, despite what your brain is telling you otherwise. Breaks are important, relaxing times are important. On a personal note, most of the time I’ve solved the most complicated issues I’ve come across, especially technically speaking, in the middle of a relaxing time. I guess the mind feels that it has space to go about other things and with it, be more permeable to alternative thinking.
Having a good supporting family helps a lot too of course! We all know that this type of job can take a toll on your family life, so it’s important to keep this relationship balanced. They can support you unconditionally but don’t push it!
The so-called ‘happy accidents’ are also something that can keep you going. I like to think that they are not really accidents but a consequence of research and trial and error processes. But, these events give you a sense of surprise and wake your senses and imagination again.
On this front, I think companies should pay even more attention to the work-life balance. This is a tough job, in a lot of aspects unregulated and so you need people to be on your side on some more demanding phases of a project. If people are being pushed too hard, constantly, and with the wrong approach, companies will not be able to extract the best potential out of their teams. Good management is very very important, there are lessons we can all take from other industries that use different styles of management like Agile for example. Although some of these things cannot be directly translated into our industry, there are some things that can.
Overtime if often abused, will take a toll on everyone’s life including and very importantly, on everyone’s mental health. Just recently there was a study about mental health on post-production professionals, and the findings were really scary with ‘close to 90% of off-screen professionals experiencing mental health issues on the job’. This is just alarming and it’s something that the film industry should be paying much more attention to.
This is a tough business and part of why it’s tough is probably because of its business model. It’s unbalanced and we should be able to talk about it. This pandemic situation is showing us the fragility of this and other businesses and everyone’s adapting and adopting alternative ways of doing the job that, in a lot of aspects, can be more productive, more cost-effective for everyone, and more balanced in every front. There are some lessons that can and should be learned and I hope that’s the case in our industry.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
Just recently I’ve decided to create a live stream during the pandemic called ‘Comp Lair’ that you can check out here.
Our industry, like so many others, is being severely affected as we all know. These are confusing and worrisome times, so I thought about giving my contribution in this way for everyone out there that would like to talk a bit, blow off some steam, hear different points of view, perhaps learn new and different technique in Nuke, etc. The show has 3 segments during its hour: Intro / Tech Corner / Live Surprise Guest.
Apart from that, I’ve been putting video demos of some of my tools on YouTube that you can check out here. I don’t share my tools publicly but I do something that I consider better and in which I believe more, which is deconstructing them using Comp Lair as a platform in a segment I called ‘Tech Corner’.
Some years ago I wrote an article that I recently revised with extended content including two new small chapters and a video of a new tool. The original content was about how to do projections without geometry in Nuke, but with this recent revision there’s more to it and can be found here, or on Nukepedia within a broader spectrum of technical things. The original article on Nukepedia was written by Matt Estela that a few years ago kindly edited it so I could integrate my piece in it.