Fabian Nowak is an FX Lead/Senior FX TD at MPC whose work can be seen on films such as Passengers, Jungle Book and Guardians of the Galaxy to name a few. He was recently nominated to the VES Awards 2017 for "Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature" for The Jungle Book and has some valuable insight to share. Check out what he had to say about his experience working as a lead at the esteemed studio, as well as a few tricks of the trade for those in our audience who are carving a similar path. 

What does the day to day life of an FX artist at MPC look like? As a lead, what is required of you?

Day to day life of an FX Artist at MPC is basically: you have 1 or multiple shots assigned to you with a certain amount of days to get your effect approved and delivered to Lighting (or Comp in some situations). You start any given day by checking your simulations from the previous night, making some slapComp (very quick compositing) with nuke for review purposes, getting some feedback from your lead or from the supervisor, addressing the notes and making improvements, and launching some new simulations in hi-res over the night to get the results the next day.

As a Lead, the main difference is that, on top of the shots you have to do yourself, you are also responsible for a whole sequence. You're in charge of all the artists working in your team, you prepare their schedules with Production according to the show's delivery dates, you help your artists to sort out any technical issues they can encounter, you give them feedback for their next targets, and you spend quite a lot of time in different daily meetings with different departments, supervisors, or in client calls. So days can be slightly longer !

I bet! Well, your showreel is amazing - you have had quite a couple of years! Can you tell us one or two of your most memorable moments from the projects you have worked on?

Thank you! I have had many memorable moments over those last years! But I would say the big Geyser on Guardians of the Galaxy is probably still one of my best memories. It was my first time alone on some massive shots, with a very passionate and exacting VFX Supervisor, dealing with crazy amount of data (billions of particles in caches) and lots of feedback from the client. In the end everything went through smoothly, and I had a great time!

Making the giant breaking wave for Exodus is also a great memory as I was working with MPC's best senior FX guys, and I really learned a lot from them while working on the show (as well as having a lot of fun).

Can you call out one or two shots from your reel that were particularly difficult to pull off? We’d also be curious to know your workarounds if and when you did hit these walls.

The 1st and the 3rd shots of my reel were two of the biggest "hero" CG water shots of the sequence on Passengers. I tried many different approaches - did literally hundreds of iterations - quite a lot of modifications and technical fixes after simulation to get our final version approved by the client. Explaining the workaround would take me hours and wouldn't fit into these few lines, but to sum up, I tried every possible variation that I could come up with, got some advice from wise people, and just kept trying until I found the right recipe!

That sounds like a good method to us! Have any of the projects taught you something new about your workflow and, if so, can you give us an example?

If I've learned anything about workflow, it's that you must stay as flexible as possible. My workflow pretty much changes on every show. It needs to be adapted to the specific needs of each situation. You cannot make a very solid and awesome setup for a big simulation and then not have the ability to tweak it quickly, because what is coming as input in your sim (animated characters, large environments, camera, etc.) could change at any time, depending on the will of the client.

And for whatever happens "after sim," it's the same deal. You have to deliver your FX to Lighting for render, or directly to Comp in some situations, so you need to be able to meet their needs as fast as possible, even if those needs change from one week to another, and without making your own life a nightmare!

How long is the interim period between when you finish your work on a film and when you get to see it on the big screen? Can you describe what that experience or feeling like when it all comes together?

It can vary a lot to be fair. On many shows, we might deliver the final shots a month or two before the release in cinema, but some shows, like 300 :Rise of an Empire, for instance, it could be a year from delivery until the movie is out in cinemas. So it can be a long wait.

But when we get to see our movie in the cinema, we try and go as a team, and it's usually a lot of fun for everyone to watch what we've achieved over the months before release. Sometimes working with the sound, hearing the reaction of people in the audience, and trying to spot our names in the credits at the end.

That must be an incredible feeling! What is your favorite effect to create, and why?

Water! Definitely water! And as massive scale simulation as possible. I love it, the sea and the ocean is one of the most hypnotic things to watch in real life as it's always changing, it's rarely predictable, and it always looks incredibly powerful and awesome. Trying to reproduce that in 3D simulations is always a big challenge, but it's also very satisfying when it comes together, behaves in a nice way and looks cool.

Fantastic! And what software are you using the most these days?

Recently, I have mostly been using Houdini, and their wonderful Flip Fluid Solver, but I used to mostly work with Flowline, which is incredibly powerful and great for large scale simulations.

And finally, where would a budding FX artist begin their journey? Any resources or tools that you can offer?

I don't think there is an "official" way to become an FX artist / TD. We have people coming from 3D schools with a very deep and technical knowledge about Dynamics, but we also have many artist / TD who were self-tutored and are as good as people coming from school.

The key points are :
  • Have a solid understanding of the basic laws of physic (gravity, friction, buoyancy, acceleration, speed, mass, etc.) 
  • Have a sharp eye to be able to recognize, by watching real life references, these laws in action. All of this in order to be capable of reproducing real life behavior but within a given artistic direction, using all the Dynamic tools at you disposition. 
  • Do not focus on one single tool, thinking the other ones are less good. You can find good stuff and bad stuff in every 3D software. A tool is just a tool, in the end what is important is the artist using this tool to accomplish his goal.
  • Have fun doing what you do, or change discipline ! 
We want to thank Fabian for offering such valuable insight to us. Be sure to check out his Vimeo page to stay updated on his work!