Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your background?
Damien : It all started in 1996 when I saw an episode of “Movie Magic” at the Cinema IMAX of the Futuroscope in French city Poitiers which explained how the Visual Effects of “Star Wars” and “King Kong” were made. That day I said to myself: “I want to work in this field”. All my teenage years I followed this documentary series on the Arte channels and I recommend you to watch this series because it is partly what gave me the passion for trickery and effects.
In 2001 during my last school year in the scientific section, I could not find a school in digital effects, computer science or art despite my research. Luckily I received the brochure for a school that was going to open specialised in e-art sup, multimedia design and production with a specialisation in “animation and special effects”. I prepared a storyboard and drawings for my interview which I passed. Even if it wasn’t a VFX school, I could work on design, typography, visual communication, art direction, animation… and above all do internships!
In 2006 I had found an internship but The Mill Paris (formerly Mikros) offered me an internship. My teacher said I should go and cancel the other internship, which I did. Hugues Allart and Taous Ait Idir, who are still in the team today, interviewed me. They did not select me for my VFX or 3D skills but for my motivation and all the effort I had put into my demo tape. Hugues said to me “I’m curious to see what you can do here”, and I’m very grateful. I learned everything in the studio.
I did Nuke training in-house from the beginning. I found out that you had to shoot on blue backgrounds and hijack people by hand with the rotoscopi and that everything could be modified with the clean. It was incredible, I was speechless.
I joined the motion design team and was doing animated boards and live packshots with clients. I think my creative school background helped me a lot. I was at ease with the clients, the agencies and I understood their expectations. In 2008/2009, Laurent Creusot asked me to become a flame assistant. At the beginning it was difficult to make the transition from After Effects to Flame but everyone was very supportive and helped me to improve. As time went on, my compositing skills evolved and I did my first Supervision in 2011 with Nestea, Volvic, Peugeot. I was in contact with the director, the agency, the production, the DOP. Participating in shoots allowed me to gain confidence. On the set, you have to think fast, make choice and propose solutions that help the production at a given moment while thinking about post-production.
I became a full-time VFX Supervisor in 2016 and recently Head of 2D in 2022. My mission is to strengthen, animate and develop the compositing branch at The Mill Paris. Once again benevolence is the best word to describe my experience.
We used to be Mikros, now we are The Mill Paris, a studio that made me dream at the time and like magic we are The Mill. The name may have changed but the teams are still the same and I thank them for their trust.
Guillaume: I started my career as a graphic designer with Photoshop and web design. I needed a logo, visuals and a website for the Counter Strike team when I was in high school. Over the months, I discovered the community site Deviantart, and with it many different disciplines and techniques that I tried for a few years. After finishing my web design studies, I discovered the ArtFX school which I joined. It wasn’t an easy choice because I did not want to go through the studies and directly enter the working world but as I absolutely wanted to work in the field of VFX, I took 3 years of courses to specialise in compositing.
At the time, Julien Vallet, who was part of The Mill Paris studio (formerly Mikros), trusted me in 2011 for a 3-month internship. I discovered Arnold, which at the time was a rendering engine that was not widely used in the 3D world. There was little documentation but the major information was shared with pleasure by the graphic designers and supervisors of the Paris studio.
This altruism that the teams had towards me, I tried to give it back when I was given the mission of training newcomers on Arnold, some time after I was hired on a permanent basis. In this way, I was able to meet a lot of people who all had different experiences in 3D. It was very virtuous because I shared my knowledge and in return they gave me new tricks.
Compositing has always been my “guilty pleasure”. However, doing shading and lighting in Arnold became an even more consuming passion. It made me a lighting/comp graphic designer, a very versatile profile in many advertising situations. Over the years, I acquired other skills in various areas allowing me to call myself a “Swiss Army knife” of 3D.
After about 4 years, I wanted to find out what was going on behind the curtain of client meetings and tried my hand at CG Supervision. A very complex exercise, regularly exhausting, but it is always great to be able to contribute to the orchestration of a whole team to make beautiful advertising projects.
For the past 2 years and after a 12-year career, I have been in charge of 3D at The Mill Paris. It is a role within the studio that takes me away from graphic design, but I’m discovering new facets of the profession that I wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise. However, there is one constant in my approach from the beginning when I was helping people to learn Arnold or when I was supervising them: I try to help the artists as much as possible to make the most beautiful images possible and in the best conditions.
As professionals in the VFX industry, can you remind us what Compositing is?
Damien: Compositing is the process of blending several elements from different departments/sources into a single shot to give the illusion that it was filmed at once. The possibilities are endless, but generally speaking, it is integrating an animation (3D/stop mo), an environment, or other shots into a real shot. Or sometimes it is the other way around: integrating elements of real shots (stockshots) into a so-called full 3D shot to add believe-ability. Finally, it is also a way to enhance an existing image, through the use of digital effects, or through changes in colorimetry through mattes (masking)
Guillaume: It is the art of assembling all the sources of images or videos that can be used to fake a shot and make it look as good as possible.
What about Lighting?
Damien: I see lighting artists as Virtual Directors of Photography. They are there to light in an aesthetic and realistic way, a virtual scene, a set, sometimes just an object. Through the lighting we give the intentions of the atmosphere and therefore of the narrative. This is a key point in 3D. Lighting is also a science, so in my opinion you need a good understanding of physics to understand how materials react with light.
Guillaume: Lighting is the last link in the CG chain before integration into compositing software. There is a double mission associated with this step. The person in charge has to highlight 3D elements in order to obtain the most beautiful image, whether it is for integration into a filmed shot, or for a 100% CG shot. This is also where all the CG stages converge and where any potential technical errors that may prevent the output of a beautiful image are detected. The lighter should therefore generally have a good understanding of the previous steps to help solve the problems. It is a perfect school for 3D generalists.
In the framework of a project, how do compositing and lighting artists work together?
Damien: It is a constant exchange between 3D and integration, it is through this exchange that little by little the image is refined. Because one feeds the other through different aesthetic and technical comments.
Guillaume: Exactly what Damien says, it is hard to do better. To be honest, it is a bit of a divisive issue. Here at The Mill Paris, we try as much as possible to break this “clan barrier” between 2D and 3D so that everyone can push the image collaboratively, without intermediaries. This is one of the advantages of a team organisation around a small/medium sized project rather than a studio organisation in the form of rigid departments.
Damien: Here the lighters did a superb job and the compositors participated a lot in enriching the universe by sublimating the sets with graphic elements and the support of the DMP department.
Each compositing artist had a sequence with a 3D character and the same for the lighters from memory. So each artist knew his character and could go further in the integration of the character in the shot. Samsung is also a nice mix of several techniques. For example, there is an alien in the film that was filmed, no 3D, but behind it we went and reanimated his face and eyes to make him more alive. The same goes for the environment shots, our compositing artist came to bring back a lot of life to an image that was basically frozen.
In addition to this, we worked on dressing and image processing to recreate holograms and to make the real settings a little more futuristic and alive. The magic of this project is that we really had fun, and we went all out.
Guillaume: This Cartier project directed by Guy Ritchie was mainly technically led by the 2D team (Flame & Nuke). We used Artificial Intelligence for its amazing ability to solve the digi-double problem, without going into a very expensive 3D set-up. This technique was able to provide 70% of the final result after fine-tuning the dataset of many references and many tests. The last 30% was done “by hand” by the 2D teams. In this 30%, 5% was done by the 3D department, to give a little more flexibility to the compositing. Here, our artists really worked hand in hand, combining traditional techniques and new technologies.
Damien: Here again the 3D base was almost perfect. Most of the compositing work was to work on the interactions between the live elements and the beavers. In addition to the beavers, we composed dmp to anchor the action a little more in a natural setting far from the city.
In the film we had a man who unzipped himself in two to reveal that a beaver was inside. The challenge here was not to make it gory and not to make it too cartoony. Finally, using live projections on a 3D model of the character and with a little “clothe” we had a result that was quickly validated by James Rousse, the director and the agency.
What advice do you have for artists and juniors who want to pursue lighting and compositing?
Guillaume: Do some photography because it helps you understand the physics of light and technique and how to reproduce it in VFX (and why). It also sharpens your eye for compositing and what matters in an image.
Damien: So, several things: if this is your passion or your dream, go for it and do it thoroughly, and don’t get demotivated. In general, motivation is one of the key points in a career.
Why is that? It is a great job, but it is a job that requires rigor and patience. So I would say that you have to take the time to understand each step and not neglect them. Of course, rotoscoping, for example, is not very motivating, but in this discipline alone we find a good part of what we have to manage in compositing on a daily basis. The most closed-minded will think that it is only the action of diverting an object. For others, rotoscoping allows them to better analyse an image, rhythm to optimise their keyframes, motion blur management, pre-compositing to test their cache, track, check their outputs, teamwork by exchanging with their supervisors.
Beyond motivation and technical skills, I think you need to be curious, interested and inspired by everything you see. An understanding of photography helps a lot, you need to have a notion of rhythm, for that animation and music are also arts to explore. In short, be curious and, as Guillaume says, “sharpen your eye”, and be patient. There are geniuses everywhere but for the others, you can evolve by practicing and creating your own experience. After 20 years in the VFX field, I’m still learning, and that is the cool !
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