Interview with Daniele Bigi

We interview Daniele Bigi, recently lighting supervisor for Prometheus, to find out more about himself and his role at The Moving Picture Company on the Prometheus project.

Can you share with us how you ended up where you are today?

When I was younger, I was passionate about movies like many other teenagers, particularly about movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, and I was really interested how it was possible to generate those types of images. And so basically during that period, I started to read more about 3d computer graphics, just so I could learn how to create dinosaurs that looked like real dinosaurs! And so, basically, I studied product design in the University of Milan, where they also offered courses in 3d computer graphics, and during that period I really started to learn more about it and I would even go home and learn more on my own. Even before graduating from university, my professor recommended me to work for this small advertising company in Milan, and so, slowly I began to realize that this was actually possible to be a profession. When I started university, I wanted to do something classical like be a product designer, and you know this [3d graphics] was a sort of hobby for me, a passion. But then when I started to see that there was a demand for this kind of job, then I thought it could really become a profession. 

I worked for a couple years on TV advertisements, small projects for Italian TV. It was cool, but obviously it wasn't like working on Jurassic Park or Terminator 2. In Italy there wasn’t much available in terms of VFX facilities, so I traveled quite a lot, and worked in different countries with different facilities. Roughly six years ago, I went to the UK where I started with Aardman Animation which did Chicken Run and The Pirates, and they were recruiting 3d people, so I went there for a year and a half. And then for personal reasons, because this place [Aardman] was in Bristol, which is at the centre of the UK, I decided to move to London because it was much closer to Italy and for other reasons as well. So I basically moved from Aardman to Framestore and I worked there for a couple of years on Narnia 2 and Despareux, and other projects that were done internally at Framestore. After that I receive an offer from MPC, and I decided to go MPC, so I have been there since 2008

Was it difficult for you to make that switch from being a designer to being a VFX artist or did it come naturally?

It was quite difficult, but you have to consider... I was finishing university, finishing the product design course, and I didn't receive any offer from any design company. I was actually really aiming to become a car designer, and it was a very competitive market, probably as much or even more competitive than the VFX industry. So I was finishing my last year at the university, and to be honest I never tried to apply for any job as a designer actually. It was strange, because for me it was like I was going home and having fun doing 3d, doing computer graphics, so when they asked me to do commercials and that they would pay me to do that, it was like... funny, because I was doing that anyways at home, for free, just for me. It was really interesting to see that it was a job, and I was well paid as well, especially in Italy, because you have to see this was about 13 years ago, so 3d stuff wasn't like it was today. Good 3d commercials in Italy were considered very innovative. I was very well paid, and I wasn't even done with university, and I was thinking, WOW, this could be a good career. As one project led to another, I could already see that there was a potential there, and it was fun, I was really happy doing what I was doing, and so I thought to myself, why don't I make it happen. 

It was obviously much more difficult for me when I decided to move from Italy, because it was a very sharp decision. That is still a very important decision that I made in my life, and it’s now more than 10 years since I moved abroad, but that was the only way to work on big projects. I always dreamed of working on movies and the only way to do so was to move from Italy

How were you involved in the movie Prometheus?

My involvement was quite early, from the preproduction stage.  I did a couple of tests, especially on the Juggernaut asset, to understand how we could create the details without building the geometry by hand and that was my initial task, to figure out the best way possible. Immediately after the shooting, after we received the plates, basically I worked on look development, where we do the shading work and setting up all the textures. After that, for about roughly six months I worked in the lighting department on shot specific work.

How much of the lighting work on Prometheus was directly influenced by the original Aliens series, was there a pressure to actually follow the look and feel?

There was a bit of pressure to follow, but we never really tried to match, you know, like a plate from the original Alien, but it was very clear that the look that Ridley Scott was after was very neutral. If you look at the sequences, there aren’t many colors in there, there was overall a very cool palette, for most of the sequences, so that was something that was established even at shooting, so when we received the plate, this information was already in the plate. So what we had to do was follow what the DOP did during the shooting. So yes there was a little bit of pressure but it felt in a way natural to follow that path. It was a bit like a puzzle, you know, like everything was fitting into place. The plates were quite neutral, so were all the assets, like the Juggernaut was as you know like a black metallic object, Prometheus was a white metallic ship. So when we start to build everything you realize that there is obviously a design. Everything has been properly designed thanks to Ridley Scott. So when you start to model all the elements, you end up with an image that resembles the original Aliens image, but that was because they planned everything in that way. So it was a natural progression.


Prometheus' VFX breakdown from MPC

How does MPC fill up the roles?

Usually everyone works in a specific department - animators in the animation department, lighters in the lighting department. Everyone has their position, because there is a hierarchy in the company, in every VFX company. So when you enter and you are a junior, they give you smaller simpler shots, and after a while, after a couple of projects you can move to a mid position, and after that there is usually a senior position followed by a lead position, in which you lead a group of people. After that, if you are good and you are lucky, they can ask you to become a supervisor. In my case, I always worked in the lighting and look development, as a lead for previous shows, but for Prometheus, the work was so big, that they gave me 3 leads and they asked me to become the lighting supervisor. Usually leads in our company work on certain sequences but in this case the movie was so big, that they wanted a supervisor to ensure the quality was the same across all the shots. 

So basically gain experience in the company, and be in the right time in the right projects and if you are lucky enough you will get more responsibility.

When MPC has to work with other VFX companies, how do you maintain continuity of the look?

Usually what we try to do and what most of the times happens is... for example the juggernaut was done in MPC, so all the shots with the juggernaut were done in MPC as well. So in that way you don’t have to pass the setup to another vendor or VFX facility. And what WETA did with the big alien creature at the end was done completely in WETA, so we did not share anything.

Including the lighting, the rendering, etc.?

Yes everything [in those shots] was done in WETA. 

There are situations, where they [WETA] did the creature, but we did the environment. So what happened was, we first did the environment in MPC, then we rendered all the environment, and then we generated the plates for them, so basically we give them the plates as a reference. And then they treat our render as a normal shoot. So they will integrate the creature inside our plate. But normally we try to avoid that, because it can be tricky, obviously, because working in parallel with other companies is always tricky. So usually the work is divided between completely different tasks so there is not really much trouble.

What was the most satisfying part about working in Prometheus?

To be honest I was a fan of Aliens, because it was one of the most interesting science fiction horror movies, so I was a fan even before working on Prometheus. So that for me was a big thing, because most of the time I can’t choose what I’m working on - if the company is working on say Clash of the Titans, I work on it even if I don’t like Clash of the Titans, you see what I mean? So in this case, I was lucky because I wanted to work on Prometheus, and they said "Yes you can" ... so basically it was really cool because I was a fan of the movie and a fan of Ridley Scott, and I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right moment, because if you think about it, Prometheus was done mainly between WETA and MPC and Fuel did some work, but most of the work was done between the two facilities, and I was lucky enough to be in MPC at the right time and it was great.

[Laughs] you seem to attribute a lot to luck.

I don’t want to be misunderstood in the sense that I mention luck a couple of times. One thing is to be lucky to work in a company that luckily is taking a project like Prometheus, you know. You can be very good or very bad, but these things are unpredictable. You can go to work for a big company like WETA and work on a movie like Tin Tin that personally I never liked and that for me is only luck, and there nothing that you can do. Then in terms of career progression, at the end of the day it is not luck... Obviously you need to be very good at what you do and work hard. There is always a bit of unpredictable result, because you work with other people, and other people need to like to work with you. So even at a personal level, you need to be good with relationships, and if someone doesn't like you for any reason... even if you are technically very good, but you don’t have a nice personality, obviously it won’t be very good.  I think for career progression, it s 95% what you can do and 5% luck, because I think you still need to be lucky to work with the right people, and other people need to be able to feel like they can trust you. Something like that is not really something you can see in a CV, you see. It’s about working together, and working for several years in the same company, and the people start to realize, "Yes, you are a good guy, I need you for this project, I trust you, and then you are involved”. But usually if you are good, and you work hard, you can progress.


The lighters started working before the whole ship model was ready in order to parallelize the process.

Could you describe a typical day for you?

It’s very different if we talk about when I was the lighting supervisor compared to being a CG supervisor. When I was the lighting supervisor, on Prometheus, a typical day would start with a Production Meeting, and in this meeting, we talk about what needs to be done over the week, and the upcoming deadlines, like if there is a trailer due or certain shots are due. We talk about this and organize the work. And then, normally after this I would go back to my desk and start to check the renders of the previous night, checking the look of the render. Usually there is always setup, tests or updates to do. For example we would see how a new model is appearing. Usually after that, we prepare all the material for the lighting dailies - there is a session everyday with all the supervisors - so I have to prepare all the shots of my team that I consider good enough to be shown to the supervisors, basically creating a play list. Then we go to a dark room with a projector like a small theater and then we review those shots with our supervisor, and we get feedback. Feedback like changing the lighting, changing the look development or changing the shader. Then basically the remainder of the day is spent trying to address the feedback and then we launch the render for the night and then basically the next day it’s a similar thing.

How about as a CG supervisor?

CG Supervisor is a little different, because there are so many meetings. Usually, right now... I start in the same way. I start with the production meeting, but them immediately after that there are several daily sessions that I have to attend. So usually in the morning, I spend one hour with the match move artist, to check the camera work, and then after that I can jump to another one and usually I go to check the layout, to see if they have any updates and then in the afternoon, I have dailies with the effects departments, and dailies with the lighting department. And then I have sessions with then tech animation department, which is responsible for groom dynamics like hair and cloth. Usually what I do is give feedback to them, and ask them to try to change things that don’t work for me. In the evening, I prepare a few dailies that I want to show to the VFX supervisor, to make sure that we are on the same page on what needs to be done. And then in the evening, I have a session with the VFX supervisor. A couple of times over the week, we have a call with the client, and by the client I mean who is responsible for entire movie. So we show the client the progress of the entire movie and we talk about what is left to do and what we are doing. So for this position, I am involved in much more departments, most of the times, I spend time in meetings, and in dailies, so I directly work with all the other leads from all the other departments.

In your entire career, have there been any specific mentors or people to whom you are grateful and have helped you along the way?

I think you learn from different people, like when you are in a big company there are many people that work differently, and every colleague in the company can give you some information or advice, so basically you can absorb information really from anyone. I would say clearly it was important for me to know and meet the professor of computer graphics in the University of Milan, because he gave me the confidence that what I was doing wasn't simply for hobby, and he recognized the work I was doing was ready to be used for jobs. That was a big boost for me. In reality, that professor, whose name is Nicolo actually gave me my first job, and then I realized this can be a real profession. So he for sure was one person that I need to be grateful to.

And then in MPC, definitely would be Matt Middleton the CG supervisor on Prometheus, and he is a really great guy! I really like him personally, and he is very strong technically and artistically as well so he definitely helped me, and was a key reference point for me in the company.

And then from a production standpoint, I would be thankful to Sara, the VFX producer at Framestore. She works on the production side, and she really helped me understand the need and importance of scheduling and timing. Because most of the time, the work that we do, we talk about the technology and 3d stuff, but at the end of the day, the main thing is that you have to do a job in a certain amount of time, with a certain amount of money, and if you don’t do that, the project is a failure regardless of how it looks if basically you spend too much money, or the department is very slow, or are not in line with the schedule. So I really need to thank Sara and Matt.

Can you describe the experiences writing your book?

Yes, so this was actually interesting, because it was my final year at the University, and I had realized that 3D was my thing, so when I did my research, I did all my research based on computer graphics images, and I basically wrote an essay, a very long essay, which at the end, was almost like a book. And basically when I showed the essay to my professor, he realized that it was much more than just research. And then I realized that in that period in Italy it was quite new to talk about computer graphics. So I tried contacting one of the biggest publishing company in Italy. And I said I have this book and if they were interested in publishing the book. And I got very positive responses. There was nothing similar at that time in the market - at least the Italian market - because most of the other books that were talking about 3d were more like a guide book, to learn software. But my book was about the history of computer graphics and the techniques. It wasn’t about any particular software; I wasn’t, you know, like trying to teach Maya or 3d studio max or anything like that. It was much more generic and much more broader in topic. 

That’s why they were very interested because most of the books - at least in Italy - when talking about computer graphics, were very specific about a particular software. So then I asked this professor to help me out with the history part of the book, and he actually co-wrote with me, he basically did the first chapter which is all about the history, while I did the other part where it was more about the technique. Immediately after my degree, they published the book and, yea, I was very excited.

Do you intend to bring it to English speaking audience?

I think the book is now a bit outdated, because when I wrote the book it was 13 years ago, so I think the book needs to be rewritten, for like you know, like for new technology and techniques. I would like to have the time to actually, you know, spend maybe half a year and write a new book, the problem is the moment I am so busy with work that most of the time I work more than 10 hours a day and sometimes I work Saturdays as well. So when I have a little bit of free time, really, at the moment I really spend my time outside, you know, enjoy a bit of my time off. So I think maybe its maybe something I can do when I retire [laughs]. But yes, that much time, it would be nice to do it but I don’t have the time to do it now.

Does being a CG Supervisor affect the way you experience other movies now?

Well even when I was a lighting supervisor and lighting lead, it affects the way I look at effects in the movies, and in a negative way. I remember going to the theatre and being blown away by the special effects and stuff. But now that I am working in this field every day, I know what to look for in a special effects shot. Even if it’s far away, like a mountain in the background, most of the time - after so many years - I know that that mountain is actually created with projection. I can tell, most of the time, not only me but all the people that area working in this industry for a long time. And that obviously doesn't help in enjoying the movie because no matter what you do, you look at the image, and you - in a way - you are not surprised any more like in the past. So yea I still like to go to the theatre to watch like a VFX movie, but I also like to watch movies without any effects, just for you know, the story. Yes it affects a lot in how you enjoy the movies.

For a final question, what do you do other than CG?

As I mentioned I do not have much time, but actually I really like - in the last couple of years - I really like to design abstract sculpture. There is one example of this sculpture that I did on my website. I’ve done a couple of project, only personal projects, when I have a bit of time, I like to do that. Unfortunately, to do that it takes a long time, so right now I’ve only finished one project. So there is another project that I want to do, hopefully one day I would find the time to do it. But yes, lately, I’m into these procedural design approach, not only because I am interested in complex structures, but I also like the idea to actually carry an object. I spent like the last 12 years of my life building something that does not exists in reality. So I am actually combining the old passion of design with what I am working on at the moment, so it’s like a very strange mix of design and technology, and the fact is that I built something that exists. So if you have seen my sculpture on my website, it is actually done with pure ebony and its really interesting because the shape looks like classic 3d object that you have in Maya, but there you see the sculpture [physically] in my flat, and it is very interesting. So at the moment I don’t know why but I am very interested in sculpture.

(For more information about this sculptures, visit his website)

Siggraph Asia 2012

SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) is an annual conference on computer graphics convened by the ACM SIGGRAPH organization since 1974.

Both a conference and a trade exhibition, SIGGRAPH Asia attracts the most respected technical and creative people from all over the world. See, meet, and interact with the international computer graphics and interactive techniques community and witness the astounding advancements of computer graphics technologies, where stellar ideas blend with boundless artistry.