With two decades of experience in motion pictures, commercials, and the video game industry, Alessandro Cangelosi has garnered a wide variety of knowledge and skills. As a Lightning Technical Director and a FX Technical Director, Cangelosi has worked with various studios and production companies around the world and on titles such as Independence Day 2, Suspiria, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, 2012, Mobile Strike, and Ghostbusters. Cangelosi found his passion for computer graphics, VFX and technology as a young child and he still enjoys juggling multiple types projects, solving technical problems, and inventing new techniques via relentless research and development today. To learn more, visit his Gnomon tutorial, Art Station and AlessandroCangelosi.com
GW: What do the daily demands for a freelance lightning technical director and FX technical director look like?
AC: I can say that my daily list of things to do is long and challenging, and that’s why I love this job. During past years, I decided to be specialized in two CGI/VFX areas because I love them both. It was a great decision. Living in a beautiful country like Italy is not good for VFX artists mainly because the market is poor, so you have to find new gigs/jobs around the world. If you can move and relocate it will be simpler to find it, but I have also worked remotely from my home office. Which by the way, I love working from my home office: I’ve got my dogs around while my boy is playing with my beautiful wife in the other room… It’s been part of my dream since the beginning. I can’t relocate my family, so being able to work as Lighting TD and FX TD has given me more possibilities to find and work on various projects.
Daily demands can come in many forms. For example, multi-tasking can be challenging: if I am working on explosions on one workstation, water stuff on another, and working with complex shaders and lighting on my main workstation, all at the same time it can get tricky. Plus, these may be different tasks on the same project, or different projects all together. It all depends, month by month, case by case. Working hard during the past few years has given me the possibility to occasionally pick bigger projects. In that case, I usually have other artists working with me, and I then step into the role of a supervisor too. I’ve got to say: I love my job. I’m often tired, but it is amazing what we can achieve today.
GW: What new techniques and technologies to manage and assemble full CGI sets have you come across lately?
AC: I often work with different clients and different pipelines. It is great because I have to be able to move on a different workflow and learn different softwares. There are many tools I used to use and still use daily. Everything began when I was fourteen, so we are talking about thirty years ago. I owe a lot of thanks to my beloved dad who helped my passion to grow. I remember playing with a software called DKB-Raytrace, (similar to Pov-Ray). There was no user interface, in fact, everything was based on writing the 3D scene description with a text editor, and then waiting for 30/40 hours to see some simple primitives on a really basic 3D environment. So as you can see, a lot of things have changed. I used 3D Studio since R1 on MS-DOS, then moved to 3ds Max, worked on Maya, Softimage|3D, and then on to newer technologies like Clarisse, Houdini, Katana, etc. etc. Every single tool has many techniques to create full CGI set and environment, but I have to admit that today we have really amazing technologies. One of the most powerful I had the possibility to use is Clarisse which is lighting fast. It can manage huge—I don’t think “huge” is enough to explain it—amounts of meshes and polygons. This makes it one great piece of software to manage complex set dressing. I love to manage the technology and assemble full CGI set with Clarisse. I think it has a bright future.
I’m looking forward to some new tools coming with Houdini/Solaris which seems amazing as always. Some other interesting stuff to watch is Bifrost Board and USD/MaterialX. Both seem to be setting some great standards. We’ll see how the market moves in the coming months/years.
GW: Can you share more on the massive environments and look-dev you are working on?
AC: I’m teaching a Clarisse course, and we are talking a lot about large scale environments. We introduced some of this in my first Gnomon workshop about Isotropix software released some months ago. For example, in the past I had to work on a really large scale environment for the Independence Day 2 movie. The post-war mega city on a dead alien planet was something really big because it was a complex shot with cameras flying from outer space, through planet atmosphere and then flying over the city. I worked on it in 2015 with a 3ds max based team. I was the CG Supervisor so I planned to work on it using basic 3ds max tools and Forest Pack plug-in. The planet from outer space was created and rendered with Terragen 3, and terrain was manually created using just a grid and various displacement layers with a lot of nested procedural maps over it. Every single layer was able to create a crater, a canyon, valley, mountains, etc. The city was populated with Forest Pack controlled by hand-painted and procedural maps, and hero buildings were set manually. It was really an amazing project. Today I’m working on another really large scale environment, and my client uses 3ds max, so, their artists are using the same techniques I used on ID2 to create it. This time, I’m involved as the FX TD, so I’m mainly working on large scale fluid FX with Houdini.
GW: You have an acute understanding and ideas for teaching complex FXs and look-dev topics working on commercial projects and merging it all together. Can you expand on that?
AC: I can’t reiterate enough how much I love this job. It is a perfect mix between art and technology. I had the possibility to start teaching when I was twenty-three years old in a local school in Rome and I fell in love with it. Since then, I had many more opportunities to teach in various CG schools. Today it is a little bit different, I’m collaborating with two schools and they are working hard to create great learning programs.
In addition, I had the pleasure to collaborate with Gnomon for a Mental Ray workshop, then I moved to collaborate with CG Cookie, and then back this year with Gnomon. I think that working on commercial projects and teaching is a perfect mixture. It’s enabled me to practice the right skills and work daily with other artists, clients, supervisors, real world projects and so on. All of which is invaluable. This, I believe, creates a perfect platform to teach. I have to teach how to use the software, but also, the best thing I can teach is also how to be a great VFX artist, how the market works, how to manage clients, deadlines, collaborating with teams, and how to think critically about moving in the right direction, or trying to make career-decisions.
I like to teach old tips/tricks to solve problems as well. New artists today have big features, amazing softwares, but often you will be not able to the find best solution in this way. Instead, an artist has to know how to come up with new tricks and how to find an almost “strange” solution to solve problems. I love to teach these kind of nuances. I share everything that I learn myself including all my daily R&D. That’s what I’m trying to do in my online CG school too, in the hopes that I’ll be able to do so in the best way possible.
GW: You have taught at The Gnomon Workshop sharing with audiences the intricacies of your work. Is there an experience that stands out to you about Gnomon that you can share?
AC: What can I say about it? It is amazing… The first time I had the possibility to collaborate with The Gnomon Workshop was years ago. I prepared a Mental Ray look-dev workshop with 3ds max, and it was a dream to be part of teachers/artists working with this company. Gnomon is certainly one of the best around the world. This year I was back on it, so I had the pleasure to prepare the Isotropix Clarisse Introduction workshop and it was amazing again. The Gnomon Workshop create amazing products and work with amazing artists and Gnomon is preparing great future artists. It is an honor to be part of this team and I hope to start working on a new workshop with them again soon. You have the best support from them, you are free to express your ideas and they are here helping you to achieve the best possible results. We have discussed some new, exciting stuff, and I hope to display these awesome quality levels in higher level workshops soon.
GW: What has been one of the highlights to working on game trailers like Dead Rising, Rift, and Mobile Strike?
AC: Working on game trailers was a big part of my career. I loved it. I was able to play with full CGI shots while working on well-known products. The first game project I worked on was a career-changer. It was the first time I worked remotely with a company outside my country. It was the Ghostbusters videogame. After that, I moved into working full time on game trailers for a while. Most of the game trailers I worked on were a little bit tricky because we were stretched for time. Plus, the projects were based on using game assets and characters used for realtime in the offline world. So you had low poly meshes, lower quality textures, and you have to create some magic to produce higher quality without changing it too much because assets needs to be the same as realtime. But rendering quality needs to be high, so you have to use real-time textures in new shaders. To achieve the best quality rendering possible, you have to make tricks with lighting and adding some nice and complex Fxs. Your worst enemy is time. During some of the last projects I worked on, when I had the possibility to plan the pipeline, I tried to find new ways to have more time for it. I ended up moving everything on GPU rendering with Redshift, and in this way we had more time to work on other tasks while also rising up the final quality output.
GW: For students considering lightning and FX as a career, are there subjects/classes that would be a bonus for them to peruse?
AC: There are great schools around the world, online and in-house. I think Gnomon School is one of the best. There are some that focus more on general courses, and others more related to lighting and/or FX tasks. There are some CG schools that make a lot of promises but then the course content is poor or the teachers seem not up to par. It is not easy to find best solution, my suggestions for students include asking around first about well-known CG schools. Face to face interaction or direct contact with the school can help narrow down and understand which is the best learning path for you. Try to talk with ex-students as well and try to find information about the teachers.
But I have to admit that it is not always so simple because at the beginning you can have a rough idea about what you’d like to learn and do in the future. But then, sometime students understand later what actually fits their skill set better and that changes what in fact they want to become. CG school tuition can be expensive and sometimes you have to move out of the country to attend. So, I know that it is a complex decision for sure. At the beginning, I learned everything I know alone at home and there was no internet, haha, I’m feeling old! Then I learned how to work on projects, how to talk with other artists, and how to try and catch techniques and create new tricks. I’m not saying that all students have to follow this path; everyone has different possibilities to choose from. But one important thing is that you have to study and apply what you are learning, and that takes time. And it also takes big effort. Working on VFX seems amazing when you are young, when you are in a cinema, or when you are playing with AAA games, but it takes time to have the right skills and experience.
Today, I see a lot of young artists/students asking to be a TD in a short amount of time, such as one year, or to be able to make everything at maximum level to soon. I know that fire inside that is asking for this fast-acceleration—I had the same feeling when I was young, and I still have it inside. But I think you have to use it in the right way, you have to manage it. You have to “dance” with it, be okay with success and failure, fear and defeats. If you can’t control the drive, it will be not good. We all need to have patience and put in the time, work, and garner experience. If you have the possibility to pay the tuition for a well-known CG school, do it, it will be great. But if you have to study and do the R&D on your own, that’s fine too! In each of my classes, I have one lesson about how you have to move around the market and how you can build a strong career. It may end up being a little bit slower than your dream, but for sure stronger because you will be a better artist and a better team player.
GW: Thank you, Alessandro. Your time and energy is so much appreciated.
AC: You are welcome Genese, and, I’ve to say, thanks to you for your time and your great questions. It was a pleasure to talk about my past and my career, and I really hope it will be useful for future artists.