I had the very great pleasure of catching up with and interviewing a very good friend of mine, Alvise Avati. Alvise is not only a director, writer, and self confessed lover of boobs, but is also widely recognised as one of the best creature animators in the world (I don’t know who says that). When reading this interview, please imagine a chain smoking Italian with a four day beard, thick accent and a surprisingly humble countenance.
How long have you been working in the VFX industry as an animator?
I’ve been a professional animator for 9 years now, I worked on my first feature as an animator with you (James), on King Kong back in 2005 at Weta Digital.
… and that’s why when I tell everyone I taught you everything you know, I’m not lying right?
Yeah, exactly, it’s true. But to be honest that was my first experience as an animator on a feature film, but you had already worked on Happy Feet and some other shows. After three and a half years working at Weta Digital, I realised that’s enough, I can’t continue to work with James any longer, haha. I took a position with ILM in San Francisco and worked on Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen. Then after a few months shy of a year, I decided I wanted to move so that my pregnant wife could be closer to our families in Italy, so I took a job in London. It turned out to be a very good idea as I had the chance to work with Eamonn Butler at Double Negative on John Carter, the first Andrew Stanton live action movie. After that I moved to MPC for one and a half year, and then on to Cinesite, before eventually finding myself at the newly opened ILM offices here in London which is my current position.
What are the major differences that you have found between all the places you’ve worked, either professionally or socially?
The biggest difference is that in London, most of the time the client is overseas and so you have your VFX supervisor in London, and on the client side you have another VFX supervisor so it can be a bit more complicated to get feedback and get your shots approved. Whereas in New Zealand for example, Peter Jackson is the resident director and owner of Weta Digital, so both the VFX supervisor Joe Letteri and the client who was Peter Jackson himself were on hand to give direct feedback and instant approval. In London 99% of the time the client is in the U.S. and so it’s a bit more tricky to get your shots approved because of the extra layers. My experience in the U.S. at ILM was fairly similar to Weta Digital as the director was there. In fact I remember Michael Bay doing the rounds visiting all the animators desks and giving direct feedback. However, I don’t remember seeing any directors visiting us in London.
… It was a similar situation for me in my last job at MPC in Vancouver
… At Weta Digital we would take the notes of Atsushi Sato the animation supervisor or Christian Rivers the VFX supervisor and get to work, and then the shot would go direct to Peter Jackson. Here in London it’s a bit more complicated, which takes a little bit more time, but it works fine in the end.
What do you think of the standard of artists in the different studios?
I have been surprised at the quality of the average animator at MPC for example, they were very good, especially with creature animation. But it’s hard to compare the studios. The standard is pretty good across the board, it’s a matter of very subtle things. MPC and Double Negative both deliver very high quality animation, it’s comparable to Weta or ILM. Especially because a lot of people have worked at several of these companies over time so it’s pretty much the same people hopping between studios. So I think the standard between studios is pretty on par these days.
How did Beans come about? How did you come up with the idea and how tough was it to make?
Before Beans I did another fake commercial about Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi. I worked on that for almost a year, and when I put it online I was a little disappointed with the response to be honest. I got around 350,000 views which isn’t bad, and some nice reviews from advertising blogs and websites like The Huffington Post, but somehow I was a bit disappointed. After working a year on the project I would of liked to have seen more people watch it. I spent so much of my spare time on it that it became a bit of a nightmare in the end. However, the experience inspired me to have another shot at getting a bigger audience with a new project.
“I don’t like cats, in fact I hate cats, and I’m not a fan of Chuck Norris, but I do like boobs…”
One thing I learn’t was that to get bigger numbers on YouTube you need to make something funny or something with boobs, cats, Chuck Norris or some shit like that. I don’t like cats, in fact I hate cats, and I’m not a fan of Chuck Norris, but I do like boobs, but I didn’t want to make something with boobs this time. I thought OK, I’m good with monsters, monsters is probably the one thing I can definitely animate. So I decided I wanted to make a short story with a huge monster that kills people. Trouble was that I had very little spare time and no budget, and as you know creating human beings in CGI is super complicated. I wanted the monster to kill humans but I didn’t know how I could pull that off, that was until I had the bright idea of putting them in a suit, an astronaut’s suit. So the space idea came out of a trick to overcome the difficulties of creating humans in CGI. The astronaut idea naturally took me to the idea of using the moon as my setting. So I had my set, my characters and my theme and so I started to plan out the action. I decided that I wanted to deal with just one camera to keep it simple from an animation point of view, but on the flip side it did make it harder to sell the story. I also wanted it to be quite violent, but without too much blood, but it still needed to be frightening with a funny twist at the end. My idea was to have an intense start and draw the audience to the edge of their seat setting them up for an unexpected gag to finish. I don’t remember how I came up with the fart joke. I think I was thinking about the last astronaut hiding away in fear of the monster, and it just felt like a plausible reaction to just seeing all your fellow crew members violently eaten by a monster.
I think a lot of the success was helped by the high quality production, which I think made it an even bigger surprise to have such a silly ending to what seems like a very serious scene. I think it was the combination of the high production value and silliness of the story that made it funny, and of course my genius.
How much did Cinesite invest in the Beans project?
When I started making Beans I was totally prepared to make it alone at home with just the help of some Italian friends collaborating with me remotely. I drew the animatics, and wanted to show it to the head of animation at Cinesite Eamonn Butler for his feedback and nothing else, just to be able to draw from his experience. He watched it and he laughed and told me that I had to make it, and that it would go viral for sure. A couple weeks later he came to me and said “Why don’t you let us make this at Cinesite” and of course I said “absolutely”. From that experience I have started to encourage others – pitch your ideas to your studios, if you have a nice idea that you are passionate about you never know where it may lead. I have always been a shy person, especially when I left Italy for the first time and was so insecure about my English, but I do often think to myself “What if I hadn’t dared to show this to Eamonn?” I would probably still be working on this project today and it would never of turned out so well.
Me and Eamonn started working on Beans in May 2013 and in a couple of months had thrashed out the concept of the monster and other parts. I was very busy with the animation as I did pretty much all of it, it was only about one month before we wrapped that a few animators helped me out with the astronauts animation. I spent a lot of time with the camera animation because you have one shot that is forty seconds long and you have so much going on. It was tricky because I wanted to have a long lens to be able to move the camera around a lot like a Michael Bay movie with all the epic action, but at the same time I didn’t want to miss the finer details of the astronauts running away etc. At the same time Eamonn was looking after everything else like the modeling, lighting, compositing, rendering and so on. At the peak of the production we were maybe 18 people in total but just for a couple of months. I think we spent overall four or five months, whilst being busy with parallel projects like Edge of Tomorrow. But we didn’t cut any corners, we tried to make the short film with the same quality as a full feature.
“pitch your ideas to your studios, if you have a nice idea that you are passionate about you never know where it may lead.”
We were very happy and quite shocked with just how well it was received, the official YouTube has over 10 million views but we cannot account for the unofficial copies and shares on platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. I would imagine the actual number of views is way beyond double that figure.
What has the success of Beans meant to you personally and what does the future hold for Alvise?
I got a lot of attention naturally, and a lot of calls from people in Hollywood which was nice, but I realised that it’s still early days and I haven’t made it yet. I had always hoped that Beans would open up doors for me if it was successful, but now that it has, I have realised that if I want to go further it will require even more hard work. It’s obviously great to have this new exposure and as a result some great contacts, but to make something out of that requires more creativity and hard work to capitalise on it. But I plan to make some other fake commercials, either animated or live action, preferably live action just because of how time consuming animation can be.
Why make fake commercials instead of real commercials?
Well my original intention was to eventually make real commercials, I hoped these spec projects would get my foot in the door with all these advertising agencies. After Beans I did get a lot of interest from advertising agencies, but again it’s not easy, it takes time and luck to land the right projects, after all there are many good and talented people out there. Ultimately I did these projects first of all because I enjoy it. I love working in animation, I love my job, right now I’m working on the Hulk for ILM and I love it! But at the same time I love to work on my own ideas especially after almost 10 years in the industry. I’ve learn’t so much working in the industry that it’s natural that I want to use that to tell my own stories, but at the same time I want to carry on working as an animator working on exciting feature films. But it’s tough finding the energy to work on personal projects after 10 hours at your day job. Sometimes I feel sorry for my wife not getting to see me as much as she would like, but I try to spend as much time as possible working on ideas and projects.
“I’ve learn’t so much working in the industry that it’s natural that I want to use that to tell my own stories”
How do you get your gigs?
London is great because the big studios in VFX are pretty well connected, and so it’s easy to get to know the right contacts and get an idea of what studios are hiring and what projects are upcoming. When choosing my next gig I always put the show in front of the studio, pay or location, I choose what I think I will enjoy working on first and foremost. We all know as experienced VFX professionals that there will be times when it will become hard, so I want to work on features that I like from the start. I have worked on some that I haven’t been totally in love with, but I try to work on those that I think I will enjoy most. When a show is about to wrap, I’ll look around for opportunities not based on the studio but based on the features themselves. Because I know a lot of the supervisors at the various studios, I don’t always have to apply via the normal channels but I can chat with the guys directly if I’m interested on working on a show. It probably doesn’t work like that for most people, but for those that have a history at the studios it can be so.
“When choosing my next gig I always put the show in front of the studio, pay or location, I choose what I think I will enjoy working on first and foremost.”
You have to keep your enthusiasm for a project for months on end, so if you aren’t so keen on a movie then it’s going to be tough when you have to put in overtime working on the same shot over and over, but if you like the show you can always find the motivation. Working on Hulk has been fun, it feels a lot like working on my first show with King Kong, theres the same excitement of working on a creature and character that I love. It even happens that I sometimes accidentally call the Hulk, King Kong, probably because in my mind they have a lot of similarities.
With all your experience in animation, can you tell us your process, how do you start a shot and what’s the most important thing to you?
When I start to block out a shot, I first of all try not to look at references, unless it’s a known creature like an animal, otherwise if it’s a fantasy creature like a monster then I try not to look at a visual reference and instead imagine the performance unaided. I think references are great, but at the same time it can limit your imagination. My workflow is to open up Maya and mess around with the rig just using my imagination, not drawing any thumbnails or things like that. The important thing for me is to have a fast rig that allows me to playback the animation almost in real time without having to play blast, and play blast. If you have a real time rig to animate you then have more time to experiment and to try things that may or may not work, but if you have a character that is 10 or 8 frames per second, you have to play blast it quite often, which takes time. The most important thing for me is to be able to hit play and see the animation through the perspective view in real time, or close to it, like 20fps or close. It saves a lot of time in getting the timing right. I don’t have a very academic approach for animation, I just try to use my imagination. To me animation is all about expressing a freedom of imagination, and if you have a reference from the beginning – that limits your imagination. If you are working on a creature like a monster, you shouldn’t limit it to just the knowledge of how a human body can move, you need to throw away the preconceived ideas of what the creature can and can’t do.
“To me animation is all about expressing a freedom of imagination, and if you have a reference from the beginning – that limits your imagination.”
Nowadays the blocking that we make is very advanced, we still call it blocking but it really isn’t, it’s way beyond what we used to do seven or eight years ago.
I know you aren’t a fan of listening to music when animating either…
… No, I don’t like listening to music when animating because, number one I’m hard of hearing and I need to protect my ears from headphone music. But most importantly because there is a rhythm to the animation and it often is contrary to whatever music you are listening to. If you are just cleaning up and adding subtle details you can probably listen to music, but if you are blocking out a shot and you have a beat to a song in your head I think it’s hard to then do something that has a different rhythm, at least for me I find it so.
You have a really great tutorial series, can we expect any new additions to the series?
I love to make tutorials, because I can make them in 2D which I really enjoy. Working with 2D teaches you a lot that you don’t learn with 3D. It’s different and keeps my brain busy as I draw each frame.
I will make more tutorials, I have plenty of ideas I just need to find the time. I’ve been surprised by the reception to the tutorials, I didn’t even want to put my first one online, it was just an exercise to help me learn to make a 2D film. I think making tutorials is the best way to learn, rather than following someone else’s tutorials which I personally find boring. It was only after I made it that I decided to publish it online, and after the feedback I decided to make more, and then people started asking me to cover different topics and it went from there. But I can tell you that my next tutorial is probably going to be about acting, which I will try to draw rather than do live action depending on how much time I have. Z