IQads interview: “Until March 2016, Static VFX was only Liviu, Alin and the servers”

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Interviews

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StaticVFX

On the 7th of September 2016, the Romanian site IQads published an interview with the two owners of Static VFX Studio, Liviu Dinu and Alin Dumitru. In the following, you can find out more about what we did until now, what we are currently doing and which is our plan to bring VFX industry to another level in Romania.

The studio started in 2015, after Alin came back in Romania from England and Liviu gradually made the transition from the gaming industry toward the movie production and TV commercial workflow. Their experience from back then in key-words: Ubisoft, FrameBreed and Double Negative, the British studio with some VFX Oscars in portfolio. But whatever Static VFX wasn’t, it wasn’t meant to be yet; the two guys wanted to follow in Romania the pipeline (or the VFX workflow) seen abroad. You have to read with attention what they can do and to enjoy the visual landmarks list that they have left at the end of this interview.

The first animation memories for an animator

First of all, we are not both animators, but if we consider what each of us is doing more often, then Liviu is the animator, while Alin is taking care of the compositing. The animation and in a particular way the visual effects part, had come to us on different paths.

Liviu: My first memory about VFX is from when I was a little child and I was at the cinema to watch Jurassic Park – that moment had a great impact on me – it made me want to search, to ask, to find out more. After, at the Politehnica University  – Faculty of Automatics and Computers, I realized that I can do this on another level. This is why I started to learn and to redirect my resources into this area. For my licence degree, I tried to build a motion capture suit with inertial sensors, but due to the lack of funds, I only managed to build one sensor, which worked.
Alin: My first memories started after seeing games cinematics. I was keen on photography and film and I was getting involved in every cultural project. Suddenly, I was hit by Lord of the Rings, in 2001 and I was absolutely fascinated by the high potential of expression. It wasn’t a particular moment in which we said “that’s it, we can do this on another level”, but it was more like a progress in time,  always wanting to find the secrets behind every big production and all the tips&tricks used in the industry. This is how we have set up the target for Static VFX and together we want to make it happen: visual effects and animation at international standards.

One came from gaming industry, from Ubisoft

Liviu: The atmosphere in Ubisoft was similar with the one at the Politehnica University. It wasn’t looking at all like a corporation and I think this is why I loved my two years spent there. I left the gaming industry because I was attracted more by the entire workflow used for a movie or commercial that needed visual effects, having in mind that the level of realism proven by the VFX industry is superior to the one in gaming. Although, the gaming is catching up. More than this, I realized that all my “engineer” thinking from the university was going to help me out in this industry, to find technical solutions to the daily problems that appears in a domain like this.

The other one from England via Double Negative

Alin: I left FrameBreed after almost five years of nice and interesting projects (worth mentioning SpongeBob – nominated for VES Awards, and the Christian Tour campaign), but I always wanted to work more on the visual effects area. I went to Double Negative in London (the studio that won Oscars for ExMachina, Interstellar and Inception) and I have worked there on four projects: Ant-Man, Bad Education and the TV series The Tunnel and London Spy. Meanwhile, I was in touch with Liviu all this time – before I went to London, we had a collaboration as freelancers with a visual effects studio in Vienna. Step by step, the circumstances of having our own studio in Romania were created. From that moment, I decided to get back from England to start this project. All the passion for start-ups, film, arts, all the hours spent researching or working on various projects, all the meetings we had with passionate people with great ideas took us to this point.

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The beginning of Static VFX

Of course, all this started with the two of us, in 2015. We were very motivated to create a studio that will follow, as much as possible, the pipeline and the workflow we saw abroad. These are two of the key-words for a studio that wants to have a word to say in the industry. Motivated by this tought and by the fact that, in Romania, what we are doing is just at the beginning, we have set an objective to ourselves for the following years: to have many successful collaborations in Romania and with the big production houses abroad, at the standard we see that the foreign studios have. Like in every business, the beginning is tough, especially because in this field the hardware and the licenses cost more than the Romanian market can sustain. This is not a mean thing we are saying, but a fact. And let’s not mention the delayed payments… Nevertheless, you need patience, perseverance and never forget why you are doing this.

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The first months. The Services. The team

Until March 2016, there were only the two of us and the servers. In time, we have managed to win more projects and so we’ve afforded to extend the team. We are trying to cover every department, as much as possible. This is how Alina Simion joined our team. We know her for years, from the National University of Arts, Theater and Cinematography and we knew that she is doing a great job in matter of compositing. Soon after, Alex Manea followed her. He is mad about everything that means liquid simulations, fire, smoke and cars. This formula resisted, but not for too long. Bogdan Dumitru joined the team as a junior animator. Then, Paul Bold came to help us as well. He is a guy that studied in Spain and that have worked before at Carioca and INDG. Toni Robitu is in charge with social media and he always comes to us with more nice ideas than we have time for in this moment. Most probably, the team will continue to expand in the near future and this is why we are thinking to move in a bigger office.

The first project’s story

For us, the first project was the one for the Bran Castle, a pretty difficult one. Aside from creating some ghosts/vampires that needed to be something in between “Dementors” and “Nazguls”, we had to change an actor’s face completely with his CG version, in which he had a vampire look.

Which was the most complex project?

We would mention “Aida”, a project that is was not for the Romanian market and for which we have created a synchronized projection on four 4K projectors on a cruise ship. The final result was 60 minutes of unique content. It was complex in terms of time management, assets and delivery.

Films vs commercial projects. And the right proportion for you

In proportion of 70% we have film projects, shorts or  full featured films, and the rest are commercial projects. It depends of the period of time, of course. The right proportion? A balance between movies and commercials would be perfect, so we are going on a 50-50 split.

With agencies, clients or production companies?

Until now, we didn’t managed to promote ourselves on the market as we intended to. We are convinced there are many agencies that haven’t heard of us yet (we have only worked until this moment  with The Syndicate and Eikon7 and everything was excellent), but production companies as well. We know that things need time to be built. It’s not just about changing services, but it’s also about a relationship based on trust between the client (agency or production company) and the studio. We believe very much in the collaboration between the studios from Romania. We all know each other and we worked together  in a way or another. Let’s be serious, if we gather all the studios here, we will barely be able to compete with a small studio from Germany or England, without taking in consideration the big and very appreciated studios in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary or Bulgaria. If, by miracle, in this moment we will be in front of hosting a big project (Avengers 15, Star Trek 20, etc), no one could take it all the way, in the actual conditions. Nonetheless, small projects such as B/C movies, can be made in Romania without any problem. Currently, we are working together with Safe-Frame on various projects, including the World War Cup – the short film financed by the National Centre of Cinematography. Other successful collaborations with passionate people we had and we still have are  deFilm, WeAreBasca or DigitalCube.

Clients from Romania or international clients

We would say that roughly 60% of our projects come from Romania, the rest are from outside the country. From our international collaborations, we would mention a short movie which is directed by a director from New York and most likely it will be in the next Sundance festival. Some other projects we worked on are a Romanian-German documentary about the life of the Roman emperor Nero and a Science-Fiction movie starring William Shatner and Bruce Payne. For each of these projects we did a part of the visual effects, depending on the needs of the producers.

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Clients from abroad vs Romanian clients

From our experience, the foreign clients have a different approach – they seem to be more organized, they have better defined tasks in their minds and they understand that for a production which needs to be “like Pixar” or “like Game of Thrones”, the budget should be accordingly. This mentality may have in its background the fact that they have been used to similar productions and workflows for a longer time . Designing a character or creating a CG location requires much more than “we’ll make it 3D in post-production”. In the same time, they make the budget more efficient and they manage to give the movie/ commercial a visual plus by involving a VFX supervisor from the beginning of the pre-production. In Romania, with this domain still at its beginnings, there is no such practice, which involves also taking time for R&D, in order to find the best solution for the director or the art director. Many beautiful projects can be done, impressive projects. We think things are changing slowly, but changing. After all, every one of us has to learn.

Promo & Reputation

In this industry, the reputation is based on a few factors: constant delivery at a good level, finding technical and artistical solutions that will fit the director’s/ art director’s vision, catching up with technology and personal work that can tell more about the VFX artist’s vision. As in every domain, you have to fight to make a name, to make people know you and to manage to do a very good job. Our projects came to us through friends, acquaintances, old clients and recommendations. Before the start, we are doing tests, we discuss the best options and only after these steps we are starting the work. We always believe in face-to-face discussions with the clients and in transparency. We are not neglecting the social networks, but statisticly speaking, our reputation is still based more on recommendations and we like the fact that we can build a long lasting relationship with a client this way. It’s becoming more and more easily to collaborate with them and to start new challenges together.

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How about the future?

On this chapter we have many thoughts, but we try to focus on the most important ones. Our target would be that in 3 or 5 years to expand the team to a number of 25-30 people, in order to be able to work on medium and big productions coming from outside the country(we are talking here about the quality standard – Romania can create extraordinarily productions) The visual effects content has raised considerably and, although we are not fans of the visual effects in a movie just for the sake of the  visual effects, we think this speaks a lot about the artistical potential – you’re unlimited. There are also plenty of movies with lots of invisible effects, like The Wolf on Wall Street.

We are already using and building the pipeline for VR. This came after we attended the FMX 2016 Conference in Stuttgart, where we tested and went to presentations and workshops about  new technologies. It’s important to see what problems other studios have, what solutions they find and what is their approach in this business.


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Last but not least, a sort of recommendations

Here you need to have patience :D. There are some foreign studios we have as references for visual inspiration and as a business model. These studios are Important Looking Pirates from Sweden, with works like the one from the TV series Constantine, Childhood’s End and Black Sails. The Polish from Platige Image have made it to build an unique visual style and here I would remind their commercial for the Winter Olympics in 2014 or the cinematic for the game “For Honor”. We also like Iloura (Mad Max, Game of Thrones), Rise FX, etc. We only gave examples of small studios (50-150 people), because it’s almost impossible not to like what the top studios are doing already. Just that they are far, far ahead in this moment. We liked very much the work for Sherlock Holmes (the series), Deadpool, Sicario, Her, District 9, Interstellar, Ex-Machina, Crimson Peak and the list can go on. From our point of view, the visual effects must bring value to the story, not to be just a marketing tool that brings 1000 explosions and nobody understands what is happening. If we are talking about advertising, everything made by The Mill is really impressive. We would’ve loved to work on commercials like Audi – Birth – full CG and full emotion, or for the Chemical Brothers video for the song Wide Open (extremely complicated, with many people involved).

For next year, we hope to launch our first in-house short movie, but this will depend also on how the things will evolve, if we will have the time and the budget for it.