Florian Witzel: 486 to ILM

THE AREA | Posted 4 December 2009 9:34:33 pm


  1. Autodesk Softimage


  1. Film, TV and VFX

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  1. Autodesk Softimage

Florian Witzel- Photo

Florian Witzel

Florian Witzel, born in Germany 1979, is a Director, Designer and VFX Artist currently based in San Francisco, CA. Before and while he studied Media Design at the GSO University in Germany and Film& TV at Bond University in Australia, Florian worked at various post production and broadcast design companies until he joined the highly creative team at Psyop NYC in 2004, where he worked as 3D Lead and Technical Director. As of 2009 he joined the VFX force at Industrial Light & Magic as Effects Technical Director. Florian's personal and commissioned films focus on narrative and visually artistic content for film and animation.

The area avatarThe Area:

Florian Witzel wears numerous hats throughout his day-to-day work -- metaphorically speaking, of course. The hats say "Director", "Designer" and "VFX Artist", but to truly grasp the scope of what that means, you have only but to sample a small part of his portfolio to know it’s not just talk. He has worked on an extensive number of spots, some of which he will share with us today. But first, let’s have a little intro… Florian, how long have you been working in the CG/VFX industry?

The area avatarFlorian:

It was around 2001 when I first started in a 3D animation studio in Munich.

The area avatarThe Area:

How did you first come across getting into computers, 3D and visual effects?

The area avatarFlorian:

Tricky to say what exactly led to it. I guess it was a combination of many things. I definitely have always highly admired the art of filmmaking and was very much into stories and movies. As a teenager, I was working on numerous animations and short films and was a proud owner of a simple Video8 camera and a 486 PC. With a bunch of good friends, I also had some kind of 1-day 1-idea 1-film club. We came up with an idea or story on the spot and produced the whole thing quick and dirty in one day or weekend. I learned a whole lot that way and we had the best time. I still would love to do these projects today, it's fun and fascinating to see what you can do with a motivated team in a short time. Some friends in my town were incredibly talented graphic designers and illustrators by whom I got highly inspired by and still am today. I always had a huge fascination for photography and loved video games. I was very excited about simulations and all the virtual reality stuff at the time. A love for natural science and in the end all those forms of art and passions came together in the Film and VFX/CG world.

The area avatarThe Area:

Do you remember the very first commercial work you did?

The area avatarFlorian:

My first jobs were for an animated TV series and later, broadcast design projects. It wasn't until Psyop that I worked on commercials. I guess the first one was for an LG cellphone.

The area avatarThe Area:

What was the first software package you used?

The area avatarFlorian:

I had that old 486 PC and installed every animation and painting application I could get. I got my hands on a copy of Autodesk 3D Studio 2.0 for MS-Dos together with Autodesk Animator Pro 1.0. Good times.

The area avatarThe Area:

What made you choose Soft as your primary 3D package?

The area avatarFlorian:

I've always highly admired the VFX work done with Softimage. It has a long history and a lot of legendary CG and VFX work has been created with it. It also was the most professional animation package available. I always wanted to get Soft but it was way too expensive at the time. It wasn't until my first job in Munich that I started to use and learn it.

The area avatarThe Area:

What other software packages are used in your production pipeline?

The area avatarFlorian:

From commercial to proprietary, I'm using many kinds of different applications. Every application has its strength and I had very good experiences with mixing platforms. Of course I feel conformable in Soft, but I work with whatever package the CG pipeline uses or the job needs. ILM uses Zeno, an entirely proprietary animation package. Psyop uses Softimage, Maya, and has some licenses of 3ds Max and Houdini.

The area avatarThe Area:

Now the spots within your portfolio are very intense, in the sense that they are all very short (approximately under 1 min) but they are jam-packed with so many layers of seamless and subtle VFX underneath. As 3D lead and TD at Psyop, can you tell us what were your responsibilities and also about all the aspects of the projects that you directly touched?

The area avatarFlorian:

Depending on the job, I worked on different tasks. As a 3D Lead I was responsible for the whole VFX/CG Supervision on a film. Communicating between the Producer, Director and CG Team. Coming up with ideas of how to do something, what type of team could do it and making sure that it gets done. In the role of a TD, it was either a sequence of shots, elements in shots, lighting and rendering, look development, FX rigging, RnD for FX, etc. Most of the time as a 3D Lead or TD, I have to think of a way of how to create a certain sequence a couple of weeks in advance, before production starts and then make it work. Then in addition of course, to make sure everything looks good and is done on time, communication and asset management between artists, and that everything can be done within the boundaries of time and manpower.

The area avatarThe Area:

Can you describe to us the process involved in creating spots?

The area avatarFlorian:

It's a pretty traditional step-by-step process. A lot of steps like concept, treatment, storyboard, previs, production, etc. are dependent on each other, but it's not really a linear process. It's more like a branch in which certain processes are being worked on and start in parallel depending on the type of project. In general, mostly after the project has been awarded, there already has been a pitch done before, so some people already have worked on it and would have a more-or-less good idea of what the final spot will involve. In cases where it is clear what has to be done, some RnD or even first stages of 3D production can start right away. But mostly the whole project first goes through design in which styleframes and references are being created. The storyboard artist gets briefed and later an animatic is put together from his/her drawings. Then of course previsualization where in the best case, the camera and layout gets approved and not changed anymore. Look development and RnD run at the same time as PreVis until the whole PreProduction phase comes to an end and production can start. Or in the case of a live-action shoot, CG and VFX are considered as post-production. Then, there are revisions revisions revisions and one more just before delivery.

The area avatarThe Area:

With the diverse range of projects from "Milk" to "Audi", what is the average turnaround time per spot?

The area avatarFlorian:

Usually around 5 to 15 weeks, which of course is always pretty tight. Milk was about 2 months of production and Audi around 3.

The area avatarThe Area:

What were the size of teams that worked on making the spots?

The area avatarFlorian:

Everybody involved in post-production only, including agency, was around 50 people for the Audi Synchronized and 40 for the Milk Sad Princess spot. Including everyone involved in production, surely more than 200 people for Audi. The actors, acrobats and extras alone were around 100 people.

The area avatarThe Area:

The water in both <a href="">"milk"</a> and <a href="">"absolute dissection"</a> look amazing. Can you tell us how you generated the waves and water effects?

The area avatarFlorian:

Of all the natural phenomena, water to me is especially fascinating. Visually, water holds countless appearances, which you first formally need to articulate before starting to work on it. Dependent on scale, volume, temperature, gravity and in context with its environment, there are countless visual stunning characteristics of water -- filling libraries of academic studies. I can recommend to simply observe as long and for as much as you can before you start to work on anything like that. It's essential to have good reference and an important part before you start working on FX like this. You might think to know how water looks, but there are countless subtle appearances that you mostly do not realize in the beginning. The human perception cancels out so many vital details which you first have to apprehend. You can then start thinking about how to technically implement your observations once you’ve identified those individual attributes of water.

For the ocean and water FX in Milk, we needed everything from small splashes up to large and stormy deep-water ocean surfaces that have a few interactions. It was mainly divided into shape, deformation, interaction, surfaceshading and lighting. Four TDs were working on individual effects. Andreas Gebhardt provided the Tessendorf deep water deformer in Soft, Jacob Slutsky created all the broken up water splashes, Jimmy Gaas worked on the crest particles and mist FX, and I rigged, shaded and rendered the ocean and water. The biggest restriction we had was time, so we had to rush through all those shots and FX.

The water FX on Absolute, very much differed from the ones in Milk. Small scale, zero gravity water splashes and surfaces. I used Michele Sandroni's great Metaballs Plugin on polygon meshes, which I simply pushed and deformed as needed to get the shapes. The resulted surface was then additionally being deformed by a perlin noise deformer, which was also provided by Michele's tools. In the shader, I added another 3 layers of different noise frequencies used as bumpmaps, blended together with fractal noise in order to get a variety of both irregular and calm areas.

The area avatarThe Area:

How many render layers were output for the spot?

The area avatarFlorian:

There were around 15 to 20 passes which made it into the individual shots. I mostly set up many more passes in order give the compositors as much freedom as possible. Camera and Geometry information, as well as object information passes and all kinds of various mattes. Sometimes I only have a rough idea of how to integrate those additional ones in the comp, but while working on the look more information provided on layers becomes very useful.

The area avatarThe Area:

The Martell spot is pretty interesting, with the smooth camera scene transitions throughout. Can you share with us how you generated those fractal patterns with the bottles?

The area avatarFlorian:

Yes, Martell was an interesting experience on many different levels. It was a great challenge. We had to generate 3-dimensional fractal patterns, navigating the camera into insanely huge or small scenes and needed a smooth transition into the live action footage. We were investigating solutions to automatically distribute instanced objects along fractal patterns.

The idea was to generate a fractal in 3D space on which all the instances then could be placed automatically. After a while we had a couple of different approaches but none of which we could really utilize. Fractals like the Mandelbrot are two-dimensional images and at the time there was no way to make them in 3D. Just recently 3D approaches of fractals like the "Mandelbulb" came up. We eventually placed a fractal image into the scene and then zoomed into the fractal by scaling the whole scene around the center where we wanted to fly in. Andreas Gebhardt wrote a custom FX Tree node for us which simply generated fractals like the "Mandelbrot". Once we had an interesting looking pattern everybody liked, we placed all the bottles along the fractal by hand. Because of the self-similar nature of a fractal, the work had to be only done for one level or branch. It could then be translated into the new level. Rendering and lighting was a straight forward process. For the transition from the live action footage in and out of the fractal, we had a 3D camera solve of the footage and then back-projected the footage onto a rebuilt CG environment from that camera. At the time of transition the render camera slowly departs from the tracked or back-projected camera into the fractal. It involved some painting here and there, but was a nice and fun VFX process.

The area avatarThe Area:

A completely different aesthetic, the <a href="">Smith & Nephew</a> spot is a beautiful and engaging piece of work; were there any live action parts to that or is it pure CG?

The area avatarFlorian:

I get that question quite often. It was a truly awesome project to work on, with a bunch of insanely talented artists. What you see is a balance of CG elements, live action footage and painted textures.

The area avatarThe Area:

How did you achieve all those cool particle effects...the ink splashes, the painterly brush effects. Can you also talk about the shader(s)? And also not to mention all the camera transitions, the whole thing just flows without any interruption.

The area avatarFlorian:

The compositors shot a lot of different elements like ink in water, brushes of paint on paper and ink splashes on paper, etc.

The CG Team worked on many 3D ink elements and had fluid simulations running 24/7. And Design painted many great styleframes and textures. Oh yeah, and then there was a Motion Capture shoot. We tried to nicely blend everything together as much as possible in comp. We exported all the 3D info for comp so that they can attach their elements to the characters and environment. The compositors were very dedicated and built most of the environment out of live action footage placed into 3D space of the compositing system.

The area avatarThe Area:

You have worked on so many different and alternating themes and visual style – for example, the most recent <a href="">Fanta Mime</a> and Audi A4 spots. One is a cute cartoony piece for softdrinks and the other is a sleek and racy bit on a sport car. Both must have presented different challenges, can you share with us the ones you came across?

The area avatarFlorian:

Every project has its unique challenges of course. The Fanta spot went really smooth though. A pretty straight forward character animation job, no complicated FX we hadn't done before.

We animated and modeled the characters in Maya and had a pipeline working in which the final animated geometry of each day gets baked and exported into Softimage for lighting and rendering, plus all the additional FX. Instead of rendering the scene as usual with different material and light attributes like diffuse, ambient, color, reflection, shadow, ambient occlusion, etc., I tried to render everything in multiple different lighting scenarios. So I rendered out the different light sources in the scene and ended up with passes like sunset, pool light, interior lights, exterior light, etc. This is how you would also shoot a live action scene with motion control and it worked great. It was working for this spot because the geometry and the materials in the scene were so simple. It was a little more expensive on the renderfarm, but I would like to continue to explore a more complicated spot with this approach.

The area avatarThe Area:

Going back a few months, we saw the release of <a href="">“Vestige”</a>, a piece created for Siggraph New Orleans. I noticed that this was outside of the Psyop/Mass Market portfolio. Was this a non-commercial collaborative effort? Can you tell us more about how this came to fruition?

The area avatarFlorian:

Vestige was a film I did outside of Psyop, but with kind support of their renderfarm :) It was a project I had initially collaborated together with Anh Vu and Kim Dulaney, for a piece at "Pass it On". In the beginning of 2009 Carlye Archibeque, the Executive Producer of the Computer Animation Festival at Siggraph asked me if I wanted to contribute to the CAF with a film for the opening sequence. I'm a huge fan of Siggraph and had also worked together with Carlye before, on Siggraph 2007, with Paul Debevec as Chair of the event. It was great working for Siggraph in ‘07 and I was happy to be able to contribute to it again. We did not have a lot of time so I extended Vestige with a couple of scenes and made it into the Siggraph 2009 opening sequence. Carley gave us complete creative freedom and did not interfere at all. There was no theme or any restriction in the duration of making this. We showed them work-in-progress versions a couple of times, just to let them know what we are working on and they luckily always liked what they saw very much.

The area avatarThe Area:

In the same year, you’ve also relocated and taken on the next challenge. Some would say it is the Mecca for any CG/VFX artist, to work for Industrial Light & Magic. Automatically thoughts of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Terminator, Abyss, Jurassic Park and sooo many others spring to mind. What is your new role at ILM and can you say anything about the project(s) that you are working on that has not been NDA-d ;-)?

The area avatarFlorian:

In terms of VFX ILM for me has always been the tip of the iceberg and now working there really is an outstanding experience. Simply the fact that it contributed to centuries of film history is extremely inspiring. Walking through the building is like walking through a museum. Also I hugely admire <a href="">Joseph Campbell</a>'s writings about Mythology and Anthropology -- his ideas upon which many great movies had been influenced by, were worked on at ILM. This adds to my fascination for ILM a lot. Right now I'm working at ILM as an Effects Technical Director. I guess I can't say much more than that there are a couple of great movies with incredible VFX work done by ILM coming up and you'll definitely have to go see them.

The area avatarThe Area:

What about personal collaborative projects…is there something in the works?

The area avatarFlorian:

I'm writing all the time and my sketchbooks are filled with notes and ideas. I have a couple of favorite ones which I hopefully will have some time to work on soon. Right now I'm concentrating on my work, but I'm always interested to collaborate with people around the world on projects. I am especially interested in writing scripts for short films. So please feel free to get in touch with me!

The area avatarThe Area:

One last question – what would be your dream update for Soft?

The area avatarFlorian:

Personally my dream update for Soft would be a fast and solid built-in fluid solver. For the use of Soft in big studios, I could see an advantage if there was more accessibility to core elements of the application in order to better integrate it into custom pipelines.

The area avatarThe Area:

Thanks for the nice chat, Florian and sharing your Softimage love :-) Say hi to George Lucus for us!

The area avatarFlorian:

I will ;) Many thanks for having me here!

Additional Link

Rigging and Lighting Growing Grapes Veins and Bottles



Posted on: 7 December 2009 1:37 pm

Wow, thanks for such an extensive article/interview. The videos in addition with rendering passes are great! Awesome work by Florian. Very valuable info throughout the article. Thanks a lot!!

Tibor (cr3n)


Posted on: 7 December 2009 2:15 pm

very inspiring, great work and awesome interview!
looking forward to seeing more of your creative input

Steven Caron

Posted on: 9 December 2009 12:40 am

great article, thanks for sharing your 'Softimage love'...


Posted on: 9 December 2009 10:41 pm

Really good work. Congratulations.


Posted on: 10 December 2009 2:58 pm

very cool! Great work Florian!


Posted on: 11 December 2009 9:38 am

awesome works! congrats, florian! good luck for your working at ILM!


Posted on: 11 December 2009 10:53 am

u r the master!... thnx for u r wonderful speech. grt article.. grt works sir!!!!!

Adib Souly

Posted on: 11 December 2009 1:44 pm

I mostly like the Rigging wave part! it's wonderful!
thank you for sharing your fantastic works!

eternal art

Posted on: 11 December 2009 11:47 pm

Fascinating work florian .. Happy ILMing .


Posted on: 27 June 2010 12:51 pm

Fantastic! Great visualization Style.


Posted on: 12 October 2010 8:10 am

:O ( fantastic!!! )


Posted on: 15 October 2010 8:58 am

You do things that I could not even begin to imagine were possible. Both technically and artistically . bravo


Posted on: 19 December 2010 11:34 am

unglaublich... unbelievable!

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