VFX Supervisor Alessandro Ongaro led DNEG's massive visual effects efforts in the tiny-superhero Marvel blockbuster, Ant-Man and the Wasp. He tells us about his journey to DNEG, the challenges in this film, and the gargantuan importance of teamwork in any visual effects team.
Hi, I’m Alessandro Ongaro
I’ve been working in the visual effects and animation industry for almost 20 years. I’m originally from Italy, but I left for the United States to pursue more significant projects in my field, first for ESC Entertainment, followed by 11 years at Dreamworks Animation, and finally, for the past three years, at DNEG.
I loved working at Dreamworks, on films like Madagascar and Shrek but was never my passion. I always enjoyed working on live-action feature films, and DNEG was on my radar because I knew they could offer me the opportunity to work on the best. That’s also how I first got involved with Ant-Man and the Wasp: DNEG had worked on the original, so when Marvel greenlit a sequel, they gave us a chance to compete for the right to do the VFX work. The producers came to our Vancouver studios, and we showed them some of our reels and discussed what DNEG could offer on the project. Soon after, we learned that we’d been awarded the project. This was a big deal for our Vancouver studios as it was the first Marvel Studios project we'd led from Vancouver.
Early on, we basically only knew three things about the project:
1) That it would involve a lot of scale manipulation, shrinking and enlarging characters and objects.
2) That the shoot was in Atlanta but the story was set in San Francisco, so we’d have to change buildings and landmarks.
3) That our main sequence was going to be an epic car chase scene.
Eventually, we were also tasked with coming up with the look for Ghost, the film’s villain, played by Hannah John-Kamen. I was very passionate about perfecting her shots, particularly her “phasing” ability, which allows her to walk through walls or disappear and reappear at will. It looks fantastic on screen.
The technical and creative challenges
Every show comes with its own challenges. Sometimes, those challenges are primarily technical: how do we pull this off? Other times, they’re creative, and the question becomes how you design something. Very often, with superhero movies, the challenges are a combination of creative and technical. The director has his or her own vision of what they want to see on the screen, and you’re constantly altering your approach.
“Very often, with superhero movies, the challenges are a combination of creative and technical.”
Ghost’s phasing ability was an excellent example of this. Of course, there were technical problems that we had to meet, but the primary challenge was the artistic one: how will she look when she phases? We had feedback from the client, but with something so abstract, it’s difficult. If you’re dealing with, say, an enormous wave hitting a city, sure, it’s complex, but there are also so many references you can draw on. You can find documents, real-life situations. You can take inspiration from that and match your work to real footage. But when it comes to designing something magical, or something that defies the laws of physics, you have to approach your work differently.
That said, my background in animation has been a real asset since there’s almost always a magical element to what you’re doing in animation. Compared to VFX work, animation is much less directed, much more imaginative. Companies like Dreamworks, Pixar, and Disney, aren’t looking for photorealistic animation; they want something magical, or stylized, and there aren’t many references for that kind of stuff. So you adapt, you learn to take a different approach.
The essential tools
We relied heavily on Maya, in particular for the character models, the buildings, the animations. I’ve been using Maya since the very first beta, so of course, I’m very attached to it. I’ve developed custom tools over the years, and there have been lots of new software options to come along, too, but everything still starts in Maya. Maya is an essential software. You need to know how to use it.
“Maya is an essential software. You need to know how to use it.”
Shotgun is the production management tool we use at DNEG, and it’s vital to what we do. To throw some numbers at you: over the ten months that we worked on this project, we had a total of 600 people working on various aspects of it, across three work locations – in Vancouver, London, and Mumbai. Altogether, we worked on about 500 shots, so considering the scale of the project, Shotgun was vitally necessary to manage and coordinate all of that.
“The feeling of camaraderie you develop with the people you spend long hours with on a collective project like this is an underrated aspect of VFX work.”
The importance of teamwork
My best memories of working on this project all have to do with my team and my support network at DNEG. The feeling of camaraderie you develop with the people you spend long hours with on a collective project like this is an underrated aspect of VFX work. Our team gave 110%; everyone pushed themselves to the limit, and by the end of it, you are part of a family.
The rewards of teamwork are why my advice to those getting their start in the VFX industry has more to do with their attitude than anything else. Nowadays, if you’re not a team player, you won’t get anywhere. You have to listen to the people around you, who have more experience than you, and you have to check your ego constantly. You may be given advice that, in your head, doesn’t make sense, but if it’s coming from a good, experienced supervisor, it’s almost certainly what you need to hear. And learning to take that advice will help you grow and help you move forward in your career.
Looking back on Ant-Man and the Wasp, I’m very proud of what we accomplished. The work turned out really well, and we received very positive feedback. As visual effects artists if the visual effects worked and you get great feedback from the director and the studio, then we’re happy. We achieved our goal.
"Maya is an essential software. You need to know how to use it."
— VFX Supervisor, Alessandro Ongaro
Who made up Alessandro's VFX team on Ant-Man and the Wasp and what exactly did they do? Hear from the 3D artists who pushed themselves in big ways for Marvel's minute superhero:
Modeling Lead, Daniel Axelsson
Creature Supervisor, Remi Cauzid
Matchmove Supervisor, Kathir Manickam
Environment Lead, Matt Ivanov
Layout Lead, Rick Curts
Lead Animator, Evan Clover
Animator, Francois-Xavier Nhieu
Creature Lead, Dameon Oboyle