The VFX Factor: Mateusz Tokarz
Mateusz Tokarz is former head of the VFX department at Alvernia Studios. He graduated from AGH University of Science and Technology with a master's degree in implementation and analysis of tracking methods in his thesis 'Video-based camera tracking'. Initially, he worked in computer games production at Teyon. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow where he practiced animation, digital arts, and performance. Currently, senior VFX supervisor at Platige Image. Mateusz has conducted and supervised international movie and advertising projects with stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Ray Liotta, Richard Gere, Sigourney Weaver, and Joanna Kulig. Currently, at Platige Image he is working on special effects for the second season of 'The Witcher' series.
LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?
Mateusz> Big effects don't necessarily have to be realistic, but invisible ones, on the other hand, always do. But in both cases, the end result has to be believable. Thanks to Hollywood productions, the viewer's concept of credibility has been greatly expanded. No one is surprised anymore by characters throwing around balls of energy, or superheroes with mechanically enhanced bodies. This is partly because the technical quality of these effects is increasing, but also partly because we've now seen them hundreds of times in different movies. Our brains have got used to special effects, which increases our tolerance towards them. In both cases, the biggest challenge is achieving credibility in a large number of shots while keeping the post-production time short. Computers are speeding up, programs are getting better tools and people are better trained, but also the number of films using post-production is increasing every year.
LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?
Mateusz> First and foremost, a director should remember that we are there to execute their vision, but just as with the physical production, we are limited by time and budget. Therefore, it is extremely important to start planning the effects as early as possible in the production process. Nowadays, it is becoming standard practice to have a VFX supervisor, or a VFX studio, working on the production from the first drafts of the script. Our work involves not only the technical implementation of the task, but also creative advice on how to achieve the director’s intended goal using the appropriate means. For example, there is a huge difference in the time and cost of post-production between shots from a static and a moving camera. From a cost point of view, it doesn’t pay to build a 3D world just for one shot, but if it’s crucial to the story, it’s worth considering, for example, whether to use an asset multiple times. On the other hand, if the camera movement is not important, it’s worth considering a 2D or 2.5D approach and using matte paint, which can be equally or even more effective than 3D. There are many more examples like this.
LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Mateusz> I was passionate about computers and creating from an early age. Back then, it didn't really matter what I was creating – I was just interested in building things and seeing how they worked from a mechanical point of view, and also how people reacted to them. Pretty soon, playing games was replaced by more creative activities – first programming, then music (long before Fruity Loops came on the market), and finally 3D graphics. In my first year of college, this passion changed into work, and, in turn, I had the opportunity to hone my programming skills at university. When I started to feel that I was missing the basics related to classical art, I took another course at the Academy of Fine Arts to broaden my skills. All that time, I was also working in parallel in the industry and so my passion became my profession. I have always been somewhere between art and technology. Thanks to the creative environment at Platige Image, I can constantly develop and improve my skills. There are still people here who built this company and have years of experience in the industry, as well as the so-called young talents. I try to learn as much as possible from each of them, whenever I see that they have something valuable to share. Sometimes it's artistic sensitivity, and sometimes technical skills, soft skills, or their work ethic.
LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?
Mateusz> First of all, we work on many different kinds of projects, from VFX to full CG. Also, in some projects, we are responsible for the creative process from the very beginning, while in others we only execute it. However, while the start of the project may differ, the rest of the method, with minor exceptions, is very similar. Our department, which deals with full CG and VFX projects, is divided into specialised teams. If we are working with camera material, the first step is usually 3D tracking. Then we start working on the scene layout. With full CG projects, we start by creating the layout, within which the camera work is defined. The next steps in both cases are very similar and the only difference is that when we’re working with camera material, all CG elements must be adjusted to the existing lighting conditions, while in full CG projects everything can be created at will.
LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?
Mateusz> A project is finished when all the artistic and production objectives have been met within the given budget. Of course, we always give 110% of the quality and we do our best to win as many awards and as much recognition in the industry as possible – the final viewer doesn't look at what the production budget was but, from a supervisor's point of view, it's impossible not to mention it.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?
Mateusz> Our pipeline is based on Maya, Houdini, and Nuke. As I mentioned earlier, I always wanted to understand how things work. As my career progressed, I tried to learn as much as I could about the latest technology and develop both 3D and compositing. Ultimately, though, it's not the specific software but how things are connected and how relationships work that is the most important and interesting thing to me at this point. Each project is different, and each one involves working on slightly different tasks and in slightly different teams – aspects such as how the work will be prepared, how the responsibilities will be delegated, and what tools we will have to prepare before we start production all have a huge impact on the comfort of our work and the final result. Of course, nothing happens by itself, but when the shots are ready before the deadline and no one is staying up all night, then I feel that everything is working well.
LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.
Mateusz> Fortunately, apart from a brief period at the beginning of the pandemic, I have been able to work in the office. This was much more convenient than working from home, alongside my son’s online classes. Also, I simply didn't have the physical space to fit two monitors and a preview on my desk. The first few weeks were a challenge – we had to reorganise the way we worked, move all meetings and reviews online, and fine-tune our communication. After a few weeks, everything started to work great, and I think that many artists will continue to choose remote working. For me, the opportunity to approach the team and discuss the most pressing issues is something I sorely miss. Sometimes a casual glance at someone's monitor can be very useful and avoid unnecessarily wasting time. On the other hand, after moving to a new apartment where I have a spare room for an office, I can also work from home more and more now. It is slowly becoming increasingly difficult for me to say whether one form of work suits me better – I think that the hybrid approach may be the best recipe for the future.
LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during Covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?
Mateusz> I have learned to work with the team remotely. It's a little bit more challenging than working with people physically in the same building, but with good work hygiene rules and clear communication, it's very possible and gives lots of new opportunities. It does, however, require a great deal of discipline – both on the team's side, my side, and the production side. The good thing is that thanks to working in Covid conditions, we now know that it’s possible. For certain teams and tasks, we will definitely keep this way of working for a longer period of time.
LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?
Mateusz> My professional career began in my first year of college when I joined a small game development company in Krakow as a second graphic designer. If I remember correctly, there were fewer than 10 of us, including the six founders. At that time, we didn't know how to make big productions. Everyone took care of their own little area – location, character, props. We were testing everything together quite late, and our first games were not particularly amazing. Fortunately, the team was very ambitious, and the company grew very fast. I think the most important lesson from that time was that a project needs to have the whole team working together – looking at the project from the top down and not just at how well the individual components are working out. Graphics don't work if they don't serve the story, and even the best asset doesn't look good if the location isn't interesting. The big picture is the most important thing, and only at the end do the details count. This lesson has come back to me many times while working on films. Now I carry out projects in such a way that I can see the whole as soon as possible – to have the full context with all the elements, even those not necessarily refined. This allows you to gain perspective and determine the potentially most problematic shots. These, in turn, usually require much more time, so they get priority.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry - the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Mateusz I am proud of every project I do. I always put a lot of heart and time into them. There have been many important projects and some that I remember fondly for various reasons. Three of them were especially important: two Polish feature films - ‘Hiszpanka’ directed by Łukasz Barczyk and 'Disco Polo' directed by Maciek Bochniak – and of course Netflix's 'The Witcher'. I liked ‘Hiszpanka’ because it was the first big production that I worked on as a studio supervisor and head of VFX. Additionally, we were one of several vendors that were actually competing with Platige Image at that time. I remember 'Disco Polo' because it was a lot of responsibility, but also an amazing adventure. That was the first time that I was responsible for the whole project, from pre-production, pricing and planning the shooting through to post-production. We made over 350 shots in three months with a really small team and a very limited budget. It cost me a lot in terms of overtime, and it also led to my decision to change studios, as I promised myself that I would never work in such difficult conditions again, but the atmosphere on the set and in the studio when we struggled together to achieve the final goal cannot be overstated. After that film, I decided to join Platige Image, and I could list every project here as a creative milestone. I’ve made cinematics for top video game producers, and also commercials with stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, but I have particular affection for the first season of 'The Witcher'. Mainly because of the subject matter of the project, which the studio and many other people have been connected with for a number of years (we had previously worked on various cinematics for games by CD Projekt), but also because of the incredibly professional approach from the Netflix production team.
LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why?
Mateusz> There's one commercial that particularly impressed me. Not because of the visual artistry, but because of the concept. I'm talking about the 2016 Audi R8 Astronaut commercial. Comparing the driver of a car to an astronaut flying a space rocket was an extremely bold idea, but also a very clear one at the same time. An occupation and an experience that everyone would like to have, with practically no negativity, and then comparing that to the experience of driving a new sports car. Brilliant!
From a visual and ethical point of view, the Galaxy chocolate commercial with Audrey Hepburn was very interesting to me. Mainly because it saw a deceased celebrity brought to life, which was both amazing because it opened a new path in the advertising market, but, at the same time also ethically questionable.