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“Over the course of 10 years, Manuel has contributed to over 20 feature films while
working at prestigious studios such as Sony Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues, ILM, and
Weta. Manuel is always trying to push the boundaries of procedural FX and enjoys
building complex setups, programming pipeline tools and tackling challenging shots. He
loves sharing knowledge and is constantly trying to improve his techniques.” Most
recently he is the co-founder of Stormborn Studios. “Stormborn is a Vancouver-based
studio that specializes in complex, state of the art FX. Focusing solely on providing
high-quality effects and consultation services, the Stormborn team prides itself on its
creativity and efficiency. Operating as an external effects house allows the team to
maintain a streamlined pipeline.”


Thanks for sitting down with us, Manuel. Starting out, tell us a bit about
yourself. How long have you been in the industry, where did you get your start?

Hi, Thanks for having me.

I’ve been in the industry overall 11 years. I started out in 2007 after completing a diploma
in digital film and animation at a private institute called SAE. I always had a passion for
arts, especially drawing and painting, I was even a graffiti artist back in the day.
During my studies I got exposed to 3D softwares like 3ds Max and Maya, as well as to
editing softwares (Final Cut Pro) and a few compositing packages like After Effects and
Shake. Once I received my diploma, I was lucky enough to immediately start working as
a freelance 3D generalist in Munich, Germany due to the portfolio I built during my time
as a student.

I worked mainly in motion graphics using 3DS Max and After Effects, but also gathered
valuable experiences in editing trailers and music videos and doing some compositing.
While working for reputable companies like Aix Sponza, Sky Television and Pixomondo
I got very interested in procedural applications and particle systems.

My first exposure to particles I got after reading the book “Deconstructing the Elements
with 3ds Max” by Pete Draper. I started experimenting with PFlow and soon learned that
the most robust particle and RBD system in 3DS Max was Thinking Particles.
After learning that such systems find heavy application in the realm of feature film, I
decided to attend Europe’s biggest VFX conference called FMX which takes place in
Stuttgart once a year. There I met with recruiters from big VFX studios such as
ILM, Scanline and MPC. I realized to get into VFX and feature film, I would have to put
together a really specialized portfolio in order to have a chance to land a job
Motivated by new opportunities I took the advise from my good friend and colleague
Felix Schaller to start learning this strange but powerful node-based software called
Houdini, at the same time I dug deep into Thinking Particles where I got fascinated by
Rigid Body Dynamics. Another 3DS Max plug-in that was paramount for me to pick up
was FumeFX for volumetric fire & smoke simulations.

In 2009, I met Stormborn Studios co-founder and my dear friend Goran Pavles who was
working at Uncharted VFX in LA producing crazy destruction effects for the Roland
Emmerich film “2012”. I met Goran online following one of his TP tutorials.
Being the coolest guy, Goran took me under his wings and became my mentor.
He taught me an abundance of complex RBD and particle tricks and I owe it to him
being able to build a feature film demo reel in less than a year.

In 2010 I then applied to basically every big VFX studio out there and shortly after I got
hired by Prime Focus VFX in Vancouver to work on my first feature film “Final
Destination 5”.
2 weeks later I sat in a plane to Vancouver where I spent the next 8 months working with
an amazing FX team (Chad Wiebe, Todd Perry, Alessandro Nardini, Jonathan Mitchell,
Brian Ritz, Martin Halle, etc.). During this time I amassed an incredible amount of
knowledge and FD5 is still up to this point one of the most fun and memorable projects I
ever worked on.
That’s really how it all started and since then it’s been a blur of big movies, big VFX
houses and living on different continents. I contributed to more than 20 Hollywood
productions such as Transformers 4, The Hobbit 3, The Amazing Spiderman 2, a whole
bunch of Marvel movies and many more.
Eminent VFX studios I worked for would be ILM, Rising Sun Pictures, Sony Imageworks,
Method Studios and Rhythm & Hues just to name a few.
It’s been a wild ride that never really stops because you’re constantly making new
friends and working on new exciting projects. No project is ever the same, there are
always new challenges and more problems to solve. Working in VFX is almost a lifestyle
I would say.



Yeah, that’s an interesting way to phrase that. I would agree with that. It is almost
a lifestyle. Very cool. You’re the co-founder of Stormborn Studios based out of Vancouver BC.
I’m wondering if you could tell us about how that came about and maybe some of the challenges
you faced going through the initial startup phase?

Yeah, sure. I already mentioned Goran Pavles with whom I developed a close friendship
over the past decade. In 2016 we worked together at Method Studios conjuring up FX
for the movie “Dr.Strange”. Since we both have an affinity for pipeline development and
programming, we had many discussions about how to optimize production workflows.
We concluded that there were better and more effective ways to build an FX pipeline
and work environment which would eventually lead to a more satisfying result for both
the client and the artists. We realized that a smaller work environment needs less
energy and resources for bureaucracy, it allows to rather invest those resources into
software development and a more creative and independent work environment which in
our experience is strong driver of motivation. A nice side effect is that it also rules out
those long inefficient chains of hierarchy which reign in the big studios. Have you heard
of the expression there are too many cooks in the kitchen?

For the above reasons in 2017 we teamed up with Alex Lombardi and launched
Stormborn Studios right in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Alex has a great skill set
that complements ours, being a strong RBD guy with lighting, shading and coding
abilities.

We set out to build a very specialized crew that is able to kick ass and output a lot of
high quality work in less time than the big studios. For us it’s not really about working on
feature films only because we solely care about compelling challenges, not the medium.
Our goal is to bring Hollywood feature film quality to other media such as TV series,
motion graphics, game cinematics, commercials, 3D projections, the list goes on.
Stormborn is not your typical studio setup comprised of a traditional CG
pipeline where multiple departments have to work in unison. In such an environment
data has to flow between division such as Matchmove, Layout, Texturing/Lookdev,
Animation, Lighting, FX and Compositing. Needless to say that such complexity bears
many hurdles and rarely works flawlessly.

Working in VFX is almost a lifestyle I would say.

Enter Stormborn Studios, where we only focus on creating FX using our favorite
software Houdini. Given our experience sometimes we gladly offer to handle project
supervision as well, in which case we’re dealing with Compositing internally in order to
have full control of the final look of the shots. Staying specialized like this allows us to guarantee the highest quality possible while
having a smaller overhead than large VFX houses.
Often we partner up with other studios that require FX but are lacking resources to push
those heavy, complex and time-consuming FX sequences.
We typically either deliver FX passes that are rendered fully on our internal render farm,
or at times the client wants to render our FX caches in-house on their side. In that case
we’re happy to upload our files to secure FTP servers or if the data amount is too large,
we just put all of the heavy FX caches on a hard disk drive and ship it over. No problem
at all. It really depends on the each individual client’s needs, we’re able to tailor bespoke
solutions for different production scenarios.



So far things have been working out well for us and we’re thankful for having been able
to lay our hands on some high-profile projects already.
Just to give you a taste, in the month of October and November of 2018, within roughly
six weeks, with a small specialized crew of three senior guys we finished 32 very
demanding FX shots comprised of massive large-scale smoke & fire simulations and a
variety of character driven complex particle shots.
We obviously don’t have a big render farm of the size of ILM or Weta, but we have a
watertight pipeline that allows us to stay optimized and focus on shots, not much
exhaustion of resources here.

Some of the projects we were involved with in the last year: 12 Strong (feature), Next
Gen (feature), Skyscraper (feature), Nomis (feature), Willow’s Curse (feature), Van
Helsing (TV), Dirk Gently’s (Netflix), American Gods (Amazon Prime), The Man In The
High Castle (Netflix), Drain The Oceans (National Geographic) and a few more.
Our clients have been very happy so far and we hope that things continue to go well for
us in 2019. Optimistically our clients will entrust us with larger sequences in the future
which will allow us to grow Stormborn Studios. We strive to become a name to be
reckoned with in the VFX industry.

I want to take the opportunity to give a big shout out to our awesome clients, without you
it would have only been half as fun: CVD VFX, Moment Factory, Image Engine,
SideStreetPost, Tangent Animation, Thinkingbox, LastPixel, Barnstorm VFX, Tendril, the
Van Helsing team and Corey Belina.

 



That’s really cool! And that’s a very unique approach of being a specialized FX
house. I don’t know if I’ve quite heard of that, but it sounds awesome.

It is certainly very unique. Imagine you are a smaller compositing studio or CG studio
that works on a lot of projects, but maybe only one of your projects throughout the year
requires FX. In that case it makes sense to call the Stormborn crew to help out because

there’s no point from a cost perspective for a studio to establish and maintain an FX
department for a prolonged time span. On one side there are the expensive software
license costs which really put a bump into your cash flow, then you have to a) find and b)
hire costly FX artists and maintain them. Proficient senior FX artists come in scarcity, in
many cases you have to pay an immigration lawyer to sort our visas for them because
the local talent has already been hired by the competition. On top of that you have to find
and employ Houdini pipeline experts capable to put a pipeline in place that connects FX
to all of the other departments.

Now if you team up with Stormborn Studios, you don’t have to worry about any of the
above, because we already took care of all the logistics. We’re ready to output some
glorious and epic FX for your project.

Yeah. I get what you’re saying. You were kind of mentioning that your desire for
the studio developed from seeing too many cooks in the kitchen. I guess earlier in your career,
have you always wanted to have your own studio or did it just develop from once you were in
the industry like you were saying?

I don’t think it was always my plan to start my own studio, but after evolving
as an artist and technical director during my career, it seemed to be the next logical step
to take. I wanted to learn new things and advance. In my opinion, if you work in the VFX
industry as an artist, it is incredibly hard to grow because big studios usually try to keep
you in a niche. Let’s pretend that you’re an expert in FLIP fluid simulations. In that case,
if you like it or not, you’re going to stay the FLIP fluids guy and you’re always going to be
hired just to do water shots. You’re going to do FLIP rivers, FLIP tidal waves, big FLIP
oceans simulations and any effect that’s related to water, but what would happen if you
suddenly wanted to destroy a building using Rigid Body Dynamics or blow up a vehicle
using volumetric fluid simulations?

The VFX companies in most cases won’t let you do that because they know you are
specialized and how to most efficiently use you. It’s rather myopic to assume that you’re
not capable of learning those new techniques since you were able to achieve such
proficiency with FLIP fluids in the first place, but since acquiring new skills takes time,
putting you in a new role would slow down production, increasing the cost of the project.
At Stormborn we try to learn from mistakes that traditional VFX houses make by allowing
our artists to develop an eclectic skill set which keeps them very passionate and
motivated. We have a lot of Houdini tricks to share, which makes our work environment
intriguing for artists that are only allowed to push buttons at other VFX studios.
Having my own studio is such a breeze, there’s just so much more freedom and a much
bigger variety of interesting tasks. Most importantly, there’s always something new to
learn. Did I mention I used to be the Pyro guy? Not anymore.

 

My learning curve really went up like a rocket and every day I had new things to explore and I was really busy the entire day just drawing from that big pool of knowledge.



Yeah, that’s really nice. Your studio’s specialization is specific to FX work. Do you
see your company ever venturing into more traditional CG work like set extension, diggi double
work, or possibly even modeling and texturing?

That’s a tricky question because for us it is very comfortable staying a little bit smaller
where we don’t have to hire and fire the majority of the crew because the VFX industry is
cyclical and project based. I’ve seen it plenty of times that studios couldn’t line up
enough work after the current project and for that reason they’re forced to let many
artists go. In some cases the studios even went bankrupt, which is devastating for both
studio owners and artists. Ramping up and down your generates many problems. If you

just hired for a new project, new artists need to prove themselves to the leads and sups,
it takes time to establish a good team relation, plus the newcomers need to learn the FX
tools and pipeline. On the other hand when a project ramps down and everybody has to
leave, FX tools might get lost and disappear forever even though they might be
indispensable. Sometimes the new talent has no idea of the existence of old tools or
how to use them due to a lack of documentation.
I could get into much more detail here, but let’s just say that for now we prefer to operate
on a smaller scale. It allows us to stay specialized and to maintain both a solid pipeline
and streamlined FX tools. Additionally we’re not dependent on bringing in one massive
project to keep the studio alive, but instead we’re working with a variety of clients and
thus minimizing risk.
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve already ventured into doing compositing which makes
perfect sense in some cases which is something that we want to pursue further in the
near future.

 


Stormborn Studios 2018 Projects


Cool, you have a very long list of feature film credits. I was looking through your
IMDb and you have Hunger Games and MIB 3 and Doctor Strange just to name a few, has
there been a specific film or project you’ve enjoyed the most or are most proud of? This could
be before your time at Stormborn, or just throughout your career.

Interesting that you mentioned my IMDB, I don’t think I’ve updated that in years. I
suppose my profile there is highly outdated, but I love IMDB and to be honest I’m proud
to be featured on there.

One of the most enjoyable movies that I worked on was at Rhythm & Hues in 2012
during the project RIPD. The Rest In Peace Department. Very silly movie, and I would
definitely not recommend watching it, but it was my first Houdini job where I really thrived
as an artist and made leaps of progress because I was surrounded by a massive team
of talented Houdini enthusiasts.

Many of those guys are rock stars, passionate about sharing knowledge and a real
pleasure to work with. I want to throw some names in here, props go out to Marc
Horsfield, Marc Picco, Helena Masand, Ahmad Ghourab, Alex Nardini, Nardeep
Chander, George Kuruvilla, Travis Yohnke, Kalman Ruszkai, Casey Gorton, Ryo Mikai,
Ronen Tanchum, Stephen Paschke, Frank Du and Julien Depredurand.
All of the above are well-versed Houdini TDs that have a lot of technical understanding,
a really good eye for FX, and I’m thankful to have been able to learn so much from them.
Rhythm & Hues in general was just such a good company. They had an amazing
company culture. I remember one day they organized a curry competition where
anybody with cooking skills would whip up a curry, bring it to work and then people
would try it and nominate the best chef. That was insane. It was such a fun, vibrant
environment to be in, pulsing with creativity and talent. Most likely anybody that you will
meet that worked there back in the day will say the same about R&H.
Sadly we’re all still affected by the fact that Rhythm & Hues went under and got bought
up by other companies after receiving an Oscar for their masterpiece Life of Pi.
It was a big blow for the entire VFX community and I’m still upset about how all of that
went down. The industry can be a precarious environment to be frank. As much
fun as we have and as much as we are proud of our work, I think to this point us VFX
artists are still not as much appreciated as we should be. We live in a world where a
Robert Downing gets 80 million dollars to star in a Marvel movie, but some VFX artists
get paid minimum wage and have trouble to pay their rent.

And why is it that after all these years the VFX companies are still at the very end of the
credit list of every big feature film? Without us those green-screen movies would be
dead boring!
We strayed away a little bit from your question here.

No, that’s okay. It’s interesting. Switching gears a little – recently, you’ve been
teaching an Introduction to Houdini courses at CGMA. How do you enjoy teaching? Have you
always wanted to teach or has that been a new thing?

As long as I can think back, I was always teaching something. I remember when I was
still living in Germany I gave guitar lessons to my friends and even up to this day I’m
teaching foreign languages to others given my passion for the matter. I’ve always had a
few Houdini tutorials on my Vimeo channel here and there, but I never really considered
putting in the hard work to conceive a big and complex Houdini workshop until I got
approached by CGMA in 2017. I thought to myself, maybe after working more than 10
years in the industry it’s maybe time to share my hard-earned knowledge with other
people online. If you ask around, any artist that worked closely with me in the past
knows that I’m always happy to give out my own workflows and techniques on how to
achieve the most efficient results in Houdini.

For my workshop “Intro To FX Using Houdini” I created over 33 hours of intricate tutorial
content. Putting everything together turned out to be a difficult task because I had to
minimize the amount of videos that I recorded while still keeping the content as high
quality as possible. I believe my course right now has to be one of the toughest and the
most complex ones that you can find out there in the vast sea of tutorials that you can
find on many different platforms. I’m not saying that my course is the best of the best,
but I think it’s going to be a feat to find another workshop out there that offers such a
deep knowledge of Houdini in multiple aspects of the software within a compact time
frame of only 9 weeks (VEX, procedural modeling, particles, FLIP, Pyro, shading,
rendering, debugging).

Just for the record, while being titled “Intro To FX Using Houdini”, the course is by no
means tailored to absolute beginners. You should be on an intermediate level, ideally
already having done a few simulations here and there. Be prepared to put in 20-30 hours
per week into the course, it’s most certainly not going to be a walk in the park.
My way of teaching is very different from the usual tutorials that you find online.
I will throw you right into the shark tank, giving you a taste of what it feels like to work in
a true VFX production. You will be confronted with complex problems that need to be
solved while having to work against a deadline. Don’t expect me to teach you to push a
button without me telling you what’s going on under the hood of the node that you’re
using. I put a strong emphasis on teaching my students problem solving and
debugging skills, which so far I haven’t seen much of in any other tutorials or workshops.
Naturally I base my course on production examples that I use in my own day-to-day
workflows as a Houdini artist, be prepared to wrap your head around a variety of
elaborate techniques.

Going back to your question, I find that teaching is very fulfilling when it comes to guiding
students along the way throughout my workshop. It’s exciting to spot outstanding talent
and to see my students prosper, making lots of progress and creating some beautiful
work along the way. I truly enjoy the interaction with my guys and getting to know them.
If we’re not bouncing off questions or ideas in the forum, we meet once a week in a live
Q&A session in which the students can join a chat room and directly poke me with questions.

I usually have a Houdini session open in which I tamper with all kinds of
example setups, everybody can chime in and people are enjoying it a lot.

For more info on my course visit:
CG Master Academy Intro To FX Class
Intro To FX Class Trailer

Also for more information on Stormborn Studios, contact us at info@stormbornvfx.com or visit our website at
http://stormbornvfx.com/
Stay tuned for our first official demo reel which we’re going to release in spring 2019!

 

 

 

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