Pixomondo: A VFX Team For All Seasons!

April 28, 2012 10:36 pm

Tags: CGI, Game of Thrones, Hugo, Pixomondo, Red Tails, Shotgun, Snow White and the Huntsman, Sucker Punch, The Hunger Games, VES, VFX

file_480945.jpgYou may not immediately recognize the name, but if you are a film buff, or a TV enthusiast, chances are your viewing pleasure has been influenced by the VFX Pixomondo Studio's team. Pixomondo is an international visual effects company with a global network of studios. Best known for their explosive contributions to such blockbuster hits as: Hugo (winning an Oscar for Best Visual Effects), the spring blockbuster The Hunger Games, and the anticipated summer hit, Snow White and the Huntsman … Pixomondo Studios is the hands-down winner in regards to VFX work.

I recently had the privilege to interview John Parenteau, General Manager of Pixomondo, Los Angeles division. He was kind enough to take time out of his overly-busy schedule to sit down with me for an interview, and to give our Renderosity readers an inside look into one of the most influential visual effects studios of our generation.

John Parenteau exposed behind the scenes secrets in regards to the influences Pixomondo contributed to the award-winning movie Hugo (a movie based on the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick). Both the book and the movie delve into the twilight-years of the innovative, early 20th century, French filmmaker, Georges Melies, whose filmmaking influences can be seen within the Oscar-winning visual effects created by the Pixomondo team. John also gave insights into Pixomondo's team contribution to HBO's Game of Thrones, and the upcoming, Snow White and the Huntsman.

Dee Marie: Congratulations on Pixomondo’s 2012 Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, for their work in MartinScorsese's epic adventure, Hugo. What VFX work specifically set Hugo apart from other movies created by the Pixomondo team in the past that made the academy take notice this year?

John Parenteau: The biggest difference, I believe, is the subject matter. Doing a film about Georges Melies and his work was an honor in itself, not to mention working with Martin Scorsese. David Cohen, from Variety, was quoted in an article commenting, "… that perhaps this is the first time the Academy awarded visual effects as an artistic component of the entire film, rather than a technical achievement." Our fellow nominees certainly created some amazing work, and we were honored just to be nominated along side of them. So we were just as surprised, pleasantly surprised, that we won.

L-R: Ben Grossmann, Karen Murphy, Rob Legato, Martin Scorcese, Adam Watkins, Alex Henning
Backstage at the 2011 Visual Effects Society Awards Event, awarding Pixomondo's work on Hugo

DM: It is understandable that you would be proud of such an auspicious endeavor. After watching the film, and paying special attention to the VFX work, it is easy to see that Hugo was a passionate undertaking for all involved in its creation.

JP: We are very proud of the film, both for the work we did, as well as the film itself.


The before and after Pixomondo shot from the film Hugo
©2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved

DM: Pixomondo differentiates itself by being not one studio, but instead a global company, with facilities in Los Angeles, Burbank, Toronto, London, Shanghai, Beijing, Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Stuttgart (with the newest studio opening this spring in Baton Rouge, Louisiana). What are the disadvantages of teams within 12 international facilities working simultaneously on one specific project? 

JP: Well, the clear disadvantage in any scenario like this is communication across time zones. It's a careful ballet learning how to set up communication so that you can talk to all your teams on a daily basis, and get them the information they need to be productive. If you miss a day, you actually cost two days since your day here is their night.

But like anything, it takes some practice, and though it may never be perfect, we use a variety of tools to help our efficiency. Shotgun has been a great help in communication. {Shotgun is a customizable web-based "production tracking" system specifically for digital studios} We use this worldwide, which creates the feeling that we are all working in simply one large building, rather than across continents. Also, custom tools that allow us to clone sections of our servers, to keep things constantly updating across divisions, helps us with the worldwide 24/7 time clock we adhere to.


The before and after Pixomondo shot from the film Hugo
©2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved

DM: It appears that Pixomondo has conquered the disadvantages of multi-studio production. What's the greatest advantage of being a global entity? 

JP: The greatest advantage to our worldwide network is access to a wide range of artists. It's unique that we can utilize such talent in so many parts of the world, without having to necessarily uproot them. Also, each division is kept at a reasonable size, between 50 and 150; which creates a very personal feel to the offices, despite the fact that we are 750 people worldwide.


The before and after Pixomondo shot from the film Hugo
©2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved

DM: As you eluded to, with so many facilities, an international team can conceivably work 24/7 on a single project. Do some locations have specialties, or are all the facilities set up identical? Does Pixomondo have team members with equal expertise in all areas, along with the same software, hardware?

JP: We do set up each division as a full service entity. That means they all offer 3D, compositing, roto, match move, etc. … but of course, like any group of people, the divisions develop personalities of their own. Berlin, for example, has an exemplary FX team, and we tend to utilize that heavily. Stuttgart and Beijing had become very strong compositing teams. We take it into account as we split up projects, but despite this, all divisions do offer all services.

DM: On the subject of specialization… Pixomondo is well-known for their explosions. Three explosive scenes come to mind: the destruction of the zeppelin in Sucker Punch; and most recently, the aerial attack on an enemy train and the sinking of a battleship in the WWII adventure film, Red Tails. How many hours of research go into a specific VFX scene before the CGI artists begin working their magic? 

Pixomondo's explosive work of aerial attack on an enemy train from the film Red Tails
© Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM. All Rights Reserved

JP: Our head of FX in Berlin, Mohsen Mousavi, is very technical, and insists that we obey as much of the real world dynamics as possible in an explosion. That being said, we also realize that this is art, and often what would happen isn't necessarily what should happen. So, though we do extensive research, we also consider the needs of the scene itself, which is just as important.

Pixomondo's recreation of aerial attack on a battleship from the film Red Tails
© Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM. All Rights Reserved

DM: Keeping up with the constant advancements in Visual Effects software is a never-ending endeavor, even for novice CGI artists. How do team members divide their time between mastering new technology and using what they have mastered on a new a project?

JP: It is difficult to stay up to speed on advancements while in the heat of the show, but we work hard to do so. We are currently trying to do evening classes for our artists to make them aware of the newest technologies. Often it is simply our more advanced artists finding time on their own to keep abreast of the newest tools, then bringing them to our attention.

DM: Pixomondo has also been influential in taking television to a new level of professionalism, with shows like: Terra Nova, Grimm, and Hawaii Five-0. Did Pixomondo's outstanding work on these primetime television shows influence the creators of HBO's The Game of Thrones, to hire Pixomondo as the main special effects studio for season two?

JP: I think it's our feature work that inspired HBO to give us Game of Thrones, actually. HBO is a unique company, in that their work is far closer in style to a feature project than to TV. The budgets are a bit more generous, the schedules longer, and the appetite bigger. I believe it was our work on Sucker Punch, and other shows, that gave HBO the idea that we could do something unique for the program. I'm sure our extensive broadcast work also helped, as well.

DM: Game of Thrones is an exceedingly popular HBO series, with a huge fan following. Taking over the VFX work must have been both a great honor, as well as a daunting task. With so many iconic images from the first season (opening credits, the giant wall of ice, the baby dragons), how does Pixomondo plan to integrate their style with that of the former studios' [Screen Scene and Blue Bolt] imagery?

JP: We've hoped to just build on the first season and provide even more amazing imagery. The storyline is getting more and more intense, involving more fantastic effects, so the work will look quite a bit more extensive than the first season. It has been a daunting task, but a challenge well worth taking. We are very proud of our work, and our association with the show and HBO.

DM: Previews of Pixomondo's VFX work in Snow White and the Huntsman is beyond amazing. With two movies based on Snow White being released this year (Mirror Mirror being the other), what differences in special effects do you feel the Pixomondo team brought to the table that will keep moviegoers coming back for more of Snow White and the Huntsman?

JP: You can tell from the trailer that the two films are very different. Huntsman is much darker, whereas Mirror Mirror takes a more comedic angle. We worked heavily on the giant battles, and without giving too much away, helped expand the scope of them beyond what was possible in production; as well as bringing some amazing effects to the evil warriors.

DM: Would you agree with me that, in great part due to Pixomondo's VFX work, Snow White and the Huntsman will be one of the biggest hit films of this summer?

JP: I think people will find Huntsman very exciting, not only for our work, but overall on the project.

DM: What other new and exciting ventures are on the horizon for Pixomondo for 2012?

JP: Pixomondo is doing work on some great pictures this year, building on our past successes. We've only been around in the U.S. for 3 years now, and have grown in size and experience significantly during that time. So our work shows, and will show, that type of growth. As we do grow, our answer is not to grow our individual facilities, but take advantage of other worldwide locations to expand into; both as a source for our feature work, but also to capture more local business. We intend to continue with this model, and to continue creating more amazing visual effects!

DM: If Pixomondo's previous work is an example of things to come, it's going to be one outstanding year of movies. One last question … what advice would you give a budding CGI artist who wishes to get into the field of visual effects in regards to professional filmmaking?

JP: The most important thing for an artist to understand today is … that to get a job, you need to show you have clear talent in a particular area: if you're trying to be a character animator, show animation; if you want to start in match move and get in to comp, show work where we can see you understand the match move tool you are using well.

Quite often artists work on personal projects, a short film or story, that doesn't highlight a single or small group of talents. It's difficult for companies to see what we are looking for. It's important to us that an artist shows they clearly understand at least one tool, and from that you are much more hirable.

DM: Outstanding words of wisdom. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to give our readers an insider's look into the creative world of Pixomondo Studios.

All supporting images are copyrighted and used by permission from Pixomondo.
Images cannot be copied or printed without written permission.

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Author of "Sons of Avalon: Merlin's Prophecy"

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April 30, 2012

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Article Comments

nickcharles ( posted at 12:24AM Mon, 30 April 2012

Outstanding interview! Pixomondo rocks!