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Fluid Mastery : A Conversation with Mirco Paolini

April 12, 2024
Interviewed by:
Mearg Taddese

Mirco Paolini, the visionary artist renowned for his mastery of water simulations. journey is an inspiring fusion of childhood passions, relentless pursuit of mastery, and a deep-seated fascination with fluid dynamics.

Let's delve into his captivating narrative as he shares insights into his illustrious career, from childhood dreams to mastering the intricate art of water simulations.

Let’s kick things off. Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I am Mirco Paolini and I work full time as Lead FX TD / Senior Artist at ILP – Important Looking Pirates by 3 years and half. Colleagues refers to me simple as MIPA.

Tell us about your childhood. What inspired you growing up, and how did those early experiences lead you to your current career?

During my childhood 3 things inspired me while growing up: Horror movies, Miniature Explosions and Stop Motion.

I started since I was 8 years old by shooting short movies with my friends. Actually I wanted to be a Director but later on I've been fascinated by SFX and Stop Motion animation. I spent countless amount of time building miniatures and exploding them while recording with my video 8mm camera.

CG approached in my life only many years later (early 2000's): I was shooting an horror short movie inspired to “The Pit and the Pendulum” by E.A. POE and I realized that I needed  a rat for a sequence. I wasn't lucky enough to get a real one on the set so I started to investigate how to create it at the computer. Being Jurassic Park one of my favourite movie, it was also my main Inspiration when I imagined CG creatures. I spent so many years after the “rat adventure” in trying to recreate dinosaurs and almost all my work in the mid 2000's were about CG T-rex and Brachiousaurus.

During my university career ( EE ENGINEERING) I studied a lot of physics and I started to investigate on fluid simulation,by using CFD software like Fluent. Then I was involved in personal RnD using Realflow,Houdini and Naiad.

My official career as generalist started only in 2010, when I got the first job while working on a Star Wars Fan Movie.

I got the possibility to improve every aspect of 3D, from modeling to animation,lighting to render and of course, FX.

After being generalist for less than 1 year I specialized in FX and I had the opportunity to work on a lot of commercials while remaining in Italy, where I built my own small office. Basically my goal was to work remotely on important production . It was really hard to get remote tasks back then ( 2011 – 2019) but somehow I did it. The turning point was for sure my involvement on Independence Day: Resurgence and Fast And Furious 8 (both on 2016). As one of “go-to” artists when there was need for water simulations, thanks to God and the people that trusted me I was lucky enough to be involved.

Interesting back story, What lights the spark for you? Where do you find the most inspiration when you're deep into a project?

Everywhere, it's like my mind refuses to rest. Every piece of nature, documentary or object around me injects an idea that I want to recreate at the computer.

What's the most challenging or unexpected task you've encountered during production, and how did you navigate through it?

A lot, but I recall 2 in particular: The waterfalls sequence in Disney's Willow shows (ILP) and the Big Tidal Blood Wave on Vampire: the masquerade cinematic (PLATIGE IMAGE).

Willow: The unique look of waterfall was something tricky to achieve. At ILP We wanted a sort of elegant/slow waterfall but at the same time it had to feature some of core elements of a turbulent waterfall(spray/foam). And it needed to be art directed. After I delivered a solid assets there was lot of work to make it look right, both from FX and LIGHT department. Everyone did a great job. and for Vampire: Well, doing a Giant Blood Wave moving toward Seattle with full flip simulation was a tricky task for sure: I simulated everything at home with my machines and sending caches later.

How do you manage your time, especially with side personal projects?

I work on personal project sometimes in the night or very early in the morning, trying to update my skills. I keep my energy level up by trying to walk more often, and enjoying more time with my family, my son and my wife.

As you’ve climbed the ladder to Lead FX position, what's your secret sauce?

There is no secret sauce, I think it's just a matter of being proactive, working hard and to be nice and fair with people.

What are the things you wish you knew or learned earlier that would have made a significant impact on your current situation?

Obvious statements: probably if I moved earlier outside Italy and worked inside a studio I was able to learn faster and easier than do everything alone :)

Who in the industry do you look up to as an inspiration ?

It sounds obvious but it has always been ILP. The water simulation they did inspired me all the time :)

Let’s shine a light on one of your favorite projects. Walk us through the creative process and the magic that brought it to life. What makes it stand out in your portfolio?

I think it is Foundation:2, when the Spaceship is breaching Ocean Surface. It is opening my showreel aswell.

It was a strict cooperation between me and my colleague Mattias Engstrom. We both developed custom unique ideas for making it as realistic as possible in terms of simulation,expecially the transition between pure water and mist. VFX supervisor, Daniel Jahnel gave us a lot of freedom and proper time to work on that and we were happy about the final result.

Most of your works are actual large water simulations. how did the interest come in that? And How do you deal with such complex tasks? What are tricky challenges and what do most people get/picture it wrongly when it comes to large scale water simulations?

Fear: I think that's what drove my passion toward large scale water simulations :D We were flooded in my small town 3 times. Basically everything that scares me somehow it ends to fascinate me.

My passion for the Maths and Physics did the rest: I really wanted to control and unpredictable element like water.

I think the main enemy of large scale water simulations are trying to overcomplicate things. I always suggest to my team to think simple, not using space engineering approach to solve tasks. More than often very simple tricks work. You have to keep in mind references, watching them constantly and just to replicate what you see and thinking why that is happening. Breaking the simulation into several simulations and not relying onto a unique big simulation is definitely one of the most important concept to me.

What's your favorite part of your job? Is there a particular feature or tool that you love and couldn't imagine working without?

Flip simulations in Houdini! I can't imagine my everyday working life without Flip solver :D

Most artists miss the part of using references for their FX work. Where do you get your references or favorite place to get from? and How do you study references?

Ah yeah, I am sometimes in pole position when I tend to be lazy and not watching them. ALWAYS plays references in loop when you are trying to obtain a certain effects. Analyze not on only the final output but try to understand what is the cause/effect relationship.

I usually grab my reference while I am at the beach, on the boat or websites like Shutterstock.

How is it like working at a big studio? What do you find different from working at a small studio and team?

Relative Small studio like ILP gives artist more opportunity to express themselves, or at least this is my experience.

Since you specialize in water simulations, can you explain to us how one can specialize in 1 FX type and does that affect job opportunity? or it helps to shine more? what is your perspective in specialization?

Good one. To me this happened so naturally that I still didn't find a proper formula. Back on 2008,when I started to do my early fluid simulation R&D,we were very few people doing that,so gathering visibility when we published online was bit easier.

Something like this on 2008 was enough to generate interest for example

Doing large scale water stuff was really tricky to do at home,with lack of tutorials,resources and computation power.

So in my case it was all about bombing the community with my personal work and try to improving my skillset every day.

I always thought that it's better to be very good in 1 discipline than being mediocre in everything so this is still something that helped me. Now days I am more oriented to suggest to being able to master all FX type to being competitive on the market.

When working in water simulations, how does the team work or communication looks like with Animators and lighting artists? and how do you feel those when you are working solo on your personal projects?

Team work is the key to succeed while working in water simulation. You need to be sure every departement,expecially ANIMATION is constantly synched with you as well as LIGHTING. Being synched on every update on assets/anim can prevent you to run wrong simulation for example. it's also important that LIGHT department is testing simulation output very often until we reach a solid workflow that can differ from case to case.

Working on solo project is easier if we consider only management but definitely the final result is way beyond of what you can achieve the help of teammates :)

On the path of personal development, how do you continue to challenge yourself and grow as an artist?

By studying Maths,Coding and Compositing :)

You're launching a tutorial with us at Doublejump titled 'Hydroman Workflow.' Can you share how it came about, your preparation journey.

It came out from a personal RnD about Hydroman character from Spider Movie(Scanline VFX work). I was super fascinated about that!

After published online it generated a good interest in the Houdini community so I decided to  prepare a quick workflow that could be useful to someone I hope :)

For artists who want to check out your work and learn more about you, where should they go?




Lastly, what do you have for the community? Whether it's a personal project file, a tool, or a website you find helpful, this is your chance to give back and contribute to the community.

Definitely this website about VEX :)

As we wrap up, what final words do you have for your fellow artists? No pressure, but is there something you'd like to share or a piece of advice you think would resonate with your colleagues in the industry?

Being Humble. It's not about being insicure but more about to set yourself in a mind condition where you still have a lot to learn. Hints are sparsed everywhere during the life. And the same goes when you talk with your colleagues about VFX  :)

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