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From Star Wars Dreams to Blockbuster Visual effects: An Interview with Fabian Nowak

INTERVIEW
May 16, 2024
Interviewed by:
Mearg Taddese

Welcome to our interview with Fabian Nowak, Head of FX at The Yard VFX.

With an extensive experience in the world of visual effects, Join us as we explore his creative process, blockbuster VFX, the key of Fabian's success, and gain valuable insights from his experience.

Thank you Fabian for taking the time to chat with us. Let’s start by introducing yourself briefly

Hey, my name is Fabian Nowak. I am the Head of FX and FX Supervisor at The Yard VFX.

What inspired your journey into VFX, and how did your early experiences shape your career?

I’ve grown up in France, when I was a kid I used to draw a lot, lot of painting as well, and obviously - like many other people of my generation - I did grow up with Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Terminator (1 & 2), Conan The Barbarian, Alien, Back to the Future, etc.

Those films sort of shaped my imagination and definitely forged my passion for cinema.

After studying classic architecture in Paris for a while, I decided to switch to 3D Animation School at “Institut George Melies”, which was (at this time) inside the actual castle of George Melies - the inventor of special effects in cinema ! There, I‘ve learned pretty much everything I needed to learn about picture, story-telling, cinema, animation (traditional, stop-motion, and later on 3D animation), all the techniques, the softwares to use, etc. Those were some fantastic years for sure !

Then I started my proper career, working in Video Games at first. I spent a few years at Ubisoft Paris, making tons of FX for AAA games, which was awesome.

I learned so much, it made me grow as an artist, but also as a person.

And then eventually, after quite some time, I made the big move and I left my country for London, which quickly became my new true home, and I joined for good the cinema VFX industry.

Where do you find inspiration for your projects, and what fuels your creativity?

I think personally, real life references are always an endless source of inspiration for me. Everytime it rains for exemple, I can watch the water dripping on the window, the splashes on the ground,  the ripples in the puddles, etc. Despite the fact I know by heart how it works, and I made countless rain simulations, I’m never really tired of it, and I always find a way to get surprised and amazed by some simple things like that.

Don’t even launch me on how I go if I am staring at a fire in a chimney, waterfall in the mountains, or some crashing waves on the shore. I can be literally captivated, hypnotised, and my mind gets lost in these beautiful motions.

I guess the inspiration is also coming from the interactions with other people, other artists, the exchanges of ideas and opinions we can have. The strands you create with other people are for sure an endless source of pure inspiration.

There’s some people I know, just watching them working, or listening to them explaining something technical can boost me and inspire me so much, it makes me want to become better than I am, to do more !

Reflecting on your career, what was the most challenging task you encountered, and how did you overcome it?

Well, I have told that story a few times already, but I think one of the most challenging moments for me was when we did the film PASSENGERS (2016).

It was challenging on so many levels, the show was crazy, the artistic direction was very ambitious, the timing to the delivery was tight, the budget not so big (for this type of movie), I was the Lead FX on the show, loads of heavy FX sequences, tons of shots, etc.

Personally I had to make the switch from Maya to Houdini (which was probably the hardest challenge of all, I had to learn it on the battlefield in a couple of weeks, while my brain at this point was literally refusing to be reprogrammed in order to fit the logic of houdini), we had to create an FX that has never been done before (a large scale simulation of water in zero gravity), with some extreme constraints due to the performance of the actress (Jennifer Lawrence) whom was shot in a water tank, a “hard to please” director, had to find the right approach for each type of shots of that “zero G swimming pool” sequence, create some crazy setups able to deliver all these shots while giving us a total artistic control, etc.

Hopefully I was lucky to be surrounded by some extremely talented artists, one especially - Xavier Martin - who supported me and helped me go through this whole show. He was a junior FX TD at this time, and he is now FX Supervisor at ILM. I owe him so much, I will never thank him enough.

In the end, that film was quite an agreeable surprise, with beautiful cinematography, and it became over the years one of the projects I am the proudest of.

Balancing work and personal life can be demanding. How do you manage your time and maintain your energy levels?

Working days are long and quite intense, it leaves very little space for spare time and personal projects. Unless you’re ready to skip sleeping at night, and use those hours for that instead. (alright, I plead guilty !)

Also, I have a family, 2 young daughters, so I’m trying to spend as much time as possible with all my girls. It is absolutely essential ! That’s what keeps my energy level up (that, and the energy drinks !)

To be fair, I have never really been much stressed out, I think I handle the pressure pretty well, even in the worst moments I manage to remain calm and composed. I guess I don’t have much choice anyway, because I have all  the FX artists counting on me to shield them when the pressure starts to rain on our heads.

As someone in a leadership role, what's your secret sauce? what advice do you have for aspiring artists aiming for similar positions?

No secret sauce really.

You just need to work hard. Do not be satisfied with “good enough”, it needs to be the best you can do. Always. Even for the smallest thing.

Always go the extra step. Stay curious and learn new stuff. Everyday.

Acquire some new knowledge, new techniques, new concepts.

Never relax in your comfort zone, look beyond and shoot for the moon.

Always give back to those who helped you, and always be kind to other people, and help them as much as you can.

It will never be a waste of your time to help someone else. It will allow the people you help to move onward, and it will make you a better person.

Looking back, are there any lessons you wish you learned earlier in your career?

Mmmh… we can all have regrets, but I feel like it doesn’t really matter. We should not focus on that, we should let them slip and forget them. Otherwise we might get stuck in some nostalgia, melancholia, and essentially we might stop moving on. Regretting things that we wish we would have done differently is kind of pointless. You’re where you are because of the choices you made. If you could jump back in time and take a different path, you might end up at a totally different position, which might be worse.

I may have a few regrets, but I don’t think I would change a thing.

That being said, learning lessons is important. I think I might have made the biggest jumps forward everytime I forced myself to learn things that I wasn't necessarily keen to do, or even things that I actually disliked. Every time, it has opened some new doors, led to enjoying new stuff and eventually made me become better.

Again, getting out of your comfort zone will always bring you further.

Who in the industry do you look up to as an inspiration? Is there someone you’ve said, "I want to be like them when I grow up"?

Yeah, there’s a few people indeed. When I started at MPC, I met many many incredible artists, way too many to name them all, but there was this dude, Igor Jovanovic… I was impressed. He was so calm, so quiet, yet so sharp and so good, so incisive and talented. I thought : “I hope one day I can be a quarter of what he is”. He really was an inspiration to me. Always have, always will be. He became a very good friend, and he is someone I have deeply in my heart.

There are 2 other people that I could name, but I can’t really say “I want to be like them when I grow up” since they are technically younger than me, but man… I am in awe before them. Xavier Martin and Miguel Perez Senent.

Two aliens, beyond what normal humans can possibly do, yet probably the most human, kind, generous, nice and funny people that I have met. I just love them.

Can you share insights into one of your favorite projects, Walk us through the creative process and the magic that brought it to life and what made it stand out in your portfolio?

I’m not sure which project is my favorite one, but I have a very fond memory about the 2 last Avengers films. On End Game particularly,  I have the chance to be given that sequence in the final battle where Thanos’s spaceship is bombing the Avengers HQ, and eventually smash the river banks of the Hudson river, creating a tsunami-like flood that is about to drown everyone fighting in the crater. Dr Strange comes in and saves the day by spelling the “Wind of Wathombs”, creating a sort of water tornado that keeps the water from flooding the whole battlefield.

In the earlier version of the edit, it was Dr Strange with Wong, and a bunch of other sorcerers, each of them casting a different spell to hold the water.

There was a moment during the production where I had total freedom to propose whatever spell that came to my mind.

I’ve tried classic mandalas to create some sort of force fields, Wong was turning the water into ice, creating like a frozen wave with some icicles and stalactites, Dr Strange was creating some portals so the water falling in would teleport into other places, I’ve tried some “reversed gravity” spell so the water was “un-falling” and and falling back into the river, etc. And in the end everything had to be blasted or strongly disturbed at least, by the shockwave created by Thanos throwing his blade into the truck, so all the effects I was proposing had to be dynamic in that regard. Like the ice made by Wong’s spell had to break, and let the water pass through.

In the end, the show runners decided to remove Wong and all the other sorcerers, to keep the lights only Dr Strange, which was probably for the best story-wise.

So yeah, I’ve spent a few months doing RnD on things that nobody will ever see ! But boy,  I had a lot of fun doing that !

You're known for your expertise in large-scale simulations with Explosions or water simulations. How do you deal with it? What are tricky challenges and what do most people get/picture it wrongly?

Yeah the bigger, the better ! Ahah.

Well, joke aside, doing large scale simulations isn’t necessarily as hard as we might think of. It just needs more time and more resources. So, not something you can do on your home computer, or as a student project with limited resources. And it requires being methodical and well organized.

And you can’t really go brute force. You need to foresee your effect, and split it into as many manageable layers as needed. I guess that’s where the trick is really.

Being able to foresee the entirety of the effect, and think about the best way to split it so it becomes technically doable.

Most people quickly fall into the mistake of trying to make everything as one bigass simulation, one single layer. Nope !

If you have to make a massive ship in a stormy ocean for example, you will not get the small droplets dripping on the windows of the wheelhouse in the same simulation that the one making the big crashing waves on the front hull of the boat. But yeah, that is something you learn and you improve with experience.

What's your favorite aspect of your job, and is there a particular tool or feature you couldn't imagine working without?

Not quite sure how to answer that. I quite like pretty much all the aspects of it. Each part brings its own joy, and is usually strongly dependent on the others. I’ll go the other way around : which part do I like less in my job ?

Being stuck in endless meetings maybe ! Ahah ! Or having to make the big clean-up at the end of a show, to free tons of space on the servers. I always feel sort of guilty to delete a bunch of heavy caches which I know - first hand - required loads of hours to be calculated !

References 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?

I’m a simple man, I go on YouTube. There is virtually everything up there. The entirety of what has been filmed by any human being eventually ends up uploaded on YouTube. It’s just a matter of knowing what to type in the search bar !

Good thing with YouTube is that you can easily pause, play at different speeds if needed, or even play frame by frame. You can’t do that with insta or tiktok as far as I know.

And it’s also super easy to download any content from YouTube if you want to save them in your own library.

Also on Facebook, I’m one of the admin of FX References a private  group where we are about 10K people. Only posting real life references, with relevant hashtags, so it makes it easier for the search bar to find any footage when you need it. It’s actually a pretty good search tool for day to day work.

We are now doing something similar now on the DJA Discord server with a channel called “References”, so go check it out !

About studying references ? Well, it would be long to dissect that, but basically you need to have a rational and methodical approach. A bit like when you’re analyzing how a shot is made, how a movie is made, how a painting is made, how a sculpture is made…

You obviously  need to have a good understanding of the basic laws of physics (I’d say mostly Newton’s 5 laws, Bernoulli’s principle, Boyle and Charles’s laws, Archimedes principle, etc. really the ones we are encountering every day), you don’t need to be a scientist and to know all these laws by heart, but if you understand the concept of each of those, then you should be able to recognize these laws in action when watching real life references. And therefore, you should be able to foresee how you need to build a setup in order to recreate what you are watching.

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

Big studios means loads of and loads of big projects, loads of people involved, big teams and giant departments, solid tools and pipeline already in place for a while, some bulletproof production organization, the feeling of unlimited power and the confidence that everything is achievable, even the impossible.

Downsides are : usually less responsibilities, less creativity and freedom left to each artist, everyone is more contained in a very defined role, those solid tools & pipeline already in place are unmovable, very hard to change, so if you don’t like them you might suffer from it. Depending on your position, you may feel like an anonymous number lost in a sea of other numbers.

Small studios means less big projects, more smaller ones (which aren’t less interesting in terms of the work that needs to be done !), less people, small teams, sometimes no departments, less rigid organization, less tools and pipeline that is probably more ‘in progress’ rather than definitive.

Pros are : more responsibilities, more freedom, more ‘artistry’ and less of an industrial feeling, roles and positions might be more flexible, you might need to do more than strictly your job title, and you might play a role in the development of the tools and the pipeline, so somehow you’re helping to shape the face of the studio in some ways. More people know who you are, so you may feel less like a simple number.

Both big and smaller studios can be great. And everyone can have a different experience of it. I can’t tell if one is better than the other. It really depends on you in reality.

Interesting, How did your journey lead you to your current position at The Yard VFX, and what's it like working there?

I knew Laurens Ehrmann (the CEO an founder of The Yard VFX) from years ago, and when I decided to move back in France, we met again and talk about doing something together. At this time, The Yard was still very small and was not doing much FX, and he proposed me to create an actual FX Department and to drive it, so we could do some kickass effets on some cool incoming shows.Laurens has an incredibly strong will, and simingly inexhaustable motivation and energy to pursue his goal : make The Yard an amazing VFX studio !We started with "Notre Dame on Fire", a really good film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, where we had to make tons of CG Fire. A small team, a bunch of heavy tricky shots, not so much time, and pretty much no tools and no pipeline !So, it was a great project to set up everything, to put everything in place, and to see where to go from there.That film allowed Laurens to win the César for best Visual Effects. So, it did pay off fairly well in the end.And from there, The Yard developed and expended more and more.We went from about 12-15 people (when I started there a few years ago) and today we are about 100 people, with offices in different locations (Paris, Montpellier, etc.). And most of all, we are working on some amazing projects all the time.We delivered Indiana Jones 5, John Wick chapter 4, All The Light We Cannot See, Halo season 2, etc.

Shifting to a broader topic, what's your perspective on AI in our industry? Some artists have strong opinions—do you fear it, love it, or have a neutral stance?

Do I fear AI ? Nah ! I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.

Seriously, AI is there, it evolves extremely rapidly, and we can’t undo it now.

So that’s about it.

We need to embrace it. To find the right ways to use it.

We need to learn new ways to work, maybe change some steps of our workflow for the better, maybe create some new steps in the production chain ?

We need to enlarge our vision.

Basically we need to keep evolving. Which is what we do in our industry every single day anyway, so yeah… no reason to be afraid of anything.

Let's have some fun! If you were to predict the future of VFX, how do you see it evolving in the next 10-15 years?

Well I certainly hope directors and studios will still make movies ! Ahah !

No, but I guess AI will be strongly involved in some key steps of the production. I guess we will say bye bye to rendering images, and everything will be real-time render with a quality indissociable from reality. I guess computers will  be so powerful (compared to today), and probably AI-powered, that we will be able to throw unprecedented impossible scale/resolution simulations at them without breaking a sweat.

But I also assume that even with all these new tools and futuristic technology, Clients will still have no idea what they really want until they see it, and in the end, our job will not be so different than it is today !

As you continue to grow as an artist, how do you challenge yourself personally and professionally?

Oh, there are plenty of things I haven’t “mastered” yet, so I have a lot of room for improvement, a lot of new things to learn, and a lot of skills to acquire.

I believe the best shot, or the most impressive stuff I have ever done is still to come… therefore, I’m trying to stay ready for when it will eventually happen !

Your motto, 'Go Hardcore or Go Home,' is quite powerful has really stuck with me.. Could you share the inspiration behind it and its significance to your career?

It is obviously based on the old idiom “Go Hard or Go Home”, or “Go Big or Go Home”. I’ve just customized it to my own taste ! Hehe.

But essentially it simply means that if you don’t put in the effort, like properly giving your maximum, you might as well just stop trying and go back home.

It all comes from the idea that when you come to work to do your job, your colleagues or your brothers in arms are there to do the same.

Everyone is giving his best-self for the greater good, and if you are the only one giving only 50%, then you are pulling everyone down. And you’re not helping anyone. Better take some rest, stay home for a day or two, and come back stronger.

Nah, you want to be the one that gives 200% and that pushes everyone else upward ! You want to be an engine for others, not a weight.

You're launching a workshop with us at DoubleJump titled 'Blockbuster shot building.' Can you share how it came about, your preparation journey?

Well it’s quite simple. The Prometheus landing (from the film of the same name) is one of my favorite shots. I always wanted to redo it.

A couple of years back, I was teaching to some students for a VFX class in Paris, and I proposed to them to recreate the shot as they were learning Houdini.

We did a pretty rough version of it in a couple of hours, and I figured that it was indeed a great exercise to practice a bit of everything, and help students to level up.

A few years later, I wanted to make it proper, and I decided to make an actual dedicated workshop based on it. And obviously, once I was launched I couldn’t help myself and I went further down the road, and added some more shots from other blockbusters that I love !

So now, it is really a complete workshop in that sense, we are going through every bit, from the very basics, from the origins of how I created that setup a decade ago for the first Guardians of the Galaxy, to how it has evolved until today (last show it’s been used for is season 2 of HALO, quite a few shots with big spaceships landing, or taking-off or hovering above the ground).

It is obviously heavily FX-oriented, but there’s a bit of all the other aspects of each other disciplines (Layout, Animation, Environment, Lighting, Compositing).

As an FX TD / Artist, it is always a good thing to be a bit generalist, to understand how to do what the other departments are doing outside of the FX department. In the long run, it helps you see the bigger picture. It helps you deliver better FX to Lighting or Compositing, because you have a better idea of their actual needs and constraints, and yeah, in the end it makes you a better artist.

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

Well, you can find me on YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn as well - obviously. And also on Discord, either on the DJA server, or on other VFX-oriented servers.

Youtube : www.youtube.com/@Fabian_Nowak_VFX

**Vimeo : https://vimeo.com/fabiannowak**

**Insta : https://www.instagram.com/fabnowak/**

Facebook : I’m admin on a few groups, such as Houdini Artists (we are a big community of about 35K people there), FX Reference, Axiom Solver User Group,, Houdini Guru, so you’ll see me there.

LinkedIn : www.linkedin.com/in/fabian-nowak-02413316

Just so you know, I will not accept friend requests from everyone trying to contact me (my Facebook “friends” are actually real-life friends, and on LinkedIn I’m connected only with people I have worked with or I’ve met).

But feel free to DM me, I’ll be more likely to reply if you get me on Discord.

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.

I’m trying to share as many tips & tricks and advice as I can with everyone.

So you’ll see for sure me jumping in on some conversation on different chat channels on the DJA server.

Anytime I can help, I try to do so.

For some websites I find useful, not gonna be very original here, but CG Wiki is definitely the Houdini bible for about anything and everything.

When in doubt, when you’re stuck somewhere, just have a go at it, and you’ll find yourself moving forward again in no time. Also, even if that sounds obvious, I’ll never stress enough how good and well organized the actual Side FX’s website is.

There is just everything there ! For every level, on every topic.

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?

There's one thing in the VFX industry : you're always learning and growing. It just never stops. I'm always learning, every single day.

It's as simple as that : if you stop learning, if you stop practicing, you're gonna start to rust. And quickly you'll become obsolete. Something from the past.

Keep in mind that the generation that is coming after yours will know more than you and much quicker than you. So if you want to stay in the game, you better watch out.

You need to stay up to date. You can not rest, being satisfied with the knowledge you have. You need to keep that knowledge relevant, and you need to look for more, stay on the edge, constantly.

It's like a knife. If you want to be able to use it properly, it needs to stay sharp. So you sharpen it as often as necessary.

GO HARDCORE OR GO HOME !

Are you a studio who is hiring?

Send us your job opening to hello@doublejumpacademy.com and you will be added to the next job openings list.

Blockbuster Shot Building

Join Fabian in this immersive workshop dedicated to mastering the art of recreating iconic sci-fi movie shots, with a spotlight on the memorable Prometheus landing scene from the 2012 blockbuster, Prometheus.

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I have worked with Urban in the Past on a workshop and with Corbin as FX supervisor during my time at ILP. They are both extremely creative, passionate and always put helping the people around them up to the for front. I couldn't imagine a better team of people to put together a school like DoubleJump. Always people and education first.

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"William goes in depth into his workflow and approach he takes to creating large scale environments, u get to understand his thinking behind the why he does things not just the how. There is some comp tricks taught along the way in nuke as well that have been helpful to apply to my own projects to elevate them just that bit more even if environments isnt my main focus. Of course as well the huge community of DoubleJump is a bonus always ready to help when u need it with a bunch of friendly folks."

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