VFX Interview: Ethan Zhao
September 11, 2018 – Ethan Zhao is an VFX Compositing Supervisor and Art Director at Ingenuity Studios in Hollywood, CA. His career highlights include her work on Taylor Swift’s VMA-nominated “Look What You Made Me Do”, along with Taylor Swift “Ready For It”, Tyler The Creator’s “See You Again”, Billie Eilish’s “Lovely”(with Khalid) (“lovely” the whole video texturing, lighting and rendering was done in vray for nuke), Jennifer Lopez – “Dinero”, “Get Out” and many more.
Today, he talks to us today about his work experience of VFX Industry.
// From Ethan Zhao, VFX Compositing Supervisor & Art Director, Ingenuity Studios
Please describe what you do.
Hi my name is Ersi known as Ethan, I’m a VFX Art Director. I work closely with the director, producer, and VFX supervisor to create the visual style of each project. Once we have chosen a “look”, I prepare master templates for the artists, and help the compositors, FX artists, and CG artists to create the look and maintain continuity across the project.
What sparked your interest in digital art? How would you describe your art?
I actually started off studying architecture engineering design. When designing, I sometimes felt limited by building regulations and codes we had to follow, which could make designs take an expected form rather than a novel one. Which is kind of sad. But in my studies I discovered the beauty of creating a digital environment. I think it was the unlimited freedom I enjoyed most. Digital art gives us the ability to create a completely different world, all stemming from our own imagination.
I think that digital art has the power to make people feel excited, to feel something different from their day-to-day life, and persuade people to do something different. No matter art form you choose, there will be a message that comes out of what you create, and that is the most important part of art. It’s not all about skills, it’s about how we use art to communicate, to affect others, to make people think and share. For me, to achieve this goal, I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn.
What are some of the projects you have worked on / clients or studios you’ve worked with?
I worked on Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning film, “Get Out”, the Billie Ellish music video, “Lovely”, Tyler, the Creator’s “See You Again” video, and many other productions including Sony Pictures Television, Legendary Studios, Universal Television, CBS Television Studios, Warner Bros Television, Marvel Studios (domestic television), Walt Disney Televison, and ABC Studios on many TV shows.
What kind of projects would you like to work on in the near future?
Personally, I love to work on creative projects which give you all the possibilities to create something different and unique, and always keep my mind fresh and new.
Whose work (both past and present) do you really admire and why?
Oh there are so many, recently I think Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Annihilation, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, and Arrival. In Nolan’s “Interstellar” I love the way they balance the VFX and the story. Most people will never know how much VFX work is put into most shows. They are invisible, and thats the charm of VFX.
What’s the most important tool you think is the best for vfx?
I use Nuke as my main tool for years now, but also I use whatever will help speed up the process, like Cinema 4D, Houdini. I think knowing about all the useful tools is a basic skillset for all the artists, right?
How was the experience to working in VFX Art Director/Compositing Supervisor?
It’s all about team work! The most challenging part is figuring out how to manage the schedule with the producers while also helping the director to achieve their vision. TV shows and music video productions are always fast paced, we often need to turn around 100 shots in one or two days and it requires us to sometimes extrapolate from the notes and predict what the director will want. VFX truly is the team work, everybody has their own talent to contribute, and the more time you have, the better chance you have to make something incredible.
What was your Best VFX project worked for? What was the Art Challenges in this project?
Hard question. I think the most challenging one was Taylor Swift’s “Ready For It” music video. This project we needed to get from concept to final in just 4 weeks. So every thing has to be in a fast pace. We created the whole CG environment, over 10 different creature and robots designs, FX simulations of lightning, a plasma attack, floating orbs, and a robot transformation. The art direction and scope of the work had to change multiple times to meet the deadline. I needed to continue work on new looks with the VFX Supervisor, Grant Miller, and director, Joseph. But you feel very satisfied after seeing what you achieved during the whole process. I mean what can you do in 4 weeks, this is it.
What do you like to do away from the computer?
My mind is always very busy. Some of my friends calling me a learning machine because outside of work I always love to learn new skills. I’m checking new art forms to fill my time. And also as an old habit, I like to check interior and architect designs. I also love playing basketball, which gives me some time to think outside work.
Can you tell us a little about your process on the Taylor Swift’s VMA-nominated “Look What You Made Me Do”?
Taylor Swift’s VMA-nominated “Look What You Made Me Do” video definitely was a challenging project. Each sequence presented very different technical challenges. Our goal is to always exceed the director’s expectations, and to do that here we relied on a mixture of art direction and intuition.
Take the graveyard sequence as a example. The great practical set design gave us a perfect starting point. For this sequence, we needed to create an entire CG scene that would match the complex set lightning and design. To make it visually interesting and stylized, we studied the set lighting and textures and built upon those. Eventually we built a huge fully textured CG grave yard environment, which gave us the flexibility to design the camera angle for each specific shot. We added so many tiny details to the grave yard, simulating swirling leaves, clouds, dust, bird feathers, fog, and lightning to give the scene movement and life.
The plastic army scene is probably my favorite. We had multiple plates and set photography for all these army girls. We used this material to do the set extension and create a large army from just a few girls for close up shots. For the wide angle shots, we rendered a full cg army instead. Changing the girls’ skin to the plastic texture definitely is the tricky part. I referenced the shapes, shadows, and highlights on plastic surfaces, and how light interacts on plastic curves, seams, and indentations. In order to achieve the final look, I combined multiple cg renders with different lighting until we found the perfect shape for every single girl.
Can you tell us a little about your process on “lovely” , “see you again”?
I was very happy to work on the music video for Billie Ellish’s “Lovely”, which is a really “lovely” song! Due to the very short deadline and to give the project more flexible control, I used V-Ray for Nuke to create the CG environment instead of going through our whole pipeline process. The big challenge here is set up an artistfriendly master comp for the 5,000 frame render in Nuke. In this case, we re-projected all of the glass texture and reflections in comp to save on render time.
For Tyler, The Creator’s “See You Again”, Tyler had his very own creative approach on the video. To achieve his vision, we experimented with multiple looks for the sequence, testing different skies and times of day. We built a whole CG aircraft carrier for the set extension and also for the “snap zoom shot” where we quickly zoom out from Tyler in the porthole to the rowboat. For this shot, we also stitched FX ocean surface to the water in the plate.
Which direction would you like to take your career in the near future?
Thank you for the interview, I really enjoy it.
I’m very excited about future, I love my job. I wanna work with all the talents and new projects, and also excited about how new tech gonna change this industry.
Thanks for your time, Ethan Zhao!
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