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The VFX Factor: Daniel Soo on Seeing Both Sides of the Spectrum

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The Mill LA flame artist on enhancing the story, dabbling with Houdini and working on the Stars Wars Squadron trailer

The VFX Factor: Daniel Soo on Seeing Both Sides of the Spectrum

Daniel Soo is an FX artist at The Mill Los Angeles. He has worked on over 60 projects there ranging from different commercials brands, game cinematics, music videos, and real-time applications. He started learning Houdini in his hometown Singapore about 10 years ago and was inspired to pursue a career in it and has never looked back since. He is passionate about computer graphics, proceduralism, and emerging technologies.


LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those? 

Daniel> I see both sides of the spectrum with the same level of importance. At the end of the day, VFX is used to enhance the storytelling and vision of the director. However, if I have both sides of the spectrum in the project, I will prioritise more time to work on the heavy VFX shots as it has the most visual impact.


LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them? 

Daniel> Having early discussions with the VFX team and using concepts and references will be the most helpful. We can then find a good balance with the director on what can be done in the best possible way with the set amount of time.


LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?

Daniel> Growing up in Singapore, big blockbuster movies and game cinematics had a huge impact on me. I started dabbling VFX in high school, making bouncing ball animations and messing around with Maya FX pre-sets. All those are still on YouTube if you want to have a good laugh from my humble beginnings. After that, I pursued VFX undergrad at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) and was lucky enough to join The Mill as an FX Intern. Being at The Mill it gave me the opportunity and environment to hone my craft as I was surrounded with the top talents of the industry.


LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?

Daniel> At the beginning of every project there are always creative and technical challenges. For the technical, I always try to break it down in a logical and coordinated fashion and - depending on the situation - I would apply different techniques. For example, a common one would be the divide and conquer; breaking down into smaller instances of the same problem then solving them. For the creatives, I always fall back to looking at references as my core, analysing and understanding how real-world phenomena works. Whether it is looking at how nature has visible regularities which can sometimes be modelled mathematically, or just staring at a waterfall and observing the conservation of mass flow rate and surface tension. It is always fascinating to peek into nature’s behind the scenes.


LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?

Daniel> We can give a bid on how long it would take for the project based on our experience or we can work with the director or client to fit what can be done with the available time and budget. Sometimes it is also better to shoot rather than doing it in CG which can be an option that is often overlooked.


LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?

Daniel> The real-time space has been particularly exciting especially with the recent release of Unreal Engine 5. Epic Games also announced they are closely collaborating with SideFX to streamline workflows between the two software. I am looking forward to what both companies come up with. I have also been following the NFT space, this is a great platform and opportunity for artists all over the world to showcase their work and be appreciated for it.


LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.

Daniel> I personally enjoyed working remotely and was surprised how productive it was. Meetings are clearer as work is able to be presented for everyone, notes can be drawn over the video. As a team, we are also able to share screens with remote access to help diagnose and solve the issue together. As an artist I was also able to save time from travelling and love the flexibility to fit my schedule around work.


LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during Covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?

Daniel> I learned that remoting can be a double edge sword as work is so accessible from home. The artist in you wants to try something creative or send one more iteration. This can lead to burn out quickly, we need to be aware of the time and have a work-life balance. Some projects can be marathons and we should pace ourselves.


LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time? 

Daniel> I was just starting out dabbling with Houdini during my high school days and was fortunate enough to be accepted as an intern by SideFX. I learned procedural workflows and concepts which I still carry with me today. It also opened up my perspective to the VFX industry and it was a lot bigger than what I thought. This had the largest impact on me as it solidified my passion to pursue VFX as a career.

 

LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of? 

Daniel> I was proud of the Star Wars Squadron cinematics launch trailer that we did a few years back. It was always a dream of mine to work on a Star Wars IP project as I always thought the only way to work on a Star Wars IP is through ILM, a feature film studio. Luckily, The Mill is able to bring in a diverse amount of work from household brands to game cinematics IPs. The project scope was also very creative for an FX artist - fighters dogfighting in space, destroying spaceships, creating different sci-fi environments. Who doesn’t love that?


LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why? 

Daniel> Hennessy, The Seven Worlds by Ridley Scott. I’m a sucker for sci-fi and watching this ad was like a mini feature film. Really well done visually and conceptually.

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Mill LA, Thu, 11 Nov 2021 10:40:18 GMT