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The VFX Factor: The Need for Resilience with David Zeevalk
Post Production
New York, USA
Assembly's co founder of VFX on the importance of planning, the influence of Jurassic Park and his big break into the industry

David Zeevalk is SVP of VFX and co-founder of the VFX division at full-service post-studio, Assembly. 

Dave is responsible for overseeing Assembly's VFX output across Feature Films, Streaming and Advertising content, ensuring Assembly's clients have access to the top artists, technological tools and creative solutions. Dave has a rich history of working at the forefront of the digital arts. 

His previous experience includes being creative director of VFX at Nice Shoes, as well as senior leadership roles at Alkemy X,Look FX and Zoic Studios. 

With nearing two decades of experience in the visual effects industry, David’s creative highlights include The Many Saints of Newark, In The Heights, The Marvellous Mrs Masel, and Game of Thrones. 

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? 

David> Both ends of the spectrum can come with their own unique challenges, no doubt. For the invisible VFX work that we do, the trick is getting seamless integration so that the work that we did tricks the audience into believing that it was caught on camera. There are several components to what we do that can make or break this illusion, but I would say that lighting is the most critical. Of course, our job is to execute all aspects of shot production flawlessly, but the human brain has an ability to gloss over certain details if lighting integration is spot on. If your lighting direction, intensity, coloration or shadowing is off, it is an immediate red flag. Tracking is relatively underrated/understated in what we do, but is another critical part of creating seamless integration. If we can match the practical camera motion perfectly, and emulate the optical effects in the practical footage, our work will sit in motion and feel as though it's a part of the practical space.

Equally, and sometimes even more challenging, is the big, glossy VFX heavy shots. As I'd mentioned above, the human brain can gloss over details that we see in the real world everyday (not that it does not notice these details, but it's a subconscious recognition of their just expects it to exist based on memory of seeing it in the real world all of the time). So, when we're asked to execute an effect that the human brain is not already trained to see regularly, it can stand out like a sore thumb as not real. Even, at times, in matching a real-world effect exactly, if it's something that we do not witness often, or ever, in the real world, it can be hard to trick a viewer into believing it's real. A nuclear explosion is a great example. Thankfully, most of us have never witnessed the impact of a nuclear explosion, so even looking at real footage, it's hard to believe the scale and force of its impact. So, to recreate that effect, even perfectly, can still be a hard sell to an audience. As a result, we will at times take creative liberties in adding details to an effect that our brain DOES recognise to assist in fooling it that the overall effect IS real.

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

David> Planning, planning, planning. Going into a shoot with a strong understanding of what the intended VFX are will allow the production team, and VFX supervisors, to make good informed decisions on how a shot is being set up to accommodate the intended effects, and ensure that the VFX work is complementing what was established practically. We're all well aware of the pace and pressure, and number of plates spinning during pre-production, so adding in-depth planning might seem daunting, but planning for VFX isn't always a long drawn out process. Bringing your VFX supervisor on early will allow them to strategise with the team the best way to plan the work and/or shoot so that planning during pre-production can move efficiently and effectively.

Now, of course, that things change on the day, so as VFX Supervisors, our job is to be adaptable and quick on our toes to identify alternate solutions, and work with the director and DP to set expectations for what is and is not possible, and at times, offer alternate solutions that can accommodate the desired effect under these new parameters.

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

David> I started learning aspects of VFX early on in high school when I got my first computer. It started with Photoshop, manipulating a person or environment. From there, I thought I had the chops to be a designer, so I worked on logos and websites...even did a little freelance stint with a screen printer. Turns out, design isn't my thing, and static images just didn't excite me. So, I took the plunge into Bryce and Poser, and soon after, 3D Studio Max. I took some of the static logos that I'd designed and turned them into 3D logo animations. 

Movies like Jurassic Park were mind-blowing for me at the time (and it still holds up now). I knew that doing this type of work for a living was where I was aiming. Come college, there weren't real options on the east coast for VFX related degrees, so I went for Media Art and Animation. Unfortunately, I wasn't thrilled about the amount of traditional drawing and lack of digital art classes, so I decided to head to California to seek a better program and get myself closer to the industry. I finished school in San Diego, where I was able to get much more training in digital art from some real industry veterans. After graduation, I was lucky to get an amazing internship opportunity that led to some amazing training and mentorships. That was really the beginning of my career starting to take form. 

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?

David> I do indeed have a similar starting point for all projects. For me, it all comes down to the bidding stage. This is the opportunity to narrow in on the creative vision that the clients have, and ask the necessary questions to hone in on the creative direction, but to also conceptualise an approach to execution, and price the shot/project accordingly. To do this accurately, and meaningfully, you need to have sat in the seats to understand the potential problems that might arise and techniques to work through those problems across multiple skill sets. Having gone through this, I am able to give my team extremely pointed direction as to where we need to go creatively, but also a trustworthy approach that will get us to the finish line successfully, on budget, and on time. 

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?

David> Well, it's a dance. Of course, we're all artists so when a creative task is ever really finished. Our job, though, is to bring our client's vision to life, so it's often the client that will identify when they're happy with the result. As a supervisor, it is our job, also, to understand that we ARE all artists, and that a line must be drawn in order to deliver the client's vision on time, and on budget.

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

David> I'm not even sure where to begin here! There is so much happening, and fast, as it relates to VFX software/technologies. The implementation of machine learning models within the industry standard software that we use is exciting. Copycat in The Foundry's Nuke, for example. It allows our artists to continue to work in an environment that they are experienced and comfortable in but offering machine learning options within their normal workflow. I'm a huge SideFX Houdini fan, as well. This software offers such robust capabilities to really push the envelope on procedural art and workflows, and it's constantly evolving and getting better.

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

David> Covid, of course, forced a major rattle and shift in our industry (as with all industries). When Covid hit, thankfully, we had already been working within a cloud environment for rendering, so making a leap over to virtual machines was not a total stretch. Doing it over a long weekend...well that was anxiety inducing, but we did it. The company that I was with at the time successfully shifted 60+ employees from in-house work to fully remote over the course of three days, with strong and aggressive planning and implementation, and major team effort. 

I feel that VFX has been primed for a major shift, though, for a long time. Our industry moves so quickly, with the advancement of technologies and tools, that we must constantly be on our toes and prepared to take a leap into new techniques and workflows. With that, we are exactly the type of industry that can make this pivot without major impact. The biggest shift, for me, that is still a work in progress is maintaining the connection and collaboration of our people. It is wildly important to us that our team feels engaged, involved...and the importance of their role within the team. Without intentional communication and connection, it is very easy for people to feel alone in the hustle.

But here we are...we've been forced into this remote workflow, and as a new company at Assembly, we have made the decision to build as a hybrid, cloud backed company, from the ground up. This is majorly beneficial, in that we do not have legacy equipment, real estate or other investments that we need to carry to EOL. We were able to set up for where our industry is today and moving to in the future. We will continue to push the envelope in evolving the artist and client experience and working hard to maintain connections and culture within the organisation.

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?

David> Resilience. We have ALL proven what is possible...that we can rapidly pivot and continue to thrive when the need arises. Also...balance. We move so rapidly in VFX that it's not always easy to find balance in work and life. Covid forced us to slow down just a little bit, and I think that that forced many of us to realise that we all NEED balance to be the best we can be for ourselves, families and co-workers at home and work.

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? 

David> I touched on this above, but my break into the industry was an internship at Zoic Studios in Los Angeles. Coming out of school, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, as I was a little older than my classmates, and had received strong reviews from the school's job placement team. When they didn't come through (...I wasn't ready...), I had to swallow my pride and take an unpaid internship, all whilst working a full-time job in San Diego. So, I drove up to LA twice a week and worked long, hard days. At first, I was carting drives from the studio to editorial/DI facilities all around town, painting walls, picking up coffee and smoothies for the team, etc. Over the course of a short time, keeping my head down and maintaining a good attitude, I started getting opportunities from producers and artists that I'd worked to make friends with. Within a few months, I was getting assigned to shots on episodic and feature jobs and slowly starting to work my way in as a part of the creative team.

The biggest lessons for me were, be humble, work hard, and network. I spent time and money that I didn't have going out to dinner and drinks after work, just to be around the people I was looking up to. Over time, I built a relationship with them and, I feel, they began to invest in wanting to see me rolling the dice and giving me a chance. Maintaining a humble attitude allowed me to be open to being critiqued and guided through better ways of doing things.

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

David> Ah man...I've been lucky to work on some great projects. I guess the big ones in my mind, though, are those that led me to even more opportunities early on in my career. Opportunities to work on some super cool, and gnarly shots for the pilot for the series Fringe and taking a bit of a lead role on the pilot for the series Flashforward really stand out, as I was thrown into work that was out of my comfort zone. But it forced me to learn quickly and absorb ideas and techniques from the strong talent around me.

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

David> I'm going to cheat here, because secretly...I'm not a huge tv or movie buff (but I love what I do in them)! I'm going to step way back.... a good 10 years ago, but this spot still pops in my head. I absolutely love the VW Black Beetle spot that The Mill had done for the Superbowl XLV. It was so well executed, and the shooting approach was incredibly well done...and just looked like a blast to ideate and be involved in.

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