Behind the scenes with a VFX artist: creating realities, one frame a time

Published:  February 22, 2016
Jamuna Raj

Alexandre Lopes Cancado

Luma Pictures‘ 2D supervisor Alexandre Lopes Cancado is part of this year’s Gnomon Live Australia speakers line-up. He shares with us the challenges of the industry and the skills needed to overcome them.




After dabbling in music, teaching dance, working in a circus and studying advertising, Alexandre Lopes Cancado embarked on his visual effects  (VFX) career when he enrolled in Gnomon – a visual effects school in Los Angeles that has earned the title as “the MIT of visual effects” by Fast Company magazine. For over 15 years, Gnomon has educated many of the world’s best digital artists and Cancado is one of its graduates.

He joined Luma Pictures about 11 years ago and since then he has had over 60 film and television credits to his name including blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Harry Potter And The Half Blood PrinceAvengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor, X-Men: First Class and very recently, Deadpool, delivering nearly 200 shots including the scrapyard fight sequence, enhancing the action with dig-doubles, gore, weapon replacements, muzzle flashes and ordnance simulations.

Cancado, now a 2D supervisor at Luma Pictures, is part of the speakers line-up at this year’s Gnomon Live Australia – an immersive event from 4 – 6 March at Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne with California-based artists who will share the strategic thinking and practices in motions studios.


desktop caught up with Cancado recently to learn more about his experience in the film industry, the tedious and challenging VFX processes in films and what it takes to be a VFX artist today.

How did your VFX career start? Did you always wanted to work in films?

I was actually doing a major in marketing and advertising in college and I was exposed to a little bit of editing when I went into the labs at school. I started out with some small non-linear, old school programs and then I got into linear editing. I never worked in advertising once I graduated. Instead I started to work in small studios back in my hometown Belo Horizonte in Brazil. That’s when I discovered 3D and fell in love. I decided to enroll for the 3D course at Gnomon in LA.

It was a new school back then. But they were starting this full time program and I went there for a couple of weeks ad I completely fell in love with the whole 3D editing world. And I met Gnomon’s founder Alex Alvarez and some of the heads at Gnomon and as a joke I gave them my little demo reel I had for my motion graphics work. A few months after I was back in Brazil, they called me and said “hey so we’re starting to pick few students for the next term and we really like your work and want to see if you’re interested”. I didn’t think twice and dropped everything, sold everything I had and moved to LA.

I finished that course with them and did some freelance work with a few studios. It wasn’t until a few weeks after my time at Gnomon, I got a call from Luma for an interview. It was love at first sight for both Luma and me. I loved what they were doing and they loved my work. It’s been 11 years since.

And what was your first feature film there?

I had worked on some short films and commercials before Luma. But my first ever feature was The Cave. And I worked on that as a junior lighting compositor.

Luma_Pictures_2There’s so much of work that goes into making a film. From the directing and acting points of views but there’s so much more going on behind-the-scenes, especially in the editing studios. Could you share with us what are some of the VFX process that goes into a film?

There’s a lot of different departments when it comes to editing and usually the bigger the studio, there will be more departments. But in smaller studios, it’s pretty much one guy or a few of them who take over an entire shot and do everything in there, which is pretty cool and I do some of that on the very rare occasion. These guys are called the generalists.

Then the bigger the studio becomes, the departments get split up further as people specialise further. And so there’s the modeling department – the people who design the creatures or sets in clay and what have you. Then there’s the texturing department although in some studios the modeling department and texturing department sort of crosses over. And then there’s the riggers – these are the guys who create the structures in the models so that they can be animated. The animators then grab everything, move them around and give life to the models. The effects artists create all the explosions, particles, dust, all the snow and all the fine elements that we have in the environment. And once these things are done, they get approved by their individual supervisors and of course by the VFX supervisor. And then the files will be sent into lighting. So the lighting department will create the lights, similar to those you see on set. This bit is my passion. So the lighters make make things look as close as possible as how they were shot and lit in the actual environments.

I forgot about the trackers. The tracking department figure out how the cameras and characters are moving. These guys are very important and they don’t get the credit they deserve.

Now after this, the compositors will grab that lighting and those renders for the effects, for the characters and the environments and they will do the final touches and make sure every detail looks real and matches the plate.

Luma_PicturesThat’s a lot of people working on one shot! How long does it usually take for a studio to go through this entire process?

It depends. There are shows where we’re called in to help out on five shots or it could be three to four months for the work. Or the studio could hire us a year in advance and we have about eight months of work from the first look to the final files. It depends on how soon in the production we’re called in and what’s required from us. Sometimes the studio will hire us and they’re already almost at the end of the production but they have new shots or a new script. Many movies have more than one studio working in the films.

Now that we’re talking about the movies you’ve done, you have a long list of blockbusters to your credit. What was your most challenging film to date?

The lame answer would be almost every show is a new challenge. But it’s true. There’s always different little challenges in each film. When we did Pirates Of The Carribean, we had to create the ropes and each thread of rope had to have different details and some of them were so close to camera, that we had to model them and animate based on the characters. But that was about six years ago, so probably today it won’t be as challenging if we did that.


Image still from the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Because of the knowledge or the technology available today?

Both. With every new challenge, you have to create knowledge to solve that. And with that knowledge you have to create new technology and once you have that in place, you might have to update that in three to four years because a new project you’re working on requires denser technology to create a better effect. There are always new challenges on each project and every time you win that challenge, the next time you do something similar it becomes less challenging. But that’s the beauty of this business. It’s always changing. There’s new ideas, new visions from directors and new ways of doing things.

Do you watch the films you worked on in the theaters?

I don’t watch all of them. I’m gonna tell you the truth. Working on visual effects is really cool but we do come across films that do not rely on plot as much as they do on CGI. I don’t watch most of the films but what I do have this ritual of buying the DVD of every movie I’ve worked on. They’re at home and some of them are still in the packaging. I do keep them and once day I might watch them because different movies have marked my career throughout the years.

Luma_Pictures_6In that case, what are the top three movies, not necessarily those that you’ve worked on, that have the best VFX, in your opinion?

I have a question in response. Do you want to know the movies I thought had the best VFX or the movies that have changed my life?

Oh. You caught me there! The latter…

(Laughs). Here you go:

The old Starwars. I’m starting with them because they came out when I was growing up and were my favourite movies ever. They marked me and my childhood. I’m a huge fan so much so that I wanted to name my son Luke Skywalker Cancado but my wife was not having it. So we compromised and his name is Luke Cancado.

Then it’s The Last Starfighter. This movie does not have the best visual effects but it is one of the first computer generated movies ever and when I was growing up there was a constant rerun of this during the afternoons. I used to watch this and go “oh my god! How did they do that?” But it’s funny because if you watch that movie now the effects look like cubes and there’s no shaders whatsoever. But this one marked me.

And lastly, The Matrix. This is just… wow. I went into the theatre and I was already working in 3D. I had come to the cinemas with a former girlfriend and was supposed to watch a romantic comedy but that got sold out and I just bought the tickets to The Matrix. I had not seen the posters for The Matrix even but I walked out that cinema with my mind blown. It completely changed me.

Luma_Pictures_4What are your top tips to aspiring VFX artists?

Well, there are two type of movies these days. One is the feature films and the other type is the cartoon-type films. My tip is to try either having a little bit of both types in your demo reels or focus on that one type that you really want to work in. Although these two types use the same softwares, and the same tech, they’re different styles and so show the different sets of skills.

The other tip is that you must be sure that this is what you want for a career. You’ve to be passionate, as you should be in all that you do. VFX is a lot of work and a lot of hours. You have to be sure that this is for you.

What will you be speaking about at Gnomon Live?

Well my topic is something similar to our conversation. My main goal is to talk to people about my career and why I do what I do. But it will be more in-depth such as how studios work and because I am a part of the hiring process at Luma Pictures, I want to spend some time talking to people about what we look for in artists and what people can do to improve not just their introduction into the market but if they’re already in the industry, how they can improve to make the transitions from commercials to films and so on.

And there will also be a small demo about how I go about creating more photo reel work. It’s not gonna be an intense demo because I don’t want people taking naps during my session but I will be talking about the little things I look for an the easy things people can do that will attract the eye of the reviewer.

To learn more about Gnomon Live Australia, click here. 

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