Effects Supervisor Risto Puukko on how he got into VFX, his advice for those new to the industry and what’s been inspiring him recently
What is your job title, and what does this role entail?
I’m an Effects Supervisor at Absolute, which means I advise, develop and craft effects such as smoke, fire and liquids for film, TV and commercials. I also manage, mentor and help facilitate the needs of a small team of effects artists at Absolute.
What have you been working on recently?
An up-and-coming supernatural thriller, The Rig, for Amazon Prime. Directed by John Strickland (Bodyguard, Line Of Duty) it follows the crew on the fictional Kinloch Bravo oil rig and has been several months in the making. We’ve produced the full gamut of FX and look forward to seeing it on the small screen later in 2022.
What inspired you to work in visual effects?
I came across 3D by a happy accident. Initially, I was an engineering student, so I first discovered CG geometry when using CAD software. After a few years pursuing digital imagery opportunities in my hometown in Finland, I decided storytelling was my biggest passion. I wanted to create props, environments and worlds in CG as a career path. Where better to embark on that path than in London?
What’s your educational background?
I have a technical degree from Polytechnic University.
Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?
I’ve always joked that I’ve been foolish enough to say ‘yes’ to pretty much anything, without the full idea of what the task entails. Luckily for me, it seems to have paid off. I’ve learnt as I’ve gone forwards and been lucky enough to have gained insight from brilliant artists and TDs along the way.
What are the main responsibilities of your job role?
- Creating effect setups for artists to run across shots
- Consulting, advising and providing technical support across effects assets (pipeline, shading, lighting etc)
- Planning and mentoring artists to create effects, as well as effect setups
- Supporting lighting when needed ,to achieve the desired look and feel
- Supporting production on bidding and scheduling
- Collaborating with the support department in order to maintain a working effects pipeline
What do you spend most of your time doing?
It depends on the project, but lately I’ve been mostly thinking about how to improve and optimise the effects asset pipeline, from both a workflow and a data IO point of view.
What do you need to be good at in your job?
A thorough understanding of the whole VFX process. Even those parts you wouldn’t necessarily consider when you think about ‘FX’. Concepting, modelling, rigging, animation, shading, lighting, compositing and grading are all relevant. But the most important attribute to have is curiosity.
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
What’s the most rewarding part?
To watch shots – especially effects-heavy ones – start to pop out from the other end of the production and to see elements come together in the way they were planned.
What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?
I honestly didn’t have any goals when I started. I just wanted to doodle and when I started to get paid for it, I thought ‘great!’.
It’s only during the last decade or so that I’ve been more focused on enhancing the different areas in my skillset, so that I have the knowledge and experience to tackle various kinds of projects and responsibilities.
Gaining confidence in your ability helps no end in achieving goals.
Do you strive to learn lots of disciplines, or are you more focused on a particular specialism? What would you say are the pros and cons of being a specialist vs a generalist?
I was a generalist for the most part of my career, but, for the last decade or so, I’ve been more focused on effects-related skills.
Pro: the understanding one gains from working in several factions of a VFX production
Con: obviously, one cannot master everything, since our brains work by forgetting things, not the other way around 😉
Pro: one automatically gains specific knowledge of the chosen field just by doing different projects
Con: you miss the bliss of knowing stuff. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’.
What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?
I love making effects that nobody notices. Invisible VFX can be integral to storylines, so those projects are my favourite.
What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?
I started a very long time ago, so I’ve seen the move from rendering NURBS to rendering polygons (yes, there was a time when polygons were not used because they were too heavy), and going from not tracing rays to full blown path tracing which we do nowadays.
From my table, the most significant thing is the sheer CPU power – the ability to do local sims and procedural setups which can turnover in minutes instead of days.
Who or what has most influenced your career and why?
Curiosity – the need to learn.
What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?
The film, ‘Dune’. I’ve watched it a few times, yet still the effects don’t ‘hit the eye’.
It is the best film effects work I’ve seen for a while. Also, the historical drama series, ‘The Gilded Age’ has a nice touch of VFX, bringing 1882 Manhattan back to life.
What project are you most proud of?
As a Team Leader, I’d have to say the ‘The Rig’, a supernatural thriller set to come out later in 2022. I’m fiercely proud of the whole team and the quality of work we’ve created.
As an Effects Artist: ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’. I truly think the team managed to create some otherworldly, beautiful VFX for that movie.
What skills are most needed in the industry today, and what do you think will be most needed in the future?
The industry always has, and always will, need individuals skilled in their chosen disciplines, who are capable of playing together in a team. We must mentor and learn from each other in order to achieve our goals.
What sort of core skills are valuable in VFX?
The recognition that this is a service industry. It’s important to always manage expectations and always over-deliver.
What resources would you recommend to aspiring VFX artists?
I’m pretty old-fashioned – I used to buy books, and I’d still recommend it. Video tutorials are not (often) a complete waste of time, but one needs to remember: who has time to make video tutorials?
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Never stop learning – you don’t know what it’s like before you get in, and then once you’re in, you start to realise how much you really don’t know. 🙂 Give it time.