Svetlin Tsonev, Senior Environment Modeling Artist at ReDefine, on the challenges and variety in the cinema industry
Svetlin Tsonev is a Senior Environment Modeling Artist at the international studio ReDefine and a lecturer in the VFX & Animation program at ARC Academy. He has 15 years of experience in the film industry and has worked on a number of films. Find out how assets and sets are made for films, how subtitles for the movie The Way Back were translated from Mongolian and what he wants to teach the students at ARC Academy in our conversation with him:
How did you end up in the VFX industry and what kept you in it for so many years?
I am an artist by education and profession. I graduated in painting and graphic design. For a certain period of time, I developed professionally in the second. By coincidence, I decided I didn’t want to deal with it and turned to something I love – animation. That is why I enrolled in animation directing as a master’s degree. I quickly realized that the university I was in was not for me, as the subject taught was related to classical animation. At that moment a friend of mine told me that Worldwide FX was organizing a three-month intensive school. The key here was that if you pass the course, you get the chance to be hired. That’s what I did – I stopped my master’s degree and signed up to the course.
It was difficult at the time when household expenses were going, and I had to be devoted to the course from morning to night. This is where personal motivation comes in. When you are motivated and willing, you always find a way. Accordingly, I worked as a graphic designer at night and attended courses during the day. Let’s not forget that I also had to find time to do my homework.
We started with thirty people, but after periodic screenings, the number of students decreased, so in the end the only people that left were me and my friend, with whom I applied. We both got hired.
What are your responsibilities as Senior Environment Modeling Artist at ReDefine?
The environment artist is a key position as it brings together the requirements of many departments. That is, in our jargon, it requires you to be a 3D generalist. As such, you must model the assets that are required for a given environment, texture them, and give them materiality. Assets are mostly hard-surface models, but vary quite a bit. From those of an organic nature (stones, vegetation) to objects, tools, monuments – anything that surrounds us in real life. We use a wide range of software to realize tasks, as examples I can give Maya, ZBrush, Mari, Speedtree, Houdini, Clarisse, Renderman, etc.
One of the projects you share that you are proud of is The Way Back. Could you tell us what your role was in it?
The Way Back was an interesting project to work on because it was different from what a VFX studio would normally do in post-production. There I worked as part of the pre-production of the film and in particular in the art department. The cool thing was that I was abole to work wit people who are at an exceptional level. It was directed by Peter Weir and the cinematographer was Russell Boyd. The production designer was John Stoddard, and he and the director discussed what the overall look of the film would look like.
What concerned us, in this case, were the sets, we built the concepts for. And since the film is based on a true case, they had to seem real. For example, one of our tasks was to build a Gulag camp. For this purpose, the art directors of the production provided us with pre-approved reference materials – photos. They were the starting point from which we launched. We were given the actual scale of the decor, for example, we have a lawn 500 by 500 meters. On this basis, creating the decor in a 3D environment begins. Each iteration of the decor concept is discussed in so-called production meetings. During them corrections are made, guidelines are added, and even the props and environments in and around the set are decided down to the smallest detail. At some point, a finished concept is arrived at that corresponds to the vision and concept of the film of the art director and the director.
Another example of how the sets we built in a 3D environment were used was a mine set. Although quickly it was created quite realistically as an environment. In addition to props, we even included human figures with carts for scale and atmosphere. When the cinematographer saw the 3D model of the set, he sat down with us and within 20 minutes decided where he wanted to place the cameras and what lenses to use.
When a set is approved, we push it to the production’s construction manager. The vision of the created 3D model must be presented in an appropriate technical form to the construction manager, so that he, taking the prints, can begin to make a plan for what materials and people he will need to fulfill his duties. For this purpose, detailed technical drawings of how the set elements will be assembled are prepared so that they can be understood by the team that will make them.
We had an interesting situation with the decor for an arch that was supposed to represent the Soviet-Mongolian border. What was more special about this arch was that inscriptions were to be placed on it, but written in Mongolian. Until 1940, Mongolia used its own writing system, then the Cyrillic alphabet was imposed. In the interest of authenticity in the film, the subtitles had to be translated, and of course, it was our job! We contacted the Mongolian embassy and it turned out that the only one who could help us was the then ambassador of Mongolia. The people at the embassy helped us willingly, big thanks to them!
What I liked most about this project was the wide range of requirements and the dynamism of the work. That’s why it was close to my heart, but I wouldn’t say it’s the film I’m most proud of or anything like that. I do not have such. I have projects that I like and I’m glad to have worked on, this being one of them, but I haven’t put a ceiling on myself. It’s not a good thing to do, in which case you’re done.
Have you experienced difficulties in the implementation of a project? If so, how did you overcome them?
One of the things that has kept me so long in the film industry is precisely the challenges. Difficulty in one form or another keeps me “awake” and keeps me interested. The dynamics of work and environment confront us daily with problems of a very different nature. They are often technical, conceptual, or organizational. For 15 years, I have become convinced that no matter how similar the solutions they require may seem, they are always different. That is, there are no universal solutions, and there is no typical work routine.
I also like the problems that arise and I enjoy solving them. Otherwise, everything becomes routine. Solving difficulties requires flexibility, often involves a lot of reading, watching and searching for material on the Internet, and last but not least, communication with colleagues. When I have a problem that I really have trouble solving on my own, I turn to colleagues despite my experience. That is, I put my ego aside for a moment and allow myself to get a different perspective and approach.
What is the VFX career path for a young artist?
Personal motivation is the biggest driver in everything no matter what you do, including VFX. Apart from it, the environment in which the artist will find himself and begin his development is very important. As well as the people with whom you will be surrounded.
What do you want to teach students in the VFX & Animation program at ARC Academy?
I would like to teach them what I have planned as a technical part, that is to say, they get maximum preparation for what awaits them in a real studio. I try to teach them as much as I can, understandably, as many of them are new to these things and have some difficulty at first. I want to introduce them to the fundamentals and try to stimulate them to seek what they really desire. The most important thing for me is that they continue to develop a profile that really attracts them and will give them pleasure. It is important for them to develop in the direction they want so that they can perform their tasks with motivation. Otherwise, they risk getting involved in something they are not committed to and doing their job mediocrely.
If you are interested in visual effects and animation in cinema and want to be part of the VFX & Animation program, apply to ARC Academy now.