“Attention to detail” is a very important aspect of filmmaking, that is, ensuring that every frame is not only visually rich but remains true to its “make believe” world !

Sankara Subramaniam, our next pathbreaker, Visual Effects Artist, trains and develops a strong team specialising in Roto/Prep, the major departments in Visual Effects that are responsible for producing high quality output.

Sankara talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about being fascinated by creative visuals in Jurassic park, Titanic on the big screen and deciding to combine his interest in Arts and Visualization to pursue a career in Visual Effects in movies.

For students, as technologies get more and more advanced, several opportunities open up in Visual Effects, with a focus on creating breathtaking visuals that complement storytelling ! Read on …

Sankara, tell us about Your background?

I was born in Tenkasi, a district near Courtallam, South Tamilnadu, which was a place surrounded by nature with vast mountains and a lot of water falls. As a student, I always had a great passion towards art and visualization. Because of that, i ended up being a good scorer in tamil language with just my listening skills. I never studied the subject when the teacher taught us or narrated the story, thanks to the perfect visuals in my mind. I got several prizes in painting competitions, because of my painting skills and strong creativity. Apart from this i was involved in school volleyball, long jump and other extracurricular activities in school day functions (acted characters in few tamil epics) because of my language skills. Overall I was an average student having a wide range of thoughts in my mind apart from the academics.

Even today I remember, in a class strength of 33 students, most of them are engineers and few are doctors. I am one of the few (7 of 33) who went for an arts degree.

Apart from school, I always loved reading comics, children’s books and playing cricket which played a major role in me evolving as a leader with a positive spirit and strategic approach to achieving my goals in my life.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Due to lack of exposure to art careers in those days, I studied Bsc biochemistry for my undergraduate. I got good marks in chemistry and Biochemistry/Biotechnology was hot in the job market in those days.

I completed my degree in American college, Madurai which was 150 kms away from my native. I used to observe a lot of beautiful landscapes while travelling by bus during weekends.

The American College has a great history of heritage and culture for more than hundred years and has produced several great people for the country. The college environment taught me artistry and lateral thinking about life. After I graduated from college I planned to move to photography to become a  creative ad photographer. But due to my financial situation, I decided to take up post graduation in biochemistry in PSG arts, Coimbatore. Even though I was not involved in the degree, I just wanted to complete post graduation to survive.

I also studied a year-long multimedia course at Arena Multimedia in  Chennai which covers everything from graphic design to 3D. I chose this course to understand multimedia better. I also did not want to repeat the same mistake i made in the past, which was to learn things because of other circumstances around me.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

The sudden demise of my father turned my life upside down. That is when I took a bold decision with self confidence. I decided that I did not want to take up my father’s bank job. Subsequently, I entered the multimedia industry where my art and photography interests were integrated. After I moved to chennai, I started learning a course in multimedia, balancing my expenditure through a graphic/web design job on the side.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path?

Creative visuals always fascinated me. The experiences of watching Jurassic park, Titanic on the big screen pushed me onto the path of visual effects in movies. So I started exploring that world and found an area called “matte painting” where photography and art meet. I initially started out doing amateur pieces of matte paintings and a few concept sketches in photoshop, and with that i started searching for a job in visual effects.

Through my close friend Mr Javed, I met Mr.Zameer Hussain in order to learn visual effects compositing. He guided me to get a vfx job opportunity. In those days there were not many vfx opportunities. I started my vfx career in a  vfx company called FRAMEFLOW which was handling international hollywood works. 

In the broad spectrum of VFX, there are basically 2D and 3D departments.

2D depts  include Roto, Prep ,DMP, Motion design,Compositing etc..whereas 3D depts include Modelling, Texturing ,Rigging, Animation ,fx and lighting.

I Started as a Roto artist in “Nightmare before Christmas”, in which we need to extract the characters / buildings/ objects from the input. So that we can add anything behind that. 

For eg : If you need to add a dinosaur behind a parked car in a street, you need to roto the car, lamp post, people crossing in that area to make it look realistic. Roto work is laborious, but we can’t think of visual effects without Roto.

After a year, FRAMEFLOW was acquired by Sony Imageworks, USA. After that i got a chance to move to the Prep Dept where we clean up the footage by removing unwanted objects such as rigs, wires, crew etc… Even though Prep looks like a cleaning or erasing job, but in IAM LEGEND or any kind of apocalyptic movie, Prep will play a major role in removing all signs of life . Removal and recreation work will sharpen your eye in terms of observation skills.

After moving to MPC, Bangalore, i worked as a Prep Team lead + Compositor. A compositor needs to think creatively and should be  good in understanding colour. You need to have good problem solving skills. Compositing work is the combining of all elements from separate sources as input, to achieve a photorealistic scene or look, matching with colour, lighting, defocus etc. It may also involve adding a new picture in the photo frame, like adding transformers in the New York streets.

I then moved from MPC, and joined as 2D supervisor at BOTVFX, Chennai  where i had to take care of Roto/Prep as well as a few compositing works . I worked in “AFTER EARTH”, “FLIGHT” etc. Here I started from scratch, to a team of 280 people. Working here for 9 years, i got the opportunity to travel to many countries such as Canada, London to  meet clients as well as to understand their artistic approaches. In 2009 ,we started a Roto department and then in 2011, a Prep dept and slowly in 2016 we started Compositing. Here i got an opportunity to evolve as a leader, improve my people skills, develop good communication ,and project management skills.

I Strongly believe that people grow in tough situations, not in comfortable zones. I made up my mind to move from BOT to DNEG (Double Negative), to learn more. I worked there as senior compositor in “Deadpool” , “2.0”, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and lead a few shows like “Hanna”, “Mrs Wilson” etc..

In 2.0, i worked in the farmhouse eagle fight and climax stadium sequences that were created in Chennai.

How did you get your first break?

I applied to a company “FrameFlow” and went for several rounds of interviews for almost a month. It is very hard to get selected, because it was the only company handling visual effects work for Hollywood in South India.

Since i had to attend various rounds in interviews and needed to travel 70 kms up and down from the city, i was not able to continue my current job. At one point of time, there was nothing in my hand. I lost my current job and there was no sign of getting a Hollywood job. Apart from my family, my friends Mr. Raviselvan and Mr.Prakash helped me lot in those days.

But I believe that hard work always pays. I got a call from Mr.Deepak Bohra from FrameFlow, offering me a 3 month contract, which was very new to me at that time. I prepared myself to take that challenge. I started working as a Roto Artist in FrameFlow which later became Sony Imageworks, India.

After finishing a project “The nightmare before Christmas” for the company Industrial light and magic, i started working in my first BIG hollywood film “Spiderman -3”.

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

As a person we will always face challenges in our life which will push our limits to the next level.

Challenge 1: In those days, getting an entry into the field of visual effects itself was a big challenge for me. After getting an entry, proving myself in a given task which was completely new to me and also developing myself as a multi talented artist was another big task. I did It slowly and consistently by balancing both the sides. Working in the Roto department, learning prep and compositing in my free time helped a lot in my career.

Challenge 2: After getting recognized in Sony Imageworks and MPC, Bangalore, I got an opportunity from Mr.Deepak Bohra to handle the team in BOT VFX as 2D supervisor in 2009. At that time we didn’t have people experienced in Hollywood projects. So, taking the right people and developing them consistently and proving ourselves in the given task, with freshers, was a himalayan task. We did it as a team with high energy and teamspirit in a very limited environment. We finished 150 shots in “INVICTUS” which was a landmark in the BOTVFX history. 

Challenge 3: In 2018, moving from the position of a supervisor to artist, for learning, was another internal challenge. I did that move again with my confidence, which helped me learn new things, i.e, learning about the making of hollywood film from the concept to the final output.That exposure was much needed for my development at that time.I learned a lot and managed in a reasonable way, which made me an independent VFX artist in all aspects.

After 15 years of experience handling various hollywood films, commercials and many personal projects, evolving again to new trends in visual effects is an ongoing effort. I am also learning new tools and understanding the evolution of the industry, sharpening my 2D and 3D skills to face the challenges to become a successful vfx supervisor in the future. I always believe in hardwork and updating my knowledge, which will eventually help us to address the future challenges.

Where do you work now?

I am currently working as a 2D vfx supervisor and head of training (2D) at BOTVFX, Coimbatore. I am currently focusing on training and developing a strong Roto/prep team. Roto and Prep are one of the major departments in visual effects. Every shot/ sequence/ project is a new experience for us. The approaches and the learnings from the past will always help, but every shot is a new shot. Understanding the context of the story/sequence, splitting the tasks in a sensible way will help solve issues. Since it’s a creative industry, estimating /forecasting the problem will not always be possible. Something unexpected will always arise, which can be managed through work experience.

Observation, Visualization and Artistic skills, which include understanding of color and light, are the key skills for a VFX Artist. Other than that, software/tools knowledge will help grow in the career. Art skills will come through consistent practice and effort, the same thing being applicable to VFX as well.

My typical day starts with estimation of new projects, communicating client feedback to the artists and vice versa. When we start a new project, our major focus will be to check the quality of the shots delivered everyday. My role is in helping and motivating the artists in the technical and planning department in order to produce high quality output.

This job is all about supporting / visualizing the concepts which the director expects based on the story. Since I love to visualize things, everyday is a new day for me.

How does your work benefit society?

As everyone knows, we are in the entertainment industry, making people happy with cinematic moments. Of course, though kids are crazy about superheroes, even adults are fond of superheroes and sci-fi movies. So we are bringing happiness through Art.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

“Spiderman 3” and “I am a legend” always excite me when i watch tv with my kids. Apart from this, “Invictus”, “In the heart of the sea”, “chappie”, “justice league”, “strangerthings” are my most memorable projects.

Apart from my professional work, “Kala Payanam” , is one of my favourite short films, in which i worked as a VFX Supervisor in 2018. Thanks to Mr. Ranjith who worked with me and also my Director Mr.Karthickeyan velappan.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Visual Effects is an industry that requires a lot of patience and hard work. It’s nothing less than making a film. Creativity and software knowledge helps you to sustain yourself here. This industry is purely based on performance and skills of the artist. When you are moving to a high level, people skills, project planning and communication helps a lot in growing faster.

As a visualizer you should have a big dream of reaching a level/position of VFX Supervisor/ VFX Producer/ VFX Entrepreneur/VFX Filmmaker in the next 15 -20 years.

Future Plans?

My future plans are to be involved in creating short films /concepts with international vfx standards in story and visuals and keep inspiring art and inspiring others through the art.

Thanks again

Sankara subramanian.

Here is the trailer of kaala payanam:


Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sankara-subramanian-t-072a179/

Facebook: Sankaravfx / 9790951172