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Fire Without Smoke | Compositing Pro Tips with Hugo Guerra

Joey Korenman

Nuke is the better tool...

...for compositing. After Effects is king in many areas (like animation) that are important to us Motion Designers, but Nuke is a far more powerful tool for compositing things like VFX and 3D passes. Now, as a Motion Designer you might think that knowing compositing is a waste of your time, but if you’ve hung around School of Motion long enough you know that compositing is a super important skill that every MoGrapher should know at least a little bit of. Not only will you be able to land more jobs, you’ll also be able to think like a compositor which is a very valuable skill to have in your arsenal.

Compositing Pro-Tips from a Master.

In this episode of our Podcast Joey is going to pick the brain of Hugo Guerra, who is an absolute compositing genius. Hugo is so good at what he does that he ran the entire Nuke division at The Mill in London. He also has a YouTube channel called Hugo’s Desk where he shows you how to composite like a pro. Hugo drops a TON of knowledge bombs in this one and by the end of it you’ll be itching to dive deep into the compositing world, and maybe even learn some Nuke yourself.

Show Notes


Hugo's Website

Hugo’s Desk YouTube Channel

Hugo's fxphd Course

fxphd Article about Hugo


The Mill

Fire Without Smoke

ILM (Industrial Light & Magic)

Roger Deakins




FlameShake (Discontinued)


Video Copilot

Red Giant Trapcode



The Art and Science of Digital Compositing

The Foundry Nuke Tutorials

Steve Wright Lynda Tutorials

Episode Transcript

Joey: When you think about it, motion designers have to know a ton of stuff to be really good. Here at "School of Motion" we try to help MoGraphers become generalists, artists that can design, animate, do some 3-D, do some compositing, maybe a little editing because whether or now you actually do all of those things, knowing how to do them makes you a better motion designer. You're more flexible. You understand the full scope of jobs and all of the pieces tend to reinforce each other.

Most After Effects artists have had to pull a key before, maybe do some motion tracking or color correct a 3-D render but do you really understand compositing? Do you know the difference between a straight and a pre multiplied color channel? Do you know why compositing in float or 32-bit is useful? Do you know how to properly use a depth path? These are all things a compositor knows and today on the show we will be hanging out with an amazing compositor named Hugo Guerra. Hugo is so good at Nuke he actually ran the Nuke department at The Mill in London and lead a team of over 30 artists on VFX heavy jobs.

He's now a director and visual effects supervisor at Fire Without Smoke, a company that produces game cinematics, trailers and other video content. Hugo also runs a YouTube channel called "Hugo's Desk" where he drops knowledge, mother loving bombs about Nuke and compositing by walking you through real jobs he's done. He's an awesome teacher, incredibly knowledgeable about compositing and really funny and he also knows After Effects. We talk a lot about the differences between the two and when you might decide you need to add Nuke to your arsenal. There's a ton of geekery in this episode. I hope you love it. Here is Hugo Guerra.

Hugo, thanks so much for coming on, man. I cannot wait to pick your brain.

Hugo Guerra: Oh, man. It's great to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me. I can't wait as well.

Joey: Yeah, no problem. We are a motion design company and I've always thought of the world of VFX and compositing to have a little bit of overlap with that but it can also kind of be its own separate world. You're more in that world than the world that I was working in during my pre "School of Motion" career. Just for our listeners who are unfamiliar with what you do and your history, I'm wondering if you can just kind of give us an overview of how you got to be the compositor you are and what are you doing these days?

Hugo Guerra: Okay, cool, cool. I don't want to take too much time because it's a long story but it all kind of starts in Portugal. I'm Portuguese, was born in Portugal and I've always loved films. My love for filmmaking and I always have a home camera and I was always shooting little short films and everything. From there, I kind of grew that love and went to an art school in Portugal and then there I did an art degree. I did fine arts, typical thing where you do painting, you do sculpting, you do video art, you do a lot of silly things, you get drunk a lot as well. For a couple of years I was doing a art degree there en it was inside the school that I really started playing around with Premier and playing around with After Effects and playing around with softwares. At the time we had these old Matrox video cards, like really old R 2,000. Also it was like Mac G4s, Mac G4s and G3s but it started kind of there.

From there I started, to pay my bills, started doing some films on the side, started doing some corporate films, started doing some music videos for the local bands. That was when I was like 19 years old, 20 years old, long time ago unfortunately. I started like that and once it started the ball rolling and I opened my own company when I finished my degree, I started just doing a lot of corporate films. I did some webbings. I did some music videos and things just started evolving and evolving. I started doing local TV spots and then I started doing national TV spots.

Then once I reached kind of the limit of what I could do in Portugal, because Portugal is a very sunny and beautiful country but very tiny in terms of visual effects or even in filmmaking. It's a very small market. It's only like 9 million people so I left Portugal to try to pursue a better career. I sent my show reel to every place I could, ended up in Sweden so I worked in Sweden for three years as an art director, back then using a lot of After Effects and using a lot of Photoshop and doing a lot of motion graphics, especially. Spent three years there. It was way too cold for me. I love Sweden, it's a really beautiful place but on the first winter I thought it was really nice because it was like a white Christmas and everything but then on the second Christmas, things weren't so funny.

Joey: It gets old.

Hugo Guerra: It gets old, exactly. You start getting minus 20, minus 15 on your face. It starts to become a bit painful. After three years of working as an art director in Sweden near Stockholm I kind of left and I came to London where it was back then, this was 2008 when I moved to London so it's almost 10 years now. London was really the peak of visual effects. There was a big place my dream was always to work at The Mill so that was always my intent, you know. Came into London, started working as a visual effects supervisor on a children's TV show for the BBC and then I became a freelancer for a lot of companies in London but the majority of the time I was freelancing at Nexus Production which is a really cool animation studio in London as well. Then I was always freelancing to The Mill. The Mill was still using Shake back then quite a lot when I came in as a freelancer.

They were just about to start the Nuke department and I started doing a lot of senior jobs inside The Mill so then the questions started. Someone, some point the managing director took me to his office and said, "You know, we really appreciate your work. Would you be happy to just push the Nuke department forward?" Back then it was like a small Nuke department. It was mostly then [inaudible 00:06:31] all the work, mostly done in After Effects, mostly done in Shake. I started creating what was the Nuke department which was already opened by my predecessor which was Darren. He was like the first head of Nuke but then I became the head of Nuke either the second one and then we started building a team and we reached a peak of 30 people. It was a really big team. Together we did hundreds and hundreds of commercials at The Mill with that department, about 30 people in Nuke. I think pretty much that came into the building at some point passed through my department at some stage.

That was five years of my life and I really loved my time at The Mill but now I have left The Mill. I left The Mill because I wanted to start becoming a director. I wanted to become more supervisor. I was already a supervisor at The Mill but I couldn't really direct there because we were a production company so I moved on and my love of video games kind of took me to where I am now. Currently I'm a director and a supervisor at Fire Without Smoke which is a brand new company in London and we only work in the games industry. We do cinematics. We do trailers. We do games, marketing. We do every single campaign that you can think of of triple A games. I'm sorry this was a very long story but try to make it as concise as possible and of course I omitted quite a lot of things.

Joey: It's good and I can definitely relate to the feeling of getting sick of winter. I had my own experience moving from Massachusetts to Florida where I live now.

Hugo Guerra: Oh wow. That's awesome.

Joey: Yeah, the two extremes in more ways than one. I have so many questions about what you just said. There was a whole lot of things in there I wrote down. First of all, I just wanted to throw out for anyone who doesn't know what Shake is, Shake is a compositing app and I believe it's not even around anymore. It used to be owned by one company, then Apple bought it, they quit developing it and people were devastated when it stopped being developed because it was a great compositing app. It was node based just like Nuke. One of my old business partners used to use it all the time. He loved it and then Nuke came along and it filled in the gap and now Nuke is the king of the node based compositing app. You mentioned Flame also and we've talked about Flame a couple times on this podcast. Is Flame still used in your industry?

Hugo Guerra: Yeah, it is. Flame is very used in London, very used, especially at NPC, especially at The Mill. The Mill has 20 Flame suites and still fully working to this day but now we're starting to have some Nuke suites as well so it's kind of shifting. Most of my experience in London has been working in commercial TV spots and short term so Flame has always been a big part of that just because it's so fast and it's so quick for clients to come in to come to the suite and just to go through the shots.

For people that don't know, Flame is like a one turnkey package, like the old school turnkey packages. You basically have one machine that does everything. It can form, it can do editorial, it can do sound mixing, it can do compositing, it can do 3-D. It can do everything in one package and this is kind of an old school approach which we had maybe 10, 15 years ago but Flame has evolved with the times as well and now, at least at The Mill, we usually did most jobs with both applications living together. You're going to find out when you start talking more with me now on this podcast that I'm not a very big fan of softwares. I'm very agnostic to softwares so pretty much at The Mill we used every single thing we could find. That's pretty much it.

Joey: That's a great way to look at it. Be software agnostic because it really is all about the software is the tool. It's not the artist. The artist is the important thing. On that note, my audience, "School of Motion" audience, most of us use After Effects 95% of the time, even if we get something shot on a green screen and we need to track it, do some color correction, some roto, we're just used to After Effects. That's what we use and it seems like it can do everything that we need. What does a Nuke artist do that is different than what the typical After Effects does?

Hugo Guerra: I think there's kind of two different worlds of Nuke really, if you think about it, because there's the Nuke for film and there's the Nuke for commercials. I think the Nuke side of commercials, which is the one I'm more intimately connected to, it's much more connected with After Effects. It's much more similar to After Effects. Then there's the film side. The advantage of Nuke really, and again, I'm software agnostic and I really love Nuke because it's the best thing I can use right now but I've used After Effects before as well so I don't want to come across as a person that prefers one over the other but, to that note, Nuke really has a lot of functionalities that lack on After Effects.

For example, you have a pipeline tool so you can do custom tools. You can deploy the tools to all the teams because it's all Python based and so just that fact allows you to have a team of 30 people like I had at The Mill which allows people to work on similar shots or share shots around. It's something quite difficult to do in After Effects and also in a pipeline scenario, you would have freelances coming in working on, say, [shotan 00:12:03] and the freelancer would go away and then another freelancer comes in, works on [shotan 00:12:07] again.

The modular approach of Nuke really allows you to bring in and out compositors and bring in and out peoples and also scale the team quite large because it's all based on a workflow. It's all based on a pipeline. I think that together with a cerebral way of thing, because node based compositing is a very cerebral way of connecting nodes. It's like a little paper where you make some ideas on a piece of paper. I think it's mostly the pipeline that really makes it so different from After Effects. Everything else is kind of similar.

Joey: Yeah, I'd love to hear a little bit more about that because I have been on projects where there's 10, 15 people all working on a 30-second spot in After Effects and you're right. It gets really tricky so I'm wondering if you can sort of flesh that out a little bit. How does it get easier in Nuke? How is After Effects built in the way that makes it difficult to do things like that?

Hugo Guerra: The main thing is that Nuke is a software that reads the files directly from the disk so when you're inside of Nuke, Nuke is almost like it's a browser. You're basically reading directly from disks. There's no prior caching. There's no kind of codec in between like you would find on Premier or you would find like in Flame. Flame usually encodes everything directly. After Effects now is a more direct software but it was not before. I think the main thing is that in Nuke you can customize an entire pipeline so that means you can build an interface.

For example, at The Mill we had an interface so that people would log in and they would have a shot assigned to them. Then that means the person could have shot 10 and they're assigned to them and then they can see the notes from the clients. All those things are plugins you can make on top of the application and these plugins can be synchronized over five people or they can be synchronized over 200 people. Also there's the part of templates as well because it's Python driven.

If, for example, me as a lead or as a supervisor, if I come up with a grade or if I come up with a color correction that I really like or a specific effect, imagine like a type of glow or a type of fire that we really like, we can literally publish that as a plugin and then distribute it to the entire team seamlessly. Then the whole team, when they open the shot, they have that shot updates with that latest setup. They don't even have to open or load. That's the power of having a pipeline, you know.

Joey: Got it. I think you also hinted at this but Nuke is shot based. You open a Nuke script and the terminology is script. It's really a Nuke project but it's a script and it's usually one shot in the script whereas After Effects you have a project with multiple comps in it. You could have multiple shots and it does really make it difficult to juggle between artists. Obviously there's ways to do it but I do get what you're saying about Nuke being designed. It's one of these things. It's kind of hard to relate to if you're a freelance After Effects artist used to working on things by yourself or with two people how much you need to have the ability to build these Python based plugins when you have 100 artists and you need all of them to use this exact crane setting and that kind of thing. All right, that's-

Hugo Guerra: I guess one thing that I usually tell my students is that After Effects is very good. I'll give you a good example of this. After Effects is like a really good Ferrari. Imagine you go to the shop and you buy a Ferrari, like a LaFerrari or you buy the latest one and it's a really awesome machine. It can do everything. It's like a V-12. It's pumps and it really goes for it on the Autobahn if you go to Germany but then Nuke is like a Formula One car. Nuke is like going even further because the performance is so much higher and it's so much more customizable. A Formula One car is customized to the specific person driving it. The seat is done specifically for the person. The steering wheel is specifically set to that person. All the settings on the car are set to that specific person and there's a team behind it, of course, like a pipeline team but of course there's another downside of this. After Effects is much more flexible because it's like a normal car that can go through a pothole on the street but then a Formula One car, if it goes through pothole it breaks. Nuke becomes much more sensitive to pipeline issues or when you have to deal with things very fast so there's pros and cons with that.

Joey: Yeah. At the very end there you mentioned when you have to do things very fast and I think that's the reason that even after I learned Nuke and I was using it pretty frequently for a while. I always came back to After Effects just because for the type of work that most motion designers do, you want to just get those layers in, import that photo shop file, move them, hit render, you're done whereas in Nuke there might be two or three times as many steps to do that. My question is what's the real advantage that Nuke gives you in terms of its capability or its compositing ability that makes it the tool that you turn the for most of your work?

Hugo Guerra: I think the speed thing is also relative because now that I've been using it since day one, since it came out, I'm so used to it that i'm much more fast on it than I am on After Effects at any time of the day because I've kind of got used to it but I think Nuke has these really advanced tool sets. First of all, it works on a full linear [inaudible 00:17:42] space. It works on 32-bit float which means dynamic range never ends and it means color correction is something non destructive. All the nature of node based compositing is really non destructive. That's one of the key elements but then there's a lot of things that relate to reality.

When you do [inaudible 00:17:57] field on Nuke you're doing it through a real camera like you're doing it with a real lens, with a real [inaudible 00:18:03], with all the things that you're used to when you actually work on a real camera. The same way when you work in motion blur. You're actually putting motion blurring Nuke through a shutter. Everything is much more technical so it can be much more related to real life, to real cameras that you find on the shoot and also it can be much more connected to 3-D applications which are much more technical.

I guess the thing is that you can go much more deeper. In After Effects you can get there. You might get there 80% and you can reach a phase where the shot looks awesome and it looks badass but then if you want to deploy that with a shot or if you want to go really deep and make the shots perfect, like pixel perfect, to be watched on a movie screen of 20 meters then you reach the limit because then After Effects doesn't have all the [inaudible 00:18:51] capability of dynamic range to really pull a perfect key. It doesn't handle alpha channels or channels in a way that Nuke does for you to really go deep in the keying of hair and the keying of very small details.

I'm dragging now, of course, but this is just one of the things that it's best. There's much, much, much more things. You have the 3-D system as well. The 3-D system in Nuke is very complex and it has a shader. It has lighting. It has a complete connection to my and to other 3-D applications. You can import [inaudible 00:19:23] files. It can import cache. It can import UVs. There's a huge connection with rendering. You can even have V ray inside of Nuke. I guess the thing is when you really need to do a shot that has to be physically accurate and pixel perfect, Nuke is the tool to go, you understand what I mean?

Joey: Yeah, yeah. I'd like to dig into that a little bit because I'm sure that most After Effects artists would say, "I know how to pull a key, Hugo. You put key light on and you use the eyedropper and you click the green and then you choke it until all the green's gone, maybe feather it a little bit and you're done," right? Keying's easy. I have seen a Nuke artist pull a key and it's a difference thing when you do it in Nuke. I was wondering if you could kind of talk a little bit about just the level of detail that you as a Nuke compositor and someone who really, really knows how to pull a key, what are the things that Nuke lets you do that in After Effects maybe you could do but it's just kind of designed to trick you into skipping those steps?

Hugo Guerra: It's not a matter of skipping. I think After Effects makes a really bad job on showing you things very easily. In Nuke you can immediately see an alpha channel. In Nuke you can immediately see, you can zoom in really quickly. It's very catered for you to experiment because it's node based so you can try several keys at the same time and not have to do precomps of precomps of precomps. The level of detail is very big, yes. Don't forget that we are comping shots that ultimately will be seen on a 20-meter screen now I'm talking about film compositing which is something that is a bit different from the other type of compositing. Film compositing goes really deep where you basically have to pull a key to the hair detail. If you have two hairs that are in someone's head, those two hairs have to stay there and the only way for you to do that, that means that you will have to create several keys.

Usually we have stuff, I'm going to go a bit technical, but you have terms like you usually do a core mat which is a key just of the inner body. Then you do an outer mat, then you do a hair mat and then you do a hands mat and then you do a motion blur mat and then you do an edge extend. All those things are things that, just to do a normal key in Nuke you would have to use at least five key lights with complete different settings and then mask them in different areas of the body. Your hands will be maybe with more motion blur than your head and maybe your hands will be over a different tonality of green than your head is so there's a lot of things that you can't really easily do in After Effects, I think, with that regard.

Joey: Yeah, yeah. You nailed it. I mean, really the key to king is to not just try to get it all in one key. This is something that was really interesting to me. When I learned Nuke, and I learned it, I know you've taught on FXPHD, that's how I learned Nuke. I took the Sean Devereaux class and I learned it and then I started using it and you mentioned things like you hit A, it shows you the alpha channel. It's really quick. Even just sort of the fact that Nuke kind of forced you to think about channels, that's something that doesn't really exist in After Effects. It almost hides them from you and I noticed that once I got comfortable with Nuke, I got a lot better at After Effects at the same time.

Hugo Guerra: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Joey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm curious if there's anything that maybe After Effects could take away from this conversation, even if they've never used Nuke. What are some things that you notice that After Effects artists, they're kind of blind to but maybe once they learn Nuke all of the sudden it's like I didn't even know that was something you could do?

Hugo Guerra: I speak for myself when I was an After Effects artist and I was an After Effects artists for a long time and I thought I could come. I thought I was really good but then I kind of went deeper. Then I started to understand, "Oh, damn. There's an entire dynamic range thing here going on that I don't even know about because we were so used to just using eight-bit on a comp," or, "Oh, damn, there's an entire 3-D system that is in scale." There's a lot of things that you never really think about in After Effects because you're just doing your final image and you're not really going deep into it. I think it really opened my eyes. I bringed all this knowledge of core knowledge, like knowing about RGB, knowing about what a pixel is, knowing about what an alpha channel is.

It really allowed me to study more what an image is. I think that's what happened and, yes, after you use Nuke you become a much better artist on every other application because you really start to understand what really pixels are, what an app stop is, what does it mean if you use the gamma, what is a mid tone, what are the highlights, all those things that you're so used to just dragging the brightness and contrast slider. Then you start to understand exactly what the brightness and contrast slider are actually doing to the image. I think that's a main thing.

Joey: Yeah. I remember doing a comp in Nuke and I had to composite fire into this CG fireplace and realizing that the reflection, I had made a reflection and it didn't look realistic. What I ended up doing was I kind of combined a normals path to just get a certain part of the brick with the red channel and then I used that kind of as a luma mat and in After Effects that's two precomps and three weird effects and a whole bunch of settings and in Nuke it's like two nodes and you can get exactly the thing you want and then add a mask really easy. I know the people listening might think that at this point in the podcast, we're making After Effects look very bad. I want to make sure I say I love After Effects. It's like it pays my bills. It's like that's what I use every day but for compositing, I think it's pretty important that motion designers at least understand the capabilities of a node based app.

One of the things that bothered me, Hugo, I'm curious if maybe this didn't bother you but when I learned Nuke and all the sudden I want to move this layer over, I need a node for that. You have to make a transform node just to move something. It's like this extra step and then you bring in something that has an alpha channel. You want to color correct it. Now you have to understand what a pre multiplied alpha channel versus a straight alpha channel and it really just, it seems like a pain in the ass if I'm being honest. I'm curious if you think that that's just kind of the nature of the beast. It's kind of you take the good with the bad or if that's actually an advantage in Nuke, that it forces you to think that granularly.

Hugo Guerra: Again, we're not really saying After Effects is bad at all. I use After Effects and I love After Effects but depends on how deep you want to go. If you want to do a proper comp, having [inaudible 00:26:16] compositing, it doesn't even need to be Nuke. It could be Fusion, it could be Nuke or even Houdini's compositing package which is also node based. I think nodes allowed you to move things around really quickly and, yes, it's a pain in the ass to have to think about it in pre multiplication and pre multiplication and transformation but if you think about it, then you have total control. If you move that transform, that means you now have to power to even change the filtering of that transform. If you want you can actually clone that transform and then apply it to multiple layers at the same time and it can pair into them altogether. You can actually publish it to other people if you're using a transform node that is very useful for other layers on the comp. I think it allows you to have a more organized way of thinking of compositing.

I think one of the things I really want to recommend all the viewers, because one of the main reasons I left After Effects was because I wasn't getting the quality I needed on my shot because we were doing real projects, like for real international clients and the quality needed to be the best ever. One of the things I would recommend is to at least have a look at Nuke or Fusion, it doesn't need to be Nuke, to at least have a better understanding of what compositing really is and then maybe that together with, I would recommend a book which is from Ron Brickman which is called "The Art and Science of Digital Compositing".

This book is not related to any software. It's a book that just explains what pixels are. It explains what eight-bit is. It explains what 16-bit is. It explains all the little terms that you see in Nuke all over the place, what gamma really is and I think people should really study that a little bit so that they can become better After Effects artists because when they go back to After Effects, then maybe they'll rely less on plugins and they will rely less on things that they might not have as a freelancer. If you rely too much on plugins then the problem is then you go to a company, maybe they don't have those plugins or maybe if you're sharing it with another person, that person doesn't have the plugins and maybe they don't have the correct version of the plugins.

I've always felt that After Effects relied too much on plugins and extra things that are not coming with the application. I think that's one of the core things that really made me leave it.

Joey: Yeah, yeah. I think you nailed it. I think you nailed it. Let's talk about some of the things that After Effects artists because people are going to listen to this. I'm sure they're going to check out Nuke. They're going to be excited to check it out and they're going to open it up and they're going to have no idea what they're doing. If an After Effects artist wants to jump into Nuke and just start to get up to speed, what are some ways you'd recommend? What are some resources to learn Nuke that are going to be useful to a motion designer? Not necessarily someone who's going to turn into a hardcore Nuke artist who's doing 3-D relighting and stuff like that but someone who wants to get a little bit better at keying and maybe learn some roto techniques or something that are a little more effective. Are there any resources you could recommend?

Hugo Guerra: Yeah. I can recommend quite a few. I think even before I recommend the resources, one thing I wanted to say is After Effects artists should really also think about if they actually need to jump to Nuke totally. You don't need to go only to Nuke and do everything. Like I said, I'm software agnostic. You can continue gathering your comp and After Effects and just do certain things in Nuke. That's the beauty of all of this. You can kind of share files in between and as long as you render them out of Nuke with the correct file format you can just bring it into After Effects and then continue work.

I think for the listeners, for them to start they should definitely start with going to the founder's website. That's the first place because they have a ton of free tutorials on their Vimeo web channel and on their YouTube channel. Those tutorials are very basic. It's like 101 what the interface is and they have these really short five-minute long tutorials where you just go through the interface. You just go through the nodes. You just go through all the little things you want to know. That's the first step I think and then the second step I would really recommend to go to a online course made by professionals. Maybe try FXPHD because it's actually run by professional compositors or maybe try ... I guess the second one would be Steve Wright's tutorial which these days is living in Lynda, I believe, Lynda.com. Steve Wright is one of the best compositors around and he has a very good one on one tutorial about Nuke. I think those are the best place.

Try to avoid tutorials that are not made by professionals. YouTube is full of tutorials of people that you don't even know who they are and it's full of people that are just random artists that are just teaching stuff and a lot of times I get really mad because they're really teaching it incorrectly and they're teaching a lot of mistakes in those tutorials. I really recommend to try to investigate who's the teacher, to see their curriculum. If the guy has worked on a lot of films and he's worked on big companies and he's had a good resume, then you should trust him. He might not be a good teacher. That's the other problem, of course, but at least if he has a resume he has the experience.

Joey: Yeah. You mentioned Steve Wright. You said he's one of the best compositors around. I'm curious what you mean by that. How can you tell that someone's a good compositor?

Hugo Guerra: He hasn't comped in a while now, of course. He's mostly retired but he became a legend in compositing and Shake and Nuke because he worked on so many big films back in the day and also he became one of the best teachers around because he has this great balance between being a very artistic compositor but also knows how to explain things. I've met a lot of artists in my life that really don't know how to talk. They don't know how to socially explain something. That's actually a big problem on this industry, I think. Whenever you talk with some freelancers, they have a lot of communication issues so I think Steve Wright has a good communication factor. He's a very good speaker. He has a good voice. He has all those kind of attributes that you need out of a teacher, you know.

Joey: Yeah, that's a whole other podcast episode. Let me ask this a different way. When you see a composite and you think, "That composite's bad," what are the things that you're looking at that someone, they pull a key and they don't see the green anymore and it's on the background and they think it's good? What are you looking at to tell if someone composited that shot well?

Hugo Guerra: That's a really good question. Here's what I would say. It's always about what the image looks like in terms of photography elements. I'm a big photographer. I've always used cameras since I'm a very young boy and so photography is really ingrained on my development as an artist and I always would recommend people to really take a lot of pictures. I'm not talking about taking pictures with an iPhone. I'm talking about taking pictures with a real camera, like with a proper camera that you can switch lenses, like a full frame format camera or at least a 45-millimeter camera. Taking pictures is really your best bet of understanding composition, of understanding lighting, of understanding the fusion, of understanding distortion, of understanding depth of field, motion blur, bouquet, all those are the elements, bounce light, temperature of light, all those photography elements are the things that I look at a shot.

Once they're wrong, like if the shadows are wrong or if the shadow temperature is incorrect or if the depth of field is too harsh, all those are things that come from experience of taking photos and also watching how photos really look like. I think the best reference is always to look at real things. You should know that when I work, whenever I do shot because mostly I do now CG compositing, when I do those shots I never just render them out and comp them. I go out with my camera and pick up a couple of people from my office and actually mimic the scenes with a real camera just so that I can see how the depth of field is going to behave. It looks a bit silly because we're all there with fake guns and fake weapons and fake swords trying to pretend to do the same things that happen on the shot.

Then when you put a real camera, like you pick up a 5-D, you put a 50-mill [inaudible 00:34:52] Canon with an F-stop 1.2 and you try it with that person, then you actually see how the lens, the focus wraps around his hair and you see how the light wraps around his face if there's a source of light on the back. I always would recommend you to just go out and take a picture of what you're trying to achieve. That's going to be always the best way and so those photography cues are the most important thing for you to understand if the comp is correct or not.

Joey: Yeah. That's really interesting. If someone wants to become a better compositor it's not enough to just learn Nuke.

Hugo Guerra: No, no.

Joey: That's what you're saying. You have to learn so many other skills and photography and it sounds like when you talk about learning photography I guess what you're really saying is you need to understand what makes images feel correct and beautiful and so that way you can spot those things that aren't quite right. Is that kind of what you're saying?

Hugo Guerra: Yeah. It's what I'm saying. Basically it's studying a little bit of filmmaking. There's a lot of good YouTube channels to actually even do that. There's books as well of course but I think that studying filmmaking and studying how the camera captures the world really makes a huge difference, knowing that if you put an F-stop of two it looks like one way and if you put an F-stop of five it looks completely different. An F-stop of five, it won't look defocused. It will look really sharp but F-stop of two, it will look really defocused. Those are little things that you only understand if you try them because a lot of people don't really have firsthand experience with this. There's a reason why 10 years ago, 15 years ago when I was still starting my career, I remember looking at the ILM. ILM was like the dream. That was the place I wanted to work. It was ILM and The Mill. I've only managed to do one of them but I'm still young.

Joey: There's still time. You got time.

Hugo Guerra: The thing is like they used to have on their resumes, like when they requested for a compositor, not even just compositor, 3-D artist, compositor, anyone in that company that wanted to go to that company and working on top level films, they have to have a photography knowledge. It said there. It basically said on the description, "Photography knowledge," and then it also said, "Art degree." Back then there was a reason for that because both art and both photography are linked to your knowledge of color, your knowledge of composition and your knowledge of depth of field and actually knowing how an image should look like. I'm not even talking about the creative aspect of an image, like if an image looks cool or not. That comes later because that's aesthetic but I'm just really talking about how an image looks like for real, like a real image, making it photo real.

I think then once you grasp how an image really looks like, once you have a very good photography knowledge, you know how lenses work, then you can bend the rules and make creativity even higher because then you can kind of go a step further. It's a bit like this constructing. When I was back at art school we used to learn how to pain and draw really well and then you went over and just destroy all of that. That's kind of the process that you go through.

Joey: Right, right. Okay. Let's dig into what you were talking about. You really need to understand how camera settings affect the way the image looks, the amount of depth of field, the way things bloom and things like that because now what I've noticed at least in motion design is a little bit of a trend with, and you mentioned that you work mostly on 3-D compositing. There's a little bit of a trend in our niche anyway, in motion design, especially with these great GP renderers like Octane and Redshift and there's Arnold is becoming big and Cinema 4D where you can basically just tell it the camera settings and it figures all that out for you and there's this, I feel like a trend of some really great artists making amazing work but they're trying to get it all in the render so that you don't need Nuke to do the depth of field and do the glows and stuff like that. You just get it in the render.

I'm curious. I know that if you go to your YouTube channel, that is not how you operate. You're doing all kinds of stuff with dozens of render passes. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. Why do you work that way? Why don't you just try to get it in the render and just tell the 3-D artist like, "Look, turn the camera setting a little differently and then re render it for me?"

Hugo Guerra: It's all very pretty to say that, that the 3-D artist can just turn a button and make it work, but we know that that's not going to happen. If we get to get a 3-D artists who actually do an image that looks photo real you will require a person that is really senior. You'll need a person that is one of the best 3-D artists in the world and you need a really good farm and you need a very fast computer. There's a lot of things that people don't really realize that it just doesn't come out like that and, yes, it's true there's no fashion of trying to get it in beauty but even, for example, at The Mill there was also that trend. [inaudible 00:40:05] 3-D department in The Mill wanted to do everything in camera but even though they did it all in camera, they still output all the passes anyway because you still want to have flexibility with object IDs and with all the passes to try to get that extra step.

As we all know, something that looks physically accurate could look good but it might not look cool. That's a different thing. An image that looks photo real, I always come back. I don't know if you ever seen, I really recommend you guys watching it, a documentary that is inside Pixar's "Wall-e". If you go in the Blu-ray of "Wall-E" which is called "The Art of Lens" and it's like a 10-minute documentary where they explain that they were trying to get everything out of the box. They were trying to get everything rendered in one go but they could just not get it to work. It just didn't look correct and then they brought in Roger Deakins, the very famous DOP, Oscar winning DOP, to help them about and how what was missing. I think a lot of times what is calculated mathematically in the computer just doesn't look right. I think that's the thing.

That's why I have an approach. I have a very creative approach to compositing. I try things. I'm an experimental person so I never just comp the shot as it comes from 3-D because otherwise you could've just [tooken 00:41:33] a photo on set and kind of just try to get just the photo realism going. I operate on a level that is much more to a creative compositing because I come from a background of art and I come from a background of commercials. In commercials you're not really doing photo real. You're doing suspension of disbelief. It's like you're trying to do something that looks really badass but it doesn't really exist, you know what I mean?

Joey: Right.

Hugo Guerra: It's like surrealism. It's almost like it's more real than reality and so I don't really like to be bound by just this render. To be honest, I don't think I've ever, on all my experience and I've met a lot of senior people at The Mill, I've never seen a 3-D artist that managed to get a 3-D that looks absolutely perfect out of 3-D. It just doesn't happen and I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of shit for saying this but you can show me this. You can just show me a render that came out of 3-D without any color correction, without any nothing. Nothing was done to it and it looks perfect. You won't find it. You won't find it because there's always issues. If the motion blur is on then you get noise on the motion blur and then for you to not have noise on the motion blur you have to put a samples up on rendering but then to put the samples up on rendering then it's going to take five hours to render and then it's too late to deliver.

Then you try to do the depth of field. Okay, cool. I've done the depth of field now in 3-D but then you miss the bouquet because you can't really put the bouquet to look perfect in 3-D because you don't get these kind of octagonal bouquets with some dirt in the middle, for example, like you can get in comp. All these little minute distortions that you get from photography, the aberrations on the edges of the lenses, the stretching of the lenses, all these things are incredibly hard to make in 3-D and they all contribute to that extra 10% for an image to look really awesome. I think that's my way to do it, my approach but of course you always try to get the CG to look as best as you can. That's always our way of working as well.

We use Redshift currently and we try to bring everything from 3-D. We try to render with the motion blur on, with depth of field on and we try our best to get it as best as we can from 3-D but then we always output the passes anyway because why not? They're there. They're free. They're not going to take you longer to render and I can guarantee you that they're going to help you to make an image look better.

Joey: That's great. The people listening maybe aren't as familiar with how 3-D passes get used. There's some utility passes that their use is a little more obvious. A depth pass can be used to create depth of field in composite. You can use the motion pass to create motion blurring composite but you can also output the diffuse and the spec and the reflection and the normals pass and if there's any light being emitted there might be a luminance pass or something like that. There's dozens and depending on the renderer there's even more and there's different ones. How do you use sort of those basic ones? Why would you need the reflections as a separate pass instead of just baked into the image?

Hugo Guerra: Even before I answer that, I'm just going to say one thing and and this is, again, I'm sure I'm going to get shit from this. A lot of people on the internet think that film and big compositing companies don't use passes. That's a really big misconception. I know and I've worked on these companies and I know these companies and I have people working still there that I know. Everyone uses passes for compositing. They're lying if they're saying that they don't. I'm sorry but from [inaudible 00:45:17] to [inaudible 00:45:17] to Framestore to The Mill to NPC, I've been inside those companies. I know people there. They all use passes. They are used.

You basically have to think it this way. It's not a matter if you can use it or not use it or you should use it. You should just have as much as you can to have as much flexibility as possible and for me, going back to the first thing I said about software agnostic, I don't really care how we get there, to be honest. I really don't as long as it looks good. If someone can get it to be rendered perfectly from CG, if it looks good to me I'll take it and I'll put it out. If it doesn't look good then we need to comp it more.

People sometimes forget the process is not more important than the result. The result is what matters and if it looks good, even if I use paint, it will look fine. I can use anything. As long as we can get it to look perfectly and as long as we can get it to look badass and amazing, I don't really care how my artists get there. That's a really big misconception sometimes, I think. A lot of people think, "Oh, you can only use Nuke," or, "You can only use After Effects." No. I'm going to use 10 softwares and then the image is going to look awesome. That's the approach you should always have, I think, at least.

Going back to your question about the passes, the main utility of them, for me, for example, I use depth pass for creating atmospherics. For example, I use it as masks to do color correction. You know when you take a photo with fog or with smog you see that there is this saturation going on on the background and a slight diffusing going on on the background because of the smog, because of the pollution. For example, I use the depth pass to control the color corrector to life up the things on the back so that you actually see the buildings more further away. They kind of look a bit more fogged out. That's one use that I use the depth pass.

Other things that I use, for example, the specular pass which is the highlights of the reflection. Basically anything that bounces and reflects in the scene, there's highlights. There's the most bright areas of the reflection from the [inaudible 00:47:26] or any other lighting setup that you're using. Anything that is on those lights will show up on the specular pass. You can use the specular pass, for example, to drive a glow to have more realistic blooming of cameras. This is something that you can't really create in 3-D because you can get the blooming to work but then it doesn't scatter. You don't see the scattering of the bloom in 3-D so you can use the spec pass to drive the scatter of the bloom in a realistic way. There's other uses that I use the passes.

Of course the object IDs are super helpful for you to color correct certain details, like if you want to just lift up a bit of the face or just lift up a bit of the eyes. People forget sometimes that when they do a film, they're not doing the film on a scientific approach. People forget if you go to a set you don't see just the camera there and then you see the actor and there's just shooting. That doesn't happen. There's 20 people around it and there's five lights everywhere which don't even make sense because there should still just be the sun but then you have five lights on the set and then you have white boards and then you have reflectors and then you have little filters in the lens and filters on the lights and plastic things holding everywhere and everything is just to hold up by gaffer tape, basically.

There's enormous amount of things that happen through the camera's eye that is coming from the DOP and he's trying to pinpoint that little light to the eyes of the main actor. He's trying to pinpoint lifting a bit of light just on the corner of the image so that you can see the gun on one of the guys. There's a lot of things that happen that are completely fake and they are completely theatrical and they are not scientific at all and people forget that.

In 3-D everything is by the book and it's very scientific but they forget that that's not how the film was shot. There's a great development to it and you're trying to show and basically bring the spectator to look at certain things. That's where I really want people to focus on and that's why I use passes, because I kind of like to change the image just like a DOP changes the lighting on set, you know?

Joey: Yeah. I think there's a lot of correction between what you just talked about and going to a color grading session. You think, "Okay, they shot the film. They got exactly what they wanted," and then a colorist is tracking shapes on the eyes of the actor or the actress and grading just the eyes and then grading just the skin and then grading the background and then vignetting it. I mean, it really is. It's so manipulated and you have no idea unless you've seen that before. It just kind of reminded me of what you're saying with 3-D and of course there's also the thing where the director of the spot wants to change the color of the car but you don't want to change the color of the reflections and if you did it in the render that's very hard to do. If you have a diffuse pass it's a lot easier.

Hugo Guerra: Yeah.

Joey: Yeah. Excellent. Okay.

Hugo Guerra: I think people forget. People forget sometimes that it's the result, really. Because now I'm directing my own projects I have an unique opportunity because my background is compositing. I have a unique opportunity. I can comp my own shots and I can grade my own shots. What I'm ultimately doing, and that's what you're watching on my YouTube channel, on my YouTube channel I'm showcasing people what am I doing and you notice that I don't go to grading. I never go to a base light.

I finish my grades in Nuke. The reason I do that is because I have everything I need there. I have all the specs. I have all the masks. I have every single thing I need is on my composite and so for me ultimately, it doesn't feel natural to just go to a grading suite and just put some masks on top of the final result but I think what I'm doing with those passes is very similar to what a colorist is doing. It is, definitely, because you're basically doing storytelling. You're not making physically accurate stuff. You're doing storytelling. The fact that you're lighting up just the eyes of someone, that's storytelling. That's you trying to get the spectator to look at someone's eyes. It's not something that would come from a physically accurate render in 3-D, you know what I mean?

Joey: Yeah, exactly. You've gone from compositor, who's essentially sitting in front of the box and being given a shot that someone else kind of concepted and a different 3-D artist made and now you're compositing it. Now your role is different. You're directing and you're acting as a VFX supervisor and I'm curious what those roles, maybe just explain those roles, specifically director because when I think director my brain just goes to live action directing. How do you direct a CG spot, you know? Could you talk about that a little bit?

Hugo Guerra: Of course. I'll start by just explaining the supervising thing. That started at The Mill. When I was the head of Nuke I was already a supervisor myself so I was handling the most complicated shots and then helping my team through the whole project and I was handling the entire project and multiple projects at the same time. Then slowly I became a VFX supervisor and I went more on set and made sure that things were filmed correctly and made sure I worked. At the last year of The Mill I probably went on set 100 times.

I would go on set, help directors to shoot their things, make sure the storyboard would match what we were filming, make sure we gathered all the information on set to make sure that the CG would be possible to be done and also work with the directors on a storytelling level to try to get the effects to work with the story. That kind of started there. Definitely my background is live action, for sure. It comes from photography. It comes from filming. I didn't say this but when I was in Portugal I used to be a camera operator on a local TV channel so my relationship with cameras comes from a long way.

That was my first thing just supervising and for people that don't know, visual effects supervisor, there's kind of two types of visual effects supervisor. There's the on set supervisor which is a person that is on set working with the director and the DOP making sure the visual effects are going to be working, making sure we have all the [inaudible 00:53:33] for lighting, making sure we have all the measurements, we have all the tracking markers. Half of the time I was doing that and then there's the other VFX supervisor which is the one that stays home, so to speak. He stays at the office and he's supervising the time, doing dailies, making sure that the shots look perfect, making sure the progress is going and making sure all the 20 shots are looking the same and there's a cohesive quality between all the shots. Sometimes you would dip into compositing to comp certain more difficult things or teach people how to do it.

I'm a hands-on supervisor so I comp my own things and of course I have the help with my team, of course. For a large amount of time I was doing that at The Mill. When I left The Mill I wanted to become a director and so now I split my time between supervising jobs where I supervise large teams of people doing cinematics or live action. Sometimes we do live action trailers as well and a lot of times I do directing. Now when I do directing, I don't direct live action, no. I've directed live action on a few short films but majority of time I direct CG and a director of CG, what it does is just like a normal director. You basically make sure the storytelling is done so we do the storyboards and we do the animatics and we choose the lenses and we choose the angles and we choose how the camera's going to operate.

I'm a very physical director so usually even in CG I'm always talking about, "Okay, let's put a 35-millimeter here and let's do it as a boom camera and then the camera goes above. Okay, so this shot is going to be a steady cam shot and we're going to use a 16-mil. We go really deep onto our project. We even have a replica Alexa camera in my [inaudible 00:55:10] that has the same lenses of an Alexa so that we actually have a ground to reality when we are talking between our team. That's what a director on a CG project does. He makes sure that the story is told to the script. Sometimes I write the script, sometimes someone else writes the script, sometimes it's the client and also makes sure that we choose the correct lenses, the correct angles and the correct editing pace to tell the story. That's kind of the thing. That's what I'm doing now on these projects.

Because I have such a big background in compositing and because I can't really help myself, I always comp some stuff at the end, a lot. I just can't help myself. I love to do that and I'm on a very privileged position right now where I can choose my projects and I can kind of do one at a time and I have time which is a commodity that I know a lot of people don't have which means I can actually sit down and finish the shots myself and I can sit down and finish it with my team. I have a team that usually always works with me and they've been working with me since I've been at The Mill. They left The Mill as well with me and so it's always the same people as well. I'm used to working with these people for years now. It's always the kind of thing. People always work with the people they like. That's how it kind of came to be for me to be directing things now.

Joey: That's makes a lot of sense because most of the work that I've seen in your portfolio, it's stylized and it's surreal but it's realistic in that there's locations and environments and people and cars and things like that but you've also worked at The Mill and The Mill does sort of more MoGraph-y type of things where maybe it's just shapes or it's weird blobs or it's like some weird representation of fruit juice flying through the air and it's very stylized. Do you think any of those directing things that you do, I'm sure people can imagine doing that if there's a person holding a gun running towards the camera but does it work if you're doing a spot that's totally stylized with weird shapes or it's like some show open with a bunch of abstract artwork and stuff like that? Does that workflow still work in those situations?

Hugo Guerra: Yeah, it does. Even when I was at The Mill, that's where it started. Everything is directed at The Mill. There's always a director. Sometimes it comes from the client, sometimes it comes from inside the company. You should know that The Mill has a department called Mill Plus which is the department that has their own in house directors and those in-house directors are people that have been working the for a long time. They were supervisors and they were CG leads and they were heads of 3-D and then they became directors inside the company and they direct to client productions. Even if I would've stayed The Mill I probably would have become a director there as well if I would've stayed there. The reason I left was mainly because of my love for gaming and I really wanted to work on the games industry. Once The Mill closed their games department, then I thought it was not going to go the path that I wanted.

Going back to what you asked, there's always a director and even if you're doing a blob there's always an animatic. There's always a storyboard. There's always a thought behind it, even if it's just a sketch on a piece of paper. Someone has always thought it through first to an organization point of view and then we kind of go into production after we decide how it can work. We always start by doing some concept art. That concept art kind of is the look development stage of the project where we make a lot of decisions. We make decisions about the color palette. We make decisions about how this is going to look and then once we nail that and once the client is happen, then you go with production. Once you go to production you're not really going to invent anything anymore. You're basically just going to do what you told the you were going to do in the concept stage.

I think that's why I left The Mill because I was a bit fed up of just being at the end of the production. A lot of times we would just get the project at the end, you know. It was already shot and it was already created. All the genesis of it just came to our office and then we just had to make this look good. I kind of missed going back and actually deciding how we're going to shoot it and deciding how we're going to make it. That's why I moved on and did what I'm doing and of course I'm not doing as glamorous jobs as I was doing at The Mill because The Mill has much more bigger clients but at least I'm much more creative engaged because I always want to be engaged creatively so that's why I kind of did this move. Sorry, I know I answered a lot of things there. Sorry.

Joey: No, this is gold, man. You brought up something I wanted to ask you about. In the MoGraph world it's very easy to be kind of a solo artist and you can go out and freelance and get clients and they ask you for something and you think about it and you do some design and you do some animation in After Effects and you deliver it. If you're going to be a compositor it seems like it's much harder to do that by yourself because especially with what you're doing, you need 3-D artists and you probably need sometimes concept artists and so a Nuke artist, it doesn't seem like there's an easy way for them to just go out and make stuff. My question is is the world that you're operating in, is it just by its nature a team sport? It's really hard to be an individual or are there people that are Nuke artists who also are really good at 3-D and can story tell and kind of be that one-man-band sort of freelancer?

Hugo Guerra: I'm really glad you said that because I think until now, on this podcast, I've been talking mostly about film compositing and let's now dive in into commercial compositing because that's where The Mill really shines here because a compositor that does commercial work, like the compositors that work at The Mill, they are not just working in the final shots like a film does. On a film it's like, unfortunately because of the nature of film, it has to be a much more pipeline driven and much more like a factory. You have 100 shots or you have 300 shots. You have 200 people to work on it and there can't be any creative input otherwise you have 100 cooks on the kitchen. It doesn't really work. You just get a brown omelet instead of a yellow omelet. It doesn't really work that way. You have to be careful.

On film, it's like a military institution. People have to do what they're told. Of course there's always creative input and there's always a lot of amazing things that come from my fellow compositors in film, of course. I'm not denouncing their work but because of the nature of deadlines, it has to become more like a military institution where experimentation is a bit more hard because you can't really try things on a Marvel film or on the "Star Wars" film because there's been a committee of decisions happening before. That shot, when you look at "Rogue One" and you see the ending, that has been decided by a commission of 100 people all over the place from Lucas Arts to Marvel and it's been decided almost like on a board meeting. You can't just go and change it. You can't. It has to be done that way because it was approved.

This is completely different to the world we used to live at The Mill and we still at The Mill where it's a commercial world, where the client comes in. We have a month or two. A lot of times the client doesn't even really know what they can do. They don't even really know and it's part of our work, the 3-D artists and the compositors and the Flame artists at The Mill to kind of guide the director and guide the client to what we can do, what we can achieve on the time we have and what we can achieve on the money we have. There's a much bigger creativity process happening there because we need to kind of make up something and a lot of times along the way it changes. It shifts. Sometimes it was black and now it's white. It just changes completely. Sometimes it even gets canceled. Sometimes it moves on to something else.

That's the nature and that's why my dream was always working at The Mill because that's what I saw in their work. I saw their work, this kind of creativity happening in the short films they did and on the music videos that they did and also especially on the commercials they did. That's why they never really worked on film that long. They only worked a few times on a few projects.

I think as a Nuke artist and as a director now, I feel much more like a MoGraph artist, like an After Effects artist. It's like a one-man-band trying to get things to work. In a film composite, to answer your question, in a film compositing environment it's all about the team, yes. There's a team of 100 people you're trying to get through the thing. On a commercial world like MoGraph and like commercials and short films, it's about the team, yes. There's still five or six people working on a project but it's so much more into the individual.

Just to give you an example, a lot of times on The Mill when we didn't have a certain compositor or a certain 3-D artist in the project, that would make a huge difference because certain people are just geniuses in improvisation. I think that's the main thing to say here. People that are really good at improvising, they're not stuck with, "Oh, this is not physically accurate. Oh, sorry. The light can't be on this side." No, these people improvise. These people just come up with shit. That's what they do. That's what they do all day long and make an image look good with the very few days that they have to do the project, you know.

Joey: Yeah. It's like jazz.

Hugo Guerra: Yeah.

Joey: Yeah, exactly. Compositing for sure is problem solving. I'm sure you would agree with that but even like motion design and even the way you animate things together in After Effects, it's all problem solving. I've talked about Nuke. I've even done, I think you have, too, I've done this video where I compare After Effects and Nuke and really the thing is I think the more you understand about compositing, the power of Nuke versus the power of After Effects, it just gives you more tools which lets you solve more problems which makes you more valuable.

Hugo Guerra: It's all about the core fundamentals. That's what you should focus. Every single person listening to this today, they should think about the core fundamentals. They need to know about lighting. They need to know about dynamic range. They really need to go deep in what RGB is and what a pixel means and what all these things mean. What does cubic filtering means? These are the kind of things that you should know, and especially you should know photography and you should know lighting and how it behaves. Those are the core bases and if you know those things it doesn't matter which application you're going to use. I'll tell you, I've been working almost 20 years now in the industry and I've used five packages so far and I'm sure by the time, in 10 more years, I'm going to probably going to use another five packages. They come and go, the packages. What stays is the knowledge, the core bases and the core elements, you know.

Joey: Yeah. We've been talking mostly about compositing and creating images from other assets and stuff like that. Back to the normal sort of "School of Motion" audience member, most of us do more abstract design, MoGraph animation and stuff like that. I'm curious, if someone, let's take your current company, Fire Without Smoke. Do you have artists that are good at both, that can hop into Nuke and composite at a very high level, take 3-D passes, manipulate them, do some tracking, you know, do all that good stuff but then they can also go into After Effects and they can do a really cool title reveal of the end title or something like that, or are those two worlds still kind of separated?

Hugo Guerra: Unfortunately, they are still separated, yes. I can tell you one thing. Companies like The Mill and NPC Commercials and Framestore Commercials, they are hunting those people down because those are the people that you want on these kind of environments. You want a person that knows really how to lighten Arnold and [inaudible 01:07:20] but also can put it together in Nuke. You want a person that can open After Effects and put together a motion graphic of a text animation and also put it on a final cut and just go with it. Those are the kind of people that you're after in the commercial world.

If you look at The Mill's motion graphic department that used to happen. You had people that knew After Effects very well and they knew Cinema 4D and they knew Photoshop and they knew a bit of Nuke as well. I think that's the kind of crosses but unfortunately I think the more we become specialized and the more visual effects world grows, specialization becomes a factor because these big companies, like film companies, they really don't want someone to do a lot of things. They want someone to just do one single thing because they are going so deep on that thing that you would have a person that only does wind or only does rain or only does snow. That's the kind of level that it goes, people that just do keying or people that just do roto because you need to. Unfortunately because it's a factory, you need to have those people in place.

I personally much prefer the more guerrilla style way of working. I like to put my feet on a lot of different things and, yes, it's true. I'm specialized in Nuke. Yes, I am because of things. I don't know what happened in my life to end up on that way but I was very early on Nuke and I started using it and then I had a Nuke department and I guess I kind of went with it. I think I much prefer to put my feet on everything and the best artists that I have on my team and the best artists that I've ever met are the ones that can do everything. That's just a fact because they just have an understanding of artistic knowledge.

They know how a shot should look like. They're in tune with the latest trends. They know the latest artists. They know a lot about art, like actual art, not just design, and they go to exhibitions and they watch good movies and they watch good independent films. They are very aware of what's going on and they're very aware of what's around them and so they have a really good knowledge of making an image that looks really amazing for the time that we live in. They have all these artistic influences like I do, as well. I think those are the people that I try to work with and a lot of people at Fire Without Smoke are people like that, people that have broad knowledge of a lot of different things and the people on my team definitely like that, as well, yes.

Joey: It's kind of a recurring theme that a lot of guests on this podcast have said is that being a generalist, I think there might be this misconception that a generalist is someone who's kind of the jack of all trades, the master of none but the truth is, yeah, maybe that's true. Maybe someone who knows both Nuke and After Effects isn't quite as strong as someone who just focuses on Nuke but that may make them an even more effective freelancer or a more effective employee at The Mill which might bring you more personal satisfaction. You get to have your hands in more of the process.

Hugo Guerra: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I have a lot of friends that don't like that. They don't like to work on a lot of things. They want to specialize on certain things. Even students that I have of mine, they are also like that. Everyone should just do whatever they want to do, of course. I'm not saying to anyone that they should do what I'm doing. Of course not. They should do what they like and they should do what they most like but for me my personal taste is to put my hands dirty and to just try things. I think in a way it comes from my background because I come from art and art is a very experimental thing. Art is a very dirty thing. You kind of put your hands dirty. You paint. You draw. You sculpt. You do a lot of things and you try things and you just glue them together and see what happens. That's my approach to Nuke. I kind of try stuff but Nuke brings me the glue. It brings me a technical knowledge that I didn't have before.

That's one of the things I also should tell to all the audience that is not upcoming people that are now trying to become artists. You should always try to get two aspects of this. Try to become an artist by going to museums, looking at art, looking at good films, looking at good directors, good photographers and learning your fundamentals of art but also become a technical guy. Learn your fundamentals of Nuke, After Effects, Photoshop and then you need to somehow merge these two things because the biggest problem on our industry is that I always meet either people that are so artistic that they can't even work because they're so artistic that they're so disorganized, I can't even have them in my team because they will just create chaos. You have those side or then on the other side, you have someone so technical that they are blind.

You would go into a silly conversation like I remember having this conversation on a trailer I did a few years ago. I was doing this trailer for "Just Cause 3" and we had a car and the car was in the middle of the air. The car was flying through a bridge, a completely unrealistic scene. The car was driving through a bridge and this was going to explode and I just turned to my CG artist and said, "Could I have some lights from below? Can I have just some lights from below?" I remember having this huge discussion with him. He was telling me, "Well, but the lights can't be there because the car is too high up on the street and so the lamp is too low so it wouldn't affect the car." I was just turning to myself thinking, "Yeah, that's all correct but it will look cooler with the light there."

Joey: Right.

Hugo Guerra: I don't really care that the light is 10 meters away. Just move it. I have a friend of mine that used to work at The Mill called Toby and I remember he was going up to the 3-D department one day and he needed to move a bottle. We were doing a commercial with a bottle, like a fizzy drink. The bottle was just in the middle of the table and Toby, the compositor, went there and he just said, "Can we just move the bottle to the left?" The 3-D artist just kind of looked at him, "Okay, so how many pixels do you want to move?" It's like, "I just want to move it more to the left."

"But how many pixels?"

"Just move it."

"But, you know, I can't just move it. I mean, how many pixels do you want to move it?"

"No, no. Just pick the mouse and just move it more to the left. When I think it's good I'll tell you to stop." It okay a lot of times you have to be careful with this. You can't be too technical as well, otherwise you lose sight of the results, you know what I mean?

Joey: Yeah.

Hugo Guerra: Be careful with this. You have to be chaotic but you also have to be technical. Somehow you have to merge technicality with chaos. That's the main goal here. You can't be too uptight and you can't be so chaotic that no one even understands what you're talking about.

Joey: That was an amazing gold-filled rant you just went on, Hugo. Thank you for that. That was awesome, really good advice. Let's end it on this. We've talked about a lot of things, kind of like-

Hugo Guerra: I'm sorry about that.

Joey: No-

Hugo Guerra: I talk too much.

Joey: Oh God, no. Don't apologize. This is amazing. I had a blast, at least, you know. I can't speak for the listener but I'm sure they got a ton out of it, too. Our goal at "School of Motion" is actually to create really good generalists who can have a good career, good fulfilling career in motion design. I think that's why I wanted yo and, Hugo, because Nuke may not be a tool that a motion designer ever uses but I think being aware of it and being aware of the power that it could give you, that you currently don't have, I think that's important in and of itself.

I'm wondering if we can kind of leave the audience with this. Let's say have an After Effects artists. They don't know any Nuke but their very next project they're going to have to composite a 3-D object with an alpha channel onto some footage and add some type, you know, fairly typical thing that motion designers have to do. What is a tip you would give them, something that in Nuke is just a no-brainer? I don't know, checking to make sure that everything has the same grain, things like that. Are there any things that you could tell the After Effects artist, "Try looking at the image this way, you'll get a better result," because typically in After Effects you don't think that way?

Hugo Guerra: Yeah. I think give you my advice that happened to me when I first started. When I was an After Effects artist for years, I wanted to move on to Nuke and I didn't know how to do it. Back then Nuke was Nuke Four and it was daunting because it was like a gray environment with no windows and it was just nodes. That was it. There's no nodes. I didn't even knew how to import a shot, you know. I know how daunting it is to just launch something and back then there wasn't any YouTube channels I could go to. Back then I learned by a DVD from Gnomon Workshop. It was like a DVD with a tutorial that I found, I bought for a ridiculous amount of money.

Joey: Of course.

Hugo Guerra: I think it was like $600 or something, that the DVD costed. It was insane. It was like three disks or something. I can't even remember. I think it was called "Nuke 101 Gnomon Workshop", something like that. I think people, when they are doing a project, what I did when I first moved was I forced myself into it. I was doing this CG trailer for a medical company. Back then I was doing corporate stuff. I did this medical CG trailer and I was doing it in After Effects, you know, the typical thing, using Frischluft, depth of field and using all the little glows, all the little bells and whistles. You use glare, you use Trapcode, a bunch of Trapcodes and filters on top of everything.

Joey: Oh yeah.

Hugo Guerra: Yeah, of course. You just put a bunch of it and it ends up looking like it's shot through a Vaseline lens, you know, basically. Basically I did that and at the same time, because I didn't have a deadline which was too stressful. This was Sweden. Sweden is not known for stress. It's a very relaxed society so we had a lot of time to do this. What I did was I opened Nuke and I did the project. At the same time, every step I did on After Effects, I did the same in Nuke and just tried to figure out how to do it.

Give an example, if I had to do a Trapcode glow, Nuke doesn't have Trapcode. It has things that are similar these days but I had to figure out how can do this effect. Then I found out, okay, if I go into the glow and I use the tolerance and then I put glow to glow only and then if I mask it and if I grade it and if I merge it as a screen operation, I'm getting almost the same result as Trapcode. Okay, cool. That's done now.

Then after that you go into Frischluft and Frischluft just has a few sliders and you just get the depth of field to work and then you kind of go to Nuke and say, "Okay, so how can I get this same plugin to work?" Back then Frischluft does not exist in Nuke. It does now, you can buy Frischluft Lenscare for Nuke but you couldn't back then and then you go into Nuke and you try to mimic the same settings. You try to do the F-stop. You try to do the bouquet. You try to do a lot of things and so I was deconstructing my After Effects comp inside of Nuke step by step and by doing that I learned more about what Trapcode really did to the image because by mimicking and then I understood, shit, like I'm using ... Sorry, I cursed I'm sorry about that.

Joey: No problem.

Hugo Guerra: Back then I was thinking, "Damn." Actually what Trapcode is doing is really simple. They're just having a glow with the tolerance and then they have just the colors merge and then they just have a merge. Actually there's five nodes in Nuke that can make a Trapcode and then I would group them together and name them Trapcodes whatever. The same thing with Twitch. You know this really famous plugin in After Effects that everyone used, it was called Twitch I think. It made the image shake a bit.

Joey: Right.

Hugo Guerra: It wasn't called Twitch. I can't remember. It was from Video Copilot. It was like a plugin they made and so I did the same thing. I went to Nuke and tried to mimic exactly the same plugin in Nuke. I think that process really made me understand exactly what the scientists of the plugin, the people that were working at Trapcode, they had to do these things because they had to make the code, okay, there's something that glows here and the tolerance is here and the brightness is there. It just makes you fully understand the process.

I think this is an experiment that people should go for and then just force yourself and at some point I did one shot like that and then the next project I did two shots like that and then in the next project I did half the shots in After Effects and half the shots in Nuke and by the time, after like three months, I was doing them all in Nuke because I didn't need After Effects anymore. Then because I was doing them in Nuke I had other advantages of other things that I couldn't do in After Effects anyway.

Joey: That is a really great exercise. I actually recommend everyone go to the Foundry. They have a non commercial free version of Nuke you can download for free. That's really great because, to me, that sums this whole conversation up in a nutshell is that using Nuke forces you to understand it at a deeper level than After Effects forces you. That kind of is the whole thing in a nutshell and that's a really, really great suggestion, Hugo. Hey, thank you so much for coming on and sharing all this knowledge and these great stories. You actually cursed four or five times. You didn't even realize it but it's okay, we-

Hugo Guerra: I'm sorry about that. I'm sorry.

Joey: We allow cursing on the show. I'll say shit just to be there with you, buddy.

Hugo Guerra: I'm really sorry about that. I'm Portuguese. I can't help it.

Joey: Right, is that how Portuguese are? I'm going to have to go Brazil or go to Portugal.

Hugo Guerra: We curse a lot, yeah, sorry.

Joey: That's beautiful, beautiful. We're going to share all the links in your show notes to your current company, Fire Without Smoke, The Mill. I know you've got a couple courses you've taught on FXPHD, obviously your YouTube channel. Everybody go check out Hugo's stuff and thanks, man. We'll have to have you back on at some point.

Hugo Guerra: Oh, thank you so much. It was a pleasure having this chat with you. It was really great. Thank you so much.

Joey: Tell me that that didn't make you want to go try Nuke. I definitely recommend giving it a shot because there are situations that are just better handled by a node based compositor and you know what else I recommend. I recommend signing up for a free "School of Motion" student account so you can start getting our weekly "Motion Mondays" newsletter. Each week we send out a very short email with some awesome work to look at, links to new tools and plugins, news about the industry and even the occasional exclusive coupon code. Go to SchoolofMotion.com and sign up. It's free. Come on.

I want to say thanks to Hugo for being so generous with his time and knowledge and I want to thank you for listening. If you have any other guests that you think would be cool to have on this podcast, shoot us a message on Twitter at School of Motion or email us, [email protected]. Until next time, stay cool.

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