Uncharted Territory to Unit Image - Alessandro Nardini 'destruction' vfx with thinkingParticles and how his freelance career went international ! 

Ubisoft FOR HONOR::Destructions MAKING OF from Alessandro Nardini on Vimeo.

Cebas: Hello Alessandro, Welcome to the Cebas Insights Interview -- yours is on Part 2 as you and Paul Parneix were at different time zones for the vfx review so we have you now and we are happy for this.

Firstly, rumor has it that you get freelance FX jobs and awesome ones over the last ten years without a Demo Reel - now, how in the world did you do that ? You grew up in Tuscany - correct?

Alessandro: Luck, I think, good luck :) Seriously, I have no idea, people always call me and ask me to work for them -- word of mouth. Having a good can-do, positive attitude really helps one's reputation, which is most important for a freelancer. 

Cebas: Excellent! How about some interesting insights about your recent projects that you have derived great satisfaction working on:

Cebas: Let’s start first with the latest, the game cinematic as shown the making Of reel above. Could you please tell us how you were involved?

Alessandro: Unit Image brought me into the project specifically to handle the destruction side of the cinematic. The ideas and concepts were already in place so it was just a matter of executing everything they had in mind within the given time frame. Their creativity is exceptional and I was impressed on how clear their vision was for the project. Even the smallest of detail was well planned.

On Gods of Egypt, I was again brought in to work on the destruction parts of the sequence they had, it was a very cool sequence, the one with 2 giant snakes chasing our heroes.

And for Independence day Resurgence I was working at Uncharted Territory, the client side of the project.

It’s been a refreshing experience, working in house with the director Roland Emmerich and the main VFX Supervisor, Volker Engel, and VFX Producer, Marc Weigert. It was one of a kind experience alongside all the talented people that formed the core team and directed the whole VFXs for the movie. While there, I worked on an handful of shots for some of the first ID2 trailers using Thinking Particles; mainly to create a swarm of alien ships in some epic shots.

This was the second time I worked with Uncharted Territory, the first time was for the VFX of another Roland’s movie, <2012>, where I had the opportunity to do what became one of my best work ever, an opportunity to execute the effects. Again with Roland in-house and together with all the talented crew of artists, things were really exciting every day!

<2012> was also the project where Uncharted Territory had worked closely with Cebas to help shape Thinking Particles into the best Destructions tool it can possibly be on the market. Shape Collision, TP Joints and many other incredible features were developed specifically for that project. Without TP technology that were developed during the production of 2012, it would have been impossible to accomplish the Director’s vision.

Uncharted Territory and the movie <2012> gave me a real boost in my career. They gave me the opportunity to work and be responsible for some fantastic destruction shots while giving me all the time I needed to make them as perfect as I could possibly do, and I am very grateful to Uncharted Territory.

After <2012>, most of my following jobs were all about destruction and that’s how Activision enticed me into joining Infinity Ward ? they wanted to introduce 2012-style destructions and simulations into their most popular franchise “Call of Duty”.

Here is my Vimeo link to the work I did for <2012> destruction with TP:

2012 lifeOFaVFX from Alessandro Nardini on Vimeo.

Cebas: Alessandro, you’re a soccer player and a great fan? What is your favourite soccer team? What drew you into a career in VFX?

Alessandro: Yes, I am definitively a soccer fan! Not the one that goes to the stadium armed with blades, knife and hand grenades though.. but my day can run much smoother and happier if my favourite team “Juventus” perform well.

When I was a kid I was actually playing in my hometown soccer team, “Forte dei Marmi” which is a beautiful spot on this planet on the coast of Tuscany in Italy.

Destiny decides and I had a major auto accident at the age of about 15 years old so I was confined to a bed for almost a year. Not being able to walk for such a long time, the computer became my only friend and a passion began and have stayed with me since then! After I fully recovered, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life.

Cebas: Alessandro, I read that you were first into commercial and music videos. Did you use VFX software in any of these? How did you came to learn TP in Italy?

Alessandro: : I actually came to know and learn TP very late in my career, during the production of Roland Emmerich <2012>. In Italy, where I worked mainly as a generalist, I was using mostly software that the companies I was working for owned, and try to make it work with whatever I had, mainly 3DSMax out of the box and Maya.

Cebas: it's never too late to get into the TP act! In fact with TP 6 there have been so many powerful easy-to-use new features, one cannot miss out. Alessandro, I hear that you have traveled widely in your work as a VFX Artist : Is travelling a passion or you do it only because of work? How has being internationally available helped in your vfx career and would you advise it to new vfx artists joining the industry?

Alessandro: Yes, I have been traveling all over the world constantly. This was not my original plan. I have always been very shy and really attached to my roots and hometown, and being so far away from my family and friends was initially the harder part of the job, which I came to learn and handled.

On the other hand, I was so passionate and willing to prove myself, learn and chase opportunities that, thanks to a very supportive family, I was always on a flight to go somewhere. I think in all those years I have been very lucky. I have been given some incredible opportunities for which I will be forever grateful.

I have worked on some amazing projects, with incredible people that taught me so much about VFX and generally speaking about life and I learned the importance of relationships and building your own supportive group of people around you and outside your family and I learned to see and accept things under different points of view.

All these experiences shaped me enormously as an artist, something I would have never gained if I was, for example, staying in a company or in Italy for my entire life. So yes, there is always the dark side of the coin to your dreams of becoming part of the VFX world and I will only advice to be internationally available only if you are truly passionate about this job, committed to it, willing to go the extra mile to learn and improve yourself and mostly willing to change your mindset to adapt to new people, new way of doing things, new software, new cultures and last but not least, willing to make it worthwhile as you will be far away from your family for far too long than you ever expected.

Cebas: Are there good VFX learning opportunities and career paths in Italy? And what are the factors?

Alessandro: Unfortunately, Italy isn’t the best location to work in VFX. The market there is full of people willing to do big things but the system, economy and especially, the culture, make it hard to attract big budget projects, projects where artist like
me can feel challenged and rewarded about the outcome.

And even if some big project lands there, we are missing infrastructure, enough talents
(as most of our talented people already left) and we may end up handling just small
part of whatever project gets there. So for an artist of the VFX world, the best option is still the one to leave everything behind and go around the world to chase your dream.

It’s funny.. for if you think about our history in Italy, it is filled with incredible artistic talents in the fields of Art, Science, Architecture and many more and I’m not surprised to have met many many Italians artists around the world that made a name of their own in the field of VFX.

I like to think that we have got it in the blood somehow. But I have hope that sooner or later things will change and perhaps a return to my lovely old country is in the future options.

Cebas: Tell us about the VES Award and how you won it :) ?

Alessandro: In 2012 (the year not the movie :) ) I got approached by Activision/Infinity Ward. They were recruiting top talents all around the world to join the Call of Duty and bring it to next level. They were facing the Next Generation console transition and wanted to boost Call of Duty in every department.

Somehow my name came out for for FX and Destruction so they enticed me to join their studio and work with them to give the franchise the best destructions and simulations we could possibly do.

It was with Infinity Ward that I got another incredible opportunity to do what I love. For something incredibly popular and well known, I was given the freedom to decide on methodology and software, the opportunity to work with their code and engineer department to implement all the feature technology to support my destruction work. It was an incredible experience and there are so many people there I have to say
Thank-You and I feel again incredibly grateful, not only for the professional opportunity which was by far the biggest I have ever had but also for the opportunity to grow a lot as a person, I learned so many life lessons while working inside the Call of Duty world that served me well during the all production time until to date.

Long story short, my work was nominated for a VES award in the category 'Outstanding real time visual in a video game' and went on to win the award at the 12th annual VES award ceremony night.

Cebas: And how did you get involved in developing the Ubisoft game set visual effects? I figure Unit Image is not your first FX freelance project, could you please give us a quick overview of your career as a freelance FX ?

Alessandro: Unit Image is one of the companies I always dreamed to work for. If Unit Image was in Italy I probably would have never ever left my country. They are so talented, passionate and committed to quality that it is hard to find words to describe them. I’m not surprised they always work on some fantastic projects. From Management, to the whole Artist's pool, Production, Supervisors, ITs, HR, Finance, everything and everybody at Unit Image is top notch and incredibly fun to be part of.

The founder of Unit Image http://www.unit-image.fr/
(left to right): Maxime Luère, Rémi Kozira , Dominique Boidin, Léon Bérelle.

Sometimes the points connect under your nose and you can barely see them. To better explain what I mean I’d like to tell you that the same year I won a VES award for the Destructions and Simulation in Call of Duty, also Unit Image went on to win their second VES award for the fantastic and superb work they did on cinematic trailer, again for Ubisoft.

Being a VES member myself I remember I was astonished by the quality of their entry and so obviously were many others!

So, when I came back from Uncharted Territory in Los Angeles, Unit Image had this destruction project and somehow my name came out and they contacted me directly expressing an interest in having me on board.

Once I realized they were the same VFX House behind The Crew and many other incredible projects and after they showed me what they were looking to hire me for, it was a no brainer for me to accept the job and fly to Paris to work with them? I was above all honored. How can you say NO to another fantastic opportunity?

I am extremely grateful to Unit for this.

Cebas: thanks! Your FX work on the game set with TP, especially the one with the castle tower shaking and breaking? And things falling like a seismic wave what were the TP features that helped you most with this scene? Was it one VFX done by yourself alone or was the scene a team work?

Alessandro: As far as some TP features that has helped me, I can say that the ability to load back in Caches; extrapolate their original groups; and being able to work on top of an already simulated cache to add details and repeat the same process over and over until the final quality is reached; these has been crucial for this shot, especially the new Cache system introduced which brings the ability to cache your sim and generate a file per every frame, and decide what to cache and what not to, has made the iterations way faster and manageable.

I started the destruction process very small, using very few cuts for the whole canyon and being able to art-direct the collapsing of every part quickly, cache them, load them back in and work on top using the same groups hierarchy has been the key. Shape Collision and a good precut session did the rest. Even when you work on some huge destruction shots like those by yourself, it is always a team effort in the end.

You always show and share what you are doing with the people around you, show how you did this and that and ask for feedback while other artists do the same with you. This way your brain always get sparkled by what you see around you and by the feedback you receive from all others and this is making your work always better, it gives you new ideas on how to approach certain tasks while you are working on a different aspect of the destruction. The team at Unit Image is extremely passionate about what they do and they all share a strong vision about the final quality and how things should look like and this makes working with them very magical as you feel there is a great synergy between each other. For example, Toufik Mekbel added some destructions on the SL side of the castle, the one that is sitting on the land and no crumbling. Everything to try to make the shots as good as we can possibly do!

Cebas: You were also on did you use Thinking Particles in any of the destruction scenes ?

Alessadro: The company was Iloura in Melbourne and their talented FX team was split between Houdini and 3DSMax/Thinking Particles, this last one being mostly the main tool for all the destructions on the project. My role, besides completing shots, and since my past experiences with TP were up mostly to build TP tools for the rest of the team in order to handle part of the FX/Destructions work while maintaining consistency and achieving the desired quality.

Let me mention the spectacular Temple destructions at the end of the sequence (God of Egypt) performed with TP by Martin Kossmann and FumeFX for the dust by Adam MacGowan with the additional help of Sasmit Ranadive! Here is the final Gods of Egypt Snakes sequence:

Cebas: New users are always a bit worried about what we call ‘TP logic’, and how to connect all those intricate plugs in the master dynamic set to make the particles work procedurally. Did you feel the same when you first began with TP, or did you basically just fell in love with the logic straightway?

Alessandro: Working in FX expose you to all sort of crazy software that test your brain heavily! It is therefore no surprise that most of the well known commercially software available that are oriented to FX or procedural in general are very complicated and will take lots of your spare time to master them and be able to produce great work with them. I compare learning a new software to playing chess with the main architect behind it.

Cebas: great analogy, Alessandro!

Alessandro: TP is for some reasons an exception to this trend in my own opinion. Everything somehow makes sense since day one and its extreme complexity has been sweetened up and dressed up by a very well architect User-Interface and collection of powerful, versatile and easy to use set of nodes.

Of course there are few basic things you will have to understand like how Groups and Master Dynamics and how they are intended to work but that is a very easy part to overcome as the logic just flow very well within its operators.

In my case specifically, I use TP mostly for destructions. I do believe it’s the best tool out there to perform this kind of FX. It's fast, flexible and always leave you with such a great artistic flexibility that you feel you can always accomplish everything you want and that you are challenged with, and be confident with it. This is just a big turn on for artists like me that have a very bold vision of what they are aiming to do, and don’t have to worry that much about the intricate relationships of how to make the data flow in order to get to the desired result. You just sit down and do it, I love that!

Here are some shots never shown before which I did with FumeFX.
They both have very complex TP setup behind them.

HD FFX TEMPTATION::2011 from Alessandro Nardini on Vimeo.

HD FFX NeverSeenBefore::2016 from Alessandro Nardini on Vimeo.


Knowing math, vector math and all sort of calculus does help in making or solving certain aspects of your work in an elegant and smart way and TP allows you to use all the knowledge you have without going crazy on the main application workflow.

Cebas: You have some great reviews on your LinkedIn from your team mates, they say
That you are big on destruction FX and great with handling details so, any tips on how you can focus on the details and yet get the big ‘destruction’ picture right there, how you want it, in the FX scenes?

Alessandro: One of the biggest lesson I learned working on the movie 2012 is that to achieve great complexity we always need to start small, very small, and work towards greatness step by step? and this is a real truth not only in FX. What I usually do, I always start with simple objects and figure out everything I need using them. In the case of the Castle tower shot, I had a big canyon to destroy and in the last part of the shots, you see parts of the cliff collapsing and bringing down a section of the castle with it. If I started working with very high res geometry, I end up with an unmanageable millions of chunks to simulate right away! I would have never got to the end of it and I would have never been able to art-direct the destruction due to the time consumption just to handle right away such complexity. And most likely I would end up with so much useless geometry, placed in the wrong location that by the time I realize this, I would be forced to start all over from scratch and it would have already been delivery time. Time is always running, never wait.

You have to start small and add details to it in an iteration type of plan. Starting small help you visualize what you are doing better and faster, art direct it based on the shot needed, and the director’s vision and this helps you to identify where the details needed to be added in order to bring your work to the next level, but only when the current work is ready to go to the next level.

It also helps you to identify possible problems or some time-specific issues of the shots that you have not thought about it and give you the ability to quickly overcome them. For example, to cut the whole canyon in this shot with the castle tower crumbling down took me about 2 weeks. That is a lot of cutting but it’s a crucial step if you want to give your destruction an organic and believable look. The hand cut starts only when you have locked some primary simulation with rough and big chunks that everybody is happy about so you are sure you can move on and add details where you need.

What about, if you had done it the other way around? Cut your geometry for 2 weeks, load it in TP and then realize that is not what you wanted or needed? 2 weeks of works in a 9 weeks schedule production out of the window is never fun!

Doing destruction is much more than just breaking an object in pieces and have them fall
under a gravity force. The amount of big and small, how they detach from the main structure, under which conditions, with which force, how they collide, their shape, the shape of the remaining object, how fast they spin, the amount of debris, their velocity and so on...must all be factored in. It is per se a very complex FX to get done properly and again Thinking Particles give you all the freedom to go through all these iteration with all the artistic flexibility you wish.

Michelangelo, one of the greatest Italian sculptor ever lived, believed that every marble block contained a statue imprisoned inside and that his mission was to set it free.

Doing digital destruction is a little like sculpting a statue with the addition of the motion. You start or end up in most cases to pre-Fragment your geometry, every cut that generates a new fragment count and it is very important as all those new geometries you generate around the main structure will become the instrument of your moving destruction that will slowly in some way reveal the left over, pretty much the statue.

I am sure if Michelangelo was still alive nowadays he would have surely adopted TP into
his `bag of tools`.

Cebas: Again kudos for the awesome analogy, Alessandro, and from your VFX work experience, Alessandro, how do you and the VFX studio decides which shot to use TP and which not to, what bears on those decisions?

Alessandro: This is a very tricky questions and I wish in every case there would be the opportunity to choose. As a freelance working all around the world you will have to adapt to whatever company pipeline you end up working with. Being a TP and a Houdini user allowed me to expand my work opportunities to a wide range of companies all around the world.

When a company wishes to involve you in different scenarios from pre production, you
can decide which software to pick to get the job done ahead of time. This for example was the case at Unit Image. We had some mail exchange and a Skype meeting before I actually started to work for Paris where they were asking how I would like to proceed to get my job done. TP was obviously my first pick due to my past experiences and confidence with it in handling destructions and Unit moved forward and agreed on that.

Cebas: How do you feel about the vfx scenes in ? Were you fully satisfied
with the outcome, and that it had been an enjoyable process for you and the team? Or was it all very hard work?

Alessandro: Never ask an artist if he is ever satisfied with his work, the answer will always be 'No'. Joke aside? I am extremely proud of the result!

I think we did end up in doing some remarkable work within the given time. We had more or less 9 weeks to perform all those complex destructions from scratch, it was of course some very hard work that never went beyond the 8 hours a day schedule and we never worked on weekends. That is truly remarkable if you look at the result! Paul Parneix did a fantastic job on his destructions! Paul joined the destructive band wagon midway and I was impressed with his talent of performing such remarkable work in such a short deadline. His clear vision of what he needed to do, they way he proceeded and approached his complex shots and the confidence he had was that of one who has master the art of vfx already! On top of that he is a fast learner, incredibly passionate and super fun to work with.

Perhaps, if given more time, I would have loved to support the destruction with some proper FumeFX passes but since time was flying fast we focused in crafting the most detailed destructions we could possibly do. It has also been a very enjoyable time for everybody involved in the projects. We all put 200% into it and we all have been so passionate that I think the only concern everybody had at the end was that it was the end. 

Cebas: What are some of the features in thinkingParticles 6 that you feel are unbeatable in a way that you feel only TP best handle those shots and enhances your creative output ?

Alessandro: The whole GROUPS paradigm is exceptionally powerful! The ability to color those groups and pass data into them based on events/rules is also unbeatable in debugging what you are doing and iterate over a certain concept you are aiming to achieve.

Shape Collision node is also unique, able to simulate an incredible large number of geometry taking in account its proper shapes and the ability to tweak its precision. ShapeCollision in TP makes it, in my opinion, the best solver commercially available in the industry for destruction. Its result is always stunning, believable and above all incredibly stable and reliable. ShapeCollision can simulate pretty much everything, from perfectly closed volume geometry to badly broken open edge geometry although this last one is never suggested.

There are so many little features also that made TP great, like all the timers and counters nodes, easy to use and incredibly powerful. Joints systems are just on another level, and this allows you to generate joints on the fly while interfacing them with the whole TP procedural paradigm in an easy and fast way and all the conditions and logic nodes are just too cool to not to mention them. Volume breaker also, in my opinion, can save your day if you have to deal with some large destruction and you don’t have the time to manually preFragment your geometry or simply if you don’t know where you end up and need to procedurally and quickly iterate with Directors. I am a big fan of hand cut geometry, it gives the best result visually and it is a very important part of the destruction process. But I still use VolumeBreaker for minor or secondary destructions there and there or when time is running fast. It’s great to have it and control it procedurally based on events and logic, and with the new inside details feature it went on to serve some of my destructions even closer to camera.

For example, VB has been extensively used for two of the shots you can see in my  Destruction making of.., reel. I have been preCutting the geometry first in big chunks along the edges of the crack and finalizing it procedurally with Volume Breaker after.

Cebas: In your view, what is your wish for cebas software to achieve that is not currently doing for you?

Alessandro: As I said before, I use TP mainly and pretty much only for Destruction so, In this regard I do not have so many wish list. So far, Cebas has always been updating in the right direction and I have faith they will continue to build up on everybody expectations.

Outside destructions, I wish there were some sort of internal expression language that would perform faster than, for example, an expression node, so I could implement my own functions and having them run fast to use in production. In TP, I feel there are Noise forces missing. For example, Curl Noise, Anti Aliasing, Turbulent and Perlin noise are all missing and while I did implement some of them using Maths and expression nodes, they were performing very poorly and certainly not able to use them in production.

I also wish I could have a proper Spreadsheet viewer and I am looking forward to see TP
ported inside MAYA mostly because it will open the opportunities to adopt it on many
other studios that are not 3DSMax only based, and there are many out there!

Cebas: Finally, what projects can we expect from you in the future (if you're able to tell us)?

Alessandro: I just finished helping out on “Star Trek beyond” effects, and started right after to work on the prequel of Harry Potter call “Fantastic Beasts and where to find them”.


Thank you so much, Alessandro for this incredible insights that you have given in this interview and Cebas hope it will be helpful to  budding VFX artists as well as old friends alike! We wish you all the best to your future FX endeavors!