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Alumni VES Nomination: The Craziest Student VFX Project You've Ever Seen

By: Yan Weitlauff

Rebelway Alumni Yan Weitlauff directed this VES-nominated student project during his time at ArtFX.

Rebelway alumni consistently impress us away with their incredible work, and alumni Yan Weitlauff is no exception. We’ve been honored to see his VFX skills grow and improve over the years, but this time he has outdone himself.

In this short film, Yan directed a VFX project that landed a VES nomination for student projects. We thought it’d be fun to chat a little about the project with Yan to learn how he approached such a complex and impressive project.

But first… here is the film.

Yan's Demo Reel

For some context, here is Yan’s current demo reel. As you can tell, his FX skills are incredible.

Interview with Yan About 'Time's Down'

This is the most insane student project we’ve ever seen. What kickstarted this project? Was it a school assignment?

Oh wow, thank you so much! Well first off, this was the work of 5 of us; each one with a specific skill. I was the director and FX Artist on Time’s Down.

The last year of our master’s cycle is the making of a short film, from story to final comp. We can choose to do fully animated or VFX… and we obviously picked the latter.

Your FX skills seem to be way more advanced than the average VFX student, where did you learn to create FX?

Well, there are a lot of students displaying incredible skills, and that’s one of the motivations for working hard and trying to stand out. I opened Houdini for the first time two and a half years ago, and started watching tutorials on the internet. I feel like for a software of this magnitude you have to have some direction. Otherwise you can go down the rabbit hole and waste a lot of time.

And then, lots and lots of practice.

Why did you make the decision to get your Master’s Degree? How did this decision serve your education and career?

I was making a living doing 3D freelancing, but I’ve always wanted to be part of the VFX industry. I always dreamed of working on the blockbuster films as I watched in awe. That’s why I decided to enroll for two years and get my Master’s Degree in FX.

The result exceeded all my expectations! Five days after graduating, I joined Framestore London, crossing an item off my bucket list. And it didn’t stop there, since then I’ve moved on to working on Series, and recently joined Luma Pictures, making big features among amazing artists! It’s been incredible and Luma is such a great place to work. You can ask Hunter Williams about it, you know him pretty well, haha!

A VES Nomination is a huge achievement for any FX team. What was the nomination process like? Were you surprised when you found out?

It was definitely a surprise! When we were making Time’s Down, we mainly focused on having fun. The production was quite intense, so we didn’t stop to think what would come out of it. 

We submitted an edit of the movie. Unlike festivals, you don’t send the whole movie to the VES. And when we heard we were nominated, everyone was so excited. We’re really proud to get recognition from our peers. For me, it was the overwhelming messages from people, including big names of the industry, congratulating me and asking about my work.

You seem to have created a lot of tools and workflows for this film, what were some of the more exciting technical achievements that you developed for this project?

Being the FX artist (and the only one working exclusively in Houdini during the production) I built all my tools in there.

One of the main challenges I faced was coming up with a solution to retime my simulations. The retiming tools in Houdini were not ideal, so I used my knowledge of Python and VEX to come up with a flexible way to slow down my sims by 20, and not rely on incredibly heavy subframes data. Most of the setups I used were fluid simulations, and would have been way too expensive to compute out of the box. I completely took apart the Pyro Solver, and adjusted it to fit my needs, giving me a lot of details, a lot faster. This required quite a bit of testing.

If someone wanted to gain the technical and artistic understanding you have towards FX work, what advice would you give them?

I would try to seek the guidance of experienced artists. That’s why educational platforms such as Rebelway are a great place to start. Houdini’s biggest strength is the freedom given to the user. But unfortunately, it means that you can spend years pushing buttons and not get anywhere.

I also see people focusing only on the technical side a lot. Every time I see an FX shot on the internet that stands out, I stop and try to understand what makes it good. It could be the timing, staging, but more often than not, it’s the purpose. Even an assignment like a building collapsing can tell a thousand different stories. We tend to forget that we, as artists, get to tell this story! In my opinion, purpose is the first and most important step in making an interesting effect.

What courses have you taken on Rebelway?

Yes, I was fortunate enough to take three classes at Rebelway a couple years ago. I followed the original Mastering Pyro (Now Explosion FX in Houdini) and Magical FX in Houdini last year. And I am still working on the Water FX in Houdini. I chose these mainly because I love to try on all kinds of effects.

Explosion FX in Houdini was tough, because I didn’t know a lot about Houdini at that stage, but I still managed to keep up and started enjoying fluid simulations. I revisited it recently. It is so dense, tons of information, and ideas to experiment.

What’s next for you on your artistic journey?

I enjoy working on features so much and Luma is an amazing place! The last 6 months have been insane, I was lucky enough to work with incredible companies on amazing projects. I would love to use my spare time to create content and share all the things I learn in production and helping others get into the industry. We’ll see how that goes!

Where can people see more of your work?

I finally decided to get my work out there!

And the Time’s Down movie has just recently been released in full which you can find here.

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