Careers: VFX artist/previs specialist Alexander Sokolov
Issue: May/June 2022

Careers: VFX artist/previs specialist Alexander Sokolov

Originally from Russia, Alexander Sokolov is an LA-based VFX artist who specializes in previs and post visualization. Sokolov has been working in the field since 2005, and has credits that include contributions to Stranger Things (Season 4), Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Jumanji: The Next Level and Terminator: Dark Fate. He recently took some time to share details of his career path, including learning 3ds max while in Russia and his move to America. He also has advice for new talent that will serve them well in professional workflows.

Are you an independent, or do you work with a studio?

“Is it so common in the industry just to hire huge amounts of artists and animators for a project, and it's totally fine. Technically, we are working here in LA on the short contracts just attached to the project, show or film, which usually lasts from three to six months, in general. The huge blockbuster requires probably half a year (of) work on the pre-visualization or post-visualization stages. I'm a freelance artist who works on a short contracts with several companies here and there.”

So a studio will secure a project and then staff it with the people they need?

“Exactly! Yes, because it is hard to predict. Sometimes you need to extend it. Usually, it's about extension. On the last project, I was asked to join the team last autumn. The director was so happy with the impact on the project that the pre-visualization team made that he extended the pre-production stage almost twice. I was free nine months later and they still wanted to hire me on this project. Currently, I'm working on the final stage of finishing and polishing all this stuff, the third act of the film.

It's really common, and teams are really flexible, because in this ever-changing world of movie-making, you need to be flexible. Pre-visualization and post visualization, in general, is about effectiveness: how effective production is, and how quick can you adjust yourself and your team to provide something new if (there’s) a change in needs of the director.”

Who are some of the studios that you are partnering with on these different jobs? I know The Third Floor is a specialist in pre-visualization, so, I'm not surprised to hear that. Is that one that you work with regularly? 

“The other big studio is MPC Technicolor. I like to work with them, and I did several recent projects with them, and there are several more. Since the amount of work in pre- and post visualization is so huge, Double Negative (Dneg) and Sony opened their visualization departments here in LA as well. I'm trying to work with different companies since, again, it's not super stable. Some of them have projects right now, and some of them can hire you or book you for half of the year.

“The market is still growing, and the term ‘pre-visualization’ recently has changed to ‘visualization.’ In general, it shows how this is still growing. We are still trying to catch the possibilities of this field. I worked with smaller studios as well. It's a relatively different experience working with the smaller studios rather than huge pipelines and huge monsters like MPC Technicolor.

“I worked the last nine months with Opsis. They provide more flexibility and freedom. It's just different, and you adjust yourself. Since I'm a freelancer for almost 15 years, for me, it's even better and even more interesting. You control more things than in a relatively straightforward workflow.”

Can you talk a little bit about your background? You mentioned you've been freelancing for 15 years. What was your background that led you to animation and previs and that type of work? 

“In the university, I started design in general. It was late '90s and early 2000s, and almost immediately, I started to check the first three-dimensional package that appeared at that time in the market back in Russia. Back in Russia, it was 3ds Max, not Maya. Nothing else. For some reason, it was really popular package and we had a few - not a lot - but few books translated in Russia, how to work in 3ds Max. I learned it and almost immediately became kind of a star in my local city.

“It was quite unusual that somebody can do things in 3D back in 2000s. It was very rare ability. Almost immediately I came to the game industry, and started to work with an indie company that helped me to make character animation, since games is mostly about the character animation, and some sortsof tiny, bright visual effects. I learned it there. It helped me later a lot.

Were you working in Russia? Was there a business in there for 3D?

“Yes, I worked in Russia for almost like 10 years. Again, the market was very young and I jumped from a game industry to broadcast design and motion design, and then to visual effects. The biggest project in Russia that speds up the VFX industry appeared somewhere in 2003/2004. I was hired by a company that gained incredible success with the first big Russian blockbuster in 2004 — Night Watch. I was hired for the second part of this film, for the sequel, named Day Watch.

“I (then) jumped to a VFX production house, and helped them with visual effects with particles and explosions and all that stuff. It was a pretty tough adventure, and I learned a lot. Eventually, I settled with pre-visualization, because it was the most interesting, and I had a lot of freedom. I worked directly with filmmakers and directors, and I liked it a lot.”

How do you end up in the United States? 

“That's another part of the story. I was really interested in how (directors) block the scenes? How they do sequences, which I later pre-visualized. So I came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking to speak in a same language with a director. I studied filmmaking here in LA. But the problem was the amount of competition for a young director in Los Angeles. I decided to jump back and work in my main profession, using all this experience that I had before. And with filmmaking experience, I was now more able to speak with everybody in the same language. It's always a good idea to develop your skills and learn something new that helps you to work more efficiently in pre-visualization.

“The filmmaking class was the exact thing that brought me here. As soon as I finished filmmaking school, I started to work with The Third Floor. They hired me even without an interview because, at the time before the pandemic, they were packed with projects. The only problem was that I still worked in 3ds Max, and everybody here worked in Maya. It was a challenging period to transfer from 3ds Max to Maya and basically learn everything from scratch again. It was 2019, so it was like three years ago.”

Are you in the studio working, or are you working from home?

“The bigger studios, before pandemic, they require you to work in a very strict security environment, so you have to attend the studio and work. They had sections of office that were blocked with black curtains, and with several extra doors with several extra keys to protect the intellectual property. Then the pandemic came and everything goes back to the ‘work from home.’ Almost every company that I worked with recently, they work remotely, so most of my colleagues still work from home. Even though you can go to offices right now, everybody prefers — and it's more efficient — to work from home.

What is your setup? Can you talk a little bit about what kind of workstation you have?

“Frankly, for pre-visualization, you don't need very heavy-loaded computers. It’s basically more about efficiency and how effective you can be, how fast you can be, how you can reduce the amount of polygons and make your workflow, in general, efficient. It's relatively as average workstation with a couple of displays and that's it. The crucial component of the workflow is a stable and very thick broadband cable that goes from your apartment towards the studio. I changed to the business internet and that was the biggest investment I made.”

Do you have a preference as far as workstation set-up or brand?

“Not at all. Ten years ago, it was more important because at that era, the bottleneck was the hard drives, so I was an early adopter of SSD drives. It tremendously sped up the work on editing and working with sequences. But nowadays, almost every computer is so fast that it allows you to work on almost every project. I don't use really strong video cards, like Nvidia RTX or something, because we just don't need it.

“It's the artist's decision to make a scene heavy or efficient or light — a low poly scene. I'm not overcomplicating my projects, therefore I don't invest that much money in hardware because it's more about the way you work — your workflow.”

Let's hear about some of the work that you've done. I know that you're working on Stranger Things (Season 4)?

“The longest project I worked was Jumanji, the second film. It was a really interesting project. That was my first introduction to working with Hollywood directors, and we worked almost six months on a post visualization. I liked it a lot because I learned a lot — how you can handle every shot by yourself, track it, animated the characters, and then comp it together into something that works for director. 

Jumanji was definitely one of the most interesting projects for me. Then was Terminator: Dark Fate, film by Tim Miller. I worked on the last stage, then they decided to change the ending of the film and they reshot a good portion of the third act. They brought it to us and asked us to make something that will work in several weeks. It was a super challenging task for us. We worked all day long, with huge over time. 

“I worked on another film with Dwayne Johnson — Jungle Cruise. There was a lot of sequences with water. There was a lot of roto work, and since I'm a comp artist, and I'm really good at rotoscoping and assembling everything together in After Effects, I felt super confident working on the sequences, where millions of markers had to be removed from the background, and some reflections or splashes from the water (needed to be) eliminated from the shot. That was my part. I felt it was a project for me.

“I'm not entitled to speak a lot about the Stranger Things, but I should say that every new project that comes to us still, even after 15 years working in pre-visualization, it provides some new challenges and new tasks that I am not always ready for. For example, for Stranger Things, we need to work (on) some kind of fire simulations. It was new for me, again, because it was Maya, and every tool was new for me. We did a great job and the directors - the Duffer Bros. - were happy with the results we provided.

“A recent project that just came out was (Chip N’ Dale:) Rescue Rangers. We did almost 1,500 post vis shots for that film. The director, Akiva Schaffer, shot empty backgrounds and several actors, who interact with the puppets, and then we replace the puppets and make Chip and Dale, and other characters work in these shots. We have rough animation. We have a rough render. But we basically design eye lines and all the sequence, how they match together, how they cut together. We did that work for him.”

“It was challenging. Again, 1,500 shots is a lot for a small team. We had one or two teams at MPC Technicolor, and everybody there was ultra-professional animators. I really appreciated the supervisor who helped us, who got us together and gave everybody the exact task that each person could handle.”

Can you give any advice to somebody just out of school who is looking to pursue a career in previs or VFX? 

“First thing that comes to mind is the effectiveness of the workflow. Years pass by, but I still open projects and see chaos in the organization of the layers and groups. It really slows down the work. If you are a perfectionist who will put everything in a proper place and name it properly, it helped 10 or 15 years ago, and it will work today as well. It is always a good habit to organize everything. Spend some time on organization!

“The second thing I would say, is that character animation is the thing I’d really like to learn more (about). It's easy to learn compositing and tracking, but for character animation, I would suggest everyone to spend more time dealing with rigs and poses and arcs, and learning in general how to build a story. A tiny story with maybe several shots. It help every artist to understand the visual narration, which is the subject we work every day.

“Probably the last one is editing. Not (many) artists feel comfortable editing their sequences. If you do, it helps a lot. All media nowadays, even (if it) goes to TikTok or some virtual reality, it's all about the stories. It's all about narration. If you can build a dynamic edit of whatever story you are showing or narrating, it'll help you later to work on the same level with a director or be a team leader or supervisor. 

“Basically, effectiveness, organization, character animation and editing — these are skills that everybody, in my opinion, should focus on. I see the lack of these skills every day in my colleagues. Not like everyone, but my colleagues in Russia, for sure. And I see lack of knowledge or talent in character animation. I invest time and effort to learn character animation at the animation school here in Los Angeles. Again, this requires so much time, and the older you become…it's harder and more difficult to learn something new. Character animation requires like 40 hours a week just to learn and update your skills. It's a lot. I just feel sorry that I'm not the best character animator yet.”