Alkemy X

VFX artist Ari Garber joined the Alkemy X team in 2021 after formerly compositing at shops like Zoic, Framestore, Artjail, and The Mill. She specializes in Nuke compositing and serves as an on-set VFX Supervisor for Alkemy X episodic projects, including Power Book II: Ghost and Power Book III: Raising Kanan.

AX: How did you get started in the world of VFX compositing and on set supervising?

AG: My path into the world of VFX was a bit more winding than some. In college, I studied liberal arts and it wasn’t until I was in my first job out of school working in publishing for a fine arts magazine in Boston, MA, that I started dabbling in digital media and motion graphics. I started taking continuing ed courses in animation at a local college, and long story short ended up meeting my future mentor, one of the character animators responsible for the mammoth in the Ice Age films. He introduced me to the VFX industry, and recommended me for my first VFX gig as a roto/paint artist at Zero VFX. 

I had absolutely no compositing experience, but I worked really hard to learn on the job and used the company’s resources to get my skills up to par after hours.  By the time that first gig ended I had fallen in love with VFX. I took the leap of moving to NYC without a job to go all in on pursuing a career in compositing. I managed to get a compositing internship at The Mill and ended up working there for two years before going freelance. Over the course of freelancing for about 4 years, I found my niche working in episodics, and when the opportunity arose for me to join Alkemy X as a compositor/on-set supervisor on some of the company’s episodic projects I jumped at it.

AX: What software and tools do you primarily use for your work?

AG: The main program I use for compositing is Nuke. Since VFX is a highly collaborative industry, I also try to stay up to date with 3D approaches, even though in my role I don’t actually have to use Maya or any other 3D program on the job. Now that I’m going on set, part of my job is to capture HDRIs and element and location references for later use in post, so I’ve had to sharpen my photography skills.

AX: Can you walk us through your process of working on a VFX shot from start to finish?

AG: The great thing about VFX is that no two shots are exactly the same, so every shot requires an open mind and a fresh approach! Basically, when a shot is assigned to me, I begin by bidding out in my mind what the shot will entail technically and trying to determine the most efficient approach to achieve the creative brief. I always communicate with producers and my supervisor to make sure the approach I’m taking fits with the client’s vision and the visual effects supervisor’s plan for the scene. If the shot requires 2D only, then I start with any tracking, roto, keying, and element gathering that might need to be done, then I put all the pieces together. If the shot requires 3D, then I wait until the contingent tasks are complete, then I gather the pieces and begin my work. Once I have a shot that looks cohesive and believable, I check it against the other shots in the scene to make sure it fits, and send it off for review!  

AX: What are some of the favorite projects you worked on, onset or otherwise?

AG: It’s hard to choose a favorite project because they are all so different, and I learn different things from each one! I’ve really enjoyed working as a compositor on the Walking Dead universe shows because the world-building and plot line is so out of the realm of the ordinary, or even at times physically possible, that a lot of the ultimate storytelling falls to us in VFX. It’s cool to be part of the team bringing to life an imaginary world, and executing concepts that often have no real-life reference. On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed going on set for the shows in the Power universe, where the role of VFX is mainly to build upon and really sell home the violence and grittiness of this crime genre drama. For these shows, I’ve had to work closely with the production crew to make sure we are able to honor the aesthetic that makes these shows iconic, and seeing all the diverse talents and skills that people bring to the project has opened my mind in totally different ways.

AX: How do you ensure that your work meets the client's vision from on set to post production?

AG: One of the most important things an on-set supervisor has to do is develop relationships with the whole production crew to fully grasp the world-building happening in the show, and gain the client’s trust. When I go on set, I talk to everyone, take lots of pictures, and write up detailed reports so that when the work comes in house on the VFX side, we have context for what was going on on set, what the director and the DP were thinking, and what the challenges were while shooting. Having that bit of context helps us understand the creative briefs and get faster to what they are looking for. Also, since shoots can be stressful and move quickly, I try to take enough of my own photos to fill in any gaps for plates they may not have had time to shoot, or cleanup that may need to be done.  

AX: What is the most challenging VFX shot you've ever worked on, and how did you overcome any obstacles you faced during the process?

AG: In general the trickiest shots are the ones where we need to cheat the lighting of VFX elements to make them work for storytelling purposes. Striking a balance between the real life lighting in the footage and the desired look for the elements in the comp can be a fine line to walk, but that’s also where the artistry comes in! An example of a situation where this occurred for me was when I was working on Star Girl, a DC universe superhero show, where the protagonist had a glowing staff that was, by its magical nature, constantly emitting a big yellow lens flare. Of course, there are only certain lighting conditions in real life where lens flares occur, but since this lens flare needed to be present at all times, we had to invent an imaginary light physics to justify it, and make it look believable across the show. Getting the right look for the staff and the lens flare required researching how magical weapons and similar situations have been handled in other films, and of course going back and forth with the team trying out different looks until we landed on something that worked for the story, and looked physically believable.

AX: How do you collaborate with the client, VFX artists, and supervisors to ensure that everyone's work fits together seamlessly?

AG: Successful collaboration comes not only from listening and communicating effectively but from reading between the lines and understanding what clients and supervisors want based on the situation and the broader goals of the project. It’s our job as VFX artists to interpret what the client says, and give them not literally what they asked for, but what we know they actually want based on our experience and knowledge. Beyond that, as artists we need to stay conscious of budget and time constraints and stay accountable to producers and supervisors when it comes to the limitations of the job.

AX: Can you give an example of a project where you had to problem-solve and come up with creative solutions to make a shot work?

AG: The trickiest problem-solving comes in when things change late in the production schedule, and there’s not enough time to start over or do things the “right” way. I remember when I was still working in commercials at The Mill, it was late at night on the eve of delivery for one job, and there was a last minute client request to make an object fall into a swimming pool and create a splash. We didn’t have time to go back to FX for a water sim, so we staged a DIY element shoot right in the office, and filmed a rubber ball dropping into a glass of coca cola, then used that as the element for the splash in the pool. It ended up working great!

AX: How do you stay up-to-date with the latest trends and techniques in visual effects?

AG: It’s a constant battle, but since all of us VFX artists are dealing with the same challenges, there is a culture of information sharing that makes staying in the know much easier. If I hear people at work or in the wider VFX community discussing new technology, I’ll go research it for myself. Likewise, if I happen to come across something new and helpful, I’ll share it with my coworkers, and by paying it forward we all get better and stay with the times!

AX: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career as a VFX compositor or on set supervisor?

AG: It’s a tough industry to break into, but it’s worth it! If, like me, you didn’t study VFX in school, then you should be ready to put in a lot of time learning on your own. To get your first junior level gig, you’ll need to put together a demo reel showcasing compositing fundamentals. If you’re not able to get access to a Nuke license, you can use Adobe, or any lower end compositing platform. Just include a range of shots that showcase fundamental skills like roto, cleanup, and comping elements in a way that honors the realistic lighting in the footage. If you have other industry adjacent skills like photography, animation, design, or other types of artwork, you can put samples of your work in a portfolio and share that with potential employers along with your reel. Really, though, what’s more important than having a great portfolio is being able to prove to a future employer that you can learn quickly on the job. You just have to get in the door somehow, even if it’s as a runner or some kind of low level assistant, you can then use the company resources to practice your skills after hours. Any company that sees you putting in time outside of work and learning quickly will see how special that is and start giving you real tasks to work on, and hopefully support your growth.  

If your goal is to work on set, you should know that part of your job will be representing your company to the client, and you will have to be both sociable and trustworthy. No matter how smart and talented you may be as a VFX artist, you need to have strong communication skills, be able to read a room, and work well with a team if that’s what you want to do.