The magic of visual effects – interview with Venti Hristova

April 17th, 2016

In the last few years her career spanned such a variety of productions as “Gangster Squad”, “Speed Racer”, “Immortals”, “Terminator Salvation” and “Avatar”, taking on roles as diverse as painter, compositor, designer, animator and supervisor. Most recently, after having joined Cantina Creative, she was the visual effects [VFX] supervisor on “Iron Man 3” and “Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome the multi-talented Venti Hristova to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.

In this interview Venti talks about the different roles she took on since she joined the industry, the spectacular magic of visual effects and the ongoing evolution of tools and artistic capabilities in the field, how “done” or “not done” is the HUD interface in Ironman mask, the role of VFX supervisor on blockbuster sci-fi productions and her work on the variety of screens in “Mockingjay”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your professional path so far.

Venti: My name is Venti Hristova. I was born in Bulgaria, I spent my childhood in England and I have been in LA for the past 18 years. My professional path has been paved by two people: the first is my dad, Lubo Hristov.

He started as a traditional animator and background artist in Bulgaria. Later he moved us to England where he became VFX Art Director at Cinesite London. After almost a decade in England he transferred us to Los Angeles. Soon after moving to LA, he founded a boutique Matte Painting company- Christov Effects and Design. Within the past two years my dad moved yet again; this time to Singapore as Art Director for ILM.

I studied illustration at Art Center College of Design and in my graduating year my dad took me to Berlin to work on set with him in designing the digital environments for Speed Racer. That was my introduction into the world of feature films and VFX. In Berlin I met the second most influential person in my professional life, Stephen Lawes.

Stephen is the co-owner of Cantina Creative, a VFX and motion graphics company based in Culver City. When I met Stephen, he introduced me to After Effects and animation and my life has not been the same since. Shortly after graduating from Art Center, Stephen hired me to design and animate graphics for Terminator Salvation at Pixel Liberation Front. Since then I worked my way from animator, designer, compositor to VFX supervisor.

Stills from short film “Gumdrop”. Art direction and animation by Venti Hristova.

Kirill: What drew you into the movie industry? If you go back to the time when you just started on your first feature film productions and some of the expectations that you had, how close (or far) has the reality of working in the industry turned out to be?

Venti: I guess you could say I was grandfathered into the industry through my dad. I was surrounded with his experiences on dozens of prestigious films and it was largely inevitable to become a part of the movie sphere in some capacity. I very much enjoyed matte painting and environment designing and after meeting Stephen Lawes I realized that I thoroughly enjoy animating motion graphics.

Kirill: What was it like to “lift a veil” on the magic of cinema and special / visual effects and see how much work is involved in making that magic happen?

Venti: I would have to say that VFX in itself is a pretty spectacular sort of movie magic that the average viewer is deprived from experiencing. I think that working in VFX is one of the more exciting aspects of the film industry these days because it encompasses such a huge part of the whole film production process from pre-production all the way through post.

Kirill: You’ve had a variety of roles such as matte painter, compositor, animator on production such as Gangster Squad, Immortals and Terminator Salvation. What are your thoughts on the evolving capabilities of digital tools at your disposal, and what they let you offer to the producers and the directors as the years go by?

Venti: The world of VFX tools in constantly evolving, so much so that you can get overwhelmed with the amount of new technologies. There is something very purist and “old-school” with relying primarily on one software such as my commitment to AE, however, the magic opportunities that open up with integrating C4D with AE or even Nuke and exploring the amazing universe of new plugins for blurs, glows, time-remaps, etc. is phenomenal. Looking back at the tools we were using on Terminator Salvation vs the tools we used for Iron Man 3, technology has made leaps and bounds and we have abused all their new flashy updates. At this point I can safely say there are no limits to what we can offer clients and that is a fantastic place to be professionally.

Stills from short film “Gumdrop”. Art direction and animation by Venti Hristova.

Kirill: Is everything can be done and it’s only the matter of time and budget? Do you feel that the demand from the production side is outpacing the evolution of tools’ capabilities?

Venti: I don’t think that production has outpaced VFX tools and capabilities. In the time of ILM and Weta the opportunities for VFX are limitless. There really is little that cannot be done at this point.

Kirill: Back in 2004 “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” was shot entirely on green screen, with all the sets created digitally in post-production. In your opinion, is this something that you want to work towards, to be able to offer complete world creation for any kind of a film production?

Venti: Ironically, Stephen Lawes was an integral part of the creation of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and we met on a movie that similarly relied almost exclusively on green screens/ VFX environments, Speed Racer, so in that regard I have experienced working on that kind of production. That being said, I recently worked on the set of Mockingjay Part 1+2 and it was an incredible experience to walk on a fantastically production designed set with spectacular detail and construction. I think I prefer to work on movies with a healthy balance of movie practical realism and VFX movie magic.

Screen graphics on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: What was your involvement with Avatar? Was there a feeling that this was going to be a special project that can turn out to be such a gigantic phenomenon?

Venti: My participation on Avatar was as a compositor and animator at Pixel Liberation Front. This was my first experience in the universe of stereo compositing and stereo graphics animating. I think everyone in the VFX community knew that Avatar was going to demolish the box-office and create a monumental shift in the VFX world. There will always be a sense of pride for most anyone who worked on that movie.

Kirill: It feels that with so many screens around us in our daily lives, it’s hard to imagine a film set in the present or near future without screens. How do you push the envelope of portraying the technology on the big screen when there are so many advances that people see in their everyday lives?

Venti: The good thing about working on many different types of movies is that you do not always have to create “sexy” content (although that is the most demanded for type). For example, creating monitor graphics for sleek superhero movies usually tend to utilize an elaborate amount of translucent graphics traveling elegantly across glass monitors or even projected holograms, whereas in some cases movies require more environment specific graphics that help accentuate the character of that world. An example of the latter is our work in Mockingjay where the graphics needed to feel almost obsolete, Russian constructivist and utilitarian rather than stylish billionaire futuristic.

HUD graphics on “Iron Man 3”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: You’ve worked on three movies in the Marvel universe – Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 and Avengers. It feels like Tony Stark kind of “owns” the HUD interface. How did you approach the evolution of that interface throughout these movies? Is there ever such a time when Iron Man HUD is “done”?

Venti: There will never be a time when the Iron Man HUD is “done” primarily because the evolution of his technology will forever expand and integrate with his cerebral structure. The more cerebral the HUD becomes and more abstract the design. Either way, the HUD will never be obsolete. Our process at the beginning of each new Iron Man venture is to assess the evolution of the previous HUDs and decipher what Tony Starks next steps would be. The designs that we have come up with over the past few years have always attempted to balance the scales between function and sex-appeal.

HUD graphics on “Iron Man 3”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: There are plenty of background / supporting screens in these three movies. How much work goes into creating a consistent design system and visual language for them as opposed to “hero” interfaces that get more foreground screen time in the final cut?

Venti: Creating background screens vs hero screens is a relatively different design process. Usually we tend to create a UI language and color scheme across both heroes and backgrounds which once approved separates into content generation for each category. The general color scheme and UI help generate the consistency that is necessary for the screens to all seem to live in the same world, after that the content and animation dictate the importance of the screens themselves. The more elaborate the content and the more finessed the animation the more “hero” the monitors are.

Kirill: Who is involved in the discussions, explorations and decisions on that system and on that language? How do you keep each movie fresh without looking the same as the previous movies in the specific franchise?

Venti: The discussion of the monitor design language is usually between the client and the VFX supervisor as well as the lead designer. We try to make each film’s graphics unique by exploring the necessities of the environments combined with the previous film’s technological advancements. Every screen is a leap ahead based on the needs of the individual films.

Kirill: You were the VFX supervisor on Iron Man 3 and Avengers. What does this position involve in the day-to-day schedule of pre-production, shooting and post?

Venti: The primary job description of a VFX supervisor is to manage workflow. In pre-production we focus on establishing the look and design of the graphics with the lead designer and with approval for the direction from the clients. Typically we will deliver temp graphics during this phase. During shooting, in the event that the clients need on-set graphics for their environments, we will work with the Director, Production Designer and the VFX Supervisor of the film to populate their sets with background graphics, usually non-interactive. In certain cases we have animated interactive on-set graphics using multiple animation passes and programable trigger keys using Director software. In post production, for the most part all the preliminary design has been established approved and finalized so the main task is generating story-specific animation for the collection of shots that the clients have requested. As VFX supervisor, the remainder of the show is a series of assigning shots to artists and animators in our team, managing deliverables to and from production, correcting notes from the clients and making sure to hit the scheduled milestones set in place by both the vendors and clients.

Kirill: It seems that there are multiple studios and freelancers involved on these blockbuster productions. How hectic is it to keep track of all the puzzle pieces, especially when there is so many holographic interfaces present in almost every other scene of a movie?

Venti: As a vendor we are in charge of one specific puzzle piece assigned by the clients. Our goal is to follow the clients deliverable pipeline and make their multiple vendor puzzle as efficient as possible. As VFX Sup it is my task to make sure that internally our pipeline does not get overly hectic even when the clients may add more shots or make multiple last-minute changes. Our team needs to stay as efficient as possible.

Screen graphics on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: On the two parts of Mockingjay you joined another existing franchise – Hunger Games. It looked like the closer the story got to The Capitol, the more present the technology became. What was the initial brief like, and what was the exploration process to define the technological capabilities in that dystopian world?

Venti: My participation on Mockingjay was the on-set monitor graphics, both background and interactive. I worked closely with the Production Designer to establish the look and feel of District 13, with the command center being the bulk of our work and all other secondary environment monitors. My main job was on location in Atlanta during shooting while remotely supervising a small and awesome team of designers and animators (including Sarah Blank) stationed at Cantina Creative in LA. This project was very challenging and incredibly rewarding due to the type of work and workflow. Working on-set with Phil Messina (the Production Designer) and Francis Lawrence (the director) was amazing because they are both incredibly aware of what they want stylistically and have a very good sense of the big picture so designing graphics for them was relatively straightforward and clearcut. On top of the fact that District 13 has a wonderfully different design language than the usual sleek-blue/cyan transparent graphics in more advanced technological environments.

As far as the Capitol and the holograms, that post-production work was actually supervised by Jay Grunfeld (also from Cantina Creative) as I took a 2 year sabbatical to open a bakery… :)

Screen graphics on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: The screens in Mockingjay appear very terse, dense with information and quite utilitarian. They never seem to call attention to themselves, tending to blend into the background even when they occupy large parts of the frame. Is it disappointing in any way to see your work playing a more diminished role if you compare it to the Marvel universe?

Venti: There are 2 schools of thought in regards to the role that VFX plays in movie-magic. The more common concept is that VFX needs to dominate the screen with epic robots, aliens, explosions, flashy/sexy graphics, etc. The secondary notion, which is equally successful, is the “invisible VFX”. In my experience there is something wildly exhilarating about creating subtlety where VFX is concerned. When the average viewer has no idea what is “real” and what is VFX, I have done my job. So to answer your question, background graphics, subtlety and quiet effects are actually my personal favorites.

Kirill: On a related subject, what are your thoughts on holographic screens and environments? Is this more of a great cinematic tool to convey the complexity of the interfaces? Putting aside the technical aspects of making such interfaces a reality, do you see real-world applications for our work and home environments?

Venti: Holograms are generally the most advanced technical graphics. They have been consistently used to represent the most futuristic design language and will probably continue to do so. I think it is a matter of time before we have real-world holograms. That being said, the real world projected “HUD” in the new BMWs is a great ‘life imitating art’ example.

Screen graphics on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: Do you worry about how your work will be seen and judged in 20-25 years, how it will date and diverge from what whatever will actually happen in the tech landscape?

Venti: I feel that every movie is a type of marker in film history. Some markers hold up better over time and are more impressive, whereas others seem to feel significantly more dated over a shorter period. I am not worried about being judged because for the time during which the graphics and effects are generated, we did the best work we could (within reason to the clients’ stylistic preferences which tend to clearly affect the end product).

Kirill: Do you have any difficulty introducing yourself to people that you meet at a party as you try to summarize what it is you do for living?

Venti: As a matter of fact, no. My spiel is always the same: “are you familiar with Iron Man? Well I make the floating graphics around his face when he is in the Iron man suit”. People usually instantly understand what I am talking about. Although, that doesn’t mean they fully comprehend “how” i do what I do, but their question is satisfied nonetheless.

Screen graphics on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I”. Courtesy of Cantina Creative.

Kirill: Stepping back into the world of real life software for the last few questions, what are the tools that you’re using? What are your main pain points? What can be made better in the way we communicate and interact with computers and screens around us?

Venti: I use AE almost exclusively. I use C4D for any 3D modeling. I usually leave awesome plug-in discoveries to Stephen Lawes :) I like to encourage each designer and artist in the team to explore their own fabulous software discoveries that will then add new levels of cool to our design for clients. I am a very deliberate manager and communicator, I think that is how I view my job description as a supervisor. I am the “go-between” from client and vendor, making sure the design language is established and the work is completed up to the standards of the clients and beyond.

Kirill: Is there anything that interests you personally in the world of augmented and virtual reality?

Venti: Frankly I am most excited about the new camera development – Lytro. That will most likely completely shift our VFX workflow and capabilities in the near future.

Kirill: What’s next for Venti Hristova?

Venti: I have no idea where I am going. Currently, I am simply going with the flow. That being said, I am pretty stoked to go on production with my family in the future (whether through my career or my husband’s since he works in the camera department). It would be a pretty fantastic experience for my baby when she is more aware.

Stills from short film “Gumdrop”. Art direction and animation by Venti Hristova.

And here I’d like to thank Venti Hristova for graciously agreeing to do the interview and answering a few questions I had about her craft. You can find more of her work at Cantina Creative site. And if you’re interested to read additional interviews about the wonderful world of screen graphics and user interfaces for film and TV, click here for more.