Episode 190 — Alessandro Ongaro


Episode 190 — Alessandro Ongaro

Alessandro Ongaro is a CG Supervisor at Double Negative. With almost 20 years of experience, he is presently considered to be among the CG Industry’s top professionals.

Alessandro was born in Switzerland and holds a dual Italian and Swiss citizenship. While studying design at the School of Design in Milan, Italy, Alessandro first began using computers to create photo-realistic 3D renderings for the architecture industry. He began working in the feature films after moving back to Milan where he was recruited by Digitalia Graphics, the first Italian company to work with a film negative. It pioneered all the visual effects for the very first Italian sci fi movie Nirvana.

After 5 years at Digitalia Graphics, Alessandro was offered a position by ESC Entertainment where he began to work on Constantine. Soon after finishing work on Constantine, he was recruited by DreamWorks Animation where he worked on such films as Madagascar, Over The Hedge, Flushed Away, Bee Movie, Shrek: Forever After, Turbo and Kung Fu Panda 3.

Since joining Double Negative, Alessandro has worked on features Ant-Man and the Wasp, The Meg, Alpha and the upcoming Men in Black: International. Most recently, he’s produced and directed the highly acclaimed web series Hollywood Hitmen, and an animated teaser The Nine Lives of Claw which he also wrote.

In this Podcast, Alessandro talks about some of his favorite projects, the difference between VFX and animation, the importance of being a Generalist — and the most crucial skill for visual effects artists.

Alessandro Ongaro on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1258081/
Alessandro Ongaro on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aleongaro?originalSubdomain=ca
Interview with Alessandro Ongaro on Art of VFX: https://www.artofvfx.com/ant-man-and-the-wasp-alessandro-ongaro-vfx-supervisor-dneg/


[00:42] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

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[03:01] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Alessandro: Yes! My name is Alessandro Ongaro. I’ve been away from Italy for 15 years, but I still have an accent.

[03:20] Allan: I purposefully hide my accent in the States. It will switch on when I’m around Australians. Otherwise, I get caught in really awkward conversations, so I try to blend in.

Alessandro: I try as well, but with me, it doesn’t work. I currently work at DNEG, in Vancouver. I’ve been doing visual effects for about 20 years now.

[04:01] Allan: Cool, man! How did you get started? I always ask that question. I’m curious: Did you always want to be an artist growing up? Or were like me and thought you were going to be a ninja (or a dinosaur)?

Alessandro: When I was a kid, I never knew what I was going to be growing up. There is something that has always been a passion, in particular, special effects. Even though when I was a kid, there were no computer graphics. It was all practical effects and miniatures. My grandpa was a big Hollywood fan. He made me see a lot of films. There was something about that world that fascinated me, [as] the art that’s creative and technical. I always wanted to be an architect, to answer your question. I was doing design in the early days of 3D. It was mesmerizing to me what I was able to do with computers.

[05:49] Allan: So how did you come across visual effects for the first time?

Alessandro: I was studying design in Milan. I still thought that architecture was my future. I started working for a studio in Milan. But most of the day, I was doing 3D rendering. Back then, there wasn’t much competition. I realized it may be a better way to make more money. Back then, when I was in my early 20s, I wasn’t really focused on any [plan]. I also grew up in Switzerland so I moved back to my hometown. I was DJ-ing and bartending, and thinking about what to do next. I was still doing graphics at night. While I was serving drinks, I found out about a production company from a customer. They were looking for people. Back in the day, when you knew a little bit, they would hire you! Especially over there! That’s how I started: I joined a company and I realized that it was what I really wanted to do. Eventually, I moved back to Milan to join another studio. It was the first high-end visual effects company working on films. There was no digital yet. And that’s basically when I started working in film. I began building my reel and eventually I moved to the States. That’s the short story.

[08:37] Allan: Before you went to the States, how many years did you work in the industry?

Alessandro: I would say 6-7 years already. When I started, I did a couple of years [in Switzerland]. Then about 3-4 years in Italy. So, by the time I moved to the U.S., I was 31 years old. The experience I had was related to the Italian market. My reel wasn’t even close to the reels at the U.S. companies. Even then, 15 years ago, there weren’t many studios or tv shows. Right now, it’s a bit harder and there is a surplus of artists. It was about being in the right place at the right time. The company was ESC which doesn’t exist anymore. They were finishing Constantine and struggling to find visual effects artists. So they hired me.

[10:18] Allan: I was going to ask a question. Did you work there for longer than 3 months?

Alessandro: The initial plan was for 6 months. When I joined, they were finishing Constantine. We had 4 months left.

[10:42] Allan: I was mainly asking about your visa experience.

Alessandro: They did my H1B application and it took 2 months to get it. At the time, they were owned by Warner Bros. They were finishing up Cat Woman. Back then, we were awarded Superman Returns. I had a meeting and they decided to keep me. Of course, I was super excited about it. A VFX Sup had a problem with ESC. So Mark Stetson was told not to give the work to ESC and the company decided to close. For me it was a dramatic moment. I needed a new job or I was going to lose my visa. I accepted the first offer — which was from PDI.

[12:43] Allan: That’s a great transition. ESC always had an interesting history. On which sequence did you work on Constantine?

Alessandro: I did a few things. The first thing was the wings of Gabriel, the Archangel. At one point, they burn. And the other was when the Satan comes to take Constantine back to hell. There is a scene where the time slows down and the glass doors blow up. That was great! I really, really enjoyed it. When I joined ESC, I was very nervous. The reality is: You’d be surprised how much you know. And I was surrounded by people who always motivated me and complimented the work I was doing. It was a good way to get started!

[14:30] Allan: I think that’s brilliant! The team there was amazing, for the size of the studio they were. Coming from a smaller country, I found it interesting that we were responsible for a lot more. That was a big contrast. You realize that it can be very segmented in the U.S. You come in knowing how to light, model, animate, render — and you typically find that you do that one thing you’re responsible for.

Alessandro: You’re absolutely right! Back in Italy, you used to be a Generalist. You did everything. You took the shot from beginning to end. The thing that helped me at ESC, I did more than simulations. I also shaded the glass shot. I worked with the riggers for the feathers. So my experience helped me. Not to say, it isn’t different these days. But if you know more than [your specialty], it helps a lot!

[16:40] Allan: I totally agree! One final question about ESC, what sequence was it [that you worked on], on Superman. Do you remember?

Alessandro: We definitely worked on the opening sequence, with the airplane crash. There was that. I think we were going to get a big chunk of work. But that’s when they shut down. The VFX producer there, we ended up working later again, including on The Ant-Man and the Wasp most recently.

[17:37] Allan: I worked on Superman with Stetson and Bryan Singer, and others. On that project, I’ve worked in 3 different countries. But I love that it’s such a small industry! You’re hanging out with people in different parts of the world. It also means you have to maintain good relationships.

Alessandro: That’s really important, in any job! Relationships are always the most important. You never know who this person is going to be. It’s a small industry, it’s important to be nice to everyone. Do you know Adam Martinez at Sony? He was the guy that hired me back in the day. I just ran into him at SIGGRAPH.

[19:23] Allan: That’s a great point! How many people that you know are still in the industry [from back in the day]? I found that interesting. I went back to Australia after 13 years. The guys whose careers you expected to blow up are now working on some small app or are not in the industry at all.

Alessandro: I have to say that most of the people I was working with are out of visual effects. They may be still in the CG world: video games or working on apps. Most people from PDI have changed careers for different reasons. A lot of these situations, it’s not easy to find jobs. A lot of them have changed industries.

[21:51] Allan: What was it like to go to PDI?

Alessandro: It was a big change! The difference between VFX and animation is substantial. In visual effects, there is a lot of working and not a lot of time. And in animation, there is a lot of work and more time. You have way more time to develop, especially if you start early on, on a movie. In VFX, there is less and less time. I have to say: I enjoyed ESC because I liked the pace. PDI was the opposite but it allowed me to learn a lot. There were a lot of talented people around me. It’s a different way of working. It was a bit too relaxed, probably. But PDI was one of the best for VFX. Really smart people, really technical, with really good eye!

[23:28] Allan: I had a discussion with my Supervisor in 2001. “Allan, do you like A Bug’s Life or Antz more?” I said, “Antz!” He said TD’s like Antz and animators like Bug’s Life. PDI — which became DreamWorks — was always pushing the envelope.

Alessandro: For Antz, they developed Flu. It was used for so many films. They were innovators for a lot of things!

[24:24] Allan: It’s such a shame when they closed down. Where you around for that?

Alessandro: So, I don’t think so. I left in 2015. It was around then. We have to think about it as a business. I was passionate about the work. Part of the reason was a lot of the talent was moving to LA.

[25:43] Allan: That’s the thing about the Bay Area. There is so much talent up there, but there are so few options. I loved San Francisco. I switched my visa because I didn’t like long jobs, so I started working for myself. I love the idea of creating my own company. But there is no freelance work in San Francisco. There is Atomic Fiction, ILM, Pixar. None of those have short term projects. There is so much talent up there!

Alessandro: For me, I would’ve rather stayed in LA if I could. I moved to Vancouver because a lot of the work comes here for tax reasons. The reason why it took me so long to leave DreamWorks is because I couldn’t find anything in LA at the time. So I decided to stay and then I worked on Kung Fu Panda. After that, I moved to Vancouver.

[28:11] Allan: I’m in Portland right now. Going to Double Negative (coming from a small but experienced team), it’s a change of pace. What was it like switching for you?

Alessandro: It was a big, big change. First I was doing effects. I wanted to go back to being a Generalist. It’s not always easy after years in animation. Plus, I was applying to be more of CG or Sequence Sup. I was a little bit worried. Luckily, being a Sup takes different skills than being a TD. At DNEG, they didn’t care much that I’ve done effects and animation. Plus, I’ve done live action commercials at DreamWorks to promote films. I tried to stay connected to the visual effects process. At DNEG, they didn’t question my background. They were happy to hire me for the years of experience. Things have changed over the years, so I had to re-learn some stuff. But I was super happy about what I was doing: crazy hours and frantic work, working together to deliver. You have to really like this job to keep doing it, after all these years. It’s good money, but it’s not going to make you a millionaire.

[32:01] Allan: I think after a time, you appreciate working with studios that know what they’re doing. I usually work on multiple projects at once. For me, I’m very careful about who I work with. If they make bad calls, it’s a reminder of what you really value. Most of us, in the beginning, work crazy hours. As artists, we tend to be on the receiving end. After 20 years of doing this, I still love what I do but I don’t need to deal with the bullshit. You appreciate working with talented people who make good decisions together.

Alessandro: It is true. In visual effects, we have to deal with the clients that demands a lot of work. It makes the whole process less appealing. It’s a big conversation that people like you understand. The people in general don’t understand what we do, how we do it and how much we put into the final product. There are studios that value that. I have to say that Marvel is demanding, they ask for a lot of changes — but they collaborate with their vendors. When I worked on The Ant-Man and the Wasp, I felt like I was part of it. They were interested in making the best film and they [were taking input] from everyone. I think me and my team contributed a lot to the film. Which is great! Sometimes, you wish you had more time to do certain things. There were reshoots 2 months before the release date. That happens all the time!

[34:42] Allan: What was it like on that film? What was your experience?

Alessandro: Up to date, it’s been the best project I’ve had the pleasure of working on. I was a Visual Effects Sup on that, so it was a challenge for me. I had to prove myself. It was a great experience from the beginning. I was on set a lot with the second unit. I had a lot of set experience which helped for sure. We had a big chunk of the film [for which] we were responsible: The car chase at the end of the film, the design of the ghost. It was a lot of work! We did everything in 6 months. At some point, we were working on 700 shots. It was a great project! And my team was fantastic. When you work so many hours, for so many days, you really get to know the people you’re working with! Again, the team loved what they were doing, including staying late. The best part was people wanted to stay late. It was great!

[37:30] Allan: That’s great! The more senior you become, the more you start to take ownership of your shots. You want this to be the best thing for you and your team. Your doing the bare minimum reflects on everyone else.

Alessandro: Most people, yes! There are people who I wonder why they’re still in the industry. You can tell they’re just doing it because it’s a job. They don’t care. You can see it in their commitment. If you don’t like being in visual effects, you should change jobs. It creates a toxic environment [otherwise]. But luckily, most of the team loved to own their work. That’s the best thing!

[38:46] Allan: I was doing a round table with a studio in Toronto. My whole thing is that visual effects can pay really well. But there are jobs that pay a lot better — for less work. You have to love what you do, otherwise you get weeded out. In what other industry do you have to tell your buddies to not talk shop if you’re out to dinner with your partners? It’s a different breed of an industry. Most people don’t want to talk about work once they get home.

Alessandro: That’s true. Most people are passionate about this job which is why you’re always talking about it. It’s fascinating what we do. You can call it magic, if you want. I’ve been doing it for a long time, but there is nothing better for me than to see a shot progressing and moving from one department to the next. I still get excited. That’s one of the reasons I did this job: We get to create things. The idea of seeing something from an empty canvas and becoming this beautiful shot is still very exciting to me. People who work with me know that when I see something I like — they know I really like it.

[41:11] Allan: What about The Meg? What did you, guys, do on that?

Alessandro: The Meg was a project I was supposed to have for a few weeks but ended up having for 6 months. I was in between projects. I had just finished film called Alpha. I started helping out on The Meg. They split the film into 3 acts: DNEG did the first act, Scanline did the second act. We had the whole opening. It was a nice project, not too crazy in terms of the hours and the changes.

[42:42] Allan: It was a fun film. I had Ivo Klaus who was a VFX Sup at Scanline a few months back (www.allanmckay.com/136). As a creature film, I liked it. I dove right into it.

Alessandro: Because it was [an American-Chinese] production, they had to stick with the visual look of it.

[43:29] Allan: One thing I mentioned earlier is what everyone listening could benefit from: What do Supervisors look for in the people on their team? I think Vancouver is an interesting city. I lived in Vancouver in 2009 and there was no industry there at all! It boomed in 2011. What was it like? There had to have been some growth period.

Alessandro: One of the things that was different was at DreamWorks it was hard to find junior artists. They have pretty senior artists and we were picky about whom we were hiring. We’ve had some super talented, sharp minded junior artists fresh from school, but they had to be exceptional. At DNEG, there is a lot junior artists. You need people. At DreamWorks, they invest in the talent and they keep them during the down time. (We call it “gap time”). In visual effects, it doesn’t work that way. The budget comes from the film you’re working on. You don’t keep the people during in-between times. It makes it a bit trickier sometimes. Nowadays, people who come straight from school, they can be a bit over-confident about their ability. Knowing how to use something doesn’t make you an experienced artist. Experience is shown not in how great you’re at modeling, but:

  • How great you are at making changes;
  • How great you present your work;
  • How great you respond to critiques.

That’s one of the biggest struggles I found as a Sup: Seeing people reacting badly to notes and feedback. Everyone thinks they’re better than you. I know because I used to think the same way.

[48:19] Allan: I always bring this up: I was sitting with John Knoll and there would an artist arguing. And you’re thinking, “Just take the note and shut up!”

Alessandro: My notes may sound stupid, but in the big picture, they aren’t stupid. Sometimes, people don’t understand that. A Supervisor’s job is to mentor other artist and make them better artists. It’s just working on project that you understand why you get certain notes. That’s the struggle I find. Sometimes, these notes come from clients, or they come via emails and they don’t make notes on paper. But they do makes sense in terms of the bigger picture.

[49:50] Allan: In any industry that involves creatives, there will be interesting personalities. The younger you are — the more you think you know. If you stop talking, you’d learn a thing or two. I think I was excited in the beginning of my career. I was being too vocal. This is a service based industry. It’s not about your ego. You can’t take it personally.

Alessandro: As a Sup, you need to know what you want. Sometimes, I may have an idea. Until you see it, you may not see if that’s the right way. That’s part of the process. But you can’t take those notes personally. I would be in the wrong if I keep pushing for something that’s not working. I try to understand the right direction early on. We don’t have much time to waste! I try to give notes because of certain reasons.

[52:47] Allan: How important that you think TD’s have some scripting ability and can write their own tools?

Alessandro: I would say it’s very important. At DreamWorks, the people who were most valuable are the ones that could write tools and were very good artists as well. I think it’s important to have that knowledge. There are tools these days that help you a lot without thinking into the technical aspect too much. But the one place where scripting is important in VFX is when you have to do magic. Who is able to go in and change things and use the tool in a different way or create a technical solution? Those are the hardest tasks and it’s hard to “cast” the right TD. That’s why in animation, there is always magic. I find that there are a lot of TD’s but not everyone who has the eye. And some are great artists but they don’t have the technical knowledge. I wish schools would train artists to think differently and be creative.

[56:03] Allan: What is your opinion on schools in general vs teaching yourself? This has been a recent subject I’ve been thinking a lot about.

Alessandro: That could be a Podcast of its own. When I think about myself, I didn’t do any schooling. I did it the hard way. I value schools. I think there are some schools that are better than others. There are disciplines you can’t learn in schools, the more creative ones in VFX. They can teach you how to use software. The problem with schools is that they teach you everything, it’s too general. You need more experience. It’s tricky. Again, I value schools. I value structure in general. They can help you think and solve problems. Nowadays, there is so much you can learn on your own. I think it may be better to take that money and invest it elsewhere.

[58:30] Allan: That’s why I ask. For the right personality, you can’t study on your own. I think it takes a lot of discipline on your own. It also matters who you’re learning from. People that you meet in school, you’re going to know them for the rest of your life. Those are the key things about studying at school. But learning on your own, you’re setting the standard at your own pace.

Alessandro: I value structure and education. I wish that I made different choices with my studies. I miss that I didn’t know a lot of things, like scripting. I learned it on my own. It’s hard to find a school that’s going to teach you everything. It’s tricky: Studios won’t hire you if you don’t have experience, but how can you get experience if you can’t get hired. Something that DreamWorks does successfully is this paid internship for students. We do it at DNEG as well. At DreamWorks, it was for 6 months. You keep studying with Supervisors and artists to do two things:

  • To prove that you’re worth investing in;
  • To find out if this job is for you.

[1:01:29] Allan: That’s one thing I thought was important: Do you want to spend all that money to learn that you don’t want to do it in the first place?

Alessandro: There are some schools that are better than others. When you spend all that time and money and you graduate with a debt and not know what the industry is like, it’s complicated. For most people, they aren’t taught the difference between being a TD and an animator. It’s scary. I think there are people of our generation. We started at a different time. Old school VFX Sups started because we knew little.

[1:03:42] Allan: You read Creative, Inc. about the start of Pixar and digital era. Those are the guys who knew what 3D was.

Alessandro: I think schools need to give the right picture of what the industry is, and what it means for your future. In my 20s, I didn’t know what this was. There are school that are great. They tend to be shorter, you study for 6 months.

[1:04:45] Allan: If you’re studying for 4 years, that’s 4 years later that you start. The sooner you get [into the industry], the sooner you start getting experience.

Alessandro: That’s why for these internship programs, we hire students and they learn from the artists. But a lot of people also don’t want to do that. It’s tricky! I work with junior artists who are amazing and they really want to do it!

[1:06:12] Allan: It’s natural selection. Most people give up in the beginning, that’s when it’s tougher. When you make it out on the other end, you’re better for it.

Alessandro: It gets easier because you gain experience. We do some complicated stuff. When you’re starting out, you’re under a lot of pressure. But if you’ve done it before, you can get past it. But some people get discouraged. And you’re not going to start with destroying a ship. But eventually, you’ll get to do better things. It gets better and easier. Not everyone is supposed to do visual effects. If you get to do it, it’s the best pay off to see your work at the movies. It’s not the awards or the interviews — but seeing what you did and the reaction of the audience. There are days, even for Sups, that are stressful. It’s different for Sups: My stress comes from the clients. I filter that from my team. If I weren’t able to handle this, I’d change jobs already.

[1:09:22] Allan: This has been great, man! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat!

Alessandro: It was a pleasure to be here. Because we’re passionate, we could keep talking. I’m glad we had the chance to talk. Thanks for having me!

[1:09:40] Allan: The next time I’m in Vancouver, we should get some beers.

Alessandro: That would be great. Thanks again!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Alessandro for sharing all this insight. If you found this Episode valuable, please share it.

As I’ve mentioned before, please check out my new training at www.VFXCourse.com.

I will be back next week, with another Episode.

Until then —

Rock on!



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