Episode 228 — Cinesite


Episode 228 — Cinesite

Welcome to Episode 228! I’m talking with Cinesite in London! Cinesite is easily one of the top 10 VFX studios in the world. I sat down Tim Potter, Head of Assets and Salvador Zalvidea, VFX Supervisor there. We talk a lot about artists breaking into the industry, as well as what people are doing with their application. We talked about where the industry is heading, with really interesting insights into compositing and how it’s starting to be not the end of the pipeline.

I think this is going to be a really cool Episode!

Let’s dive in!


[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!

[52:20] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!


Superheroes, fantastic beasts, dinosaurs of the 21st century, and galaxies undiscovered. Cinesite is an award-winning digital entertainment studio with over 25 years of experience and work on hundreds of film, TV and streaming productions. Its visual effects and animation artists breathing life into filmmakers’ visions. Cinesite’s skilled artists and engineers work closely with filmmakers and studios to achieve the impossible, whether through complex visual effects or conceiving and realizing entire animated films.

They tinker, mold, and craft to blow things out of the water — sometimes literally. Cinesite makes this magic happen from its studios in London, Montreal and Vancouver; and since 2015 they have also welcomed the VFX masters at Image Engine Design (Vancouver) and Trixter (Munich & Berlin) to the Cinesite family.

Recent credits include No Time to Die (of the James Bond franchise, to be released in April 2020), Avenue 5, The Northwater, Fate: The Winx Saga. Other credits include: Rocketman, Avengers: Infinity War, Murder Mystery, Adrift, Ant-Man & the Wasp and Mary Poppins.

Cinesite is a supporter of Access VFX, a non-profit organization comprised of 40 leading companies which helps people get into the industry and focuses on actively pursuing and encouraging inclusion, diversity, awareness.

Cinesite Website: https://www.cinesite.com/
Cinesite on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm7146204/
Cinesite VFX showreels: https://www.cinesite.com/showreels/
Cinesite on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/cinesite
Cinesite on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/cinesite
Cinesite on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Cinesite/
Cinesite on Twitter: @cinesite


[02:54] Allan: Again, guys! I just want to thank you for taking the time to chat. Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?

Salvator: Hello, I’m Salvador Zalvidea. I’ve been working at Cinesite for 3 years. I’ve been working in this industry for over 20 years though, mainly in the U.K. I’ve been a VFX Supervisor for the last 6 years and my background comes from compositing.

[03:34] Allan: Cool! What about you, Tim?

Tim: So, I’m Tim Potter. I’m Head of Assets at Cinesite. I’ve been here for 7-8 years in total. I started out as a Junior Modeler which was my first job — and I worked my way up.

[03:58] Allan: I was curious for both of you: How did you start out? Did you always want to get into the creative field? Or is it something you’ve discovered later in your career?

Salvator: I’ve always wanted to have something to do with images, either drawing or making movies, or working with computers. That’s always been the goal in some way. VFX is a mix of technical and artistic stuff, so that’s what drew me into it. Back in France, when I first started, I basically had a company there. We did music videos and commercials. We were directing mostly animation movies which is what basically brought me to visual effects.

[05:03] Allan: Cool! That’s great! What was the first big project that you started on?

Salvator: The first big project was a Pepsi commercial that started the company [specialized in] doing visual effects animation and directing them. We had an advertisement company that approached us to colorize some underwater sequences. That’s how I learned, basically.

[05:43] Allan: That’s great! Thank you! Tim, what about you?

Tim: Well, I used to be a graphic designer. I stumbled across visual effects Escape Studios through Google. I ended up doing some courses there and getting a job at Cinesite when I was 29, so I was quite a late started. I did some outsource training at Escape Studios which helps you get your foot in the door. I wanted to be a modeler after that. I started putting together a reel of my personal work and applying to studios around London. Then, I managed to get a job at Cinesite.

[06:41] Allan: That’s awesome! Just to jump around, I always find that modeling is a pretty competitive field. In terms of your reel, did you just have some turn tables? Can you share some advice with modelers who are trying to stand out now?

Tim: Looking back at my first reel, I would definitely make some changes. I’ve learned a lot since then. I basically started out doing some simple turn tables, a selection of models (from hard surface to organic). I think I had a car, a shoe, a dinosaur, quite random things. [07:43] Knowing what I know now, I would’ve definitely chosen different objects. When it comes to modeling:

  • It’s good to see actual made detail; an inclusion render. 
  • It’s good to see how far you can push a detail.
  • It’s quite useful to show that you can do some texture or lighting. It’s always beneficial to show that you can do more than one thing.

[08:18] Allan: Cool! And to touch on that a bit longer (because I think it’s valuable for everyone), you mentioned that you would mention the objects. If you were applying to Cinesite, would you make those align more with the type of work that the studio does?

Tim: That’s exactly the case! I’ve been seeing a lot of robots. We do get Marvel movies. If someone’s got a car or something practical, that’s going to be useful. And also, something generic is quite beneficial to see. Creature wise, you can always copy something realistic and then go fantastical. Fantastical will show off your modeling and sculpting skills better. If I’m looking at 3 or 4 showreels and I see something that’s going to be coming up on a show, I’m always going to lean toward that person. It’s good to go with something different, but not too different.

[09:58] Allan: That’s great! I guess my final question around that would be: Do you expect every modeler coming in to be both an organic and hard surface modeler? Or should someone specialize in one area where they excel?

Tom: That all depends on the projects at hand. Most of the time, it’s hard surface. But then there are some shows with organic surfaces. I wouldn’t rule somebody out just because they do one or the other.

[10:34] Allan: Just to talk about your department, what are the typical tools you use in your day-to-day production?

Tom: Are you talking software?

[10:43] Allan: Yeah, for the asset department.

Tom: So that would be Maya, Z-Brush, Mudbox, Mari, Substance Designer, Substance Painter, Gaffer, Houdini and XGen.

[11:02] Allan: Cool! That’s awesome! Just to talk about what you do, what are some of the challenges with the asset department. Obviously, smaller studios won’t have as many responsibilities. But it sounds like at Cinesite, you do everything. So what are the big challenges that you find, day to day?

Tom: [11:31] So assets department consists of modeling, texturing, grooming. So you [should] dabble with those parts. I’d say our biggest challenge involves large scale environments. For example, if you’re looking at a Marvel show, you would have to patch that back to Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Because it’s such a large abstract space. So just having that optimized and lighting it, it’s a lot of back and forth between departments; just trying to get it working. There’s definitely a lot of details in the model, when it comes to things like that. And making sure that when you publish the assets, everything is okay and there are no mistakes. The moment something is wrong, each department has to go back and update. So it’s quite a lengthy process.

[12:45] Allan: That’s so cool! Salvator, you come from comp background. Over the past decade, how much did compositing change? What are some of the ways in which technology has shifted?

Salvator: When I started, comp was mostly a 2D task, like an advanced Photoshop. I was moving images, and now we’re doing a lot more 3D, position passes, model passes. We have to integrate things, even add some 3D objects to scenes. The boundaries between 2D and 3D have been definitely blurred a bit. But I see things changing even more where comp may not be the last step because things might go back into real time engine. It’s an interesting shift happening now. 3D is not going to be the very last step now.

[14:18] Allan: To think that comp is not the last step of the pipeline is an interesting concept. What are you thoughts on how things are shifting to real time? How do you see all that panning out?

Salvator: I think you’re seeing more and more real time visual effects, to shoot with background to get the proper lighting. So that shifts the role of visual effects to be done way earlier, in pre-production. That’s what’s potentially going to change the way we work with clients, in production.

[15:15] Allan: That’s cool! You, guys, work with deep compositing pipeline, right?

Salvator: From time to time. We use it as we need it.

[15:31] Allan: I was curious about that. What challenges do you foresee to keep using it? You’re pushing a lot of data, and projects are getting a lot of heavier. What kind of projects make that relevant?

Salvator: It’s more on case by case. A deep pass would integrate things much better without having to go back and forth between effects and lighting.

[16:19] Allan: That’s cool! I guess one last question around that is: Have you messed around Eddy much, inside of Nuke?

Salvator: We tried! The problem was that it took more than a couple of weeks to get the license working. I would be quite happy to explore that further but my experience was very limited.

[16:43] Allan: No worries! I was curious about that. I find that fascinating when I talk to some studios in LA and down in New Zealand. It’s definitely an exciting time. You’d do a lot of hero shots simulations inside of Houdini or Max, or Maya. But for anything that you would typically use cards for, I find it exciting [to be able] to do lighter sims and have them react to your environments. It gives a lot of freedom to compositors. Also, from what I hear, I know that it takes compositors going through a learning curve to pick up the FX process. I definitely think that it’s an exciting transition.

Salvator: I find it great to be able to do, say, simple effects and simple simulations directly in comp. The only problem I see when a task gets passed to comp, what I’ve seen at the same time is comp has less and less time to final their shots. I’ve seen some companies have presets done with Eddy and compositors use that tool, so that shots don’t have to come back to effects. But, like you said, I’m not expecting compositors to be able to deliver simulations as complex as an FX artists can do.

[18:46] Allan: That’s great! And with Cinesite, you have a lot of locations. Do you collaborate with each other, do you find yourself being a stand alone studio?

Salvator: There are shows that are done entirely by separate locations. We have offices in Vancouver, Montreal and London. But from time to time, we share. So Montreal will take a sequence and we take another one. And we’re trying to do that more and more. We’re trying to use the same pipeline and a seamless transition. And also, each company has its own history. So it’s difficult to scrap one pipeline because everyone has a different way of working.

[20:12] Allan: I find that even in Canada, between Quebec and Vancouver, the structure can be pretty different.

Salvator: There is one thing that we realized: Even you had the exact same pipeline, they approach shots differently; or how you organize your assets. Even if the pipeline is the same! And it changes from show to show.

[21:11] Allan: Yeah, I find that true even for different supervisors. With the U.K. studio, how many people are in your studio?

Salvator: I don’t know how many we are right now, but we’ve grown to 150 in the past; or 200 when we have more space. Sometimes, we have 1,500 artists.

[21:45] Allan: Just to switch to some of your projects.

Salvator: Adrift was mostly environment and CG creatures, creating a CG ocean and CG birds and fish; and scene at night that could’ve been a hallucination of a cargo coming towards us.

[22:12] Allan: How many shots were required for that?

Salvator: If I remember correctly, it was over 60 shots, something like that.

[22:25] Allan: Were there any sequences that stood out as challenging or fun?

Salvator: There was one main shot, the most difficult one. A camera tracking an exhausted bird over a stormy ocean; and then the camera goes back and catches up with a boat. The same boat is going toward a hurricane, the bird lands in the boat. It was a big impossible shot and an impossibly long crane. It involved a CG bird and some rain.

[23:18] Allan: I want to ask Tim about projects like Thor, what are the typical expectations or tasks for the assets department?

Tim: The main thing with any sort of Marvel project, you find that the models that you create, their designs always end up being refined, due to the look, the concept, the story. There is a much bigger story! There are always little tweaks and changes. As opposed to films based in real world like [Spectre], there isn’t much change.

[24:29] Allan: Do you find that the level of expectation with either is different? Marvel is more fantastical. Do you find that the challenges different?

Tim: They are the same: We are just trying to do the best we can. It’s the same level!

[24:58] Allan: Salvatore, with you as well, with features and tv, do you find that the budgets for tv are starting to be comparable for feature films? How do they compare?

Salvatore: TV and film are getting closer and closer. The clients want the same budget, the audiences are expecting the same level of visual effects. Post Game of Thrones, we have film clients who come to us and say, “Our reference for this is ‘Battle of the Bastards’.” That’s happened a few times. That’s an interesting shift! A few years ago, that was unheard of!

[26:07] Allan: You look back at shows like Sliders, the level of expectation is different. With the output, do you find that every show be 4K, especially for Netflix?

Salvatore: 4K is definitely the standard for tv. We still get 2K.

[26:56] Allan: The requirements are much higher for tv, but their budgets aren’t quite there yet! Do you tend to render everything from 3D in 4K, or is it shot by shot requirements?

Salvatore: It depends on the show level.

[27:24] Allan: What are the turnaround times these days, film vs. tv?

Salvator: It depends from show to show. You can have 3 months on a film or a year. You can have 4 months for a tv show or more than a year.

[28:01] Allan: One last question: Can you talk about any recent projects that you’ve wrapped (that you can talk about)?

Salvatore: There is a show but we can’t completely talk about it. It’s a location-based entertainment, or how they call it. We have to produce 9K, 60 frames per second photo real environment. And we shot that in up to 5 minutes.

[28:39] Allan: You should throw in stereo as well, just to make it more painful.

Tim: We ended up rendering 17,000 frames, 9K. That’s definitely a challenge! If it takes one second longer, it takes hours of work. That’s quite an interesting thing. Higher resolution, more frames, like you said, stereo, present new challenges for us. It has to be photo real.

[29:35] Allan: In terms of delivery, are you looking at GPU in terms of delivery?

Tim: On this particular show, with the extra challenge that our images had to sink with what was moving on stage, and you had to be able to provide new versions of the shots in a 24-hour timeframe, we used our game engine to render. We aren’t rendering in real time, but we are rendering at 3 frames per second. If we use our regular engine, we’re looking at hours per frame. With this, we’re rendering much, much faster which allows us for quicker iterations. That’s one of the reasons real time [renders] will be the real game changers.

[30:42] Allan: Just with that, in terms of temp delivery, are you doing 60 frames per second?

Tim: Yes, 60 frames per second.

[30:53] Allan: So, let’s say, you’re going through internal reviews, do you do those 60 frames per second as well? Or do you tend to lower the frames until you have a client review?

Tim: We had to be quite smart about what we render, at what frame rate, at what resolution. So if we’re focusing on, say, textures, artists could render at 2 frames per second. If we’re looking at motion, we could render at 60 frames per second at lower resolution. There is no predefined resolution. It depends on the tasks that we’re working on.

[31:42] Allan: That’s awesome! It’s interesting to hear the real time process. I have more questions about industry advice. There are so many artists who want to get into the industry; or artists who want to level out their skills. A lot of us who review reels, we see a lot of them. People are surprised when we see something that might be a red flag; or what mistakes tend to have reels disregarded completely. For you, guys, when people are applying for jobs, are there any red flags that you’ve experienced that might cause you to put someone at the bottom of the list? Again, I ask because so many people don’t realize they’re making these mistakes.

Salvator: Tim mentioned earlier, where I might slightly disagree: [32:58] People who are starting in the industry come from schools, they tend to have a very unified reel. They aren’t being very smart about what the companies are looking for. So you end up getting reels that end up looking very, very similar. So getting one piece of personal stuff on your reel allows you to get the discussion started about who you are and what brought you there.

[33:45] When someone gets in for an interview, most the job has been done. You already have the job because you have the skills we’re looking for. [In the] interview, we’re just looking for a matter of understanding your personality.

[34:09] Allan: You’re mainly checking that [the candidate isn’t] crazy.

Salvator: [34:11] And also that they would fit in the company. Each company has a slightly different spirit and mood, and you have to understand that a person must fit with the rest of the team. There is nothing more disruptive to a company than a person who doesn’t play well in the team; or who has a personality that won’t work with the rest of the team. It won’t work with the spirit and that’s an important thing to keep for a company!

[34:35] Allan: I’ve talked a lot about Image Engine about that: soft skills vs. hard skills and how there are people who get to the interview stage and it’s about checking whether they’ll fit in with the rest of the team (www.allanmckay.com/91). Again, it’s so expensive to hire people and even more expensive when you hire the wrong personality. Have you found any obvious red flags in terms of personality, when a person comes in? Is there a thing someone might say that shows they won’t fit in with everyone else?

Salvator: When someone says, “I’m the best. This is my offer! Take it or leave it!” That’s not going to work well! Otherwise, it’s about showing your interest in visual effects and what brought you there; how well you would work with the team. I’m usually not asking very technical questions. That’s what Tim usually asks. It’s more about meeting someone and trying to imagine this person in our team.

[36:17] Allan: One last question about that: You mentioned before that everyone is sending out a generic reel. Can you give an example of a junior artist’s reel standing out? One of my friends Cameron Smith (who is now a Comp Sup at Weta), he applied as a junior in 2005. Back then, you [couldn’t] go on YouTube to grab footage. He didn’t have anything to comp, so ended up ripping a lot of Star Wars footage and comping people’s beards and capes; mashing together different shots. Can you think of someone standing out like that?

Salvator: I remember one artist who submitted a very arty reel where he had a series of shots where he projected some images onto sculptures. It was very weird, but it was funny and interesting. It completely broke with the unified reels we were getting. It started a discussion about why he had done that. He felt a bit ashamed to have that on his reel, but it made him singular. It doesn’t have to be technically impressive.

[38:19] Allan: Tim, what about you? We were talking about technical questions a few minutes ago. What are some of those that you would ask a candidate when they come in?

Tim: So I normally ask:

  • What their background is;
  • What they’ve done in hard surface and in organic;
  • The software they can use.

Before they come in, I normally talk to someone who’s worked with that artists. In VFX, everyone knows everyone. You do a bit of homework. You ask about what their attitude is like, what they are like as a person. By the time they come in, you already have some understanding. In terms of other questions:

  • What time of modeling have they done?
  • Can they texture?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What would they like to focus on?
  • Is there anything they’d like to learn?

[39:28] Allan: Do you, guys, take that into consideration too? Do you take into consideration someone’s career arc? Is that something you support?

Tim: This is something we invest in overtime. For example, we had someone come in who came into comp who wanted to learn how to texture. I basically gave him some texture tasks to do, to build up his confidence. Something easy, like a chair or a kettle. And then we build them up and get them to where a junior texture artist should be. The same goes for people who are in our building who want to do modeling. They mostly tend to come from tracking. We train them in-house. We tend to hire people for a particular position, but if they want to train, we don’t rule that out.

Salvator: [41:02] I tend to prefer people with a more generalist profile, rather than highly specialized. You need people who understand the rest of the visual effects chain: who does want and who requires what. So that understanding is quite important!

[41:23] Allan: Do you find that the UK has gone more specialized over the years. Obviously, going back 20 years, everyone would be more of a generalist. Do you find that schools are now pumping out people who are focused on one skill set?

Salvator: That’s the reality of visual effects companies. They’re becoming bigger and bigger and creating specific departments that require people who are good at one skill. I remember when I arrived from France, [where] we had smaller budgets, people tended to do a bit of everything. You had to do whatever you could to deliver the show. When I arrived in the UK, I already saw something specialized with people having a limited skill set. I’m already seeing this as the way the industry is moving forward. [42:41] But going back to realtime engine workflow, you will end up needing artists who good at lighting, and composing, using the same tool. And they’ll need an understanding of that! So if you specialize in one thing, you’ll end up getting back up into a corner; and you’ll have to be really, really good to keep your job there. You’ll have to open up your horizon.

Tim: I do find that generalists are quite rare to find. In London, people are trained up in certain areas. On my team, I had modelers who can do texture. I find that very handy. If you are a modeler but you’re good at texturing, you’ll know what is required for that job. I quite like it when artists have one or two particular skills that link up that closely.

[44:00] Allan: [44:01] I always think that artists who come from generalist backgrounds are massively beneficial. If you come in knowing one thing, it’s hard for you to move up outside of your department because you don’t know anything outside of your area. I always talk about the trifecta: knowing the surrounding areas that are close to yours will make you a better artists. With effects, you should know lighting, have some shading and coding ability. Also, you should know some compositing because your work will go into comp. You’ll have a better understanding of how it all links together. What is your trifecta, in your departments?

Tim: So when it comes to modeling, you need to understand how how a texture artist works. When it comes to rigging, when it comes to naming muscles and bones, just the model itself, to make sure everything is beneficial for rigging when they pick it up. It’s useful to know what muscles are on the body as well. It‘s also good to know layout because it helps us optimize our models.

[46:21] Allan: And what about you, Salvator? What would be the three areas surrounding compositing and VFX sup-ing that would make that VFX struggle less?

Salvator: [46:41] I would say photography and editing. You have to understand how an image works; how to compose it; how to light an image — and then editing. How do you tell a story? How do you go from one shot to another? In my experience, coming from compositing and going to comp sup and then VFX sup, your horizon widens as you go. You have to worry not just about your shot but the sequence and how it works. When you’re dealing with the whole show, how do you tell a story in the best way? Also, understanding the financial aspects of it: Why certain decisions are made and how to make the process more efficient. So having a broader understanding of filmmaking is crucial there!

[47:52] Allan: My second to last question would be: Are there any resource you would recommend?

Salvator: There are many, many books now! How to behave on set is an important skill for VFX artists who aren’t used to that. I would highly recommend going and finding, and Googling how to behave on set, because you can make a really bad impression by making simple mistakes. There are also online classes by artists who are working at the moment. You want to learn the latest techniques and software.

[49:14] Allan: That’s so cool! My final question would be about any advice you could give to visual effects artist who want to get into the industry. How do they stand out? It’s such a competitive field!

Tim: I always tell people to go the extra mile. It’s good to have good communication skills, observation levels; someone who has passion for film.

[50:06] Allan: Salvator, what about you?

Salvator: Just going back to your earlier question, at Cinesite we support Access VFX (https://access-vfx.webflow.io/), a non-profit organization with VFX companies. They help people get into the industry.

[50:28] Allan: That’s great, guys. I want to thank you for taking the time to chat! I appreciate all the insight you’ve shared.

Salvator and Tim: Thanks, Allan!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I hope you got a lot from it! I want to thank Cinesite for doing this Podcast. Please click the share button. That would mean the world to me.

Thanks for listening — and rock on!


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