Nicholas Zurko
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  • The Force Awakens for NYFA VFX Alum Francesco Panzieri

    What does it take to land a gig working on one of the biggest movies of all time? If you’re New York Film Academy alumnus Francesco Panzieri you simply do what you’ve always done: Work hard, work fast, and produce work of impeccable quality.

    In conversation with The Force Awakens senior digital compositor, who is at once marked by his humility and quiet confidence, it soon becomes overwhelmingly clear that you are talking with someone who’s had a lifelong fascination with visual effects. He was exposed to them as a young child through such classic films as the Indiana Jones movies and the original Star Wars trilogy, films that “raised him as a child.”

    NYFA 3D Animation alum Francesco Panzieri

    Thus, when Francesco was called into the offices of Bad Robot, the production company owned by JJ Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he knew that he was standing on the precipice of realizing a lifelong goal of his, remarking that “it’s mind-blowing because it’s one of my biggest dreams.”

    So how does one go from NYFA to working on the biggest film in the galaxy? In Francesco’s case, possessing over seven years of professional experience and the reputation for doing high quality work at a very quick pace—something he picked up working on television shows like Sleepy Hollow and Limitless that require a lightning-fast turn-around time—earned him kind words on his behalf from a “good soul,” words that soon had him in the offices of Bad Robot.

    “I told [my friend], if you guys ever needed someone, I would love to help,” says Francesco. As it just so happened to turn out, Bad Robot was indeed looking for a team of experienced, dependable, and fast-working VFX artists who could accomplish the massive workload of The Force Awakens not only on time, but also with peerless perfection. “One day I received an email from Bad Robot that said there is someone praising you…and within 24 hours I was there for an interview.”

    When Francesco was first called in for an interview, the project was still undisclosed, although Francesco knew in his heart was it would be. This lead him to going to his current employer and asking that he be allowed to work on this Non-Disclosure Agreement-sealed project, knowing that his work on the film would bring a new level of prestige to the company despite not being able to say what the project actually was (his employer of course agreed).

    When it came to working on the production itself, Francesco found himself in a pressure-cooker situation where he worked twelve hour days for seven days straight over the course of five weeks, up until the final edit was completed just a couple of weeks prior to the film’s release. Despite the high stakes, Francesco remained positive throughout. As he said, “Every morning I went to work with the smile of a child who is finally able to fulfill one of the most desired dreams of his childhood.”

    This childish wonder was certainly aided by the overriding ethos of Abrams’ vision, which focused much more on practical effects and bringing to life the spirit of the original trilogy. “The great thing about Episode 7 was that it was mainly shot [using practical effects]. I had hundreds of shots on my monitors with an X-Wing and I had BB-8 running on the monitor.”

    This mention of BB-8 is where we first learn one of the secrets of The Force Awakens as Francesco talks about his work removing the rig from BB-8, which was in fact a puppet operated by a master puppeteer dressed in all green in order to make keying him out, or removing him, from the shots much easier.

    Another fascinating tidbit that Francesco shares is the fact that The Force Awakens had the secret name of AVCO, which was the name of the cinema where Abrams first saw Star Wars. Of course, secrecy was at the heart of the film’s production and Francesco and his fellow colleagues received a lengthy rundown from a head of security at Disney who advised the VFX team to keep their phones away from their desks and forbade them from taking any pictures or sharing any media whatsoever.

    NYFA alum Francesco Panzieri dresses as Kylo Ren

    Francesco dressed up as Kylo-Ren at Disney Studios for Halloween 2015.

    Generally speaking, most of Francesco’s work focused on the scenes in the desert when Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, dismounts her speeder. However, his excitement spikes when talking about one shot particular: “My last shot before wrapping up the movie was on an alien-character in Maz Kanata’s cantina, and it took me 7 days to ultimately complete what was a very, very tough paint job on 25 frames of the movie. I probably consider that as my favorite shot because it challenged me to give everything I got and it also stoked and left many people amazed who were pushing the shot away from their lists as they were intimidated by the amount of time required and difficulty of such a task.”

    When discussing the technical challenges he encountered, he talks about the overarching high standards held by Abrams, visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, and visual effects studio Industrial Lights & Magic. According to Francesco, “We had 6 steps of review, the effects on the whole movie were on 2,100 shots and the schedule was really tight. However, I felt [incredible] to be part of the right group of talented artists who also had a huge passion for the Star Wars universe, and that’s why every single goal was achieved and nothing seemed impossible. Each time we looked exhausted or tired or challenged, our compositing supervisor would joke and say, ‘We are just working on the biggest movie in cinema history!’”

    As to whether he believes the new film carries on the legacy of the original trilogy, Francesco responds vehemently, saying “I think it touches the inner chords of each fan of Star Wars…I found it very touching. Even when I was watching it with everyone from Disney and Bad Robot, we were all involved together, you know, screaming and hooing at the moving. It’s such a beautiful homage in the way it was done.”

    Of course, making his way all the way to the Star Wars galaxy is quite a feat for the Italian, who split his time growing up between the city of Pescara on the east coast of Italy and Dubai. Traveling extensively as a child, Francesco eventually enrolled in the Accademia dell’Immagine (The Academy of Image Arts) where he studied under such Italian Film legends as the composer Ennio Morricone and director Francesco Rosi. Panzieri was the odd one out early on in his studies in that, unlike his fellow students who had no clue what they wanted to accomplish professionally, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do with his career and that was to work in VFX.

    Following his graduation in 2008, Francesco’s next move was to New York City where he enrolled in the One-Year 3D Animation & VFX Program at NYFA. While he is quick to credit NYFA with setting him on his current path, he also does not mince words when talking about his time in the fast-time program, stating that “NYFA was the toughest year of my life.” However, despite the long days and endless experimentation with new tools, Francesco describes the program as “very hands-on and I am thankful as that kind of [fast] pace prepared me to enter the field.”

    It was at NYFA where Francesco truly started to realize his potential, citing faculty members as Boaz Livny and Robert Appleton as crucial figures in not just helping him to learn the software and know-how of the VFX craft, but also providing him with priceless advices. He cites Livny’s exhortation to attend such industry events as SIGGRAPH as a particularly important suggestion, enabling him to go and meet recruiters face to face.

    He cites his year on OPT as the “most important year of my life” as that was when he had a relatively short window to establish himself in the field and find a company to sponsor his work visa. Realizing it was now or never, Francesco made the point of making many copies of his portfolio, which he would then deliver in person to studios around town. “I was shameless,” Francesco says with a slight smirk. However, this shamelessness paid out, eventually leading to his first gig, interning on Danny DeVito’s web series Blood Factory, which in turn led to him getting hired to work on Clash of the Titans.

    Having worked as a senior digital compositor and in the Hollywood VFX industry for over seven years now Francesco’s credits are lined with the kind of prestige television and movie credits such as Mad Men, True Detective, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Limitless, and For Colored Girls Only. Equal parts soft-spoken yet self-assured in his abilities, Panzieri’s soft-spoken style belies a fevered intensity that has guided him through the many highlights of his VFX career, which itself was first inspired largely by Star Wars.

    After all, as Francesco is quick to point out in relation to VFX artists, “Star Wars invented our profession.” He goes on to describe George Lucas’ trilogy, which “gave hope to many creative people,” as setting off a sort of visual effects butterfly effect out of which emerged many legends and pioneers of the VFX industry. Panzieri counts himself as one of many who was inspired to pursue visual effects after seeing the original Star Wars, alongside a steady diet of video games and movies. He remembers being struck by Lucas’ film when he first saw it and thinking, “Wow, how can I do that?”

    In looking back at his long road, Francesco lights up when providing advice for how other aspiring VFX artists can make their way in the industry. Ultimately, for him, it’s all about picking a goal and staying focused on it. As he says, “I opened in my head the door that would get me [to Star Wars] and I worked my butt off to get to that door.” He adds that patience also plays a major role, stating, “You can’t force something to happen. You have to create a positive energy for those things to come to you.”

    With another undisclosed project already under way, it’s clear that Francesco’s drive and commitment to his craft will continue to attract new and exciting opportunities for this young artist.

    January 19, 2016 • 3D Animation, Academic Programs, Student and Alumni Spotlights • Views: 5265

  • High Cinema: Drugs in Film Infographic

    As long as there have been movies, drugs have played a part in them. In the below infographic, we look at how culture and narcotics laws have shaped portrayals of drugs in movies, but also at how film has shaped society’s behavior with drugs. The frequency in which drugs have appeared in film has risen and fallen over the years, only to explode in the past fifteen years at a time when drug use in the U.S. is on the rise as well.

    In the below infographic, we take an overview of the significant moments—in film, society, and the law—and stats to gain a better understanding of just how intertwined drugs and cinema are.

    This infographic originally appeared on NYFA’s Student Resources section.

    High Cinema Infographic by New York Film Academy

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    March 26, 2015 • Infographics • Views: 9168

  • Entertainment News Round-up: Emmy Changes, James Corden Makes Debut, and The Matrix Goes Lego

    James CordenIt’s been a busy weekend in Hollywood and beyond. First up, after several months of a rotating cast of guest hosts, The Late Late Show will finally premiere its new incarnation with British star of stage and screen James Corden. While Corden is largely unknown to American audiences, he is a well-regarded celebrity in his home country of England, having cut his teeth on a number of sit-coms such as Gavin & Stacey and The Wrong Mans.

    Joining Corden will be American musical comedian Reggie Watts, who will be serving as his bandleader, a position he formerly filled on Comedy Bang! Bang! with Scott Aukerman. Critics and analysts alike are eagerly awaiting to see how Corden will fit in the existing late night landscape and whether Americans will take to a relatively unknown Brit.

    In other television news, following significant changes in its classifications of Drama and Comedies, Netflix wunderkind Orange is the New Black, which has competed at the last two Emmy awards in the Comedy category, will no longer be eligible for the Outstanding Comedy Series due to the cap the Academy instituted last month restricting “comedies” to being thirty minutes in length. However, the news becomes far more vexing when one considers the fact that hour-long comedies Jane The Virgin, Shameless, and Glee have all been classified as comedies, despite their running times. In light of the head-scratching this ruling has caused, one thing is sure: as more comedy-dramas straddle the traditional run-time of sitcoms, there will certainly be continued confusion as to which shows qualify as dramas or comedies

    Here is some exciting news for our 2-Year Musical Theatre students: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical will be turned into a feature-length film, produced by Tom Hanks’ Playtone production company and released through Sony Pictures, which has also secured the rights to King’s songs and life rights. The Broadway musical has been running since January 2014 and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning two, including one for Jessie Mueller’s turn as King.

    Finally, ending things on a fun note, here is something that our animation students will particularly enjoy. While The Matrix is chockfull of iconic scenes, none might be more memorable than the famous lobby scene in which Neo and Trinity lay virtual waste to a building lobby. To commemorate the scene and to test his own stop-motion animation abilities, YouTube user Snooperking re-made the entire scene shot-for-shot using nothing but LEGOs in the process. In total, the project took an estimated 160 hours to complete and even finishes with its own twist ending. Check out this feat of LEGO animation below.



    March 23, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2401

  • The Expendables Plot Move to Small Screen

    Sylvester Stallone on set of The ExpendablesAfter three films and tapping seemingly every action movie star in the universe, one could be forgiven for thinking that The Expendables had finally run out of steam. But alas, there are still plenty of aging TV action stars out there and today they can be heard thanking their patron saint Sylvester Stallone, who will be bringing the franchise to the small screen for Fox, which he’ll also be executive producing.

    While no cast has yet to be announced, entertainment news outlets have already begun speculating about potential candidates, such as 24‘s Kiefer Sutherland, Walker Texas Ranger‘s Chuck Norris (who has already starred in the films), Magnum P.I.‘s Tom Selleck, and Xena‘s Lucy Lawless.

    The show will be written and executive produced by writing duo Greg Coolidge, who penned last year’s hit Ride Along, and Kirk Ward, along with Shane Brennan of NCIS who will also be serving as showrunner.

    The project comes from Lionsgate TV, the small screen sibling of the powerhouse feature film studio. Analysts are speculating that adapting The Expendables for the small screen will be the first of many Lionsgate properties that will get the TV treatment, as the studio has reportedly been eying the many blockbusters in its libraries for television, having first floated the idea for an Expendables television show back in 2012.

    March 6, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2401

  • Bruce Willis Making Broadway Debut in Misery Adaptation

    Bruce WillisContinuing the adaptation trend of bringing big movies to Broadway, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures has announced plans to bring Stephen King’s famous book and film, Misery, to Broadway this fall, with Bruce Willis making his Broadway debut.

    The play is an adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel, which was turned into a successful film in 1990 for which Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her turn as Annie Wilkes.

    King’s novel chronicles the travails of romance novelist Paul Sheldon who is imprisoned by his number one fan, Wilkes, following a car accident when she learns that he intends to kill off her favorite character from his books. Wilkes will be played by theatre veteran Elizabeth Marvel who recently had a major role in the third season of Netflix‘s House of Cards playing the character of Heather Dunbar.

    Will Frears, who directed Omnium Gatherum, has been hired to direct the play when it makes its limited run later this year.

    While this will be Willis’ official Broadway debut, he was Ed Harris’ understudy in the off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in 1983. For students enrolling in our Two-Year Musical Theatre Conservatory, this will certainly be a staging worth checking out.

    March 5, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2741

  • Netflix Sets Sights on Oscars with “Beasts of No Nation”

    Idris Elba in a scene from Beasts of No Nation

    Idris Elba in a scene from Beasts of No Nation.

    A month after Netflix declared it was aiming to raise $1.5 billion worth of corporate debt, industry analysts got a better idea of where some of this money might be channeled after it was announced that the company had put down a competitive $12 million to acquire the global distribution rights to buzzed-about Beasts of No Nation, which it will premiere simultaneously both on the streaming service’s site and in theatres later this year.

    Following its Emmy Award-winning successes in original programming like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black and releasing critically acclaimed documentaries—including the Oscar-nominated docs Virunga and The Square, which was DP’d by Documentary grad Muhammad Hamdy—this most recent purchase has many analysts speculating that Netflix is gunning for an Oscar. The film, which was helmed by Emmy Award-winning True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and stars acclaimed British actor Idris Elba, boasts an awards season-friendly plot that focuses on the plight of an African child soldier.

    The fact that the company is seeking to show the film in theaters is indicative of its Academy Awards ambitions as a theatrical run is a requirement to be considered for an Oscar nomination. However, how wide of a release the film will receive remains to be seen as most major theater chains will not show films that do not honor the 90-day wait period between theatrical and home entertainment premieres. Furthermore, after the company announced plans to release a sequel to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in partnership with Imax and the Weinstein Company, it was met with a planned boycott by the major theater chains as that film will also not adhere to the traditional 90-day waiting period.

    Beasts of No Nation was also written by Fukunaga and produced for $6 million by Participant Media and Red Crown and filmed last year on location in Ghana. The fact that Netflix was willing to pay double to secure the global rights to the film further indicates that the company believes that this is a film that will be well-received by both critics and audiences as Elba’s performance is already being buzzed about for a potential Best Actor Oscar nomination.

    March 4, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2946

  • Check Out the Short Film that Would Become Whiplash

    One of the things that all students learn in our directing classes is that if you are unable to fund a feature-length version of your idea for a film, a short film is often a great means to attract funding for their projects.

    The Oscar-winning Whiplash initially started off life as an 18-minute short film directed by Damien Chazelle in which J.K. Simmons—who would go on to earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his star turn—starred opposite actor Johnny Simmons, who would later be replaced by Miles Teller.

    The short film, which was also titled Whiplash, is being included as part of the Blue-ray release of Whiplash and it can be viewed by clicking on the video box above. It originally appeared at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where Simmons electric performance and the fact that it won the jury award for Best Short Film helped it to secure financing for Chazelle’s full-length version.

    An interesting fact for those that were vexed why Whiplash was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at this year’s Oscars instead of Best Original Screenplay: since the full-length version of the film was based on the short, it was considered an adaptation and not an original screenplay.

    March 3, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 3263

  • Will Smith’s Focus Leads Soft Weekend Box Office

    Will Smith and Margo Robbie in Focus

    (From left) Will Smith and Margo Robbie star in Focus, which led the box office the weekend of 2/27/15.

    Is Will Smith’s box office draw starting to wane? That’s the main question being asked by industry analysts today after Smith’s latest feature took the top slot at the weekend box office, taking in $19.1 million, which was under the projected $21-23 million. The film’s debut, which co-starred rising Australian star Margo Robbie, made for Smith’s second-weakest opening weekend ever, behind Seven Pounds‘ $14.8 million.

    All in all, in a year where box office records are being smashed on a weekly basis, many analysts predicted this to be a slow weekend and the rough weather in the South and Midwest certainly did not help as the top twelve films brought in a meager $95.4 million collectively. In addition, this weekend also saw history being made as China’s box office totals for the month of February outpaced the US box office for the first time ever.

    The other big new release of the weekend, horror flick The Lazarus Effect also failed to make a major impact, bringing in only $10.6 million, trailing both 50 Shades of Grey and The Kingsmen. The latter film was able to leapfrog over 50 Shades to take the second spot in its third week of release.

    As this was the first box office weekend following the Oscars, winners Still Alice and Birdman both saw an upsurge in both ticket sales and theater expansions, as both films added roughly 500 and 800 new theaters respectively.

    The top ten films for the weekend of February 27 – March 1 are as follows.

    Focus $19,100,000
    The Kingsmen $11,750,000
    The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water $11,200,000
    Fifty Shades of Grey $10,927,000
    The Lazarus Effect $10,600,000
    McFarland, USA $7,797,000
    American Sniper $7,700,000
    The DUFF $7,150,000
    Still Alice $2,695,00
    Hot Tub Time Machine 2 $2,400,000


    March 2, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2694

  • AMC Announces Mad Men Fan Cut Contest to Recreate the First Episode

    Don Draper delivers his Lucky Strikes pitchAre you a Mad Men fan who is beyond consolation over the end of your beloved series? Do you also happen to be an aspiring filmmaker or film school student?

    AMC has announced a new project in honor of the show’s upcoming final episodes in which fans are invited to recreate a scene from the series’ very first episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which has long been considered an all-time fan favorite.

    Fans interested in staking their claim on a particular scene—perhaps Don Draper’s famous Lucky Strikes pitch?—can do so by heading over to AMC’s website and choosing from over 150 scenes to recreate in any style they see fit and then upload the results to YouTube. So if you’ve always thought Mad Men would be better if Sterling-Cooper was populated by cowboys or that the show should have taken place on Mars instead of New York City, now is your chance. Once all of the scenes have been reserved and shot, AMC will then edit all of the scene together for one master fan cut of the first episode.

    NYFA students looking to further hone their directing chops are particularly encouraged to check out this opportunity to have their work seen by thousands of filmmakers and Mad Men fans the world over. Click here to learn more about the project.

    AMC Fan Cut contest image

    February 11, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2969

  • SpongeBob Soars at Box Office while Jupiter Ascending Stalls

    Spongbob Movie Out of Water posterEver-popular Nickelodeon character SpongeBob proved that he still has massive drawing power as The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water topped the weekend box office with a whopping $56 million, easily dispensing with the weekend’s other big new releases, Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son.

    The troubled Jupiter Ascending, which was originally planned for a summer release before it was moved to February, is the third film in a row by The Matrix directors Andy and Lana Wachowski to fail to make an impact at the box office, bringing in $18 million. The film, which cost $179 million to produce, follows the directors’ Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer, which both flopped.

    Meanwhile, Legendary’s beleaguered Seventh Son lived up to analysts’ dismal projections bringing in only $7.2 million. The film, which stars Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges, cost $95 million to make.

    In contrast to the disappointing debuts of Jupiter and Son, American Sniper proved to still have very healthy legs, grabbing up $23.3 million in its fourth week of wide release, bringing its domestic total to $282.3 million, making it the third-highest grossing film of 2014 in the US.

    The top ten films for the weekend of February 6-8 are as follows.

    The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water $55,365,012
    American Sniper $23,289,113
    Jupiter Ascending $18,372,372
    Seventh Son $7,217,640
    Project Almanac $5,232,672
    Paddington $5,220,940
    The Wedding Ringer $4,719,532
    The Imitation Game $4,687,391
    Black or White $4,537,267
    The Boy Next Door $4,111,835

    February 10, 2015 • Entertainment News • Views: 2315