special effects

  • 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 & Alumni Spotlights • Views: 9737

  • Oscar-Winning Creature Creator Alec Gillis Screens His Directorial Debut ‘Harbinger Down’ at NYFA


    This month, New York Film Academy students were treated to a special horror film event, getting a firsthand look at the art and science of classic horror film effects. On hand to explain this “tra-digital” approach was Alec Gillis of Amalgamated Dynamics, who, with his partner Tom Woodruff, won the Oscar for Death Becomes Her. Alec was joined by star Camille Balsamo, who graciously flew in from a shoot on CSI New Orleans to join Alec and cinematographer Benjamin Brown, who also served as editor and sound designer on the picture. Mark Sawicki, Chair of 3-D Animation and Visual Effects at our Los Angeles campus, was the moderator for the evening.

    alec gillis

    Mark Sawicki with Alec Gillis, Camille Balsamo and Benjamin Brown (Photo by Enrico De Conti)

    According to Alec, Harbinger Down was created for the fan base that loves traditional creature effects as seen in classic films such as Alien, The Thing and Predator. During the digital revolution, traditional creature shops began to see more and more of their work replaced by computer graphics (CGI) at the large studios. Through the Internet, Alec learned that there is a huge fan base that objected to what they perceived as obtrusive tampering with a special art form. As a result, Alec decided to give this underserved audience what they wanted and create an old school creature makeup effects film with effects all done on set in an intimate performance with the actors.

    alec gillis

    Alec Gillis (Photo by Enrico De Conti)

    Working on a Kickstarter budget that was the highest ever garnered by the crowdfunding giant, the film still needed to be put together by modest means. Sawicki recalled how both he and Alec got their start on the film Galaxy of Terror while working with Roger Corman’s studio, and Harbinger Down reminded him of the fun tribal style of filmmaking that they both enjoyed so much in the 80’s. Camille agreed with that idea and remembered that simple tricks were used throughout the film to simulate being in a frozen Arctic environment. To mimic frosty breath clouds the actors would inhale a safe smoke concoction, hold their breath and release on their first line after “action.” The scene looked freezing cold even though it was shot in the heat of the day in Chatsworth.

    Benjamin stated that the sea of clouds that the space capsule roars through was actually a big set of cotton, fashioned and lit to look like clouds. Much of the lighting was strung LED fixtures that could be run without generators. Everything was fine unless a makeup person turned on a hair dryer and tripped the breaker. Though the film was storyboarded throughout, both Alec and Benjamin worked in a “run and gun manner” to accommodate the opportunities and limitations of the set ups.

    whale puppet

    (Photo by Enrico De Conti)

    Alec charmed the crowd by bringing one of the baby whale puppets used in the picture to the stage and demonstrated the ease of creating a performance in real time with the realistic puppet. He also praised co-producer Camille for handling the challenges of finishing the film for distribution. Camille added that once a distributor is found there are at least a 100 deliverables that need to be accounted for — such as closed captioning and pan and scan — to have a proper package. She mentioned that few filmmakers take this expense and effort into account when they create a film.

    The audience was delighted with the film and expressed a yearning to explore these tangible, traditional and magical methods of creature creation in their own films. Many thanks to Alec, Camille and Benjamin for keeping these special film crafts alive.

    Harbinger Down has been released in theaters and is now available on Pay Per View. See it now…if you dare!


    September 24, 2015 • 3D Animation, Guest Speakers • Views: 5771

  • Discussion with Renowned Matte Painter Syd Dutton and Special FX Supervisor Bill Taylor


    cape fear

    New York Film Academy Los Angeles recently screened Martin Scorsese’s remake of the classic film Cape Fear. The guests for the event were master matte painter Syd Dutton, who was responsible for creating the stunning settings throughout the film including the iconic shot of De Niro leaving prison. This image left such an indelible sense memory for movie goers that it was parodied in a Simpson’s episode where Side Show Bob leaves prison. Our other guest was visual effects supervisor Bill Taylor, who oversaw the trick camerawork on the picture. By happenstance, the moderator was our co-chair of animation Mark Sawicki, who had worked with Syd and Bill on the picture and was responsible for shooting the final composites of the matte paintings.

    The conversation started with insights into the prison shot. Bill said that the shot was originally designed for De Niro, playing “Max Cady”, to walk below the frame but Scorsese wanted him to walk directly into the camera. A special ramp was built that allowed the actor to do just that. Mark shared that the last few frames of the shot cut from the film showed De Niro (always in character) apparently licking the lens. Because of the compositional change, the shot became much more complex, involving hand drawn silhouettes of the actor allowing him to appear in front of the painting. Mark recalled that the shot took eight hours to execute, with a fan blowing on the camera motor that had to run at extremely slow speed to prevent it from burning out.

    Syd said that the older studio system allowed for tremendous care and planning to create the seamless shots that appear in the film. One thing he shared with the current generation of matte painters is to always remember that the Earth only has one sun and one horizon line. Adhering to these facts is essential to create a believable and realistic painting.

    Bill related that lighting De Niro on fire was accomplished by a stunt double. The principal actor pretended to be on fire with nothing more than interactive light hitting the set. At a later date, a stunt double dressed in black against a black background, was set on fire and photographed. The stuntman mimicked De Niro’s performance and the footage of the animated flames were then composited over De Niro.

    In closing, Bill shared the value of control and advocated that shooting the real thing as much as is possible, limits variables and allows the image to remain based in reality.

    Thanks Syd and Bill for sharing a master’s approach for creating seamless visual effects shots in a classic film!

    mark sawicki

    NYFA Instructor Mark Sawicki (left) with Bill Taylor and Syd Dutton.


    October 7, 2014 • 3D Animation, Guest Speakers • Views: 10825

  • NYFA Meets the Hollywood Monster Makers



    On June 11th, the New York Film Academy Animation department hosted an anniversary screening of The Terminator (1984) to a full house. The film remains exciting as ever as evidenced by the thunderous applause during the end credits. After the film, co-chair of animation Mark Sawicki moderated a panel of artists who created the amazing effects for the film. Guest artists and Oscar nominees Shane Mahan and John Rosengrant were character creators and puppeteers of the Terminator robot for the film. The Terminator was the first film they worked on with the legendary Stan Winston. Upon Winston’s passing in 2008, Shane and John co-founded the Legacy studio to carry on the tradition of excellent character creation and practical effects work on such films as Aliens, Predator, Jurassic Park and Iron Man. Also joining the event was guest artist Ernest Farino who was responsible for the main title and graphics work on the picture. Mark Sawicki worked with Ernest as an optical consultant to help devise the look and procedures to generate the robot’s eye view or Termovision. Ernest is a two time Emmy winner for visual effects and is now directing.

    The group shared marvelous stories from the movie such as rubbing honey into the make up of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face to attract a freshly refrigerated fly as it woke from its frozen slumber. Another trick shared by Ernest was a shot of Arnold pushing his fist through the windshield of a moving car. This was accomplished with a stationary car with a mechanical battering ram in the shape of Arnold’s fist. The illusion of movement was created by having a truck drive by with a fake wall of plastic bricks attached to its side. The bricks moving quickly behind the stationary car made it appear that the car was moving quickly past a static wall as the fake hand shattered the windshield.

    Terminator posterBoth Shane and John emphasized the importance of story and sticking to reality to create believable effects. John said that to make a believable dinosaur you have to obey the laws of physics and have a two-ton dinosaur move with heft and weight and not fly around like a bumblebee.

    After an engaging discussion of trends and techniques, the panel was open to questions from the audience. Many students asked what it was that made older practical effects more appealing than today’s CGI. Shane suggested that in the past horror and fantasy films were overlooked as small pictures and the filmmakers had much more freedom to entertain happy accidents or try bold lighting and other techniques. Today’s multi million dollar blockbusters have a great deal at stake and much more input is given from not only the studios but other large franchises like McDonald’s who use movies as cross promotional vehicles. One student compared older effects to gleaming silver while CGI was more like polished steel. Mark mentioned that lighting is very difficult to mimic in a virtual environment and can create the impression the student mentioned but there are ways to improve upon it such as the use of HDRI imagery to light the CGI characters. John pointed out that CGI could be exceptional if done well with attention to detail and dedication to realism as exampled by Jurassic Park.

    There was a great deal of interest among students to either pursue the field as artists or make use of these tried and true techniques as directors in their own right.
    The event wrapped up with our guests receiving complimentary gift bags from NYFA as they graciously autographed their names to The Terminator poster that will soon adorn the halls of our school.

    Thank you Shane, John and Ernest for inspiring us all and reminding us all about the importance of story and characters!


    June 13, 2014 • 3D Animation, Filmmaking, Guest Speakers • Views: 6409

  • Space Effects Seminar at NYFA LA

    Mark Sawicki

    Co-chair NYFA LA Animation, Mark Sawicki

    To celebrate the Oscar winning work of the ground breaking film Gravity, Co-Chair of the Animation Department at NYFA Los Angeles, Mark Sawicki was invited to give a lecture on Space Effects used throughout cinema history. Mark started with a fond look back at a 1950’s Ray Harryhausen picture 20 million Miles to Earth and outlined rear projection methodology. The next exploration were effects techniques used in the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey that is still an undisputed milestone in space recreation. Made in the 60s, Kubrick’s masterpiece made clever use of sets, wire work, mirrors and miniatures, along with pioneering motion control techniques. From here Mark skipped forward to Apollo 13, where actual weightlessness was filmed, and then on to  From the Earth to the Moon where Mark himself had a roll as Co-Effects Supervisor. Mark outlined how Earth to Moon made use of both miniatures and computer graphics. In conclusion, Mark explained how the amazing effects used in Gravity were based on the tried and true techniques of the past, but executed with current digital precision.

    As a special treat, Mark put the students in the drivers seat on the second day by walking them through the step by step process of how one can take clip art from the Internet and create a realistic animation using the same ideas executed in 2001, except with the ease and access of Photoshop and After Effects.

    A grand time was had by all!


    April 8, 2014 • 3D Animation • Views: 4778

  • Oscar-Winning Special Effects Make-Up Artists Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis Speak at New York Film Academy


    New York Film Academy hosted a talk for students this week with special effects makeup artists Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis. Woodruff and Gillis have collaborated on some of the largest studio productions in history including The Terminator, Star Trek III, Jumanji, The X Files, Cast Away, and Superman Returns just to name a few. In addition, they have recently done work for the new X-Men First Class and the upcoming prequel to The Thing. Woodruff won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects on Death Becomes Her and was nominated for an Oscar along with Gillis for Aliens 3. Gillis also received an Oscar nomination for Starship Troopers.

    Woodruff and Gillis collaborated on special effects for films including Aliens.

    Woodruff and Gillis spent valuable time with students sharing their experiences from neighborhood adolescent filmmakers, to film school students, to Roger Corman’s employees, to the real world of filmmaking in Hollywood. Addressing the generational gap between practical special effects artists and CGI special effects artists, the two commented that filmmaking has headed in a digital direction, with filmmakers quick to make things “easier” or “cheaper” by going all digital. However, Woodruff and Gillis expressed that practical effects create a more realistic feeling and can actually be a cheaper option to create the visual sensation the director hopes to achieve.

    Woodruff and Gillis recently worked on X-Men First Class.

    Overall, the discussion was incredibly thought provoking. Woodruff and Gillis were extremely inspiring and New York Film Academy thanks them for the visit!


    May 24, 2011 • Acting • Views: 6090