Nick Pill, Art Department & Animation Supervisor

Nick Pill, Art Director, Rising Sun Pictures

Good art directors seem to possess almost magical powers. They have an uncanny ability to transform embryonic concepts and abstract notions into beautifully articulated drawings. In the visual effects pipeline, their work provides the vision for the project and sets the style and tone for all that follows.

As its senior art director and animation supervisor, Rising Sun Pictures is fortunate to have one of the industry's best. Nick Pill joined the studio in 2005, and has since contributed his considerable artistic talents to more than a dozen films. A native of Adelaide, he began his career in animation, including 14 years at Walt Disney Australia, where he served as Layout Supervisor. He also spent a year at Animal Logic as Lead Environment Concept Artist on the Academy Award-winning film Happy Feet.

What's your role at RSP?
As Art Director, I'm responsible for creatively assessing shots and briefing compositors, matte painters and other staff on visual tasks. More often than not, the brief consists of an image painted by myself or client-supplied that's used to help the artists focus on the correct outcome. Creature, environment and prop design are also managed and produced by me or my team. As Animation Supervisor, I brief artists on performance and approve animation before it's sent to the client. I also search for appropriate reference material and conduct brainstorming sessions internally to determine the best approaches to shots, all the while remaining globally aware of how shots relate in sequence.

What sorts of challenges do you typically face?
Interpreting client expectations early in the process and then developing ideas and producing content that are in line with those expectations. It's also challenging to work within an increasingly smaller time frame. We always seek to add new ideas to the product but they must be appropriate to the film as a whole. That, too, can be challenging when you are working on short sequences and have limited information about the larger production.

How did you get into the VFX industry?
Although I've always been aware of VFX in film, my early goal was to work in animation. I spent the first 14 years of my career at Walt Disney Animation in Sydney. It wasn't until I went to Animal Logic to work on environment design for Happy Feet that I witnessed how VFX was done in Australia. It was pretty exciting to see. When my contract was up, I knocked on the door at RSP and, lucky me, it opened.

What happened next?
I started here on Charlotte's Web. I had a long history with animated films and working on a kids film appealed to me. Children's films with a lot of heart and soul have always been among my favs, so when I rolled into Harry Potter, it was icing on the cake. The Potter films got to be a bit darker as they progressed and since then I've worked on films with darker themes, so now I also get a kick out of them too. Let me at the zombies!

Tell us about some of your recent work and some of the creative and technical hurdles you had to overcome.
The bombing of Nagasaki from The Wolverine was very challenging. Atom bomb blasts have been depicted in many films, but the director made it clear that this explosion should be different. I painted over some frames depicting a grubbier, less defined mushroom shape and those images helped clarify such factors as colour, atmosphere, debris and size placement. We were then able to break down the scene into manageable tasks: dust covering destroyed structures, matte painted elements, geometry assets and flames, to name a few.

What do you like about working at RSP?
Everyone here works on an even playing field. Like other studios, there is a hierarchy at RSP, but everyone is free to discuss their ideas openly with everyone else. The culture of openness, approachability and mutual respect avoids a lot of problems and results in a very social and creative studio. Allowing everyone, at all levels, to have a creative voice gives each member of the team a deep sense of ownership of their work.

How has RSP changed in your years at the studio?
We've always been known as a brilliant compositing facility, but in recent years we've invested more time and energy into character design, creature animation and character builds. RSP embraces any challenge that will take it to the next level.

What do you like about what you do?
For me, it's all about fresh new ideas and pushing creative boundaries. Coming up with visual solutions to complex problems and supporting stories in a visual manner is the stuff I like. Starting a process and watching our talented staff add to it and develop it into a dazzling, final shot—that's cool.

What factors are crucial to a successful VFX project?
Passion and drive. The first 90-percent of a shot are long and hard, but achievable. However, the last 10-percent, when you're pushing the creative and looking for every opportunity to make the shot better, is often the most difficult. Communication and familiarity with your staff are key to saving time and avoiding mistakes. The core crew at RSP has been together for years and that really pays off when you're in the thick of production.

Do you have a certain philosophy that you apply to your work?
My job is to nail a look that will help other departments understand the visual goal before the project is released to an army of VFX artists. My general approach is to listen to the brief and read the script, and then to provide the client with a variety of appropriate options. It's a shotgun approach. Based on early feedback, I begin to refine and meld the images into just what the client is looking for. It's important to keep the project collaborative so that each delivery brings more clarity. Of course, still images only answer so many questions. When performance is added, the army begins its charge.

What are you working on now?
X-Men Days of Future Past with more films on the near horizon.