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PostChat: VFX/post supervisor Eric Alba

By Randi Altman

This week’s PostChat, the weekly Twitter conversation about post production, featured veteran VFX/post supervisor Eric Alba. Jesse Averna (@dr0id), one of the hosts of PostChat, interviewed  Alba about “the relationship between editors and the visual effects departments and how the demands of Alba’s job have changed over the years from more practical to more CGI and maybe now back to more practical.”

Alba’s diverse background makes him ideally suited for this type of discussion. Alba (@alba) started in post and found his way to VFX, and his story is one of inspiration. He got his start as a videotape operator in a VTR machine room. From there learned all aspects of post production. He then became interested in visual effects and got an internship in the visual effects department at Paramount Pictures on the television shows Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After his internship, he was hired as a post department production assistant.

“When I was an intern working on Star Trek, the post department recognized I had a technical background,” he explains. “They let me shadow and learn from my producers about film editing, ADR/looping, sound editing/design, music composition, audio mix (my favorite part of post) color correction, online conform, captioning, titling, dirt removal and network delivery of masters. When there was a need for a post supervisor I mentioned I was familiar with all of it, so they gave me a shot at supervising post as well as on-set visual effects supervision.”

Here Alba is pictured shooting plates for a Discovery “Mythbusters” promo.

Alba is now based in New York, working at Hush as a producer/project manager on large experiential, architectural and installation-based projects. Let’s dig in and learn a little more.

How do you view the relationship between edit and VFX?
They work hand in hand — our work impacts each other. So agreeing on the prep, turnover and delivery workflow as early as possible and sticking to the pipeline is key.

What specific benefits do you bring to the table having both a VFX and post background?
As a post supervisor with knowledge of VFX, I have a better understanding of the visual effects effort… the budgets, schedules and resources. I’m also able to help the VFX department come up with solutions to make their work easier. As an example, I may suggest not seeing as many explosions or gun fire, if we simply add those sound effects in the final mix to tell the same story.

As a VFX supervisor with post-supervisor knowledge, I can inform the other departments (edit, music, sound, color) of relevant information quickly as we shoot or post changes. It’s all in an effort to clearly communicate as quickly as possible and to possibly save time and some money.

If you could offer up a “need to know” tip in relation to editing and VFX, what would it be?
Communicate all the time, especially if there are potential changes. Be in the room when reviewing cuts, discuss problems/solutions, offer help when you can.

How often are you on set?
I used to be on set/location six or seven months a year. The last few years, it’s gone down to four to five months as more things are being created purely digitally.

Can you tell us a little about Hush?
They do very unique work that allows my skills to thrive and grow. I appreciate the amount of design and effort that’s put into planning these sometimes very large projects. I’m fortunate enough to take part in production and execution and feel like I’m learning something new everyday. It’s great.

For this Nike Camp Victory game, runners are scanned and graphics appear before them. Alba managed the physical construction, software programming, LED installation, graphics and sound for the installation.

Are there some recent projects you can share with us?
I’ve been doing a lot of recent projects that are one year long or longer and many are under NDA. They usually involve some filmmaking and VFX, and the content we create is part of larger installation or exhibit as an immersive experience. Check out these two links: — http://heyhush.com/work/nike-camp-victory, http://heyhush.com/work/ua-china. I was responsible for not only the content creation (filming, post and graphics), but also management of the architectural design, construction, installation of technology and event management. It’s been very challenging and rewarding to be tearing new muscle into new types of projects.

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Do you ever get behind the camera?
I’ve been an on-set supervisor for 20-plus years now (yikes). I don’t normally operate a camera but I will work with one in positioning/composition or illustrating a path. It’s always nice to see a camera shot you designed make it into the final cut.

What are the typical tools you work with?
On shoots/set, obviously motion picture cameras and now video cameras, and sometimes they are specialized like large-format, 360-degree or stereoscopic. I use still cameras, measuring/surveying tools, FileMaker, an iPad and pencil and paper.

On the post side, either Final Cut Pro (7 and X) or Media Composer for editing, then Nuke, Maya, After Effects, Maxon Cinema 4D, Houdini, Excel, FileMaker, iPad, pencil and paper.  For interactive/digital projects, I use Touch Designer, Unity, Cinder and many others.

Any that fly under the radar that you would like to give a shout out?
I wouldn’t say they’re entirely under the radar, but Touch Designer, Unity and Arnold Renderer have been really pulling their weight on many of my projects.

I’ve seen you out and about at industry events and you are pretty involved in social media.
I try to be involved in locally held social events in visual effects, post and design when I can. I’d like to do more if my schedule would allow. I think it’s important to network, not only for the obvious reasons of finding a gig, but also for the potential of meeting and working with talented people.

I’ve learned so much from so many talented people, and some of them I now call friends. It’s great when you can do challenging work and you’ve got a great crew; it’s even better when you’ve got a friend or two on the project to ease the stress.

You were on PostChat this week. What did you discuss?
I spoke briefly about how I got my start and gave some advice to anyone interested in visual effects. I wanted to show how their skills can be used in other projects than TV, film and commercials. The digital, experiential projects are becoming very interesting and challenging.

What inspired you to want to work with moving pictures in the first place?
I love films and television and was always about the curious in the technical processes of making/completing them.

Did you go to school for this?
I didn’t go to college. My film school was working on Star Trek.

Anything else before we wrap up?
Regarding the visual effects industry, there seems to be a lot of negativity in terms of the working conditions (no overtime, no organization/representation, shops closing, artists relocating, etc.)  I would say that there are other industries that can use those talented artists — interactive, experiential, app development, product design, visualization. It’s out there in many cities around the world, and many of those companies seem to be a lot more “stable.”

Check out the transcript here, and take part in the conversation Wednesdays at 6pmPST/9pmEST. Follow #PostChat.

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