NAME: Luca Fascione
COMPANY: Wellington, New Zealand’s Weta Digital
WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Senior Head of Technology and Research
WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
In my role, I lead the activities of Weta Digital that provide software technology to the studio and our partners. There are various groups that form technology and research: Production Engineering oversees the studio’s pipeline and infrastructure software, Software Engineering oversees our large plug-ins such as our hair system (Barbershop/Wig), our tree growth system (Lumberjack/Totara) and our environment construction system (Scenic Designer), to name a few.
Two more departments that make up the technology and research group include Rendering Research and Simulation Research. These departments oversee proprietary renderer, Manuka, and our physical simulation system, Synapse. Both groups have a strong applied research focus and as well as producing software, they are often involved in the publication of scientific papers.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS BUSINESS?
Cinema and computers have been favorites of mine (as well as music) since I was a little kid. We used to play a game when I was maybe 12 or so where we would watch about five seconds of a random movie on TV, turn it off, and recite the title. I was very good at that.
A couple of my friends and I watched all the movies we could find, from arthouse European material to more commercial, mainstream content. When it came time to find a job, I thought finding a way to merge my passion for cinema and my interest in computers into one would be great, if I could.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN THIS INDUSTRY?
I started at Weta Digital in 2004. Before that I was part of the crew working the feature animation movie Valiant, where I started in 2002. I guess this would make it 15 years.
HOW HAS THE VFX INDUSTRY CHANGED IN THE TIME YOU’VE BEEN WORKING? WHAT’S BEEN GOOD, WHAT’S BEEN BAD?
Everything got bigger. More so the content we want to work with in relation to the machines we want to use to achieve our goals. As much as technology has improved, our ability to use it to drive the hardware extremely hard has grown faster, creating a need for technically creative, innovative solutions to our scaling problems.
Graphics is running out of “easy problems” that one can solve drawing inspiration from other fields of science, and it’s sometimes the case that our research has outpaced the advancements of similar problems in other fields, such as medicine, physics or engineering. At the same time, especially since the recent move toward deep learning and “big data” problems, the top brains in the field are all drawn away from graphics, making it harder than it used to be to get great talent.
DID A PARTICULAR FILM INSPIRE YOU ALONG THIS PATH IN ENTERTAINMENT?
I work in VFX because of Jurassic Park. Although I must also recognize Young Sherlock Holmes and Terminator 2, which also played a big role in this space. During my career in VFX, King Kong and Avatar have been life-shaping experiences.
DID YOU GO TO FILM SCHOOL?
Not at all, I studied Mathematics in Rome, Italy. All I know about movies is due to personal study work. Back in those days nobody taught computer graphics at this level for VFX. The closest were degrees in engineering schools that maybe had a course or two in graphics. Things have changed massively since then in this area.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
The variety. I run into a lot of extremely interesting problems, and I like being able to help people find good ways to solve them.
WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
A role like mine necessarily entails having to have many difficult conversations with crew. I am extremely pleased to say the majority of these result in opportunities for growth and deepening of our mutual understandings. I love working with our crew, they’re great people and I do learn a lot every day.
IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I like my job, I don’t often think about doing something else. But I have on occasion wondered what it would be like to build guitars for a living.
CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
The latest War for the Planet of the Apes movie has been a fantastic achievement for the studio. The Technology and Research group has contributed a fair bit of software to the initiative, from our forest system Totara to a new lighting pipeline called PhysLight, a piece of work I was personally involved in and that I am particularly proud of.
During our work on The Jungle Book, we helped the production by reshaping our instancing system to address the dense forests in the movie. Great advancements in our destruction systems were also developed for Rampage.
WHAT IS THE PROJECT/S THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
It turns out three of my early projects played a role of some importance in the making of Avatar: The facial solver, the sub-surface scattering system and PantaRay (our Spherical Harmonics occlusion system). After that, I’m extremely proud of my work on Manuka, Weta Digital’s in-house renderer.
WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION NOW?
All around me, it’s the people, listening to their experiences, problems and wishes. That’s how our job is done.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I play guitar and I build audio amplifiers. I have two daughters in primary school that are a lot of fun and a little boy just joined our family last December. I do take the occasional picture as well.