Journey into VFX: A Lighting & Lookdev Artist's Insights and Advice

Journey into VFX: A Lighting & Lookdev Artist's Insights and Advice

Mario Leone, a graduate of CG Spectrum and Think Tank Training Centre, shares valuable career advice and insights as a steadfast supporter of The Rookies community. Read his journey from student to Lighting and Lookdev Artist.

CG Spectrum and Think Tank Training Centre graduate, Mario Leone is a steadfast supporter of The Rookies, which helped him explore opportunities on his journey to becoming a Lighting and Lookdev Artist. In this article he gives back to The Rookies community with amazing career advice and insights.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I am a Lighting & Lookdev artist, but my role involves also procedural modeling tasks and layout.

Where do you work, and what type of projects are you involved in?

I work at ALPS Studio and although I cannot say what I am working on, what I can definitely say is that it's a very interesting first experience and I am learning a lot.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

Going back to when I first realised it, I think it was almost 3 years ago, I was a photographer and video editor back then. I loved movies, and I was constantly analysing them, framing, lighting, story, colours etc... until one day I actually asked myself: how is it possible to make a huge wave look real or a fictional creature or environment look so unbelievably real? That's how everything started!

How did you get your first big break?

I kept improving my portfolio, keeping my socials interconnected and updated and I always put myself out of the comfort zone, challenging my knowledge and testing new workflows. The Rookies helped me a lot in the process, I have participated in the Rookies Awards contests in 2022 and 2023, and last year I got awarded with the Rank A and as Finalist.

Mario's Rookie Awards 2023 entry

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

I started my studies on YouTube using Blender, and funnily enough I never modeled the famous donut! While at the same time working as a freelance photographer, I was creating my first 3d models. After few months I realised that I needed a higher level of instruction and thanks to the Rookies School Rankings, I embarked on a new journey at CG Spectrum. At CGS I had the opportunity to work as Technical Assistant, teaching and helping other students in their learning journey. I led sessions sometimes with 25 people on the topic of human anatomy and discussed and explained various 3D art techniques.

You see, I was learning by teaching! Whenever a student had a question and I didn't know the answer, I studied the topic, answered the student, and if it was pretty interesting I would organise a class to talk about it. In that way I was learning way faster!

After the course and the job both came to an end I was still eager to learn more that's why I enrolled in a course at Think Tank Training Centre.

Day in the life

At the moment I have just relocated for my new job in Turin, so I wake up at 7 am make myself a quick breakfast, prepare some food to take with me for lunch and then I head to the studio. I really enjoy when it's still very early in the morning and I calmly walk to the studio, I guess it's my Zen moment. After work I just come home have a call with my loved ones or I go out with friends.

Describe a typical work day for you?

I arrive at the studio, check my daily tasks and start working on them based on the directions of my sequence lead and Supervisor. After work I come back home and I try to read a book, watch a movie or watch videos on YouTube usually related to VFX - for me it's very important to stay on track with the news in the industry and I really enjoy learning new workflows.

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use?

At work: I use Houdini for 90% of my tasks, I really think that Houdini has a very bright future ahead because of it's procedural nature that is fast becoming a must for quick iterations especially to address the notes given by your Supervisor. At the moment as I said it's my main tool and I really enjoy working with it. And for the remaining 10% I use Nuke.

For personal projects: I also use Gaea for terrain creation, unreal, speedtree and the Quixel & Substance 3D Suite.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

Being a lighter I work very close to other lighting artists and to my sequence lead; I am always looking to learn from them.

As mentioned proceduralism is becoming a must and it looks to me that SideFx really cares about the development of the software and also of the learning process of new artist approaching Houdini for the first time. They provide a lot of free resources on their website that I really encourage to check. If you want to pursue a career in VFX I would say: focus on photorealism!

And another thing that I am noticing is the increasing implementation of realtime technologies in the VFX industry, one example could be  virtual production.

Mario's Rookie Awards 2023 entry

One thing you’d never change about your job?

Houdini hahahah! I think it's such a complete package to learn and experiment with.

Coming from other softwares I always questioned myself if the software I was using was the best for my specific task or if it was too limited to only a specific set of operations. With Houdini I don't find myself limited. I would love to encourage students to start using in, just experimenting a little with it and you will see that is not that hard to start with as you may think, and you have a beautiful community if any help is needed.

What is one thing you would like to see change?

I noticed that finding a job in this industry is extremely challenging, I would love to see more schools helping students in the ending phase of their program or helping them to better structure a nice portfolio and social presence.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

Definitely not, but you will improve a lot faster if you consider purchasing a well structured course. In the choice of the school the first thing I would consider is the quality of the students works and The Rookies School Rankings.

What are some of the transferable competencies or skills you have developed on the job?

I would say overall a better confidence with Houdini in lighting and layout but I am still in the early stages of this new experience so I have much more to learn.

What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?

I wish I knew how important networking is. To find my first job, I went to conferences like View and THU, constantly updated all my socials, organiSed meeting with people more experienced than me whenever I could, reached out to people to ask for feedbacks constantly. And, also you have to put yourself out there; if the studios won't reach out for you, you have to reach out for them. Apply and never be afraid of rejection, before finding my first job I think I had applied more than 100 times.

Where do you get your inspiration from, and how do you implement it into your work?

My first inspiration sources are movies; after so much time spent analysing them, I love to enjoy a good movie and understand the thought process. We could start from Kubrick to Nolan, the elegance of Villeneuve or Scorsese, Tarantino, and the list goes on. Learning cinematography from the masters and then learning how you can add VFX to enhance the overall feel of a shot has helped me a lot.

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

Crafting a portfolio is a delicate art, but here are some keypoints that I think are essential:

Starting: publish your art online, don't be afraid, publish everything you do, school assignments, personal projects etc...

Polishing: after you get a little more experienced, maybe you finished your first course etc... archive some of your work and leave only the very best out there.

Create a showreel: (if you are in 3d) this is very important, keep it under 2min and include only the very best, the first showed project should be an eye catcher.

Socials: be active on socials, expecially on LinkedIn, The Rookies and Artstation.

Breakdowns: always create breakdowns that explain your thought process, that is what most people are interested in. Never publish only the final render, explain why you decided to create that piece of art in the first place, show everyone how passionate you are!

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

Here's a series of advice that helped me a lot in my learning journey:

Watch movies, or if you are in the game industry play games but try to shift from the "enjoying mindset" to a more "analytical mindset". Ask yourself why certain shapes or colours were chosen in the first place, in our industry nothing is really casual, you can learn a lot by doing that.

Buy books written from people you admire and learn about their way of thinking.

Structure your Pinterest and train your artistic eye.

Don't feel discouraged if it does not work out yet, this industry in my opinion is very meritocratic, study, improve and share, I can promise that you will get noticed.

Lastly get in touch, connect with me through my socials and if you need feedbacks you are more than welcome to ask. Thank you for reading until here <3

You can check out Mario's student work and his Rookie Awards entries via his Rookies profile here, and reach out to him via the accounts below.

LinkedIn | Instagram | ArtStation