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Featured Artist: Fernando Jose Cuevas, United States

 
Interview to Fernando Cuevas, Freelance FX Artist follows . . .

Fernando Jose Cuevas is a Freelance Visual Effects Artist based in Miami FL. United States. He studied Bachelor (BFA, Computer Art Animation) and Master of Fine Arts (MFA, Visual Effects) at Lynn University, Florida. Today intern at Houdini.School.

YOUR BACKGROUND - FACTORS & INSPIRATION TO BECOME AN ARTIST.

 

I’ve always known that I wanted to work in entertainment, more specifically in 3D animation. While my friends were talking about being doctors or basketball players, I knew I wanted to be an animator. I remember the day when the thought came to me. It was in the early 2000’s when my favorite cartoons were playing on tv. I was 4 years old, and I was watching Dexter’s Laboratory when the thought hit me. “I can do this.” My young brain was so impressed by the revelation that the feeling never left me. The idea grew with the passing of time. I remember, years later, sitting down at the Indiana Jones show in Universal Studios when my heart was beating so fast, I was breathless. The heat from the explosion burning my face, Indy’s final fling off the rooftop right before the big fire, and the crew making it all happen. It was at this moment I knew; this is what I want to do. I want to be that guy that makes the incredible, possible. From this day forward, I never saw cartoons and movies with the same eyes. I was always studying and figuring out how it all works.

Fernando Cuevas

YOUR STARTING DAYS.

 

When I was a toddler, my parents could never leave pen and paper laying around the house. If they did, they would find it with doodles of imaginary characters or drawings of cartoons as I was watching them on tv. Some of them, I would cut up and use as makeshift toys. Others I would crumple up and throw them in the garbage. My mother would pick them up, iron them out and file them in a folder that years later she gave to me. When I reached High School, my parents bolstered my decision of enrolling in a school that supported my vision. All throughout high school, I learned about graphic design and was self-taught on 3D animation with whatever I could find on YouTube. I started with Blender3D like everyone else. I followed along with the iconic donut modeling tutorials. At the same time, I was going to Miami Dade College pursuing an associate’s degree in Animation. But it was not until I made it to Digital Media Arts College, which later became a part of Lynn University, that my education started to take form. I remember during my search at a college fair that a reputable institution questioned my career choice. “Would I learn how to make animations, like Transformers?” I asked. “Would you really consider that artistic?” they responded. My next booth was Digital Media Arts College, and their opening sentence was “Yeah, we teach those concepts in our courses.” I quickly took a pamphlet and said, “Say no more, I’ll see you this fall.” I met many of my lifelong friends and peers there. I even developed a close relationship with all my professors during my time there.

YOUR LIFE JOURNEY & CAREER PATH.

 

My dream was to work for Pixar one day. To be part of the team that gave us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Frozen. I even started a YouTube channel with a friend of mine. We called it, Road to Pixar. Look it up, it is funny. But I know this road is a steep climb and I must follow in the steps of the experts. I have already specialized in Maya and learned about body mechanics and character animation. I have done extracurricular work like Rusty Animator to help me hone my character animation skills. I learned two valuable insights that I now share with you: Research and Reference. When Covid hit, that I had all that free time, I worked on my demo reel. I binge watched old movies, did a lot of research, and started a new project. In the process, something puzzled me. How can I join 3D animation into real life FX? Flashes of Indy jumping off rooftops, the blast of explosions and the burning heat in my face flood my mind. “I can do all that now!” For my graduate program, I chose FX. Houdini opened the door to this world of vast possibilities. Then Houdini School and Rebelway complemented my artistic renaissance. I found myself fascinated with the procedural, and near limitless nature of Houdini. I dove into the exploration of procedural modeling, pyro simulations, particles, and the list goes on. One of the things I love about this community is that everyone does things so differently. There is so much to learn based on how different artists achieve various FX and how that translates to how they see the world. In turn, Houdini has changed the way I see art and even strengthened my connection to it. I know now I will be a forever student of the arts. There is always something new, a better way, a new technology. My long-term goal is to be a visual effects supervisor at a major visual effects studio, maybe even sit in the director’s seat one day. Because we all need to start somewhere, I already finished my first short film. ZETA, which was a yearlong project. Alongside my peers and my Lynn University professor, we overcame all the challenges of visual effects, editing, coloring, lighting, etc. and our film went on to win, Best in Visual Effects award at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2022 and Best in Visual Effects at the Brandstar Excellence Awards in Animation. I am currently working on another short film. I am both the director and visual effects supervisor. Pretty ambitious, I know! It will be released soon. I am also a freelance FX artist specialized in Houdini and Nuke.

EXPLAIN SOME AMAZING EXPERIENCE /FLOP THAT HELPED YOU TO BECOME BETTER

Lion: animal animation - Jon Favreau’s remaking of the Lion King inspiration

I am my own worst critic. So, I decided to challenge myself in an animal animation. Jon Favreau’s remaking of the Lion King was my inspiration for this dare. Research and reference was all I did for 3-4 months. Did you know that when a lion takes over as leader of the pride, he seeks to kill the cubs of the previous leader, so they do not retaliate in the future? I know that because I went through hours upon hours of lion documentary footage. The animation itself posed its fair share of challenges because I’ve never animated a quadruped before. I wanted to make sure you felt the weight of the lion as he plops down onto the ground, however that was not the most challenging part of this shot. It was the fur that presented the biggest challenge. At first, I created a single layer of fur to recreate the mane of the lion. But it did not look right. It was too long. It haunted me in my dreams. Until I realized I was trying to make the mane look like how you see it in cartoons. But that’s not reality. Lions are messy, dirty, untamable. So, I started again, but this time using real life lions as reference. Replicating what I already knew about grooming and making it more realistic. Lion manes are shorter and do not grow to be as long and billowy as you see in cartoons. There are exceptions in older lions, but I was working on a younger one. The first iteration was just one layer of fur. The final iteration involved four layers of fur to blend between the face and the mane. The mane involved three layers to keep it full and have various levels of clumping and wavy fur. Then two final layers were for blending between the mane and the much darker portion that hangs down by their front legs. This shot taught me that sometimes you’re working on something, and it just doesn’t work. You must be open to starting again. If you genuinely care about the piece you’re working on, then take out what doesn’t work and rebuild from there. It’s going to be worth it in the long run, I promise.

EXPLAIN SOME INTERESTING SHOTS

I would say Magic Wand and Field of Coins are my two favorite pieces to date.

My first piece, Magic Wand, was a demonstration of my knowledge of Houdini and Nuke. 

MAgic Wand

I wanted to tackle a project that put together everything I had learned thus far into one cinematic piece. I had been studying along with many courses for some time, so breaking out of that mold and free roaming inside of the software was an incredibly educational experience. At first, Magic Wand was a simple exercise to show if I can replicate magical FX. I used a pyro simulation to drive the velocity of the particles. I replicated the effect four more times. Each time with a different variation of turbulence, particle count and life variance. Afterwards, they were all merged to form a highly detailed magical simulation. The various levels of physics that impacted each layer, made the magical FX feel more alive. I wanted to showcase it in a more appropriate environment and that’s when the piece really took off.

Magic wand inside of a corridor in Hogwarts

I decided to place the wand inside of a corridor in Hogwarts. I poured over hundreds of reference images, film stills, and even real-life sets used when filming Harry Potter. The environment went through various iterations before arriving to the final piece. I am now fortunate enough to be surrounded by many talented Houdini artists that are passionate about their craft. They helped improve every aspect of the shot by pointing out certain details that I would’ve otherwise missed. Thanks to the way everything was rendered, I was able to address set changes, lighting, or feedback very quickly. This was when I was first introduced to GridMarkets. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to render out all the different iterations as quickly as I did. 

 After rendering with Mantra, I imported everything to Nuke and composited the shot to feel as if it could exist in the same world as Harry Potter. The overall mood was heavily inspired by the corridor sequence when Harry was wandering the halls at night in the Prisoner of Azkaban. The magical FX color scheme derived from the Avada Kedavra spell cast. 

Some scenes: Environment and Lighting

With the Magic Wand shot officially accomplished, I set my eyes on something different. I knew I wanted to work with gold and somehow incorporate a skull. 

Coins Skull Lighting


Now that I knew about GridMarkets, I was free to explore computationally heavy scenes without feeling limited. I did numerous amounts of research into what I wanted to go for and landed on Pirates of the Caribbean and The Hobbit. They both showcased scenes with very solid coin RBDs and cinematic looks. The goal was to create an ominous environment where an elaborately decorated skull sinks into a field of coins. This was the perfect time to experiment with how gold reacts in real world scenarios and with the handling of large scale RBD simulations. I was approached again by my fair share of obstacles, but my talented Houdini peers helped me overcome all the technical challenges. I wouldn’t have been able to create something so cool without their help. Thanks to GridMarkets, I rendered the final sequence in 4K. Rendering gold materials in Karma with that resolution would’ve taken my local PC ages to render, but thanks to them I was able to get everything rendered out quickly. In Nuke, I borrowed a lot of color schemes from the cave sequence in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, and vibrance from The Hobbit gold mountain sequences. Overall, I’m super proud of these two shots and I’m super grateful to everyone who helped me overcome all these hurdles. They really made these pieces be the best they could be. 

Skull sinks into a field of coins.
Rendering gold materials in Karma

WHICH TOOLS DID YOU USE?

 

I primarily use Houdini and Nuke for my personal projects. I use Houdini for CG asset creation and FX work. I then render out from there using Karma/ Mantra and isolate each render pass for compositing inside of Nuke. I’ve seen these two programs to be dynamic duo when tackling any sort of FX work.

YOUR INSPIRATION

 

As an artist, I find inspiration everywhere. Depending on the category, I have many different inspirational figures and role models. As an artist, I am heavily inspired by the works of Ash Thorp. His connection to art is nothing short of exemplary and inspirational. His photorealistic work of automotive renderings are a prime example of CG mastery. He takes these industrial, lifeless machines and gives them a soul. This is the perfect example of turning machines into works of art that invoke emotions. He also works on different stylistic science fiction shots. They make you truly wonder about his thought process and the way he views the world. He mentions it’s not the tools you use, but the way you use them. I carry those words with me every time I look towards creating something new. 


When it comes to technical prowess, I have numerous inspirations. My instructors that have helped me learn Houdini and become comfortable with the software. Kevin Kao, my instructor at Lynn University, first introduced me to Houdini. At first, the software was very intimidating and scary. But he was one of the first people to show me how limitless and powerful this program was. Saber Jlassi, instructor at Rebelway, showed me the ins and outs of how Houdini works. How to approach a situation with a mathematical mindset and how that can help both streamline and optimize workflows. Many of the tiny little quirks I do when working in Houdini, come from him. Finally, Debra Isaac, founder of Houdini School. She has helped me so much in overcoming my fears of Houdini and introducing me to so many talented artists. She has helped me with my previous pieces in turning them into the best they can be. She is also a Houdini activist that pushes for more artists to join this amazing community. Many artists are afraid of Houdini because of how vastly different it is. But she helps bring the Houdini community together so we can all support and learn from one another. 


When it comes to creating cinematic pieces, I find a lot of inspiration from the works of Christoper Nolan, Gareth Edwards, Takashi Yamazaki and Davie Filoni. Each one of these filmmakers comes from vastly different backgrounds but their mindset and artistic vision is so inspirational. I consider them one of the greats in this cinematic era we live in. 


Lastly and most importantly, when it comes to life, my biggest inspiration is my mother. She has helped me grow as a person and view the world from a unique point of view. I attribute a lot of my successes to the influence she has had on my life. She has helped me keep a straight path towards my dreams and has supported me every step of the way in this long journey. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this. 

SOME WORDS ABOUT YOUR RENDERING EXPERIENCE

 

GridMarkets has been an absolute game changer. It has opened the door to so many possibilities that were once barred from me due to time constraints and technical limitations. I am no longer bound by daunting render times or fear of crashing because of some complex simulation. I simulate fine details thanks to their cloud caching services. I can render in super high resolution thanks to their powerful machines. I no longer think “This is going to take too long to render.” Now I think “How can I make this piece better?” I do not have to worry about rendering for days because I just send the scenes to the cloud renderer. GridMarkets has helped me lift a barrier that has limited me for a long time. I just hope other artists out there find this platform and benefit from it the same way I do!

HOW DID YOU FIND GRIDMARKETS?

 

I found out about GridMarkets when I was working on my Magic Wand piece. It took my PC twenty minutes to render one frame of the emissive particle pass. Because my previz was twenty-three seconds long, this was not a feasible option. I started asking around in the Houdini community to see what other artist do in these situations and they mention that they render with GridMarkets. They are one of the few render farms that support everything Houdini related. I decided to do a few test renders and experiment with their implementation into my workflow. The same renders I did on my PC, took GridMarkets ten minutes per machine. The results were so impressive and revolutionary that I continued to use them and never looked back. They play a pivotal role in my workflow pipeline. 

WHAT DID YOU RENDER?

 

I rendered all my passes for the Magic Wand piece. There were six different render nodes in charge of different passes. There were five shots overall, coming in at a total of thirty render nodes. Each one was submitted to GridMarkets and I was able to get entire shots done in one day. Any time I received feedback, I just needed to render the one node and I got it back within a short period of time. I also submitted the Field of Coins piece. There were only two shots with four different render nodes. The final sequences were done in 4K with minimal noise. GridMarkets was able to deliver the entire scene quickly and I was able to get my shots back faster than I could imagine.

ANYTHING ELSE?

 

I just want to say thank you to everyone who has been part of this artistic journey with me. Helping me grow and giving me feedback along the way. I am forever grateful to be part of such an amazing community of artists. Everyone on there wants to help each other and overcome technical challenges. So many artists are afraid of Houdini but there are even more artists out there willing to lend a hand. Regardless, I wish for more artists to make their way through their own personal journeys and their own personal disciplines. Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to who you were yesterday. Don’t look for your voice in other people’s work, look to make your voice stand out in your own work. That will put you ahead in so many ways. “Comparison is the thief of joy” – Theodore Roosevelt. 
Don’t let it steal yours. 


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