Alps Studios Founder and CEO Filippo Robino has told us about the working organization at the company, spoke about the Italian VFX market, and explained why they decided to go green.
Hi, my name is Filippo Robino, I’m the Founder, CEO, and VFX supervisor at Alps Studios in Turin, Italy. I have a bachelor’s degree in graphics and virtual design from the Faculty of Architecture of the Polytechnic University of Turin. I also earned a masters in VFX from the Virtual and Multimedia Park in Turin and completed an intensive course in Houdini with Escape Studios in London.
After completing my studies I moved abroad to start my career in VFX. My first job as an FX Artist was at Axis Animation in Glasgow, working on game cinematics. Then I joined Trixter in Munich for nearly 3 years, working on a multitude of blockbuster feature films. Looking for a new challenge, I joined Scanline in Munich, as I had always been interested in working with their proprietary software flowline.
Then I received an amazing opportunity to move to the other side of the world and join Iloura in Melbourne. I worked at Iloura (later Method Studios and now Framestore) for a year and a half, on several big-budget TV shows and feature films. This was my first time working in a really major studio with a big FX department. I met lots of amazing artists there, some of whom I am proud to still call my friends today. I decided to leave Melbourne when I got the opportunity to fulfill one of my dreams and join Weta in Wellington. During my time at Weta, I was not actually working as an FX artist, but instead as the studio’s FX Trainer. The role entailed: training the new recruits, helping senior staff move from Maya to Houdini, advising on RnD projects for FX, and occasionally helping out with shot work if production required extra hands on deck.
As much as I loved Weta, I decided to move back to Melbourne for a short time for family reasons, during which I worked for Luma.
At the same time, I had been planning to open a studio back home in Turin for years and in 2019 I felt like it was finally the right time to really move ahead with this plan. On paper, the studio opened in June 2019, but we didn’t really open our doors until February 2020. We started off with a small team of 6 people and a few machines, and today we are around 35 permanent staff with a fluctuating number of freelancers.
Work Organization at Alps Studios
Work at Alps Studios is split into divisions: 3D, 2D, Production, IT, Pipeline, and Administration. Our 3D department works almost exclusively in Houdini, whilst our 2D department is Nuke-based. The Production team is in charge of handling all communication within the studio and thus is essential to the smooth running of our projects. Yet, we also encourage our artists to communicate a lot with each other and make sure they are aware of schedules and priorities. As a studio, our main focus is on FX, environments, and complex compositing, but we are also currently establishing our fully Houdini-based creature pipeline.
Of course, we are proud of all of our projects, but there have of course been a few highlights. Just a few weeks ago, our first big feature Dampyr was released in Italian cinemas and we are very proud to finally be able to show the work we did for this movie. We were in charge of all of the 700+ VFX shots and their corresponding assets and managed the VFX of the project from pre-prod, through shooting all the way to the final delivery.
Another project that we are particularly proud of is The Rig from Amazon Studios, which we spent the better part of 2022 working on. We delivered over 100 shots with complex FX and set extensions and we cannot wait to see the show premiere on Amazon Prime this December. For this project specifically, we developed our in-house pipeline for complex and large-scale water simulations, which we aim to make a main business focus of Alps for future projects.
Thoughts on the Italian VFX Market
There are a lot of opportunities within the Italian market. There are not that many established and internationally known studios yet, so there is a lot of space to grow and not an overwhelming amount of competition, as there would be for example in Canada. In Turin, we are the biggest VFX studio around.
Something that is peculiar about the Italian film market in general, is that a lot of big-budget productions shoot here, due to the beautiful locations Italy has to offer, but little to none of the post-production work used to end up in Italy, historically. We are seeing the tide change a bit, and along with a few other big Italian VFX houses, we are starting to change the perception of Italy as a viable player in the international VFX market.
Working With Clients
To us, the most important thing is to establish a clear line of communication and make sure we speak to our clients face-to-face as often as possible. We try to get involved in productions early on to help the client shoot the best possible plates for VFX and often also provide previs and concepts to help guide the process.
Approach to Education
The first step is to make sure that the new starters are trained in the basic theory of the software we use. We also give every new recruit a production task right away to give them a real-life example to apply the theory to. Each new starter gets assigned a tutor within the company who helps them resolve problems, teaches theory, and suggests tutorials for them to study. By law, we can have two interns at all times and we usually try to split them evenly between the 2D and 3D departments.
In order to grow the best new talent, we are very selective in our hiring process. Of course, artists who are fresh out of university, or in some cases, have just learned a software by studying it themselves, won’t have the most impressive or refined showreels, but we try to ask very targeted questions during our interviews to get an idea of their knowledge base and willingness to learn.
We have them work alongside our more experienced artists, who often come from international backgrounds, to allow them to get an idea of the expected level of expertise within the industry.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and some new starters need more help and training than others, but we try to tailor our approach to each specific artist.
We really started to realize our environmental impact when the studio grew to its current size and we started getting very high electricity bills. Of course, as a business, the first thing we look at is the cost, but it also made us acutely aware of the enormous energy consumption required to produce VFX. As an artist in other studios, I was of course aware of this, but it never felt like I could do something about this, being just an employee. Now as a business owner and a father I really want to think about the long-term impact.
Here in Italy, we are seeing the impact of climate change more dramatically year after year, with extremely long periods without rain and hotter summers each year. While I strongly believe that the VFX industry and the entertainment industry in general are essential, it really exists to create joy and shouldn’t contribute further to the detriment of our environment.
At the moment we are based in the historical city center of Turin, where making any modifications to the buildings is extremely difficult without risking ruining their character. We decided to move to a new facility a little bit outside the city center where we could make any modifications we wanted. For this new office space, we are currently creating plans to produce our own energy through renewable energy sources. If it turns out that we are not able to produce enough to sustain our productions, we will purchase the excess from suppliers who at least in part use renewable energy sources. With our architects and technicians, we are also working on a system to channel the heat produced by our render farm back into the production areas to lower heating consumption in the winter. During the summer, of course, that heat won’t come in so handy and we will need to rely on cooling units, but on the upside, longer days and more sun hours mean more green solar energy can be produced.
Tips for Aspiring Artists
We are looking for people who have a solid programming and math background as well as an artistic eye. My first suggestion would be to watch a lot of movies and TV shows and form an opinion on what is good and bad VFX. Then I would ask artists, especially those new to the industry, to think about which part of the VFX pipeline they could see themselves in. We have a few generalists who are able to switch between departments, but for the most part, we are looking for artists who have highly specialized skills, for example in FX. Then my main advice is to study, search for tutorials online and try to absorb as much of the information as possible. Then try to apply those newfound skills to your own work and personal projects. One thing is to follow a tutorial and then recreate it one to one, yet another thing is to use the new skills and apply them in different scenarios.
In terms of soft skills, we are looking for team players. Being a mid-sized studio, every team member has a huge impact on our work and it’s really important to us that the team gets along since they spend a lot of time together. I think that we have a really great crew made of super nice people, who love what they do and love working together.