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The future is Unreal: VFX Artist William Faucher talks virtual production

13 minute read

28/05/2021

VFX Artist William FaucherWilliam Faucher has worked as a VFX Artist on blockbusters such as Black Panther and the Watchmen series. He recently joined Unreal Engine Training Partner CG Spectrum as a mentor of Unreal. He's also helping develop the innovative new realtime technical art and virtual production course.

We spoke with William about the future of Unreal Engine and its uses in real-time production, his move to Norway, and his highly popular YouTube tutorials that provide cutting-edge demos of the latest UE developments.

Thanks for taking the time to share your story, William! Tell us, how did your career as a 3D artist start? What was your first big break in the industry?

My first experience with 3D animation began at the age of 11-12, when I begged my mother to buy me a copy of the “Introduction to Maya 4.5” book I saw at the bookstore. At the time I was curious/eager to make video games, and that was what caught my attention.

That was when I began learning about vertices, polygons, and how easy it is to fry your parents’ home computer in 2002.

Then 3D animation took the back-burner for a few years until right after I started college when I was accepted in a local school in my hometown of Sherbrooke Canada, that specialized in game art. I won’t name it because it was frankly awful (and was shut down a few years ago).

To this day I prefer to say I am self-taught because the only good thing that came from that school was the networking, which eventually got my foot in the door of the industry. I got lucky, I was at the right place at the right time, and the rest is history. While my experience at the school I attended was less than stellar, it is part of the reason I care so deeply about teaching the way I do now.

unreal-engine-william-faucherA Tribute to Halo - Unreal Engine 4 Cinematic by William Faucher was a huge hit with fans

You’ve made the move to live in Oslo Norway. What prompted this decision? Has the move affected job opportunities for you? How has the move shifted your perspective artistically?

Moving to Norway was always one of those pipe-dreams you never think will ever come to fruition but you can’t help but hope.

My first time in Norway goes back to 2012 on a trip with my father. It was my first time traveling outside of Canada and I fell completely in love with the country. The fjords of Norway are quite simply the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing. Not a single photo can do them justice. It’s one of those things where you just have to BE there. The salty air, the steep, never-ending cliffs, the fresh breeze off the sea mixed with the scent of pine and cedar, the roar of waterfalls from the thawing glaciers are just a glimpse of how to explain the sheer impact they have on you. Don’t even get me started on the historical significance of the land. Simply said, I loved the place.

How I got here is another story, yet again it involves being in the right place at the right time. I was at a place in my life where I needed a change, and seeing a job offering based in Oslo, I applied right away.

Fortunately for me, studios in Norway often struggle with hiring talent from abroad because very few people are willing to relocate to northern Europe. Another reason is because CGI/VFX jobs don’t pay nearly as well in Norway compared to other major cities such as London, LA, Vancouver, Singapore, etc. So the salary cut, and having to move to such a cold country with very long winters and short summers is not exactly appealing to most.

But as someone who loves the outdoors, rainy days, and cold weather, this was perfect. Prior to moving here, I was working in the games industry, but as I said, I needed change and the Film Industry was the change I felt I wanted.

Fortunately Storm Studios, the VFX house that hired me, needed someone with Unreal Engine experience for an upcoming project with one of their clients. This was my way in. Needless to say my employer at the time was baffled that I dreamt of moving to Norway, so that job interview went better than expected.

Working in film was one of those experiences that completely changed my way of working.

I would not be the artist I am today were it not for the 4-5 years working there. The things you learn working in film really lined up with my passion for photography, and CG/3D. It was a perfect blend of two things I loved. You learn to work more efficiently, focus on the things that matter, and really just make things look as good as possible without having to worry about mundane things like polycounts and draw calls like you need to consider in games.

As for job opportunities, now that working remotely has become more and more commonplace due to Covid-19, location doesn’t matter nearly as much anymore.

Witch-King from Lord of the Rings. Faucher cut his teeth as a VFX artist by creating fan art.

With the advent of virtual production techniques how important will it be for content creators to understand the basics of Unreal Engine from now on?

Unreal Engine is certainly at the forefront of virtual production at the moment, there isn’t a single other engine that can even come close to competing with what Unreal offers. And until another worthy competitor comes along to rival it, learning Unreal Engine will be rather quite important.

There is a HUGE demand for Unreal Engine artists at the moment, and with UE5 right around the corner, now’s the time to get as big of a head start as possible.

Who knows what the future will bring though, it’s entirely possible that Unreal Engine will be dethroned by newer, younger, sexier tool-set.

Faucher's first look at Unreal Engine 5

You are prolific in your YouTube tutorials, with your Halo Tribute being your most viewed yet. Can you tell us about this project? You did the art direction, environment art, lighting, rendering, editing - are these all skills you've developed throughout your career, or did you need to learn new skills to pull this together?

Thank you! Halo has always been my favorite game of all time. It’s a game I’ve played since 2001, and has stuck with me since.

I had been wanting to make some Halo fan art for a while, and getting back into Unreal after a few years away from it, I thought it would be a fun challenge.

It originally started off as a small project, I just wanted to model/texture the Master Chief, give it some nice lighting, render a still image, and call it a day. Of course my projects always blow up in scale the moment I start working on them. What was supposed to be a two week project with 1-2 still images turned into 30+ seconds of animated footage over two months. When will I learn?

Throughout my career I’ve always been what we call a generalist. I can do a bit of everything. From modelling, to texturing, animation, lighting, rendering, compositing, etc. These are all skills I picked up along the road from working at smaller studios. Because the places I worked at had fewer than 50 employees, there comes a point where you often need to fill in a role for a multitude of reasons. Someone could be sick, or quit, or is on maternity/paternity leave, or a new task comes up. I was always up for the challenge.

I’m not often daunted by a new type of work, in fact I relish the opportunity to suck at something all over again, because I know it doesn’t take too much practice before you get the hang of something.

Humans adapt well to change. Once you have an understanding of how all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, making a short film is suddenly a lot more doable and less terrifying.

Another thing that helped me out tremendously was photography. I bought my first DSLR back in 2011, and it was one of those hobbies that saved my mental health and fought off depression and loneliness with shocking efficacy. Photography helps you learn so much about lighting, composition, editing, color, all the things that can be applied to 3D, filmmaking, and just about anything artistic.

I feel confident in saying that photography was one the biggest contributors to getting me where I am today, and it still is a big part of my life.

Many established visual effects artists are looking to add real-time production to their skill set. Can you tell us more about bridging the gap between VFX and Unreal?

Unreal Engine 4 came out in 2014, and at the time I don’t think the developers in their wildest dreams expected it to be used in the way it is today.

At the time it was 100% just a games engine intended for, well, games. Not films or cinematic use. It was never designed with film or visual effects in mind, and because of this, the workflow and tool-sets in Unreal Engine 4 are what I’d call extremely unorthodox. They are often highly counter-intuitive, from a film/VFX artist’s perspective.

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Fortunately, with a background in games, the design philosophy of Unreal Engine made sense to me, and working in the film industry gave me an understanding of the needs of a film pipeline. Working in games and film has given me insight into the needs of both, and how to adapt a games-focused engine like Unreal for film/VFX/cinematics use.

I really enjoy working in UE4 and I want to help other VFX artists see how fun and easy it is to work with Unreal. And with UE5, things are about to get quite exciting.
Besides downloading Unreal and watching your tutorials, what other resources do you recommend for those looking to learn the ropes?

Honestly, YouTube is such a fantastic source for learning nowadays. Pretty much every topic has been covered, and it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

Unfortunately, because literally anyone can make video tutorials, they’re often low-quality or misleading or just plain wrong. You have to find the hidden gems which are hard to come by. That’s where Unreal Online Learning comes in. Epic is frequently releasing official courses and tutorials on various aspects of the engine, and it is getting better and better every month.

You take the time to share your knowledge and engage with your community. How important is it for you to build a community with both established and upcoming artists? Do you think this kind of connection with fellow practitioners is vital to keeping up with new technologies?

When I started my channel in December 2020, I never expected it to grow like it has. To me it started off as a “Oh I should try this YouTube thing” as a way of keeping myself on my toes with the latest releases. Part of growing a channel involves engaging with viewers in the comments, and it was highly enjoyable answering people’s questions and issues.

My mother, grandmother, and great grandmother were all teachers, so teaching and helping people understand things always felt like a natural extension of my career.

As viewers were happy to have their questions answered they kept coming back, more and more people joined in, and just like that a small community was formed. I’m working on creating/managing a better platform for the community as we speak, and have exciting plans in the works.

Even if I’ve been using Unreal for over a decade, I still learn new things every single day.

The community that has come together on YouTube has been a wonderful learning experience, especially during live streams. People ask questions I never thought about, they have different philosophies on how to approach things, they suggest tips and tricks I’ve never heard of before. It’s such a fun and humbling experience.

I’ll never ever consider myself a “master” of anything, because there’s just too much to learn. It is so important to stay grounded, and open-minded enough to accept you don’t know everything, and be willing to change your stance on things when a student points something out and makes a compelling argument. It keeps you on your toes and you get better as a result. The pursuit of good art is never-ending and that’s exciting to me.

What was the experience of working on Black Panther like? 

My experience with Marvel on Black Panther was rather unconventional. We worked on the introduction to the movie, the very first scenes you see at the start of the film, and this was absolutely an emergency 911 project.

Marvel called us up and just needed someone to make SOMETHING. They had a storyboard and a loose guideline as to what they needed/wanted. Fortunately, they were not a difficult client to work with, likely due to the emergency nature of the shots needed. This was my first ever project in the film industry and was a fantastic learning experience.

You also worked on the Watchmen series. How, if at all, was it different to working on a feature film?

Honestly, the process is largely the same whether it’s a feature film, a television series, or even advertising. We get the storyboard or live-action plates, the number of shots we need to work on, and we just focus on the CGI. The shots rarely have audio so we see them completely out of context.

What is the most important discipline a VFX artist can develop? Is there a practice you wish you had developed early in your career that you now view as vital?

Two things. Learn Houdini. Being familiar with procedural workflows is so powerful, I can’t even begin to explain how useful it is.

The second is probably not an answer most people are going to like because it’s not a tangible thing you can just study or learn. That’s developing a good eye for art. It’s vague, I know, but it is critical for a skilled artist to have an eye for what looks good, and more importantly, why it looks good. I know lots of fantastic artists who are skilled from a technical perspective but they hit a plateau because their eye for detail isn’t there. This is why I firmly believe that picking up photography as a hobby is SO helpful to your growth as an artist. First off it gets you out of your office. Second, it forces you to think in different ways, yet it remains relevant to the work you do on a daily basis. It forces you to pay attention to things you otherwise wouldn’t even consider.

Faucher’s photography helped train his eye.

Go get a camera (a real one, not your phone) and go shoot. Go shoot anything.

Get a macro lens and shoot insects, buy a flash and play with light, get your hands on a tripod and go shoot landscapes at sunset. I guarantee you’ll grow as an artist as a result and you'll get some valuable fresh air away from the screen.

What projects are you working on now? Do you have personal projects on the go?

At the moment my YouTube channel has my full attention as far as personal projects go. But I try to have at least one side-project going on at any given time. It’s always been my personal projects that got the most attention and made the biggest waves online. Client work pays for the bills, personal work is what gets your name out there and puts you on the radar.

You're helping develop the curriculum for CG Spectrum's new course. What skills do hope to pass on to students? How do you believe this course will help them throughout their career?

I’m currently working on setting up the world building course where I hope to pass on not only the technical know-how, but also the foundational elements of art.

I see a lot of students who are familiar with the latest tools. They have solid technical understanding of things but lack the key fundamentals of art.

As I’ve said before, knowing what looks good and why is one of the most important things to know. But it’s overlooked because it’s not as attractive or exciting as the latest plugins or latest features a program has. This is one of the things I aim to pass on to students.

What are the most common challenges for students just starting out in Unreal Engine? What is your advice for anyone trying to establish themselves in the industry?

The biggest hurdle students and newcomers to the Unreal Engine come across is often the counter-intuitiveness of the tools, especially if those people come from a film/VFX background.

In VFX things are so clear-cut, standardized and globally understood. And when newcomers arrive in Unreal Engine things are so out of wack, different terms are used, tools are built in such a different way, that they get completely confused and lost. They feel like they need to start from zero all over again even if they are veterans of the film industry. I’m not going to lie, Unreal is weird. But that’s where I try to bridge the gap. I’m familiar with it, and I’m familiar with the requirements of VFX artists. I try to be a translator of sorts, for lack of a better word.

My advice for newcomers is read the documentation. Epic provides some very up-to-date docs on their website, and explains things very well. Unreal isn’t exactly the most intuitive tool so don’t expect to just naturally pick things up, you’re going to have a bad time.

And lastly, networking. Don’t underestimate the power of knowing the right people. Don’t be a dick, because you never know who knows who. Knowing the right person, and being on their good side can mean the difference between getting that dream job, or sending out hundreds of new job applications.

Connect with William Faucher on Instagram and get an up-close look at Unreal Engine through his excellent tutorials on YouTube


Learn realtime technical art and virtual production!

CG Spectrum is thrilled to be working with William on an innovative new real-time technical art and virtual production course. Students will learn Unreal Engine and surrounding pipelines including basic rigging and animation, plus how to build film quality environments, lighting, and atmospherics. Be the first to hear about it when it drops!

REGISTER YOUR INTEREST

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Tags:   Visual Effects ,   Unreal Engine ,   Virtual Production
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