Spider-Verse 2D FX Artist Slava Lightsoul on Learning VFXJun 16, 2023
Slava is an amazing 2D FX animator and background artist. He talks to VFX Apprentice about his work on Across the Spider-Verse and his new 2D FX course.
This is super special for me because I got the chance to talk with Slava Lightsoul, an incredible effects artist who makes some of the most beautiful work that I know of. He's really insanely talented. He's also super humble and down to earth. You'll know his recent work on Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse, which just came out and it's gorgeous and amazing.
Slava's FX frames from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse via Sony Pictures Animation.
Slava is also now one of our instructors, just finishing a new lesson series with us. Ignite just released in VFX Apprentice All Access. It's a seven-second short featuring our mascot Sparker from the original film Alight.
So without further ado, here is the man, the myth, the legend, Slava Lightsoul.
Jason Keyser: Hello, Slava. How you doing?
Slava Lightsoul: Hi, Jason. I'm doing pretty fine. It's a bit hectic, but it's okay.
JK: It's always hectic. So you just got finished on production with into the Spider-Verse two, which I know is a lot of work. You did some effects animation for that, and we've been in touch and known each other for a while before that.
So yeah, I just wanted to chat with you about how that went and your career in general getting up to this point and maybe give some people some ideas of how they might end up working on some cool stuff like you someday.
SL: Sounds good to me.
JK: During all that phase you were doing a lesson series with us. You were so busy. It's funny because you said you're busy now, but you just finished both the film work and the lesson work with us. How was that for you?
SL: It was stressful. It was very stressful because it wasn't just that. I was also doing feedbacks for the courses on the weekends for the students. So it is a lot of time and it does at times feels a bit too much, so probably shouldn't line up too many projects in advance.
JK: Yeah, in your courses, that's even with another site. So that third project that's separate from us. Oh yeah.
SL: Technically it's three projects. Thankfully not all of them exactly at the same time, but my weekends are like Sparker and recording feedbacks for students. My work days were spider-verse. So all the time is busy and all the remaining time is meeting up with friends, catching up with people, trying to say hello and stay active.
JK: Is that typical for your career over the years? Have you had more than one project? Usually at a time.
SL: I usually didn't have more than two, so that's kind of a tough sell, right now. And after that experience, I probably don't want to do that again. So two projects now is three. That's a bad idea. So now it's two projects is manageable. If one is like more personal, or more like on the weekend and stuff, and the main job. But three definitely is a stretch.
JK: Yeah, Yeah. I think it's funny because you know, a person like you with the skills that you have, a lot of people are going to want you to do work for them and they're going to have cool projects. And so it's hard to say no.
SL: Yeah, it's always, Oh, but there is something more.
JK: Well, we're really we are really grateful that you put the time and love into the Sparker piece.
Ignite 2D FX series for VFX-A All Access. Members can watch here.
I mean, it just turned out so great. And, you know, people can go check that out on the site, of course, to see in the all access pass and we have a bunch of preview content for it. So yeah, thanks for doing that.
But then I really want to dive into like how you got here. A little bit about your story. You know what it was. What was your introduction to effects animation and how did you get started?
SL: So it's a long story, but long story short, I started pretty late, so I haven't been drawing since childhood, but I was more into crafting. I did like carving all this stuff, like anything with your hands. I probably did it. I wasn't good at it, but I tried a lot of other things and I only started drawing around like 16 and I also liked it and it's in creative, but I didn't start doing it seriously till 17 or 18. And then I set a goal as at, Oh, I think that's what I want to stick to. I want to stick to drawing, out of all the other creative outlets that I tried, this is probably the one that is going to keep me busy for a real long time.
And I really wanted to improve them. So I kind of set a goal for myself that no matter what I end up doing at Uni and I wasn't able to go to go to Art Uni because partially my parents weren't up to it since I haven't been interested in it and haven't been prepared at all. And also because there aren't as many like grants for our universities in general and the competition is pretty high.
But I'm not very I'm not regretting the decision to go into the arts field. So I actually started in like technical university doing information security or computer science stuff. And on the side every evening I spend drawing going through classes, going through online tutorials, and trying to really structure my learning. And I'm a general analytical person. So when I do stuff, I usually delve very deep into theory and how to practice better, things like how to structure it.
So initially I wanted to do environment concepts and background art, and this is still a thing that I do, but for more for myself. And the second thing that was interested in is anime and especially the sakuga community. So when I started drawing, it was the early stages of that community.
It was pretty much just a tiny batch of people, very few animators here, very few people interested in that kind of thing. Sakuga refers back to the artistic expression of specific animators that stood out in the episode. And this could be any scene, it could be a character animation, could be impeccable effects animation could be beautiful background animation.
And it was mostly concerning the artistic expression. So some different something specific in that animator. And for the longest time I was interested in that myself, but I wasn't up to animation because I saw that I lack skills for it. And to be fair, since I started so late, I did. After spending like five or six years drawing and studying myself, I saw that there was an opportunity to do more animation and I set a challenge for myself, which I called anim-april. So it wasn't an actual challenged. I just made it, made it up myself. So the challenge was to do any kind of small animation that I could manage in a day for, for each day for the entirety of April. So I started with that and I did one animation every day, no breaks for a month. And of course it was really simple, like bouncing balls, falling figures, candles.
And between this period I discovered that I really like applied physics. And the best way to apply physics in drawing and animation is probably effects. So I really like that part. And after that I continue to do animation here and there. I didn't animate everyday, only when I had like a bit more time. In a couple months to a year I saw that there was an internship for a small effects scene, which I failed completely because it was basically done on the job.
You're given a task, so you're given like some kind of smoke effects as a reference. The general style and you should do in effects in that style. This definitely didn't work out great, because you have to battle with how to animate it, because you didn't have this kind of experience. And how to adapt it to the style, a very specific style, and of course as I'm starting out, rookie animators can't do both well. So after that I still tried animation here and there, and tried effects here and there, but it wasn't anything serious here
JK: What year was that? Do you remember?
SL: It was like 2018 probably. In a year from that or something around that, maybe early 2019 I saw an opening. So there was a course here that was created for effects that I was teaching for the past couple of years.
So that was like the alpha release of the course. And it, it was like, okay, so we're looking for guys who want to try effects animation. We don't have a full course yet, but we need some people to take the version of the course. So I was in this test part.
JK: I want to interject here real quick so everyone's clear. Five years before you were working on Into the Spider-Verse two as a professional effects animator, doing some really awesome stuff, you completely failed an assignment at your first gig to do FX.
SL: You can't even call it the first gig. It's like failing an internship.
JK: I think that's valuable for people to know that five years I mean, to me, five years is not a very long time. But you must have been working your butt off for that five years. I mean, it sounds like you were working hard even leading up to that moment, right? You were doing that one month. You were doing all this other practice. I think that's important for people to know that this stuff just takes a lot of time and practice.
SL: Oh, yeah, for sure. I didn't have any creative background before like 17/18. I had to start from the very beginning. Like I spent probably like a couple years doing the line exercises and all the stuff that you need to practice your hand and actually start freely driving and having motor skills and all that stuff.
The first course, so the alpha version of the course. So it was also pretty hectic, but thankfully it was summer, so I didn't have much aside from it. So I did 90% of the course, I did most of the work and I wasn't really good at it. Most of the exercises were passable. I think the only thing that was pretty decent was the explosion smokes I did at like last weeks of the course.
I wasn't an outstanding student. I was just really, really like confident that I want to do this and that I want to try doing this more. And I was meticulous in my practice. So after that I decided that I think this is great, but I definitely feel like that wasn't even close to learning actual skills.
So I set a goal for myself to practice at least every couple of days. So every day or every couple days I would sit down for a couple hours and do studies, sketches of effects like pages after pages.
For a year or two, I was trying FX pretty much every day to every other day. I would take sketchbooks to my lectures and draw in between. So everywhere I go, I, like most kids, can do some scene and study scenes and find scenes to like experiment and try out.
And in this time I was also offered to help alongside the teacher on that course. A day passed so and I started working as essentially an assistant teacher. So after a couple classes. So it's like six or seven months is I was offered to stay in the class as a teacher and essentially I chose to stay because I like teaching in general, I like teaching, I like helping people, I like breaking things down. And I also like learning stuff. And teaching really forces you to understand scenes deeper, to verbalize your thoughts and your learning experience. And it helps you figure things out too, and it also helps you communicate it better.
So I stayed and I was teaching for like three years straight and that was also a up and down back and forth. There were good moments, the tiring moments, but it was good overall. So that's kind of the story. And after a year of teaching, I started working here and there are for small projects like in between in our clean up for FX and something bigger, like in-viz small groups and mostly Riot projects as a freelance artist. So cinematics and stuff.
JK: All the 2D effects artists have done a Riot cinematic at some point I did one. You did.
SL: I did five or six.
JK: That's funny. That's great. So along that way you said you went to university for was it engineering?
SL: So I have a bachelor's degree information security. I have an additional diploma of, like, training diploma. Three years in technical translation, and I have an unfinished master's degree in automation.
JK: Nice. So you are versatile. You've done a lot of things. And you're just so you are roughly five years into your career. It seems to be going well so far. You've been working on some exciting projects. What do you think has been the key to your success? Getting to the point where you get to work on these really cool projects and you know, where people are wanting to learn from you and you can teach and share your knowledge. What has helped you the most to get to this point?
SL: I think in terms of still learning process and everything else, it's really important to stay open and learn from anyone. Like I always am humbled to work with students because even the simplest scenes are also the hardest scenes and it's always really interesting to see how people approach things differently.
And you always find that they are way, way, way more ways to do things in animation. And in general, like everyone has some kind of knowledge that you don't have. Everyone has something unique about their learning process. The way they work, the way they draw, so you can learn literally from anyone and you need to stay open to acquire that knowledge and to be humble, to make sure that, oh yeah, I understand that no matter where I'm at on my journey, everyone else is also valid and their own experience is valid and valuable.
And aside from that, I mean, taking care of yourself is really important because if you're tired or drained, you can be a really good artist. The last is probably consistency, cause unfortunately in art you do have to stay active, you do have to practice and leave time for the exploration part of the process.
JK: I love that. So being open to new knowledge and information, seeking it actively, which is important, be taking care of yourself and your health. Definitely. You needed to be sustainable and then in the end the consistency in your practice. Those sound like good pieces of advice to me. They worked for me too.
Okay, let's talk about the juicy part. Into the Spider-Verse two. How did that happen? Did they just reach out to you randomly? What were you thinking and feeling when that happened, and how was it working on that project?
SL: I think I don't remember who exactly recommended me. I think it was like one of the animators and also Nicola Finizio, the 2D FX lead artist and one of the amazing artists on the Spider-Verse. He saw my portfolio and was pleasantly surprised to see, because he's a foreign effects artist and he keeps track of many others artists and he was surprised that, "Oh, where did this guy come from? I haven't seen anything from him. But the stuff that he has looks already pretty nice." That kind of thing. So that happened and they asked me to join the project. Pretty much.
JK: Nice. And what what were you feeling and thinking when that happened?
SL: I thought it was pretty cool, but also pretty intense and intimidating because as far as the first feature film I was working on and of course you don't exactly know what to expect or how much they're going to live up to the standard and anything else. So it's always a bit scary to start on something like that.
JK: Did that feeling ever go away or were you still feeling that at the very end, like, Oh man, I hope my work is good enough?
SL: I mean, the last part doesn't go that way anyway. I don't think the last part ever go away. It becomes like not as big of a thought in your head, but then after all, you're like, But is it really good enough? I can do better, but I can't right now. So yeah, that's kind of the feeling. It definitely became less scary after working on the project for some time because you understand the expectation, you understand what's what's needed from you, you understand what to do. And that general pipeline becomes more clear. It's just that the quality mark is pretty high.
JK: Yeah, I bring it up because this imposter syndrome is very common where, I mean, I felt the same way at Riot Games. Like who am I to be surrounded by all of these artists that I look up to and do work with them, you know? And it's it comes from, I think, other insecurities and things in my past. I know a lot of artists struggle with insecurity because they put themselves into their work. And so when someone is critiquing their work, it's like they're critiquing me. And, and I think it's different for every artist. Maybe they don't feel that way, maybe you do. But definitely this feeling of like, is it good enough that it's so common? I think, healthy for people to hear that like, oh, okay, I'm not alone. Like other people feel this.
SL: I mean, I'm probably also my worst critic. So no matter what I did, I don't think that I did my best animation yet. Because every time you do something, you see something better. And especially nowadays when I've seen millions of animations throughout my learning, because I also collect a lot of references and such a lot. And of course, compared to the millions and the people who works for 46 years, for all these Disney masters and anime masters who have been doing effects even before I was born, I can't compare to that and I will always keep that in mind.
And I understand this logically, but subconsciously I'm still like, this is not as good as this thing. And I'm looking at it as a reference and I just can't get to that.
JK: Yeah. I mean, it never goes away. And especially with effects, I think there's so much variety in what we do. So maybe you become quite good at one thing, but you've never done a lot of electricity or water or something. There's like something that is new for you, even though you've been doing it for a long time. And that can be overwhelming. It's like, a whole new challenge, but there's nothing like anything I've ever animated before. You know, you've got water swirling around in the sky and then splashing into buildings and it's like then it comes down and goes back up again. And I'm like, I don't know. I've never, ever done anything like it, even after 20 or 30 years. Right?
An effects artist, I think every now and then is challenged in a whole new way as a total beginner and you kind of have to go into it, like you mentioned earlier, with an open mind of like, okay, where can I learn, who can I learn from? I just need to apply in practice and put the time in.
SL: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I it, it's always a challenge, especially if you try something new or it's a new project and maybe there is something totally unfamiliar and you need to be patient with yourself because when you're learning something for the first time it takes like three times more, four times more than what you normally get.
And the longer you work on something, the more is scenes that you're familiar. You become faster and more like muscle memory. So don't have to do as much for that. You don't have to prepare as much, you don't have to plan as much. But as soon as you get something completely unfamiliar, like a tornado swirling with fire and transforming into something, and then there is some magical stuff, and then you have to deal with all this new scenes and the more new stuff there is the longer it takes and the more planning and preparation you have to do, you have to really research it.
JK: I'm curious for the for this project specifically, what was your favorite part about working on Into the Spider-Verse?
SL: I think the favorite part is the couple ideas that I did for the main villain, Spot. So unfortunately, you, you won't see them exactly. But I still think that the FX that Quentin [Marsollier] did for the character are really interesting because the character is so unique and so it's not a common effect and it's nothing that you usually see.
JK: You're vague enough that you're respecting the spoilers, you respecting the movie, but you're specific enough to give us an idea of like imagine in our head of how cool that would be to do effects for the main villain in a very popular film. That sounds really cool. Sounds like a lot of fun.
SL: All the animators bring their own stuff to the table. So of course it's always collaborative.
JK: That's important to remember the team aspect. I think that's something that is easy to underestimate, you know, I mean, these are teams of hundreds of people on these big productions and everyone is so talented and everyone puts their own voice. It's like a choir that all sings together and everyone has their part to play. I think that's really beautiful. I think that's one thing I love about collaborating on these projects. Did they have like regular meetings where you were like meeting up with the team, seeing updates on the film? People are curious how it works behind the scenes.
SL: Yeah. Like a lot of the projects where you're staying for long term, they have like daily or a couple times per week meetings where you discuss your shots, see what others are doing, and on longer projects like much longer than a couple of months this is a usual occurrence. So it's a pretty normal practice and it helps you set the standard.
So you want to be a strong FX artist, but usually you want to work with stronger effects artists. So you look at their stuff and you're like, oh, so that's how you do that.
JK: So you're surrounded by other talented artists, even though you're working remotely, right? Yeah, very far. Remote in a totally different time zone. But you're seeing their work on a regular basis, and I think you're right. That's very valuable.
So just to kind of wrap it up, like, is there anything else that you want us to know about what it's like working on a feature film and also, is there any advice you have for people that want to eventually work on big projects like this?
SL: I mean, we can talk a tiny bit about challenges of 3D animation in general. Working on like on the edge between 3D and 2D animation. So this is an additional challenge of being an animator on any projects like this, even on Riot cinematics, because when you are working with a 2D show with a 2D layout, you're drawing effects on a static background most of the time, unless it's anime action scenes.
But again, it's not in every action scenes that you have full animated background. So most of the time you're working on the static layout. So you only have to make sure that the effect is in the environment and in the right place. When you're working with 3D, when you're working over essentially an export of movie like a PNG sequence that is already like in perspective with a camera move, with established character interactions, with objects, you have to do every scene and make sure that every matches with other stuff already in the scene.
So you have to match scenes with the characters that are all there. You have to make sure that the effect interacts with the characters in the 3D stage. That it matches the camera move, that it matches the perspective. If there is a lens change, you have to make sure that there is distortion or some kind of effect. And also how the scenes that are more specific to 3D animation or more dynamic 2D animation, where you have a fully animated scene in perspective.
So that is a big, big challenge because a lot of effects artists, especially if you're coming from a game background or something like that are more used to doing sprite animation, or scenes that are more flat and don't interact much or don't confine to perspective match. And when you're working on action like that, it's a really big challenge to make not only good stylistically good effects and all those effects that look good, but also the effects that are coherent to the environment that don't feel out of place that don't move out of place and that really match the feeling of the scene and also the perspective of it.
JK: Amazing. That sounds like a really fun and challenging challenge. Combining 2D and 3D together like that. That's awesome. So I mean, what would you say would be your advice to people who aspire to work on this kind of stuff? That's what I want to do. I want to do 2D effects in an epic 3D film or television cinematic universe. What should they be doing to get there?
SL: I mean, try it out. You can do FX on video. It's pretty much a similar scene. You can make something out of a recording of yourself. Over is a favorite video that you found somewhere. Like you can just take any background with a camera move and animate effects with that and you will see the challenges very clearly.
And this will give you an understanding of where you're weakest points are and what you need to study more. And if you have time to study, put some time into understanding the craftsmanship and the forms that goes there. So it's really just foundations. It's funny because one of courses by Milena Gonçalez, she did 2D FX Meme Lab, where she's like, here's a meme like a video and put effects on top of it. I saw value in that exercise and I was like, this is actually kind of fun because they're memes or they're silly videos or whatever you want it to be. You could do a car driving down the street. Yeah, in cool perspective, you could do like flames coming off the wheels towards the camera and it's like, oh, that's like perspective and fun to do. And the end product is kind of cool to share on social media, you know? So it's kind of a triple whammy. Yeah, I would imagine that would be good preparation. That's good advice.
SL: Yeah, that's a pretty good idea because if you are having fun, you're more likely to continue doing it and you really don't have to make something that you don't find fun in your personal exercises because you can always find ways to make it a bit more spicy, a bit more interesting.
JK: It's also validating to hear for anybody who's watching, who's more of a beginner level, who's like, perspective, what is perspective? It's validating to share what your your experience was doing, like the line practice drawings. We have lessons that cover that for beginners and VFX Apprentice All Access perspective assignments for effects artists. Everything is built for effects are specifically in the early drawing series. Sonia Firsova did an amazing job of building out that whole series.
Then of course there's your series which is quite advanced. It's more of a masterclass type with the Sparker animation that took you... that 7 seconds of animation took you how many months?
SL: I mean, we started in late November and we finished by May. November, December, January, February, March, April, maybe like half a year between the job to do 7 seconds. I was doing it on the weekends. Probably like 10 hours a week because it's like 4 hours, one weekend, 4 hours the other weekend, maybe 2 hours in a week.
JK: So it's a ton of time to do 7 seconds. But you also did the storyboarding, the backgrounds, the layout, clean animate, paint, compositing. You did everything
SL: Except sound.
JK: That's right. It doesn't it still doesn't have sound. If anyone wants to hit us up about donating some sound clips. I think maybe someday will become a sound school too. But now we're just focused on FX. I love the advice for anyone who's curious to get started. We have a free training course over on our site. You can go check out. There's a lot of stuff there. There's also a lot of stuff here on the YouTube channel. There's just a lot of things to get you started. I think education on FX has been lacking, or it was lacking when I was a student. We're doing our best to provide, like comprehensive education to take you from absolute beginner to full pro like Slava.
SL: Or better, probably better.
JK: Yeah, maybe we're, you know, I mean, that level of content, it's like there's a massive span of difficulty level. So we're just always adding more and doing our best to keep up with a variety in both 2D effects and 3D effects. So there's a big, big amount of content that needs to be out in the world, I think in order to adequately prepare people for this.
SL: I feel like you've you've done quite a lot already, like compared to when I started like five years ago. There were like two courses in the entire industry on 2D FX. And now we have so much more and we have so much better courses and better information which is great and amazing.
JK: Yeah, it's come a long way and I'm really proud and happy to be a part of that. So and it's just such an honor to have you here and you're so chill and cool and I'm excited to see how you recover and rest after the craziness that you've done. And maybe we'll get to work together again in the future. But thank you so much for being with us.
SL: Thank you.
JK: We'll catch you next time. And have a nice day.
SL: Have a nice day, too.
Slava is great. If you want to check out his work, he's got a lesson series over on VFX Apprentice where you can go learn all of the basics of effects animation from step by step all the way up to the lessons that Slava did, which are quite advanced. But hey, we get you from A-Z. That's all taken care of. Just go check it out.
We're so excited to see you progress on your effects learning journey and we'll catch you around.
Swing into a VFX Apprenticeship
Start Your VFX Apprenticeship
Begin your journey towards mastering FX for games and animation. Join VFX-A All Access and discover cutting-edge 2D, 3D, and real-time FX training.