From a small town in northern Italy to working as a freelancer at Google Creative Lab, the journey of Nicola Gastaldi as a VFX artist and motion designer has taken a long and winding road. We asked Nicola how Cinema 4D helped make it all happen.
Growing up in a tiny, Italian town in the 1980s, Nicola Gastaldi fell in love with video games on the Commodore 64 and music on MTV. The videos by Elvis Costello, A-Ha and Art of Noise were a gateway to a visual heaven, even if Nicola didn’t have any idea how they were put together.
Of that time, he said, “It didn’t take me too long to merge my growing love for computers and music. But that remained just a teenage love for many years, as I simply couldn’t imagine that motion design could be a real job. I don’t have a formal education in design. Back in the day, in Italy, there weren’t any design schools. I actually dropped out of engineering and informatics but I completed communication studies.”
Nicola got his first job as a motion designer in 2005/6 where he used After Effects to track, roto and color correct shots. The more he used it, the more tricky the requests from clients became. He explained, “I used After Effects 6.5 for probably the first VFX shot that I worked on, where a client asked me to roto someone smoking a cigarette and replace the background.”
“After that, I slowly progressed my career as video maker, occasionally creating 2D titles.” Slowly but surely he was moving from 2D to 3D but that brought up the question of which software package to go with. Nicola revealed why he chose Cinema 4D: “It seemed the best option for what I wanted to do. Compared with other 3D tools, especially back in 2008, Cinema 4D was so much simpler to learn.”
These days, Nicola likes the package because of how easy it is to use and how complete it is. He added, “The MoGraph tools are still what I love the most about it.” Of course, part of the attraction of Cinema 4D is how flexible it is when it comes to possible workflows. Nicola worked at Smoke & Mirrors for six years where the company used Insydium’s X-Particles and Jawset Visual Computing’s TurbulenceFD within Cinema 4D. He also got to use RealFlow for a few months.
From 2013 to 2017 he used V-Ray as the render engine inside Cinema 4D, then tried Arnold for six months before moving on to Redshift more recently. His actual workflow varies depending on the project. Sometimes he starts from a treatment done in Photoshop, an animatic in After Effects, going to Cinema 4D and then back to After Effects or Nuke for compositing. Sometimes though, he just finds it easier to start and finish everything in Cinema 4D.
One of Nicola’s recent projects was collaborating with La Valigetta, the Marcus Grimm music label. He listened to Wild, the song by the Italian classical composer, and came up with a music video for it. However, there was no budget and his time was limited thanks to his working hours and having two young daughters at home, so he had to get creative to come up with a solution.
Nicola explained how he brought the project to fruition: “The free assets on Sketchfab proved to be perfect for what I tried to convey with my visuals - amazing photogrammetry models, textured, worked incredibly well as a base. In Cinema 4D and Arnold I then created exciting camera moves and, of course, I lit up the scene with a particular style. I used a Mac Pro from 2013 but thankfully the Cinema 4D viewport responded wonderfully, even with millions of polygons. The render time was quite painful, though, with nights and weekends of boiling CPUs. It took something like 45 days to render everything.”
The project that probably changed Nicola’s career, though, and propelled him to his current role working as a freelancer at Google Creative Lab, was a personal one. It was 100 GIFs in 100 days and called GastaLoops (you can see them all here: gasta.org/portfolio/gastaloops/). It picked up a lot of attention from design magazines like Fubiz and Creative Boom, won prizes at festivals, bagged a Vimeo Staff Pick and even an Excellence Award at Gif Magazine in Tokyo. Every day, for 100 days, Nicola created something new, from scratch, using Cinema 4D or After Effects. He used Sketch and Toon extensively to create a unified look across all the GIFs.
That brings us on to Google Creative Lab itself, which Nicola describes as an incredible studio and very different from any other experiences he has had elsewhere. He said, “It values the in-house talents, giving everyone the opportunity not just to be a designer, a writer, an intern, but always to be a creative. There, I’m a freelance motion designer but I have the chance to be involved in every creative process on every project. And, sometimes, I have the honor to pitch my own ideas, not just related to a video animation, but about product design, app features and so on.”
Each project tends to be completely different, so there’s no particular workflow approach. As a designer, Nicola firstly looks for the creative intention, then chooses the right tool to make it work, whether that’s After Effects, Photoshop or Cinema 4D.
In the last year, he’s used Cinema 4D to create style frames and animations for a 360 video that had to visualize real data collected from self-driving cars. On another project, Cinema 4D was used to build a visual installation. Another time it was to make characters and animation that eventually had to be exported for an AR engine. He used it for data visualization that had to then be converted to a vector animation. Of late, Nicola used it for more photorealistic animations. As he put it: “The options are just infinite and, frankly, so much different from any other agency or studio I have ever worked in.”
Knowing how hard it was to get started in the industry, Nicola likes to put something back in for those coming through the educational system now. He did some workshops to introduce students to Cinema 4D. They were getting ready for their final exam, so he tried to give them another valuable tool for their ideas. He admitted, though, “It’s been a great lesson even for me. I love teaching but it can be quite demanding when you have in front of you 30 people that are starting almost from zero.”
He also did mentoring for the Created Academy, which has a motion design course that teaches technical work as well as the human skills you need to have a successful career. The courses are run in partnership with some of the UK's top creative studios and brands who set real industry briefs for students to work on. So, as well as learning new techniques on each brief, they also learn about the creative process, how to collaborate and how to handle feedback. Each student is then assigned a mentor, which is where Nicola came in, to help them with their projects.
What’s next for Nicola? We asked him where he thought his career would go and he replied, “It’s really hard to answer this question. Probably because life can be quite surprising. Just ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be living in London, with two beautiful children and working as a freelancer at Google.”
“I hope to always have fun, to never lose the interest and to overcome boredom with the ability to do something. On a more practical level, in five years’ time, it would be great if I could be a more established director but with my hands still on the tools, of course. Sometimes I hope to slow down a bit and enjoy my time on a beach, working remotely for an insane amount of money. Which is possibly the dream of every motion designer, isn’t it?”
All images courtesy of Nicola Gastaldi.
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