From truck driver to VFX technical director: Meet DNEG’s Alexandru Budulan
Alexandru Budulan is a career-change success story. Originally pursuing a career in the transport industry, Alexandru’s work as a truck driver left him feeling “incomplete”. So at age 27 and with a family to support, Alexandru enrolled at visual effects school, Escape Studios, with hopes of turning his hobby of photorealistic VFX into a career. After graduating, he landed a role at studio DNEG, where he has since worked on films such as the computer-animated blockbuster, Ron’s Gone Wrong. The experience has proved to him that good things come to those who wait: “Having the whole world see your work is a fantastic feeling”. We speak to Alexandru about patience, perseverance and why failure can be the most important teacher of all.
Visual Effects Technical Director, DNEG
FX Technical Director, Union VFX (2019–2020)
“In my previous career I was a truck driver, driving the big 44-tonne trucks.”
Place of Study
BA with Integrated Masters, The Art of Visual Effects, Escape Studios (2016–2020)
What I do
How would you describe what you do? And specifically what you do at DNEG?
At DNEG I am currently working as an FX technical director. I get to have a lot of fun doing the dynamic interactions of characters and the environment, which makes them blend with each other better. I also do other type of effects ranging from anything that has to do with water, fire, particles and solid objects colliding with each other.
Before this, I was involved in a project where we were using Unreal Engine, which is a real-time game engine also used in virtual production, animations and VFX, so my role there was an Unreal technical director. This project was great to work on because we were reshaping how we approach the production for an animated film, which is different from the traditional way of doing animated movies. We get the rendered images live in comparison to other render engines which can take even a few hours to get just one rendered image. Obviously this also has its own caveats, but it was great to see the possibilities this can bring to future shows.
What recent project at DNEG are you most proud of?
I’ve had a chance to work on three great projects, two of which that are now released. These are Ron’s Gone Wrong [above] and Mr Spam Gets a New Hat, the latter of which is the Unreal Engine project I was mentioning previously.
I can say that I am proud of both projects, because I got to work with very talented people from across the world and each project was a unique experience. I am grateful to have been part of these projects; having the whole world see your work is a fantastic feeling and very rewarding.
“Having the whole world see your work is very rewarding.”
What kind of skills are needed to do your role? And would you say you need any specific training to do what you do?
I would say that one needs a very good understanding of the movie making process – or should I say, the pipeline, which is the term used in VFX to describe the process in a single word. Attention to detail and problem solving skills are also good to have in this industry.
In terms of training, I did a masters degree in The Art of VFX at Escape Studios, but this is not a must as there are other short courses that can teach you the skills needed. I have chosen this path because I wanted to have a degree in VFX and also wanted the uni experience which was great. I also had a bad experience with a previous college and wanted to go and study in a place that had a great reputation.
If you could pick one GIF to describe what it’s like to work at DNEG, what would it be and why?
[Below] I would choose this GIF because we are a team. I am constantly surrounded by great, talented people, each one bringing their own skillset to fill in the skill puzzle and contributing to making great movies.
How I got here
How did you land the job?
I landed my job by having a good showreel as a student, showing attention to detail and problem solving skills, and showing that I can do different types of dynamic simulations for water, fire and rigid body collisions. I achieved all of this by working hard and constantly learning by either watching tutorials or experimenting with 3D tools that I had to learn within different software.
At the start I was waiting to be spoon-fed because I had no clue what I was doing, but then I realised that this is not enough for me and wanted to know more in order to develop the skills that I wanted to have. And not to mention the late nights on my computer, sometimes I was going to bed at two or three in the morning. As VFX was a hobby for me, I enjoy every second of it, whatever I do.
A tip I would give to anyone wanting to dive in this field is make sure you love what you’re doing and don’t give up when you’re failing at different tasks. No one knows everything and this is an industry where everyone is constantly learning how to do things. Keep calm and keep going!
“No one knows everything; this is an industry where everyone is constantly learning how to do things.”
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
My journey started when I decided to chase my dream job and do what I love. Previously I worked in a transport office as part of the management team. I was a truck driver before that and, even though I gained a lot of experience and was very confident in what I was doing, I felt incomplete; I knew that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. So I went back to my hobby as a kid, which was adding 3D elements to real photos or footage and making it look photorealistic.
When I started uni, I didn’t knew how to use 3D software and at the beginning it felt overwhelming – but with time and constant learning I started climbing the learning curve and doing the things that felt impossible at first. Yes, it took some time to learn, maybe because I started uni at 27, but I was determined to change my career and leave truck driving behind.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
This is a tough one as there are many things that inspire me, but I would start with these.
First is the great work that my fellow peers at university did. We all started with almost no skills, so seeing them being creative and bringing all their ideas to life as they gained knowledge was very inspiring. I’ve seen some masterpieces from my colleagues and this is something that I will always miss.
Second is CGWiki, a website where newbies can find a lot great resources to start understanding how the wheels spin in FX.
Third is nature. It’s a great inspiration for me. Seeing how nature behaves and moves, as well as its imperfections always gives me ideas on what to try to replicate, and an understanding of its forces.
“It felt overwhelming, but with time I started climbing the learning curve, and doing things that felt impossible at first.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Having the patience to continue studying and learning was my biggest challenge. In my uni days I had a lot of moments where I felt like giving up. As a person that had a family, I wanted to see quick results and to jump in a job and get going. But sometimes, different tasks wouldn’t create the result I wanted, so there was always this thought of giving up and going back to what I knew how to do. I had quite a few failures along the way, but continuing my journey brought great rewards, hence my job at DNEG.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Focus on developing a core group of skills. Be good at this, and the money will follow. In my uni days I tried to learn everything, and my FX tutor kept telling me to focus on just a few skills because otherwise I will have a hard time landing a job or making good money. This advice was also given to me by a couple of ex-colleagues that I worked with in the past. So I took this to heart and did just that. You will gain other skills as you gain experience in industry, and this always brings better money.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Have patience when developing your skills. Being a junior and not being at a more advanced level can be frustrating, but with continuous development at work and at home you will polish your skills and get better. Also ask for advice, don’t just sit in a corner not wanting to bother anyone. Ask questions to your peers, they’ll be more than happy to give you the support needed.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
To anyone trying to follow a similar path to mine, I say: experiment, build up your patience and don’t be afraid to fail. By failing, we learn how to do things, and as one gets better, you will fail less. I still fail at doing certain things, but that doesn’t mean I stop everything I do. Try a different approach and keep going.
Mention Alexandru Budulan
Interview by Lyla Johnston