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Digital artist Peter Fiala makes you believe in the unbelievable

Red Deer-based digital artist Peter Fiala has created imaginary worlds for films — but always wanted his meticulous labours to go unnoticed.

The mark of a good visual effects artist, he explained, is to make your personal contributions disappear so that viewers believe these worlds are completely authentic.

Fiala, who instructs in the animation and visual effects program he helped develop at Red Deer Polytechnic, previously worked as a digital artist in Vancouver on many movies — including big Hollywood projects.

He was on an effects team that helped create the thousands of rugby fans seen in arena shots in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, about the unifying effect of a South African rugby team. He also worked on the film Angels and Demons, based on the Dan Brown novel, and created missile launches, explosions, and grasses moving from the turning blades of a landing helicopter — that wasn’t really there — in the film Tropic Thunder.

“If you do a good job, you are supporting the story,” he explained. “The idea is not to have people notice your work, because you’re supposed to make people believe it’s real.”

The most important qualities of visual effects artists are creativity, focus and attention to detail, said Fiala, who takes still takes tons of photos of everything from European statuary to castles when he’s travelling —for future reference.

Visual effects film projects are labour intensive, taking several months or a year to complete, even if they get only a few seconds of screen time. Artists must have patience. “And you need to have understanding that you are going to have to make revisions.”

Fiala admitted he’s made many changes that went against his artistic grain, at the request of a client or employer. “The client doesn’t necessarily have your artistic sensibilities — but he does have the money,” he added, with a chuckle.

The Edmonton native, who also worked for a time in animation and graphic production for start-up companies, originally wanted to be an architect. But he started by taking industrial product design at the University of Alberta, and his affinity for drawing and drafting drew him to eventually expand his education at the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts.

In 2015, he was hired by then-Red Deer College to develop a four-year Digital Effects and Animation Degree program. Only the third such program in Canada, it took in its first contingent of pupils in 2018. There are now about 90 students from as far away as Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Fiala, whose own specialty is creating digital surface effects, encourages students to keep honing their traditional art skills — drawing, colour theory and composition. He noted computers are only the tools to be used, instead of paints, to get their visions across.

He’s excited some students are already landing great opportunities, such as working as applied interns in their fourth year of the program at Industrial Light and Magic (The Mandalorian), and for Sony Pictures (Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse).

“I think our reputation is slowly growing,” said Fiala, who hopes to someday see students from B.C. choosing to come to Red Deer to learn digital effects, instead of going to Vancouver.

Images contributed by Peter Fiala

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