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Kwan Au & Mikhael Villegas discuss their SVA alumni collaboration 'heaven is real'
November 23, 2020
Still of a CG deer from heaven is real music video

Still image from Mikhael Villegas's (no 4_mat) 'heaven is real' directed by Kwan Au

BFA Computer Art's Administrative and Special Projects Assistant Deanna De Maglie caught up with 2014 BFA Computer Art graduates Kwan Au and Mikhael Villegas about their collaboration for Mikhael’s new album under his DJ name No_4mat. Kwan who works as a CG generalist directed the music video for heaven is real working alongside other BFA CA alumni Richard G Kim ‘07, Jin Fang Jiang’14, Thomas Shek ‘14 and Rui Zhu ‘18 . Mikhael is a content creator, motion designer, VFX artist and musical artist. In our conversation Kwan and Mikhael reflected on the importance of organization, the fun of working on personal projects with friends, and what it's like working as a freelancer.  

Kwan Au

How was directing heaven is real for fellow 2014 BFA CA alumni Mikhael Villegas (No_4mat) and working with other BFA CA alum who helped on the project?

Heaven is real was like a reunion project. I was excited to work with my friends again, some of us graduated the same year. When Mike presented his new track and had complete confidence in me to make the visuals, right away I knew this collaboration would be one of a kind. At first it was a solo mission, from design, storyboard to previs, as production ramped up I asked Jin Fang, Thomas Shek, Rui Zhu and Richard Kim to be part of the team and luckily they were happy to help. We knew exactly how to work with each other, I felt comfortable expressing my vision to them and bounced ideas back and forth. Each person was assigned to build and lookdev a sequence while Thomas was in charge of animating the deer. We held weekly video calls to catch up on everyone's progress, and with each iteration it became more thrilling to watch. Until the last day of delivery we were still rushing to put on the finishing touches and finally handed it over to Mike and his record label. I never would've thought so many years after graduation there would be a project that brought all of us from SVA back together, couldn't have asked for a more amazing team.

How did directing this project you have a personal connection with differ from working on commercial projects?

Directing this project, I had the freedom to explore as much as I wanted, it drove me to find different scenarios, interesting camera angles, set dress composition, light and colors. Even towards the end of the project, when a sequence didn't feel right, I had the power to change it for the sake of the film which wouldn't be possible on a commercial project. I felt that the goal was to give myself goosebumps.

How has your experience been working as a freelance generalist been?

Being a freelance generalist I have the opportunity to visit various studios, along the way I worked with many talented people, they have opened my eyes and each taught me new skills that I will be able to bring with me wherever I go. As a generalist I can join a project at any stage during production and work on different tasks, it helps keep the process interesting and not repetitive. Freelancing is a business in and of itself, for me it’s fun. I am in charge of scheduling my own booking and am responsible for the task given to me. Taking time off and turning down bookings was something I had to learn over time. With no set amount of vacation days, you can easily get lost in a cycle of never ending work.

Here is a link to Kwan Au’s thesis film Nexus which he co-directed with 2014 alumni and current BFA Computer Art faculty member Brianna Franceschini.

What lessons or experiences have stuck with you from your time studying with BFA CA?

A habit that I’ve kept with me since SVA was organization, keeping a clean file structure and uniform naming conventions has helped me on multiple projects and in life. Rather as a Lead or an artist it’s important when working in different studio pipelines that I stay organized, for efficiency and in order for the next person to pick up where I left off, vice versa.

What have been some challenges you navigated working in New York?

Part of the challenge I have is finding my way into a new studio. Even with years of experience, I realize I find myself rotating in a small circle of studios. In order to start somewhere new I would need a recommendation from an inside connection with the perfect timing. Fortunately meeting other artists in the freelance community definitely increases my exposure, many of these connections have brought new opportunities.

What film/animation/vfx work is inspiring you right now? 

Animations made for immersive experiences are what inspires me at the moment, works from Refik Anadol, teamLab, Ouchhh and Marshmallow Laser Feast are truly fascinating. I want to translate my skills into these new media.

No_4mat - heaven is real
‘heaven is real’ is the blissful introduction to No Fear, the debut album from New York-based producer and VFX artist No_4mat. Taking cues from transcendental trance and RPG OSTs, the track sets the scene on the high-definition emotion and maximalist sonic palette that proliferates the album. Drawing from his experience as a special effects artist, No_4mat has assembled a team of CGI artists, including Jin Fang Jiang, Richard G Kim, Rui Zhu, Thomas Shek and director Kwan Au to bring the fantastical sci-fi soundscape of the track to life. No_4mat’s track provides the perfect score for the short, which depicts processes of creation and the spirit of nature in a style that is equal parts Princess Mononoke and Hyper Light Drifter. ‘heaven is real’ is taken from No Fear, which is out now on DISSOLUTE.

Mikhael Villegas

How has making music played a role in your VFX work? 


I think too much of anything is bad even if it's something you love because you risk losing the passion towards it. Making music has given me the opportunity to balance out my audio/visual mind and keep both my passions fresh and help bring even better and newer ideas in both fields.

What was the experience like to collaborate with a friend on such a personal project? 

It was a dream come true! Creating something from scratch audio and visually with one of my long time friends, fruitioning an idea we both had into reality is something priceless - very similar to what senior thesis gave us. We always thought when would be the next time we could have the time to make another personal piece of work, and this was that time.

How has your experience been working in VFX been post graduation? 

It has been a roller coaster ride. I feel extremely blessed to have been given the opportunity to work full-time and freelance at post production companies such as The Mill, Psyop, and MassMarket, to ad agencies such as Sid Lee and Wieden+Kennedy. I have been able to work on diverse projects with so many talented artists. I have been given the opportunity to design graphics for The Weeknd and Travis Scott, to fly out to Paris to do motion graphics for Balenciaga’s fashion week show, to do wire removal and compositing for feature films and now currently making content creation for Mcdonalds. I really enjoy all aspects of VFX which gives the whole experience a wide playing ground.

What lessons or experiences have stuck with you from your time studying with BFA CA?

The most useful lesson I have learned studying with BFA CA is organization is key. Staying as organized as possible whether it's in your After Effects project window, file naming conventions, as well as bookings in your calendar. The organization will be extremely helpful with constant back and forth feedback and will be extremely helpful to any artist picking up your work. The tidiness will be seen and will definitely give you a much better rehire-ability for freelancing.

How did internships play a role in finding your way working in VFX? 


Internships had given me a hands-on feel of how the industry functions between post production companies and agencies. It gave me the opportunity to witness how expert artists work their craft and communicate with clients from storyboarding, to the final touches of a project. It also has given others to see what I can bring to the table and lead to my first freelance gig.


Here is a link to Mikhael Villegas’s 2014 thesis film 92 Dreamin.


What have been some challenges you navigated working in New York?

The most current challenge I had to navigate is working during COVID-19. Freelancing at the beginning of it I was very worried about how I would get bookings since everyone was affected. There were periods of silence with no jobs available in sight, to moments when I had to stack two or three jobs at a time because of my fear of having no idea of when the next one could happen. Even before covid times the freelance lifestyle was like this sometimes but I would say it's more challenging at this moment.


What film/animation/vfx work is inspiring you right now? 

I have recently watched the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” directed by Michel Gondry. Even with the VFX work with a not so large budget achieved throughout the film, it is done so beautifully with success. I am very inspired by the subtleness of the effects and would like to incorporate this feeling in one of my next projects. Meanwhile I am playing “Deathstranding” by Kojima Productions. This game created its own world. Every time I play I am overwhelmed by its development and makes me want to create something just as good.

We all look forward to seeing what Mikhael and Kwan's futures in VFX, music and animation will hold.

You can follow Mikhael @no_4mat and find more of his music here and his portfolio here.

You can find Kwan’s portfolio here.