Artist Spotlight: Ari Rubenstein

Image courtesy of Curv Studios

VFX Supervisor Ari Rubenstein has recently picked up Foundry’s storyboarding tool Flix to support the previsualization process

Having worked at Blue Sky Studios for fifteen years, Ari now works as a VFX supervisor at Break + Enter, a location-agnostic studio that specializes in film and episodic content. Before both, Ari was at Tippett Studio and Xaos, working on blockbusters such as The Matrix, Constantine, Charlotte’s Web and Hellboy over the course of his career.

Despite a series of changes, one thing has remained a constant for Ari: Curv Studios, his self-run studio established in 1998 with brother Jordan. The studio’s repertoire is impressive, covering a broad range of media from IMAX films and game cinematics to 3D animation and VFX. 

“I do side projects as Curv to push technology that I'm inspired by and to tell stories that move me,” Ari tells us. “Both involve techniques that I feel maybe are timely but haven't been explored. Or haven't been explored by me based on my current opportunities at the roles that I've had.”

Off the back of this vision, Ari’s currently working on Small Blue Shadow under Curv—a short film that makes use of real-time technology and Foundry’s Flix for early previsualization storyboarding and editing. “Using Flix, I’ve found that a lot less time is left on the cutting room floor than on my previous short, The Blues Crab,” Ari tells us.

Both Small Blue Shadow and The Blues Crab stand as a labor of love for Ari and come as a compelling watch. “I’m a bit of a junkie with this stuff,” he comments. “I love coming up with ideas visually and intellectually, and I have a lot to express from ten years of running around the country before I even got into the film industry and computer graphics, so I'm trying to express things that move me the most.”

“Right now, I'm trying to learn how to not just get a feeling across but tell a story that would move an audience as much as it moves me. That's the trick of becoming a filmmaker. Being a craftsman and doing a piece in a pipeline is one thing, but trying to tell a story—you're exercising a lot of muscles that you have to learn, so I'm learning it through these side projects.”

Watch below as we catch up with Ari to find out how Flix helped him in spinning a new type of tale, and read on for a deep-dive into the creative process behind Small Blue Shadow and The Blues Crab.


Q: Where do you draw creative inspiration from when starting out on projects like The Blues Crab and Small Blue Shadow?

A: With The Blues Crab, it was as simple as me trying to express a feeling I had growing up going crabbing early in the morning—watching the sunrise, listening to the boats and nature, and then hearing Motown, blues, gospel and soul music. This was an exotic environment for me both visually and intellectually, and so I wanted to just recreate that environment. Alongside this, I wanted to tell a story that is a little bit reflective of how I felt at Blue Sky Studios, as one of the older people. I'm 53 now, and most of the staff was half that—maybe in their mid 20s to early 30s. But a lot of them also hadn't really had lives before their careers, as they had just come straight out of school.

And so with The Blues Crab, you think of a blues man— older and grizzled—who has seen a lot of harsh reality too, with a lot of stories to tell. But as often happens, in all cultures and all walks of life, the younger set doesn't want to hear from their elders, and they think they already know what they need to know. And so you get a little crabby as you get older because no one's listening, and when you finally have something to say that's useful to everyone, the irony is no one wants to hear it.

And then Small Blue Shadow is derived from a really old idea where I had read Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and attempted to translate it visually. My narrative is about being a pawn in a bigger game and then the revelation that there is even a bigger game—the allegory of the cave is a parable on the nature of ignorance and education in society, how we're born, how we come to knowledge, how we eventually get illuminated, and then how we can't really go back home. You can't start in the small town, go to the big city, come back to the small town and expect everyone to hear what you've got to say.

Ari Rubenstein image

Early on I’d see the allegory of the cave in a very literal visual context. It's a notion that I thought I could visually represent in a short film but after years of trying to write it and board it, I couldn't quite make it something for an audience. So then someone said, "Why don't you just take a modern day equivalent of the metaphor?"

Small Blue Shadow in its current form is about a woman that comes from a small town where she was a big shot. She comes to Manhattan and she realizes after working at an ad agency for 10 years that she's living in the shadows and she has no voice, but her body's talking to her. She starts having this serial dream on her commute from Manhattan back to Brooklyn every day, and the serial dream evolves into basically her subconscious telling her what her challenge is in life and how to resolve it and how to make her way out of this labyrinth. But the allegory of the cave is the vision she has in her serial dream.

Ari Rubenstein side-by-side
Ari Rubenstein side-by-side

Q: How does Flix support this creative/conceptual process?

A: I'm using Flix, Nuke and other Foundry tools to flesh these projects out. I begin by writing it all out in a linear fashion. Once I feel confident that this would be entertaining, I get into creating shots. As part of this, I make a shot list as a separate document, and then I set about coming up with a visual for each shot—whether it's a storyboard, 3d animatic or whatever is the easiest way to create the most basic visual that communicates only to me at this point.

I mostly use Flix on its own, because I don't have Avid. For an independent filmmaker such as myself, Flix is a virtue in and of itself. Just using the program while working with storyboard artists is enough. There are features in Flix that facilitate my workflow, that without Flix become much more laborious.

For me, Flix is more of a visualization tool than simply storyboarding or previz. It's like a previz for a visual project manager. I can take all of the DMP shots and put them into something that's like a sequence in Flix so that I can see it all laid out. Then I can use Flix in different ways to combine previz shots and sequences—also a perfect tool for VFX sups who need to engineer and visually reference groups of similar shots. 

Q: Does Flix help you solve any problems you previously faced?

A: If nothing else, Flix saves time. If I'm spending my time doing page layout, printing, cutting things out with an X-Acto knife, putting up on a corkboard, that's time I can't use towards creating the assets and refining the imagery.

The ability to riff visually on multiple ideas is something that is very difficult in most software. Once you know exactly what is needed, there is more than enough software to get the job done. And, there is so much dialogue about real-time editing, with Unreal Engine, and other new tools that seems to lead the way. It’s true, but all you did was flip the pipeline. You still have to create all those assets to be able to go into real-time editing. But to create all those assets, you need to know what assets to create.

Flix comes before all of this. You're not wasting time to even get to the point where you can real-time edit. If I try out things in Flix and I move my boards around, I go, You know what, that's not working. Those story points are absolutely irrelevant now because we made those points elsewhere. Let's cut that out. I don't need the scene in Brooklyn now.

So if I spend all the time developing the scene in Brooklyn, and then I go into editing in Unreal Engine, I'm like, wow, I just spent months and money creating Brooklyn. And now I don't even need to edit with it. So who cares if it's real-time once you've created all the assets.

Ari Rubenstein Flix example

Q: How and when did you start using Flix?

A: When I worked on The Matrix at Tippett, I remember this wall of cutouts tacked up on corkboards. It was like you could go and choose your shot as a compositor. That was my first exposure—just a cork board—so when I started Small Blue Shadow, I did the same thing.

I had all these corkboards on my wall, but the main challenge I faced was: How do I riff on the ideas? How do I cut and move these things around?  It's laborious to create the images again, to try out different edits—so I thought there's got to be software out there.

Many years at Blue Sky, I saw how the editorial and story department worked. They had all these storyboard artists drawing out the boards—a single board for every shot. And then I saw them using Flix, and the way they were connected. They had all this infrastructure—the storyboard artists had Flix connected to the Avid so that the storyboard artists scanned in their image and put it into Flix, then linked that EDL to Avid. At this point, they've got single storyboards that play out with some basic scratch tracks. So I thought, Why don't I do the same thing with Small Blue Shadow?

Once I got Flix, instead of printing out, X-Acto knifing and tacking up on a corkboard, I could lay down all my sequences. For every sequence, I could make new versions where I just could drag the boards around in a much quicker, methodical way to see the linear flow of those boards per sequence. Flix also keeps all the old versions, so I can go back to them.

That was a huge thing for me. I needed a place to work with my boards and try out different iterations of the narrative through different cuts of the sequence. This is even before getting to an editor—this is me getting my head in place and working with my co-writers over the shoulder, using Flix. I’ve been working like this for around a year and a half now.

Flix UI side-by-side
Flix UI side-by-side

Q: Do you have a favorite feature of Flix?

A: I can think of two right off the bat that are hugely beneficial. For example, once I have the sequence laid out in a linear fashion, shot by shot, I can then select every shot and give it a frame count in Flix. I can then select the whole sequence and export that as a single QT to go into my edit in whatever editor I'm using.

My second favorite Flix feature comes when I do want to print something out and share it with others, you can select everything and export a contact sheet as a single image JPEG—that's huge. There's information that Flix will put on it that you'd otherwise have to input manually with texts and entries and anything else. So those are two great features—the exporting of the QuickTime of a sequence with a designation of frame length for each board, as well as an individual context sheet for the rest of the team.

There’s a couple of other features that I really like. The saved edits, for example—with every sequence I might have 25 different edits where I can go back, and those edits are different arrangements of shots, but they're also shots that are gone, that are no longer in the current edit and I can go back and see how they work adjacent to one another.

In line with saved edits is the bin. Everything you've ever imported into Flix is in a bin. So you can go and search on any storyboards, any old shots that you might want to repurpose later—any versions of shots. The bin feature and the saved edits have been huge for me.

I’m just learning Flix now. I wish I had gotten into it earlier, but there were so many other things that I was exploring with other software, trying to learn all of that. It’s entirely possible that Nuke Studio will play a significant role in the final editing stage.

Ultimately, I'd like to thank the Foundry for supporting me for all these years. There's something about a company that keeps a community going and invests in profiling people and projects, and providing the means by which someone does something not for profit—art for art's sake—and how that can potentially inspire others. I think Foundry does this in a very admirable way. 

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