By OLIVER WEBB
Images courtesy of Gaia Bussolati and EDI.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By OLIVER WEBB
Images courtesy of Gaia Bussolati and EDI.
Gaia Bussolati was born in Turin, Italy and followed an academic path focusing on ethology, art and mathematics. She spent her university years between Turin and Hannover, Germany, eventually graduating with honors in architectural design while showing strong interests in design, modeling, photography, scenography for theatre and cinema. “My journey was quite unusual,” Bussolati remarks. “My university studies lasted quite a while. In the meanwhile, I started working on the set of an Italian movie as a production design assistant, and I found the days were long and the hours very long. I was preparing the set, working on set and managing the next day’s set. That process was quite boring for me. One day. some VFX people came on set with a greenscreen. That seemed fun, and I realized that it looked more interesting than production design.”
Bussolati continues, “I never studied 3D modeling, since in university they had the motto: ‘First you sail with sails, then you add a motor.’ So, after meeting VFX guys, I thought I could finish my university and at the same time have some experience in the field. I changed the title of my thesis to something more fun than ‘Use of Corrugated Sheets,’ and magically I found a professor who accepted my new project, ‘How to Design Unfeasible Spaces.’”
Bussolati started collecting materials – books, interviews, movies – trying software and finding herself to be quite good with computers. In 2001, she got in contact with a new company, EDI Effetti Digitali Italiani. “I had a one-month stage – at the time we worked a lot – and it was extended to a six-month stage. After this I was a quick modeler, using a software called bStudio from Buf company. The two founders, Francesco Grisi and Pasquale Croce, had worked for Buf and had a partnership,” Bussolati notes. After working as a production design assistant and modeler, she steered into the role of VFX supervisor.
Blade Runner was an early influence. “The first time I saw it I was a child, and it was really touching and something new. I started digging into more science fiction. After that, a really interesting point was Fight Club. The founder of EDI worked on Fight Club, and that really made me question how it was done. The Matrix was also very influential. You think of ways of doing something and you can’t find any. At the beginning of my career, they were all projects where I’d love to have done that kind of magic.”
Having worked extensively in the Italian market, Bussolati worked on The Proposal in 2009, which marked a shift towards working in Hollywood cinema. “The Proposal came through friends of my two bosses, the co-founders of EDI. Some friends of theirs said they had a shot left and they didn’t know how to do it. I had very little time to do it. It was really the first time I was measuring with the high quality of American movies, compared to the low quality and low-res of advertising at that time (we were used to working with PAL format in advertising). It was quite challenging. It was a really small scene, but it was our first official movie in the U.S.,” Bussolati says.
Although Bussolati and the team at EDI provided work for The Proposal, their first substantial movie for the U.S. market came in 2015 with Fathers and Daughters. “The director, Gabriele Muccino, is a friend of ours. They needed the Twin Towers in the movie, so we reconstructed New York at day and night. We added New York skyline to Pittsburgh, as it was shot in Pittsburgh,” Bussolati notes. From there, Bussolati worked on a number of acclaimed series, including Mozart in the Jungle, A Series of Unfortunate Events and American Gods. Bussolati reflects, “Creatively speaking, one of our best experiences was for one scene of one episode of American Gods. It was for the final season. We were working long hours every day because we had to figure out in one month both creative and technical aspects. Despite the challenges, it was a great team that brought everybody very close together. We’re quite famous as a company for impossible missions.”
Bussolati also worked on blockbusters Black Adam and Jungle Cruise. “For Black Adam, the shots were very well done. When I watched it, I realized how technically and aesthetically wonderful they are. Compared to other projects, I don’t have the same affection because that was really a team job. It wasn’t something I did on my own with my hands; it was more making people do them, giving technical and artistic indications and saying what I wanted done. However, it was a great result,” Bussolati observes.
“Jungle Cruise was a nice project for us. It was the first time that we worked with Disney. It was a lot of work and a long process for us due to COVID. They stopped production because Jungle Cruise was made to advertise the [Disneyland] park for Jungle Cruise [the ride], and they couldn’t release the movie as the park hadn’t opened due to COVID. That was such an incredible job. It was bluescreens and CG swords, and a good example of our invisible work. That’s the downside of well-done VFX in a photorealistic context. Obviously, with science fiction movies this doesn’t happen because the work you do is more evident since you need to create things that don’t actually exist.”
Another large-scale Hollywood production Bussolati worked on was James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari. “We made a few shots and collaborated with [Production VFX Supervisor] Olivier Dumont,” she says. “The fun fact here is that we had the chance to be on set, myself and [VFX] Producer Rosario Barbera. We were in L.A. for some appointments with production companies, we called Olivier and he was on set and told us to join him. It was a great experience since the set was impressive for its size and technological equipment.”
Despite the shift towards mainstream Hollywood cinema, Bussolati frequently continues to work in Italian cinema and goes back and forth between the two. “We continue to work in the Italian market because we are based in Italy and have lots of contacts here, so that comes naturally. We enjoy working on our best directors’ movies. We also have good ideas, so it’s important to have a base. Essentially, there are three good reasons for Italian projects: firstly, local network; secondly, if it’s a good project then that’s a bonus; and lastly, it can lead to something else, such as working with [Italian director Gabriele] Muccino on international films, for example. We also like to work with new talents and others who are looking to help the Italian market grow. There is a younger generation that is trying to use VFX as an instrument of communication instead of managing just contingencies, plus the percentage of budget dedicated to VFX is rising also in Italy,” Bussolati explains.
“The international market raises the stakes for sure because you have to be very precise,” Bussolati continues. “The quality is higher and the results are higher. I like the way they collaborate which is more typical of international movies. I absolutely enjoy the variety of work, as I get bored very easily. Mainly, I try to work on one big project at a time, but many inputs coming from different movies gives me the chance of cross-thinking, which is ideal to optimize results or simply to ignite new ideas.”
Bussolati was nominated for an Emmy in 2021 for her work on episode “Ignition” of The Nevers and was nominated again in 2023 for the episode “It’s a Good Day.” “The Nevers is the biggest project I worked on,” she adds. “It was six-plus-six episodes during COVID. They shut the production, and we kept going over the effects. Johnny Han, the main HBO Visual Effects Supervisor, came over to Italy to get to know us, see the offices and how we work. At one point, Johnny called us and asked us to make the set extension, and it was a lot of work. It was mainly to reconstruct London in the Victorian era, but they shot in London and on stage. During COVID, they shot mainly in a theater and didn’t have enough people or distancing, so there were lots of crowd replication. It was really complicated and took longer than we thought. We worked for one and a half years on that project. We saw the work of the people that were working there as Johnny was finding the right people for every sort of work that had to be done in the series. Explosions for one company, set extension was down to us at EDI, and creatures for another one. Finally, we connected all of our work and there was a really big show. The first six episodes were a lot more work for us, in comparison to the final six. It was simpler afterwards. At that point we had many assets of London. The last episode we had to construct a bird’s view of all London and suburbs, which was very tough. We didn’t really collaborate with other companies, but at the end we were sharing shots with other companies. So, we were crossing links and elements, which was quite interesting and made us feel part of a bigger world. That was fun.”
Looking back over her career, Bussolati holds particularly fond memories for her work on Terry Gilliam’s short film “The Wholly Family” (2011). “We were in Naples and I was there with him and the production. Pastificio Garofalo was the main production company. I spent one week with Terry Gilliam, which was adorable. That experience in particular was life-changing for me because at that time I understood what type of person I wanted to be professionally and humanly. That means staying away from a super-achieving attitude and unfair aggressive behaviors in order to reach power and success.”
Since starting her career at EDI, Bussolati notes how VFX tools and technology have developed. “The situation has changed a lot. In terms of time and effort, to achieve the same result there is a huge ‘zero time’ and ‘just a button’ change. But we don’t want the same result – ED [EasyDraw] files are bigger and heavier. Reality perception is also so improved in the viewer that many good movies now appear old or grotesque. There are now so many ways to reach the result, so many tools and software that I would say the effort is now increased, even though the computers are now very powerful and not that expensive anymore. The new era of artificial intelligence is a window of new opportunities, and we are very curious – and also so scared – about the possibilities that AI brings.”
Regarding being a woman in a male-dominated industry, Bussolati comments that her feeling is that equality was a clearer concept in the ‘70s; nowadays, every effort to be equal is overcomplicated, over-named. “The industry surely remains male-dominated, but my perception is that everybody is now realizing that there are wider conversations that need to be tackled. I spent 23 years working in the VFX field, actually in the same company, EDI. Now I’m a partner of the company with Francesco Pepe, Head of VFX, Stefano Leoni, Head of Supervisors, and CEO Francesco Grisi. I’m a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Visual Effect Society. I also vote for European Film Awards and David di Donatello [Italian industry awards].
“I spend a lot of time watching movies, but I also stay curious on what are the quality levels artistically, aesthetically, technically, etc. With this work, I need to see, watch, observe a lot, come up with questions about everything and stimulate my fantasy in every way possible. I look for beauty in the world. I find enthusiasm in things big and small. To this point I really like a quote from Dorothy Parker: ‘The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity,’” Bussolati concludes.