Best practices for working with practical and digital effects

By Andre Bustanoby

As a follow up to a short interview postPerspective did with MastersFX about working with and integrating practical and digital effects, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some insights and guidelines for producers, directors and artists who wish to blend both art forms within their film and TV projects.

Start With a Plan and Make Decisions Early
Because of today’s digital tools, it is now possible to create any image one can imagine… if one has the time, resources and talent, of course. However, despite advances in technology, big-screen images that were developed in the era before computer filmmaking came along can often be the most visually satisfying, even today.

Of course in the pre-digital era, there were fewer VFX-driven films and they generally took
several years to prepare, shoot, reshoot and finish, but the tangible nature of those physical effects and the resulting imagery is hard to dismiss today. This look and feel is the first thing that is often lost by using many of today’s current technology/digital tools.

Within the past few years, CGI created characters have often been castigated for appearing too “cold” or “unreal,” while, at the same time, we often forget that even the golden era of cinema gave viewers a number of bad rubber monsters. In context, big-screen illusions from the world of practical, on-set VFX vary in quality, but the common thread of all good VFX production is planning, quality design and, ultimately, follow-through.

Historically, films such as American Werewolf in London, The Empire Strikes Back, The Thing and 2001: A Space Odyssey worked so well because the artists involved in those projects used the best tools available at that time to their best effect. The same can be said for many movies of the more recent digital era, films like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Gravity. Each of these VFX artists used the best technology at their fingertips to create the illusions, often mixing the mediums of digital and practical effects, so as to keep the audience’s disbelief suspended. Many of these artists even created new technologies along the way — new techniques by which to best integrate their practical elements with their digital or miniature creations.

From Hemlock Grove

From Hemlock Grove, a show MastersFX and dMFX worked on.

The advent of digitally produced characters and environments has been a tremendous leap forward for the filmmaker who wishes to provide a truer look and feel for the final image. This plasticity can come at a cost, however, as it is an unfortunate truth that full-CGI creations require that everything be synthesized. Because of the ability to manipulate the image up to the last minute digitally, creative leaders tend to push back many of their decisions until the very last minute, often leaving little time to get the required quality. This quickly becomes expensive, the quality isn’t up to par, and it becomes frustrating to all involved.

The solution? Proper planning prevents poor performance, and whether a character is being created with practical or digital VFX, the look and feel of the image should be decided early. More than just an idea and a start date are required. Christopher Nolan, during the Dark Knight trilogy, noted that whenever something real was photographed, even if only as reference, the quality of the post-digital work improved. In many ways, this is a throwback relationship to the early days of digital, which at that time could not create certain desired imagery. Digital post now has complete control over the image, but the inclusion of practical elements helps ground the image in reality. However, this only occurs when the filmmaker is knowledgeable as to how to use them properly.

A proper, and well planned out mix of practical techniques with digital effects provides a visceral result. Practical effects are usually more cost-effective techniques. Note to any producer who may read this: you should know that better quality for your characters can cost much less if that character is real and filmed live on the set. Digital post is not always necessary to create a compelling and fun new character.

Be a Politician, and Shoot Some Elements
So there the production sits, on-set. Cameras, lights, actors, trucks, craft service and so on. The director yells “Cut, print it.” Quickly the assistant director is scrapping the light set-ups, moving the crane, tearing down the set for the next set-up. Everyone is doing their job, except the VFX team — who just had their reason for being on-set in the first place torn down in front of them.

Our tip? Save the lights, and shoot some more elements exploding! Run the camera longer than the take, shoot all your tests, have the actor make some faces in front of the camera. For the sake of (later) sanity, make an agreement with the AD for some time at the end of the shot for the “VFX guys.” Shoot some in-between actor setups, or let them understand your needs. Short moments like these can yield so much later!

Here’s our thinking: All of this money has already been spent to set-up this scene, all the crew is there, and it can all be for naught if the effect fails and isn’t convincing. A VFX person should get into the productions’ decision cycle early on and come prepared with all the things he/she will need to shoot visual elements. It is very important to get as much on-set footage as you can, even if it goes unused — as this expensive moment will not happen again.

If it is your job to ensure the quality of the effects work, endear yourself to the production team. Let them know that you are a solution to their problems. When you have that relationship, they will help you solve your problems as well.

Shoot Lots of Reference
Keep a camera and a measuring device on your hip while on-set. Camera phones with High Dynamic Range capability and a flash are akin to Star Trek tricorders for you. So using your phone, a standard SLR, and a measuring device, be sure to photograph and measure everything you can.

On-set for Hemlock Grove

On-set for Hemlock Grove

If you are doing special effects makeup, then make sure the VFX folk are your best friends. They will get lens and lighting information, and you will have measurements of the real thing. If it comes to recreating the set-up, you will need their lights and camera information as much as they will need your puppets for measurement. There is likely a production photographer and continuity person on-set as well, so continue to make friends.

In years past, it used to be fine to get standard front, side and three-quarter photographs of characters, but now in this age of digital photogrammetry, the more photos the better. Think of yourself as a video camera shooting at 4fps. Overlapping imagery and set walk-throughs are now a cornucopia of information your post teams will want. This can often stand in place of LIDAR scanning teams, or even sending puppets and actors out to be scanned (though all of those solutions produce high quality).

Remember: Wasted reference material is better than none at all.

Trust the Artists More Than the Tool
With the integration of practical effects on a film or TV set, there is a tendency for the producers to hire the best people for the job, and work as a team to get it right. It is like any other performance, but it is often not in realtime. Sculptors, electricians, animatronic designers and prosthetic applicators are all artists who also need to be properly cast — as much as the lead actor. The same is true for your digital post team.

It is not customary for a knowledgeable director or producer to think that the foam rubber did an effect, and that the artist merely had to pour it. Nor should it be construed that the computer does the work for the digital artists that drive it. These are tools in the hands of the artists, and there are many who wield both to produce fantastic artwork.

Makeup artists can benefit from learning the capability of digital tools when they are planning their effect, and the digital artist can only benefit by knowing how something is manufactured in reality. By working together with these tools, as opposed to working at cross purposes, the film or TV project will ultimately get a better product.

Artists working in the visual and special effects industries today must educate themselves in multiple disciplines to get the best result. If you are a producer or director, encourage your digital artists to work with clay, and encourage your sculptors to pick up a pressure sensitive digital tablet. Expanding skill sets makes your team more valuable to the production, as the work is more on target with the original plan.

The Artist Creates What You See
Teach them. Work with them. Mold them and their input, as they mold new realities for your project.

Set Aside as Much Time in Post as You Did in Prepro
The practical side of “creating creatures” is also seeing shrinking deadlines. The point is that this is a creative endeavor, and is not something that is manufactured overnight. Yes, digital manufacturing and no sleep for anybody does make things go faster, but those are a cost to the production and to the lives of the artists involved on the project.

Andre Bustanoby

Andre Bustanoby

A lack of time also creates a lack of trust amongst the pre- and post-VFX teams. Phrases like “they are going to replace it anyway” or “why didn’t they just make that and shoot it instead of making me do it from scratch?” are commonly thrown around when it’s too late, all because no one gave these artists sufficient time.

It is incumbent among the practical and digital artists involved on your shoot to make their process as efficient as possible. Truncating production resources allows for more artistry, and keeps the creative teams motivated.

“Punching” hair via practical methods, or rotoscoping hair via digital methods can be massive drudgery either way. But by integrating the best methods into your production, you will speed up the process while maintaining quality. In the end, this will benefit the production, and that’s always the bottom line.

Andre Bustanoby is VFX and Digital MakeUp FX Supervisor at MastersFX and dMFX, located inLos Angeles and Vancouver, BC.

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