By Karen Maierhofer
It takes a certain type of person to be a director — someone who has an in-depth understanding of the production process; is an exceptional communicator, planner and organizer; who possesses creative vision; and is able to see the big picture where one does not yet exist. And those same qualities can be found in a visual effects or CG supervisor.
In fact, there are a number of former visual effects artists and supes who have made the successful transition to the director’s chair – Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Narnia), Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Rio) and Tim Miller (Deadpool), to name a few. And while VFX supervisors possess many of the skills necessary for directing, it is still relatively uncommon for them to bear that credit, whether it is on a feature film, television series, commercial, music video or other project.
Armen Kevorkian, VFX supervisor and executive creative director at Deluxe’s Encore, says, “It’s not necessarily a new trend, but it’s really not that common.”
Armen Kevorkian (flannel shirt) on set.
Kevorkian, who has a long list of visual effects credits on various television series — two of which he has also directed episodes (Supergirl and The Flash) — has always wanted to direct but embrace VFX, winning an Emmy and three LEO Awards in addition to garnering multiple nominations for that work. “It’s all about filmmaking and storytelling. I loved what I was doing but always wanted to pursue directing, although I was not going to be pushy about it. If it happened, it happened.”
Indeed, it happened. And having the VFX experience gave Kevorkian the confidence and skills to handle being a director. “A VFX supervisor is often directing the second unit, which makes you comfortable with directing. When you direct an entire episode, though, it is not just about a few pieces; it’s about telling an entire story. That is something you learn to handle as you go.”
As a VFX supe, Kevorkian often was present from start to finish, and was able to see the whole preparation process of what worked and what didn’t. “With VFX, you are there for prep, shooting and post — the whole gamut. Not many other departments get to experience that,” he says.
When he was given the chance to direct an episode, Kevorkian was “the visual effects guy directing.” Luckily, he had worked with the actors on previous episodes in his VFX role and had a good relationship with them. “They were really supportive, and I couldn’t have done it without that, but I can see situations where you might be treated differently because your background is visual effects, and it takes more than that to tell a story and direct a full episode,” he adds.
Proving oneself can be scary, and Kevorkian has known others who directed one project and never did it again. Not so for Kevorkian, who has now directed three episodes of The Flash and one episode of Supergirl thus far, and will direct another Supergirl episode later this year.
While the episodes he has directed were not VFX-heavy, he foresees times when he will have to make a certain decision on the spot, and knowing that something can be fixed easily and less expensively in post, as opposed to wasting precious time trying to fix it practically, will be very helpful. “You are not asking the VFX guy, hey is this going to work? You pretty much know the answer because of your background,” he explains.
Despite his turn directing, Kevorkian is still “the VFX guy” for the series. “I love VFX and also love directing,” he says, hoping to one day direct feature films. “A lot of people think they want to direct but don’t realize how difficult it can be,” he adds.
Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull doesn’t see VFX artists as directors as being so unique any more — “there are more of us now” — and recognizes the advantages such a background can bring to the new role.
“The type of films I make are considered high-concept sci-fi, which rely on VFX to help present the vision and tell the story. But it’s not just putting pretty pixels on screen as an artist that has helped me, it was also being in VFX management roles. This meant I spent a lot of time with TV showrunners, film producers on set and in the edit bay,” says Dulull. “I learned a lot from that such as how to deal with producers, executive producers and timelines. And all the other exposure I got in my VFX management role helped me prep for directing/producing a film.”
Dulull has an extensive resume, having worked as a VFX artist on films such as The Dark Knight and Prince of Persia, before moving into a supervisor role on TV shows including Planet Dinosaur and America: The Story of Us, and then into a VFX producer role. While working in VFX, he created several short films, and one of them — Project Kronos — went viral and caught the attention of Hollywood producers. Soon after, Dulull directed his first feature, The Beyond, which will be released the first quarter of next year by Gravitas Ventures. Another, Origin Unknown, based on a story he wrote, will be released later in 2018 by Content.
Before making the transition to director, Dulull had to overcome the stigma of being a first-time director — despite the success three of his short films had online. At the time, “film investors and studios were not too keen on throwing money at me yet to make a feature.” Frustrated, he decided to take the plunge and used his savings to finance his debut feature film The Beyond, based on Project Kronos. That move later on caught the attention of some investors, who helped finance the remaining post budget.
For Dulull, his VFX background is a definite plus when it comes to directing. “When I say we can add a giant alien sphere in the sky while our character looks out of the car window, with helicopters zipping by, I can say it with confidence. Also, when financiers/producers look at the storyboards and mood boards and see the amount of VFX in there, they know they have a director who can handle that and use VFX smartly as a tool to tell the story. This is as opposed to a director who has no experience in VFX and whose production would probably end up costing more due to the lack of education and wrong decisions, or trial and errors made on set and in post.”
The Beyond, courtesy of HaZ Film LTD.
Because of VFX, Dulull has learned to always shoot clean plates and not to encourage the DP to do zooms or whip pans when a scene has VFX elements. “For The Beyond, there is digital body replacements, and although this was not the same budget as Batman v Superman, we were still able to do it because all the camera moves were on sliders and we acquired a lot of data on the day of the shoot. In fact, I ensured I had budget to hire a tracking master on set who would gather all the data required to get an accurate object and camera track later in CG,” he says.
Dulull also plans for effects early in the production, making notes during the script stages concerning the VFX and researching ideas on how to achieve them so that the producers budget for them.
While on set, though, he focuses on the actors and HODs, and doesn’t get too involved with the VFX beyond showing actors a Photoshop mockup he might have done the night before a greenscreen shoot, to give them a sense of what will be occurring in the scene.
Yet, oftentimes Dulull’s artist side takes over in post. On The Beyond, he handled 75 to 80 percent of the work (mainly compositing), while CG houses and trusted freelancers did the CGI and rendering. “It was my baby and my first film, and I was a control freak on every single shot — the curse of having a VFX background,” he says. On his second feature, Origin Unknown, he found it easier to hand off the work — in this instance it was to Territory Studio.
“I still find I end up doing a lot of the key creative VFX scenes merely because there is no budget for it and basically because it was created during the editorial process — which means you can’t go and raise more money at this stage. But since I can do those ideas myself, I can come up with the concepts in the editorial process and pay the price with long nights and lots of coffee with support from Territory – but I have to ensure I don’t push the VFX studio to the breaking point with overages just because I had a creative burst of inspiration in the edit!” he says.
However, Dulull is confident that on his next feature, he will be hands-off on the VFX and focused on the time-demanding duties of directing and producing, though will still be involved with the designing of the VFX, working closely with Territory.
When it comes to outsourcing the VFX, knowing how much they cost helps keep that part of the budget from getting out of hand, Dulull says. And being able to offer up solutions or alternatives enables a studio to get a shot done faster and with better results.
Freddy Chavez Olmos
Freddy Chavez Olmos got the filmmaking/directing bug at an early age while recording horror-style home movies. Later, he found himself working in the visual effects industry in Vancouver, and counts many impressive VFX credits to his name: District 9, Pacific Rim, Deadpool, Chappie, Sin City 2 and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. He also writes and directs projects independently, including the award-winning short films Shhh (2012) and Leviticus 24:20 (2016) — both in collaboration with VFX studio Image Engine — and R3C1CL4 (2017).
Working in visual effects, particularly compositing, has taught Olmos the artistic and technical sides of filmmaking during production and post, helping him develop a deeper understanding of the process and improving his problem-solving skills on set.
As more features rely on the use of VFX, having a director or producer with a clear understanding of that process has become almost necessary, according to Olmos. “It’s a process that requires constant feedback and clear communication. I’ve seen a lot of productions suffer visually and budget-wise due to a lack of decision-making in the post production process.”
Olmos has learned a number of lessons from VFX that he believes will help him on future directorial projects:
• Avoid last-minute changes.
• Don’t let too many cooks in the kitchen.
• Be clear on your feedback and use references when possible.
• If you can fix it on set, don’t leave it for post to handle.
• Always stay humble and give credit to those who help you.
• CG is time-consuming and expensive. If it doesn’t serve your story, don’t use it.
• Networking and professional relationships are crucial.
• Don’t become a pixel nitpicker. No one will analyze every single frame of your film unless you work on a Star Wars sequel. Your VFX crew will be more gracious to you, too.
Despite his VFX experience, Olmos, like others interviewed for this article, tries to use a practical approach first while in the director’s seat. Nevertheless, he always keeps the “VFX side of his brain open.”
For instance, the first short film he co-directed called for a full-body creature. “I didn’t want to go full CG with it because I knew we could achieve most of it practically, but I also understood the limitations. So we decided to only ‘digitally enhance’ what we couldn’t do on set and become more selective in our shot list,” he explains. “In the end, I was glad we worked as efficiently as we did on the project and didn’t have any throw-away work.”
While some former VFX artists/supervisors may find it difficult to hand off a project they directed to a VFX facility, Olmos maintains that as long as there is someone he trusts on set who is always by his side, he is able to detach himself “from micromanaging that part,” he says, although he does like to be heavily involved in the storyboarding and previs processes whenever possible. “A lot of the changes happen during that stage, and I like giving freedom to the VFX supervisor on set to do what he thinks is best for the project,” says Olmos.
“A few years ago, there were two VFX artists who became mainstream directors because they knew how to tell a good story using visual effects as a supporting platform (Neill Blomkamp and Gareth Edwards, Godzilla, Rogue One). Now there is a similar wave of talented filmmakers with a VFX and animation background doing original short projects,” says Olmos. “We have common interests, and I have become friends with a lot of them. I have no doubt they will end up doing big things in the near future.”
David Mellor is the creative director of Framestore’s new Chicago office and a director with the studio’s production company Framestore Pictures. With a background in computer visualization and animation, he started out in a support role with the rendering team and eventually transitioned to commercials and music videos, working his way up to CG lead and head of the CG department in the studio’s New York office.
In that capacity, Mellor was exposed to the creative side and worked with directors and agencies, and that led to the creative director and director roles he now enjoys.
Mellor has directed spots for Chick-fil-A (VR and live action), Redd’s Wicked Apple, Chex Mix and a series for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon.
Without hesitation, Mellor credits his VFX experience for helping him prepare for directing in that it enables him to “see” the big picture and final result from a fragment of elements, giving him a more solid direction. “VFX supervisors have a full understanding of how to build a scene, how light and camera work, and what effect lensing has,” he says.
Additionally, VFX supervisors are prepared to react to a given situation, as things are always changing. They also have to be able to break down a shot in moments on set, and run the whole shoot — post to finish — through their head when asked a question by a director or DP. “So it gives you this very good instinct as a director and allows you to see beyond what’s in front of you,” Mellor says. “It also allows you to plan well and be creative while looking at the entire timeline of the project. ‘Fix it in post’ is no longer acceptable with everyone wanting more for less time/money.”
And as projects become larger and incorporate more effects, director’s like Mellor will be able to tackle them more efficiently and with a higher quality, knowing all that is needed to produce the final piece. He also values his ability to communicate and collaborate, which are necessary for effects supervisors on big VFX projects.
“Our career path to directing hasn’t been the traditional one, but we have more exposure working with the client from conception through to a project’s finish. That means collaboration is a big aspect for me, working toward the best result holistically within the parameters of time and budget.”
Still, Mellor believes the transition to director for a VFX supervisor remains rare. One reason is because a person often becomes pigeonholed in a role.
While their numbers are still low, VFX artists/supervisors-turned-directors are making their mark across various genres, proving themselves capable and worthy of the much-deserved moniker of director, and in doing so, are helping to pave the way for others in visual effects roles.
Our Main Image: The Beyond, courtesy of HaZ Film LTD.