Category Archives: VFX Edition

VFX Roundtable: Trends and inspiration

By Randi Altman

The world of visual effects is ever-changing, and the speed at which artists are being asked to create new worlds, or to make things invisible is moving full-speed ahead. How do visual effects artists (and studios) prepare for these challenges, and what inspired them to get into this business? We reached out to a small group of visual effects pros working in television, commercials and feature films to find out how they work and what gets their creative juices flowing.

Let’s find out what they had to say…

KEVIN BAILLIE, CEO, ATOMIC FICTION
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?
The core thing for every filmmaking team to recognize is that VFX isn’t a “post process.” Careful advance planning and a tight relationship between the director, production designer, stunt team and cinematographer will yield a far superior result much more cost effectively.

In the best-looking and best-managed productions I’ve ever been a part of, the VFX team is the first department to be brought onto the show and the last one off. It truly acts as a partner in the filmmaking process. After all, once the VFX post phase starts, it’s effectively a continuation of production — with there being a digital corollary to every single department on set, from painters to construction to costume!

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
The move to cloud computing is one of the most exciting trends in VFX. The cloud is letting smaller teams to much bigger work, allowing bigger teams to do things that have never been seen before and will ultimately result in compute resources no longer being a constraint on the creative process.

Cloud computing allowed Atomic Fiction to play alongside the most prestigious companies in the world, even when we were just 20 people. That capability has allowed us to grow to over 200 people, and now we’re able to take the lead vendor position on A-list shows. It’s remarkable what dynamic and large-scale infrastructure in the cloud has enabled Atomic to accomplish.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I grew up in Seattle and started dabbling in 3D as a hobby when I was 14 years old, having been immensely inspired by Jurassic Park. Soon thereafter, I started working at Microsoft in the afternoons, developing visual content to demonstrate their upcoming technologies. I was fortunate enough to land a job with Lucasfilm right after graduating high school, which was 20 years ago at this point! I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of the directors that inspired me as a child, such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, and modern pioneers like JJ Abrams.

Looking back on my career so far, I truly feel like I’ve been living the dream. I can’t wait for what’s next in this exciting, ever-changing business.

ROB LEGATO, OSCAR-WINNING VFX SUPERVISOR, SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR, SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?
It takes a good bit of time to come up with a plan that will ensure a sustainable attack when makinging the film. They need to ask someone in authority, “What does it take to do it,” and then make a reasonable plan. Everyone wants to do a great job all the time, and if they could maneuver the schedule — even with the same timeframe — it could be a much less frustrating job.

It happens time and time again, someone comes up with a budget and a schedule that doesn’t really fit with the task and forces you to live with it. That makes for a very difficult assignment that gets done because of the hard work of the people who are in the trenches.

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
For me, it’s how realistic you can make something. The rendering capabilities — like what we did on Jungle Book with the animals — are so sophisticated that it fools your eye into believing it’s real. Once you do that you’ve opened the magic door that allows you to do anything with a tremendous amount of fidelity. You can make good movies without it being a special-venue movie or a VFX movie. The computer power and rendering abilities — along with the incredible artistic talent pool that we have created over the years — is very impressive, especially for me, coming from a more traditional camera background. I tended to shy away from computer-generated things because they never had the authenticity you would have wanted.

Then there is the happy accident of shooting something, where an angle you wouldn’t have considered appears as you look through the camera; now you can do that in the computer, which I find infinitely fascinating. This is where all the virtual cinematography things I’ve done in the past come in to help create that happy accident.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I’ve been working in VFX since about 1984. Visual effects wasn’t my dream. I wanted to make movies: direct, shoot and be a cameraman and editor. I fell into it and then used it as an avenue to allow me to create sequences in films and commercials.

The reason you go to movies is to see something you have never seen before, and for me that was Close Encounters. The first time I saw the mothership in Close Encounters, it wasn’t just an effect, it became an art form. It was beautifully realized and it made the story. Blade Runner was another where it’s no longer a visual effect, it’s filmmaking as an art form.

There was also my deep appreciation for Doug Trumbull, whose quality of work was so high it transcended being a visual effect or a photographic effect.

LISA MAHER, VP OF PRODUCTION, SHADE VFX 
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?
That it’s less expensive in the end to have a VFX representative involved on the project from the get-go, just like all the other filmmaking craft-persons that are represented. It’s getting better all the time though, and we are definitely being brought on board earlier these days.

At Shade we specialize in invisible or supporting VFX. So-called invisible effects are often much harder to pull off. It’s all about integrating digital elements that support the story but don’t pull the audience out of a scene. Being able to assist in the planning stages of a difficult VFX sequence often results in the filmmakers achieving what they envisioned more readily. It also helps tremendously to keep the costs in line with what was originally budgeted. It also goes without saying that it makes for happier VFX artists as they receive photography captured with their best interests in mind.

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
I would say the most exciting development affecting visual effects is the explosion of opportunities offered by the OTT content providers such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Hulu. Shade primarily served the feature film market up to three years ago, but with the expanding needs of television, our offices in Los Angeles and New York are now evenly split between film and TV work.

We often find that the film work is still being done at the good old reliable 2K resolution while our TV shows are always 4K plus. The quality and diversity of projects being produced for TV now make visual effects a much more buoyant enterprise for a mid-sized company and also a real source of employment for VFX professionals who were previously so dependent on big studio generated features.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I’ve been working in visual effects close to 20 years now. I grew up in Ireland; as a child the world of film, and especially images of sunny California, were always a huge draw for me. They helped me survive the many grey and rainy days of the Irish climate.  I can’t point to one project that inspired me to get into film making — there have been so many — just a general love for storytelling, I guess. Films like Westworld (the 1973 version), Silent Running, Cinema Paradiso, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner and, of course, the original Star Wars were truly inspirational.

DAVID SHELDON-HICKS, CO-FOUNDER/EXECUTIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR, TERRITORY STUDIO
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?
The craft and care and love that goes into VFX is often forgotten in the “business” of it all. As a design led studio that straddles art and VFX departments in our screen graphic and VFX work, we prefer to work with the director from the preproduction phase. This ensures that all aspects of our work are integrated into story and world building.

The talent and gut instinct, eye for composition and lighting, appreciation of form, choreography of movement and, most notably, the appreciation of the classics is so pertinent to the art of VFX and is undersold for conversations of shot counts, pipelines, bidding and numbers of artists. Bringing the filmmakers into the creative process has to be the way forward for an art form still finding its own voice.

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
The level of concept art and postviz coming through from VFX studios is quite staggering. It gets back to my point from above of bringing the VFX dialogue with filmmakers and VFX artists concentrated on world building and narrative expansion. It’s so exciting to see concept art and postviz getting to a new level of sophistication and influence in the filmmaking process.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I have been working professionally in VFX for over 15 years. My love of VFX and creativity in general came from the moment I picked up a pencil and imagined new possibilities. But once I cut my film teeth designing screens graphics on Casino Royale and followed by Dark Knight, I left my freelance days behind and co-founded Territory Studio. Our first film as a studio was Prometheus, and working with Ridley Scott was a formative experience that has influenced our own design-led approach to motion graphics and VFX, which has established us in the industry and seen the studio grow and expand.

MARK BREAKSPEAR, VFX SUPERVISOR, SONY PICTURES IMAGEWORKS
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?

Firstly, I think the clients I have worked with have always been extremely cognizant of the key areas affecting VFX heavy projects and consequently have built frameworks that help plan and execute these mammoth shows successfully.

Ironically, it’s the smaller shows that sometimes have the surprising “gotchas” in them. The big shows come with built-in checks and balances in the form of experienced people who are looking out for the best interests of the project and how to navigate the many pitfalls that can make the VFX costs increase.

Smaller shows sometimes don’t allow enough discussion and planning time for the VFX components in pre-production, which could result in the photography not being captured as well as it could have been. Everything goes wrong from there.

So, when I approach any show, I always look for the shots that are going to be underestimated and try to give them the attention they need to succeed. You can get taken out of a movie by a bad driving comp as much as you can a monster space goat biting a planet in half.

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
I think there are several red herrings out there right now… the big one being VR. To me, VR is like someone has invented teleportation, but it only works on feet.

So, right now, it’s essentially useless and won’t make creating VFX any easier or make the end result any more spectacular. I would like to see VR used to aid artists working on shots. If you could comp in VR I could see that being a good way to help create more complex and visually thrilling shots. The user interface world is really the key area VR can benefit.

Suicide Squad

I do think however, that AR is very interesting. The real world, with added layers of information is a hugely powerful prospect. Imagine looking at a building in any city of the world, and the apartments for sale in it are highlighted in realtime, with facts like cost, square footage etc. all right there in front of you.

How does AR benefit VFX? An artist could use AR to get valuable info about shots just by looking at them. How often do we look at a shot and ask “what lens was this? AR could have all that meta-data ready to display at any point on any shot.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I’ve been in VFX for 25 years. When I started, VFX was not really a common term. I came to this industry through the commercial world… as a compositor on TV shows and music videos. Lots of (as we would call it now) visual effects, but done in a world bereft of pipelines and huge cloud-based renderfarms.

I was never inspired by a specific project to get into the visual effects world. I was a creative kid who also liked the sciences. I liked to work out why things ticked, and also draw them, and sometimes try to draw them with improvements or updates as I could imagine. It’s a common set of passions that I find in my colleagues.

I watched Star Wars and came out wondering why there were black lines around some of the space ships. Maybe there’s your answer… I was inspired by the broken parts of movies, rather than being swept up in the worlds they portrayed. After all that effort, time and energy… why did it still look wrong? How can I fix it for next time?

CHRIS HEALER, CEO/CTO/VFX SUPERVISOR, THE MOLECULE
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?

Plan, plan plan… previs, storyboarding and initial design are crucial to VFX-heavy projects. The mindset should ideally be that most (or all) decisions have been made before the shoot starts, as opposed to a “we’ll figure it out in post” approach.

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
Photogrammetry, image modeling and data capture are so much more available than ever before. Instead of an expensive Lidar rig that only produces geometry without color, there are many many new ways to capture the color and geometry of the physical world, even using a simple smart phone or DSLR.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I’ve been doing VFX now for over 16 years. I would have to say that The Matrix (part 1) was really inspiring when I saw it the first time, and it made clear that VFX as an art form was coming and available to artists of all kinds all over the world. Previous to that, VFX was very difficult to approach for the average student with limited resources.

PAUL MARANGOS, SENIOR VFX FLAME ARTIST, HOOLIGAN
What do you wish clients would know before jumping into a VFX-heavy project?

The more involved I can be in the early stages, the more I can educate clients on all of the various effects they could use, as well as technical hurdles to watch out for. In general, I wish more clients involved the VFX guys earlier in the process — even at the concepting and storyboarding stages — because we can consult on a range of critical matters related to budgets, timelines, workflow and, of course, bringing the creative to life with the best possible quality.

Fortunately, more and more agencies realize the value of this. For instance, with a recent campaign Hooligan finished for Harvoni, we were able to plan shots for a big scene featuring hundreds of lanterns in the sky, which required lanterns of various sizes for every angle that Elma Garcia’s production team shot. Having everything well storyboarded and under Elma’s direction, who left no detail unnoticed, we managed to create a spectacular display of lantern composites for the commercial.

We were also involved early on for a campaign for MyHeritage DNA (above) via creative agency Berlin Cameron, featuring spoken word artist Prince Ea, and directed by Jonathan Augustavo of Skunk. Devised as if projecting on a wall, we mapped the motion graphics in the 3D environments.

What trends in VFX have impressed you the most over the last year or two, and how are they affecting your work?
Of course VR and 360 live TV shows are exciting, but augmented reality is what I find particularly interesting — mixing the real world with graphics and video all around you. The interactivity of both of these emerging platforms presents an endless area of growth, as our industry is on the cusp of a sea change that hasn’t quite yet begun to directly affect my day-to-day.

Meanwhile, at Hooligan, we’re always educating ourselves on the latest software, tools and technological trends in order to prepare for the future of media and entertainment — which is wise if you want to be relevant 10 years from now. For instance, I recently attended the TED conference, where Chris Milk spoke on the birth of virtual reality as an artform. I’m also seeing advances in Google cardboard, which is making the platform affordable, too. Seeing companies open up VR Departments is an exciting step for us all and it shows the vision for the future of advertising.

How many years have you been working in VFX, and what project inspired you to get into this line of work?
I have worked in VFX for 25 years. After initially studying fine art and graphic design, the craft aspect of visual effects really appealed to me. Seeing special effects genius Ray Harryhausen’s four-minute skeleton fight was a big inspiration. He rear-projected footage of the actual actors and then combined the shots to make a realistic skeleton-Argonaut battle. It took him over four and a half months to shoot the stop-motion animation.

Main Image: Deadpool/Atomic Fiction.

The hybridization of VFX and motion design

Plus the rise of the small studio

By Miguel Lee

There has long been a dichotomy between motion graphics and VFX because they have traditionally serviced very different creative needs. However, with the democratization of tools and the migration of talent between these two pillars of the CG industry, a new “hybrid” field of content creators is emerging. And for motion designers like myself, this trend reflects the many exciting things taking place in our industry today, especially as content platforms increase at an incredible rate with smartphones and new LED technologies, not to mention a renaissance in the fields of VR, AR, and projection mapping, to name a few.

Miguel Lee

I’ve always likened the comparison of motion graphics and VFX to the Science Club and the Art Club we remember at school. VFX has its roots in an objective goal: to seamlessly integrate CG into the narrative or spectacle in a convincing and highly technical way. Motion graphics, on the other hand, can be highly subjective. One studio, for instance, might produce a broadcast package laden with 3D animations, whereas another studio will opt for a more minimal, graphical approach to communicating the same brand. A case can typically be made for either direction.

So where does the new “hybrid” studios fit into this analogy? Let’s call them the “Polymath Club,” given their abilities to tap into the proverbial hemispheres of the brain — the “left” representing their affinity for the tools, and the “right” driving the aesthetics and creative. With this “Polymath” mentality, CG artists are now able to generate work that was once only achievable by a large team of artists and technicians. Concurrently, it is influencing the hybridization of the CG industry at large, as VFX companies build motion design teams in-house, while motion graphics studios increasingly incorporate VFX tools into their own workflow.

As a result, we’ve seen a proliferation in the “lean-and-mean” production studio over the last few years. Their rise is the direct result of the democratization of our industry, where content creation tools have significantly evolved in terms of technology, accessibility and reliability. One such example is the dramatic increase in render power with the rise of third-party GPU renderers, such as Otoy’s Octane and Redshift, which have essentially made 3D photorealism more attainable. Cloud rendering solutions have also popped up for conventional and third-party renderers, which mitigates the need to build out expensive renderfarms — a luxury that is still privy to companies of a certain size.

Otoy’s Octane being used on one of Midnight Sherpa’s jobs.

Motion artists, too, have become far more adventurous in employing VFX-specific software like Houdini, which has simultaneously become far more accessible and egalitarian without any compromise to its capability. Maxon’s Cinema 4D, the heavily favored 3D application in motion graphics, has had a long tradition of implementing efficient software-specific workflows to bridge its ecosystem to other programs. Coding and script-based animation has also found a nice home in the Motion repertoire to create inventive and efficient ways to generate content. Even the barrier of entry for creating VR and AR content has eased quite a bit with the latest releases of both the Unity and Unreal engines.

Aside from lower overhead costs, the horizontal work structure of the “lean-and-mean” model has also cultivated truly collaborative environments where artists of trans-disciplinary backgrounds can work together in more streamlined ways than can be done in an oversized team. In many cases, these smaller studios are forced to develop workflows that more effectively reflect their team’s makeup — these systems often enjoy more success as they reflect the styles and, even, personalities of the core teams, which institute them.

The nature of being small also pushes you to innovate and develop greater efficiencies, rather than just throwing more bodies at the problem. These solutions and workflows are often baked into the core team and rolled out on future projects. Smaller studios also have a reputation for cultivating talent. Junior artists and interns are often put on a wider range of projects and into more roles out of necessity to fulfill the various needs of production, whereas they are typically relegated to a single role at larger studios and oftentimes are not afforded the opportunity to branch out. This conversely creates an incentive to hire artists with the intent of developing them over a long term.

There are downsides, of course, to being small — chief among them is how quickly they reach physical capacity at which point jobs would have to be turned down. The proliferation of small studios equals more voices in the landscape of content, which in turn directly contributes to the greater evolution of design as a whole.

Now that the playing field has been technologically equalized, the key between failure and success for many of these companies lies in whether or not they can craft a voice that is unique amongst their peers in an increasingly saturated landscape.

Main Image: Audi – Photorealism is more achievable in a streamlined production pipeline.


Miguel Lee is partner/creative director at LA’s Midnight Sherpa, a boutique creative studio for brands and entertainment.

Dell 6.15

The importance of on-set VFX supervision

By Karen Maierhofer

Some contend that having a visual effects supervisor present on set during production is a luxury; others deem it a necessity. However, few, if any, see it as unnecessary.

Today, more and more VFX supes can be found alongside directors and DPs during filming, advising and problem-solving, with the goal of saving valuable time and expense during production and, later, in post.

John Kilshaw

“A VFX supervisor is on set and in pre-production to help the director and production team achieve their creative goals. By having the supervisor on set, they gain the flexibility to cope with the unexpected and allow for creative changes in scope or creative direction,” says Zoic Studios creative director John Kilshaw, a sought-after VFX supervisor known for his collaborative creative approach.

Kilshaw, who has worked at a number of top VFX studios including ILM, Method and Double Negative, has an impressive resume of features, among them The Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and various Harry Potter films. More recently, he was visual effects supervisor for the TV series Marvel’s The Defenders and Iron Fist.

Weta Digital’s Erik Winquist (Apes trilogy, Avatar, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) believes the biggest contribution a VFX supervisor can make while on set comes during prep. “Involving the VFX supervisor as early as possible can only mean less surprises during principal photography. This is when the important conversations are taking place between the various heads of departments. ‘Does this particular effect need to be executed with computer graphics, or is there a way to get this in-camera? Do we need to build a set for this, or would it be better for the post process to be greenscreen? Can we have practical smoke and air mortars firing debris in this shot, or is that going to mess with the visual effects that have to be added behind it later?’”

War for the Planet of the Apes via Weta Digital

According to Winquist, who is VFX supervisor on Rampage (2018), currently in post production, having a VFX supe around can help clear up misconceptions in the mind of the director or other department heads: “No, putting that guy in a green suit doesn’t make him magically disappear from the shot. Yes, replacing that sky is probably relatively straightforward. No, modifying the teeth of that actor to look more like a vampire’s while he’s talking is actually pretty involved.”

Both Kilshaw and Winquist note that it is not uncommon to have a VFX supervisor on set whenever there are shots that include visual effects. In fact, Winquist has not heard of a major production that didn’t have a visual effects supervisor present for principal photography. “From the filmmaker’s point of view, I can’t imagine why you would not want to have your VFX supervisor there to advise,” he says. “Film is a collaborative medium. Building a solid team is how you put your vision up on the screen in the most cost-effective way possible.”

At Industrial Light & Magic, which has a long list of major VFX film credits, it is a requirement. “We always have a visual effects supervisor on set, and we insist on it. It is critical to our success on a project,” says Lindy De Quattro, VFX supervisor at ILM. “Frankly, it terrifies me to think about what could happen without one present.”

Lindy De Quattro

For some films, such as Evan Almighty, Pacific Rim, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the upcoming Downsizing, De Quattro spent an extended period on set, while for many others she was only present for a week or two while big VFX scenes were shot. “No matter how much time you have put into planning, things rarely go entirely as planned. And someone has to be present to make last-minute adjustments and changes, and deal with new ideas that might arise on that day — it’s just part of the creative process,” she says.

For instance, while working on Pacific Rim, Director Guillermo del Toro would stay up until the wee hours of the night making new boards for what would be shot the following day, and the next morning everyone would crowd around his hand-drawn sketches and notebooks and he would say, “OK, this is what we are shooting. So we have to be prepared and do everything in our power to help ensure that the director’s vision becomes reality on screen.”

“I cannot imagine how they would have gone about setting up the shots if they didn’t have a VFX supervisor on set. Someone has to be there to be sure we are gathering the data needed to recreate the environment and the camera move in post, to be sure these things, and the greenscreens, are set up correctly so the post is successful,” De Quattro says. If you don’t know to put in greenscreen, you may be in a position where you cannot extract the foreground elements the way you need to, she warns. “So, suddenly, two days of an extraction and composite turns into three weeks of roto and hair replacement, and a bunch of other time-consuming and expensive work because it wasn’t set up properly in initial photography.”

Sometimes, a VFX supervisor ends up running the second unit, where the bulk of the VFX work is done, if the director is at a different location with the first unit. This was the case recently when De Quattro was in Norway for the Downsizing shoot. She ended up overseeing the plate unit and did location scouting with the DP each morning to find shots or elements that could be used in post. “It’s not that unusual for a VFX supervisor to operate as a second unit director and get a credit for that work,” she adds.

Kilshaw often finds himself discussing the best way of achieving the show’s creative goals with the director and producer while on set. Also, he makes sure that the producer is always informed of changes that will impact the budget. “It becomes very easy for people to say, ‘we can fix this in post.’ It is at this time when costs can start to spiral, and having a VFX supervisor on set to discuss options helps stop this from happening,” he adds. “At Zoic, we ensure that the VFX supervisor is also able to suggest alternative approaches that may help directors achieve what they need.”

Erik Winquist

According to Winquist, the tasks a VFX supe does on set depends on the size of the budget and crew. In a low-budget production, a person might be doing a myriad of different tasks themselves: creating previs and techvis, working with the cinematographer and key grip concerning greenscreen or bluescreen placement, placing tracking markers, collecting camera information for each setup or take, shooting reference photos of the set, helping with camera or lighting placement, gathering lighting measurements with gray and chrome reference spheres — basically any information that will help the person best execute the visual effects requirements of the shot. “And all the while being available to answer questions the director might have,” he says.

If the production has a large budget, the role is more about spreading out and managing those tasks among an on-set visual effects team: data wranglers, surveyors, photographers, coordinators, PAs, perhaps a motion capture crew, “so that each aspect of it is done as thoroughly as possible,” says Winquist. “Your primary responsibility is being there for the director and staying in close communication with the ADs so that you or your team are able to get all the required data from the shoot. You only have one chance to do so.”

The benefits of on-set VFX supervision are not just for those working on big-budget features, however. As Winquist points out, the larger the budget, the more demanding the VFX work and the higher the shot count, therefore the more important it is to involve the VFX supervisor in the shoot. “But it could also be argued that a production with a shoestring budget also can’t afford to get it wrong or be wasteful during the shoot, and the best way to ensure that footage is captured in a way that will make for a cost-effective post process is to have the VFX supervisor there to help.”

Kilshaw concurs. “Regardless of whether it is a period drama or superhero show, whether you need to create a superpower or a digital version of 1900 New York, the advantages of visual effects and visual effects supervision on set are equally important.”

While De Quattro’s resume is overflowing with big-budget VFX films, she has also assisted on smaller projects where a VFX supervisor’s presence was also critical. She recalls a commercial shoot, one that prompted her to question the need for her presence. However, production hit a snag when a young actor was unable to physically accomplish a task during multiple takes, and she was able to step in and offer a suggestion, knowing it would require just a minor VFX fix. “It’s always something like that. Even if the shoot is simple and you think there is no need, inevitably someone will need you and the input of someone who understands the process and what can be done,” she says.

De Quattro’s husband is also a VFX supervisor who is presently working on a non-VFX-driven Netflix series. While he is not on set every day, he is called when there is an effects shoot scheduled.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

So, with so many benefits to be had, why would someone opt not to have a VFX supervisor on set? De Quattro assumes it is the cost. “What’s that saying, ‘penny wise and pound foolish?’ A producer thinks he or she is saving money by eliminating the line item of an on-set supervisor but doesn’t realize the invisible costs, including how much more expensive the work can be, and often is, on the back end,” she notes.

“On set, people always tell me their plans, and I find myself advising them not to bother building this or that — we are not going to need it, and the money saved could be better utilized elsewhere,” De Quattro says.

On Mission: Impossible, for example, the crew was filming a complicated underwater escape scene with Tom Cruise and finally got the perfect take, only his emergency rig became exposed. However, rather than have the actor go back into the frigid water for another take, De Quattro assured the team that the rig could be removed in post within the original scope of the VFX work. While most people are aware that can be done now, having someone with the authority and knowledge to know that for sure was a relief, she says.

Despite their extensive knowledge of VFX, these supervisors all say they support the best tool for the job on set and, mostly, that is to capture the shot in-camera first. “In most instances, the best way to make something look real is to shoot it real, even if it’s ultimately just a small part of the final frame,” Winquist says. However, when factors conspire against that, whether it be weather, animals, extras, or something similar, “having a VFX supervisor there during the shoot will allow a director to make decisions with confidence.”

Main Image: Weta’s Erik Winquist on set for Planet of the Apes.


Transitioning from VFX artist to director

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
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.

HaZ Dulull
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.”

Shhh film

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
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.


The Third Floor: Previs and postvis for Wonder Woman

To help realize the cinematic world of Warner Bros.’s Wonder Woman, artists at The Third Floor London, led by Vincent Aupetit, visualized key scenes using previs and postvis. Work spanned nearly two years, as the team collaborated with director Patty Jenkins and visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer to map out key action and visual effects scenes.

Previs was also used to explore story elements and to identify requirements for the physical shoot as well as visual effects. Following production, postvis shots with temp CG elements stood in for finals as the editorial cut progressed.

We checked in with previs supervisor Vincent Aupetit at The Third Floor London to find out more.

Wonder Woman is a good example of filmmaking that leveraged not just the technical, but also the creative advantages of previs. How can a director maximize the benefits of having a previs team?
Each project is different, with different needs and opportunities as well as creative styles, but for Wonder Woman our director worked very closely with us and got involved with previs and postvis as much as she could. Even though this was her first time using previs, she was open and enthusiastic and quickly recognized the possibilities. She engaged with us and used our resources to further develop the ideas she had for the story and action, including iconic moments she envisioned for the main character. Seeing the ideas she was after successfully portrayed as moving previs was exciting for her and motivating for us.

How do you ensure what is being visualized translates to what can be achieved through actual filming and visual effects?
We put a big emphasis on shooting methodology and helping with requirements for the physical shoot and visual effects work — even when we are not specifically doing techvis diagrams or schematics. We conceive previs shots from the start with a shooting method in mind to make sure no shots represented in previs would prove impossible to achieve down the line.

What can productions look to previs for when preparing for large-scale visual effects scenes?
Of course, previs can be an important guide in deciding what parts of sets to build, determining equipment, camera and greenscreen needs and having a roadmap of shots. The previs team is in a position to gather input across many departments — art department, camera department, stunt department and visual effects — and effectively communicate the vision and plan.

But another huge part of it creating a working visual outline for what the characters are doing and what action is happening. If a director wants to try different narrative beats, or put them in a new order, they can do that in the previs world before committing to the shoot. If they want to do multiple iterations, it’s possible to do that before embarking on production. All of this helps streamline complexities that are already there for intensive action and visual effects sequences.

On Wonder Woman, we had a couple of notable scenes, including the beach battle, where we combined previs, storyboards and fight tests to convey a sense of how the story and choreography would unfold. Another was the final battle in the third act of the film. It’s an epic 40 minutes that includes a lot of conceptual development. What is the form and shape of Ares, the movie’s antagonist, as he evolves and reveals his true god nature? What happens in each blow of his fight with Diana on the airfield? How do her powers grow, and what do those abilities look like? Previs can definitely help answer important questions that influence the narrative as well as the technical visuals to be produced.

How can directors leverage the postvis process?
Postvis has become more and more instrumental, especially as sequences go through editorial versions and evolving cuts. For Wonder Woman, the extensive postvis aided the director in making editorial choices when she was refining the story for key sequences.

Being able to access postvis during and after reshoots was very helpful as well. When you can see a more complete picture of the scene you have been imagining, with temp characters and backdrops in place, your decisions are much more informed.

How do you balance the ability to explore ideas and shots with the need to turn them around quickly?
This is one of the qualities of previs artists — we need to be both effective and flexible! Our workflow has to sustain and keep track of shots, versions and approvals. On Wonder Woman, our on-board previs editor literally did wonders keeping the show organized and reacting near instantaneously to director or visual effects supervisor requests.

The pace of the show and the will to explore and develop with a passionate director led to our producing an astonishing number of shots at a very rapid rate despite a challenging schedule. We also had a great working relationship, where we were trusted truly and fully by the client and repaid this trust by meeting deliveries with a high level of professionalism and quality.