Category Archives: VFX

Behind the Title: senior compositing artist Marcel Lemme

We recently reached out to Marcel Lemme to find out more about how he works, his background and how he relaxes.

What is your job title and where are you based?
I’m a senior compositing artist based out of Hamburg, Germany.

What does your job entail?
I spend about 90 percent of my time working on commercial jobs for local and international companies like BMW, Audi and Nestle, but also dabble in feature films, corporate videos and music videos. On a regular day, I’m handling everything from job breakdowns to set supervision to conform. I’m also doing shot management for the team, interacting with clients, showing clients work and some compositing. Client review sessions and final approvals are regular occurrences for me too.

What would surprise people the most about the responsibilities that fall under that title?
When it comes to client attended sessions, you have to be part clown, part mind-reader. Half the job is being a good artist; the other half is keeping clients happy. You have to anticipate what the client will want and balance that with what you know looks best. I not only have to create and keep a good mood in the room, but also problem solve with a smile.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love solving problems when compositing solo. There’s nothing better than tackling a tough project and getting results you’re proud of.

What’s your least favorite?
Sometimes the client isn’t sure what they want, which can make the job harder.

What’s your most productive time of day?
I’m definitely not a morning guy, so the evening; I’m more productive at night.

If you didn’t have this job, what would you be doing instead?
I’ve asked myself this question a lot, but honestly, I’ve never come up with a good answer.

How’d you get your first job, and did you know this was your path early on?
I fell into it. I was young and thought I’d give computer graphics a try, so I reached out to someonewho knew someone, and before I knew it I was interning at a company in Hamburg, which is how I came to know online editing. At the time, Quantel mostly dominated the industry with Editbox and Henry, and Autodesk Flame and Flint were just emerging. I dove in and started using all the technology I could get my hands on, and gradually started securing jobs based on recommendations.

Which tools are you using today, and why?
I use whatever the client and/or the project demands, whether it’s Flame or Foundry’s Nuke and for tracking I often use The Pixel Farm PFTrack and Boris FX Mocha. For commercial spots, I’ll do a lot of the conform and shot management on Flame and then hand off the shots to other team members, or if I do it myself. I’ll finish in Flame because I know I can do it fast.

I use Flame because it gives me different ways to achieve a certain look or find a solution to a problem. I can also play a clip at any resolution with just two clicks in Flame, which is important when you’re in a room with clients who want to see different versions on the fly. The recent open clip updates and python integration have also saved me time. I can import and review shots, with automatic versions coming in, and build new tools or automate tedious processes in the post chain that have typically slowed me down.

Tell us about some recent project work.
I recently worked on a project for BMW as a compositing supervisor and collaborated with eight other compositors to finish number of versions in a short amount of time. We did shot management, compositing, reviewing, versioning and such in Flame. Also individual shot compositing in Nuke and some tracking in Mocha Pro.

What is the project that you are most proud of?
There’s no one project that stands out in particular, but overall, I’m proud of jobs like the BMW spots, where I’ve led a team of artists and everything just works and flows. It’s rewarding when the client doesn’t know what you did or how you did it, but loves the end result.

Where do you find inspiration for your projects?
The obvious answer here is other commercials, but I also watch a lot of movies, and of course, spend time on the Internet.

Name three pieces of technology you can’t live without.
The off button on the telephone (they should really make that bigger), anything related to cinematography or digital cinema, and streaming technology.

What social media channels do you follow?
I’ve managed to avoid Facebook, but I do peek at Twitter and Instagram from time to time. Twitter can be a great quick reference for regional news or finding out about new technology and/or industry trends.

Do you listen to music while you work?
Less now than I did when I was younger. Most of the time, I can’t as I’m juggling too much and it’s distracting. When I listen to music, I appreciate techno, classical and singer/song writer stuff; whatever sets the mood for the shots I’m working on. Right now, I’m into Iron and Wine and Trentemøller, a Danish electronic music producer.

How do you de-stress from the job?
My drive home. It can take anywhere from a half an hour to an hour, depending on the traffic, and that’s my alone time. Sometimes I listen to music, other times I sit in silence. I cool down and prepare to switch gears before heading home to be with my family.

Abbe Daniel joins NYC’s Eight VFX as EP

Eight VFX, a New York- and Los Angeles-based visual effects, design and production studio, has named Abbe Daniel executive producer for its New York studio.

Daniel joins Eight VFX (www.eightvfx.com) from Leroy & Clarkson, a brand design and identity boutique in New York. She’s held key positions at production companies and agencies, specializing in the production of digital ad campaigns, visual effects work and experiential installations. Prior to Leroy & Clarkson, she was an EP at the experiential studio Fake Love and has held EP/MD or senior producer posts at such studios as Digital Kitchen, Curious Pictures, Click3x and R/GA.

Daniel says she was drawn to the company largely based on the level of creative work. “It’s an impressive portfolio, coming from a boutique company such as this, and that’s what first caught my eye. Once the leadership team and I discussed the goals and strategy, we knew we were all on the same page about how to expand the New York office. The cultural fit just felt right, almost immediately.”

In her new position, she’ll play several key roles in the New York office; in addition to acting as both EP and GM, she’ll oversee sales and marketing and is in the process of recruiting and hiring an experienced creative team, with plans to add additional VFX supervisors, CG supervisors, 2D and 3D lead compositors, designers and other key contributors.

Currently Eight handles a range of work, including commercials for such brands as Target, Pandora, Puma, Ram Trucks, New York Lottery, Call of Duty, Honda, Perrier and others. The studio has partnered with such directors as Craig Gillespie, Michel Gondry, Noam Murro, Tom Kuntz and Michael Gracey.

The studio also has extensive feature credits, and provided VFX for the new film I, Tonya, directed by Gillespie. Eight’s New York office was the sole effects studio on this picture, completing over 200 shots and delivering in under four months. They’ve also worked on films like Beasts of No Nation for Cary Fukunaga, Knight & Day for James Mangold, Mother! for Darren Aronofsky, Hostage for Florent Emilio Siri and Gillespie’s 2014 sports drama, Million Dollar Arm.

Eight VFX has branched into episodic television as well, working on the hit Netflix series Stranger Things 2 and the Fox series The Orville, a the sci-fi comedy from Seth MacFarlane. For the latter, the studio turned around over 120 shots in under four weeks. “They tapped into our strengths for large digital matte paintings, set extensions and photoreal CG,” Daniel says about their work.

The main focus of growing Eight VFX’s presence in New York, says Daniel, will be to continue to build on their current relations, both with directors and production houses, as well as with agencies and brands. “We’re also expanding our design and development and mixed media services for all of our clients across the board. Our goal is to help clients achieve their visions and meet their objectives, so all touchpoints across all platforms will be important.”

Dell 6.15

Storage in the Studio: VFX Studios

By Karen Maierhofer

It takes talent and the right tools to generate visual effects of all kinds, whether it’s building breathtaking environments, creating amazing creatures or crafting lifelike characters cast in a major role for film, television, games or short-form projects.

Indeed, we are familiar with industry-leading content creation tools such as Autodesk’s Maya, Foundry’s Mari and more, which, when placed into the hands of creatives, the result in pure digital magic. In fact, there is quite a bit of technological magic that occurs at visual effects facilities, including one kind in particular that may not have the inherent sparkle of modeling and animation tools but is just as integral to the visual effects process: storage. Storage solutions are the unsung heroes behind most projects, working behind the scenes to accommodate artists and keep their productive juices flowing.

Here we examine three VFX facilities and their use of various storage solutions and setups as they tackle projects large and small.

Framestore
Since it was founded in 1986, Framestore has placed its visual stamp on a plethora of Oscar-, Emmy- and British Academy Film Award-winning visual effects projects, including Harry Potter, Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy. With increasingly more projects, Framestore expanded from its original UK location in London to North American locales such as Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, handling films as well as immersive digital experiences and integrated advertisements for iconic brands, including Guinness, Geico, Coke and BMW.

Beren Lewis

As the company and its workload grew and expanded into other areas, including integrated advertising, so, too, did its storage needs. “Innovative changes, such as virtual-reality projects, brought on high demand for storage and top-tier performance,” says NYC-based Beren Lewis, CTO of advertising and applied technologies at Framestore. “The team is often required to swiftly accommodate multiple workflows, including stereoscopic 4K and VR.”

Without hesitation, Lewis believes storage is typically the most challenging aspect of technology within the VFX workflow. “If the storage isn’t working, then neither are the artists,” he points out. Furthermore, any issues with storage can potentially lead to massive financial implications for the company due to lost time and revenue.

According to Lewis, Framestore uses its storage solution — a Pixit PixStor General Parallel File System (GPFS) storage cluster using the NetApp E-Series hardware – for all its project data. This includes backups to remote co-location sites, video preprocessing, decompression, disaster recovery preparation, scalability and high performance for VFX, finishing and rendering workloads.

The studio moved all the integrated advertising teams over to the PixStor GPFS clusters this past spring. Currently, Framestore has five primary PixStor clusters using NetApp E-Series in use at each office in London, LA, Chicago and Montreal.

According to Lewis, Framestore partnered with Pixit Media and NetApp to take on increasingly complicated and resource-hungry VR projects. “This partnership has provided the global integrated advertising team with higher performance and nonstop access to data,” he says. “The Pixit Media PixStor software-defined scale-out storage solution running on NetApp E-Series systems brings fast, reliable data access for the integrated advertising division so the team can embrace performance and consistency across all five sites, take a cost-effective, simplified approach to disaster recovery and have a modular infrastructure to support multiple workflows and future expansion.”

BMW

Framestore selected its current solution after reviewing several major storage technologies. It was looking for a single namespace that was very stable, while providing great performance, but it also had to be scalable, Lewis notes. “The PixStor ticked all those boxes and provided the right balance between enterprise-grade hardware and support, and open-source standards,” he explains. “That balance allowed us to seamlessly integrate the PixStor into our network, while still maintaining many of the bespoke tools and services that we had developed in-house over the years, with minimum development time.”

In particular, the storage solution provides the required high performance so that the studio’s VFX, finishing and rendering workloads can all run “full-out with no negative effect on the finishing editors’ or graphic artists’ user experience,” Lewis says. “This is a game-changing capability for an industry that typically partitions off these three workloads to keep artists from having to halt operations. PixStor running on E-Series consolidates all three workloads onto a single IT infrastructure with streamlined end-to-end production of projects, which reduces both time to completion and operational costs, while both IT acquisition and maintenance costs are reduced.”

At Framestore, integrating storage into the workflow is simple. The first step after a project is green-lit is the establishment of a new file set on the PixStor GPFS cluster, where ingested footage and all the CG artist-generated project data will live. “The PixStor is at the heart of the integrated advertising storage workflow from start to finish,” Lewis says. Because the PixStor GPFS cluster serves as the primary storage for all integrated advertising project data, the division’s workstations, renderfarm, editing and finishing stations connect to the cluster for review, generation and storage of project content.

Prior to the move to PixStor/NetApp, Framestore had been using a number of different storage offerings. According to Lewis, they all suffered from the same issues in terms of scalability and degradation of performance under render load — and that load was getting heavier and more unpredictable with every project. “We needed a technology that scaled and allowed us to maintain a single namespace but not suffer from continuous slowdowns for artists due to renderfarm load during crunch times or project delivery.”

Geico

As Lewis explains, with the PixStor/NetApp solution, processing was running up to 270,000 IOPS (I/O operations per second), which was at least several times what Framestore’s previous infrastructure would have been able to handle in a single namespace. “Notably, the development workflow for a major theme-park ride was unhindered by all the VR preprocessing, while backups to remote co-location sites synched every two hours without compromising the artist, rendering or finishing workloads,” he says. “This provided a cost-effective, simplified approach to disaster recovery, and Framestore now has a fast, tightly integrated platform to support its expansion plans.”

To stay at the top of its game, Framestore is always reviewing new technologies, and storage is often part of that conversation. To this end, the studio plans to build on the success it has had with PixStor by expanding the storage to handle some additional editorial playback and render workloads using an all-Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) flash tier. Other projects include a review of object storage technology for use as a long-term, off-premises storage target for archival data.

Without question, the industry’s visual demands are rapidly changing. Not long ago, Framestore could easily predict storage and render requirements for a typical project. But that is no longer the case, and the studio finds itself working in ever-increasing resolutions and frame rates. Whereas projects may have been as small as 3TB in the recent past, nowadays the studio regularly handles multiple projects of 300TB or larger. And the storage must be shared with other projects of varying sizes and scope.

“This new ‘unknowns’ element of our workflow puts many strains on all aspects of our pipeline, but especially the storage,” Lewis points out. “Knowing that our storage can cope with the load and can scale allows us to turn our attention to the other issues that these new types of projects bring to Framestore.”

As Lewis notes, working with high-resolution images and large renderfarms create a unique set of challenges for any storage technology that’s not seen in many other fields. The VFX will often test any storage technology well beyond what other industries are capable of. “If there’s an issue or a break point, we will typically find it in spectacular fashion,” he adds.

Rising Sun Pictures
As a contributor to the design and execution of computer-generated effects on more than 100 feature films since its inception 22 years ago, Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) has pushed the technical bar many times over in film as well as television projects. Based in Adelaide, South Australia, RSP has built a top team of VFX artists who have tackled such box-office hits as Thor: Ragnarok, X-Men and Game of Thrones, as well as the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises.

Mark Day

Such demanding, high-level projects require demanding, high-level effects, which, in turn, demand a high-performance, reliable storage solution capable of handling varying data I/O profiles. “With more than 200 employees accessing and writing files in various formats, the need for a fast, reliable and scalable solution is paramount to business continuity,” says Mark Day, director of engineering at RSP.

Recently, RSP installed an Oracle ZS5 storage appliance to handle this important function. This high-performance, unified storage system provides NAS and SAN cloud-converged storage capabilities that enable on-premises storage to seamlessly access Oracle Public Cloud. Its advanced hardware and software architecture includes a multi-threading SMP storage operating system for running multiple workloads and advanced data services without performance degradation. The offering also caches data on DRAM or flash cache for optimal performance and efficiency, while keeping data safely stored on high-capacity SSD (solid state disk) or HDD (hard disk drive) storage.

Previously, the studio had been using an Dell EMC Isilon storage cluster with Avere caching appliances, and the company is still employing the solution for parts of its workflow.

When it came time to upgrade to handle RSP’s increased workload, the facility ran a proof of concept with multiple vendors in September 2016 and benchmarked their systems. Impressed with Oracle, RSP began installation in early 2017. According to Day, RSP liked the solution’s ability to support larger packet sizes — now up to 1MB. In addition, he says its “exceptional” analytics engine gives introspection into a render job.

“It has a very appealing [total cost of ownership], and it has caching right out of the box, removing the need for additional caching appliances,” says Day. Storage is at the center of RSP’s workflow, storing all the relevant information for every department — from live-action plates that are turned over from clients, scene setup files and multi-terabyte cache files to iterations of the final product. “All employees work off this storage, and it needs to accommodate the needs of multiple projects and deadlines with zero downtime,” Day adds.

Machine Room

“Visual effects scenes are getting more complex, and in turn, data sizes are increasing. Working in 4K quadruples file sizes and, therefore, impacts storage performance,” explains Day. “We needed a solution that could cope with these requirements and future trends in the industry.”

According to Day, the data RSP deals with is broad, from small setup files to terabyte geocache files. A one-minute 2K DPX sequence is 17GB for the final pass, while 4K is 68GB. “Keep in mind this is only the final pass; a single shot could include hundreds of passes for a heavy computer-generated sequence,” he points out.

Thus, high-performance storage is important to the effective operation of a visual effects company like RSP. In fact, storage helps the artists stay on the creative edge by enabling them to iterate through the creative process of crafting a shot and a look. “Artists are required to iterate their creative process many times to perfect the look of a shot, and if they experience slowdowns when loading scenes, this can have a dramatic effect on how many iterations they can produce. And in turn, this affects employees’ efficiency and, ultimately, the profitability of the company,” says Day.

Thor: Ragnarok

Most recently, RSP used its new storage solution for work on the blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, in particular, for the Val’s Flashback sequence — which was extremely complex and involved extensive lighting and texture data, as well as high-frame-rate plates (sometimes more than 1,000fps for multiple live-action footage plates). “Before, our storage refresh early versions of this shot could take up to 24 hours to render on our server farm. But since installing our new storage, we saw this drastically reduced to six hours — that’s a 3x improvement, which is a fantastic outcome,” says Day.

Outpost VFX
A full-service VFX studio for film, broadcast and commercials, Outpost VFX, based in Bournemouth, England, has been operational since late 2012. Since that time, the facility has been growing by leaps and bounds, taking on major projects, including Life, Nocturnal Animals, Jason Bourne and 47 Meters Down.

Paul Francis

Due to this fairly rapid expansion, Outpost VFX has seen the need for increased capacity in its storage needs. “As the company grows and as resolution increases and HDR comes in, file sizes increase, and we need much more capacity to deal with that effectively,” says CTO Paul Francis.

When setting up the facility five years ago, the decision was made to go with PixStor from Pixit Media and Synology’s NAS for its storage solution. “It’s an industry-recognized solution that is extremely resilient to errors. It’s fast, robust and the team at Pixit provides excellent support, which is important to us,” says Francis.

Foremost, the solution had to provide high capacity and high speeds. “We need lots of simultaneous connections to avoid bottlenecks and ensure speedy delivery of data,” Francis adds. “This is the only one we’ve used, really. It has proved to be stable enough to support us through our growth over the last couple of years — growth that has included a physical office move and an increase in artist capacity to 80 seats.”

Outpost VFX mainly works with image data and project files for use with Autodesk’s Maya, Foundry’s Nuke, Side Effects’ Houdini and other VFX and animation tools. The challenge this presents is twofold, both large and small: concern for large file sizes, and problems the group can face with small files, such as metadata. Francis explains: “Sequentially loading small files can be time-consuming due to the current technology, so moving to something that can handle both of these areas will be of great benefit to us.”

Locally, artists use a mix of HDDs from a number of different manufacturers to store reference imagery and so forth — older-generation PCs have mostly Western Digital HDDs while newer PCs have generic SSDs. When replacing or upgrading equipment, Outpost VFX uses Samsung 900 Series SSDs, depending on the required performance and current market prices.

Life

Like many facilities, Outpost VFX is always weighing its options when it comes to finding the best solution for its current and future needs. Presently, it is looking at splitting up some of its storage solutions into smaller segments for greater resilience. “When you only have one storage solution and it fails, everything goes down. We’re looking to break our setup into smaller, faster solutions,” says Francis.

Additionally, security is a concern for Outpost VFX when it comes to its clients. According to Francis, certain shows need to be annexed, meaning the studio will need a separate storage solution outside of its main network to handle that data.

When Outpost VFX begins a job, the group ingests all the plates it needs to work on, and they reside in a new job folder created by production and assigned to a specific drive for active jobs. This folder then becomes the go-to for all assets, elements and shot iterations created throughout the production. For security purposes, these areas of the server are only visible to and accessible by artists, who in turn cannot access the Internet; this ensures that the files are “watertight and immune to leaks,” says Francis, adding that with PixStor, the studio is able to set up different partitions for different areas that artists can jump between easily.

How important is storage to Outpost VFX? “Frankly, there’d be no operation without storage!” Francis says emphatically. “We deal with hundreds of terrabytes of data in visual effects, so having high-capacity, reliable storage available to us at all times is absolutely essential to ensure a smooth and successful operation.”

47 Meters Down

Because the studio delivers visual effects across film, TV and commercials simultaneously, storage is an important factor no matter what the crew is working on. A recent film project like 47 Meters Down required the full gamut of visual effects work, as Outpost VFX was the sole vendor for the project. So, the studio needed the space and responsiveness of a storage system that enabled them to deliver more than 420 shots, a number of which featured heavy 3D builds and multiple layers of render elements.

“We had only about 30 artists at that point, so having a stable solution that was easy for our team to navigate and use was crucial,” Francis points out.

Main Image: From Outpost VFX’s Domestos commercial out of agency MullenLowe London.


Dementia 13: Helping enhance the horror with VFX

By Randi Altman

As scary movies are making a comeback and putting butts in seats, as they say, the timing couldn’t be better for NBC Universal’s remake of Dementia 13, a 1963 horror film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The 2017 version, directed by Richard LeMay, can be streamed on all major VOD platforms. It focuses on a vengeful ghost, a mysterious murderer and a family with a secret. Jeremy Wanek was the lead VFX artist on Dementia 13, and Wayne Harry Johnson Jr. was the VFX producer. They are from Black Space VFX. We reached out to them with some questions.

Jeremy Wanek

How early did you get involved in Dementia 13?
Johnson: We were involved from the second or third draft of the script. Dan De Filippo, who wrote and produced the film, wanted our feedback immediately in terms of what was possible for VFX in the film. We worked with them through pre-production and even fielded a few questions during production. It is extremely important to start thinking about VFX immediately in any production. That way you can write for it and plan your shoot for it. There is nothing worse than a production hoping it can be fixed by VFX work. So getting us involved right away saves everyone a lot of time and money.

Wanek: During preproduction it seems incredibly common for filmmakers to underestimate how many effect shots there will be on their films. They forget about the simple/invisible effects, while concentrating on the bigger and flashier stuff. I don’t blame them; it’s nearly impossible to figure everything out ahead of time. There are always unexpected things that come up during production as well. Always.

For example, on Dementia 13 they shot in this really cool castle location, but they found out while on production that they couldn’t use as many of the practical blood effects as they intended. They didn’t want a bloody mess! So, we were asked to do more digital blood effects and enhancements.

Wayne Harry Johnson, Jr.

Were they open to suggestions from you or did they have a very specific idea of what they wanted?
Johnson: As in every production, there are always elements that are very specifically asked for, but director Richard LeMay is very collaborative. We discussed in great detail the look of all the important effects. And he was very open to suggestions and ideas. This was our second film with Rich. We also did the VFX work on his new film Blood Bound, and it has been a great creative relationship. We can’t wait to work with him again.

Wanek: Yeah, Rich has a vision for sure, but he always gives us creative freedom to explore options and see what we can come up with. I think that’s the best of both worlds.

How many shots did you provide?
Johnson: We did roughly 60 VFX shots for the film, and hopefully the audience won’t notice all of them. If we do our jobs correctly, most VFX work is invisible. As in all films there are little things that get cleaned up or straightened out. VFX isn’t just about robots and explosions. It has a lot to do with keeping the film looking the best it can be by hiding the blemishes that could not be avoided during production.

So again it is important for the filmmakers to consult on their film as they go and ask questions as they go. We all want the same thing for the film, and that is to make it the best it can be and sometimes that means painting out a light switch or removing a sign on that beautiful shot of a road.

Wanek: It’s interesting to note how many shots were intended during preproduction and how many we ended up doing in post. I’d say we ended up doing at least twice as many shots, which is not uncommon. There are elements like the smoke on Kathleen, the ghost girl, when it’s hard to know exactly how many times you’re going to cut to a shot of her. Half of the effect shots for the movie involved creating her ghostly appearance.

Ghost girl Kathleen.

Can you describe the type of effects you provided on the show?
Wanek: We did muzzle flashes, wire removal, visible breath from characters in a cold environment, frost that encapsulates windows, digital hands that pull a character off a dock and into water (that included a digital water splash), the Kathleen ghost effect and an assortment of blood effects.

You created a lot of element effects, such as smoke, water, blood, etc. What was the hardest one to create and why?
Wanek: Creating the smoke that blankets Kathleen was the most challenging and time consuming effect. There were about 30 shots of her in total, and I tackled them myself. With the quick turnaround on the film, it made for some long nights. Every action she performed, and each new camera angle, presented unique challenges. Thankfully, she doesn’t move much in most of the shots. But for shots where she picks a gun up from the ground, or walks across the room, I had to play around with the physics to make it play more realistically, which takes time.

What tools did you use on this project?
Wanek: We composited in Adobe After Effects, tracked in Mocha AE, used Photoshop to assist in painting out objects/wire removal, and I relied heavily on Red Giant’s Trapcode Particular to create the particle effects — ghostly smoke, some of the blood effects and a digital water splash.

Our artists work remotely, so we stored the shots on Dropbox to easily send them out to other artists on the team, who would then download them to their own hard drives. To review shots it was a similar process, using Dropbox and emailing the director a link to stream/download. We kept shot names and the progress info on all shots organized using a Google spreadsheet. This was great because we could update it live, and everyone was on the same page at all times.

CG hands.

Turnarounds are typically tight? Was that the case with Dementia 13? If so, how did you make it work?
Johnson: Yes, we had roughly 30 days to complete the VFX work on the film. Tight deadlines can be hard but we were aware of that when we went into it. What really helps with managing tight deadlines is all the upfront communication between us and the director. By the time we started we knew exactly what Rich was looking for so dialing it in was a much easier and faster process. We also previewed early cuts of the film so we could see and anticipate any potential problems ahead of time. Planning and preparing solves most problems even when time is tight.

So as I said, having VFX involved from the very beginning is essential. Bring us in early, even when it’s just a treatment. We can get a sense of what needs to be done, how long it will take and start estimating budgets. The thing that makes tight deadlines hard is that lots of filmmakers think about VFX last, or very late in the process. Then when they want it done fast they have to compromise because the effect may not have been planned right. So as you can see we have a theme, call us early on.

Wanek: And as I mentioned earlier, unexpected things happen. The dreaded, “we’ll fix it in post,” is a real thing, unfortunately. Filmmakers need to make sure they have additional VFX budget for those surprises.

What was the most challenging part of the process?
Johnson: Each area can have its own challenges. But making anything move like liquid and look convincing is hard. We worked on some ghostly blood effects in the title sequence of the film that were difficult, but in the end we think it looks great. It is a subtle plant for the audience to know there is a bit of supernatural action in this film. Our company is also a virtual company, meaning all of us work remotely. So sometimes communication internally and with clients can be a challenge, but in the end a quick phone call usually solves most problems. Again, more communication and earlier involvement helps alleviate a lot of issues.

CG blood spurts.

What’s next for you and your studio, and where are you based?
Wanek: We are based in Minneapolis, and just opened a second office in New York City. Wayne, myself and Adam Natrop are partners in the company. We’re currently in post production on a horror comedy zombie/hockey movie, Ahockalypse. It’s wackier than it sounds. It’s a lot of fun and pretty bold!

Wayne wrote and directed the film, and I edited it. We just handed it off to our sound designer, to our composer, and are starting work on the VFX. We’re hoping to finish before the year is up. We have several projects on the horizon that we can’t say anything about yet, but we’re excited!


Behind the Title: Framestore director of production & ops Sarah Hiddlestone

NAME: Sarah Hiddlestone

COMPANY: Framestore

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Framestore is a BAFTA-and Oscar-winning visual effects studio. We produce visual content for any screen from films and TV programs to theme park rides to large-scale installations and virtual/augmented/mixed realities.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director of Production & Operations

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
My role oversees daily negotiation and communication, and ensures that the New York office runs smoothly. I focus on creating an environment, studio culture and working process that allows teams to produce high-quality work on time and on budget. My role looks at the bigger picture, ensuring projects are run as efficiently as possible. I’m constantly problem-solving and pushing to create the best working environment for our clients and creative talent.

Framestore

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
Choosing soap.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
My talented production team and our talented artists — they are the life and soul of all the work we produce at Framestore.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Tantrums.

WHAT IS YOUR MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME OF THE DAY?
The morning. I’m usually one of the first in, and I get a lot done as the office wakes up.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Living as a beach bum in Bali.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I fell into this profession. I always loved animation, but studied hospitality management — thought I wanted to be a chef but hated the hours. Oh, the irony. I worked my way up from a PA, learning everything I know on the job. Along the way I’ve developed vital, in-depth knowledge of the production, VFX, VR and emerging technology processes, and the ability to see Framestore as a global whole rather than at individual office or project level.

Working in VFX has allowed me to travel the world, live in different cities (Sydney, New York, London) and meet a network of firm friends that span the globe. My VFX family. I am lucky to have worked at Framestore in both the London and NY offices.

Fantastic Beasts experience

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I am behind the scenes on most of the jobs that come out of the NY office. A stand out for our New York office would include last year’s virtual school bus experience Field Trip to Mars with Lockheed Martin and McCann. It’s gone on to win over 100 awards and truly showed the strength and diversity of our staff. More recently we worked with multiple Academy Award-winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to visualize One Night for Absolut and BBH. Our New York office collaborated with Framestore’s film teams in London and Montreal to produce the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them experience.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
My personal all-time favorite is Chemical Brothers’ Salmon Dance, which I produced when working in the London office of Framestore for Dom & Nic at Outsider. I also love The Tale of Three Brothers (an animated storybook within Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1). It is a stunning piece of work.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
There’s just one: my iPhone.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Pilates, boxing, sitting in silence, lots of slow breathing. Thinking “calm blue ocean.”


MPC adds Flame artists and executive producer to its finishing team

MPC has strengthened its finishing capabilities with the addition of Flame artist and creative director Claus Hansen, senior Flame artist Noah Caddis and executive producer Robert Owens. The trio, who have joined MPC from Method, have over a decade of experience working together. They will be based in MPC’s Culver City studio.

Owens, Hansen and Caddis are all looking forward to collaborating with MPC’s colorists and artists who are located all around the world. “We were attracted to MPC for the quality of work they are renowned for. At the same time it feels very accessible, like we’re working in a collective group, all driven by the same thing, to make great work,” says Hansen. “We are at a point in our careers where we can take our knowledge and skills to make the best experience possible for the company and clients.”

“There is an assurance that all projects will be treated with an artistic eye and scrutiny that is not typically found in the fast-paced nature of finishing and beauty,” adds Caddis.

Hansen has worked with agencies, such as CP+B, Wieden + Kennedy and Deutsch, creating effects, beauty and finishing work on content for brands including BMW, Lexus, Maserati, Microsoft, Target and Revlon.

Caddis has worked on spots for Infiniti, Kia, Adobe, Diet Dr Pepper and others. He too has a strong history of partnering with high-profile agencies like Deutsch, CP+B, Media Arts Lab, Agency 215 and David & Goliath.

“Robert, Noah and I have noticed the strong sense of camaraderie since we arrived, and it’s contagious,” says Hansen. “It gives the feeling of being in a tight-knit, creatively focused group that you want to be a part of. And that’s very appealing.”

Main Image: (L-R) Noah Caddis, Robert Owen and Claus Hansen.


Review: Blackmagic Resolve 14

By David Cox

Blackmagic has released Version 14 of its popular DaVinci Resolve “color grading” suite, following a period of open public beta development. I put color grading in quotes, because one of the most interesting aspects about the V14 release is how far-reaching Resolve’s ambitions have become, beyond simply color grading.

Fairlight audio within Resolve.

Prior to being purchased by Blackmagic, DaVinci Resolve was one of a small group of high-end color grading systems being offered in the industry. Blackmagic then extended the product to include editing, and Version 14 offers several updates in this area, particularly around speed and fluidity of use. A surprise addition is the incorporation of Fairlight Audio — a full-featured audio mixing platform capable of producing feature film quality 3D soundscapes. It is not just an external plugin, but an integrated part of the software.

This review concentrates on the color finishing aspects of Resolve 14, and on first view the core color tools remain largely unchanged save for a handful of ergonomic improvements. This is not surprising given that Resolve is already a mature grading product. However, Blackmagic has added some very interesting tools and features clearly aimed at enabling colorists to broaden their creative control. I have been a long-time advocate of the idea that a colorist doesn’t change the color of a sequence, but changes the mood of it. Manipulating the color is just one path to that result, so I am happy to see more creatively expansive facilities being added.

Face Refinement
One new feature that epitomizes Blackmagic’s development direction is the Face Refinement tool. It provides features to “beautify” a face and underlines two interesting development points. Firstly, it shows an intention by the developers to create a platform that allows users to extend their creative control across the traditional borders of “color” and “VFX.”

Secondly, such a feature incorporates more advanced programming techniques that seek to recognize objects in the scene. Traditional color and keying tools simply replace one color for another, without “understanding” what objects those colors are attached to. This next step toward a more intelligent diagnosis of scene content will lead to some exciting tools and Blackmagic has started off with face-feature tracking.

Face Refinement

The Face Refinement function works extremely well where it recognizes a face. There is no manual intervention — the tool simply finds a face in the shot and tracks all the constituent parts (eyes, lips, etc). Where there is more than one face detected, the system offers a simple box selector for the user to specify which face to track. Once the analysis is complete, the user has a variety of simple sliders to control the smoothness, color and detail of the face overall, but also specific controls for the forehead, cheeks, chin, lips, eyes and the areas around and below the eyes.

I found the face de-shine function particularly successful. A light touch with the controls yields pleasing results very quickly. A heavy touch is what you need if you want to make someone look like an android. I liked the fact that you can go negative with some controls and make a face look more haggard!

In my tests, the facial tracking was very effective for properly framed faces, even those with exaggerated expressions, headshakes and so on. But it would fail where the face became partially obscured, such as when the camera panned off the face. This led to all the added improvements popping off mid shot. While the fully automatic operation makes it quick and simple to use, it affords no opportunity for the user to intervene and assist the facial tracking if it fails. All things considered though, this will be a big help and time saver for the majority of beauty work shots.

Resolve FX
New for Resolve 14 are a myriad of built-in effects called Resolve FX, all GPU-accelerated and available to be added in the edit “page” directly to clips, or in the color page attached to nodes. They are categorized into Blurs, Light, Color, Refine, Repair, Stylize, Texture and Warp. A few particularly caught my eye, for example in “color,” the color compressor brings together nearby colors to a central hue. This is handy for unifying colors of an unevenly lit client logo into their precise brand reference, or dealing with blotchy skin. There is also a color space transform tool that enables LUT-less conversion between all the major color “spaces.”

Color

The dehaze function derives a depth map by some mysterious magic to help improve contrast over distance. The “light” collection includes a decent lens flare that allows plenty of customizing. “Styles” creates watercolor and outline looks while Texture includes a film grain effect with several film-gauge presets. I liked the implementation of the new Warp function. Rather than using grids or splines, the user simply places “pins” in the image to drag certain areas around. Shift-adding a pin defines a locked position immune from dragging. All simple, intuitive and realtime, or close to it.

Multi-Skilled and Collaborative Workflows
A dilemma for the Resolve developers is likely to be where to draw the line between editing, color and VFX. Blackmagic also develops Fusion, so they have the advanced side of VFX covered. But in the middle, there are editors who want to make funky transitions and title sequences, and colorists who use more effects, mattes and tracking. Resolve runs out of ability in these areas quite quickly and this forces the more adventurous editor or colorist into the alien environment of Fusion. The new features of Resolve help in this area, but a few additions to Resolve, such as better keyframing of effects and easier ability to reference other timeline layers in the node panel could help to extend Resolve’s ability to handle many common VFX-ish demands.

Some have criticized Blackmagic for turning Resolve into a multi-discipline platform, suggesting that this will create an industry of “jack of all trades and masters of none.” I disagree with this view for several reasons. Firstly, if an artist wants to major in a specific discipline, having a platform that can do more does not impede them. Secondly, I think the majority of content (if you include YouTube, etc.) is created by a single person or small teams, so the growth of multi-skilled post production people is simply an inevitable and logical progression which Blackmagic is sensibly addressing.

Edit

But for professional users within larger organisations, the cross-discipline features of Resolve take on a different meaning when viewed in the context of “collaboration.” Resolve 14 permits editors to edit, colorists to color and sound mixers to mix, all using different installations of the same platform, sharing the same media and contributing to the same project, even the same timeline. On the face of it, this promises to remove “conforms” and eradicate wasteful import/export processes and frustrating compatibility issues, while enabling parallel workflows across editing, color grading and audio.

For fast-turnaround projects, or projects where client approval cannot be sought until the project progresses beyond a “rough” stage, the potential advantages are compelling. Of course, the minor hurdle to get over will be to persuade editors and audio mixers to adopt Resolve as their chosen weapon. If they do, Blackmagic might well be on the way to providing collaborative utopia.

Summing Up
Resolve 14 is a massive upgrade from Resolve 12 (there wasn’t a Resolve 13 — who would have thought that a company called Blackagic might be superstitious?). It provides a substantial broadening of ability that will suit both the multi-skilled smaller outfits or fit as a grading/finishing platform and collaborative backbone in larger installations.


David Cox is a VFX compositor and colorist with 20-plus years of experience. He started his career with MPC and The Mill before forming his own London-based post facility. Cox recently created interactive projects with full body motion sensors and 4D/AR experiences.


Brickyard VFX now offering editing via Andre Betz and Bug

Brickyard VFX has added editor Andre Betz to its team. Brickyard and Betz have been longtime collaborators through Betz’s shop Bug Editorial, and Bug will now be the official banner for Brickyard’s editorial roster and services.

“We have had a fabulous relationship with Andre over the years, and as more and more of our clients were asking for in-house editorial services, it made sense to officially join forces,” explains Andrew Bell, managing director at Brickyard VFX. “Adding editorial under the same roof will streamline post for our clients and be a huge benefit, and we’re excited to now offer this option in both our Boston and Santa Monica offices.”

Betz’s work has appeared in Super Bowl spots and in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. He has cut projects for brands such as Mercedes, Nationwide, VW, Chobani, Honda and many more. He is based in the Boston office and his editing tool of choice is Avid Media Composer.

“I’m thrilled to join their team and work to build out their editorial offerings on both coasts, so that clients can get results more efficiently and cost-effectively, all through one vendor,” says Betz.


Autodesk Flame family updates offer pipeline enhancements

Autodesk has updated its Flame 2018 family of 3D visual effects and finishing software, which includes Flame, Flare, Flame Assist and Lustre. Flame 2018.3 offers more efficient ways of working in post, with feature enhancements that offer greater pipeline flexibility, speed and support for emerging formats and technology.

Flame 2018.3 highlights include:

• Action Selective: Apply FX color to an image surface or the whole action scene via the camera

• Motion Warp Tracking: Organically distort objects that are changing shape, angle and form with new 32-bit motion vector-based tracking technology

• 360-degree VR viewing mode: View LatLong images in a 360-degree VR viewing mode in the Flame player or any viewport during compositing and manipulate the field of view

• HDR waveform monitoring: Set viewport to show luminance waveform; red, green, blue (RGB) parade; color vectorscope or 3D cube; and monitor a range of HDR and wide color gamut (WCG) color spaces including Rec2100 PQ, Rec2020 and DCI P3

• Shotgun Software Loader: Load assets for a shot and build custom batches via Flame’s Python API, and browse a Shotgun project for a filtered view of individual shots

• User-requested improvements for Action, Batch, Timeline and Media Hub

“The new standalone Python console in Flame 2018.3 is a great,” says Treehouse Edit finishing artist John Fegan, a Flame family beta tester. “We’re also excited about the enhanced FBX export with physically based renderer (PBR) for Maya and motion analysis updates. Using motion vector maps, we can now achieve things we couldn’t with a planar tracker or 3D track.”

Flame Family 2018.3 is available today at no additional cost to customers with a current Flame Family 2018 subscription.

Behind the Title: Postal director of operations Jason Mayo

NAME: Jason Mayo

COMPANY: Postal

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Postal is a VFX and animation studio made up of artists and producers that like to make cool shit. We experiment and push the envelope, but we’re also adults, so we get it done on time and on budget. Oh and we’re not assholes. That would be a cool t-shirt. “Postal: We’re not assholes.”

Postal is a creative studio that believes everything starts with great design. That’s our DNA. We believe that it’s always about the talent and not the tools. Whether it’s motion graphics, animation, visual effects, or even editorial, our desire to create transcends all mediums.

Postal’s live-action parent company, Humble is a NY- and LA-based home for makers —directors, writers, creatives, artists and designers — to create culture-defining content.

Coke Freestyle

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director of Operations

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I spend a lot of my time on biz dev, recruiting interesting talent and developing strategic partnerships that lead to new pipelines of business.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
Probably picking up garbage. Creatives are pretty messy. They leave their stuff all over the place. The truth of the matter is, it’s a small company so no matter what your title is, you’re always on the front lines. That’s what makes my days interesting.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Definitely competing for projects we’re passionate about. I love the thrill of the chase. Also I love trying to keep our artists and producers inspired. Not every project needs to win awards but it’s important to me that my team finds the work interesting and challenging to tackle.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Probably the picking up the garbage part. I’ve ruined a lot of shirts. I also hate seeing content on TV or on the web that could have been produced by us. Especially if it turned out killer.

WHAT IS YOUR MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME OF THE DAY?
I have two daughters and a puppy so by 8am I’m basically a broken man. But as soon as I hit the office with my iced coffee in hand, I’m on fire. I love the start of the workday. Endless possibilities abound.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Probably a cool middle school English teacher. The kids would call me Jay and talk to me about their problems. Honestly though, when I’m done working I’ll probably just disappear into the woods or something and chase possums with a BB gun.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
It was an accident. I wanted to be an actor. My mom’s best friend’s, ex-husband owned a small post house and he hired me as a receptionist. I was probably the greatest receptionist of all time. I thought being in “entertainment” would get me to Hollywood through the back door. I still have about 500 headshots that I never got to use.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
We’ve had such a crazy year. We’ve done projects for Pepsi, Coke, Panera, Morgan Stanley, TED, Canon, Billboard and Nike.

TED Zipline

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I really love the TED stuff we do. They are a dream client. They come to us with a challenge and they allow us to go away, come up with some really imaginative stuff and then present them with a solution. As long as it’s on brief, it can be any style or any execution we think is right. We love that type of open collaboration with our clients.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
If we’re talking about apps, as well as hardware, then that’s easy. Sonos because it’s all about the music, Netflix because… zombies, and ride sharing apps because cabs are dirty and they make me nauseous.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
In general, I’m pretty active on social media and we actually just launched Facebook and Instagram pages for Postal. In a parallel universe I’m a dad blogger so I’ve always been big on community via social media. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the standards for me, but I’ve been Snapchatting with my daughter for years. I do have a Pinterest page somewhere, but it’s devoted solely to Ryan Gosling.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
I’m a heavy metal guy so pretty much anything heavy. I do also love me some Jackson Browne and some Dawes. Oh, and the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, of course.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I try not to let it get to me. It’s way tougher raising two daughters and two dogs. The rest is a cakewalk. I do binge eat from time to time and love to watch horror movies on the train. Always a good way for me to decompress.