Category Archives: VFX

Rick Pearson on cutting Kong: Skull Island

By Randi Altman

Who doesn’t love a good King Kong movie? And who says a good King Kong movie has to have the hairy giant climbing the Empire State Building, lady in hand?

The Jordan Vogt-Roberts-directed Kong: Skull Island, which had an incredible opening weekend at the box office — and is still going strong — tells the story of a 1973 military expedition to map out an island where in 1944 two downed pilots happened upon a huge monster. What could possibly go wrong?

Editor Rick Pearson, who was originally set to come on board for 10 weeks during the Director’s Cut process to help with digital effects turnovers, ended up seeing the project through to the end. Pearson came on during the last third of production, as the crew was heading off to Vietnam.

The process was already in place where rough cuts were shared on the PIX system for the director’s review. That seemed to be work well, he says.

To find out more about the process, I recently touched base with Pearson, who at the time of our interview was in Budapest editing a film about the origin of Robin Hood. He kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his work and workflow on Kong: Skull Island, which in addition to Vietnam shot in Hawaii and Australia.

Would director Vogt-Roberts get you notes? Did he give you any direction in terms of the cut?
Yes, he would give very specific notes via PIX. He would drop the equivalent of locators or markers on sequences that I would send him and say, “Could you maybe try a close-up here?” Or “Could you try this or that?” They were very concise, so that was helpful. Eventually, though, you get to a point where you really need to be in a room together to explore options.

There are a lot of visual effects in the film. Can you talk about how that affected your edit and workflow?
Some of the sequences were quite evolved in terms of previsualization that had been done a year or more prior. Then there was a combination of previs, storyboards and some sequences, one in particular had kind of a loose set of storyboards and some previs, but then the set piece was evolving as we were working.

The production was headed to Vietnam and there was a lot of communication between myself, Jordan and the producers about trying to nail down the structure of this set piece so they would know what to shoot in terms of plates, because it was a battle that largely took place between Kong and one of the creatures of the island — it was a lot of plate work.

Would you say that that was the most difficult sequence to work on, or is there another more challenging sequence that you could point to?
I think they were all challenging. For me, that last sequence, which we called the “Final Battle” was challenging in there was not a lot that was nailed down. There were some beats we knew we wanted to try to play, but it sort of kept evolving. I enjoy working on these kinds of films with those types of sequences because they’re so malleable. It’s a fun sandbox to play in because, to an extent, you’re limited only by your imagination.

Still, you’re committing a lot of money, time and resources, so you need to look down field as far as you can to say, “This is the right direction and we’re all on the same page.” It’s a big, slow-moving, giant cargo ship that takes a long time to course-correct. You want to make sure that you’re heading in the right direction, or at least as close as you can be, when you start going down those roads.

Any other shots that stand out?
There was one thing that was kind of a novelty on this picture — and I know that it’s not the first time it’s been done, but it was the first time for me. We had some pretty extensive re-shoots, but our cast was kind of spread all over the globe. In one of the re-shoots, we needed a conversation to happen in a bar between three of the characters, Tom Hiddelston, John Goodman and Cory Hawkins. None of them were available at the same time or in the same city.

The scene was going to the three of them sitting down at a table having a conversation where John Goodman’s character offers Tom Hiddelston’s character a job as their guide to take them to Skull Island. I think it was Goodman’s character that was shot first. We show Goodman’s side of the table in New York with that side of the bar behind him and an empty chair beside him. Then we shot Hawkin’s character by himself in front of a greenscreen sitting in a chair reacting to Goodman and delivering his dialogue. Lastly, we shot Hiddelston in LA with that side of the bar and overs with doubles. It all came together, and I thought, “I don’t think anybody would have a clue that none of these people were in the same room at the same time.” It was kind of a Rubik’s Cube… an editorial bit of sleight of hand that worked in the end.


You worked with other editors on the film, correct?
Yes, editor Bob Murawski helped me tremendously; he ended up taking over my original role, which was during the Director’s Cut. Bob came on to help split up these really demanding visual effects sequence turnovers every two weeks. We had to keep on it to make the release date.

Murawski was a huge help, but so was the addition of Josh Schaeffer, who had worked with Jordan in the past. He was one of the additional editors on Jordan’s Kings of Summer (2013). Jordan had shot a lot of material — it wasn’t necessarily montage-based, but we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to work in the picture. We knew that he had a long-standing relationship with Josh and was comfortable with him. Bob said, “While we’re in the middle of a Director’s Cut and you and I are trying to feed this giant visual effects beast, there’s also this whole other aspect that Jordan and Josh could really focus on.” Josh was a really big help in getting us through the process. Both Bob and Josh were very big assets to me.

How do you work with your assistant editor?
I’ve had the same first assistant, Sean Thompson, for about 12 years. Unfortunately, he’s not with me here in Budapest. I took this film after the original editor dropped out for health reasons. Sean has a young family, and 15 weeks in Budapest and then another 12 weeks in London just wasn’t possible for him.

How did you work with Sean on Skull Island?
He’s a terrific manager of the cutting room in terms of discerning the needs of other departments, be it digital effects, music or sound. I lean on him to let me know what I absolutely need to know, and he takes care of the rest. That’s one of the roles he serves, and he’s bulletproof.

I also rely on him creatively. He’s tremendous with his sound work and very good at looking at cuts with me and giving his feedback. I throw him scenes to cut as much as I can, but sometimes on films like this there are so many other demands as a manager.

You use Avid Media Composer. Any special keyboard mappings, or other types of work you provide?
As a feature film editor my main objective is to make sure that the story and the characters are firing on all cylinders. I’m not particularly interested in how far I can push the box technically.

I’ve mapped the keyboard to what I’m comfortable with, but I don’t think it’s anything that’s particularly sophisticated. I try to do as much as I can on the keyboard so that I keep the
pointing and clicking to a minimum.

You edit a lot of action films. Is that just because people say, “He does action,” or is that your favorite kind of film to cut?
It’s interesting you should say that… the first Hollywood feature I cut was Bowfinger, which is comedy. I hadn’t cut any comedy before that and suddenly I was the comedy editor. I found it ironic because everything I had done prior was action-based television, music videos and commercials. I’ve always loved cutting action and juxtaposing images in a way that tells a story that’s not necessarily being told verbally. It’s not just like, “Wow, look at how much stuff is blowing up and that’s amazing how many cars are involved.” It’s actually character-based and story-driven.

I also really enjoy comedy. There is quite a lot of comedy in Kong, so it’s nice to flex that muscle too. I’ve tried very hard to not get pigeonholed.

So you are knee-deep in this Robin Hood film?
I sure am! I wasn’t planning on getting back on to another film quite so quickly, but I was very intrigued by both the director and script. As I mentioned earlier, they had an editor slated for the picture but unfortunately she fell ill just weeks prior to the start of production. So suddenly, here I am.

The added bonus is you get to play in Europe for a bit.
Yes, actually, I’m sitting here in my apartment. I have a laptop and an additional monitor and I’ve been cutting scenes. I have a lovely view of the parliament building, which is on the Danube. It’s a beautiful domed building that’s lit up every night until midnight. It’s really kind of cool.

The VFX Industry: Where are the women?

By Jennie Zeiher

As anyone in the visual effects industry would know, Marvel’s Victoria Alonso was honored earlier this year with the Visual Effects Society Visionary Award. Victoria is an almighty trailblazer, one of whom us ladies can admire, aspire to and want to be.

Her acceptance speech was an important reminder to us of the imbalance of the sexes in our industry. During her speech, Victoria stated: “Tonight there were 476 of you nominated. Forty-three of which are women. We can do better.”

Over the years, I’ve had countless conversations with industry people — executives, supervisors and producers — about why there are fewer women in artist and supervisory roles. A recent article in the NY Times suggested that female VFX supervisors made up only five percent of the 250 top-grossing films of 2014. Pretty dismal.

I’ve always worked in male-dominated industries, so I’m possibly a bit blasé about it. I studied IT and worked as a network engineer in the late ‘90s, before moving to the United States where I worked on 4K digital media projects with technologists and scientists. One of a handful of women, I was always just one of the boys. To me it was the norm.

Moving into VFX about 10 years ago, I realized this industry was no different. From my viewpoint, I see about 1/8 ratio of female to male artists. The same is true from what I’ve seen through our affiliated training courses. Sadly, I’ve heard of some facilities that have no women in artist roles at all!

Most of the females in our industry work in other disciplines. At my workplace, Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures, half of our executive members are women (myself included), and women generally outweigh men in indirect overhead roles (HR, finance, administration and management), as well as production management.

Women bring unique qualities to the workplace: they’re team players, hard working, generous and empathetic. Copious reports have found that companies that have women on their board of directors and in leadership positions perform better than those that don’t. So in our industry, why do we see such a male-dominated artist, technical and supervisory workforce?

By no means am I undervaluing the women in those other disciplines (we could not have functioning businesses without them), I’m just merely trying to understand why there aren’t more women inclined to pursue artistic jobs and, ultimately, supervision roles.

I can’t yet say that one of the talented female artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years has risen to the ranks of being a VFX supervisor… and that’s not to say that they couldn’t have, just that they didn’t, or haven’t yet. This is something that disappoints me deeply. I consider myself a (liberal) feminist. Someone who, in a leadership position, wants to enable other women to become the best they can be and to be equal among their male counterparts.
So, why? Where are the women?

Men and Women Are Wired Differently
A study by LiveScience suggests men and women really are wired differently. It says,  “Male brains have more connections within hemispheres to optimize motor skills, whereas female brains are more connected between hemispheres to combine analytical and intuitive thinking.”

Apparently this difference is at its greatest during the adolescent years (13-17 years), however with age these differences get smaller. So, during the peak of an adolescent girl’s education, she’s more inclined to be analytical and intuitive. Is that a direct correlation to them not choosing a technical vocation? But then again I would have thought that STEM/STEAM careers would be something of interest to girls if they’re brains are wired to be analytical?

This would also explain women having better organizational and management skills and therefore seeking out more “indirectly” associated roles.

Lean Out
For those women already in our industry, are they too afraid to seek out higher positions? Women are often more self-critical and self-doubting. Men will promote themselves and dive right in, even if they’re less capable. I have experienced this first hand and didn’t actual recognize it in myself until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

Or, is it just simply that we’re in a “boys club” — that these career opportunities are not being presented to our female artists, and that we’d prefer to promote men over women?

The Star Wars Factor
Possibly one of the real reasons that there is a lack of women in our industry is what I call “The Star Wars factor.” For the most part, my male counterparts grew up watching (and being inspired by) Star Wars and Star Trek, whereas, personally, I was more inclined to watch Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Footloose. Did these adolescent boys want to be Luke or Han, or George for that matter? Were they so inspired by John Dykstra’s lightsabers that they wanted to do THAT when they grew up? And if this is true, maybe Jyn, Rae and Captain Marvel —and our own Captain Marvel, Victoria Alonso — will spur on a new generation of women in the industry. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these factors. Maybe it’s none.

I’m very interested in exploring this further. To address the problem, we need to ask ourselves why, so please share your thoughts and experiences — you can find me at jz@vfxjz.com. At least now the conversation has started.

One More Thing!
I am very proud that one of my female colleagues, Alana Newell (pictured with her fellow nominees), was nominated for a VES Award this year for Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Feature for X-Men: Apocalypse. She was one of the few, but hopefully as time goes by that will change.

Main Image: The woman of Rising Sun Pictures.
——–

Jennie Zeiher is head of sales & business development at Adelaide, Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures.

G-Tech 6-15

Behind the Title: Director/Designer Ash Thorp

NAME: Ash Thorp (@ashthorp)

COMPANY: ALT Creative, Inc.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
ALT Creative is co-owned by my wife Monica and myself. She helps coordinate and handle the company operations, while I manage the creative needs of clients. We work with a select list of outside contractors as needed, mainly depending on the size and scale of the project.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
I fulfill many roles, but if I had to summarize I would say I most commonly am hired for the role of director or designer.

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Directing is about facilitating the team to achieve the best outcome on a given project. My ability to communicate with and engage my team toward a visionary goal is my top priority as a director. As a designer, I look at my role as an individual problem solver. My goal is to find the root of what is needed or requested and solve it using design as a mental process of solution.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I believe that directing is more about communication and not how well you can design, so many would be surprised by the amount of time and energy needed outside of “creative” tasks, such as emails, critiques, listening, observation and deep analysis.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
As a director, I love the freedom to expose the ideas in my mind to others and work closely with them to bring them to life. It’s immensely liberating and rewarding.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Redundancy often eats up my ambitions. Instructing my vision repeatedly to numerous teammates and partners can be taxing on my subconscious at times.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
The late evening because that is often when I have my mind to myself and am free of outside world distractions and noise.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Nothing. I strongly believe that this is what I was put on earth to do. This is the path I have been designed and focused on since I was a child.

SO YOU KNEW EARLY ON THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I grew up with a very artistic family; my mother’s side of the family displays creative traits in one media or another. They were and still are all very deeply committed to supporting me in my creative endeavors. Based on my upbringing, it was a natural progression to also be a creative person.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
As for client projects that are publicly released, I most recently worked on the Assassin’s Creed feature film and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare video game.

For my own projects, I designed and co-directed a concept short for Lost Boy with Anthony Scott Burns. In addition, I released two personal projects: None is a short expression film devised to capture a tone and mood of finding oneself in a city of darkness, and Epoch
is an 11-minute space odyssey that merges my deep love of space and design.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
With Epoch being the most recently released project, I have received so many kind and congratulatory correspondences from viewers about how much they love the film. I am very proud of all the hard work and internal thought, development and personal growth it took to build this project with Chris Bjerre. I believe Epoch shows who I truly am, and I consider it one of the best projects of my personal career to date.

WHAT SOFTWARE DID YOU RELY ON FOR EPOCH?
We used a pretty wide spectrum of tools. Our general production tool kit was comprised of Adobe Photoshop for images and stills, texture building and 2D image editing; Adobe Bridge for reviewing frames and keeping a clear vision of the project; Adobe Premiere for editing everything from the beginning animatic to the final film; and, of course, our main staple in 3D was Maxon Cinema 4D, which we used to construct all of the final scenes and render everything using Octane Renderer.

We used Cinema 4D for everything — from building shots for the rough animatic to compiling entire scenes and shots for final render. We used it to animate the planets, moons, orbits, lights and the Vessel. It really is a rock-solid piece of software that I couldn’t imagine trying to build a film like Epoch without it. It allowed us to capture the animations, look, lighting and shots seamlessly from the project’s inception.

WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION FOR THIS WORK?
I am personally inspired by so many things. Epoch was a personal tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Carl Sagan, my love of space and space travel, classical sci-fi art and literature, and my personal love of graphic design all combined into one. We put tremendous effort into Epoch to pay proper homage to these things, yet also invite a new audience to experience something uniquely new. We hope you all enjoyed it!

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
The Internet, computers and physical traveling devices (like cars, planes).

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
I try and limit my time spent on social media, but I have two Facebooks, Instagram, Twitter and a Behance account.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
I frequently listen to music while I work as it helps me fall deep into my mentally focused work state of mind. The type of music varies as some genres work better than others because they trigger different emotions for different tasks. When I am in deep thought, I listen to composers that have no lyrics in their work that may pull away my mind’s focus. When I am doing ordinary tasks or busy work, I listen to anything from heavy metal to drum and bass. The scale of music really varies for me as it’s also often based on my current mood. Music is a big part of my workday and my life.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I actually let the stress in and let it shape my decision making. I feel if I run away from it or unwind my mind, it takes double the effort to go back in to work. I embrace it as being a part of the high consumption industry in which I have chosen to work. It’s not always ideal and is often very demanding, but I often let it be the spark of the fire of my work.


Digging Deep: Helping launch the OnePlus 3T phone

By Jonathan Notaro

It’s always a big deal when a company drops a new smartphone. The years of planning and development culminate in a single moment, and the consumers are left to judge whether or not the new device is worthy of praise and — more importantly — worthy of purchase.

For bigger companies like Google and Apple, a misstep with a new phone release can often amount to nothing more than a hiccup in their operations. But for newer upstarts like OnePlus, it’s a make or break event. When we got the call at Brand New School to develop a launch spot for the company’s 3T smartphone, along with the agency Carrot Creative, we didn’t hesitate to dive in.

The Idea
OnePlus has built a solid foundation of loyal fans with their past releases, but with the 3T they saw the chance to build their fanbase out to more everyday consumers who may not be as tech-obsessed as their existing fans. It is an entirely new offering and, as creatives, the chance to present such a technologically advanced device to a new, wider audience was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

Carrot wanted to create something for OnePlus that gave viewers a unique sense of what the phone was capable of — to capture the energy, momentum and human element of the OnePlus 3T. The 3T is meant to be an extension of its owner, so this spot was designed to explore the parallels between man and machine. Doing this can run the risk of being cliché, so we opted for futuristic, abstract imagery that gets the point across effectively without being too heavy handed. We focused on representing the phone’s features that set it apart from other devices in this market, such as its powerful processor and its memory and storage capabilities.

How We Did It
Inspired by the brooding, alluring mood reflected in the design for the title sequence of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we set out to meld lavish shots of the OnePlus 3T with robotically-infused human anatomy, drawing up initial designs in Autodesk Maya and Maxon Cinema 4D.

When the project moved into the animation phase, we stuck with Maya and used Nuke for compositing. Type designs were done in Adobe Illustrator and animated in Adobe After Effects.

Collaboration is always a concern when there are this many different scenes and moving parts, but this was a particular challenge. With a CG-heavy production like this, there’s no room for error, so we had to make sure that all of the different artists were on the same page every step along the way.

Our CG supervisor Russ Wootton and technical director Dan Bradham led the way and compiled a crack team to make this thing happen. I may be biased, but they continue to amaze me with what they can accomplish.

The Final Product
The project was two-month production process. Along the way, we found that working with Carrot and the brand was a breath of fresh air, as they were very knowledgeable and amenable to what we had in mind. They afforded us the creative space to take a few risks and explore some more abstract, avant-garde imagery that I felt represented what they were looking to achieve with this project.

In the end, we created something that I hope cuts through the crowded landscape of product videos and appeals to both the brand’s diehard-tech-savvy following and consumers who may not be as deep into that world. (Check it out here.)

Fueled by the goal of conveying the underlying message of “raw power” while balancing the scales of artificial and human elements, we created something I believe is beautiful, compelling and completely unique. Ultimately though, the biggest highlight was seeing the positive reaction the piece received when it was released. Normally, reaction from consumers would be centered solely on the product, but to have the video receive praise from a very discerning audience was truly satisfying.


Jonathan Notaro is a director at Brand New School, a bicoastal studio that provides VFX, animation and branding. 


An image scientist weighs in about this year’s SciTech winners

While this year’s Oscar broadcast was unforgettable due to the mix up in naming the Best Picture, many in the industry also remember actors Leslie Mann and John Cho joking about how no one understands what the SciTech Awards are about. Well, Shed’s SVP of imaging science, Matthew Tomlinson, was kind enough to answer some questions about the newest round of winners and what the technology means to the industry.

As an image scientist, what was the most exciting thing about this year’s Oscars’ Scientific and Technical Awards?
As an imaging scientist, I was excited about the five digital cameras — Viper, Genesis, Sony 65, Red Epic and Arri — that received accolades. I’ve been working with each of these cameras for years, and each of them has had a major impact in the industry. They’ve pioneered the digital revolution and have set a very high standard for future cameras that appear on the market.

The winners of the 2017 SciTech Awards. Credit: Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S.

Another exciting aspect is that you actually have access to your “negative” with digital cameras and, if need be, you can make adjustments to that negative after you’ve exposed it. It’s an incredibly powerful option that we haven’t even realized the full potential of yet.

From an audience perspective, even though they’ll never know it, the facial performance capture solving system developed by ILM, as well as the facial performance-based software from Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks, is incredibly exciting. The industry is continuously pushing the boundaries of the scope of the visual image. As stories become more expansive, this technology helps the audience to engage with aliens or creatures that are created by a computer but based on the actions, movements and emotions of an actor. This is helping blur the lines between reality and fantasy. The best part is that these tools help tell stories without calling attention to themselves.

Which category or discipline saw the biggest advances from last year to this year? 
The advancements in each technology that received an award this year are based on years of work behind the scenes that led up to this moment. I will say that from an audience perspective, the facial animation advancements were significant this past year. We’re reaching a point where audiences are unaware major characters are synthetic or modified. It’s really mind blowing when you think about it.

Sony’s Toshihiko Ohnishi.

Which of the advancements will have the biggest impact on the work that you do, specifically?
The integration of digital cameras and intermixing various cameras into one project. It’s pretty common nowadays to see the Sony, Alexa and Red camera all used on the same project. Each one of these cameras comes with its own inherent colorspace and particular attributes, but part of my job is to make sure they can all work together — that we can interweave the various files they create — without the colorist having to do a lot of technical heavy lifting. Part of my job as an Imaging Scientist is handling the technicalities so that when creatives, such as the director, cinematographer and colorist, come together they can concentrate on the art and don’t have to worry about the technical aspects much at all.

Are you planning to use, or have you already begun using, any of these innovations in your work?

The digital cameras are very much part of my everyday life. Also, in working with a VFX house, I like to provide the knowledge and tools to help them view the imagery as it will be seen in the DI. The VFX artist spends an incredible amount of time and effort on every pixel they work on and it’s a real goal of mine to make sure that the work that they create is the best it can be throughout the DI.


Flavor Detroit welcomes VFX artist/designer Scott Stephens

Twenty-year industry veteran Scott Stephens has joined Flavor Detroit as senior VFX artist/designer. Previously the lead designer at Postique, Stephens has been a key part of the post boutique Section 8 as co-founder and lead designer since its launch in 2001.

Known for his work with top brands and directors on major commercial campaigns for Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), Chrysler, Expedia, Food Network, Mazda and Six Flags, to name but a few, Stephens also brings vast experience creating content that maximizes unique environments and screens of all sizes.

Recent projects include the Amazon Kindle release in Times Square, the Ford Focus theatrical release for the Electric Music Festival, BCBS media for the Pandora app, Buick’s multi-screen auto show installations and the Mount St. Helens installation for the National Park Service.


The A-list — Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts

By Iain Blair

Plucky explorers! Exotic locations! A giant ape! It can only mean one thing: King Kong is back… again. This time, the new Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Kong: Skull Island re-imagines the origin of the mythic Kong in an original adventure from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer).

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

With an all-star cast that includes Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Oscar-winner Brie Larson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly, it follows a diverse team of explorers as they venture deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific — as beautiful as it is treacherous — unaware that they’re crossing into the domain of the mythic Kong.

The legendary Kong was brought to life on a whole new scale by Industrial Light & Magic, with two-time Oscar-winner Stephen Rosenbaum (Avatar, Forrest Gump) serving as visual effects supervisor.

To fully immerse audiences in the mysterious Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts, his cast and filmmaking team shot across three continents over six months, capturing its primordial landscapes on Oahu, Hawaii — where shooting commenced on October 2015 — on Australia’s Gold Coast and, finally, in Vietnam, where production took place across multiple locations, some of which have never before been seen on film. Kong: Skull Island was released worldwide in 2D, 3D and IMAX beginning March 10.

I spoke with Vogt-Roberts about making the film and his love of post.

What’s the eternal appeal of doing a King Kong movie?
He’s King Kong! But the appeal is also this burden, as you’re playing with film history and this cinematic icon of pop culture. Obviously, the 1933 film is this impeccable genre story, and I’m a huge fan of creature features and people like Ray Harryhausen. I liked the idea of taking my love for all that and then giving it my own point of view, my sense of style and my voice.

With just one feature film credit, you certainly jumped in the deep end with this — pun intended — monster production, full of complex moving parts and cutting-edge VFX. How scary was it?
Every movie is scary because I throw myself totally into it. I vanish from the world. If you asked my friends, they would tell you I completely disappear. Whether it’s big or small, any film’s daunting in that sense. When I began doing shorts and my own stuff, I did shooting, the lighting, the editing and so on, and I thrived off all that new knowledge, so even all the complex VFX stuff wasn’t that scary to me. The truly daunting part is that a film like this is two and a half years of your life! It’s a big sacrifice, but I love a big challenge like this was.

What were the biggest challenges, and how did you prepare?
How do you make it special —and relevant in 2017? I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to a challenge, and when I made the jump to The Kings of Summer it really helped train me. But there are certain things that are the same as they always are, such as there’s never enough time or money or daylight. Then there are new things on a movie of this size, such as the sheer endurance you need and things you simply can’t prepare yourself for, like the politics involved, all the logistics and so on. The biggest thing for me was, how do I protect my voice and point of view and make sure my soul is present in the movie when there are so many competing demands? I’m proud of it, because I feel I was able to do that.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Very early on — even before we had the script ready. We had concept artists and began doing previs and discussing all the VFX.

Did you do a lot of previs?
I’m not a huge fan of it. Third Floor did it and it’s a great tool for communicating what’s happening and how you’re going to execute it, but there’s also that danger of feeling like you’re already making the movie before you start shooting it. Think of all the great films like Blade Runner and the early Star Wars films, all shot before they even had previs, whereas now it’s very easy to become too reliant on it; you can see a movie sequence where it just feels like you’re watching previs come to life. It’s lost that sense of life and spontaneity. We only did three previs sequences — some only partially — and I really stressed with the crew that it was only a guide.

Where did you do the post?
It was all done at Pivotal in Burbank, and we began cutting as we shot. The sound mix was done at Skywalker and we did our score in London.

Do you like the post process?
I love post. I love all aspects of production, but post is where you write the film again and where it ceases being what was on the page and what you wanted it to be. Instead you have to embrace what it wants to be and what it needs to be. I love repurposing things and changing things around and having those 3am breakthroughs! If we moved this and use that shot instead, then we can cut all that.

You had three editors — Richard Pearson, Bob Murawski and Josh Schaeffer. How did that work?
Rick and Bob ran point, and Rick was the lead. Josh was the editor who had done The Kings of Summer with me, and my shorts. He really understands my montages and comedy. It was so great that Rick and Bob were willing to bring him on, and they’re all very different editors with different skills — and all masters of their craft. They weren’t on set, except for Hawaii. Once we were really globe-trotting, they were in LA cutting.

VFX play a big role. Can you talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jeff White and ILM, who did the majority of the effects work?
He ran the team there, and they’re all amazing. It was a dream come true for me. They’re so good at taking kernels of ideas and turning them into reality. I was able to do revisions as I got new ideas. Creating Kong was the big one, and it was very tricky because the way he moves isn’t totally realistic. It’s very stylized, and Jeff really tapped into my animé and videogame sensibility for all that. We also used Hybride and Rodeo for some shots.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
The helicopter sequence was really very difficult, juggling the geography of that, with this 100-foot creature and people spread all over the island, and also the final battle sequence. The VFX team and I constantly asked ourselves, “Have we seen this before? Is it derivative? Is it redundant?” The goal was to always keep it fresh and exciting.

Where did you do the DI?
At Fotokem with colorist Dave Cole who worked on The Lord of the Rings and so many others. I love color, and we did a lot of very unusual stuff for a movie like this, with a lot of saturation.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
A movie never quite turns out the way you hope or think it will, but I love the end result and I feel it represents my voice. I’m very proud of what we did.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


Recreating history for Netflix’s The Crown

By Randi Altman

If you, like me, binge-watched Netflix’s The Crown, you are now considerably better educated on the English monarchy, have a very different view of Queen Elizabeth, and were impressed with the show’s access to Buckingham Palace.

Well, it turns out they didn’t actually have access to the Palace. This is where London-based visual effects house One of Us came in. While the number of shots provided for the 10-part series varied, the average was 43 per episode.

In addition to Buckingham Palace, One of Us worked on photoreal digital set extensions, crowd replications and environments, including Downing Street and London Airport. The series follows a young Elizabeth who inherits the crown after her father, King George VI, dies. We see her transition from a vulnerable young married lady to a more mature woman who takes her role as head monarch very seriously.

We reached out to One of Us VFX supervisor Ben Turner to find out more.

How early did you join the production?
One of Us was heavily involved during an eight-month pre-production process, until shooting commenced in July 2015.

Ben Turner

Did they have clear vision of what they needed VFX vs. practical?
As we were involved from the pre-production stage, we were able to engage in discussions about how best to approach shooting the scenes with the VFX work in mind. It was important to us and the production that actors interacted with real set pieces and the VFX work would be “thrown away” in the background, not drawing attention to itself.

Were you on set?
I visited all relevant locations, assisted on set by Jon Pugh who gathered all VFX data required. I would attend all recces at these locations, and then supervise on the shoot days.

Did you do previs? If so, what software did you use?
We didn’t do much previs in the traditional sense. We did some tech-vis to help us figure out how best to film some things, such as the arrivals at the gates of Buckingham Palace and the Coronation sequence. We also did some concept images to help inform the shoot and design of some scenes. This work was all done in Autodesk Maya, The Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe Photoshop.

Were there any challenges in working in 4K? Did your workflow change at all, and how much of your work currently is in 4K?
Working in 4K didn’t really change our workflow too much. At One of Us, we are used to working on film projects that come in all different shapes and sizes (we recently completed work on Terrance Mallick’s Voyage of Time in IMAX 5K), but for The Crown we invested in the infrastructure that enabled us to take it in our stride — larger and faster disks to hold the huge amounts of data, as well as a new 4K monitor to review all the work.

     

What were some of your favorite, or most challenging, VFX for the show?
The most challenging work was the kind of shots that many people are already very familiar with. So the Queen’s Coronation, for example, was watched by 20 million people in 1953, and with Buckingham Palace and Downing Street being two of the most famous and recognizable addresses in the world, there wasn’t really anywhere for us to hide!

Some of my favorite shots are the ones where we were recreating real events for which there are amazing archive references, such as the tilt down on the scaffolding at Westminster Abbey on the eve of the Coronation, or the unveiling of the statue of King George VI.

     

Can you talk about the tools you used, and did you create any propriety tools during the workflow?
We used Enwaii and Maya for photogrammetry, Photoshop for digital matte painting and Nuke for compositing. For crowd replication we created our own in-house 2.5D tool in Nuke, which was a card generator that gave the artist a choice of crowd elements, letting them choose the costume, angle, resolution and actions required.

What are you working on now?
We are currently hard at work on Season 2 of The Crown, which is going to be even bigger and more ambitious, so watch this space! Recent work also includes King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (Warner Bros.) and Assassin’s Creed (New Regency).


Dog in the Night director/DP Fletcher Wolfe

By Cory Choy

Silver Sound Showdown Music + Video Festival is unique in two ways. First, it is both a music video festival and battle of the bands at the same time. Second, every year we pair up the Grand Prize-winners, director and band, and produce a music video with them. The budget is determined by the festival’s ticket sales.

I conceived of the festival, which is held each year at Brooklyn Bowl, as a way to both celebrate and promote artistic collaboration between the film and music communities — two crowds that just don’t seem to intersect often enough. One of the most exciting things for me is then working with extremely talented filmmakers and musicians who have more often than not met for the first time at our festival.

Dog in the Night (song written by winning band Side Saddle) was one of our most ambitious videos to date — using a combination of practical and post effects. It was meticulously planned and executed by director/cinematographer Fletcher Wolfe, who was not only a pleasure to work with, but was gracious enough to sit down with me for a discussion about her process and the experience of collaborating.

What was your favorite part of making Dog in the Night?
As a music video director I consider it my first responsibility to get to know the song and its meaning very intimately. This was a great opportunity to stretch that muscle, as it was the first time I was collaborating with musicians who weren’t already close friends. In fact, I hadn’t even met them before the Showdown. I found it to be a very rewarding experience.

What is Dog in the Night about?
The song Dog in the Night is, quite simply, about a time when the singer Ian (a.k.a. Angler Boy) is enamored with a good friend, but that friend doesn’t share his romantic feelings. Of course, anyone who has been in that position (all of us?) knows that it’s never that simple. You can hear him holding out hope, choosing to float between friendship and possibly dating, and torturing himself in the process.

I decided to use dusk in the city to convey that liminal space between relationship labels. I also wanted to play on the nervous and lonely tenor of the track with images of Angler Boy surrounded by darkness, isolated in the pool of light coming from the lure on his head. I had the notion of an anglerfish roaming aimlessly in an abyss, hoping that another angler would find his light and end his loneliness. The ghastly head also shows that he doesn’t feel like he has anything in common with anybody around him except the girl he’s pining after, who he envisions having the same unusual head.

What did you shoot on?
I am a DP by trade, and always shoot the music videos I direct. It’s all one visual storytelling job to me. I shot on my Alexa Mini with a set of Zeiss Standard Speed lenses. We used the 16mm lens on the Snorricam in order to see the darkness around him and to distort him to accentuate his frantic wanderings. Every lens in the set weighed in at just 1.25lbs, which is amazing.

The camera and lenses were an ideal pairing, as I love the look of both, and their light weight allowed me to get the rig down to 11lbs in order to get the Snorricam shots. We didn’t have time to build our own custom Snorricam vest, so I found one that was ready to rent at Du-All Camera. The only caveats were that it could only handle up to 11lbs, and the vest was quite large, meaning we needed to find a way to hide the shoulders of the vest under Ian’s wardrobe. So, I took a cue from Requiem for a Dream and used winter clothing to hide the bulky vest. We chose a green and brown puffy vest that held its own shape over the rig-vest, and also suited the character.

I chose a non-standard 1.5:1 aspect ratio, because I felt it suited framing for the anglerfish head. To maximize resolution and minimize data, I shot 3.2K at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and cropped the sides. It’s easy to build custom framelines in the Alexa Mini for accurate framing on set. On the Mini, you can also dial in any frame rate between 0.75-60fps (at 3.2K). Thanks to digital cinema cameras, it’s standard these days to over-crank and have the ability to ramp to slow motion in post. We did do some of that; each time Angler Boy sees Angler Girl, his world turns into slow motion.

In contrast, I wanted his walking around alone to be more frantic, so I did something much less common and undercranked to get a jittery effect. The opening shot was shot at 6fps with a 45-degree shutter, and Ian walked in slow motion to a recording of the track slowed down to quarter-time, so his steps are on the beat. There are some Snorricam shots that were shot at 6fps with a standard 180-degree shutter. I then had Ian spin around to get long motion blur trails of lights around him. I knew exactly what frame rate I wanted for each shot, and we wound up shooting at 6fps, 12fps, 24fps, 48fps and 60fps, each for a different emotion that Angler Boy is having.

Why practical vs. CG for the head?
Even though the fish head is a metaphor for Angler Boy’s emotional state, and is not supposed to be real, I wanted it to absolutely feel real to both the actor and the audience. A practical, and slightly unwieldy, helmet/mask helped Ian find his character. His isolation needed to be tangible, and how much he is drawn to Angler Girl as a kindred spirit needed to be moving. It’s a very endearing and relatable song, and there’s something about homemade, practical effects that checks both those boxes. The lonely pool of light coming from the lure was also an important part of the visuals, and it needed to play naturally on their faces and the fish mask. I wired Lite Gear LEDs into the head, which was the easy part. Our incredibly talented fabricator, Lauren Genutis, had the tough job — fabricating the mask from scratch!

The remaining VFX hurdle then was duplicating the head. We only had the time and money to make one and fit it to both actors with foam inserts. I planned the shots so that you almost never see both actors in the same shot at the same time, which kept the number of composited shots to a minimum. It also served to maintain the emotional disconnect between his reality and hers. When you do see them in the same shot, it’s to punctuate when he almost tells her how he feels. To achieve this I did simple split screens, using the Pen Tool in Premiere to cut the mask around their actions, including when she touches his knee. To be safe, I shot takes where she doesn’t touch his knee, but none of them conveyed what she was trying to tell him. So, I did a little smooshing around of the two shots and some patching of the background to make it so the characters could connect.

Where did you do post?
We were on a very tight budget, so I edited at home, and I always use Adobe Premiere. I went to my usual colorist, Vladimir Kucherov, for the grade. He used Blackmagic Resolve, and I love working with him. He can always see how a frame could be strengthened by a little shaping with vignettes. I’ll finally figure out what nuance is missing, and when I tell him, he’s already started working on that exact thing. That kind of shaping was especially helpful on the day exteriors, since I had hoped for a strong sunset, but instead got two flat, overcast days.

The only place we didn’t see eye to eye on this project was saturation — I asked him to push saturation farther than he normally would advise. I wanted a cartoon-like heightening of Angler Boy’s world and emotions. He’s going through a period in which he’s feeling very deeply, but by the time of writing the song he is able to look back on it and see the humor in how dramatic he was being. I think we’ve all been there.

What did you use VFX for?
Besides having to composite shots of the two actors together, there were just a few other VFX shots, including dolly moves that I stabilized with the Warp Stabilizer plug-in within Premiere. We couldn’t afford a real dolly, so we put a two-foot riser on a Dana Dolly to achieve wide push-ins on Ian singing. We were rushing to catch dusk between rainstorms, and it was tough to level the track on grass.

The final shot is a cartoon night sky composited with a live shot. My very good friend, Julie Gratz of Kaleida Vision, made the sky and animated it. She worked in Adobe After Effects, which communicates seamlessly with Premiere. Julie and I share similar tastes for how unrealistic elements can coexist with a realistic world. She also helped me in prep, giving feedback on storyboards.

Do you like the post process?
I never used to like post. I’ve always loved being on set, in a new place every day, moving physical objects with my hands. But, with each video I direct and edit I get faster and improve my post working style. Now I can say that I really do enjoy spending time alone with my footage, finding all the ways it can convey my ideas. I have fun combining real people and practical effects with the powerful post tools we can access even at home these days. It’s wonderful when people connect with the story, and then ask where I got two anglerfish heads. That makes me feel like a wizard, and who doesn’t like that?! A love of movie magic is why we choose this medium to tell our tales.


Cory Choy, Silver Sound Showdown festival director and co-founder of Silver Sound Studios, produced the video.

Andrew Bell named MD at Boston’s Brickyard VFX, Amy Appleton now EP

Andrew Bell has been named managing director of Brickyard VFX in Boston, known as Brickyard VFX Atlantic. The studio has also promoted long-time senior VFX producer Amy Appleton to executive producer.

Bell comes to Brickyard from MPC, where he spent more than 15 years, most recently as a managing director of MPC Los Angeles. He began his career in 1999 as a PA with MPC in London, working his way up through the company, handling production responsibilities for several years before coming to LA in 2008 to help open the studio’s first expansion facility in Los Angeles as head of production. Bell became the managing director in 2011, a role he held until fall 2016, when he began consulting for Apple.

Appleton has been at Brickyard for 10 years, producing hundreds of projects for clients such as Frito-Lay, Progressive Insurance, Cadillac, Columbia Sportswear and Royal Caribbean.

In addition to the management moves, Brickyard’s East Coast studio has recently upgraded its technology infrastructure and is installing a grand roof deck with views of the downtown Boston skyline.

“We have just received four Flame workstations featuring dual 12-core 3GHz processors and the new Nvidia P6000 graphics cards,” reports Brickyard founder Dave Waller. “For our VR department, we’ve upgraded to Cari 1.04 from The Foundry, and to improve efficiencies in our Data Center, we’re moving our archiving workflow over to LTO-7 tape system. This will more than double the speed at which we archive and restore our work. All these improvements will enable us to respond to our dear clients’ requests even faster.”