Category Archives: VFX

FilmLight shows new versions of color tools at NAB

FilmLight was at NAB demo-ing Version 5.0 of its color tools. The upgraded toolkit maintains a consistent user experience across the Baselight color grading and finishing system, Baselight Editions, Daylight and FilmLight’s new on-set application, Prelight.

“We are delivering 5.0 everywhere, bringing a new level of color control and creative possibilities from the very start of a production right to the final deliverables,” says Wolfgang Lempp, CEO of FilmLight. “And, importantly, color and artistic intent are accompanying all deliverables precisely and with minimum effort, be it for HDR and SDR or even 360 VR grading.”

Version 5.0 introduces Base Grade, which mimics the way the eye sees color to yield a more natural feel. Version 5.0 also includes some new VFX features, such as paint, perspective tracking, warping, depth keying and relighting.

FilmLight’s new Prelight On-Set, a Mac OS app for preview and grading, brings color control and the FilmLight BLG (Baselight Linked Grade) metadata system to shoots.

With Version 5.0, Baselight Editions, the plug-ins for Avid and Nuke 5.0, now include Base Grade functionality as well as color tools, such as midtone contrast and filters for denoise and deflicker. In addition, Baselight for Nuke includes boosted functionality in the Version 5.0 BLG that enables the tool to act as a multi-input node in Nuke. In this manner, BLG files can refer to multiple input images and OpenEXR channels.

Exceptional Minds: Autistic students learn VFX, work on major feature films

After graduation, these artists have been working on projects for Marvel, Disney, Fox and HBO.

By Randi Altman

With an estimated 1 in 68 children in the US being born with some sort of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring, I think it’s fair to say that most people have been touched in some way by a child on the spectrum.

As a parent of a teenager with autism, I can attest to the fact that one of our biggest worries, the thing that keeps us up at night, is the question of independence. Will he be able to make a living? Will there be an employer who can see beyond his deficits to his gifts and exploit those gifts in the best possible way?

Enter Exceptional Minds, a school in Los Angeles that teaches young adults with autism how to create visual effects and animation while working as part of a team. This program recognizes how bright these young people are and how focused they can be, surrounds them with the right teachers and behavioral therapists, puts the right tools in their hands and lets them fly.

The school, which also has a VFX and animation studio that employs its graduates, was started in 2011 by a group of parents who have children on the spectrum. “They were looking for work opportunities for their kids, and quickly discovered they couldn’t find any. So they decided to start Exceptional Minds and prepare them for careers in animation and visual effects,” explains Susan Zwerman, the studio executive producer at Exceptional Minds and a long-time VFX producer whose credits include Broken Arrow, Alien Resurrection, Men of Honor, Around the World in 80 Days and The Guardian.

Since the program began, these young people have had the opportunity to work on some very high-profile films and TV programs. Recent credits include Game of Thrones, The Fate of the Furious and Doctor Strange, which was nominated for an Oscar for visual effects this year.

We reached out to Zwerman to find out more about this school, its studio and how they help young people with autism find a path to independence.

The school came first and then the studio?
Yes. We started training them for visual effects and animation and then the conversation turned to, “What do they do when they graduate?” That led to the idea to start a visual effects studio. I came on board two years ago to organize and set it up. It’s located downstairs from the school.

How do you pick who is suitable for the program?
We can only take 10 students each year, and unfortunately, there is a waiting list because we are the only program of its kind anywhere. We have a review process that our educators and teachers have in terms of assessing the student’s ability to be able to work in this area. You know, not everybody can function working on a computer for six or eight hours. There are different levels of the spectrum. So the higher functioning and the medium functioning are more suited for this work, which takes a lot of focus.

Students are vetted by our teachers and behavioral specialists, who take into account the student’s ability, as well as their enthusiasm for visual effects and animation — it’s very intense, and they have to be motivated.

Susie Zwerman (in back row, red hair) with artists in the Exceptional Minds studio.

I know that kids on the spectrum aren’t necessarily social butterflies, how do you teach them to work as a team?
Oh, that’s a really good question. We have what’s called our Work Readiness program. They practice interviewing, they practice working as a team, they learn about appearance, attitude, organization and how to problem solve in a work place.

A lot of it is all about working in a team, and developing their social skills. That’s something we really stress in terms of behavioral curriculum.

Can you describe how the school works?
It’s a three-year program. In the first year, they learn about the principles of design and using programs like Adobe’s Flash and Photoshop. In Flash, they study 2D animation and in Photoshop they learn how to do backgrounds for their animation work.

During year two, they learn how to work in a production pipeline. They are given a project that the class works on together, and then they learn how to edit using Adobe Premiere Pro and compositing on Adobe After Effects.

In the third year, they are developing their skills in 3D via Autodesk Maya and compositing with The Foundry’s Nuke. So they learn the way we work in the studio and our pipeline, as well as preparing their portfolios for the workplace. At the end of three years, each student completes their training with a demo reel and resume of their work.

Who helps with the reels and resumes?
Their teachers supervise that process and help them with editing and picking the best pieces for their reel. Having a reel is important for many reasons. While many students will work in our studio for a year after graduation, I was able to place some directly into the work environment because their talent was so good… and their reel was so good.

What is the transition like from school to studio?
They graduate in June and we transition many of them to the studio, where they learn about deadlines and get paid for their work. Here, many experience independence for the first time. We do a lot of 2D-type visual effects clean-up work. We give them shots to work on and test them for the first month to see how they are doing. That’s when we decide if they need more training.

The visual effects side of the studio deals with paint work, wire and rod removal and tracker or marker removals — simple composites — plus a lot of rotoscoping and some greenscreen keying. We also do end title credits for the major movies.

We just opened the animation side of the studio in 2016, so it’s still in the beginning stages, but we’re doing 2D animation. We are not a 3D studio… yet! The 2D work we’ve done includes music videos, Websites, Power Points and some stuff for the LA Zoo. We are gearing up for major projects.

How many work in the studio?
Right now, we have about 15 artists at workstations in our current studio. Some of these will be placed on the outside, but that’s part of using strategic planning in the future to figure out how much expansion we want to do over the next five years.

Thanks to your VFX background, you have many existing relationships with the major studios. Can you talk about how that has benefitted Exceptional Minds?
We have had so much support from the studios; they really want to help us get work for the artists. We started out with Fox, then Disney and then HBO for television. Marvel Studios is one of our biggest fans. Marvel’s Victoria Alonso is a big supporter, so much so that we gave her our Ed Asner Award last June.

Once we started to do tracker marker and end title credits for Marvel, it opened doors. People say, “Well, if you work for Marvel, you could work for us.” So she has been so instrumental in our success.

What were the Fox and Marvel projects?
Our very first client was Fox and we did tracker removals for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — that was about three years ago. Marvel happened about two years ago and our first job for them was on Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What are some of the other projects Exceptional Minds has worked on?
We worked on Doctor Strange, providing tracker marker removals and end credits. We worked on Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Pete’s Dragon, Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and X-Men: Apocalypse.

Thanks to HBO’s Holly Schiffer we did a lot of Game of Thrones work. She has also been a huge supporter of ours.

It’s remarkable how far you guys have come in a short amount of time. Can you talk about how you ended up at Exceptional Minds?
I used to be DGA production manager/location manager and then segued into visual effects as a freelance VFX producer for all the major studios. About three years ago, my best friend Yudi Bennett, who is one of the founders of Exceptional Minds, convinced me to leave my career and  come here to help set up the studio. I was also tasked with producing, scheduling and budgeting work to come into the studio. For me, personally, this has been a spiritual journey. I have had such a good career in the industry, and this is my way of giving back.

So some of these kids move on to other places?
After they have worked in the studio for about a year, or sometimes longer, I look to have them placed at an outside studio. Some of them will stay here at our studio because they may not have the social skills to work on the outside.

Five graduates have been placed so far and they are working full time at various productions studios and visual effects facilities in Los Angeles. We have also had graduates in internships at Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

One student is at Marvel, and others are at Stargate Studios, Mr. Wolf and New Edit. To be able to place our artists on the outside is our ultimate goal. We love to place them because it’s sort of life changing. For example, one of the first students we placed, Kevin, is at Stargate. He moved out of his parents’ apartment, he is traveling by himself to and from the studio, he is getting raises and he is moving up as a rotoscope artist.

What is the tuition like?
Students pay about 50 percent and we fundraise the other 50 percent. We also have scholarships for those that can’t afford it. We have to raise a lot of money to support the efforts of the school and studio.

Do companies donate gear?
When we first started, Adobe donated software. That’s how we were able to fund the school before the studio was up and running. Now we’re on an educational plan with them where we pay the minimum. Autodesk and The Foundry also give us discounts or try to donate licenses to us. In terms of hardware, we have been working with Melrose Mac, who is giving us discounts on computers for the school and studio.


Check out Exceptional Minds Website for more info.

Dell 6.15

Ed Koenig returns to MPC to help lead remote color, VFX services  

Ed Koenig has rejoined visual effects and post production studio MPC as an executive producer. Formerly EP of color at MPC’s Los Angeles office, he was one of the first hires the company made when it opened there in 2008. Koenig brings a broad range of post experience to his new post, where he’s tasked with continuing to grow the studio’s network of official partner facilities and expand its remote services beyond color grading. He will be based in New York, but work out of LA as well.

MPC has also announced new additions to its official partner facility roster: 11 Dollar Bill in Chicago and Hero Post in Atlanta. They join Charlieuniformtango in Austin and Dallas, The Work in Detroit and Ditch in Minneapolis as the studio’s list of partner facilities.

“We’re not merely looking to connect with top performers in major markets around the country,” Koenig explains, “but to redefine how these independent companies work with a studio as multifaceted as ours. I’ll also be functioning as a kind of roving advance scout for MPC, finding ways clients anywhere can take full advantage of what we have to offer in a way that works best for them.”

He cites as an example the work they’ve done with Ditch since adding them to the partner roster last year. MPC has not only provided several of the boutique’s clients with high-end color grading, performed by colorists in both its LA and New York offices, but also compositing, finishing, Flame work and a range of other VFX services, all performed by artists based many miles from the Twin Cities. “In these instances, we just point our signal toward Minneapolis and we’re collaborating with Ditch owner and editor Brody Howard and his entire team.”

“A big part of what I’m doing is bringing wide-ranging projects into MPC through our remote partners,” he continues. “While remote color has become an accepted part of the post production mix, our push to expand into a broader roster of visual effects capabilities puts us out in front.”


Behind the Title: Artist/Creative Director Barton Damer

NAME: Barton Damer

COMPANY: Dallas-based  Already Been Chewed

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
AlreadyBeenChewed is a boutique studio that I founded in 2010. We have created a variety of design, motion graphics and 3D animated content for iconic brands, including Nike, Vans, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Marvel Comics. Check out our motion reel.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Owner/Founding Artist/Creative Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
My job is to set the vibe for the types of projects, clients and style of work we create. I’m typically developing the creative, working with our chief strategy officer to land projects and then directing the team to execute the creative for the project.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
When you launch out on your own, it’s surprising how much non-creative work there is to do. It’s no longer good enough to be great at what you do (being an artist). Now you have to be excellent with communication skills, people skills, business, organization, marketing, sales and leadership skills. It’s surprising how much you have to juggle in the course of a single day and still hit deadlines.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Developing a solution that will not only meet the clients needs but also push us forward as a studio is always exciting. My favorite part of any job is making sure it looks amazing. That’s my passion. The way it animates is secondary. If it doesn’t look good to begin with, it won’t look better just because you start animating it.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Dealing with clients that stress me out for various reasons —whether it’s because they are scope creeping or not realizing that they signed a contract… or not paying a bill. Fortunately, I have a team of great people that help relieve that stress for me, but it can still be stressful knowing that they are fighting those battles for the company. We get a lot of clients who will sign a contract without even realizing what they agreed to. It’s always stressful when you have to remind them what they signed.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Night time! That’s when the freaks come out! I do my best creative at night. No doubt!

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Real estate investing/fixing up/flipping. I like all aspects of designing, including interior design. I’ve designed and renovated three different studio spaces for Already Been Chewed over the last seven years.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I blew out my ACL and tore my meniscus while skateboarding. I wanted to stay involved with my friends that I skated with knowing that surgery and rehab would have me off the board for at least a full year. During that time, I began filming and editing skate videos of my friends. I quickly discovered that the logging and capturing of footage was my least favorite part, but I loved adding graphics and motion graphics to the skate videos. I then began to learn Adobe After Effects and Maxon Cinema 4D.

At this time I was already a full-time graphic designer, but didn’t even really know what motion graphics were. I had been working professionally for about five or six years before making the switch from print design to animation. That was after dabbling in Flash animations and discovering I didn’t want to do code websites (this was around 2003-2004).

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
We recently worked with Nike on various activations for the Super Bowl, March Madness and got to create motion graphics for storefronts as part of the Equality Campaign they launched during Black History Month. It was cool to see our work in the flagship Niketown NYC store while visiting New York a few weeks ago.

We are currently working on a variety of projects for Nike, Malibu Boats, Training Mask, Marvel and DC Comics licensed product releases, as well as investing heavily in GPUs and creating 360 animated videos for VR content.

HOW DID THE NIKE EQUALITY MOTION GRAPHICS CAMPAIGN COME TO FRUITION?
Nike had been working on a variety of animated concepts to bring the campaign to life for storefronts. They had a library of animation styles that had already been done that they felt were not working. Our job was to come up with something that would benefit the campaign style.

We recreated 16 athlete portraits in 3D so that we could cast light and shadows across their faces to slowly reveal them from black and also created a seamless video loop transitioning between the athlete portraits and various quotes about equality.

CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE MOTION GRAPHICS SCOPE OF THE NIKE EQUALITY CAMPAIGN, AND THE SOFTWARE USED?
The video we created was used in various Nike flagship stores — Niketown NYC, Soho and LA, to name a few. We reformatted the video to work in a variety of sizes. We were able to see the videos at Niketown NYC where it was on the front of the window displays. It was also used on large LED walls on the interior as well as a four-story vertical screen in store.

We created the portrait technique on all 16 athletes using Cinema 4D and Octane. The remainder of the video was animated in After Effects.

The portraits were sculpted in Cinema 4D and we used camera projection to accurately project real photos of the athletes onto the 3D portrait. This allowed us to keep 100 percent accuracy of the photos Nike provided, but be able to re-light and cast shadows accordingly to reveal the faces up from black.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
That’s a tough one. Usually, it’s whatever the latest project is. We’re blessed to be working on some really fun projects. That being said… working on Vans 50th Anniversary campaign for the Era shoe is pretty epic! Especially since I am a long time skateboarder.

Our work was used globally on everything from POP displays to storefronts to interactive Website takeover and 3D animated spots for broadcast. It was amazing to see it being used across so many mediums.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
A computer, my iPhone and speakers!

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
I’m very active on Instagram and Facebook. I chose to say “no” to Snapchat in hopes that it will go away so that I don’t have to worry about one more thing (he laughs), and twitter is pretty much dead for me these days. I log in once a month and see if I have any notifications. I also use Behance and LinkedIn a lot, and Dribbble once in a blue moon.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK? IF SO, WHAT KIND?
My 25-year-old self would cyber bully me for saying this but soft Drake is “Too Good” these days. Loving Travis Scott and Migos among a long list of others.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
First I bought a swimming pool to help me get away from the computer/emails and swim laps with the kids. That worked for a while, but then I bought a convertible BMW to try to ease the tension and enjoy the wind through my hair. Once that wore off and the stress came back, I bought a puppy. Then I started doing yoga. A year later I bought another puppy.


Lenovo intros VR-ready ThinkStation P320

Lenovo launched its VR-ready ThinkStation P320 at Develop3D Live, a UK-based conference that puts special focus on virtual reality as a productivity tool in design workflows. The ThinkStation P320 is the latest addition to the Lenovo portfolio of VR-ready certified workstations and is designed for power users looking to balance both performance and their budgets.

The workstation’s pro VR certification allows ThinkStation P320 users an to more easily add virtual reality into their workflow without requiring an initial high-end hardware and software investment.

The refreshed workstation will be available in both full-size tower and small form factor (SFF) and comes equipped with Intel’s newest Xeon processors and Core i7 processors — offering speeds of up to 4.5GHz with Turbo Boost (on the tower). Both form factors will also support the latest Nvidia Quadro graphics cards, including support for dual Nvidia Quadro P1000 GPUs in the small form factor.

The ISV-certified ThinkStation P320 supports up to 64GB of DDR4 memory and customization via the Flex Module. In terms of environmental sustainability, the P320 is Energy Star-qualified, as well as EPEAT Gold and Greenguard-certified.

The Lenovo ThinkStation P320 full-size tower and SFF will be available at the end of April.


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.


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.