Tips on working practically with CG

Many recent big action films — Jurassic World, Tomorrowland, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Pacific Rim, to name a few — feature practical effects created by the team at 32Ten Studios  in San Rafael, California, in the space where Kerner Optical once was.

Practical effects add touches of reality to scenes created with CG. Over the years, artists at 32Ten Studios (@32tenstudios) have designed, built and occasionally blown up all sort of models and miniatures, as well as filmed environmental effects like fire, water, smoke or dust.

32Ten Studios’ COO/producer, Greg Maloney, is an industry veteran and ILM alum. He joined the storied VFX studio in 1989 doing line-up. “Basically, it was the task of the line-up person to create the film rolls and instructions for the optical printers,” he explains, adding that he transitioned to CG around 1992, starting as a compositor and then moving up to compositing supervisor. He left ILM in 2007 to work for Image-Movers Digital as a stereographer. When they closed, he and some colleagues started Stereobox. In 2011 he, along with his partners, established 32Ten Studios at the one-time location of Kerner Optical.

Greg Maloney with an Optimus Prime head, of course!

Greg Maloney (L) with an Optimus Prime head, of course!

So Maloney has a perfect mix of film, digital, CG and practical effects experience. Here he offers his perspective on what makes a successful practical-effects shoot — ensuring that the VFX team has what it needs to build a memorable scene. Enjoy…

Understand the Shot
One of the first things we do when we get a previs from the VFX supervisor is to look for exactly what the camera is going to see. Once we know that, we build and polish the parts that are going to show up on screen.

Do the Homework
Then we start mapping out the shot by getting detailed information. For instance, we’ll need to know how the camera moves during the shot, the scale of the shot, the camera’s speed, if it’s being shot on film or digitally, where the sun was during the original shoot and if we’re going to shoot in front of a bluescreen or a greenscreen. We’ll ask for the original plate so we can match the sun angles. Also, we lay every shot out using Autodesk Maya to make sure we have everything set up correctly when we film.

Ask Questions
We have on-going dialog with the VFX team to make sure we’re delivering the pieces that will work during their compositing sessions. Our ultimate goal is to make it look like the final image was recorded in a single camera, on a set, in one take.

32Ten's crew on Jurassic World shoot.

32Ten’s crew on Jurassic World shoot.

Practice, Practice, Practice
The beauty of practical, especially when we’re doing an explosion or something like that, is the sense of serendipity. We can control much of what happens, but there’s always something magical that happens that adds to the reality. That said, we don’t shoot anything without a ton of rehearsal. This way, the effects we’re shooting match what the VFX supervisor and director want for the scene.

Adding the Human Touch
We shoot a lot of extras in front of a greenscreen, which pushes a CG scene over the top. Our experience is that we need to be really organized with our schedule, making sure the actors are in wardrobe with make up applied and on the set right when we need them.

When I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, the last scene when the clerk is pushing the Holy Grail through that warehouse, I wanted to go to that warehouse. It felt real because of that person with the cart. My first desk at ILM was directly in front of the matte painting of that warehouse. It was the first big “wow” of my career.

Ultimately, the benefit of using practical effects with CG is that practical elements adhere to the laws of gravity and nature. The effects look correct because they are real. We like to think that practical creates an emotional connection and experience.

That’s what we try to do on every shoot.


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