Tag Archives: VFX supervisor

Behind the Title: Weta Digital VFX supervisor Erik Winquist

NAME: Erik Winquist

COMPANY: Wellington, New Zealand’s Weta Digital

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We’re currently a collection of about 1,600 ridiculously talented artists and developers down at the bottom of the world who have created some the most memorable digital characters and visual effects for film over the last couple of decades. We’re named after a giant New Zealand bug.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Visual Effects Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Making the director and studio happy without making my crew unhappy. Ensuring that everybody on the shoot has the same goal in mind for a shot before the cameras start rolling is one way to help accomplish both of those goals. Using the strengths and good ideas of everybody on your team is another.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
The amount of problem solving that is required. Every show is completely different from the last. We’re often asked to do something and don’t know how we’re going to accomplish it at the outset. That’s where it’s incredibly important to have a crew full of insanely brilliant people you can bash ideas around with.

HOW DID YOU START YOUR CAREER IN VFX?
I went to school for it. After graduating from the Ringling College of Art and Design with a degree in computer animation, I eventually landed a job as an assistant animator at Pacific Data Images (PDI). The job title was a little misleading, because although my degree was fairly character animation-centric, the first thing I was asked to do at PDI was morphing. I found that I really enjoyed working on the 2D side of things, and that sent me down a path that ultimately got me hired as a compositor at Weta on The Lord of the Rings.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN VFX?
I was hired by PDI in 1998, so I guess that means 20 years now. (Whoa.)

HOW HAS THE VFX INDUSTRY CHANGED IN THE TIME YOU’VE BEEN WORKING? WHAT’S BEEN GOOD? WHAT’S BEEN BAD?
Oh, there’s just been so much great stuff. We’re able to make images now that are completely indistinguishable from reality. Thanks to massive technology advancements over the years, interactivity for artists has gotten way better. We’re sculpting incredible amounts of detail into our models, painting them with giga-pixels worth of texture information, scrubbing our animation in realtime, using hardware-accelerated engines to light our scenes, rendering them with physically-based renderers and compositing with deep images and a 3D workspace.

Of course, all of these efficiency gains get gobbled up pretty quickly by the ever-expanding vision of the directors we work for!

The industry’s technology advancements and flexibility have also perhaps had some downsides. Studios demand increasingly shorter post schedules, prep time is reduced, shots can be less planned out because so much can be decided in post. When the brief is constantly shifting, it’s difficult to deliver the quality that everyone wants. And when the quality isn’t there, suddenly the Internet starts clamoring that “CGI is ruining movies!”

But, when a great idea — planned well by a decisive director and executed brilliantly by a visual effects team working in concert with all of the other departments — the movie magic that results is just amazing. And that’s why we’re all here doing what we do.

DID A PARTICULAR FILM INSPIRE YOU ALONG THIS PATH IN ENTERTAINMENT?
There were some films I saw very early on that left a lasting impression: Clash of the Titans, The Empire Strikes Back. Later inspiration came in high school with the TV spots that Pixar was doing prior to Toy Story, and the early computer graphics work that Disney Feature Animation was employing in their films of the early ‘90s.

But the big ones that really set me off around this time were ILM’s work on Jurassic Park, and films like Jim Cameron’s The Abyss and Terminator 2. That’s why it was a particular kick to find myself on set with Jim on Avatar.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Dailies. When I challenge an artist to bring their best, and they come up with an idea that completely surprises me; that is way better than what I had imagined or asked for. Those moments are gold. Dailies is pretty much the only chance I have to see a shot for the first time like an audience member gets to, so I pay a lot of attention to my reaction to that very first impression.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Getting a shot ripped from our hands by those pesky deadlines before every little thing is perfect. And scheduling meetings. Though, the latter is critically important to make sure that the former doesn’t happen.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
There was a time when I was in grade school where I thought I might like to go into sound effects, which is a really interesting what-if scenario for me to think about. But these days, if I were to hang up my VFX hat, I imagine I would end up doing something photography-related. It’s been a passion for a very long time.

Rampage

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I supervised Weta’s work on Rampage, starring Dwayne Johnson and a very large albino gorilla. Prior to that was War for the Planet of the Apes, Spectral and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT/S THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
We had a lot of fun working on Rampage, and I think audiences had a ton of fun watching it. I’m quite proud of what we achieved with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But I’m also really fond of what our crew turned out for the Netflix film Spectral. That project gave us the opportunity to explore some VFX-heavy sci-fi imagery and was a really interesting challenge.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE DAY TO DAY?
Most of my day revolves around reviewing work and communicating with my production team and the crew, so it’s our in-house review software, Photoshop and e-mail. But I’m constantly jumping in and out of Maya, and always have a Nuke session open for one thing or another. I’m also never without my camera and am constantly shooting reference photos or video, and have been known to initiate impromptu element shoots at a moment’s notice.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION NOW?
Everywhere. It’s why I always have my camera in my bag.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Scuba diving and sea kayaking are two hobbies that get me out in the water, though that happens far less than I would like. My wife and I recently bought a small rural place north of Wellington. I’ve found going up there doing “farm stuff” on the weekend is a great way to re-calibrate.

Quick Chat: ArsenalCreative’s new VFX supervisor Mike Wynd

VFX supervisor Mike Wynd has joined ArsenalCreative from MPC, where he spent eight years in a similar role. Over the years, Wynd has worked on many high-profile projects for directors such as Rupert Sanders, Noam Murro and Adam Berg. He has also won a number of industry awards, including a Silver Clio and a Gold British Arrow, as well as a VES Award nomination.

Wynd started his career in Melbourne, Australia, working for Computer Pictures before landing at Images Post in Auckland, New Zealand. Eight years later, he headed back to Australia to serve as head of 3D at Garner MacLennan Design, where he worked on many high-end animations and effects, including the first Lord of the Rings movie. After that studio was bought out, Wynd joined Digital Pictures. Next, he assisted in establishing a new 3D/design team at FSM. After that he relocated to Los Angeles, where he worked for Moving Pixels. Later, he took on the role of VFX supervisor for MPC.

We reached out to Wynd to ask him a few questions about being a VFX supervisor:

What drew you to VFX supervision?
The thing I enjoy most about VFX supervision is the problem solving. From how best to shoot what we require to seamlessly integrating our effects, through to the actual approach and tools that we’ll employ in post production. We’ve always got a finite amount of time and money with which to produce our work and a little bit of alternative thinking can go a long way to achieve higher quality and more efficient results.

How early do you like being brought onto a project?
I’d prefer to be bought in on a project ideally from day one. Especially on a complex VFX project, being involved alongside production means that we, as a team, can troubleshoot many aspects of the job, that in the long run, will mean savings in cost and time as well as higher quality results. It also gives time for relationships to be formed between VFX and production so that on the shoot the VFX team is seen as an asset rather than a hindrance.

Do you go on set? Why is that so important?
I do go on set… a lot! I have been very lucky over the years to travel to some incredible locations all over the world. It’s so important because this is where the foundations are laid for a successful job. Being able to see how and why footage is shot the way it is goes a long way toward finding solutions to post issues.

Actually seeing the environment of a scene can offer clues that may help in significantly reducing any issues that may arise once the footage is back in the studio. And, of course, there’s the nuts and bolts of capturing set information, along with color and lighting references critical to the project. And probably the most important reason to be on-set is to act as the conduit connecting production and post. The two parties often act so separately from one another, yet each is only doing half the job.

Have you worked on anything at ArsenalCreative yet?
It’s early days for me at ArsenalCreative, but thus far I’ve worked on a Chevy presentation for the motor shows and a series of pod shots for Lexus.

If you had one piece of advice for someone about to embark on a project that involves VFX, what would it be?
Ha! Get VFX involved from day one!

The importance of on-set VFX supervision

By Karen Maierhofer

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

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

John Kilshaw

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

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

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

War for the Planet of the Apes via Weta Digital

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

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

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

Lindy De Quattro

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

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

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

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

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

Erik Winquist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

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

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

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

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

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

Benji Davidson joins Brickyard VFX

Brickyard VFX in Santa Monica has added VFX supervisor Benji Davidson to its staff. Davidson’s experience includes live-action directing, creative directing and VFX supervision. He joins Brickyard from MPC, where he served as VFX supervisor since 2008.

In his career, Davidson has worked as an on-set VFX supervisor, lead 2D artist and director, among other things. Born and raised in England, he got his start at acclaimed commercial production company HKM/The Directors Bureau before joining MPC LA.

His notable projects include Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III Seize Glory, EA Sports’ Madden NFL 16 Madden: The Movie, Samsung’s Do What You Can’t and Super Bowl spots for Coca-Cola and Acura. He also contributed to the Los Angeles Olympics bid.

“I think in today’s climate, with rapid turnarounds, there is a benefit to being involved early on,” says Davidson. “I aim to help the director and agency, not hinder them. I’ve enjoyed being on set, sometimes that’s the only place everybody is together, which is invaluable when you get to post. You already know the expectations. There’s a secret short-hand from that shared experience.”

Brickyard is a digital production studio working in high-end visual effects, animation, design and creative development for advertising, feature films and emerging media.

Behind the Title: Union VFX supervisor James Roberts

NAME: James Roberts

COMPANY: London-based Union (@unionvfx)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Union is an independent VFX company founded on a culture of originality, innovation and collaboration.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
VFX Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Overseeing the VFX for feature films from concept to delivery. This includes concept development, on-set photography and supervision of artists.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I sometimes get to be an actor.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Working with creative artists both on set and in the studio to develop original artwork.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Answering emails.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
1am

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Professional dog walker

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
My mother was an artist and my father was a computer programmer… I didn’t have many other options.

My Cousin Rachel

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS?
T2 Trainspotting and My Cousin Rachel.

WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
’71 and The Theory of Everything.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Headphones, Side Effects Houdini and light bulbs.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Instagram — I’m @jjjjjjames

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
Yes…… anything and everything.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I spend time away from work with nice people.

A Conversation: Jungle Book’s Oscar-Winner Rob Legato

By Randi Altman

Rob Legato’s resume includes some titles that might be considered among the best visual effects films of all time: Titanic, Avatar, Hugo, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Apollo 13 and, most recently, The Jungle Book. He has three Oscars to his credit (Titanic, Hugo, The Jungle Book) along with one other nomination (Apollo 13). And while Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator don’t scream effects, he worked on those as well.

While Legato might be one of the most prodigious visual effects supervisors of all time, he never intended for this to be his path. “The magic of movies, in general, was my fascination more than anything else,” he says, and that led to him studying cinematography and directing at Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute. They provided intensive courses on the intricacies of working with cameras and film.

Rob Legato worked closely with Technicolor and MPC to realize Jon Favreau’s vision for The Jungle Book, which is nominated for a VFX Oscar this year.

It was this technical knowledge that came in handy at his first job, working as a producer at a commercials house. “I knew that bizarre, esoteric end of the business, and that became known among my colleagues.” So when a spot came in that had a visual effect in it, Legato stepped up. “No one knew how to do it, and this was before on-set visual effects supervisors worked on commercials. I grabbed the camera and I figured out a way of doing it.”

After working on commercials, Legato transitioned to longer-form work, specifically television. He started on the second season of The Twilight Zone series, where he got the opportunity to shoot some footage. He was hoping to direct an episode, but the show got cancelled before he had a chance.

Legato then took his experience to Star Trek at a time when they were switching from opticals to a digital post workflow. “There were very few people then who had any kind of visual effects and live-action experience in television. I became second-unit director and ultimately directed a few shows. It was while working on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine that I learned how to mass produce visual effects on as big a scale as television allows, and that led me to Digital Domain.”

It was at Digital Domain where Legato transitioned to films, starting with Interview With the Vampire. He served as visual effects supervisor on this one. “Director Neil Jordan asked me to do the second unit. I got along really well with DP Philippe Roussselot and was able to direct live-action scenes and personally direct and photograph anything that was not live-action related — including the Tom Cruise puppet that looked like he’s bleeding to death.” This led to Apollo 13 on which he was VFX supervisor.

On set for Hugo (L-R): Martin Scorsese, DP Bob Richardson and Rob Legato.

“I thought as a director did, and I thought as a cameraman, so I was able to answer my own questions. This made it easy to communicate with directors and cameramen, and that was my interest. I attacked everything from the perspective of, ‘If I were directing this scene, what would I do?’ It then became easy for me to work with directors who weren’t very fluent in the visual effects side. And because I shot second unit too, especially on Marty Scorsese’s movies, I could determine what the best way of getting that image was. I actually became quite a decent cameraman with all this practice emulating Bob Richardson’s extraordinary work, and I studied the masters (Marty and Bob) and learned how to emulate their work to blend into their sequences seamlessly. I was also able to maximize the smaller dollar amount I was given by designing both second unit direction and cinematography together to maximize my day.”

Ok, let’s dig in a bit deeper with Legato, a card-carrying member of the ASC, and find out how he works with directors, his workflow and his love for trying and helping to create new technology in order to help tell the story.

Over the years you started to embrace virtual production. How has that technology evolved over the years?
When I was working on Harry Potter, I had to previs a sequence for time purposes, and we used a computer. I would tell the CG animators where to put the camera and lights, but there was something missing — a lot of times you get inspired by what’s literally in front of you, which is ever-changing in realtime. We were able to click the mouse and move it where we needed, but it was still missing this other sense of life.

For example, when I did Aviator, I had to shoot the plane crash; something I’d never done before, and I was nervous. It was a Scorsese film, so it was a given that it was to be beautifully designed and photographed. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t want to blow my opportunity. On Harry Potter and Titanic we had a lot of resources, so we could fix a mistake pretty easily. Here, I had one crack at it, and it had to be a home run.

So I prevised it, but added a realtime live-action pan and tilt wheels so we could operate and react in realtime — so instead of using a mouse, I was basically using what we use on a stage. It was a great way of working. I was doing the entire scene from one vantage point. I then re-staged it, put a different lens on it and shot the same exact scene from another angle. Then I could edit it as you would a real sequence, just as if I had all the same angles I would have if I had photographed it conventionally and produced a full set of multi-angle live-action dailies.

You edit as well?
I love editing. I would operate the shot and then cut it in the Avid, instantly. All of a sudden I was able to build a sequence that had a certain photographic and editorial personality to it — it felt like there was someone quite specific shooting it.

Is that what you did for Avatar?
Yes. Cameron loves to shoot, operate and edit. He has no fear of technology. I told him what I did on Aviator and that I couldn’t afford to add the more expensive, but extremely flexible, motion capture to it. So on Avatar instead of only the camera having live pan and tilt wheels, it could also be hand-held — you could do Steadicam shots, you could do running shots, you could do hand-held things, anything you wanted, including adding a motion capture live performance by an actor. You could easily stage them, or a representation of that character, in any place or scale in the scene, because in Avatar the characters were nine feet tall. You could preview the entire movie in a very free form and analog way. Jim loved the fact he could impart his personality — the way he moves the camera, the way he frames, the way he cuts — and that the CG-created film would bear the unmistakable stamp of his distinctive live-action movies.

You used the “Avatar-way” on Jungle Book, yes?
Yes. It wasn’t until Jungle Book that I could afford the Avatar-way — a full-on stage with a lot of people to man it. I was able to take what I gave to Jim on Avatar and do it myself with the bells and whistles and some improvements that gave it a life-like sensibility of what could have been an animated film. Instead it became a live film because we used a live-action analog methodology of acquiring images and choosing which one was the right, exact moment per the cut.

The idea behind virtual cinematography is that you shoot it like you would a regular movie. All the editors, cameramen or directors who’ve never done this before are now sort of operating the way they would have if it were real. This very flavor and personality starts to rub off on the patina of the film and begins to feel like a real movie; not animated or computer generated one.

Our philosophy on Jungle Book was we would not make the computer camera do anything that a real camera could not do, so we limited the way we could move it and how fast we could move it, so it wouldn’t defy any kind of gravity. That went part and parcel with the animation and movement of the animals and the actor performing stunts that only a human can accomplish.

So you are in a sense limiting what you can do with the technology?
There was an operator behind the camera and behind the wheels, massaging and creating the various compositional choices that generally are not made in a computer. They’re not just setting keyframes, and because somebody’s behind the camera, this sense of live-action-derived movement is consistent from shot to shot to shot. It’s one person doing it, whereas normally on a CG film, there are as many as 50 people who are placing cameras on different characters within the same scene.

You have to come up with these analog methodologies that are all tied together without even really knowing it. Your choices at the end of the day end up being strictly artistic choices. We’d sort of tap into that for Jungle Book and it’s what Jim tapped into when he did Avatar. The only difference between Avatar and our film is that we set our film in an instantly recognizable place so everybody can judge whether it’s photorealistic or not.

When you start a film, do you create your own system or use something off the shelf?
With every film there is a technology advance. I typically take whatever is off-the-shelf and glue it together with something not necessarily designed to work in unison. Each year you perfect it. The only way to really keep on top of technology is by being on the forefront of it, as opposed to waiting for it to come out. Usually, we’re doing things that haven’t been done before, and invariably it causes something new and innovative.

We’re totally revamping what we did on Jungle Book to achieve the same end on my next film for Disney, but we hope to make it that much better, faster and more intuitive. We are also taking advantage of VR tools to make our job easier, more creative and faster. The faster you can create options, the more iterations you get. More iterations get you a better product sooner and help you elevate the art form by taking it to the next level.

Technology is always driven by the story. We ask ourselves what we want to achieve. What kind of shot do we want to create that creates a mood and a tone? Then once we decide what that is, we figure out what technology we need to invent, or coerce into being, to actually produce it. It’s always driven that way. For example, on Titanic, the only way I could tell that story and make these magic transitions from the Titanic to the wreck and from the wreck back to the Titanic, was by controlling the water, which was impossible. We needed to make computer-generated water that looked realistic, so we did.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (Pictured) BAGHEERA and MOWGLI. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.CG water was a big problem back then.
But now that’s very commonplace. The water work in Jungle Book is extraordinary compared to the crudeness of what we did on Titanic, but we started on that path, and then over the years other people took over and developed it further.

Getting back to Marty Scorsese, and how you work with him. How does having his complete trust make you better at what you do?
Marty is not as interested in the technical side as Jim is. Jim loves all this stuff, and he likes to tinker and invent. Marty’s not like that. Marty likes to tinker with emotions and explore a performance editorially. His relationship with me is, “I’m not going to micro-manage you. I’m going to tell you what feeling I want to get.” It’s very much like how he would talk to an actor about what a particular scene is about. You then start using your own creativity to come up with the idea he wants, and you call on your own experience and interpretation to realize it. You are totally engaged, and the more engaged you are, the more creative you become in terms of what the director wants to tell his story. Tell me what you want, or even don’t want, and then I’ll fill in the blanks for you.

Marty is an incredible cinema master — it’s not just the performance, it’s not just the camera, it’s not just the edit, it’s all those things working in concert to create something new. His encouragement for somebody like me is to do the same and then only show him something that’s working. He can then put his own creative stamp on it as well once he sees the possibilities properly presented. If it’s good, he’s going to use it. If it’s not good, he’ll tell you why, but he won’t tell you how to if fix it. He’ll tell you why it doesn’t feel right for the scene or what would make it more eloquent. It’s a very soft, artistic push in his direction of the film. I love working with him for this very reason.

You too surround yourself with people you can trust. Can you talk about this for just a second?
I learned early on to surround myself with geniuses. You can’t be afraid of hiring people that are smarter than you are because they bring more to the party. I want to be the lowest common denominator, not the highest. I’ll start with my idea, but if someone else can do it better, I want it to be better. I can show them what I did and tell them to make it better, and they’ll go off and come up with something that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of, or the collusion between you and them creates a new gem.

When I was doing Titanic someone asked me how I did what I did. My answer was that I hired geniuses and told them what I wanted to accomplish creatively. I hire the best I can find, the smartest, and I listen. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the mistake of somebody literally misunderstanding what you meant delivers something that you never thought of. It’s like, “Wow, you completely misunderstood what I said, but I like that better, so we’re going to do that.”

Part and parcel of doing this is that you’re a little fearless. It’s like, “Well, that sounds good. There’s no proof to it, but we’re going to go for it,” as opposed to saying, “Well, no one has done it before so we better not try it. That’s what I learned from Cameron and Marty and Bob Zemeckis. They’re fearless.

Can you mention what you’re working on now, or no?
I’m working on Lion King.

ILM’s Richard Bluff talks VFX for Marvel’s Doctor Strange

By Daniel Restuccio

Comic book fans have been waiting for over 30 years for Marvel’s Doctor Strange to come to the big screen, and dare I say it was worth the wait. This is in large part because of the technology now available to create the film’s stunning visual effects.

Fans have the option to see the film in traditional 2D, Dolby Cinema (worthy of an interstate or plane fare pilgrimage, in my opinion) and IMAX 3D. Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios’ 15th film offering, is also receiving good critical reviews and VFX Oscar buzz — it’s currently on the list of 20 films still in the running in the Visual Effects category for the 89th Academy Awards.

Marvel Doctor StrangeThe unapologetically dazzling VFX shots, in many cases directly inspired by the original comic visuals by Steve Dittko, were created by multiple visual effects houses, including Industrial Light & Magic, Luma Pictures, Lola VFX, Method Studios, Rise FX, Crafty Apes, Framestore, Perception and previs house The Third Floor. Check out our interview with the film’s VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti.

Director Scott Derrickson said in in a recent Reddit chat that Doctor Strange is “a fantastical superhero movie.

“Watching the final cut of the film was deeply satisfying,” commented Derrickson. “A filmmaker cannot depend upon critical reviews or box office for satisfaction — even if they are good. The only true reward for any artist is to pick a worthy target and hit it. When you know you’ve hit your target that is everything. On this one, I hit my target.”

Since we got an overview of how the visual effects workflow went from Ceretti, we decided to talk to one of the studios that provided VFX for the film, specifically ILM and their VFX supervisor Richard Bluff.

Richard Bluff

According to Bluff, early in pre-production Marvel presented concept art, reference images and previsualization on “what were the boundaries of what the visuals could be.” After that, he says, they had the freedom to search within those bounds.

During VFX presentations with Marvel, they frequently showed three versions of the work. “They went with the craziest version to the point where the next time we would show three more versions and we continued to up the ante on the crazy,” recalls Bluff.

As master coordinator of this effort for ILM, Bluff encouraged his artists, “to own the visuals and try to work out how the company could raise the quality of the work or the designs on the show to another level. How could we introduce something new that remains within the fabric of the movie?”

As a result, says Bluff, they had some amazing ideas flow from individuals on the film. Jason Parks came up with the idea of traveling through the center of a subway train as it fractured. Matt Cowey invented the notion of continually rotating the camera to heighten the sense of vertigo. Andrew Graham designed the kaleidoscope-fighting arena “largely because his personal hobby is building and designing real kaleidoscopes.”

Unique to Doctor Strange is that the big VFX sequences are all very “self-contained.” For example, ILM did the New York and Hong Kong sequence, Luma did the Dark Dimension and Method did the multi-universe. ILM also designed and developed the original concept for the Eldridge Magic and provided all the shared “digital doubles” — CGI rigged and animatable versions of the actors — that tied sequences together. The digital doubles were customized to the needs of each VFX house.

Previs
In some movies previs material is generated and thrown away. Not so with Doctor Strange. What ILM did this time was develop a previs workflow where they could actually hang assets and continue to develop, so it became part of the shot from the earliest iteration.

There was extensive previs done for Marvel by The Third Floor as a creative and technical guide across the movie, and further iterations internal to ILM done by ILM’s lead visualization artist, Landis Fields.

Warning! Spoiler! Once Doctor Strange moves the New York fight scene into the mirror universe, the city starts coming apart in an M.C. Escher-meets-Chris Nolan-Inception kind of way. To make that sequence, ILM created a massive tool kit of New York set pieces and geometry, including subway cars, buildings, vehicles and fire escapes.

In the previs, Fields started breaking apart, duplicating and animating those objects, like the fire escapes, to tell the story of what a kaleidoscoping city would look like. The artists then fleshed out a sequence of shots, a.k.a. “mini beats.” They absorbed the previs into the pipeline by later switching out the gross geometry elements in Fields’ previs with the actual New York hero assets.

Strange Cam
Landis and the ILM team also designed and built what ILM dubbed the “strange cam,” a custom 3D printed 360 GoPro rig that had to withstand the rigors of being slung off the edge of skyscrapers. What ILM wanted to do was to be able to capture 360 degrees of rolling footage from that vantage point to be used as a moving background “plates” that could be reflected within the New York City glass buildings.

VFX, Sound Design and the Hong Kong
One of the big challenges with the Hong Kong sequence was that time was reversing and moving forward at the same time. “What we had to do was ensure the viewer understands that time is reversing throughout that entire sequence.” During the tight hand-to-hand action moments that are moving forward in time, there’s not really much screen space to show you time reversing in the background. So they designed the reversing destruction sequence to work in concert with the sound design. “We realized we had to move away from a continuous shower of debris toward rhythmic beats of debris being sucked out of frame.”

before-streetafter-street

Bluff says the VFX the shot count on the film — 1,450 VFX — was actually a lot less than Captain America: Civil War. From a VFX point of view, The Avengers movies lean on the assets generated in Iron Man and Captain America. The Thor movies help provide the context for what an Avengers movie would look and feel like. In Doctor Strange “almost everything in the movie had to be designed (from scratch) because they haven’t already existed in a previous Marvel film. It’s a brand-new character to the Marvel world.”

Bluff started development on the movie in October of 2014 and really started doing hands on work in February of 2016, frequently traveling between Vancouver, San Francisco and London. A typical day, working out of the ILM London office, would see him get in early and immediately deal with review requests from San Francisco. Then he would jump into “dailies” in London and work with them until the afternoon. After “nightlies” with London there was a “dailies” session with San Francisco and Vancouver, work with them until evening, hit the hotel, grab some dinner, come back around 11:30pm or midnight and do nightlies with San Francisco. “It just kept the team together, and we never missed a beat.”

2D vs. IMAX 3D vs. Dolby Cinema
Bluff saw the entire movie for the first time in IMAX 3D, and is looking forward to seeing it in 2D. Considering sequences in the movie are surreal in nature and Escher-like, there’s an argument that suggests that IMAX 3D is a better way to see it because it enhances the already bizarre version of that world. However, he believes the 2D and 3D versions are really “two different experiences.”

Dolby Cinema is the merging of Dolby Atmos — 128-channel surround sound — with the high dynamic range of Dolby Vision, plus really comfortable seats. It is, arguably, the best way to see a movie. Bluff says as far as VFX goes, high dynamic range information has been there for years. “I’m just thankful that exhibition technology is finally catching up with what’s always been there for us on the visual effects side.”

During that Reddit interview, Derrickson commented, “The EDR (Extended Dynamic Range) print is unbelievable — if you’re lucky enough to live where an EDR print is playing. As for 3D and/or IMAX, see it that way if you like that format. If you don’t, see it 2D.”

Doctor Strange is probably currently playing in a theater near you, but go see it in Dolby Cinema if you can.


In addition to being a West Coast correspondent for postPerspective, Daniel Restuccio is the multimedia department chair at California Lutheran University and former Walt Disney Imagineer.

ILM welcomes Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Eric Barba

ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) has brought Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Eric Barba to its Vancouver-based studio as creative director. In addition to supervising effects work, Barba will also provide creative oversight across all of the studio’s projects. He will work closely with ILM Vancouver’s executive in charge, Randal Shore, and collaborate with ILM’s global talent base.

For the past two years, Barba was chief creative officer of Digital Domain. A visual effects supervisor since 1999, he supervised the visual effects on David Fincher’s Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which he was honored with an Oscar and a BAFTA Film Award for Outstanding Visual Effects.

Barba often collaborates with Joseph Kosinski, having supervised work on his films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. Most recently Barba has been consulting on a number of feature projects.

Outside of his feature work, Barba has supervised effects work on dozens of commercials for brands such as Nike, Heineken and Microsoft Xbox/Epic Games. He has directed ad campaigns for American Express, Cingular, Honda, Jaguar and Nike. He has received eight AICP Awards, and three gold and two bronze Clio Awards for his spot work.

Barba began his career as a digital artist on sci-fi programs from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Imaging. He is a graduate of Art Center College of Design and is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

ILM Vancouver is currently in production on Warcraft for Duncan Jones, Luc Besson’s Valerian and David Green’s Teenage Mutant Turtles 2.

Blog: My three goals for NAB 2015

This VFX supervisor shares his NAB game plan.

By Adrian Winter

It has been about four or five years since I was at an NAB Show, so I am very much looking forward to this year’s trip. In the past, my plan has been to fly out for just a day or two, walk the floor and then take a redeye home. This year I will be there for almost the entire week, and have plans to take in as many demos and seminars as I manage to squeeze in.

I have three areas of focus for the convention:

The Big players
Adobe, Autodesk, The Foundry and FilmLight always have a big presence at NAB, and I’ll be checking in with them to see what they have in the pipeline. I also plan to swing by a few of my other favorite exhibitor booths to see if I come across any gems. Continue reading

Behind the Title: Method VFX supervisor Alvin Cruz

NAME: Eduardo “Alvin” Cruz

COMPANY: Method Studios (@method_studios)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Method Studios is an artist-driven global studio that offers high-end visual effects for the film, commercial, television, gaming and design industries.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Visual Effects Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
A visual effects supervisor is the person who determines creative and technical approaches for Continue reading