Tag Archives: Weta Digital

Mortal Engines: Weta creates hell on wheels

By Karen Moltenbrey

Over the years, Weta Digital has made a name for itself, creating vast imaginative worlds for highly acclaimed feature film franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, for the recently released Mortal Engines, not only did the studio have to construct wide swaths of land the size of countries, but the crew also had to build supercities that move at head-spinning speed.

Mortal Engines, produced by Universal Pictures and MRC, takes place centuries after a cataclysmic event known as the Sixty Minute War destroys civilization as we know it, leaving behind few resources. Eventually, survivors learn to adapt, and a deadly, mobile society emerges whereby gigantic moving cities roam the earth, preying on smaller towns they hunt down across a landscape called the Great Hunting Ground, basically the size of Europe. It is now a period of pre-revival, as the earth begins to renew itself, and the survivors become nomads on wheels.

Eventually, London, a traction city, emerges at the top of this vicious food chain, consuming resources from other cities and towns it devours, including fuel, food and human labor. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. But there are those who want to end this vicious cycle; they are members of the Anti-Traction League, who advocate for static, self-sustaining homelands.

Based on a book by Philip Reeve, the film is directed by Oscar-winning visual effects artist Christian Rivers (King Kong). Simon Raby (Elysium, District 9) served as cinematographer, while Weta created the visual effects, led by Ken McGaugh, Kevin Andrew Smith and Luke Millar, with Dennis Yoo as animation supervisor.

Ken McGaugh

A New World Order
In all, Weta delivered 1,682 VFX shots for the feature film, most of which pertained to the environments.

How did this work compare to some of Weta’s other world builds? “I can’t speak as to The Hobbit because I didn’t work on that. But on The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand’s landscape was used for Middle-earth, so there was a lot of location work, and most of the world building was all in camera,” says McGaugh. “On Mortal Engines, because earth has been destroyed and manipulated by these giant cities moving over it, there’s nothing left that resembles the earth that we know. So, there was no location for us to shoot; we had to build it from scratch.”

How does one go about building such a world — and then setting it in motion? “In a book there is a lot of metaphor, but film has to be fully literal,” says Rivers. Fortunately, he and the crew had the vast experience as well as the technological genius to get it done.

Such a goal, however, required new rules and workflows, even for a veteran studio like Weta, which has a history of breaking new ground, especially when it comes to animated characters and amazing landscapes. Here, those diverse elements would converge like never before.

“We have quite a bit of experience doing computer-generated vehicles as well as digital environments, but most of our workflows assume that an environment is not a vehicle, that it doesn’t move. So trying to bridge that gap was a challenge. We had nothing that would allow us to do that until we first started,” says McGaugh. “So, we had to invent some new workflows and technology internally to allow us to bridge that gap so the animators could animate the city as if it were a vehicle, but we could build the city and dress it as if it were an environment.”

The Land
The environments in Mortal Engines are CG — built and animated using Autodesk’s Maya and composited in Foundry’s Nuke — with practical set pieces used for filming embedded into them.

In addition to the unique cities, there are some large tracts of land, including the Great Hunting Ground, scarred with massive tread marks left by traction cities over the centuries. Here, the once-organic environment had been reshaped and now appears man-made, but life is establishing a foothold in this once-barren landscape.

“It has all these layered plateaus with hard edges and embedded track shapes that we placed everywhere,” says McGaugh. “Our rule of thumb was that the higher the level of the plain, the more foliage there was, since it had been a long time since it had been driven over. However, on the lower level, at the bottom of the trenches, it was also green, but more marshy and full of reeds, since that is where water accumulates.”

Some survivors of the war pushed into the mountains and founded settlements there, rather than living a nomadic existence. One such settlement is Shan Guo in the East on the Asian Steppes, protected from the mobile cities by mountain ranges. In addition, there is a massive two-kilometer shield wall (6,561 feet high) situated between two of the mountains that protects Shan Guo and the static cities in the Himalayas. This environment alone was daunting to create, as it covers 5,000 square kilometers (over 3,000 square miles).

On one side of the shield wall, the environment is very lush, fertile and green, and the buildings influenced by Bhutan monasteries. On the other side of the wall, there is a lack of foliage, with the landscape strewn with decayed ruins of traction cities that have unsuccessfully attacked the wall. And while the shield wall is massive, it had to appear smaller in comparison to the mountains surrounding it.

While constructing these mountains, the Weta artists used available geographical data, increasing the resolution through erosion simulations that would shape the mountains more naturally. “That gave us extra detail that we could use to make it look more organic,” McGaugh says. The simulation also was used to embed the ruined traction cities into the crater environment as well as situate the crater environment into the surrounding landscape.

Cities on the Move
The moving cities can cover a great deal of ground in very little time, gouging and scarring the earth in their wake with deep crevices; above, airships dot the skies. The relentless ploughing of the traction cities over the landscape has driven layers and layers of mud, debris and waste into the ground. Weta re-created this effect by starting with a precisely coupled fluid simulation with multiple viscosities; this could accurately simulate the combination of solid and liquid layers of the mud. They then began laying tracks and eroding them, then laying more tracks and eroding, repeating the process until the desired result was achieved.

In the film, there are numerous homelands, including Airhaven, a fantastical city in the clouds with a jellyfish look that is home to the Anti-Tractionists.

“Airhaven didn’t have a lot of movement, so we didn’t have to use our new layout puppet technology. But when it crashes, that had to be animation-driven, so we built a lightweight puppet with a large section of the city on each piece of the puppet, so animators could choreograph the crash,” explains McGaugh. “Then they handed that off to our effects department, and they would simulate all the individual pieces breaking apart and exploding, and then add the explosions, fire and all the dynamics on the balloons and the cloth.”

So many of the traction cities have multiple moving parts that it was impractical to animate them by hand. Alternatively, Weta developed a tool called Gumby, which is a vehicle-ground interaction toolset that allows animators to move a city from point A to point B over uneven terrain along a curve. The Gumby system then made sure that all the wheels stuck to the ground, thereby driving the suspension system that causes the infrastructure to move appropriately.

A dynamic caching system allowed for secondary bounce and wobble to occur on various pieces of a city in response to the motion from the Gumby system. “It wasn’t perfect, but it allowed for very complex animation in the blocking stage and made the motion more believable and closer to what the final version would look like,” explains McGaugh. Once blocking was approved, then the animators would refine the motion as needed.

London Lives!
According to McGaugh, the single biggest challenge was constructing London and executing it in a way that maintains its enormous size while keeping it in the realm of believability. “Concept artist Nick Keller came up with a design for London that looked like it could be self-supporting and was scalable, so we could make it as big as it needed to be in order to house 200,000 people, and when it moved, we could sell that as believable, too,” he explains.

London is the largest of the traction cities. It incorporated approximately 17 live-action sets and is a mile wide and a mile and a half long, and over a half-mile high. It is divided into seven tiers, with life aboard London progressively more desirable farther up each tier.

“This is a place where the glass is gone but stone statues have survived,” Rivers says. “We decided to make anything we see in our world today archaeological and then skew and twist things from there.” As a result, some iconic landmarks are recognizable but have an altered appearance.

“The design had to lend itself to believability for being so large and moving, but it also had to evoke a sense of contemporary London through recognizable features, such as the Trafalgar Square lions acting as sentinels on top of the outriggers, so they’re visible from a distance,” McGaugh points out. London was then crowned with a reconstructed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A contemporary feel was evoked through the architectural style. As McGaugh notes, London is known for its diverse and contrasting architectural styles juxtaposed against each other. So, the designers followed that style when laying out the buildings atop the digital London. “That was also carried out through the front façade of London and at a much larger scale, so that from a distance, you could still feel that diversity where it’s kind of rusty and brutalist at the bottom with a layer of architecture that is reminiscent of the houses of Parliament, and then is topped with chrome and steel construction shaped like a coat of arms,” he adds.

Because of this diversity of architectural styles, the group was able to source from its library of existing buildings — whether Victorian, Georgian, contemporary office buildings, tower blocks, row houses, Buckingham Palace — and mix them together without having to maintain uniformity from building to building.

But with so much detail, it became prohibitively difficult to render, and that’s where Weta’s Cake technology came into play — which used an intelligent way of breaking down geometric and material detail into a format that could be streamed into the renderer, using just the level of detail required. “Before that, it wasn’t viable to render London,” says McGaugh. “But Cake allowed us to process all the data into a format that enabled us to render it, and render it quite efficiently.” Rendering was done within Weta’s proprietary Manuka renderer.

Lighting was also tricky, as the team was following the lighting direction from Raby, who used backlighting — which is not easy to do in CGI when using hard edges, especially when there is shiny glass and metal involved. As a result, the CG lighters, using the studio’s Foundry Katana-based pipeline, had to do tests on almost every shot to find the appropriate angle that sold the backlighting and kept the visuals interesting and not too flat, while maintaining continuity with the camera shots.

London on the Move
A city constantly on the move, London can travel at approximately 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour, bolstered by massive engines. While that speed sounds ridiculously fast according to real-world physics, it was necessary to hold audiences’ attention, as physics and cinema were often at odds on the film. “There was a lot of testing, and we tried 100 kilometers per hour when London is chasing down [the mining traction city of] Salthook across a vast landscape, but it looked like a couple of snails racing. It was too boring,” says McGaugh. “Indeed, 300 kilometers sounds ludicrous, and if you think about it, it is. But that is what allowed us to keep the chase exciting while constantly selling that there is movement.”

Indeed, London had to move faster than physics would allow, yet just how fast depended on the camera shot. Nevertheless, this wreaked havoc on the effects that simulated natural phenomenon, such as dust. The key, however, was to use visual cues to make sure the cities felt massive and other cues to make sure audiences were not distracted by the fact that the cities are moving so fast.

When constructing the massive city of London, Weta devised the concept of so-called “lily pads,” representing 113 sections of London. Each was rigged and animated independently and contained millions of components that had to be tracked and moved. Each lily pad was constructed modularly, enabling artists to add clusters of buildings, parks, shops and so forth on each platform. More and more detail was then added to areas as needed.

These lily pads were supported by complex suspension systems for individual movement; at times there was some inter-movement among them, as well. “[The movement] was pretty subliminal at times, but if it wasn’t there, you’d have noticed it and everything would have felt static and locked,” McGaugh says.

Shrike
While Weta’s work on the film was heavily focused on environments, Mortal Engines does contain one digital character, Shrike, who had raised the movie’s heroine, Hester Shaw, after her mother’s murder. Half-man/half-machine, Shrike was a dead soldier resurrected by technology. He stands at seven feet tall and weighs close to 1,000 pounds.

Shrike’s anatomy is not human — he has extra appendages and extra mechanical bits that had to be rigged to move differently from that of a typical human. “It was determined early on that we could not use motion capture because we needed him to be inhuman, so we had to invest quite a bit of effort into finding his motion through keyframe techniques,” McGaugh notes.

Shrike’s face comprises metal parts and human skin. To achieve a realistic tug and stretch of the skin against the metal, Weta developed a custom facial-muscle rig so animators could use the visible muscles and skin to allow him to emote in some particularly dramatic moments in the movie, inspired by the performance from actor Stephen Lang.

A New Day
While the scale of the world building for Mortal Engines was not at the level of The Hobbit, it was not without big challenges for the VFX veterans at Weta. Initially, the concept of massive cities on the move was difficult to wrap one’s head around. But, as always, Weta’s artists and animators were able to bring that unique visual to life in a realistic way.

Now with Mortal Engines in theaters, the studio remains on the move with a number of other mega projects in the works, including the Avatar sequels and more on the big screen as well as the final season of Game of Thrones for the small screen. All resulting in more expansive, unique worlds brought to cinematic life.


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.

Behind the Title: Weta Digital’s Paolo Emilio Selva

NAME: Paolo Emilio Selva 

COMPANY: Weta Digital

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
In the middle of Middle-earth, Weta Digital is a VFX company with more than a thousand artists and developers. While focusing on delivering amazing movies, Weta Digital also focuses on research and development for VFX. 

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Head of Software Engineering 

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
In the software engineering department, we write tools for artists and make sure their creative intent is maintained across the pipeline. We also make sure production isn’t disrupted across the facility.  

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
Writing code, maybe? Yeah, I’m still writing code when I can, mostly fixing bugs and off-loading other developers from nasty issues, keeping them focused on the research and development and providing support.  

HOW DID YOU START YOUR CAREER?
I started my career as researcher in Human-Computer interfaces at a university in Rome. I liked to solve problems, and the VFX industry has lots of problems to be solved 😉 

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN VFX?
Ten years  

DID A PARTICULAR FILM INSPIRE YOU ALONG THIS PATH IN ENTERTAINMENT?
I grew up with Pixar movies and lots of animated short movies. I also played video games. I was always fascinated by what was behind those things. I wanted to replicate them, and which I did by re-writing games or effects seen in movies.

 I started by using existing tools. Then, during high school — thanks to my older cousin — I found Basic and started writing my own tools. I found that I was able to control external devices with Basic and my Commodore64. I also started enjoying electronics and micro-controllers. All of this reached the acme with my thesis at university when I created a data-glove from scratch — from the hardware to the software — and started looking at example applications for it. This was in between 1999 and 2001, when I also started working at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab.  

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
It’s challenging, in a good way, every day. And as problem solver, I like this part of my job. 

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Sometimes too many meetings, but it’s important to communicate with every department and understand their needs. 

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Probably teaching and researching at university in Human-Computer Interaction. 

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
Just to name some of them: War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian, The BFG and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.          

WHAT IS THE PROJECT/S THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I was lucky enough to be at Weta Digital when we worked on Avatar and The Jungle Book, which both won Oscars for Best Visual Effects, and also The Adventures of Tintin, where I was directly involved in the hair-rendering process and all the TopoClouds tools for the Pantaray pipeline.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE DAY TO DAY?
Nowadays, it’s my email client, my phone and very little text-editor and C++ compilers.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Mostly enjoy time with my wife, my cats, video games and the gym when I can.

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.

Behind the Title: Weta’s Head of Tech & Research Luca Fascione

NAME: Luca Fascione

COMPANY: Wellington, New Zealand’s Weta Digital

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Senior Head of Technology and Research

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
In my role, I lead the activities of Weta Digital that provide software technology to the studio and our partners. There are various groups that form technology and research: Production Engineering oversees the studio’s pipeline and infrastructure software, Software Engineering oversees our large plug-ins such as our hair system (Barbershop/Wig), our tree growth system (Lumberjack/Totara) and our environment construction system (Scenic Designer), to name a few.

Two more departments that make up the technology and research group include Rendering Research and Simulation Research. These departments oversee proprietary renderer, Manuka, and our physical simulation system, Synapse. Both groups have a strong applied research focus and as well as producing software, they are often involved in the publication of scientific papers.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO THIS BUSINESS?
Cinema and computers have been favorites of mine (as well as music) since I was a little kid. We used to play a game when I was maybe 12 or so where we would watch about five seconds of a random movie on TV, turn it off, and recite the title. I was very good at that.

A couple of my friends and I watched all the movies we could find, from arthouse European material to more commercial, mainstream content. When it came time to find a job, I thought finding a way to merge my passion for cinema and my interest in computers into one would be great, if I could.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN THIS INDUSTRY?
I started at Weta Digital in 2004. Before that I was part of the crew working the feature animation movie Valiant, where I started in 2002. I guess this would make it 15 years.

HOW HAS THE VFX INDUSTRY CHANGED IN THE TIME YOU’VE BEEN WORKING? WHAT’S BEEN GOOD, WHAT’S BEEN BAD?
Everything got bigger. More so the content we want to work with in relation to the machines we want to use to achieve our goals. As much as technology has improved, our ability to use it to drive the hardware extremely hard has grown faster, creating a need for technically creative, innovative solutions to our scaling problems.

Graphics is running out of “easy problems” that one can solve drawing inspiration from other fields of science, and it’s sometimes the case that our research has outpaced the advancements of similar problems in other fields, such as medicine, physics or engineering. At the same time, especially since the recent move toward deep learning and “big data” problems, the top brains in the field are all drawn away from graphics, making it harder than it used to be to get great talent.

DID A PARTICULAR FILM INSPIRE YOU ALONG THIS PATH IN ENTERTAINMENT?
I work in VFX because of Jurassic Park. Although I must also recognize Young Sherlock Holmes and Terminator 2, which also played a big role in this space. During my career in VFX, King Kong and Avatar have been life-shaping experiences.

DID YOU GO TO FILM SCHOOL?
Not at all, I studied Mathematics in Rome, Italy. All I know about movies is due to personal study work. Back in those days nobody taught computer graphics at this level for VFX. The closest were degrees in engineering schools that maybe had a course or two in graphics. Things have changed massively since then in this area.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
The variety. I run into a lot of extremely interesting problems, and I like being able to help people find good ways to solve them.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
A role like mine necessarily entails having to have many difficult conversations with crew. I am extremely pleased to say the majority of these result in opportunities for growth and deepening of our mutual understandings. I love working with our crew, they’re great people and I do learn a lot every day.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I like my job, I don’t often think about doing something else. But I have on occasion wondered what it would be like to build guitars for a living.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
The latest War for the Planet of the Apes movie has been a fantastic achievement for the studio. The Technology and Research group has contributed a fair bit of software to the initiative, from our forest system Totara to a new lighting pipeline called PhysLight, a piece of work I was personally involved in and that I am particularly proud of.

During our work on The Jungle Book, we helped the production by reshaping our instancing system to address the dense forests in the movie. Great advancements in our destruction systems were also developed for Rampage.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT/S THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
It turns out three of my early projects played a role of some importance in the making of Avatar: The facial solver, the sub-surface scattering system and PantaRay (our Spherical Harmonics occlusion system). After that, I’m extremely proud of my work on Manuka, Weta Digital’s in-house renderer.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION NOW?
All around me, it’s the people, listening to their experiences, problems and wishes. That’s how our job is done.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I play guitar and I build audio amplifiers. I have two daughters in primary school that are a lot of fun and a little boy just joined our family last December. I do take the occasional picture as well.

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.