In this posting (no podcast) I discuss the role of the visual effects supervisor and issues related to this position.
Note that there is no union position for visual effects supervisor, there’s no certification process for this role and there is no standard to how any of this works so I’ll be describing what is industry practice.
A Visual Effects Supervisor is in charge of the creative and technical issues of visual effects on a project. This position starts in pre-production and continues through the completion of the visual effects in post-production. This can span 1 to 2 years on a large project. The supervisor typically works with a visual effects producer who focuses on the budget and schedule aspects of the work. If the project has a large amount of animation then there will be probably be an Animation Supervisor as well.
These days there’s likely to be multiple visual effects supervisors on a visual effects film. If the film has a large number of shots then it sometimes makes sense to split up the work with each supervisor overseeing specific sequences to provide the attention required. In this case they may be referred to as co-supervisors. Associate Supervisor is sometimes a title given to someone who is moving up into the role of supervisor and who has a smaller number of shots compared to the other supervisor(s) on the project. Senior supervisor is sometimes used as an honorary title given to someone at a company who has been at the company a long time and who is able to step in if there are problems on a show.
Given the increase in visual effects shots on a show, the reduction in post production time allowed by the studio and in an effort to count every bean by the studio, work on a large effects driven show is typically spread over multiple companies. Each company handles specific sequences or types of effects and these companies will have their own visual effects supervisor. The film production or studio may hire a vfx supervisor or at least a vfx producer to oversee the work of these companies.
A Plate supervisor is usually a visual effects supervisor who is just involved in the live action or shooting background plates. Plate is the term used for footage that is shot to be used for visual effects. This can be a foreground, background or other elements. With or without actors. (Elements are all the different images used to make up the final shot). The plate supervisor may be hired so the main supervisor can continue to oversee the work back at the vfx company or studio. A plate supervisor may also be hired to shoot specific images half way around the world while principal photography is being done.
When a film has been greenlit (approved by the studio to proceed into production) or close to greenlit then the film production (director, producer) works with the studio head of visual effects if there is one. This position is primarily a producer type of role to oversee multiple films in various stages of production. This office usually has their own list of approved vendors (visual effects companies) which they forward the script to. They would also play a role in hiring a visual effects supervisor and visual effects producer for the film if there is one.
Each vfx company has their own supervisor and producer breakdown the shots and bid on the show. If there is a show vfx supervisor and producer they review the bids and work with the studio visual effects department to award the work to different companies.
The supervisor works closely with the director to get a sense of what the director is looking for on each sequence and each shot. This is done by employing concept artists, storyboard artists and previs artists to create visual guides. The idea is to solidify the vision of the director and allow the supervisor to work out the technical aspects of completing the shot. The supervisor decides which techniques to use and what will be required when the live action is shot. This is usually done with involvement of the vfx departments and/or companies. If the visual effects supervisor works at a company he/she usually determines the key players (CG supervisor, sequence leads, etc) with the aid of the vfx producer.
Most visual effects work happens after filming but some things such Research and Development (R&D) and model building (physical and computer graphics) can begin earlier. The supervisor will be overseeing this during pre-production. This can be time critical if the R&D will determine the best way to photograph a sequence. The pipeline may also be developed or adjusted for the type of project during this time. Pipeline is essentially the workflow through the facility and the software tools to help that process. (databases to track elements, computer scripts to move or configure files, etc)
The supervisor works with the other film production department heads (Director of Photography, 1st Asst Director, Production Designer, Special Effects, Stunts, etc) to outline the vfx requirements during filming. This can cover bluescreen, motion control, special lighting, etc.
The supervisor is involved in all the live action photography that requires visual effects. This can mean 6 months in a distant country or months on a sound stage. If multiple companies are involved with a large number of shots they each may send their own supervisor when one of their sequences is being filmed. On a large show it’s common to have a 2nd unit. This can be a full crew with it’s own 2nd Unit Director to film action sequences or other sequences and shots that don’t require a lot of the principals (main actors). This will require an effects supervisor as well if the work involves visual effects. Plate supervisors may be employed to help oversee this work depending on the volume of work and schedules.
If there are issues with the actors (eyeline, timing, action with a creature to be added later, etc) I tend to discuss it with the director for him/her to guide the actor. This avoids problems with the actors getting multiple and contradictory instructions.
This may seem like a lot of work but a huge amount of the success of a shot is based on it being filmed correctly to begin with. This means making sure the actors eyelines are correct, the lighting matches the situation when possible, clean plates and information is gathered at the time of photography (lighting references, match move markers and data, etc)
One of the most detrimental decisions a production can make (from a cost and quality stand point) is when they attempt to shoot a visual effects shot and have you just ‘fix’ it later. And believe me if the supervisor turns his/her back for moment production will try to get off a shot. This is most likely to happen when the director has done a previous effects film and ended up with good looking shots despite problems shooting. What they never see is the amount of work and extra costs any of this entails.
I’ll probably do a blog post sometime about the ins and outs of plate photography.
Once the footage has been shot the film moves into post production. Ideally editing has been proceeding even during production and some sequences have been locked so visual effects work can begin even during production. As sequences are edited they are turned over by the director to the supervisor and the visual effects team.
How the work proceeds and how it’s structured is determined largely by the supervisor and producer. Sometimes it’s best to rough in quick animation and composites for all the shots of a sequences. That allows the director and editor see a sequence in context and see if major changes are required before you final every shot. If the director has a difficult time visualizing the supervisor may have to wait until the shots are further along before presenting them to the director. Some directors have difficulty making decisions based on ‘plastic’ animation renders so these would need a higher level of rendering.
Production may require reshoots months after production if there are editorial or technical issues with the footage. Additional background plates may have to be shot for sequences, especially if there has been a change from the original plan. Once again these would require an effects supervisor or plate supervisor.
A supervisor’s day usually starts with review of dailies. I typically review them on my workstation and make notes before stepping through with the team or individuals involved. Even spending a few minutes per shot adds up with you have quite a number of shots in production. As much as you try to balance the schedule invariably you have a large number of shots to be reviewed as you get close to the final deadline. This can mean spending the entire morning reviewing shots. Trying to balance a pat on the back for the work done so far on a shot and encouragement with the need to list the items still need to be completed to finish the shot is a tough. Usually the pat on the back is the first thing to go as the schedule gets tighter. It’s no disrespect to the crew members, just the realities of getting a large volume of work done.
In the afternoon the supervisor may have meetings to review scheduling, budgets, new sequences, R&D status,etc. He/she may have to present the director the latest shots or sit down with individual artists to discuss any updates/changes from the morning dailies.
The supervisor usually puts in the same hours as the rest of the production crew. 10-12 hour minimum. 5-7 days a week.
The director is involved in all decisions from the approval of the original designs and through to the final shot. The director has to buy off on the animation before the final rendering and compositing is done.
One of the things the supervisor has to do is work with the director on getting shots finaled (approved) in a timely manner. It’s very easy to get too focused on every detail in a shot, especially if you’re looping the shot over and over on a computer. Matte lines and added elements can always be tweaked more. Unfortunately if you have hundreds of shots to do in a limited time and the supervisor or director becomes too picky or tweak happy then the first shots will look great but the last batch of shots may look awful. For this reason there’s usually a number of target finals to accomplish per week in order to meet the deadline. Any shots that aren’t done from the week before are now added to the number that need to be completed in the current week. The idea is to create a balance so all the shots hold up and work within context of the film. If you can view it in context (with surrounding shots) 2 or 3 times without noticing a problem then it’s done.
It’s important to note that how a specific supervisor gets assigned a specific project can be very haphazard. The studio or production select what companies to send the script to for bids. This can be based on previous experience or the phase of the moon. For a supervisor who works at a vfx company, the company acts as an agent and manager. They may assign a supervisor based on who’s available from their internal supervisors at that time or who’s under a contract with them. Qualifications for a specific project may have little to do with the assignments.
Since projects take a long time (1-2 years) a supervisor may have to turn down other projects since there’s already a commitment for the current project. Project offers come in one at a time so the supervisor has to decide if he wants to take it or pass and hope something better comes soon. How soon that next offer comes in is unknown. You’re never offered multiple projects at the same time from which you get to choose.
The supervisor has to take in to account the creative issues, technical challenges, the manner and film history of the director and the time away from their family when deciding on whether to accept a project. Is it better to accept a mainstream big project or an art film? Is it better to do a few, simple effects shots for a high quality film or is it better to do a large number of challenging shots for a simple action film? Each supervisor has to make a call given the situation at that time.
Requirements and guidelines for a visual effects supervisor
A good visual effects supervisor is a bit of jack of all trades.
Knowledge of a wide range of visual effects techniques and positions.
Experience dealing with a wide range of visual effects techniques and positions. As good as some training material is there’s still nothing like true hands on experience. If you’ve had to paint out a rig or extract a key from a poorly shot bluescreen you’re more likely to think twice and make sure it’s shot correctly. If you haven’t done it you may hope to just toss it into the black box and expect it to come out ok.
Ability to visualize shots and review them in detail within the minds eye before they’re shot.
Creative eye. Knowing composition, cinematic design and animation timing.
Understanding of photography and lighting. Knowing what’s looks real and what looks cinematic.
Good communication skills. Discussing a visual or technical issue with a director and also being able to turn around and discuss it with the technical team in a manner appropriate for the listener. The director shouldn’t need a translator.
Get in sync with the director’s vision. After working with the director awhile you should have the ability to predict how they will react to a given specific shots or issues.
Good working relationship with the director. The director has to have trust and confidence in the supervisor and the supervisor has to work for the director. The supervisor may provide his guidance and ideas to the director but at the end of the day it’s the director’s decision.
Know your battles. Knowing when it’s worth fighting for an extra 10 minutes on stage and when it’s not. When is it worth pushing a specific creative viewpoint or when it’s worth trying to get an updated animatic.
Problem solving. There’s always problems to solve. Technical, creative, logistic and scheduling.
Thinking quickly. Time is money on a film set and when things change the supervisor has to step in make adjustments while keeping in mind the impact in the rest of the process. You always have to be considering several moves ahead as in chess.
Management and people skills. Dealing with a number of different types of personalities (on the live action crew and visual effects crew as well as the director) and trying to keep everyone focused on the goal.
Attention to detail. Keeping an eye on large and small details that will make a shot finished.
Organized. Each shot has to be broken down into each element and how those elements are to be generated or filmed. Any feedback from the director has to be noted and executed.
Team work Film making and visual effects are both team efforts and will require everyone to work together. The supervisor has to take key responsibilities and at other times be able to delegate to key members of the team. He/she has to be open to listening to members of their crew. I try to surround myself with the best and smartest people in their jobs.
KISS Keep it simple stupid. It’s difficult enough to do the work without making everything extra complicated. Is an elaborate process or 20 extra elements worth it for a 2 second shot?
Budget and time. One manager told me it was my job to spend as much of the budget as possible and it was the producers job to try to keep me from doing that. I think that’s wrong. The supervisor has to keep in mind the budget and time when selecting the techniques and figuring out the pacing for the work. If you run out of time or money before completion the results will show it and it won’t be pleasant for anyone.
Think outside the box. The first solution that jumps into your mind may not be the best. Consider it from all angles and all trade-offs.
Living with changes. Everyone working in visual effects has to take changes in stride. The director may change his mind completely after you and your crew have spent a lot of time and effort finishing a shot or sequence. It’s a creative process so that’s the nature of the beast.
Tolerance and balance. The supervisor becomes the fulcrum of production (cost, time) and the artist requirements. If you’re at a VFX company, management and the vfx producer will want you to ‘sell’ the shot to the director as quickly as possible. Yet you’ll have an obligation to the director to make sure the quality of the work and their vision is maintained. I’ve had producers tell me to tell the director he/she can’t do something. Being placed in the middle of political film production issues is no fun. The studio can also become involved in this process, especially if the film has gone over schedule or budget. Awkward for all involved.
Thick skin. The supervisor may be yelled at for things out of their control or may be berated for doing something a specific way (even if it’s exactly what the director had requested the day before).
Keeping your cool. See all of the above.
Becoming a visual effects supervisor
First you have to decide if becoming a visual effects supervisor is what you want to do. It may sound great but it involves a large amount of pressure and politics.
There’s certainly something nice about focusing on a specific aspect and doing a great job compared to being pulled in multiple directions. A supervisor seldom get much hands on effects time and getting work becomes more daunting since there are a limited number of visual effects supervisors employed compared to technical directors or others in the visual effects crew.
If you’ve only worked in one area of visual effects then you’re likely to try to solve every visual effects shot with those techniques. I’ve seen people who only had physical model experience trying to create an effect with a physical model that would have been easier, faster and more importantly, better done with an animation camera. I’ve seen other people try to write elaborate software programs for something that could have been filmed and composited in a fraction of the time.
These days most people employed in visual effects are assigned to a specific area of work. I was fortunate enough on my first film, Close Encounters, to work in most of the departments (Motion control, model photography, animation camera, matte camera, R&D and model shop)
It’s up to you try to try to keep moving up in your area and to expand outward. Talk to your employer and see if you can help out in other areas or take training in other areas if they offer it. Some VFX companies like to have people who can accomplish a number of different tasks. Animation and technical directoring, matchmoving and writing shaders, etc.
Try to get on to a set to see how things work. Most people working behind the computer screen have no idea of the issues involved in the shooting process (‘and why didn’t they shoot that other element on the set’). It can be helpful for a technical director to work as a match mover or data collector as an example.
If you’ve only work with computer graphics try to get some experience with miniatures and visa versa.
You’ll have to make your own opportunities. Continue to educate yourself on your own. When you think you have a true understanding and feel you have enough experience then see if you can work on a small project (short film, few shots on a local commercial or independent film). Jumping into the deep end of a visual effects heavy film is not for the faint of heart nor for those with limited skill sets.
Update - The VES Handbook has now been released which covers quite a range of what a VFX supervisor needs to know.
Tip - Make sure you have real experience in a number of VFX productions before considering becoming a VFX supervisor. There are quite a few things that can't be taught in classes or in books. VFX Supervision takes real experience.
Wages: If you're looking for how much a vfx supervisor makes (that seems to be a high hit factor coming to this page) then you're looking for the wrong thing. If it's money you're after become a Wall Street Banker or a CEO. These require less skill and learning and provide much better hours.
If you still want to know how much a vfx supe makes then it starts at $0 (check craigslist) and goes up from there to a level similar to a DP. A supervisor is typically on some type of flat so when the crazy hours are happening for weeks/months, their wage remains the same and can frequently be less than the people who work under them but are paid overtime. And because there are a limited number of Supervisors on projects you may spend months out of work compared to say a compositor, where they may need dozens of compositors who are paid overtime. If you want to be a good or great vfx supervisor you're doing it for the love and passion of vfx.
Visual Effects Positions