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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Artistry of VFX

The Artistry of VFX

It’s sometimes difficult to get directors and studios to look at vfx as an artistic process and those involved as creative. To some we’re looked at as technical nerds (with the full stereotypes) to simply fill in the blanks of the scene - place 2 spaceships there, a creature in the foreground and a castle in the background, just like it is in the storyboards or previs. Stat!

And at times we’re our own worst enemies. We frequently do get caught up in all the technical issues and the pixel level details of the shot rather than stepping back and seeing it as the whole. We’re so busy scrambling to play catch-up with all the changes being thrown at us to try to finish the shots in the compressed timeframe that we sometimes fail to see how it may not be working. Obviously we want to make the director happy but what if we could do that and make great shots?

Successful vfx start with the initial shot and sequence designs. That’s why it’s important that the vfx supervisor and their team are involved early, before the storyboards and previs are done. They should be working with the director and other key creatives to help design the most effective visual effects. Concept art should be fleshed out before production starts to make the most of the shoot and to ensure the budget and time estimates are correct. It takes just as much time and effort to work on a badly designed vfx shot as it does to work on a well designed shot so you might as well do it right. Perfect execution will not save a badly designed shot.

One of the things the vfx artist can bring to the design table is a great ability to visualize the shots, and all the pieces, that may be difficult for others to see. The vfx artists also knows what’s possible and what the potential is. Sometimes those not involved in vfx tend to limit themselves to what they could physically do on the set. Or what they’ve seen before rather than creating something new and original. On one project I worked on, a new sequence had to be designed and the director asked for ideas. I provided over 3 pages full of ideas, many which were incorporated and many of which they might not have considered. You never know when opportunities for input may come.

Many of us in vfx have grown so used to being told exactly what to do, sometimes down to the pixel, that we’ve shut down our creative side. Some in vfx want to be told exactly what to do and are bewildered when presented with some creative freedom. I’m suggested to everyone in vfx to keep your creative side alive so as you’re provided opportunities you can take advantage of them. Those who’ve come into vfx from the technical side should spend time developing both their eye and their imagination.

We’ve also become slaves to reality. We think that our goal is always to make every shot real, regardless if it’s the most cinematic or even proper for the film. Sometimes we look down our noses at vfx that are stylized or gauge success based purely on the technical achievement rather than what it provided the film. Just because a shot is rendered by an accurate dynamic simulation doesn’t necessarily make it right for a film. This is all dependent on the project and direction.

If we used that same reality approach to lighting a set:
For a room in a house we’d be likely to shoot it as is with the sunlight coming in the window and the lamp at the table. If this were a set on the stage we’d place a 100 watt light off frame just where it was for the wide shot and we’d figure out the angle of the sunlight coming in for the date, time and orientation and filter it for daylight Kelvin. The end result, while real, would likely be less than inspired. Compare the lighting you see in movies versus your home movies. Quality of lighting is one of the obvious differences between really low budget and full budget films. Now there’s nothing wrong with actual natural lighting if that works for the type of film but that can be a very limited range. Just as you won’t necessarily want to shoot a full film on a ‘normal’ lens just because it mimics the view angle of humans.

A Director of Photography has to have a technical knowledge of photography, lights and color timing (dynamic range, t-stops, fps, etc). But that doesn’t preclude him or her from approaching lighting a set in an artistic manner. Most DPs like to provide the feel of reality but aren’t locked into reality. If there’s a tall building with an alleyway with no lights, the DP has no issues splashing some light on the side of the building to make it stand out or to provide a slight back light on an actor even if technically such lighting doesn’t exist on the set.

Here’s a good article where Shane Hurlbut, ASC, a DP discusses how he lit a scene.

My advice to many in vfx is to watch a DP light a scene. The VES has had lectures in the past. There are also some events like CineGear where cinematographers discuss their craft and show what they do. The internet certainly has more info and creative webcasts. Last weekend Gale Tattersall, the DP on House, showed his lighting and shooting approach for HDSLR cameras in a webcast.

Note that when doing blue or greenscreen work it is always better if you have a background plate first so the DP can actually light to it as a guide. With no background the DP may well light the actor so they look good but have no bearing on the scene the image will be added to.

A DP works with the director and production designer to set the tone and look of the film. On larger films there is a second unit DP that uses what the 1st DP did as a guide to shoot additional footage that will be cut in the movie. The 2nd DP doesn’t match by numbers, he/she matches by the look.

Typically a director interviews a few DPs and determines with the producer which one to work with based on aesthetics, experience and speed. The director and DP then review some films together and discuss the overall look with the production designer. Once production starts the director focuses on the actors and the DP focuses on the lighting and works with the director on framing. The director talks about the feeling and mood he wants to convey in the sequences with the DP, the director doesn’t talk about the fact the fill light should be ½ stop brighter. The director doesn’t have time to micromanage the DP and doesn’t want to.

Obviously we in vfx don’t always have this flexibility and freedom. We frequently have to add multiple images into one final shot where any mismatch will be more obvious than in a simple cut. We almost always have multiple constraints to deal with. But we can start thinking more creatively and can be more open to taking advantage of freedoms where we can and at times making more freedom for ourselves.

Even things like roto and rig removal take a developed eye to efficiently create a high quality image. Roto has to match but exactly how it’s built and where the key frames are do provide some individual freedom. MatchMoving doesn’t tend to lend itself to much flexibility but many positions in vfx do. And in those positions when there is creative room to move, vfx workers should try to make the most of it.

Here’s an example related to animation:
On one project I worked on the director spoke to the animators as he would actors. What was the motivation, what was the feeling, etc. I thought the animators would be happy to be given the freedom to create the character in that moment. But a number were unhappy because they weren’t given specifics such as how to move the head or the timing of the action. There was also the concern of trying to accomplish it in as few takes as possible. Any artistic attempt may require multiple attempts to get right.

On a live action shoot there are normally several takes with the actors doing different variations of performance. The actor may volunteer to do a couple of alternate takes to make sure they’ve nailed it. The director is able to see them relatively quickly and make adjustments and select the one that works the best. With vfx each take can take days, especially if the director is unable to view a rough version and requires it to be fully rendered with fur or other time consuming render processes. The limited time provided by the studios can mean there isn’t enough time to do many takes for creative reasons. And at times a director may become fixated on some other aspect of the scene and want to spend time on that rather than what may be most important in context.

On another project the director had come from an animation background and so insisted on micromanaging the performance to the point of telling the animators where to place a foot and at what frame. And of course the animators weren’t happy with this approach either.

I recommend to all animators to take acting and improv classes. Have a mirror next to your monitor to check facial expressions, just like Disney animators did in the old days. Take advantage of video cameras to explore character movement and emotion.

This example has been regarding animation but I see similar types of things come up in composting, technical directing, texture painting and even in supervision.

We in vfx want to see a little more recognition and respect for what we bring to projects. My suggestion is that starts with all of us respecting our own craft and making sure we bring our full game to the creative aspects. All supervisors (of all types) and all leads should try to avoid micromanaging their team and allow their team members the chance to bring at least nuances to the shots. (More when possible). Vfx artists need to be ready to take the shot to the next level.

We should avoid a workflow that requires each aspect of each shot to go through 5 levels of approval. We should try to streamline the approval of the shot to the director. We should explore options to help communicate with the director faster and more efficiently before we spend weeks going through a full render with fine tuning. When I work on a project I’m typically doing a lot of mockups, even while shooting, so the director and editor along with the DP can start to see what’s working.

Rather than being technical cogs in the machine that relies on the director to fixate on every detail we should make sure we’re in full creative collaboration with the director. And that requires trust. The supervisor and their team have to get up to speed as quickly as possible to understand what the director is going for. Any works in progress have to be shown to the director with a clear communication for what is being addressed. Constantly showing shots for final that aren’t is a quick way to lose that trust.

The director should be able to talk to the vfx team as they do their DP. They should be able to talk about the mood they’re going for in a sequence. They should be able to talk about the CG character or creature as if it were an actor. It’s up to us to be able to deal with much of the technical aspects behind the scenes and avoid getting the director caught up in it.

This has been done on some films but it’s not always possible. Much depends on the project, director and the time available. But we should strive for this when possible to make a better product and to allow all of us to enjoy the process more.

Related links:
Designing VFX
What makes a good vfx artist
Photo real and realism in vfx

[Update: There was a video posted that analyzes the sets in The Shining and how things were changed or kept changing.  John August does a reality check on it. Directors and the filmmaking process aren't locked to reality and many times the changes may be for practical reasons or simply because it looks better.]



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4 comments:

  1. AnonymousJuly 14, 2011

    From my experience, as a VFX artist, having some influence on the creative decisions can be something very frustrating. It all depends on the director. I've spotted three kinds of directors :

    1- The visionary. He exactly knows what he wants he usually takes at least 95% of the creative decisions. Even if I don't have my word of the creative side of the work, I'm sure that there won't be bad surprises. We keep control on time and budget and VFX are done in the "one shot" way which is really nice. You do what has been planned, some little modifications if necessary and the shot is done. You have shut your mouth but the work is done and clean.

    2- The I don't know. He is the exact opposite of the visionary. He absolutely don't have any ideas of what he wants, his mind is always extremely blurry. With this kind of director, you usually get total creative freedom at least until he makes his mind. He comes to you and say "here is the idea", reads the script gives some very vague directions and then he says something like "Do what you want you have carte blanche". You try to get as many informations as possible on the director's vision but as there is not you start working from nothing and you become the director during the conception of the shot. Then comes the day the director comes to see the work and you get something like "That's absolutely not what I wanted!".... As he sees the shot he can now take decision on what needs to happen. It's an iterative process like searching something in the dark. You suggest ideas, the director tests them. It's the "trial and error" way of doing things. It's pure waste of time and works never gets finished properly. Pre-productions is useless as the ideas are constantly changing. You get as many movie versions as you have preproduction documents. It all changes at these states : script, story-board, animatics, shooting, editing, vfx, etc.
    It's one of the most frustrating creative process. In this case, I prefer having no creative influence than loosing my time here.

    3- The good director. He knows what he wants but he is open to new ideas. He is the kind of guy that turn "accidents" into good ideas. Sometimes some things goes wrong in 3D or compositing and gives a completely different results than expected and that's the kind of things this director likes to get new ideas and turn existing ones upside down to reveal errors. In this case, having a creative influence is a real pleasure.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Scott. Speaking of artistry, what is the vfx art director's role on a movie and how does it differ from the vfx supervisor? I'm pursuing a career within vfx from the artistic side and want to know what it takes to be a vfx art director.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. AnonymousJuly 18, 2011

    Hey Scott. Speaking of artistry, how does the vfx art director's role differ from the vfx supervisor. I'm pursuing a vfx career from the artistic side and want to know what it takes to become a vfx art director. I have been googling it, but haven't come up with much.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. VFX art director - There's no standard for this position. In the past many vfx companies (such as ILM) had an art dept. A vfx art director was assigned per project to help oversee and develop the concept art. They typically had a few artists working for them and they would crank out a variety of sketches and paintings for creatures, environments, weapons and vehicles. This was done during pre-production and was a collaborative effort of the director, vfx supe meeting along with the vfx art director and production designer. The supe may have ideas he/she wanted illustrator or the art director would have ideas that would be floated by the director.

    During post-production the vfx art director would attend vfx dailies as well and help keep an eye of the creative issues. I found this helpful since a supe may be so overwhelmed by the schedule and technical problems they miss something or simply because there's now another eye specifically looking for improving the visual aspect of the shot.

    These days some of this may be farmed out to individuals or a director/ production designer may hire a few freelance artists to work within their production design department specifically working on these same things. In this case much of the interaction is with the director and then these are the designs the studios send out to the vfx companies bidding on the work.

    ReplyDelete

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