Wednesday, October 26, 2011
People, not computers, create visual effects
There's an impression that is perpetuated in the media that visual effects are created entirely by computers. The human artists are left out of this narrative. The term CGI is now being used interchangeably with visual effects. The feeling among the layperson is visual effects must be easy because it's being done using computers.
These days’ writers use computers to write both novels and scripts. Computers are now in many cameras that cinematographers and photographers use. Yet we don't say the computer created the script or that the computer did the photography.
Computer graphics is one of the tools used in making visual effects and it is powerful tool with a wide scope but it’s not the only tool or only ingredient to creating effects. We also use the live action with the actors, footage of bits and pieces to combine, miniatures as necessary, our hands (with a mouse, tablet, keyboard, pencil, paint brush, etc) and our most important tool, our eyes.
The truth is visual effects is an incredibly labor intensive process. There is far more effort and time put into each shot than most people imagine, including those in production. It's inconceivable to the average person that at 24 frames per second there is still some handwork done on individual frames and people are tasked with tracing images among other time consuming work.
When BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 came out people thought that there really were hover boards being developed by Mattel. They were convinced there was no way people were tracing and painting on every frame. After all, computers were available so all of that handwork surely had to be automated by then. This was in 1989.
Years ago visual effects artists had to make fake computer graphics. For ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK we used wood and plastic blocks with white tape to represent a wire frame New York. Motion graphics cameras layered and moved artwork to give the illusion of metal logos and glints. Robert Abel's did extensive hand animation to simulate computer graphics for commercials. The public at that time were lead to believe computers were creating some great visuals. Even the motion control systems used on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and STAR WARS didn't use true computers. They were all built from pure hardwired electronics.
Computers eventually were able to catch up to the fake computer graphics images we were creating. Computers and related software now have become one of the main tools for visual effects artists but they're still just tools that must be used by those skilled enough to do so. Anybody can type on a computer or pickup a paint brush but the ability to truly create something of professional quality in nay field takes hard work, skill, experience and some talent to master.
And yet we in the visual effects industry and the software vendors tend not to make that distinction clear. We enjoy showing off our newest tools and typically have images prepped for doing demos or dog and pony shows that don't involve the time consuming work. This leaves the press or those being presented, the impression that’s it’s easy and simple. When people see a painting they know what's gone into it to create the final results. When they see a finished visual effects shot they have no idea how much work was involved. Usually it's just wiped away with a 'it's CG' comment, as if the tool represents the work involved. The media doesn't credit brushes for the work the painter has done but they are quick to congratulate the software and hardware for creating the visuals.
With each new feature in Photoshop or new image processing demo done on YouTube people think another problem for visual effects has been solved. Many of these types of processes may work fine on a still image but can be of little value when done for a moving image projected 40 feet across. While some of these developments have made things faster and easier (I can remember hand tracking on a rear projection digitizing screen for BLUE THUNDER before we had digital compositing), they have yet to solve all of our technical issues. The computer is excellent at doing many things but most of what we do still takes a trained eye of an operator to achieve the results necessary.
The reality is it takes a lot of skilled and hardwork to create visual effects shots. In many cases the visual effects crew may eclipse the size of the live action crew, yet producers and studios still don't know why it costs so much. Few actually see the full effects crew working on their projects. Take a look at the number of credits on a visual effects film and know that this doesn't actually cover all the people that worked on the effects, just the ones that were contractually required.
Yes, computers are getting faster every year but just as a computer running twice as fast doesn’t allow a writer to create a script in half the time, it doesn’t mean shots can be produced in half the time. It’s the time reviewing, thinking and modifying that tends to take the most time. Same as on a live action set. The time the cameras are rolling is only a tiny amount of the time required to shoot a film.
Computers have made certain tasks quicker but the complexity and finessing of the work has continued to outpace the speed of the computer. It still takes hours or days in some cases to simply render certain shots. And this helps explain why a major change to a shot is a setback in terms of time and amount of man hours lost. We understand there will be creative decisions as the film is being fine tuned in post but filmmakers should be clear it's no different than asking a live action crew to do several days of reshoots at different locations. Part of this problem as mentioned before is the entire visual effects crew tends to be hidden from view so this amount of time and effort is not obvious to those outside of visual effects.
In the end thank a visual effects person for the work you see on the screen, not the computer.