Monday, December 17, 2007

Close Encounters Book

There's a new book on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This was the first film I worked on and the author covers the behind the scenes, including the visual effects. I still have to get around to covering some of the vfx on this blog, including the cloud tank but he's got most of it covered.

[My cloud tank effect posting describes how we created the clouds in Close Encounters]

Close Encounters VFX Video 1
Close Encounters VFX Video 2

VFX Supervisor article in Variety

Click on the post title to go to an article in Variety about visual effects supervisors. Some productions are catching on.

Here's the link if you have trouble:

Searching for VFX supervisor may bring you to this page but a more in-depth article is here.

Visual Effects in India

NPR did a story on vfx animation in India last week. Click on the Post Title above to go to the article or use the link below.

There's text and a 7 1/2 minute audio interview primarily focused on Rhythm & Hues's group in Mumbai.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Audio Reminder

This is just a reminder for those who subscribe to the audio feed to check out the latest articles posted here. is the base address that links to this blog.

I have a few other articles in progress as well as outlines for some video blogs. We'll see how much free time I have available.
I also sould mention I've made a few additions and changes to the links on the lower right and added a few items to the stores for crew gear.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


When you go to an eye doctor he asks you to compare two different lens choices. “Is this better or this better?” Step by step he refines the specific lenses that you need. The visual effects artist goes through similar comparisons to arrive at the final shot. They compare their shot to real references, they compare the shot to surrounding shots and they compare of changes while they work on a shot.

If you don’t have any reference to compare you may drift off course and end up with something that doesn’t work

Real References
During each step in the process the VFX artist should be comparing their work with any real references from the original shoot or research references (stills, video). What needs to be done to match this reference? Does the creature move like the real creature reference? Does the lighting match reference photos?

You also want to be able to reference your shot in comparison to others in the sequence. Cut the shot into the sequence and view in context. Does it match the other VFX shots? Does it match the live action shots?

For color balancing, film clips are sometimes filmed out as a wedge. These show a range of color and brightness values and will be used for digital color balance reference. The DP or supervisor may make a selection to use as a guide for a sequence. This is similar to doing color variations in Photoshop. What looks good by itself may not look like the best choice when you can compare it to other variations.

Within the Shot
In the pre-digital days the visual effects artist would create wedges and shoot film tests. These might be checking settings, changes, exposure, and focus or animation tests. It’s still done for miniatures and other photographic effects.

With digital effects you have the advantage of saving multiple versions, undoing/redoing and seeing the results instantly in many cases. The VFX artist takes advantage of this by experimenting and refining. If you add a filter or element you can toggle it on and off to see the result even on a single frame. This would be like the Preview button in the filter dialog within Photoshop or the layer visibility. You also have the option to Undo/Redo to compare any change you just made.

Depending on the software you can load in a previous version or take a snapshot and do the comparison. Some software allows you to do a split-screen to compare 2 versions of an image within one image.

All of this allows the VFX artist to refine their work and make choices.

When a director or supervisor asks for changes it’s important to make large enough changes so it’s evident looking at the shot. Many artists will make minimal changes and slowly build up to the desired look, take after take. Unfortunately this wastes quite a bit of time. Comparisons are good for you but if it’s not possible for the director to tell the difference without seeing them side by side then it’s not a large enough change.

It’s best to make large steps, which ideally includes going too far. If you had to blur something instead of going by single pixel increments for ten images, it would be better to go by 10 pixel increments. By coming up with an image that goes too far (this could be color, speed of animation. filter, etc), it will allow you to know the range to work in and get a better idea of what the director wants.

A typical phrase in VFX is to “split the difference”. (ILM even had a comic poster of this). This is likely when you’ve gone too far but the previous version or another test didn’t go far enough. In this case split the difference is a way of balancing those two. From that result you might need to split the difference yet again. This is actually a fast way to hone in on the desired look and uses the same algorithm as some computer sorting routines. As you proceed with these adjustments you’ll be comparing the previous versions. If you get to the point where you can’t see the difference without doing a split then you’ve hit the point of diminishing returns.

Friday, November 23, 2007

LA Shows - Matte Painting, Illustrations

The Academy is having a couple of events in the next 2 or 3 weeks of interest.

Motion Picture Illustrators exhibit in their gallery until Dec 16.

Matte Painting show by Craig Barron Dec 10 at the Linwood Dunn Theater. $5 There will also be exhibits in that lobby.

Click on links for more details.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mac Widget for Effects Corner

Click the link of the title and download a Widget for the Mac to display the highlights of the last 10 postings here. Click on the article title in the widget and it takes you to the page.

Photo Real and Realism in Visual Effects

At the start of most projects every director requests their shots be photo real

What does Photo Real mean? Are realistic vfx shots a lot more difficult than fantasy shots?

Photo Real means to create a shot that looks as real or true to life as it possibly can. It can mean that the visual effect is so totally convincing that the audience doesn’t see it. Another term for this is Invisible effects.

The lighting, textures, detail and compositing try to mimic a scene that the audience will think is real. To do this the visual effects supervisor shoots as much reference as possible when shooting the plates (live action footage that will be augmented or modified with visual effects). This may mean filmining a physical prop in the same lighting and setup. The clock in The Mask and a piece of fur for Van Helsing were photographed for the TDs (Technical Directors) to use as a look and lighting reference.

As much information is recorded at the time of photography as possible. This includes lighting diagrams, measurements of the set, camera and lens information as well as filming of the chrome and gray spheres.

All the vfx artists that work on the shot will have access to that material and be able to use it directly as well as to use it as a comparison. From this they try to create and integrate the images as much as possible.
The visual effects animator may film or obtain reference footage of people or animals moving to use as a guide, even if it’s a fictional creature.

The trouble is you may not even be creating a shot that will ever be believed.
No matter how well the animator, TD and compositor do their job if the script calls for a pink feathered whale in the sky it still won’t be considered Photo Real by the audience. There’s nothing wrong with creating shots like this since that’s the requirements for the film. The vfx artists try to add as much of real life as they can into shots like this to give it a more solid foundation. This may mean moving the whale slowly and adding in a haze layer to set the scale.

This leads to our second question regarding the difficulty of creating realistic effects.

There’s the impression that realistic effects are very difficult and much harder than shots dealing with fantasy or science fiction. Yes, realistic effects are difficult when you’re trying to create something very complex such as a held close-up of a human, moving cloth or flowing hair. But the difficulties of a shot are usually more dependent on the specific shot and less on the context of the content.

Let’s consider an effects shot: a man on crutches coming toward camera and is missing one leg. The audience will easily accept the man missing part of his leg, especially if it’s an unknown actor. The audience knows this could be real and doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief. Now consider the same shot but instead of missing the leg this man is missing his head. The headless man however doesn’t exist in real life so the audience instantly knows it not real. It will be in the back of their minds no matter how well the vfx are done. A large part of the reality of a shot is based on the perception from the viewer. From a difficulty level these are similar and use the same techniques. The headless man is probably more difficult because you have to create and track the inside of the collar.

Suspension of disbelief plays a large role in film. To some degree everything is a bit unreal in film. The basic story is a fabrication and the dialogue is hand crafted. The director of photography doesn’t necessarily match real life. He lights it to go for a specific style and to make it cinematic. Note that this can be a real problem when you’re trying to match greenscreen people with real outdoor backgrounds). Stunt people rig ramps to make cars spiral in mid-air. Not necessarily real, but certainly visually exciting (cinematic). This is the same thing with the winged spaceships and hearing explosions in the Star Wars films. Not real but cinematic.

Hopefully the story will keep the audience engaged and there will be nothing to force the audience to fixate on the effect. Anytime you give the audience a reason to suspect something, they will find it. You could have a real shot and if the audience thinks something has been added they’ll happily point out several things that are wrong with the shot. A real shot can seem fake under the certain circumstances.

People think since something exists and they know what it looks like they could certainly judge the quality. The reality is most of these effects when correctly deigned pass by audience members unless they’re very poorly done or there’s something to arouse their suspicion.

If you have a matte painting of a stylized or haunted house and center it in frame as the only thing in the shot then it’s going to be suspect. If you add a matte painting of a normal house to fill in a vacant lot on a street and then have the actors in the foreground the audience is unlikely to think about the matte painted house, especially if it doesn’t play a promenant role. Most people think a matte painting has to be super detailed but the primary issue with matte paintings is to get the lighting and perspective right.

The advantage of creating something real is you have reference of the real object or creature to constantly compare to while working on the shot. It may take a lot work to get your CG model or other items to match the real thing but you always know how close your are and where it falls short.

With imaginary shots there are frequently doubts and changes to the design since you don’t have anything to compare to. Some people think the creature should move it’s arms in one way and another group thinks it should move them in a different way. The director may switch his/her thoughts as well. A real reference gives everyone something to lock into.

If you recreate one of the NASA rocket shots now you have reference to the original material and people will accept it. They may know that you created it but it won’t remove them from the movie. If you showed the same footage 50 years ago people wouldn’t accept it as real since they had nothing to relate to.

Old movies had shots done on stage sets that were supposed to be outside. People in cars were placed in front of a rear projection screens. By today’s standards those shots don’t hold up as well because we have a different level of realism in films. It’s not that people at that time thought they were real, it’s that they accepted it much as a theater audience accepts a stage play in front of single sheet sets.

This also applies to camera moves. If you move around a model like a helicopter then the audience will accept it more than if it’s totally static from 1000 feet up or if it moves a mile in 2 seconds. The director may have wanted a photo real effect but in the effort to spice it up by moving the camera faster and further than it could in real life, you destroy the illusion of reality you had created. If you zoom out to space and then back down thousands of miles away like on Google earth then that a style decision but not one that will help the feeling of realism.

The ‘though the engine’ shots in Fast and Furious or the slit-scan shots from 2001 are pure stylized shots. They may have had a high tolerance as to what they looked like but they would still require a fair bit of effort to make work.

Some directors want to try to convince the audience that something is real by focusing on the effect and doing what they can to show it off. In the headless man shot they want the camera to fly around the man and then down through the collar to prove that there’s nothing there. This is like the magician that moves the hoops over the levitated assistant floating over the floor. But the difference is most of the time the visual effects are used to tell the story. By trying to convince the audience the shot may actually come across as more fake.

In summary, the vfx artist tries to make every shot as real as possible. In some cases that may not be possible due to the subject matter itself and in other cases may just be a style choice. Creating invisible effects is usually more dependent on the subject matter and the design of the shot than the execution difficulty.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Visual Effects Society

Just a reminder to check out the Visual Effects Society (VES) sometime. If you're a professional with 5 years or more experience then you can qualify for membership. They have member inductions twice a year. There are now additional sections in London, Vancouver and San Francisco area.

Students and others interested in visual effects might want to check for events in your area. There are presentations and other events during the year.

If you're a student in the L.A. area then check into the mentoring program. I and a few others spoke to a group of students last weekend.

There's also the VES award submission coming up in 2 or 3 weeks. More details here:

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Budgeting VFX

Budgeting VFX

I covered some of the basics of this in the post/podcast Bidding and Preproduction
I’ll be going into more detail in this posting.

As previously discussed budgeting visual effects can be very difficult. You have the possible issues of developing new looks and techniques. How long will this take and how many people? Add to this mix the director’s creative changes that happen on any film project. Should you calculate 2 takes? 5 takes?

I’ll be discussing feature films here. Budgeting is somewhat the same for television or commercials with a few key differences. Television shows may have a small permanent staff (or at least an assigned vfx company) if they’re vfx heavy. They also tend to have very little time or budget. There’s usually no time for storyboards in television. In many cases they’re told what has been budgeted for the effects and have to work within that. On a commercial much of the final work may be done on a Flame™ or similar system. These are expensive high-end systems where the client sits in the room and guides the artists to achieve the effect they want. Note that feature films use Flames and other equipment as needed where the vfx supervisor is the client. For high-end 3D work it may go through a similar pipeline as a feature film but with a smaller team. The budget and post time for visual effects on a commercial can be much higher on a per second basis than a feature film since a commercial is only 30-60 seconds in length. Commercials have detailed storyboards and may have previs because they use it as a selling tool to the final client. Both commercials and television used to be primarily done at standard television resolution (which made it a bit faster and easier than feature films) but with the advent of High Definition they’re now done at resolution at or close to film resolution.

The average Hollywood feature film is now approximately $100 million. A VFX film can run even higher. For a ‘visual effects’ feature film the vfx budget can be 1/5 to ½ of the total film budget so it’s critical to get the budget done correctly.

Why are visual effects so expensive? VFX are very time and labor intensive. A large project may take 200 people to work on over the course of several months or a year.

The first step in the process is someone at the studio plugs in a guestimate for the VFX. Years ago a producer with minimal vfx experience might pencil in a budget that was an order of magnitude off. These days most of the large studios have a VFX head in charge of budgeting and assigning the work.

Initially the script is broken down by the VFX producer on the film (likely with a supervisor involved) or it may be done by a VFX company’s producer and supervisor. A rough count of the number of estimated vfx shots is created based on the script text only. Note that even if production has done scene numbering these don’t break down into the specific shots, which is what’s required to budget the vfx. Shots may be designated as hard, medium and easy to allow setting an approximate cost for each shot or as a quicker process an average cost may be assigned to all shots. A studio film usually has an average shot cost in the $10,000-60,000 range. Low budget projects may have $1000 or less per shot.

These ballpark estimates are submitted to the studio to evaluate. The VFX company may meet with the director and the team to refine the bid further by dropping potential vfx shots that they expect to do with stunts or clarifying some of the planned shots.

During the pre-production phase the director works with artists to create storyboards and/or previs animation. These resources will be used to create more accurate bids. The production or studio VFX head will submit a package to any VFX companies bidding on the work along with parameters. Parameters might include average length of shot (typically 5-8 seconds), handles (4-16 frames on each end of the editor’s cut shot to allow some adjustment), delivery dates, delivery formats (film, digital, both), temp screening dates, etc. Each shot may also include specifics or assumptions. Due to times constraints sequence bids may be worked on as soon as storyboards for that sequence are done.

In some cases the studio employs a company or multiple companies to do some concept work and/or some R&D. The studio may require this before proceeding to the next level and to make sure the look and approach is what they want.

With storyboards and information in hand the visual effects supervisor determines the best methodology. He/she works with the vfx producer and the team (lead compositor, lead TD, CG supervisor, etc) to review the approach. If it’s an animation heavy production there’s likely an animation supervisor as well. Each shot is then broken down into detail regarding the amount of time required for each task. Ideally this involves all key personnel but could also be done by the producer and supervisor if they feel they have an accurate idea.

The animation supervisor may review the shot and determine it will take 8 days for an animator. The CG supervisor may think it will take 5 days for a technical director (TD) to light the scene and work out the look. Estimates are made for composting, rotoscoping, paint work, specialized modeling, matte painting, simulations, dirt removal, etc. Each of these goes into an Excel spreadsheet the vfx producer has. Modeling (CG or practical) is budgeted (and required texture maps or paint work) along with R&D. When you’re doing hundreds of shots this process can take days.

All of these estimates are based on actual experience and gut feelings. The complexity and difficulty of the shot is taken into account. A company that’s been operating for some time should have averages from other shows to refer to (although they seldom do refer to them). Of course all of these estimates have to take into account some changes and doing multiple takes. Some companies bid the lowest possible number (as if everything were perfect and there would be no changes) to get the show and then force production to have change orders for every change, big or small. This just creates a very awkward and painful process for all involved. It’s always best to consider some time for reasonable adjustments or changes. If the VFX team has worked with a director or given studio before they make some adjustments to the estimates based on number of changes on the last production.

The biggest danger in creating the estimates is being too optimistic. Your first impulse is to say that it can’t possibly take that long to do that shot. It’s just a simple blue screen, etc. This is especially true since the person making the estimates is likely an expert and can do the shot quickly. The reality is there are no simple shots, the original plates won’t be as good as you’d hope, there will be changes, etc. You also have to take into account the average person working in that position at that company. The range of quality and speed between employees can be vast. One person might be able to do something in a day and another will take a week.

In some cases the vfx producer and supervisor may modify or pad the budgeted shot. This can be tricky and is best to be discussed at the time of the group budgeting. If the producer feels a certain task is under bid then that should be brought up. The danger is if the estimates are modified after the fact then the person who provided the initial bid may be held responsible for it, even though it was changed for more or less afterwards. If you’re bidding a show I suggest always keeping your own notes if there a discrepancy months down the road. The other issue is if the producer pads the bid and the people originally providing the estimate are padding their estimates you end up with a double padded bid. This may mean you lose the project.

When planning a show the producer and supervisor try to cast the show much as a director casts actors. Who are the best people available for the different tasks and different leads? Is there an animator that would be perfect for a specific character or a modeler that is great at the organic modeling required? Unfortunately schedules and any other shows may prevent the flexibility of having a choice in all of this. It’s not unusually for modelers to be tied up on another company project. This delay in getting the models started ripples through the entire production causing more overtime. All of this needs to be taken into account internally at the company.

The vfx producer calculates the cost of the shot based on the time estimates and the average cost for that type of person at that company. That rate will likely include not only the employee’s salary but also their related expenses such as health insurance and pension. Note that most vfx artist work more than 8 hour days so the overtime has to be taken into account for the estimated. Some companies include in these time estimates the entire overhead and profit margin. In some cases they may fold in the R&D costs or the model costs. If a 10 shot sequence has a $100,000 model budget then they will add $10,000 to each shot in the sequence.

The cleanest and best process though is to keep these costs separate. If you include a lot of extra costs in the time budget then things get very wacky as changes are made. In the example above if the 10 shot sequence is cut down to 1 shot then you only have 1/10 the model costs. If the sequence is dropped before it’s started but after the model is built then you have to find out how you can cover the price of the model somewhere else. If a 100 shots are added that doesn’t necessarily mean all your overhead goes up dramatically. Likewise if production requires a lot of overtime work at the end of the production then those calculations will be out of line.

Overhead includes all the labor and materials not directly related to a shot or that can specially broken down into shots. The basic staff of production assistants, coordinators, vfx producer, vfx supervisor, etc. are all part of the overhead. The cost of the computers, software, sales people, human resources etc. need to be included as well. The time the vfx artist spend in meetings or general prepping (getting the pipeline worked out) also fall under this category. The amount of down time when the company keeps people on payroll without a project has to be incorporated as well.

An estimate is also calculated for plate photography which will have a vfx supervisor and possibly a small team of matchmovers or coordinators.

A percentage will be added to the project to cover profits. Contrary to studio belief the markup for visual effects is not astronomical. (i.e. not as much as most retail)

If you’re a freelancer or a new, small shop, try to do the work on a time and materials basis if possible. You’ll have to provide a basic estimate but if the director or the vfx company that’s contracting you changes anything you won’t be forced to cover the change costs yourself. First time freelancers make the mistake of charging what they were being paid working for another company. The problem is none of their overhead is included such as health insurance, computer and software expenses. You’re also assuming you’ll be working full time which won’t be the case for most freelancers.

The vfx producer has to lay out the linear time required to do the work. If you have 15 TD’s and it will take 20 weeks of work but production only has 12 weeks of post then there has to be some adjustment. Either more people need to be brought on, more overtime is added in or the number of shots the company can do must be limited. As mentioned if there are other productions at the company the resource allocation (for both people and computers) can be a real problem if a production adds or drops a 100 or 200 shots on a project (not that unusual unfortunately).

Visual Effects are usually feast or famine. Either there are too many projects and a company will have to turn down work or there’s not enough work and the company has to do what they can to get the project. In some cases the company may choose to bid the project at their cost (no profit) or even as a loss. The smarter companies know that if they have to lay people off it will cost them a lot to rehire people and bring them up to speed with their internal systems.

In the end the vfx company provides a cost for each shot (not broken into each task) along with an overhead budget, model budget and R&D budget. Any assumptions the bidding team made should be spelled out clearly for each sequence and each shot. (The car will be a stunt car, the fire will be provided by the onset special effects crew, etc) In commercials there are standardized bidding forms but there’s no standard in visual effects for features. The studio will likely add up all the costs and divide by the number of shots to get an average shot cost. They can use this as a rough comparison with other bids as well as to help ballpark additions or deletions of shots. Of course the studio is likely to ask the vfx company to sharpen their pencils and provide ‘better’ numbers and they may ask the director to cut shots or elimatinate a sequence based on budget considerations.

Do not be surprised if you’re asked to do this process a dozen times by the studio. Storyboards and concepts change which require a re-bid. Bidding occupies a large amount of the pre-production time.

Multiple vfx companies bid on the work. The vfx producer for the show may choose specific companies to bid on specific sequences. If a company has a specialty (such as matte painting) they may only bid on those shots. The studio may have a list of companies they’re willing to work with that the vfx producer has to use.

After the bidding has settled down the studio will award the show to a company or companies. In some cases the studio makes the decision based purely on cost and in other cases the cost only plays a small role in the selection. The quality of work, past experiences of the studio and the ability to accommodate many more shots are all taken into account.

At this point the studio and the companies work out their contracts. In some cases the contracts may not be official until the end of production but of course the best approach is to get it locked into before production. Note that the contract may lock in a specific bid even though additional changes and storyboards arrive after that time. It’s critical to have an experienced entertainment lawyer review the contract since the studios have teams of lawyers who specialize in this. You need to make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to the assumptions and delivery schedules. You also need to be clear about the payment schedule. Some are done by weekly allotment and others are done when hitting milestones (per shot or by major sequences)

During production the supervisor and producer flag the studio when changes or additions are made that might affect the budget. Note that the movie release date will not change so the only way to handle additions is to add more people, more overtime or additional companies.

Once the film is shot and there is a rough edit that can be turned over, the vfx company will likely review the bid and compare it to what they actually have in hand. Quite a few things can change from the plan to the final result and this is a final reality check before the work begins.

Hand in hand with the budget is the schedule. A preliminary schedule is made when the budgets are done. There is usually a schedule for turnovers. This is where production (director and editor) gives an edited sequence to the vfx company. If the turnovers happen later than planned (a frequent occurrence) then the entire schedule and budget may be affected. Time is money as they say. Also the finals date (when all shots are supposed to be done) may vary a bit but it’s very unusual for a release date for a movie to change. If it does change, it may be for the worse (i.e. earlier)

In scheduling the work each step of the process is taken into account. The vfx editor will have to provide negative numbers, the film needs to be scanned, then the matchmoving (or layout) will need to be done. Next the animator starts, then the TD and then the compositor. These last three overlap a lot or a little depending on the shot and pipeline. Most people are working on 2 or 3 shots at a time. Even though a shot may be budgeted as 2 weeks it may take 3 or 4 weeks to complete since there will down time while waiting for feedback from the director or while other changes are made. In some cases a shot may have to be put on hold for a month or more while a change is made or until additional elements are shot.

Ideally each task for each shot is tracked either by timecards or by a database. If they’re not tracked it becomes difficult to determine how much progress is being made relative to the schedule and budget since linear time and budgeted time are different. If the work isn’t monitored you may not realize how over budget or over schedule you are until the last phase of the show when it’s too late.

The poorest process is for the vfx producer to say we’re $5000 over budget on a specific shot or to dump an inch thick document of raw figures on the desk of the supervisor. At that point the shot is already in the red and you’ll have to spend time figuring out what that amount means (which task is causing the problem, is the dollar amount with markup, etc). The best process is to monitor the shots and flag them as they reach critical stages (50% done on a task, shot to be completed that week, etc). As an example: If the composite time is already 75% used up and there’s a lot more work to be done then the supervisor may want to review the shot with the compositor and determine if there’s anything that could be done to simplify or complete the work in the budgeted time. There may be another 200 similar shots yet to do so if there’s a major flaw in the approach then it should be modified or discussed with production.

Dailies are held everyday to review the work in progress. The team creates weekly targets for which shots should be completed. These are reviewed and frequently adjustments have to be made. A shot that was scheduled to finish that week has to be pushed to the following week because the director kicked it back or because there were larger problems than planned. As production nears the finals date the weekly reviews become daily reviews. Don’t wait until the last minute to alert the film production company if there are scheduling issues.

If there is a crunch time at the end of production then the costs will start to skyrocket with overtime and other rush charges.

Related posts
Getting the most out of your VFX Budget
VFX Wages
Why do Visual Effects cost so much?

Related books (In the VES Handbook I cover budgeting similar to this site)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Naming conventions and workflow

Naming conventions and workflow.

Since this question has come up a few times I’ll try to address it here. Note that if a company is already up and running chances are they have a workflow in place along with naming conventions. I’ll describe some of the more typical approaches but there are no standards in the industry.

It’s important to try to standardize naming conventions and also directory configurations since you’ll have dozens or even hundreds of files associated with each shot (All the live action pieces such as BlueScreen, background, dust elements, explosions, each model will have multiple files and associated texture maps, each shot will have multiple animation files, shaders, composting scripts, etc) Multiply those by the number of takes or versions and then multiply that by the number of shots in film (hundreds or thousands). That’s a lot of data to manage.

When the initial movie script arrives it usually hasn’t been broken down by production yet so that means when bidding you have to assign shots your own names. Even if the script is broken down it’s only broken down to the scene level. Each scene may have a large number of shots. From a live action standpoint these shot numbers are assigned during shooting and usually relate to the shooting order (i.e. 17A over shoulder, 17B extreme closeup, etc) . This allow the live action side of the project to be organized (script supervisor notes, asst camera slates and camera reports, editorial, etc) But by the time the shooting starts the VFX team has already created storyboards and possibly previs with numbers along with a budget breakdown of each and every shot. These days you may also have a number of pure virtual shots (no live action) such as all CG or pure matte painting shots.

Typical method in VFX is to assign a 2 or 3 letters ID to each sequence that at least might help people to know the sequence. If you had a rocket landing on the moon sequence you might label it RLM (Rocket Lands Moon) (Try to label by the gist of the scene rather than the location since the location may change and you’ll forever have to explain to people what the ID used to mean and how it relates now) From there as you create the storyboards you increment the shot numbers by 10 to allow adding new shots in-between as the director and artist modify the sequences. These are the numbers that are used in the bids and schedules and will hopefully remain through the production.

When shooting the VFX people work with the script supervisor. Somewhat standard is to place a V in front of the slated shot number to note that it’s a visual effects shot. If space on the slate permits the asst cameraman may note the VFX number on the slate as well. The script supervisor and the VFX coordinator keep a running cross reference of the VFX shots names and the live action shot IDs. Note that in editing a shot may be re-used or used for an entirely different shot.

Once a sequence is edited and locked the editorial department provides information on the shots. They used 83B, take 5 for this shot and it starts and ends at specific frames. (Based on keycode on the film or based on the Avid timecode info) If it’s a large show the VFX companies may have their own editors who get a copy of the avid editing bins which they breakdown. The negative (assuming it’s shot on film) will be shipped from the lab to whoever is scanning the film. The VFX editor works with the scanning company regarding the label process. In some cases the VFX company may scan it themselves but now a lot of this work is done by scanning companies.

The digital files are delivered to VFX company by high-speed connections or hard drives or other techniques. Each VFX may re-name them for their internal naming conventions when the files are brought online. Because of the massive amount of data not all shots and elements are ‘online’ at the VFX house. They may be on high-density tape storage or other storage system and brought on by support as needed. There’s usually a whole team of people doing this.

A shot may have the name of
The cc might stand for color corrected. Dr might be for dirt removal.
bs might be for bluescreen or they may choose to label the shots a,b,c, etc for each live action element. In addition to standard suffixes for the file themselves (.exr, .cin, .jpg)
each frame will have a number. Numbers may be for a fixed number (4 or 5) of digits (i.e. myshot.0001.jpg, myshot.0002.jpg) or may float (i.e. myshot.1.jpg,myshot.2.jog) Even the idea of leading zero or non-leading zero will make a difference depending on your software.

Most VFX work is done on a frame level rather than passing QuickTimes around. This allows work on frames such as compositing even while other frames are being rendered. It also allows spreading the rendering/compositing over multiple machines and more flexibility in file formats.

As the shot goes through the different stages the complexity grows. Matchmoving (or layout) may need a couple of passes to get their basic animation information correct. That’s take 2 of that file. The animator might be working on take 5 but the Technical Director is rendering take 4 (from the day before) The model may have different version numbers since production may start before the CG models are finalized (or someone (the director, may change it)). It’s possible on take 8 of the final render the director decides he actually liked the animation of take 3 better but with the new lighting and render of take 8. It’s also likely you’ll have multiple people messing with files at the same time (animator, compositor, TD)

This soon turns into a nightmare if you’re not on top of it. The typical approach is to standardize on a directory structure. Details tend to be unique to each company but you may have a shot folder which will hold an animation folder, model alias or reference folder, composite folder, etc. Each of these will have sub-folders of different types of files or work. This directory is then configured on any machines where you may want to spread the work. You may want to render and composite frames 1-100 on computer 1 and 101 -200 on machine 2. Or it may be on a special render farm system. In many cases you’ll be using aliases or pointers to the actual image or data files so they can be in one place. That minimizes having to initially copy over all large files but it does mean they may have to be moved during the render process/composite.

So to deal with all of this type of data each VFX company has written multiple databases and scripts. These may be UNIX script, Python, or a number of scripting languages. Databases can be FileMaker on up full-blown custom code. There are now some off the shelf type of products (or modified off the shelf products). Luckily I personally don’t tend to have to get into the nitty gritty. Some of these problems are similar to programming large projects where you have version control to allow people to access files yet still allow it to lock out people or to merge the differences.

During the course of the day each person works on his specific area and then they submit a request. The TD may run a test frame and calculate the number of process hours required to do the shot. All of these requests are submitted and the CG supervisor may review this list with the producer and the supervisor. Since there may not be enough processors and time (likely the case) they will have to decide what the priorities are supposed to be. Some shots may be on a slow render to be finished in a few days and other shots may need to be done the next day for the director to review. Some shots may opt to be done as plastic renders or without fur just for checking.

The script or software will then distribute the shots across multiple machines and be sure to grab the latest version of the animation and model, etc.

In some cases editorial has scripts to automatically assemble all the new renders into the cut. Additional software may be used to keep track of daily notes from the supervisor and the director.

Individuals or new companies starting out should review their software packages and see what they can import and export in regard to frame numbering. Also review your software to see if and how it handles multiple computer networking. (Whether it’s After Effects or a full rendering package). Keep an eye on the number of characters you can have in a filename. Create scripts and database programs that can deal with this naming and directory structure. Test it out on small test projects.

[Update 12/14/2012
Steve Molin provided a directory recommendation he uses.  Steve was a key CG person at ILM, LAIKA, and Image Movers]

from Steve:

Over the years that computer have been used in creating graphics for film and video, the question has come up time and again: how do we lay out the directories on the hard drive so that we can all work together efficiently. What follows is the way I like to see it done, based on my years in the industry - Steve Molin
common (a sequence with data common to all sequences)
common (a shot with data common to shots in this seq)
dynamics (other than charFin, eg dirt, splashes, flames)
  1. If a shot ends up with eg two lighters working on it, the second and subsequent would get appended the username, eg light_smolin.
  2. it is preferable to create directories only when needed to reduce number of empty dirs
  3. sequences to be named with mnemonic codes, eg rr for raptor rotunda
  4. shots to be named with sequence and number, eg rr1, rr2 etc. “Count by ten” allowed, eg  rr10, rr20 to facilitate insertions if desired.
  5. development is to occur in developer-specific shotdirs, eg sequences/rr/dev_smolin
  1. Each of the lowest level would have the same structure, as below:
maya (under here, maya has complete control)
source (ie input from another discipline)
renders (ie output from this discipline)
scripts (eg Nuke scripts, Katana scripts … Maya scenes?)
tools (eg Python scripts, compiled binaries)
curves (eg animation curves)
points (eg point clouds, brick maps)
assets (copies from assets branch, to make shotdirs self-contained)

Related links:
RaysInBlue Blog has a great set of links on VFX and Animation pipelines
Art of CG Supervision goes into extensive details

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Filming the Fantastic

I recieved this email the other day from Mark Sawicki along with a notice from the Visual Effects Society. Unfortunately I haven't seen the book yet (looks good on Amazon) and probably won't be able to attend the screening.

From Mark Sawicki:
Another reason I'm writing is to let you know of a new book I've written on visual effects called "Filming the Fantastic" published by Focal Press and available through Amazon. (His site is Filming the Fantastic
I thought you might be kind enough to mention it on your site for your viewers who might be interested. It is my attempt to bridge the traditional era and the digital era by way of my varied experiences in the business. I have also been invited to show my film "Twilight Cameraman" at a Visual Effects Society event on July 25th. I did a romantic look back on the craft of the optical cameraman that I hope people will enjoy.

Here's the VES notice:
The VES Education/Technology Committee will present a screening and panel discussion looking back at the optical era of visual effects production to bid it a fond (and perhaps thankful) farewell while exploring those traditions and techniques that can still inform and inspire today's digital artists.
The evening begins with a reception before a screening of Mark Sawicki's short film, Twilight Cameraman, Sawicki's ode to the optical effects era shot during his last day on the job at Custom Film Effects as a motion picture optical cameraman.
After the screening, a panel of industry veterans will compare and contrast optical and digital effects pipelines to illustrate how past techniques can illuminate and inform current digital practices.
DATE: Wednesday, July 25, 2007
TIME: Reception: 6:30pm
Presentation: 7:30-9:00pm
LOCATION: Sony Picture Imageworks, Ince Theater 10202 West Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232

This event if FREE for VES members and their guests. To RSVP, log onto, enter your username and password, then click "RSVP for Screening & Event." Although we will try to accommodate everyone who RSVPs to this event, this screening will be overbooked to ensure a full house, with admission determined on a first come, first served.

Friday, June 29, 2007

More on VFX Time Crunch

has a follow up to the Variety article on the crushing post-production schedules for visual effects. This was touched on in my Wasting Time post.

The problem here is the studios are making very expensive movies and want to reduce the amount of time they’re paying interest on what is essentially a huge loan. Since they can’t shoot in any less time, especially with a lot of locations and stunts, the burden falls to post-production and primarily to visual effects.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact visual effects are now the fix-it step for the filmmakers. During the course of production it’s now common for those involved to pass their problems off to the visual effects team.

“We don’t have time to move that big crane in the background.”
“Do we have to move that 12 by 12 silk? Can’t you just paint it out?”
Speaking about a large object in the middle of the shot “Would it help if we painted it green?”
“We don’t have the right eye contacts. You’ll have to fix it.”
“We haven’t decided what location this scene plays in so we’ll have to shoot it bluescreen and figure it out later.”
“It’s not working so you guys will have to fix it later. We don’t have time to do fix it now.” (Referring to a stunt, prop or practical special effects)
“You guys can remove the (rain, snow, sun, shadows, etc) right?”
“We can’t afford to do that as planned. (alternate: We don’t have time to do that.) You’ll have to do in post.”
“Isn’t that easy to do? You have computers. It’s got to be a touch of a button now a days.”
“It was never built to do that. You guys will have to make that part move.”
“I know we promised to never to look that way but that’s how it goes.”
“You’ll have to extend the top and bottom of set since they didn’t get the larger stage.”

All of these would be funny if they weren’t real quotes from a shooting set. The VFX supervisor and producer raise the issues (cost, time, quality) frequently onto deaf ears.

Everyone from the production designer to the wig person to the production manager may pass their time or budget limitations to the visual effects people. In the end they come out looking like heroes for finishing on time and budget. Some of the production people even get bonuses for accomplishing this. Unfortunately the buck stops at the door to the visual effects team. There’s no one we can pass the problem on to. Also note that any budget or time savings production gets from doing this is not passed on the visual effects budget. Ultimately it comes out of the same overall budget but for accounting reasons their separate.

Months later when some of production people see the final shots they will have forgotten that they didn’t allow time to shoot that sequence correctly or that you saved their production schedule.

So at this point the visual effects supervisor has to explain to his vfx team and the studio vfx producer they now have another 100-200 shots to do and the pre-planning that was done for some sequences was tossed out and will now have to be done using plates that were shot in the worst conditions. (such as FG bluescreen with fictional lighting and angles to match BG plates done later) Personally I push for less shots done well than a lot of shots done poorly.

As long as the studios make money on the films under compressed time constraints and qulaity isn't the highest thing on the directo's list they will continue to compress the schedules more and more.
It won’t surprise me in the next 2 years if a big tentpole vfx film has to have its release date postponed or to be released with major vfx problems clearly evident to average the audience. And of course the visual effects people will be to blame.

Should the visual effects people be the ones to bare the brunt of the studio money and time issues and be forced to sacrifice their time and family life?

The reason most of us got into visual effects was to create great work and because it was fun. If that’s now boiling down to trying to crank out as much work as possible with lower quality the fun factor will certainly be gone.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Visual Effects Schools

[For anyone considering visual effects school please check out this article:
VFX in Los Angeles – 100 hour weeks & homeless  Puts things in perspective. ]

For those with questions about possible schools for visual effects I've had no direct experience with visual effects classes but thought I'd list a few here.
I know there are quite a few others world-wide so don't look at this list as the only available source of training.
(Note that I'm not making any endorsements - good or bad)

As I note in my VFX Career posting/podcast you don't necessarily have to go to an official school to work in visual effects.

[Update: I urge you to first check out the VFX Career posting if you haven't already. Is Visual Effects truly what you want to do and are you willing to do the work and accept the risk? Getting a job and keeping employed in VFX is not easy. Many schools (including for profit vfx schools) continue to pump out many more graduates than the vfx industry can hire. And a lot depends on timing and where you are located.

Important: Do not go into massive debt to get schooling for visual effects. School itself is a good thing but these days many people are racking up huge debts of $60,000 or more and not finding a job afterward. There are no guarantees of jobs from any school. The competition is stiff. If you just wish to be educated regarding just visual effects there are alternatives. Books, DVDs, online, etc.]

Update 6/26/2013 Don't go to art school

[Update: 7-21-12 NBC recently did an investigation into For Profit Schools, among those was Art Institute.  Here's the video.  Many For Profit Schools focus on signing up as many students as possible without regard to how suitable those students are. They're push the students to get government loans to pay for the schools at at very high cost. End result is the students go greatly into debt and may not be able to get the jobs as expected. The interest rates can be very high so they end yup paying the rest of their lie and ruining their lives. And NBC has an article how student loans mimic the housing collapse in this article here.  The key issue here is to know what you're getting into.  Visual Effects companies do not require degrees for most positions. They require people who know what they are doing and can do it well. As mentioned consider lower cost alternatives if you don't plan to go to a full college (or have finished college) and certainly if you can't afford to pay $100,000 or more for school. There are qualified online classes much cheaper.

Here's photo of a poster at a high school:

Another article on for profit schools

[Update: 12-21-13 


It's important to check the range and detail of classes they offer.
How much hands on experience do the teachers have?
How much hands on experience do the student get?
Do you want a full college experience (along with a degree) or do you want more of a technical school?
Do they have internships at companies or any placement services?

Make sure to do a search for reviews and opinions of others.

Of course there are universities and colleges expanding their film classes
to include some visual effects and animation classes.
The range and depth of classes at these film schools may not be as great as some of the others.
Chapman University
Sheridan Institue

I do know people who teach or run some of the programs at the following schools:
Savannah College of Art and Design
School of Visual Arts
Academy of Art
Gnomon 3D
Expression College

Others I've seen advertised:

Vancouver Film School

[Update 8/24/2012 based on info from some recruiters regarding current full schools.
These are some of the key physical schools they find good potential employees.
Please note that these aren't the only schools with good programs but tend to produce more students suitable to different areas.
In no particular order:

Technical Directors, R&D and pipeline development:
University of PA, Carnegie MellonTexas A&MOhio State, Univ of Toronto

Character animation, visual development, story, modeling:
San Jose State (very good), RinglingCal ArtsArt Center Pasadena, Goeblins (for non-US companies )

Schools that aren't as specialized
SVA, SCAD, Art Academy SF, Sheridan, Filmakademie (for non-US companies )

Companies also tend to cover local colleges if they provide reasonable education.

For online classes: - Inexpensive. Good for started class on a wide range of things -Photoshop, Nuke, Photography, Editing, etc. (Lynda worked for me at Dream Quest heading up the animation department. For $25 a month you get a lot of value for your money.)

Gnomon - They have both a physical school and online school

fxphd  - Nuke, Mari, Fusion, Silhouette, Maya, DSLR storytelling, Supervising, etc.  Very in-depth classes specializing in visual effects.  I recently was involved in a class they did on practical effects and visual effects.

Digital Tutors is a another site that does online Vfx training. Here's their post about demo reels.

New one:  Technical Director U. Lighting, compositing, rigging. Future matte ptg, storyboards, cloth, etc.

Stan Winston School - Focuses on character and creature design. Includes CG and practical markup class.

Video Copilot - After Effects online tutorials

From Readers:
Another school to add to your list is, an online character animation school where all the teachers a working studio animators. Check it out on the web. The school has had great success placing students--more then 50% graduate to studio animation jobs.

For online VFX learning (or in site if you are in San Francisco) i´d also add , run by ex-ILM-er Alex Lindsay.

Another great site for online VFX learning is PixelboxAcademy.Net. I am enrolled on their 'VFX Compositing' online course and it's being really cool.

An excellent online VFX training school/community i highly recommend is fxphd.
They offer excellent courses and acces to high quality footage for a low price.

And there are a wealth of DVDs and Books available. Do an internet search or check the Effects Corner Store.

Another view on VFX schools from vfxhack VFX School Confidential.

Update 8/3/2010
Some other schools have been added to comments since this was first posted so I'm adding those along with a few other notes.

Just a reminder that these days VFX can be a difficult area to find work, especially consistent work.  Much also depends where you live.  Do a reality check by checking the various vfx company websites and vfx recruiting sites to see what types of jobs are available, where they are and what the requirements are.

The National Film & Television School in the UK ( runs an MA programme for both SFX/VFX and Digital Post Production, both of which are tutored by current industry practitioners and have an excellent employment record for graduates.

There’s a new VFX school in UK set up by a leading VFX company. They have produced visual effects for films like Da Vinci Code and Batman and they are currently working on Shahrukh Khan’s Ra. One, so you can’t get more qualified then that. Best of all, they are based in Pinewood Studios, home of James Bond and so many other big screen movies. Check out the website,

There's also Escape Studios in the UK that offers VFX classes (including online).

From 10-14-2011

I was wanting to know if you could add Lost Boys Learning. They are a superior VFX School in Vancouver Canada.

Also look at some of the Almuni reels at

From 3-12-2012 - General film production


From 11-07-12
CG Masters  Vancouver Canada visual effects school


If you're a member of VES they have an arrangement with so check the VES website.

Please note I haven't dealt with any of these directly as a student so PLEASE do a full search yourself on the internet for reviews and be sure to do a full check of any company offering training.  I know that someone posted a complaint on one of my YouTube videos about a school or two that specifically focuses on VFX saying they were now greatly in debt.  Some of these places are very expensive, especially if you're focusing on one aspect and not a full college degree.  

Is it worth it?  Can you learn more on your own with books and other training materials? Is online training as good?  All of this depends on your current level and how you personally learn the best.
Sometimes it's best to have someone leading you by the hand at least to start so you can interact and ask questions as you proceed.  Other times if you're already know the basics you may find it just easy to follow another source of information.

My first suggestion would be to pickup a basic book on the subject you're interested in.  Assuming it's a reasonable book it should be useful as a reference even if you decide to take classes.  Most software companies offer free trail versions or possibly a personal version.  There are also a great number of online tutorials, including at the software company site and other places to get you started.  That should allow you to get at least a handle of what you're dealing with.  If it's way too over your head then you may need to back up to more fundamental things or you should probably consider some type of class - in person or online.  One of the other problems with learning on your own is you may develop gaps in your knowledge and you don't get the feedback.  It's also not a structured learning process so some students may have issues if they're not in a traditional class format.

Some people learn best by actually seeing the steps being taken as opposed to just reading about them.  This probably applies to most visual artists.

In person classes have the advantage that you have an instructor who you can ask questions and critique your work. Classes also have other students who you can work and network. Possibly handy in the future.  These classes can be expensive, especially if you have to travel.

Online classes - If it's an online interactive class then you can ask questions and get feedback.

If the online class is prerecorded then it's similar to a DVD class.  The advantage is you can do it on your own schedule - home from work, compressing the time, expanding the time, etc.  The disadvantage is no interaction with the instructor.  

Other things to look for in schools-
What type of real world experience do the instructors have?  The flip side is that not all professionals are not good teachers.

Is there a forum you can interact with other students, even if it's for a prerecorded online class or DVD. 
Does the instructor visit these forums.

Does the school offer a real placement program? 
Do vfx companies actively recruit from the school?
It can be difficult to get honest answers at times to even these basic questions.

Be realistic about what you plan to get out of any education.
A 3 day bootcamp is unlikely to provide as much information and feedback as a 12 week seminar.

As noted earlier in this posting be sure to check out another view on VFX schools from vfxhack VFX School Confidential.

Tom Cruise list of schools, companies and other info

Believe me,  you don't want to see most vfx artists stripping.

Related post:  Price of a VFX Education 

Update 3/22/2011
VFX School on Facebook (I know nothing about it but thought I'd add the link here)

[Update: 5/3/2012  Be aware of schools that charge you to learn and require you to work for free such as Digital Domain Media is proposing.  Also be aware some internships are simply non-paid jobs whcih are illegal. More on internships. ]

And please read VFX Career posting if you haven't already. It will prepare you for the real world of visual effects.

Also please check the comments below for more feedback and responses.

Also related: Getting  A Visual Effects Job
Visual Effects Positions
What makes a good visual effects artist?

Update 6-11-2013 new post
Sad State of Visual Effects Industry

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Time's a wasting

Click on the Post title above to go to the Variety article on the time the studios allow for VFX on feature films.

Some film producers like to brag how little time they have and how close they came to finishing right before the release of the last movie. Personally I look at that as a sign of poor planning.

What the article doesn't really address much is the difference between planned and unplanned work. If you have 3-4 months of post time but it's all prepped and ready to go (models are built, R&D done, concepts are done,locked sequences from editorial, etc) then you have a fighting chance of getting good work done. Unfortuantely if the entire film edit is being revised on a daily basis and there are major concepts (look of creature, key effects, etc) that the director still hasn't nailed down, then it's going to be a rough ride. It gets worse if the studio decides they want to have creative control in the last 2 or 3 months.

The studios first lock in a release date and then drag their feet on giving the final approvals. Many of the production departments and shooting schedules continue as always so the post production phase is where things are compressed.

With the increase in number of vfx shots and the complexity of shots the studios and directors end up hurting their own product. Time = quality. With vfx there's a direct correlation in most cases between the quality of the work and the amount of time available to adjust the shot. Note that this applies to shooting schedules as well, that's why most features aren't shot in 2 weeks. Compressing the schedule may reduced the post production overhead but the cost in overtime and the cost of throwing everything at it (including many new shops and people) surpasses these by an order of magnitude. And studios wonder why vfx cost as much as they do. If you have 100 people at a vfx vender who now have to have 200 people working 90 hour weeks to complete the changes on time it's going to cost more.

At the end of the day the less time the studios provide the higher the cost and the lower the product quality.
It takes a strong director and producer to get the work done correctly in a time or budget limited way.

Related post
VFX Schedules

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Visual Effects Festival

If you're in the LA area the Visual Effects Society Festival starts Thursday night and runs through Sunday.

Click on the Post Title to go to their info page.

Spring cleaning

I'm doing a bit of adjustments to the blog as time permits to make it more useful.
On the left I've included permanent links to the main effects postings to make them easier to find.
I've put key tags to all (most?) so you can click on the tags at the bottom of a post and it will display related postings.
There also some more crew gear and additions to the book lists.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Visual Effects Supervisor

Visual Effects Supervisor

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.

Start up
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.

Post Production
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.

Good luck.

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.

Related Post:
Visual Effects Positions