Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fliparoni update

Just a note that Fliparoni (iPhone and Touch game) is available free for a very short time as a promotion on the App Store and iTunes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


My newest iPhone application is now available.
Fliparoni, It's a video puzzle game for the iPhone. Improve your visual sense.
Click on the post title above to go to the website.

Now I'll be getting back to visual effects postings.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


For those interested I updated my iPhone/Touch paint program Squiggles.

Click the Squiggles link above to see demo video and images.

This has even more advanced paint options (paint smoothing, opacity, paint modes),
stamps (color brushes using provided images), overlays (compositing with moving layers using the provided images), Text layers, eraser and Clone tools as well as distortion and interactive image adjustments.

Space Race

For those interested in a blast from the past (late 80's?, early 90's?) a ShowScan simulator ride I directed and Supervised is posted on the web. (Click Space Race above and scroll halfway down the page)

Showscan was a 70mm process developed by Doug Trumbull to run at 60fps. It loses a bit in the translation to 320 pixel web video. We shot this all in VistaVision at ILM and there is no CGI despite what the notes say. We built a 2-3 foot wide track that covered a 1/2 lap. This was shot motion control and redressed for each segment. All space vehicles are motion control models. This was probably the last all optical composited projects at ILM. Ned Gorman was the VFX producer (and Writer). Ned also spotted this video. Ty Ellingson was the Art Director.

The film played in both normal ShowScan theaters and in their simulator ride theaters that had motorized/hydraulic seats.
It played around the world including Toronto, Las Vegas and L.A. This was one of the most successful ride films at that time.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I've been tied up lately with a lot of other things. (Hence the delay in getting new postings up).
One of those things is a paint program for the iPhone called Squiggles. The link above takes you to more info.
I frequently need to sketch little things to discuss with people on set or at a workstation. This also allows painting on photos so that useful for noting items. I have many more features in the work (along with others apps). Some these will probably be specific to visual effects so post a note for any feature requests to the existing app or to new apps you'd like to see.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Designing Visual Effect Shots

Designing Visual Effect Shots, Part 1

(This posting started getting very long and cover a lot so I’m breaking it into smaller postings. I’ll get into more specific details in future postings.)

The success of a Visual Effects shot is not only dependent on the technical aspects of the shot but also the creative aspects. It all starts with the initial shot design.

A well designed visual effects shot will have impact and help to tell the story clearly. A poorly designed shot may confuse the audience and at the very least will squander an opportunity. A poorly designed shot can actually cost more if the studio or director decides in the edit stage that it’s just not working. At that point the shot could be re-shot with a better design (unlikely) or many attempts will be made to fix the shot in post without a clear understanding of the problem.

Note that the design criteria for visual effects versus normal live action shots are primarily the same. The differences with visual effects shots are:

1. Usually the entire visual effects shot is not visible or apparent at the time of shooting. Images will be added later or the existing image will be modified. This requires pre-planning. A live action shot is usually working or not working on the set. If a camera angle makes a stunt look boring then they’ll know that when reviewing the video on set.

2. On live action the Director of Photography and Camera Operator are focused on the look of the shot in addition the director. The director respects their opinion. With visual effects the director and a storyboard artist may have designed the initial shots before the visual effects people are even hired. How much influence the visual effects supervisor and his team have on shot design depends greatly on the director and how much respect they have for the visual effects process. The better directors understand this and take advantage of the visual effects team.

3. Visual effects sometimes deal with design issues that don’t come up directly in live action. How to show the scale of smooth object floating in space? How to transform this paperweight into a creature?

4. Visual effects can be much more limitless. With live action you have set and equipment restrictions which may prevent you from doing certain types of things. A visual effects shot can have more freedom of action, movement of camera and lighting effects.

5. Visual effects can require a deft hand of design and editing just as a comedy sequence requires some finesse of timing, angles and specific phrasing.

Below are some of the many issues to keep in mind when designing a visual effects shot. These aren’t rules, just a set of suggestions.

Does the shot help to tell the story?
This should be a fundamental of any shot or scene in a film, whether live action or visual effects. Sometimes visual effects are only used as eye candy. The director wants to wow the audience with a car crash, explosion or a visual effects shot. If that can be done and still work to tell the story then that’s great. If it’s only purpose is eye candy to wow the audience then it may be a lost cause.

Audiences these days have seen a lot visuals between films, tv, video games and the internet. They’ve come to expect something new and different. Visual Effects are not as special and magical as they once were to the audience. There was a wow factor in the early days of computer graphics when things were new. It becoming more difficult to find techniques that provide the wow factor. Shot design is a major factor to making the wow factor even using standard techniques. As a case in point, THE MATRIX used ‘bullet’ time and most people thought this was the first use of it. There had already been at least one movie with the same effect (LOST IN SPACE) and a few commercials but the combination of art direction and design combined with the story made an impact.

Even in the early 80’s people thought much of what they saw was computer graphics. A number of visual effects commercials were designed to look like computer graphics even though many of these were done by traditional animation techniques. Logos would fly through the air with metallic glints. These were all done with a number of pieces of artwork and passes on an animation stand. For ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK at Dream Quest we used physical models of building painted black with white lines.

What is the point the shot has to make?
Maybe it’s to establish a castle or to show a creature emerging from a box. Whatever the reason it’s important to keep that in mind throughout the process. Given the length of time from the initial design to the completed final, the shot can veer off course quite a bit.

At the time of shooting someone may have a ‘better’ idea. Why don’t we frame it like this? Why are we wasting all of that frame area there? This is when the visual effects supervisor has to remind them that the empty area on the side will hold a creature in the final shot. Another reason why storyboards are essential is to provide a clear visual of the final shot. More likely it will be a subtle change that will have a big impact later. (Let’s put this prop here, lets add a real explosion in the foreground.)

In post production the editor may want to reframe the shot or use a different element entirely. The compositor may put in more smoke in the foreground. Everyone involved in the shot (director, supervisor, animator, technical director, etc) are likely to be focused on the details and lose sight of the purpose of the shot. In an attempt to make the shot even ‘cooler’ you lose the focus of the shot. It’s only when it’s cut in will the real problem become obvious again. The reason for the shot may now be so obscured that the audience will be confused and lost. If that’s the case it throws them out of the movie. Try to always review the shot in context and take a step back to check the intent of the shot.

Does the shot fit in the movie? Does it fit into the sequence?
Unless it’s a specific dream sequence, most visual effects shots are supposed to blend into the rest of the film. This is true whether it’s a period piece or a science fiction future thriller. The design of the shots, the camera motion and the lighting should match the live action. If you have a hand held action sequence and cut to a locked off visual effects shot, then it will stand out.

My suggestion to directors is to design the shots as if everything is really there. How would you frame and shoot this in live action? There’s a tendency to treat the design of even simple visual effects as different than the rest of the film. “We’re paying for the shot and by gosh we’re going to show it off” is sometimes the approach taken. If it’s a real building they might frame it from a ¾ angle and not make a big deal of it. If it’s a matte painted building then it’s likely to be designed to be shot straight on with clouds added to the sky. All of those are clues to the audience that something about the shot isn’t right.

It’s possible for a disconnect to happen since the director usually sits down with a storyboard artist months before shooting. These shot designs may be a different aesthetic than how the director of photography approaches the live action. The director is involved with both teams but there are thousands of choices to be made that may place them out of sync. There may be times a second unit director is approaching the shots differently than the main director. Sometimes in post the director realizes he can change a lot, especially on a virtual shot Focusing on a hand full of shots may cause them to shift away from the rest of the film.

Adjust the design of the shots based on their context and what they’re supposed to accomplish. If they’re supposed to be realistic backgrounds then all the more reason to fit them into the rest of the movie and avoid drawing attention to them. Once again, how would you treat this if it really existed? If it’s a dramatic effect then design the shot to take advantage of that and push it within context of the film.

(more design posts to come)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

VES & Gnomon - Golden Compass Breakdown

Gnomon School Of Visual Effects And The VES
Welcomes The Visual Effects Team From The Academy Award Nominated, The Golden Compass

Feb 28, 2008 in Los Angeles at the Gnomon School

Academy Award nominated Michael Fink, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, Susan Macleod, Visual Effects Producer, Bryan Grill, Visual Effects Supervisor for Digital Domain and Raymond Chen, Co-visual Effects Supervisor for Rhythm & Hues Studios will be will be discussing the planning and execution of many of the visual effects shots for The Golden Compass.

Click above on name of post for more info.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Depth of Field and VFX

Depth of Field and VFX

This is in response to a question from a reader about depth of field and how it relates to visual effects.

With miniatures you need enough depth of field to hold focus from the front of the model to the back of the model. This means a lot of light and a stopped down lens. Lack of depth of field is one of the key things that give away the look of the model since in real life a large area would be photographed from a further distance and (possibly in sunlight) so depth of field wouldn't be a problem.

If you're shooting a greenscreen then you'll typically want to make sure all the foreground people and objects are in sharp focus. This is easily and frequently overlooked, especially by directors of photography. (And at times by the VFX supervisor) If you have a sunlit, exterior background image then it's likely to be shot at f8-f16. This provides a reasonable amount of depth of field. But when the DP lights the stage he probably won't be lighting to same intensity levels. If the lack of depth of field is apparent then it causes two problems. If the back end of the foreground is soft then you're forced to blur the background even if there's something important to see. It's impossible in real life to have only a mid-section that's blurred. If the director really needs to see what's back there then you're forced to try to sharpen the edges and back detail of the foreground. The end result will never appears natural. The other problem is the audience senses that this is unnatural (i.e. they only see this in vfx shots). An 'exterior' scene in bright sunlight with a normal or wide angle lens should be in focus throughout a normal shot.
You'll see animated films where they have cheated the depth of field. I find it best if you want your vfx or animation to appear natural is to use the guidelines and restrictions that a normal movie has. (depth of field, camera movement, etc)

The other depth of field issues for VFX people is soft tracking markers and very soft edge mattes. If you're on a stage shooting a greenscreen with a long lens then the markers may be so out of focus as to disappear. This is a big problem, especially if you're shooting a character from the waist up who's moving and jumping around. Since the markers are invisible, you have no easy way of distinguishing the camera motion from the character motion. Someone will have to manually work on that shot by eye until it looks reasonable. This can be very time consuming and require a number of takes.
Note that LED markers tend to hold up better for out of focus shots. These are markers using key ring lites (possibly modified) you see in the store. The point source of a red LED holds up better than an X piece of tape.

The soft edges of the greenscreen matte (or a place you want the roto matte) will require delicate settings of the key. Any blur (from depth of field or motion) will cause some of the background to bleed through that area as if it were partially transparent. The blurred area then becomes more contaminated with the greenscreen. When rotoing a blurred edge it's sometimes a subjective question where the blur stops. If you include all of the blur then you'll be including some of the original background. If you clip off too much of the blur then it will look incorrect in the composite unless you blur the edges of the matte similar to the original. Fortunately software like Commotion could deal with natural motion blur so it was less of an issue. If you shot someone slightly soft in front of bright points of light (city, Las Vegas, etc) then in the edges of the blur you would have points of light that likely aren't in the new background. In these cases you may have to clamp down or paint out the offending lights.

Monday, January 21, 2008

VFX Schedules

More reader questions regarding schedules

What is a 'Shot Timeline'...is this some sort of
device used to tell the amount of time the shot should
last for or what. You also made mention of some types
of, magnetic boards, modified storyboards or computer
software which is most effective.

Scheduling is a big issue since you have a lot of resources and need to deliver in a timely manner.
There are at least 4 types of schedules. They can be corkboards, on the computer, magnet strips, etc. The specifics are
up the vfx production team (producer and supervisor)

1. Schedule of the shots. This is the true linear time estimate and is usually in a timeline. That timeline will be the length of the production.
It may list that shot KR030 starts June 14 and completes August 19. The shot itself is likely to be budgeted for less time but you have to take some delays into account. (changes from the director, waiting for feedback, shooting an extra element, etc)
Each shot laid out may also show the different stages (animation, TD, roto, etc)

2. Target shots - These are shots due in the next couple of weeks. These may just be names of the shots or their storyboards on a simple wall chart that's broken down by days.
The production team can review this and say next week they expect to complete KR040 on Wednesday. If shot RM125 won't be done this Thursday as planned then it will be moved to the next week at the likely day. This is so the team can focus on the immediate needs.

3. Storyboards - This is all the storyboards laid out in film order. Each has a breakdown of the different tasks and the initial scheduled dates. As work is done a colored dot may be applied that indicates which stage is done. (i.e. finished with matchmoving and layout, ready for animation) Red dot signifies a completed (finaled) shot or folding up the corner of the storyboarded breakdown. The storyboards may be replaced or augmented by stills from the actual footage. Most productions attach bulletin boards in the production office for this. This allows everyone to see the big picture. You get a true sense for what's been done, how much work remains and if there are some shots that are being overlooked.

4. Schedule of artists - Your key resources are the artists. There's a timeline with each artist (TD, animator, compositor, etc) that lists what shots they're scheduled to work on and when. An artist may be working on 1 to 5 shots at a time. After completing a shot the next shot for them is already scheduled. If a director adds a additional shots or something changes in the schedule then the production team will review this board/timeline to see who's available and what they should re-assign. If they need a shot sooner than expected it may have to be moved forward in the schedule and given to a different artist.

How are 'final shots' determined. If the feature
film has about 25 effect shots how can I conclude that
I am expected to get 5 final shots a day for 5 days.
Also, what happens if the finals isn't what the
director had in mind...will the shot be repeated and
isn't this waste of time.

A shot may be internally finaled by the supervisor but it's not truly finaled until approved by the director.
It's important to understand the director was involved in all stages of the shot (from the original design, the shoot and now post production) The director will have seen the shot tests from animation and at least preliminary renders and composites. This has to be done so they can cut it into the film and judge it context. Changes can occur at any point. If the director doesn't final the shot when it's expected to final it's usually because the final polish hasn't been done to their liking. Note that even after a director has finaled a shot it could still be unfinaled at some point later (studio hates it, new concept). In these cases that's a major change order (time and money).

Time - If you have 25 shots due in 5 days then you have to final an average of 5 shots a day. To calculate this you take the the number of shots left to do and divide by the remaining time you have (assuming 5 day week that the director can approve them). This will give you the average number of shots per day. You can just as easily calculate number of shots per week or average days per shot. The initial time is based on the date when you have the turnover of the shots (when they've been edited and production tells you these are the takes, shot numbers and details).
You're likely to start off woefully less than the average at the start of post production since you have to fill the pipeline and it can take some time to get the film scanned, cleaned, matchmoved and ready to work on. The number of shots actually finaled rises exponentially as you get closer to your finals date (contractual day you have to complete so they can get it in theaters). More things will have been worked out, the crew has hit their stride, the director and supervisor are now seeing through new eyes (200 shots in the next two week, akkkk!), you're waking up in a cold sweat at night and hopefully the studio has stopped fiddling with the shots.

Time's a wasting

Thursday, January 17, 2008

VFX management

Here are a few reader questions. As I’ve said before each company and each production is a bit different. There are no standards of operation so there will exceptions to everything below.

How much management is needed for a small, medium and big sized operation?

In a small shop, management also works hands on. We had 6 people when we started Dream Quest in a garage, all of us co-owners. The amount of management of course varied per person. I was the president and would make sales calls as well and vfx supervise. We had over 60 employees when I left Dream Quest. ILM had about 120 at that time. (1985) Later ILM had more than 1200 people working at one time.

As a company gets larger you start getting more support people and employees. It also becomes more difficult to balance managing and working hands on shots. Legal paperwork, payroll, computer support, coordinators, etc. start requiring a management structure in place.

Small companies are more likely to have people who are multi-purpose. The individuals may do everything on the shot from start to finish. As a company gets larger you’re more likely to go to specialists for each craft. Typically you’ll have multiple departments or groups of people as you get larger ( Technical directors, compositors, roto artists, animators, etc.)
If the size of the company is only working on one project at a time then you may have a lead per department that balances working hands on as well as managing the people within his group. As the company gets larger and works on multiple projects at a time (a large company may be working on as many as 6 to 8 projects at once) then a department head will be assigned to each department. This person may also be a lead on a specific project or may strictly be a manager with no hands on activity.

Note that most companies consider supervisors and producers managers in addition to department heads. An added benefit for the company is they don’t have to pay overtime to any ‘managers’.

The greater the size of management the more overhead the company has to add to the budget. It’s easy for companies to become too top heavy with management (in some cases several levels deep from the company headto the artists). Since management controls employment they’re much more likely to layoff the actual artists than management. Most of vfx management is made up of people who were once vfx artists or vfx producers themselves. Not everyone who’s a good vfx artist makes the transition to manager since it’s a different skill set. Unfortunately some people are promoted to a job they’re unable to do well. This can be a real problem.

How many leads?

Number of leads is dependent on size of the show. If it’s a large show with big sequences you may have a sequence lead for each sequence. You may also have a lead for each discipline. An animation lead for each sequence or for each main character, a compositing lead, a TD lead, etc. A lead may be assigned a different sequence after they complete their first one assuming they’re not concurrent.

How do you balance between creativity and the budget?

A few key things to note here:
Creativity isn’t directly proportional to budget. We’ve all seen very expensive movies with little creativity and visa versa.
Budget does provide: More R&D for new vfx, more concept work, more shots and/or more complex shots, more time and effort to finesse the shots.

The director controls the creativity and the visual effects team serves the director. Some critics and internet users think the vfx team does it’s own thing and just delivers it at the end as if the director has no involvement. The director is very much involved in all designs, all the shooting and all the post. The only time this doesn’t happen is if the project is over-schedule and/or over-budget (or if it’s with a specific, nameless studio where the studio executives control all the vfx) The other case is when the director turns over all the action design and execution to his 2nd Unit Director. Since the 2nd unit director usually isn’t involved in post production this can be a problem.

In commercials and television work the director usually isn’t involved in post production. It’s in the hands of the creatives at the advertising agency for commercials and with the producers/writers for television.

From a VFX standpoint we work with director in pre-production to create concept art for what the final shots will look like and what the creatures/objects look like. We also try to be heavily involved in the storyboards and previs work. Many directors are very eager to get the most out their vfx and vfx team and this works very well. They’re open to new ideas and the vfx team is more than hapy to help. In other cases you can provide a totally new concept or idea that would be a perfect fit with the movie but it’s ignored.

My suggestion is to initially design as if the budget didn’t matter. Brainstorm working with the director and come up with the most powerful shots for the movie. If the budget doesn’t support that then the director will have to reduce the number of shots, ask the studio for more money (which the concept art may allow them to do) or be willing to simplify the shots.

Who is responsible for what?

Each vfx artist is responsible for the specific work he’s been assigned on a shot or model.

What are their roles specifically?

There’s an endless list of jobs and job descriptions. Here are some of the common ones: Technical director (lighting and rendering of 3D), Compositing (combining multiple images), animator (animation of a character or object), roto (someone who traces to creates mattes), painter (painting out unwanted items in frame, fixing frames), 3D modeler (builds the model), texture painter (someone who paints the 3D models), model maker (builds physical models), rigger (builds the 3D skeleton for the characters), skinner/enveloper (works on the skin of the characters (flexibility)), dirt removal (paints out scanned dirt on images), layout/matchmove (creates 3D representation of the live action), particle animator (works specifically with partical systems), previs artist (creates simplified animation before production), motion capture actor (creates moves the animators can use for a character), motion cature artists (work with the data from motion capture), set surveyor (record information when shooting), coordinator (gathers and disperse information, help with schedules), Production assistants (anything)

Does the vfx supervisor worry about the creative only?

No. We worry about everything. Supervisors are always very involved technically and at the end of the day they have to be worried about the budget and schedule even if these are directly overseen by the VFX producer. If you run out of time or money because of previous choices then you won’t be able to complete the project.

Is the supervisor responsible for managing his crew directly?

The Supervisor reviews the dailies of all the TD’s and Compositors and provides both creative and technical feedback. An Animation Supervisor reviews the animation dailies. These artists consult with their leads to discuss details or solutions. The supervisor provides the creative guidelines for the artists (based on the directors vision) and deal with the large issues. The supervisor may only be able to interact with a specific artist once or twice a day (such as dailies). This is because there are a lot of artists and there may be many meetings. The leads have less people under them so are more likely to check in on all their artists more frequently.

Does the supervisor have a say about workflow and how things should be done technically - or he/she responsible solely for the creative side of effect?

It’s all a question of details. Normally the supervisor oversees the basic technical aspects of the shots but the specific settings and details are guided by the CG supervisor or leads. The supervisor is usually the one to define the basic approach to a sequence or the shots. (i.e. matte painting or model, greenscreen or CG, etc) Whether to use a specific plugin or version of software is up to the department, lead or the artist.

In solving problems and making decisions, how does the crew structure help?

When bidding the supervisor meets with his leads or department heads and discusses his proposals. If there’s a better solution or alternatives those are discussed. During post production the artist works out the details of a solution themselves. They decide to use another mist element to blend on top to give some depth to a shot. If there’s a problem with a roto then the compositor or TD talks to the roto artist. If they’re having difficulty getting the look correct then they’ll check with their lead or a fellow artist. If that’s unable to resolve the issue then it’s brought to the supervisor.

What are the limits for the crew members themselves, their responsibilities?

The crew member is responsible for taking the elements provided and completing their aspect of the shot. They will make adjustments themselves based on what looks correct as well as feedback from dailies. If there’s a serious subjective or creative decision they’ll call on the lead or the vfx supervisor to make a decision. They can also opt to do it the way they think is right and review in dailies. If there is technical problem they may check in with the lead first.

Can you talk more about production vs. creative process?

Part of the issue is when is a shot is done? From a creative standpoint you could tweak a shot for months to make slight improvements. From a production side you want it to be complete and approved by the director as quickly as possible. What if there’s a better idea halfway through completing a sequence? Is there time to do it? Is there money to do? Filmmaking at some level is always a compromise.

What about chain of command?

Top level: VFX Supervisor (creative and technical), Animation Supervisor (animation), VFX Producer (schedule and budget)

CG Supervisor (big picture view of the computer resources required and how to achieve the different looks on the computer)
Leads (specific to a sequence or task, oversees the people working in that area and helps to mentor the artists)
Artists (These are the people doing the actual hands on work)

Related links:
VFX Producer
VFX Supervisor
Visual Effects Positions
Bad Visual Effects Business Practices