Monday, January 21, 2008

VFX Schedules

More reader questions regarding schedules

What is a 'Shot Timeline' 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