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)