Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Woes of non-union VFX

The Meteor case has become a symbol of the shaky standing of the vfx industry and vfx artists in particular. Vfx artists have no union or guild, and no Hollywood union has consented to represent them. Meanwhile, some vfx studios are in such bad financial shape, with current income used to pay off past debts, that one analyst has called the entire business “a Ponzi scheme.”

Snippet from VARIETY article by By BRENDAN KELLY

Variety Article on Meteor Studios and the the Visual Effects Artists that worked there.

VES Annual Meeting

The Visual Effects Society had it's annual meeting last Saturday. There was a live feed to Vancouver and San Francisco.
It was also webcast throughout the world including the other sections of London and Australia.

The video of the meeting should be online in the next couple of weeks or so for all VES members.

As noted at the meeting the VES website is being totally re-written and is scheduled to be online in October.
Lots  of great stuff like forums, videos and user areas.  Headed up by Carl Rosendahl

Mike Fink gave a talk called 2000 years of visual effects in 30 minutes.
Discussed the history and art-form of imagery and how even early paintings are making an impact on cinema and visual effects.
Helped to illustrate the artistry and advances in visual effects.

Bill Taylor was awarded the VES Board of Director's Founder's award.
Bill talked about many things including:
1. Keeping production local
2. Having a visual effects trade organization for visual effects companies.
3. Having a visual effects union.

This was well recieved. These are some of the issues that the VES board has been discussing the last couple of years as we look to the future.
As Bill mentioned Jim Danforth had brought up some of these same issues years ago.

The VES is an honorary society for Visual Effects Artists.  It's been discussed that that these 3 things: Society, Union, Trade organization, make a fully rounded industry and each of those had different purposes.

The VES determined it was best to remain as it was designed to be - an honorary society, instead of changing into one of the other forms.

I think many members and VFX companies are interested in the future and want to avoid some of the issues that we currently have to deal with.  A union and trade organization are possible ways to deal with those issues.

Doug Trumbull was the main speaker at the event.

Doug is always interested in getting the greatest experience and felt that many of the limitations have been based on
decisions made years ago that aren't relevant now.

Doug felt that film will disappear (no time frame given) and that digital can equal the quality of film, even now.

Doug had said that in early motion picture development approx 50 fps was determined to be needed to show continuous movement and avoid flicker.  Soon there after multi-bladed shutters to minimize flicker issues. 16/18 fps were chosen for silent movies to use as little as film as possible.  Sound went to 24fps not for the picture but to make it possible to do sync sound.
He developed Showscan years ago which originally ran at 72fps and later at 60fps.
24fps results in a lot of blur.  It requires the blur for your eye to read it as continuous motion instead of flicker still images. He and Kubrick found this out when trying to shoot stars without blur on an animation camera. Faster frame rates don't need as much blur and tend to produce sharper images.
Even though 24fps is thought of as movies and 60fps is thought of now as video, the faster frame rates provide a more life like experience.

The current standard for footlamberts on a movie screen is 16.  This is much darker than your flat-screen at home.
With stereo 3D projection now a polarizer is needed over the projector lens which results in 1 stop loss of light.
Then the glasses the audience wears has polarizers which result in another stop loss.  End result is the audience is watching an image at 4 footlamberts which reduces the color and quality of the image, especially compared to real life.

The current digital projection systems use a chip size that limits the amount of light that can be projected through it so there still remains a limit to how bright and real the screen is.  Doug would like to avoid these limits and take the opportunity now that we're transitioning into digital projection to think in terms of the future and not just come up with standards that are barely good enough.

Worth checking out the video.

There were also reports from the various committees with a lot of progress being made in the last year.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Public Healthcare

Quite a few visual effects artists are freelance. They work from project to project. Some are contractors. Even when working at large VFX companies there are frequently large gaps when there is no work and the artist will be unemployed. Since there are no VFX unions there are none of the benefits of having united support. A few categories are covered under unions (modelmakers of physical models, matte artists and possibly a couple of others) but typically none of the CG areas are covered. I'm in the cinematographer's union (since I started before the days of digital I dealt with cameras) but some of the large studios refuse to recognize this since there's no official 'vfx supervisor' position listed by the union.

The problem here is trying to maintain health coverage in a field that has constantly changing amount of work and where most of the work is based project by project. That's why the Hollywood unions were set up to help artists working on films deal with things like health care, overtime and working environment. Studios are big businesses and as such they will try to save a dime where ever possible.

Fortunately the Visual Effects Society has signed up to the same health plan as the Producers Guild. So if you're a member of the VES it may be a little easier or cheaper to get health coverage than before.

However everyone in the US should be taking a look at the health care discussion. The US is the only industrial nation without some type of national health care support. The public supports schools, libraries, medicare and other things but the health of the people is not a priority. If you've had to pay for health insurance or medical care it's clear that the current system is very broken. The health insurance companies and the drug companies are making a mint off everyone.

Public Healthcare Video

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visual Effects Producer Book

This was written by Charles Finance and Susan Zwerman, both with the VIsual Effects Society.
Susan is also one of the editors of the VES Handbook that is in progress.

If you're interested in visual effects producing this is the book. Covers primarily the budgeting, scheduling and workflow issues but also covers basics of the technical issues along with pros and cons. 377 pages

Another book to check out is The VES Handbook of Visual Effects which was released end of July 2010.  More info.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Greenscreen plates

For those interested in practicing with greenscreen plates check out
Greenscreen Test Footage

Range of shots and difficulties. Tracker markers and other items in the shot.
I'd avoid using them in your demo reel (since there may be a number of other people with the same clips) but they should be an excellent learning materials.

New link added 4/7/2013 :

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reworking Blog

Reworking the blog and updating the template. Will have to restore many things so it may be awhile.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Previs thoughts

Just Misc Previs thoughts from a note I had sent someone months ago.

I think previs encompasses anything that is used to get a visual sense for the final product ahead of time. The majority today is 3D but video, stills, storyboards, film snippets, etc are all possible and useful.
For Star Wars and even some pictures today existing footage (from another film or stock) is seen as a placeholder and visual guide. For Phantom Menace and other projects temp actors have been shot, sometimes against greenscreen, to block in concepts and editing ideas. For some movies such as Amelia they used videos and stills from actual locations or sets to get a sense for how the scenes will work visually.

Misc thoughts

When working in a 3D environment it is all too easy to make a change at the director’s wish. Scaling an object, moving the camera, placing objects, etc. Usually this is done to try to make the previs as exciting and interesting as possible but these add up to real production problems.

Fantastic Four – A major sequence was to take place at the London Eye. The previs team decided to scale the London Eye to less than ½ of its actual size to make better compositions. For months we had been looking at these and all departments were basing their planning on these only to find out that it was all fictional. Since we were to shoot the real London Eye, create accurate 3D models for the final shots as well as potential miniatures that were the correct scale this was a huge problem. We now had to have the previs scramble and redo all of the shots. By now production was in a different country and another previs team had to do the work with a different software package.

Shots moving in the tunnel varied wildly in terms of camera speed, car speed and character speed. In a simple previs it looked right but impossible to make look right if it were to be shot like that.

For Van Helsing some of previs was done in a way that couldn’t be shot. In some cases the cameras were placed in areas they couldn’t possible be or doing something that defied physics. When the production crew is half way around the world 6 months looking at a previs on a laptop and the director discovers they can’t do the shot as planned, it’s very painful for everyone involved.

You don’t want to get to a location and find that you’ll need to jackhammer the road to place the camera where the previs was ‘shot’ from’

You also don’t want to find your lead actor is now somehow supposed to be 10 feet above the ground. On the location cheats are made (actor on apple box, shooting in a different direction, etc) but everyone there knows it’s a cheat and why it’s being done. When a cheat occurs in previs the previs artist may be the only one who knows it. It’s likely the director doesn’t even know that it’s taken place.

Determining the purpose of the previs is critical. Make sure everyone, including the director is onboard.
We just need the previs to a certain point to understand how the sequence and shots work, the approximate action and timing, etc. Yet a director can easily spends weeks ‘directing’ the ‘actors’ in the previs. “No, he should smile here and then look toward the camera”.

Previs has a tendency to become like temp tracks to the sound track. Something that the director has been looking at so long that it is the only way the director sees the shots as being. On a non-prevised show the creative team may make full use of the here and now and compose the shots to their advantage. (some feature at the location, the light at that time of day, etc) On a prevised show the director may be unwilling to consider these alternates.

It’s difficult to get a full sense for speed in a previs. In early previs a car doing a drive by might have been just a colored rectangle moving against a simple background. The director of course wants it faster, faster. If the same scene were shot for real at the original speed it would have been fast enough. All the details of the car, backgrounds and motion blur would give the sense of speed. Even with today’s rendering there’s still some visual speed discrepancies.

When storyboards are done everyone understands these are the basic shot designs and placeholders. It is understood that the perspective and placement of the actual location will be different in real life. One problem with 3D previs, especially the more detailed they become, is everyone thinks this is the actual shot, even if the previs was done months before the actual location was chosen.

A major potential problem is a lot of previs is started before any of the key creative team is hired. It may be just the director (or even just the producer or studio executive) and a team of previs artists. The amount of visual sense the director has can varied widely and the visual sense and experience of the particular previs artist can vary widely as well. On a non-previs show the director works closely with his DP, camera operator and others (production designer, VFX supv) to determine the best compositions. This is likely also based on blocking in the actors motions. Yet the previs may well lock the creative team into design decision that were made by the director and the previs artist in a vacuum. I’ve seen shows where the stunt coordinator was told that he’s to match the action in the previs. Imagine having someone like Jackie Chan being told that some previs person has already designed all the action and action shots and that all he needs to do is get his stunt team to do it that way.

A car stunt may require a special rig be placed and the stunt coordinator may know the best camera angles to capture it but the previs artist knows nothing of this and places the camera exactly where it’s going to be a problem. The director has now grown to love this and wants the stunt team to sort it out.

The same thing has started to happen with DPs but most of them have enough clout to stop it there and do it their way. So how worthwhile is the previs if it’s totally ignored? If the VFX has been budgeted based on the previs but the director, Dp, etc ignore it completely where does that put the budget and schedule?

If the previs is done ahead of time it’s difficult to talk the producers and studios into redoing the previs so the now hired DP, production designer, etc can be involved.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Science of Magic and Illusion

Wired magazine takes a look at the science of magic. (thanks to Eric Alba for mentioning it)

Click the title or use the link below:
Magic and Illusion

Many people think realistic vfx are much more difficult to pull off but in fact they can be easier because as pointed out, people don't tend to focus on anything except what's in the spotlight. The audience will easily accept something as being real if it's not fixated on and if it's a common thing. You can do a matte painting of a house along a street and you can do the same thing of a very abstract haunted house centered in frame. The quality of painting, lighting and compositing could be exactly the same but the audience will readily accept and even ignore the house matte painting. It's not calling attention to itself and since they've seen plenty of house they don't bother looking it over. The haunted house, especially if it's centered in frame and the full focus of the shot, will tend to be deemed as a VFX even if it were really built on the location. It's much harder to sell the audience on this since they have to suspend disbelief.

Even harder are things like dragons and other vfx that the audience knows are not real. Their subconscious knows it's not real but they readily accept all the other non-real things in a movie (dialog, actors, sets, etc) because those 'could' all be real.

Of course there are other things that can make realistic effects easier - you have a real reference(s) to the real item. By comparing photos or video there's no discussion needed about what it should look like and how each person imagines it. You have a direct reference to copy. It may take some work technically but you know once you've duplicated the elements that make up that image the audience will likely accept it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

VES Handbook

I wanted to let everyone know that there is a Visual Effects Society handbook being written by quite a few visual effects artists, myself included. There's already a publisher involved and the plan is to release it next year.

I have a few different articles halfway done for this blog that hopefully I'll be finishing up and posting once I have more writing completed on the handbook.

For full details on the handbook and it's release please follow link below.
Latest Info: Handbook has been released posting.

Cloud Tank effect

People have been asking me to provide some of the details of the Cloud Tank so that's been on a long list of subjects. Recently I had to write up some of the notes so thought i'd post it here as well.

When I start in visual effects I was hired by Doug Trumbull as his assistant. The first day I was asked to create clouds in a liquid for a film that he had just started working on called Watch the Skies. You may remember it by the final film title, Close Encounters. They needed to create clouds and they liked the look of pouring cream in tea or coffee.

I was given a 20 gallon aquarium and $20 of petty cash. I worked it out in a few days with additional ideas from Doug, Wayne Smith and others.

This same process was later used in a number of films and commercials. (Raiders of the Lost Ark, James and Giant Peach, ID4, etc) Actually most of these used the same exact tank as well.

I've attached a couple of primitive drawings to make it clearer. My photos are packed away deep in boxes otherwise I'd post some here. This was also covered to some extent in the Close Encounters book.

[Update: 12-22-11 To make things a little clearer I'm adding some notes here. The basics are a large all glass aquarium was filled halfway with salt water and then fresh water was carefully added to the top. Salt water is heavier so tends to stay on the bottom but you want to avoid mixing them if possible. That's what some of the details below are about. Also best to avoid getting the water too warm. It's very difficult to see any difference in the water once filled since it all looks the same (assuming you've also cleaned the tank and filtered the water).  under the right light and angle you may be able to just make out a slight difference.

Next white liquid tempra paint is injected in the fresh water portion (top), usually just a few inches from the dividing line of the fresh and salt water. Think of a large syringe with an aquarium tube going into the water. When the tempra paint is injected it billows outward like cumulus clouds and will tend to sink a bit. But the salt water prevents it from going lower so the 'cloud' tends to flatten it's base on the salt water line and and billow outward, similar to real clouds based on air pressure levels. Avoid going below into the saltwater since the clouds will just drop to the bottom of tank.

Once you're setup, light the water and create the clouds. You can film while injecting the clouds to get the large billow action or you can film once they're in place. Filming can be under-cranked (less than 24 fps) or over-cranked (over 24 fps) depending on the look desired. Over-cranked will tend to increase the sense of scale and by placing smaller clouds in background you can create force perspective. You'll need to completely drain the tank, clean it and repeat after each shot.]

Process in a nutshell as used on Close Encounters:
2000 gallon glass tank approx 7 x 7 x 4 feet deep

Water was purified and filtered in 2 large hot tubs/wine tubs(?) 1000-2000 gallons in size.
One had rock salt added (probably close to seawater specific gravity but I can't remember the details)
The salt water was pumped in first usually to halfway mark, dependent on the shot.
Sheet of thin plastic (visqueen) was laid on top. Think of the plastic used for heavy duty trash bags or painter's drop cloths, flexible but not easy to tear. This was longer than the tank front to back and would drape out the back of the tank.

A PVC pipe running the width of the tank was placed on top of this with a rig. Later to remove the plastic it would be pulled out and this PVC pipe was used to keep it down.
A PVC piping system that looked like a fork from above was placed just above the plastic and the fresh water was pumped in.
When done this was removed and the thin plastic sheet was removed.

Now it appeared as just a tank of water but there were two layers if you looked very carefully.
A large syringe was used with aquarium tubing to add small forced perspective clouds in the distance.
The mixed white tempera paint was injected right above the slat water layer. if it went below the tank was contaminated and would require a full redo.

Next an atomic arm was used to inject the main clouds during shooting. This allowed the operator to stand in front of the tank near the camera and as they move it around a brass tube was moving in the tank.
An electric trigger on the handle would cause the tempera paint to be injected as the arm was moved. The tube came from a pressure cooker filled with the paint.

Pressure was supplied from a compressor and an electronic valve was connected to the atomic arm trigger.
We also had a light source (with rotating colored lights) that went down this same tube as a fiber optic.

Frame rates could be under cranked or over cranked depending on the look.

Close Encounters Book

Close Encounters - BluRay

Close Encounters - DVD

Close Encounters VFX Video 1 - YouTube

Close Encounters VFX Video 2  - YouTube

Updated: Polaroid from setup 6-14-76

Cloud tank articles from others:

Update on Dallas Cook

When I started this blog I had posted news on a young man who was killed by a drunk driver.
Ryan Dallas Cook was in the band Suburban Legends, which my daughter saw quite a bit.
The drunk driver worked for Hyunda of Korea and the local company helped him to escape back to Korea.

He has finally been tracked down and extradited back the the U.S. for trial.

Here's the information from a few weeks ago:
News Story

(As a side note: If any one has any photos of the memorial they did for Dallas at Downtown Disney please let me know. His family would like to gather some of the pictures or videos. Thank you)