Tuesday, December 13, 2011

VES and VFX trade organization

There's a LinkedIn discussion going on regarding Vfx trade organizations and the Vfx foundation.

LinkedIn discussion

This also includes some potshots at the VES. I wrote up a response but thought it best to post here as a reference.

I'm on the board of the VES but I don't speak for the Ves so these are simply my personal views. Bob and Colin have brought up some points but I'd like to clarify a few things.

I don't see what's to be gained by bashing the VES. The Ves was formed 15 years ago to be an honorary society, similar in many ways to the ASC and the Academy of Motion Pictures. To honor professionals, to provide education and to advance the art of visual effects where possible with standards and research. And to that end, it's accomplished that. Educational programs are frequently held around the world. A couple of weeks ago there was an event covering the latest on performance capture. Many of these event videos are online at the website (upgrades in progress) The Ves created the Ves handbook and is looking to do more in this area in the future.

I pay dues to the Ves because I do this for a living. I'm a professional and the Ves is the largest group of visual effects professionals. Just as I buy books and magazines and pay to attend events related to my professional. It's a business expense.

I don't begrudge paying dues to the Academy and wouldn't begrudge paying into the ASC if I was a member. If you don't want to join the Ves then don't. If you're a Ves member and wish to see improvements then join a committee. Most of the Ves is volunteer based and that's how the Ves handbook came to be.

There are those that want the Ves to be a trade organization or a union. But that ship sailed when the Ves was founded. It may sound like an easy thing to change the structure and intent of the Ves (or other existing non profit) but it is not. To totally switch to a different type of organization would likely require dissolving the Ves and creating a totally new and different organization. The current members wouldn't be members under a trade organization and the same might apply as a union. The US government treats unions differently than standard non-union groups regarding legal issues. The same likely applies to a trade organization. There are also tax issues that would change. If a cinematographer has an issue getting paid he/she doesn't go to the ASC and tell them to change their entire focus and structure to accommodate the cinematographers needs. If a studio has an issue they don't go to the Academy and demand they become something totally different because the studio has a new need.

The Ves has tried a few times to get companies together to discuss a trade organization but many visual effects companies are very competitive and fiercely independent and didn't want to even consider such a thing. The Ves has also been in talks with the union.
Since none of these things happened (as of yet) the Ves decided to do what it could do to fill some of these gaps and still be true to the type of organization it is. The Ves is proceeding with doing what it can. Is there still room for a trade group or union? Yes, but at this point those aren't formed. So once again, what's the point of bashing the Ves?

Scott Ross has his work cut out for him to try to come up with a plan and sell it to all the major companies. Just as the union has to create a plan and sell to workers.

Trade organizations are typically made up of similar companies with similar needs. They don't tend to be made up of individuals. A Vfx trade organization would likely be based to some extend on the AICP and be about trying to standardize the billing and client relationship part of business. That's a different need than most workers.

Here in the US we've been hurting because of the amount of tax incentives and outsourcing going on elsewhere. Some of the thinking is that the trade org or the foundation would be able to solve this problem. However both the proposed trade org and vfxfoundation are international, same as the Ves. You'll notice most unions and trade groups are regional (state, country, etc) Part of the reason for that is so they are all on the same page and can advocate their government to do things that would benefit them. (It's also cleaner from a legal perspective as well.) Being international means you can't hurt one subgroup while aiding another. I don't think London Vfx companies would be thrilled about the trade group they pay money into using that money to lobby California for more tax incentives. And we're now to the point many companies have satellite companies in other areas of the world and what were once local companies are now owned by large companies elsewhere. All of which makes it difficult to try to reduce or balance outsourcing.

The trade group is budgeted at $3 million a year. That's a lot of money. Certainly more than the Ves. The foundation is at the other end of the spectrum. It doesn't plan to ever charge any membership fees. I've never belonged to any medium to large membership organization (professional or hobby) that didn't charge for membership. Sure, you can get a bunch of people together on the web without charging but much beyond that will require some funds at some point. Real expenses start happening when you're trying to service a number of people. Office supplies, web registration, web updates, legal fees, etc. Not everyone can volunteer full time for any length of time. Will job postings cover these costs? If you want sponsors then someone is going to have to spend time contacting companies and trying to make arrangements. One of the benefits of some type of paid membership is you separate the serious from those who aren't serious. Those who simply join everything on a lark.

Trade organization
One of the potential benefits if there was a trade organization it might it simpler for a worker group (union or other group) to negotiate. One group to deal with instead of dozens of smaller companies.

The downside is a trade organization could use it's strength in numbers to avoid any worker groups. One of the member companies could simply state that they were planning on cutting down certain worker benefits or thought certain types of jobs in Vfx were paid too much and they weren't going to be raising their rates for the next few years. There are legal issues with collusion but it can also be a gray area.
There are those that think if a trade organization benefits companies with more profits, that those profits will trickle down to the workers in benefits and pay. That's unlikely to happen. If companies make more profit then they will likely award their management and return more to their investors. They might put more money into equipment but they will still layoff people at the end of the project.

The hope is that if there is a trade organization it will create a stronger industry and if that trade organization is setup correctly more companies will be profitable and stable. And likewise it's possible it may raise the bar on bidding work and doing the work. All,of these do indirectly benefit the worker but it's important to not confuse the purpose and aim of a trade organization with a worker organization.

Ultimately it would be good for all of visual effects if in addition to the Ves there was a true trade organization and a workers group.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dream Quest

Below are a few videos with visual effects by Dream Quest, a visual effects company I co-founded in late 1979.  These are from the first 5 years. The company was later sold to Disney and changed it's name to the Secret Lab, which Disney then closed. All effects were done using 35mm film and opticals since digital effects were yet to be possible.

Great examples of cheesy car spots from the 80's.

If people are interested I could do some articles at some point on pre-digital technology and methodologies. (Motion control, matte paintings, motion graphics, etc)

Basic demo reel with new audio commentary

Friday, November 11, 2011

Visual Effects Union - IA efforts one year later

I know most of you would rather just focus on the technical issues of visual effects and many of you have an aversion to even thinking about unions after being bombarded by myths and inaccurate information. I urge you to spend some time to get informed before the opportunity passes you by.

There are a number of problems with the visual effects industry currently. Unions and Trade Organizations are some of the different approaches that visual effects artists should seriously research so they understand the issues. These issues impact everyone in visual effects and will have major impacts on the future, no matter where you live. Do you want a career in visual effects doing what you love to do or do you want your future determined by others? Will there be a real future in visual effects where artists have a balanced life, can do it until they retire if they wish and can actually continue to work where they live?

Well it's been a year since the IA announced it's plan to unionize visual effects workers and two years since they start researching the possibility of unionizing this industry.  ... And still nothing has happened.

Mission not accomplished.

vfxsoldier covers this in IATSE VFX Organizing Effort One Year Later


fxGuide covers it in their article IATSE… One Year Later

These articles do a good job of detailing what the situation is so I won't repeat what they've already said.
As I stated in one of my previous articles, the union has a 1-2 year window to do this. So far they've blown past 1 year and already people are having a major issue with them. A year from now will anything have changed? Will it be too late? I'm still mystified why the union doesn't get serious and take a real stand. Either do it or don't do it. They've made the most tepid and ineffective approach to accomplishing anything.

I've posted a number of articles related to the unions and visual effects. But it is now entirely in the unions hands to come forward with their information and to convince everyone involved that they in fact have a workable plan for both artists and companies. They can no longer rely on bloggers and others to help get their message out, they have to take on that burden themselves since they're the ones in charge of the effort.

Suggested reading on this blog:
Lower down on the right side of this blog under the heading: VFX INDUSTRY - STATE OF THE INDUSTRY are a list of posts in chronological order. There's also a Labels section where you can click on any keyword and get all the articles that relate.

Pass Me a Nail discusses some of the problems.
Using the Nail lists some of the possible solutions and outlines what the union can do if they want to succeed.
Unions covers the basics of the union and what it can offer.
Response is about some of the problems and provides my response to some of the union comments.

A commentor on vfxsoldier listed an article, The Last Hurdle for Corporate Capitalism: Deunionizing America, that's worth checking out.

[ update: Visual Effects Union, take 2 ]

Related post:
Visual Effects Guilds

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

People, not computers, create visual effects

There's an impression that is perpetuated in the media that visual effects are created entirely by computers. The human artists are left out of this narrative. The term CGI is now being used interchangeably with visual effects. The feeling among the layperson is visual effects must be easy because it's being done using computers.

These days’ writers use computers to write both novels and scripts. Computers are now in many cameras that cinematographers and photographers use. Yet we don't say the computer created the script or that the computer did the photography.

Computer graphics is one of the tools used in making visual effects and it is powerful tool with a wide scope but it’s not the only tool or only ingredient to creating effects. We also use the live action with the actors, footage of bits and pieces to combine, miniatures as necessary, our hands (with a mouse, tablet, keyboard, pencil, paint brush, etc) and our most important tool, our eyes.

The truth is visual effects is an incredibly labor intensive process.  There is far more effort and time put into each shot than most people imagine, including those in production. It's inconceivable to the average person that at 24 frames per second there is still some handwork done on individual frames and people are tasked with tracing images among other time consuming work.

When BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 came out people thought that there really were hover boards being developed by Mattel. They were convinced there was no way people were tracing and painting on every frame. After all, computers were available so all of that handwork surely had to be automated by then. This was in 1989.

Years ago visual effects artists had to make fake computer graphics. For ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK we used wood and plastic blocks with white tape to represent a wire frame New York. Motion graphics cameras layered and moved artwork to give the illusion of metal logos and glints. Robert Abel's did extensive hand animation to simulate computer graphics for commercials. The public at that time were lead to believe computers were creating some great visuals. Even the motion control systems used on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and STAR WARS didn't use true computers. They were all built from pure hardwired electronics.

Computers eventually were able to catch up to the fake computer graphics images we were creating. Computers and related software now have become one of the main tools for visual effects artists but they're still just tools that must be used by those skilled enough to do so. Anybody can type on a computer or pickup a paint brush but the ability to truly create something of professional quality in nay field takes hard work, skill, experience and some talent to master.

And yet we in the visual effects industry and the software vendors tend not to make that distinction clear. We enjoy showing off our newest tools and typically have images prepped for doing demos or dog and pony shows that don't involve the time consuming work. This leaves the press or those being presented, the impression that’s it’s easy and simple. When people see a painting they know what's gone into it to create the final results. When they see a finished visual effects shot they have no idea how much work was involved. Usually it's just wiped away with a 'it's CG' comment, as if the tool represents the work involved. The media doesn't credit brushes for the work the painter has done but they are quick to congratulate the software and hardware for creating the visuals.

With each new feature in Photoshop or new image processing demo done on YouTube people think another problem for visual effects has been solved. Many of these types of processes may work fine on a still image but can be of little value when done for a moving image projected 40 feet across. While some of these developments have made things faster and easier (I can remember hand tracking on a rear projection digitizing screen for BLUE THUNDER before we had digital compositing), they have yet to solve all of our technical issues. The computer is excellent at doing many things but most of what we do still takes a trained eye of an operator to achieve the results necessary.

The reality is it takes a lot of skilled and hardwork to create visual effects shots. In many cases the visual effects crew may eclipse the size of the live action crew, yet producers and studios still don't know why it costs so much. Few actually see the full effects crew working on their projects. Take a look at the number of credits on a visual effects film and know that this doesn't actually cover all the people that worked on the effects, just the ones that were contractually required.

Yes, computers are getting faster every year but just as a computer running twice as fast doesn’t allow a writer to create a script in half the time, it doesn’t mean shots can be produced in half the time. It’s the time reviewing, thinking and modifying that tends to take the most time. Same as on a live action set. The time the cameras are rolling is only a tiny amount of the time required to shoot a film.

Computers have made certain tasks quicker but the complexity and finessing of the work has continued to outpace the speed of the computer. It still takes hours or days in some cases to simply render certain shots. And this helps explain why a major change to a shot is a setback in terms of time and amount of man hours lost. We understand there will be creative decisions as the film is being fine tuned in post but filmmakers should be clear it's no different than asking a live action crew to do several days of reshoots at different locations. Part of this problem as mentioned before is the entire visual effects crew tends to be hidden from view so this amount of time and effort is not obvious to those outside of visual effects.

In the end thank a visual effects person for the work you see on the screen, not the computer.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rotoscoping - The Basics

Mike Seymour @ fxguide has written up a great article on Rotoscoping.
It covers the history, the process and the list of the various roto tools available.

I'm glad he spoke to Tom Bertino and Jack Mongovan. Both of them worked in the ILM roto department and there have been countless unsung heros there that did and do fantastic work. Dragonheart is an example of an all roto show. Quite a bit of the successful work you see today has to credit the hard working roto and paint teams. And as pointed out in the article, good roto requires good artists. While roto is considered a starter position it requires real skill and experience to do it well. Many people at ILM continued to work for years in roto because they enjoyed it and did it very well. I can't say enough good things about what they brought to vfx production. Many starting in visual effects now take all of this for granted.

I'm interviewed about Commotion, a roto/paint and compositing tool I developed and that was used around the world until purchased by Pinnacle (and then by Avid)

Links here related to Rotoscoping:
Rotoscoping - Part 1 video
Rotoscoping - Part 2 video
Rotoscoping Hair article

In real production:
Walking pants breakdown - Part 1 video (approaching a vfx sequence)
Walking pants breakdown - Part  2 video (actually rotoing and compositing)

Commotion article  (I'll try to expand this in more detail in the future)
I've gotten many emails and tweets about restarting Commotion since there's still a lack of some of the tools and techniques that Commotion had over 15 years ago. As flattering as it is I'd probably prefer to focus on new challenges. Thank you.

Monday, October 10, 2011

VES Board of Directors

If you are a Visual Effects Society (VES) member you should have already received email regarding the Board of Director's nomination forms. If not, make sure the VES has your current email or check your spam filters.  They are due back this Friday.

Feel free to nominate yourself or someone you would think would do a good job (with their approval of course). Usually it involves being in LA once every other month or so for a meeting. Details should be on the VES web site.

Sometimes people complain about the board being made up of vfx supervisors, producers and owners. We do have people working in other positions on the board and that' swhy I'm encouraging people who are interested in getting involved to go ahead and nominate themselves. Certainly names you've heard before tend to be more likely to be voted on by other members but I do think members are more open to voting for people in all phases of production.

You can also volunteer to be on one of the various committees even if you're not on the Board of Directors.

Don't forget the Annual Member Meeting is Oct. 20 in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

VES Visual Effects Bill of Rights – Now what?

VES Visual Effects Bill of Rights – Now what?

By now most of you have heard and hopefully read the VES Bill of Rights. If not check it out here.

This first step was to try to define where we want to go in terms of working experience for visual effects workers worldwide.  The next step is to try to implement what we can and to encourage steps to make it possible. The details are still being worked out. I’m hoping we end up with more concrete approaches and specific working conditions guidelines.

As always if you have input, feedback on the Bill of Rights or have suggestions and solutions, please send email to VES Leadership.  You can post here in addition to emailing if you wish to open it to discussion by all.

The VES Membership meeting is October 20 in Los Angeles and most of the world wide sections can be linked in. The Bill of Rights will be covered. See the VES website for info.

Most people seemed to be positive about the VES making these issues more public and to at least start the ball rolling. As some have pointed out the VES doesn’t have Collective Bargaining, nor is it a union or a trade organization. Yes, that’s true, which can make it tricky but we are the largest organization of visual effects workers. The VES has been in discussions with all 3 groups of players in this industry: studios, visual effect companies and the artists themselves. Hopefully we can help broker some arrangements that will help our industry based on the bill of rights.

A few have suggested it’s a distraction. From what? The VES stand does not preclude a real union or a real trade organization. If anything, the bill of rights should make some issues clearer for everyone. As always I’m hoping by providing information and inspiration here people will join in to help find solutions.

There have been a few that suggest the VES is an elite group made of elite members. The VES is an honorary society. You need to be working in visual effects for 5 years to be a member of the VES and need 2 members to submit letters for you. I don’t think of that as elite. It does mean that VES members are experienced professionals. The main reason the VES has gotten involved in these types of issues is because there are problems in the industry and members were asking the organization to get involved and help find solutions. No other group seemed to be making progress in this area. And the approach for the VES is to try to make solutions apply to all visual effects workers.

IA Union of visual effects artists – The IA would certainly be the natural fit for visual effects workers since they cover most of the crafts in motion pictures, including the camera crew. The IA spent a year ‘researching’ visual effects industry and has now spent almost another year with someone spearheading the effort to unionize the industry. Unfortunately that has yet to result in anything. You would think they would like to get the word out to as many visual effects workers as possible and that they would try to sell the idea of the union with a clear and concise guide of the benefits and costs. They should have also been selling the idea to the visual effects companies as well. But to date most of that hasn’t happened and it hasn’t seemed like the IA has put much into this process. Many visual effects workers have either not heard of the effort or now assume it’s not happening.  For more info on the IA check out their blog here.

Meanwhile the Art Directors Guild (union) has taken a definitive stand to bring in previs artists as part of their union. See their website here.  And the Vancouver IA has a good website and info here. There’s also a movement for the motionographers union.

Will the IA get going or should there be an independent group that forms a new type of union?

David Rand wrote a response to the VES Bill of Rights here.
Dave is correct that the current bidding process is broken. For more info on some of the business models in visual effects check out a previous post here.
To fix this process will require many visual effects companies to get on the same page because ultimately only they can control the situation. Most visual effects companies are very competitive and fiercely independent. The VES has been encouraging the companies to meet and discuss.  Many of the companies are in as much denial about issues as the workers and studios. Those doing well (especially if they’re in a location with tax incentives) see no reason to change. Why should they bother fixing the leaking roof when it’s sunny out? And of course once it’s starts raining it will be too late. The days of milk and honey will not last forever for any location. Scott Ross points out that if 4-5 of the major visual effects companies got together they could lay out some basic guidelines or requirements with their clients.

Currently there’s also been discussion among Indian visual effects workers about their situation that doesn’t sound too far off from the ones in the U.S. As I’ve said before many of these are global issues and do in fact affect you no matter where you are. And they of course make some of the same errors and false ideas as other here do.

1. Unions are only for laborers. We’re artists.
Guess what? The director’s are covered by the DGA (union). The Writers are covered by the WGA (union). The actors are covered by SAG (union). The Cinematographers are covered under the ICG (union). And so on for just about every position in motion pictures except visual effects. Are none of those other people artists? Do you gain anything by being a starving artist? Do you gain anything by not having health care insurance? Do you gain anything by not having a united group of similar artists? Can you change things by yourself and will the company change at your lone request?

2. Unions? Look at what happened to American automobile industry.
Stereotyping everything certain is not a solution nor is ignoring details of history.
Please see this previous post Using the Nail

3. Producing good work is the solution
Producing good work will certainly help you get work but it alone will not guarantee employment nor will it guarantee you fair treatment.

4. Working for free
Many starting out in this business thinks that they’ll work for free to prove themselves and then the companies will hire them.  You’ve already devalued yourself when you choose to work for free. Do you think the company that hires free labor will suddenly start paying people what they’re worth and stop the practice of hiring more free labor? Each wave of new workers comes in and is willing to work for free which means those with experience now will either have to continue to work for free or will have to move on. Some visual effects companies are run by people without the passion for visual effects.  Some can’t grasp the simple business solution that by hiring experienced and qualified people, treating them properly and paying them properly, they will have a true business that grows and can increase productivity and profits. Providing a quality product is of value. By simply hiring free labor they have forever tied themselves to the mediocre and will just continue being in a race to be the cheapest provider. And that’s a game that cannot be won. There will always be somewhere else cheaper, either by cost of living or incentives.

5. Working as independent contractors
One of the notions expressed is to be a remote freelancer for a visual effects company in another country.  Why would a visual effects company in another country hire someone directly in another country? What experience would they have had with that person directly? Most of the major films are covered by restrictions and guidelines so images and other movie data aren’t leaked out. Can you set up to qualify? Can you do an entre shot yourself (animation, lighting, composting, roto) or will they be sending just one step of a shot to an independent worker in another country every day or every few hours? If that were to work there will be websites where artist bid on how much to do a shot. The lowest bid would likely get selected. Every independent contractor is now in a race to the bottom themselves.

As always if you have input, feedback on the Bill of Rights or have suggestions and solutions, please send email to VES Leadership.  You can post here in addition to emailing if you wish to open it to discussion by all. Personally I’d prefer suggestions and solutions over complaints and reasons why none of this will work.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Letter to Animation Guild

The Animation Guild received an email for someone in the VFX industry who documents some of the issues faced by typical vfx workers.   This is somewhat of an extreme but there's certainly a basis of truth.

If any of this sounds familiar then I urge you to make your voice heard. Don't expect someone else to come and fix the problem. Don't expect the company you work for to fix the problems and don't expect the studios to step forward and fix the problems.

 Email VES Leadership group

Saturday, August 27, 2011

VFX Wages Discussion

This post is in response to a comment on a previous post.  See this post and follow the comments there for the full original comment. (Toward the end from Anonymous) Unfortunately once I wrote this response it was bigger than a comment could be so I've done it as a post.

Here's part of that comment (focused for this post) but request you read it all to see it in context:

"Here is my thought on this: We got greedy.

During boom times artist rates went up and up. I now make more money than most doctors. I know plenty of others who do just as well. We are the most expensive part of production on most films. While single individuals may get larger paychecks- the director, producer, lead actor, a massive amount of money goes to VFX.

We are too expensive. I make, on average, 5 to 10 times more than other Americans. Why?! It just happened that way over time, I didn't ever expect to be doing this well as an employee of another company. I am well beyond my own expectations."

We got greedy? I don't recall a mass rally outside vfx company offices calling for huge pay increases. I don't recall any company just deciding one day they will pay more simply because vfx workers would like more.

I'm still not clear why people are apologetic for being paid above a national average as if it were a sin. Especially if you're actually a skilled and knowledgable worker creating something or performing a real service that will ultimately be very profitable. According to some of these people we're all so well paid none of us should get health care or any other benefits.

I'd like to think that decades of experience in a very difficult creative and technical industry would amount to something. That the time and effort put into keeping up with quickly changing software, images and techniques would be of some value. I'd like to be paid more than I was 20+ years ago. Some movies makes hundred of millions of dollars (and some even more than a billion dollars). Movies that we helped create. I'd like to think that those of us who do this are paid enough money to have a reasonable home in the cities we work in, that we can afford to raise children, that we don't have to worry about health care bills, that we don't have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to try to retire one day, and that we we're paid enough so we don't have to worry if we don't get a call for a project next week. Is that being greedy? I don't think so.

There will always be people who make more than you and people who make less than you. Bill Gates isn't always the top of the list. You may not have  made any money last year but there's likely someone who hasn't made money for the last 2+ years.

The average US CEO of a public company makes over $10 million a year. [To put that in perspective many CEOs earn as much in 1 day as a typical US worker does in an entire year. 1 Day] Are they that much smarter? Harder working? Working longer hours? From my experience you could actually replace most CEO's with a rock and it wouldn't make a bit of difference to the bottom line since it tends to be the workers and managers that handle the actual running and in many cases the non-CEOs are the ones that are forward thinking. (Steve Jobs is a rare exception)  I suspect many of these CEO's have assistants that probably make more than a CG supervisor. At the other end of the spectrum are people working multiple jobs cleaning toilets and digging ditches just to try to make a living for themselves and their family. There are some teachers and regional pilots that make less than the poverty level of income. Is any of that fair? No, but all we have at most is a tiny bit of control of our own wages.

I know someone who works in non-vfx that probably puts in half the hours I do and is paid 2-4 times what I make. I know a non-vfx software engineer who was very well paid at a permanent position. More than you are. He received a $300,000 bonus when they shipped on time. When was the last time you got paid a bonus? Any type of bonus? [Supreme Court Clerks now receive over $280,000 signing bonus when they go to work at a law firm.] Most of the time people put in an incredible number of hours at the end of a project and may not even receive a thank you from the company. If the company is really feeling up to it they might have a wrap party as a thank you.

Drive around Los Angeles and look at the pricing of homes in areas you wouldn't mind living in. Base price of a reasonable house (small 2 bedroom) in LA is over $800,000. Many start at $2 million and go up. There are a lot of people in LA making a lot of money and they're not vfx people. Do you think all of these people are going without health care and pensions? Do they all feel guilty?

We are the most expensive part of production on most films.
Well we’re a large expense IF the show is a VFX show.  I’d hardly call vfx the most expensive part of most films. Most films don't have extensive vfx. Most films burn through $100,000-$300,000 per day while shooting. Most films spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising and promotion. Most films employee at least some actors making $2 million to $20 million. On most of the vfx projects I’ve worked on, vfx typically use less than ½ the budget, in many cases 1/3 to ¼.  Published movie budgets are seldom accurate.

While single individuals may get larger paychecks- the director, producer, lead actor, a massive amount of money goes to VFX.”
I cover a few other people below. You act as if it’s our fault and something we should be ashamed of. A studio chooses which projects they feel will make money in the box office. Most of the top 20 moneymaking movies have made extensive use of vfx. It wasn’t the only reason for their financial success but vfx is part of the reason and with some films, it’s very high on the reasons. The studio chooses to make a vfx film. It’s not something we’re pushing on them. A studio makes tradeoffs and may choose to spend more on vfx than on A actors on some projects and just the opposite on other projects. And the thing about vfx is it’s not just one person.  You’ve lumped in all the vfx people costs (which can be hundreds of people) against individuals. When you compare the costs of a full shooting crew on a large vfx movie (including 2nd unit and all the support teams) shooting for 6 months then it’s a much different balance between the ‘expensive vfx crew’ and the shooting crew. The live action crew can be just as expensive, if not more expensive.

Film business: In addition there are quite a few others in the film business making above the national average by week/day/hour. Studio executive, jr executives, editors, DPs, production designers, stunt supervisor, special effects supervisors, sound mixers, DI colorists, etc.
I haven't checked salaries lately but suspect most of the crew make above the national average as well. And why do people make good money in Hollywood? Because they're working on large projects with very good profits if done well. A VFX heavy film will likely make hundreds of millions in profit if done correctly. These people have developed skills and experience that can't be simple bought or learned in a course. They go from project to project so they're not permanently employed. They freelance. They have to be paid more simply to average out and be able to afford the same thing that someone is permanently employed can afford. They put in long hours. Shooting days are 12hr days. Shooting weeks can be 5-7 days. They live in LA and similar areas where the cost of living and housing is above the national average.

Realize the national averages really haven't gone up much in the last 20-30 years.  Most pay has been relatively stagnant with 2% increases a year, if that. Even while many companies have become much more profitable. So where does the extra money go to? The CEO, upper management and shareholders. CEO's 30 years ago made approx 30x their average employee.  It's now over 300x. GE made record profits last year. Paid no taxes. What do they want to do? Cut wages and benefits of their workers.
Why were Verizon workers on strike? Verizon is making very good profits, paying their upper management very, very well and not paying taxes. And yet they're still asking their workers to reduce there benefits. "That loss of health benefits and other givebacks in the proposed contract would net Verizon annually about $1 billion, or $20,000 per worker, according to the unions." ref  And these are benefits that had already been agreed to by both sides and awarded. Now the company wants to reduce them.

From the sounds of it you're in a very sweet spot.  You seem to be permanently employed, paid a very high salary and get paid overtime. "I now make more money than most doctors." Really? You make more than most doctors? What you’re describing is not the average or typical for the majority of vfx workers.

If we're going to even try to compare any of this to the national average there are a few things to do. So let's take a look at what an average vfx worker deals with. First calculate rates 1 1/2x for over 8 hrs and 2x for over 12 hrs to work out an average 40hr week. Most of us work 50 hrs to 90 hr weeks but for comparison we have to put it relative to a 40hr workweek. Don't forget those who work a flat rate (no overtime pay). Use the same formula and see how that works out, especially once you hit 90hrs+ a week. VFX workers who do work a lot of overtime end up sacrificing time with their families and their health in the long run that many other jobs do not.

 "So many of my friends are unemployed right now."
Even at ILM it was common for people to be laid off for 3-6 months during the 'slow' periods and now we're seeing people go for even longer stretches.  So cut the cut the pay period from 12 months to 6-9 months. Now calculate a yearly average or 5-year average.

Oddly when you take that high salary and try to stretch it from 6 months to cover a year, it doesn't look nearly as large. And in the case of most vfx workers there's no guarantee when they will be re-hired. It may seem like the perfect time to take an extended vacation but if you don't know whether you're working again in a few weeks or a year from now it's hard to plan.

Now not everyone in vfx is covered for health care or pension. Even if they were covered if they're off for an extended time or have to switch companies they have to start over. So calculate in the cost of Cobra insurance or self-insurance.  Also calculate a pension fund. Not cheap. And we're adding this because most full time jobs include these as part of their compensation.

If a vfx worker has to work outside of town for a given period and has to cover related expenses (travel, boarding, phone calls, etc) then deduct those as well from the vfx wages. A percentage of non-vfx workers work for companies that offer other benefits. (Discounts on products, discounts on services, profit sharing plans, stock options, bonuses, etc) So now compare the full compensation package of the national average with the average vfx worker and what it costs to create that same level of benefits.  That average vfx salary that may have looked huge on the surface is likely to be much closer to the national average than it first appeared.

Are there 1000's of people who could do what you do? Can they step into the job you're currently at and do just as well? Do you have years of experience, expertise and skills that means you're much more likely to do something much faster and to avoid the pitfalls? Do you have to take responsibility for the project or a team of people? Do you have to manage people? Do you save money for the company even with your salary?  When I work I don't feel bad about being paid well because not only do I accomplish what needs to be done I usually end up saving the vfx company or studio a few times my salary just on avoided expenses. (Avoiding or minimizing costly sets, having the option not to travel the entire cast and crew halfway around the world, improving the pipeline, minimizing the amount of overtime that I can, doing multiple tasks, doing my own mockups, etc)

Companies can and do at times hire poor employees/managers that not only don't accomplish what they need to but that cause losses by making bad decisions. In the end the roto and paint team may have to solve problems because of mistakes made early in the process.

So how does this all work in today’s vfx world?  Yes, workers in China and India are paid less but they typically have a lower cost of living. And even in these places as the workers get more skills and experience their wages are going up.

Why don’t all vfx workers in California cut their wages in half?  Certainly that would have an impact and counter the imbalanced tax incentives? Yes, but probably not in the way most people might expect. First, many vfx companies would be unlikely to pass all of that savings on to the studios.  They would want to keep some to increase their profits and increase salaries of their management. Second, the studios would ask the vfx companies for even lower bids, because after all, the workers cost less.  Those places in other countries and areas would be forced to follow suit because the companies that employee them and the studios would point out those in LA don’t make as much. End result could simply be evenly lower bids with the tax incentives still in place and the work still going else where. And now everyone is paid less.  Doesn't seem to be much of an advantage.

Why did we end up with the salaries in vfx that we do?
It just happened that way over time.."  Nope.
First off there is no standard.  People tend to assume there is because some of the bigger companies have somewhat similar rates. But without a union there’s really no standard rates and people doing the same job at different companies (or even within the same company) could be paid drastically different rates. (and of course different locations and countries differ as well).

Companies don’t just randomly choose to pay a higher rate for workers. Nor do they tend to volunteer to pay increases and other job incentives.

One of the reasons why people are paid the amount they are because when digital vfx started it was made up mainly of union people. ILM was all union when I went to work there. Say what you will about the unions but the fact is in many industries you’re paid a reasonable rate because a group of people organized and asked for given rates. There was a shift to digital as time progressed but many of the people shifted to similar jobs in the digital world if they could. That also meant that 2D animators (with skills and existing experience) tended to move into 3D. Once again people who were already up to speed and able to accomplish the work are worth far more than a number of less expensive people with no experience and that would require training and hand holding.

Those working in VFX are also paid what they are because similar jobs in other industries might pay well. Digital vfx were ramping up as Silicon Valley was at full speed. Whether it’s in graphic arts, software development or other areas, if companies wish to either hire someone from that other industry or want to retain people from going to another industry, then they have to pay a competitive rate. Do you think everyone at Apple, Google, Microsoft and Adobe are being paid minimum wage or even the national average?

And the other reason for the pay to be the way it is because there was a lack of skilled, experienced talent at the beginning and some companies would essentially compete to get key people. The result is there was a spike at one point but much of that has already been scaled back. Will there be more scaling back in the future? Possibly.

But don’t forget the US Justice Dept found that there was collusion between ILM and Pixar regarding non-competing for animators. So that created artificially lower rates for animators and prevented some opportunities for them.

As stated the reason why the rates are where they are elsewhere is due to the rates that have been paid to key vfx people in California. We’re now seeing a flood of vfx students trying to be employed. Many of these people are willing to work for anything, including free and minimum wage. Some would be happy to pay the first year if necessary.  What they don’t understand is by working free or cheap they can end up pushing all wages down, including their future earnings. They may find next year, once they’ve gained more experience, they aren’t given a raise simply because this years batch of students are willing to work for even less. And some producers prey on these types of people and employ essentially students to do their work for free or cheap.

The point here is that we should be looking for solutions to the problems of the vfx industry. Outsourcing and tax incentives are some of the problems. Overtime and overtime pay is another issue. Being forced to be an independent contractor is another problem. I'm sure we could list many more but I'm hoping we focus discussions on potential solutions; throwing out and discussing possible ideas. Simply shrugging our shoulders and saying "woe is me" is not a solution.

It's not easy. This is a global problem but hopefully we'll be able to come up with some ideas to balance this out.


Monday, August 22, 2011

VES 2.0 feedback requested

The VES 2.0 group  (Visual Effects Society)  continues to meet and explore options for the vfx industry.

I'd like to once again ask all vfx artists and companies to submit their thoughts, ideas, solutions and concerns to the VES Leadership group.  Email VES Leadership group You don't have to be a member to submit. You can also post in the comments here or email me directly. **

If you're in the vfx industry you do really owe it to yourself and your future to submit your thoughts. Now is the time, not 6 months from now.

Please consider reading the links on the right side under VFX INDUSTRY - STATE OF THE INDUSTRY heading if you haven't already.  I posted these to try to provide information and different perspectives of some of the issues.  Pass Me That Nail covers some of the key problems with the vfx industry. Using the Nail covers some of the VES 2.0 issues.

I also urge vfx artists to become informed and try to make open minded and balanced decisions and comments. It's easy to repeat the same phrases and become narrow minded, especially under the circumstances. Also keep in mind incentives will not last forever anywhere. Don't assume smooth sailing where you're currently working to last your lifetime. What you perceive as only a US problem could be your problem in the next year or two.

For more info: Visual Effects Society
VES 2.0 Letter to VFX Industry

From Shoot magazine report on VES 2.0

[**Update: Please check out the comments below (you may have to click on the comments link.
I'm listing a few of the types of things to consider in your note and included a few questions from the IA (snippets from the comments)

What are the problems people are facing? You may have some issues I haven't touched on or you may have a totally different priority.

How would you like to see the vfx industry structured?

What should the vfx companies be doing differently to make it better for the workers?

What should the studios be doing to make it better for the workers?

What about the studio and vfx company relationships?

People writing in should mention their views on the IA and why.

What's their views on a vfx trade organization?

From the IA:
"..we continue to seek out some direction as to the type of organization the rank and file really want?
One integrated visual effects organization?
An independent guild?
Affiliation with several different IATSE locals (matching job-skills) such as camera, editorial, animation, or art directors?
We could charter a guild and have it function as a separate entity, benefitting from the experience and strength of the International, and, where appropriate, adopting the Major Studios Basic Agreement. We just need some direction from the affected parties."]

There's also a relatively new take on this which is to focus on management.

While I agree that improving management would help I don't see it being the all in one solution.
Some vfx companies are managed better than others but I don't expect to cut the required time in half or another 20% in profits simply by improved management. Many vfx companies are already reasonably run and while there's room for improvement it's unlikely to be huge. The variables from directors and studios tend to be larger than these gains. Likewise don't assume just because a company is more efficient that it will make more money (it may just get more work) or that benefits, wages and working conditions will improve for employees. The trickle down theory doesn't work. Most general US companies are making 20% more in profits the last couple of years but continue to reduce their workforce and reduce employee benefits. Those added profits go to the executives and shareholders, not the people being more efficient.

What we'll need is improvements/changes to the 3 key parts of this issue (Studios, vfx companies and vfx workers) to get a balance that works and is sustainable.

[Please click on Comments link below if comments aren't automatically shown in your browser]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

2D to 3D Conversions

2D to 3D conversions

2D to 3D conversion is the process of converted a film from 2D (normal film) to a 3D (or stereo) film for viewing with a stereographic viewing system. (polarized glasses, shuttered glasses, special screen, etc)

Conversion had gained a bad name after Clash of the Titans and a few other films that had been rushed through at the last minute. Just as you can’t do a 2000 shot vfx show in 6 weeks with great quality, you can’t do a quality conversion of an entire movie in 6 weeks.

Most people think of a 2D to 3D conversion as a factory type of operation but it’s far from it if it’s to be done right.  Much of my past year was spent working for Legend3D dealing with some interesting and very technically challenging problems. Legend had completed work on Alice (Tea party sequence and Drink Me sequence) and done the conversion on the first 3 Shrek films to be released for 3D TV.

Legend was starting on Transformers: Dark of the Moon and would need help with the extensive visual effects shots. Legend 3D ended up converting over 77 minutes of footage for Transformers.  Most of the vfx shots were converted in a 4-5 month time span. The converted footage was a mix of visual effects shots (from ILM and DD) and non-vfx shots.  In most cases these would be shots intercut back and forth with original stereo footage shot on location.  This raised the complexity much more than if the entire film had been converted. Just as doing vfx in a live action film is a different task than creating an animated film (or virtual sequence).

This was also more difficult than doing a library title or a film that was completed.  The same issues vfx companies face of ever changing edits and creative directions was in full force. In addition the vfx shots were changing and so we had to follow very closely and track all changes such that we could turn around the final converted shots within a day or two of deliver of the last vfx shots.

While at Legend I helped them to develop the pipelines required to do this type of work efficiently and at as high of quality level as possible. Legend had some proprietary software and techniques for different stages in the process. I wrote a number of specialty Nuke plugins and scripts to help leverage these proprietary software packages with existing software. I worked with a number of artists and developers at Legend to review and analyze the shots as they were delivered and worked closely with ILM and DD to get the proper elements that would be required. Both technical and creative issues had to be examined to get the best possible quality. Overall this represented a number of challenges that were unique to the world of stereo conversion and we were able to raise the quality of conversion to a new level.

In what follows I’ll cover the basics of the conversion process. I won’t be able to go into specific detail to due the proprietary nature but hopefully this will provide an understanding of the process.

Conversion versus shooting stereo
Many people are under the mistaken belief that shooting stereo is superior to conversion in every way.  The key to getting great 3D is to design, shoot and edit for 3D, even if it will be converted. If you shoot stereo but don’t consider the 3D world then you will have problems.

In its current form 3D is a stereo process, which means creating imagery for each eye. It’s actually a big cheat when projecting 2 different images to simulate the look of the 3D because your eyes are always focused on the screen but objects appear at other depths. This is a fairly unnatural process.

The following are some of the basic pros and cons. As with everything there are tradeoffs to be made. Shooting stereo does capture the images in 3D but many of the parameters are locked in at the time of shooting. Shooting stereo also requires a fair bit of post work to actually get the images to match. Films that are shot in stereo will still require a certain number of conversion shots just due to problematic shots or limitations while shooting. This was the case even with Avatar.

Shooting Stereo – PROS
Capturing stereo images at time of shooting
Capturing nuances of complex 3D scenes. Smoke, reflections, rain, leaves, etc.
Preview stereo images on set and on location
Footage can be edited and reviewed in stereo context with the correct equipment

Shooting Stereo - CONS
Requires specialized camera rigs
Camera rigs contain 2 cameras so are larger than non-stereo camera setups
More time required to shoot (higher shooting costs)
Requires shooting on digital cameras (no option of film)
Special stereo monitor and glasses required on set to check settings.
Requires a certain amount of adjustment, alignment and cleaning.
Requires special rig technician to handle these adjustments.
Restrictions on lenses that can obtain good looking stereo
Requires locking in stereo depth at time of shooting. This cannot be adjusted in post.
Shooting with ‘toe in’ (non-parallel) camera systems requires a convergence puller similar to a focus puller.  Having the correct convergence point is critical when editing shot to shot.  This convergence point can only be adjusted so far in post. (With parallel camera systems this convergence is all set in post.)
Lens flares and shiny reflections can appear different to both cameras and will require post work to correct to prevent viewing problems of final film.
Because of the polarizing through the beam splitter, water and even asphalt with a sheen will appear different to both cameras and require post correction
Post work required to align and fix footage. Since one camera is shooting through a beam splitter and another is shooting the beam splitter reflection there is typically an imbalance in terms of color, contrast and alignment.
Visual Effects require more work and more rendering (added time and cost)

Stereo Conversion - PROS
Ability to shoot with standard process (Composing with 3D in mind still recommended)
Choice to shoot on film with any film camera or on digital with any digital camera
Unlimited choice of camera lenses (Extreme telephoto still not recommended for best 3D results)
Ability to add depth and volume even on telephoto shots
Ability to set the 3D depth in post on a shot by shot basis
Ability to set the convergence as desired for the edit
Flexibility to adjust the depth and volume of each actor or object in a scene as a creative option not available when shooting stereo.
Visual Effects are handled in the standard way

Stereo Conversion - CONS
Extra time required after edit to properly convert or sequences need to be locked during edit to allow conversion to take place while in post.
Added cost of process
Reflections, smoke, sparks and rain more difficult to convert but not impossible.

The 2D to 3D process
Each company handles conversion in a slightly different way, sometimes with proprietary tools and techniques but what follows are some of the fundamentals.

The first step in the conversion is to have a stereographer review the shot and determine how it will work in 3D space. How much depth budget there will be (how much total depth in the scene) and where the convergence point will be.  The convergence point ends up on the movie screen and imagery in front of the screen is said to be in negative parallax and imagery behind the screen is positive parallax.  If you have two images (left and right eye) of a circle and it’s in the exact same spot for both eyes then it will appear on the screen surface. If you offset the images of the circle toward or away (left/right) from each other so they overlap but don’t match then you’ll have the circle float in front of the screen or behind the screen depending on the direction of offset. The amount of offset will determine how far forward or back it appears.

Convergence decisions are based on the action and edit as well as what is in the scene. Frequently the key actors eyes are used for the convergence point so when cutting from one scene to another the audience doesn’t have to visually look back and forth constantly.

With this information the image is broken down. How much detail depends on where it is in space.  Stereo eyesight primarily works within 20-25 feet. As objects get further away there tends to be less sense of 3D stereo. Breaking down the image may require roto or some form of image area selection. If you’ve done roto or frame by frame extraction you know how difficult and time consuming it is. But in this case everything in the images is broken down, not just a foreground actor. In vfx if you roto a group of people you may be primarily concerned about the group areas that overlaps the area to be replaced. With 2D to 3D you have to isolate each person and each object on a different depth plane.

So imagine the degree of difficulty extracting every 3D surface from a 2D image and making all the frames and transitions match perfectly and smoothly including wild camera moves and explosions with thousands of sparks. Depending on the exact 2D to 3D process used you may have build actual 3D models or at least replicate that process to some extent. If there is a table in the image the table-top will have to be split into top, front and side.

The amount of work and complexity means that if there is a change to the image (edit, reposition, speed up, slow down, etc) it may require redoing the entire shot.

With traditional roto you can get away with things like losing a few fly away hairs on an actress. If they’re clipped off and a new background is composited no one will know. With conversion however any hairs that have not been extracted may end up at the wrong 3D depth. Imagine a character in the foreground with long flowing hair but having the hair stuck to the mountains in the background. Each company leverages what techniques and software they can to help with this process and compositors can also help the process by leveraging various extraction methods.

3D settings
Once the image is actually broken up it is necessary to create the depth. A conversion stereographer may use propriety software or heavily modified Nuke or other application to help with this step. This can be in a true 3D world or it can be simulated 3D with gap offsets.  The stereographer usually works with a stereo monitor and adjusts and animates the very shapes, objects and planes to move in 3D space. This needs to match the surrounding shots and the 3D relationships need to be correct. In the case of Transformers the volume and depth of the objects has to match to the original stereo photography. The show stereographer works with the director as well to provide both creative and technical feedback regarding the depth range and convergence planes.  Cory Turner was the show Stereographer on Transformers.

Viewing stereo footage and making adjustments requires developing an eye for stereo. Not everyone can do it and different people have different aptitude for judging stereo. With most vfx work it’s usually obvious when there are matte edges or a color balance problem between elements. Seeing these types of problems is consistent across a number of individuals. Yet viewing stereo footage is much more subjective. Even stereo experts commonly disagree on the latest 3D film. Some may say it’s the best stereo they’ve ever seen and others will say it’s the worst they’ve seen. Technical issues and creative choices by the stereographer and director will affect the final results.

But even at this stage if all you’ve done is cutout the objects you’ll end up with flat images set at different depths. What you need to do is add volume and real 3D shape to the image that matches. This is one of the areas that 2D to 3D conversion provides an advantage over shooting stereo. Telephoto lens images can be provided more volume than would be possible shooting stereo. Different objects can be given more or less 3D emphasis. An actor needs to have their head rounded, their eyes sunken in and their nose coming out.  This relationship needs to match even as the actor turns his head and the camera moves. There’s a real art to the process and much of this can not be automated. The skill of the artists combined with the tools at their disposal has a lot to do with the final results.

The end result of this process is 2 images – a left and right eye image. If this is a full 3D process there are essentially two 3D CG cameras setup with an InterAxial offset (lens separation just as if shot with a stereo camera system). Some companies use the original image as one eye and generate only the other eye. Legend tends to convert the original footage as if it’s the center image and so they actually generate both eyes. This tends to make sure both eyes match and the image itself isn’t always offset from the original framing.

Because the original image was 2D when sub-images are offset they create gaps where there is no image. The simple way of thinking of this is to start with 2 identical images and cutting out an actor in each. Offset one cutout of the actor 10 pixels to the right and offset the other 10 pixels to the left. Now there’s no image on the edge where the image was moved from. This gap needs to be filled in so you don’t see a black edge in the finished shots. If the gap is really small you can cheat it but these artifacts can be quite noticeable on the big screen. To do it right in most cases requires treating the edge of each object as a full on rig removal. Creating or shooting a clean plate can greatly help with this process.

Keep in mind all of these steps, adjustments and cleanup have to be done on every single shot in the film if the film was originally shot 2D.

Reflections, lens flares, smoke and other problems
And as if that wasn’t tough enough imagine the main actor wearing glasses. The glasses have to be set at the correct depth to relate to the head. Any thumbprints or dirt on the lenses have to be on that same plane, however the actor’s eyes have to be pushed in. More than likely there is a reflection on the glasses of the room, which may be 20 feet away. And the actor may have a highlight on his eye that reflects something 5 feet away.  Each of these different images have to be extracted and removed so you end up with a clean eye with no reflections, the glass reflections, the eye highlight and the thumbprint. This is from live action so requires the compositor to go through a process along the lines of rig removal but splitting in to each depth layer. Each of these layers then has to be placed and positioned in 3D and then composited back together.  If this isn’t done then it will look like the actors eyes and the reflections are simply painted on the surface of the glasses. Needless to say this looks is very wrong in 3D.

Same issues if the shot has glass window, mirror, chrome or other reflective surfaces. The issue of seeing partially transparent layers at different depths also comes into play if you have smoke or fog in the scene. If you have partially transparent smoke in front of a building you don’t want the building to be pulled forward to 10 feet from camera nor do you want the smoke to be pushed all the back to the front of the building.  Same exact problem happens with lens flares.  Each of these has to be removed into a separate element and then added back in at the right depth, usually near the screen plane for lens flares.

Transformers of course was full of fast action with glass windows, smoke, explosions, sparks, and lens flares.

Conversion of VFX shots
VFX shots are usually tough enough without having to deal with two slightly different views for the left and right eye. Working in stereo takes more time and adds an additional level of complexity. When the footage is shot as 2D then the vfx can be finished as 2D shots and approved by the director, which tends to be quicker and easier. But it’s usually best to take advantage of the vfx process when doing the conversion to produce better conversion quicker.

In vfx shots it’s not unusual to add smoke and lens flares among other things. Obviously once these are baked into the shot the conversion artist will have to re-separate them. It makes more sense for speed and quality to simply breakdown the composites in such a way to keep key layers separate and use those layers to set the depth in the conversion stage. Some of the other vfx elements are also useful such as clean plates and potentially some of the roto or mattes.

For shots with CG elements it’s better if the CG elements are rendered separately so there’s no need to extract them and fill in the gaps if only a finished composite was provided. Taking this further the vfx company can render depth maps so the conversion company can leverage it and provide a consistency to the creature (or in this case, transformers)

The majority of 2D vfx shots in Transformers was done this way.  The sheer complexity of the Transformers, the number of moving and changing surfaces, really took advantage of this process and allowed them to be consistent with the stereo vfx shots. A few shots were done where the vfx company rendered 2 views of the transformer and then Legend created the 3D world to go around the rendered stereo image. In a few other cases Legend converted the background to stereo and the vfx company worked from that.

Tips for VFX companies
If the film project you’ll be starting is to be converted make sure to work with production and the conversion company. The conversion company should provide a list of requested elements and the ideal formats. This isn’t simply a matter of turning over a Nuke script.  Chances are your company has proprietary plugins and scripts. It’s also likely that the composites may be very complex yet the conversion company only needs the layers that make sense in depth. You may not typically render depth maps and potentially other elements independently.  The cost and time to do this re-purposing of composites and elements will have to be accounted for either in the vfx bid or as a separate bid. If it’s vfx heavy show it’s likely there will be a small team of people prepping images for the conversion process.

Ideally the production company hires a show stereographer who oversees the process from shot design through to completion.

As with the original photography it’s important for everyone to consider the work as if it were in true 3D space.  No more cheating where animated characters are placed or using one element that is supposed to represent multiple depths. These problems will show themselves once converted to real 3D space.

Compositors need to consider building the composite based on 3D space. When holdouts are built in or there are elements with an odd layer order then it becomes difficult to re-build the composites to work in a dimension conversion.

Work out a naming process for these special conversion elements to make it easy for the conversion company to rebuild the composites.   Example: RL045.layer_1.over.00128.exr

It’s also important to provide any special lookup tables or color specific nodes

Conversion can create successful stereo images that match images shot in stereo as long as experienced artists are allowed sufficient time and control to do this complex and vfx heavy process correctly. Just as with vfx companies, the selected conversion companies will determine how successful the final results are. Neither visual effects nor conversion are truly commodities that can be randomly assigned to other companies with the same result.

Legend3D also did at least some of the conversion work on the following features while Transformers 3 was being done: Green Hornet, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Green Lantern, Priest,  Smurfs3D.  They were able to leverage many of the improvements created for Transformers 3.

[Update: Forgot to post a link to a VFX Guide Podcast that touches on the conversion.  I believe it's touched on at about 45+ minutes in.]

[Update: I was reminded when responding to a comment below there was a video of Michael Bay and James Cameron discussing shooting stereo.  This was done after the film had been shot and within a few weeks of release.  Video of stereo conversation of Bay and Cameron]

[Update: I got a few tweets from @philwittmer that I thought I'd address here since there's still seems to be some confusion.


Sorry but that all seems biased towards 2d conversion. With no mention of roto time. granted its an interesting read I never thought of it like that but.... a couple of major points here need to be made
1. U get limitless depth if shooting 3d as opposed to designated planes
2. Moving foc point in post just means bad directing
lastly and most importantly. The conversion will only be as good as the budget and time. Which unfortunately is usually bad

Yes, any conversion takes time. Roto takes time, extractions take time, setting depth takes time.
That's why I stated you can't do it in 6 weeks and that was listed as one of the CONs of doing conversion. It is a time consuming process.

If the film has a large number of vfx shots then this conversion can be done (especially on the non-vfx shots) while the vfx are being worked on.  If the vfx shots are locked and can be worked on as you proceed it still takes time but that post time is already used up by the vfx work. That means it doesn't necessarily mean a large delay after the vfx, depending on the show.

Keep in mind all stereo shoot footage needs to be processed as well. Every shot will have to go through a process to be adjusted for color and alignment and other corrections so the left and right images match correctly. This is not an overnight process and so you need to budget time to do shot by shot corrections of the entire film, like DI but can be much more intense. If any shots are truly broken they may need 2D to 3D conversion or serious vfx work to repair them so expect even more time.  This will be less than doing a conversion of the whole film but it's time that should not be discounted.

Unlimited 3D - When shooting 3D you have to determine the amount of depth you want.  And that is not unlimited. You can't have something 1 foot from the viewer and things pushed to infinity without compressing that space.  If you have too much separation in the background you'll get divergence where people's eyes will go walleye (each looking outward). Not pleasant. Too much negative parallax will cause eye strain as well.

Now you can get nice in camera stereo of complex things in the mid distance such as tall grass, leaves on a tree, smoke, etc.  That's why that's a PRO for shooting stereo:  Capturing nuances of complex 3D scenes. Smoke, reflections, rain, leaves, etc.

Designated planes - Just to be clear this isn't like a multiplane camera when you have flat cards at different distances and there are 10 designated planes.  It's not like the process that seemed to result in some viewmaster displays (i.e. all images flat to camera at different depths). Any flat surface can be at any angle. It has to be to actually work in a 3D movie. That road has to be angled away from camera, that building on the side going away from camera, etc. And more importantly you're creating a dimensional space, at least with the better processes.  You have to create the sense of roundness and volume as if you built it as a real 3D model. A shot of a head is a good example (a complex sphere with nose, eye sockets, ears, jaw, etc). You can not get away with having a person on a flat card and expect that to hold up for the audience. Whether the company uses real 3D models, depth maps, complex meshes, etc. you can be sure it's not made up of just designated planes.  And yes, that make it very hard, especially for the items that I listed as easier to shoot. Numerous, complex shapes that are changing in 3D space are very difficult.

During shooting of stereo you have the issue of setting the IA (interaxial)  to set the overall depth. And you have the issue of setting the convergence.  Either of these may be manually changed during the shot depending on the end result.  Is it bad for a director to find out later a different edit works better? What if in planning the shots the director originally thought the shots would cut together in a specific way and shot with that in mind. But once the cuts are changed the conversion may have to be adjusted in post so there won't be as much eye strain. Wide shot to closeup, the timing of the convergence wasn't right, etc. What if the initial IA was high but the fast action caused more strain? The director and stereographer have to really do some planning and testing before shooting. And even then there may be an edited version that doesn't work and needs to be adjusted. And some things like IA can't be adjusted cleanly in post currently. So some 3D decisions made on set are what will be.

>The conversion will only be as good as the budget and time.
This goes for every element of a film. You can't do Avatar in 10 days for $10. You can't record sound for a feature film with your iPhone. If the studio doesn't allow the correct amount of time and money to do the conversion correctly then they will have a movie they spent a lot of money on looking terrible in 3D. And this will cause turning more people away from 3D. The studios are starting to understand the correlation between good 3D and a happy audience willing to pay for 3D movies. And many of these 3D films (shot or converted) are large tent pole movies so there is already a large budget so the studios don't want to gamble and go super cheap.

In the end there are pros and cons to both methods. One of the main points of this article is both can produce good results. Which one to use and what balance of the two depends on the specific project. If production and the director can commit to shooting 3D with a real stereographer and take the necessary care and attention then shooting stereo may be their best choice. Just don't rule out 2D to 3D conversion as one of the options to consider simply because it's been done poorly on some films.

Update: Opensource 2D/3D conversion Gimpel3D for those interested.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

VES Handbook now in eBook formats

The VES Handbook is finally out in Kindle format from Amazon. It came out last fall but had issues with the Table of Contents among other things.  Currently $37.22 on US amazon store. Paperback is $41.35

[July 17, 2012 Just checked amazon and they're back to selling it at full retail price. $64.95 Not sure why. I assume the publisher requested it?]

It also is out for the Nook format as well at Barnes and Noble.  Currently $64.95 on US Barnes and Noble.

There's hope for an iBook format version as well but unknown when that will happen.

(I haven't been able to do a full check yet)

The good news:
1. Now more portable. The paperback book is about 960 pages and is about 1 and 1/2 inches thick, so it's not an easy thing to carry around.

2 Should be able to run on any device that supports whichever format you buy. That includes the iPad and other devices.

3. The Kindle version at least includes the additional articles from the website so is closer to 1200 pages.

4. Working Table of Contents to make it quicker to go directly to chapters.

5. You can bookmark, highlight text and add notes to most of the eReaders to make it fast to go to a specific section.

The bad news:
1. Some of the photos from studios have restrictions and will not appear in the electronic versions.
(I'm not sure how many at this point)

2. The printed book included sub-chapter page numbers for the actual articles.  The electronic versions only list by chapters.  Wish they had the full table of contents working.

Other info about the Handbook:
It won a Prose award which is an award for profesional and scholarly excellence for publications. The Handbook won in the Art Technique category.

Animation World Review

We are actively seeking specific feedback for the handbook since we're already discussing version 2 update.  (They're already on the 2nd printing)  More than likely we'll be augmenting the book with added articles instead of totally revamping existing articles but please submit any thoughts and ideas.
Too much? Too little? What worked? What didn't?

Focal Press has a sample online.  The page also lists the table of contents. See link lower on that page for a sampler.   This is a section of Bill Taylor's article on shooting greenscreen/bluescreen.  This article gets into a lot detail because it's a defined technical process.  In the handbook there are a mix of articles, some that deal with very specific technical issues and some that deal with broader issues.

VES Handbook companion site - Includes author bios and extended versions of some of the articles.

(extended articles should be in Kindle version)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Artistry of VFX

The Artistry of VFX

It’s sometimes difficult to get directors and studios to look at vfx as an artistic process and those involved as creative. To some we’re looked at as technical nerds (with the full stereotypes) to simply fill in the blanks of the scene - place 2 spaceships there, a creature in the foreground and a castle in the background, just like it is in the storyboards or previs. Stat!

And at times we’re our own worst enemies. We frequently do get caught up in all the technical issues and the pixel level details of the shot rather than stepping back and seeing it as the whole. We’re so busy scrambling to play catch-up with all the changes being thrown at us to try to finish the shots in the compressed timeframe that we sometimes fail to see how it may not be working. Obviously we want to make the director happy but what if we could do that and make great shots?

Successful vfx start with the initial shot and sequence designs. That’s why it’s important that the vfx supervisor and their team are involved early, before the storyboards and previs are done. They should be working with the director and other key creatives to help design the most effective visual effects. Concept art should be fleshed out before production starts to make the most of the shoot and to ensure the budget and time estimates are correct. It takes just as much time and effort to work on a badly designed vfx shot as it does to work on a well designed shot so you might as well do it right. Perfect execution will not save a badly designed shot.

One of the things the vfx artist can bring to the design table is a great ability to visualize the shots, and all the pieces, that may be difficult for others to see. The vfx artists also knows what’s possible and what the potential is. Sometimes those not involved in vfx tend to limit themselves to what they could physically do on the set. Or what they’ve seen before rather than creating something new and original. On one project I worked on, a new sequence had to be designed and the director asked for ideas. I provided over 3 pages full of ideas, many which were incorporated and many of which they might not have considered. You never know when opportunities for input may come.

Many of us in vfx have grown so used to being told exactly what to do, sometimes down to the pixel, that we’ve shut down our creative side. Some in vfx want to be told exactly what to do and are bewildered when presented with some creative freedom. I’m suggested to everyone in vfx to keep your creative side alive so as you’re provided opportunities you can take advantage of them. Those who’ve come into vfx from the technical side should spend time developing both their eye and their imagination.

We’ve also become slaves to reality. We think that our goal is always to make every shot real, regardless if it’s the most cinematic or even proper for the film. Sometimes we look down our noses at vfx that are stylized or gauge success based purely on the technical achievement rather than what it provided the film. Just because a shot is rendered by an accurate dynamic simulation doesn’t necessarily make it right for a film. This is all dependent on the project and direction.

If we used that same reality approach to lighting a set:
For a room in a house we’d be likely to shoot it as is with the sunlight coming in the window and the lamp at the table. If this were a set on the stage we’d place a 100 watt light off frame just where it was for the wide shot and we’d figure out the angle of the sunlight coming in for the date, time and orientation and filter it for daylight Kelvin. The end result, while real, would likely be less than inspired. Compare the lighting you see in movies versus your home movies. Quality of lighting is one of the obvious differences between really low budget and full budget films. Now there’s nothing wrong with actual natural lighting if that works for the type of film but that can be a very limited range. Just as you won’t necessarily want to shoot a full film on a ‘normal’ lens just because it mimics the view angle of humans.

A Director of Photography has to have a technical knowledge of photography, lights and color timing (dynamic range, t-stops, fps, etc). But that doesn’t preclude him or her from approaching lighting a set in an artistic manner. Most DPs like to provide the feel of reality but aren’t locked into reality. If there’s a tall building with an alleyway with no lights, the DP has no issues splashing some light on the side of the building to make it stand out or to provide a slight back light on an actor even if technically such lighting doesn’t exist on the set.

Here’s a good article where Shane Hurlbut, ASC, a DP discusses how he lit a scene.

My advice to many in vfx is to watch a DP light a scene. The VES has had lectures in the past. There are also some events like CineGear where cinematographers discuss their craft and show what they do. The internet certainly has more info and creative webcasts. Last weekend Gale Tattersall, the DP on House, showed his lighting and shooting approach for HDSLR cameras in a webcast.

Note that when doing blue or greenscreen work it is always better if you have a background plate first so the DP can actually light to it as a guide. With no background the DP may well light the actor so they look good but have no bearing on the scene the image will be added to.

A DP works with the director and production designer to set the tone and look of the film. On larger films there is a second unit DP that uses what the 1st DP did as a guide to shoot additional footage that will be cut in the movie. The 2nd DP doesn’t match by numbers, he/she matches by the look.

Typically a director interviews a few DPs and determines with the producer which one to work with based on aesthetics, experience and speed. The director and DP then review some films together and discuss the overall look with the production designer. Once production starts the director focuses on the actors and the DP focuses on the lighting and works with the director on framing. The director talks about the feeling and mood he wants to convey in the sequences with the DP, the director doesn’t talk about the fact the fill light should be ½ stop brighter. The director doesn’t have time to micromanage the DP and doesn’t want to.

Obviously we in vfx don’t always have this flexibility and freedom. We frequently have to add multiple images into one final shot where any mismatch will be more obvious than in a simple cut. We almost always have multiple constraints to deal with. But we can start thinking more creatively and can be more open to taking advantage of freedoms where we can and at times making more freedom for ourselves.

Even things like roto and rig removal take a developed eye to efficiently create a high quality image. Roto has to match but exactly how it’s built and where the key frames are do provide some individual freedom. MatchMoving doesn’t tend to lend itself to much flexibility but many positions in vfx do. And in those positions when there is creative room to move, vfx workers should try to make the most of it.

Here’s an example related to animation:
On one project I worked on the director spoke to the animators as he would actors. What was the motivation, what was the feeling, etc. I thought the animators would be happy to be given the freedom to create the character in that moment. But a number were unhappy because they weren’t given specifics such as how to move the head or the timing of the action. There was also the concern of trying to accomplish it in as few takes as possible. Any artistic attempt may require multiple attempts to get right.

On a live action shoot there are normally several takes with the actors doing different variations of performance. The actor may volunteer to do a couple of alternate takes to make sure they’ve nailed it. The director is able to see them relatively quickly and make adjustments and select the one that works the best. With vfx each take can take days, especially if the director is unable to view a rough version and requires it to be fully rendered with fur or other time consuming render processes. The limited time provided by the studios can mean there isn’t enough time to do many takes for creative reasons. And at times a director may become fixated on some other aspect of the scene and want to spend time on that rather than what may be most important in context.

On another project the director had come from an animation background and so insisted on micromanaging the performance to the point of telling the animators where to place a foot and at what frame. And of course the animators weren’t happy with this approach either.

I recommend to all animators to take acting and improv classes. Have a mirror next to your monitor to check facial expressions, just like Disney animators did in the old days. Take advantage of video cameras to explore character movement and emotion.

This example has been regarding animation but I see similar types of things come up in composting, technical directing, texture painting and even in supervision.

We in vfx want to see a little more recognition and respect for what we bring to projects. My suggestion is that starts with all of us respecting our own craft and making sure we bring our full game to the creative aspects. All supervisors (of all types) and all leads should try to avoid micromanaging their team and allow their team members the chance to bring at least nuances to the shots. (More when possible). Vfx artists need to be ready to take the shot to the next level.

We should avoid a workflow that requires each aspect of each shot to go through 5 levels of approval. We should try to streamline the approval of the shot to the director. We should explore options to help communicate with the director faster and more efficiently before we spend weeks going through a full render with fine tuning. When I work on a project I’m typically doing a lot of mockups, even while shooting, so the director and editor along with the DP can start to see what’s working.

Rather than being technical cogs in the machine that relies on the director to fixate on every detail we should make sure we’re in full creative collaboration with the director. And that requires trust. The supervisor and their team have to get up to speed as quickly as possible to understand what the director is going for. Any works in progress have to be shown to the director with a clear communication for what is being addressed. Constantly showing shots for final that aren’t is a quick way to lose that trust.

The director should be able to talk to the vfx team as they do their DP. They should be able to talk about the mood they’re going for in a sequence. They should be able to talk about the CG character or creature as if it were an actor. It’s up to us to be able to deal with much of the technical aspects behind the scenes and avoid getting the director caught up in it.

This has been done on some films but it’s not always possible. Much depends on the project, director and the time available. But we should strive for this when possible to make a better product and to allow all of us to enjoy the process more.

Related links:
Designing VFX
What makes a good vfx artist
Photo real and realism in vfx

[Update: There was a video posted that analyzes the sets in The Shining and how things were changed or kept changing.  John August does a reality check on it. Directors and the filmmaking process aren't locked to reality and many times the changes may be for practical reasons or simply because it looks better.]

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