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.


  1. I'm a SCAD visual effects student and this reminds me of a presentation Framestore New York did last week. They were showing all the steps in making the Geiko Gecko work from the t-posed model to rig demonstration. At the end of that demo he said "We would love to say we made it for you guys, but really it was to show the company why we couldn't just change the model after the shot had been animated."

    I never knew that you faked CG graphics long before computers could actually make them. This may be the best fun fact I have heard all week.

  2. Scott, many thanks for the post, totally support and agree on what you wrote. Question is, what do you think could be the practical steps for changing this situation.

  3. For large effects driven films it might be better to have the VFX studio lead creatively.

  4. Changing the situation - That's one of the things the VES is hoping to help with. The idea is to try to encourage 'journalists' (and I use that term loosely) to cover the real story and not get side tracked with the razzle dazzle of computers. All of us working in visual effects have to be careful how we talk and present work outside our industry.

    Hopefully we can start making inroads with filmmakers and studios. They don't have to know the details (and they shouldn't be required to) nor do they have to stop making any changes. But it would be good if they had a sense of the cost and time involved so they could consider changes just as they do on a set. The supervisor and vfx producer can communicate this if the client is listening. And as on a set they also have to consider moving forward and accomplishing what needs to be done in the time provided. A similar discipline needs to exist in post.

    VFX studio lead creatively - Will never happen and probably shouldn't since filmmaking should be a collaborative art and the whole has to be kept in mind.

    The ideal situation is where an experienced visual effects supervisor can work as a full creative key with the director (just as the Director of Photography and production Designer do currently). And for the director to be as open to recommendations and suggestions as they are with the other creatives. The director and studio should not be focused on the pixel level, that's of no value to anyone. Clear communication with the aid of concept art, storyboards and previs, sufficient time to do the work and timely decision making goes a long way to improve the quality of the work and decrease the time and cost involved.

  5. And that shows just how out of touch some of the hardware and software vendors are.

    know this was a PR stunt but it still ends up demeaning visual effects artists. Will we be seeing ads where they show a high res camera as the director of the movie? Will the latest MacBook Air get congratulated on writing an award winning script? I think not.

  6. Hi Scott, I just wanted to say that I just watched your demo reel. It was great!

    And very good points in this article/blog post.

  7. @Sam: Oh my god, thats a slap in the face from HP to every vfx artist out there. Very sad.



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