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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

AHEAD IN VFX: PATTERNS, POSSIBILITIES AND PREDICTIONS

By IAN FAILES

Things move quickly in visual effects. An appetite for imagery that has never been seen before, coupled with fast-moving technological advancements and changing global settings for entertainment production, means it can be hard to predict what might happen in VFX.

But we can look to recent developments, say in digital humans on screen, or the rise of real-time and VR, to think about future developments. Here’s a look at what might be some of the main visual effects issues coming up.

DIGITAL ACTORS ARE READY FOR THEIR CLOSE-UP, WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT

The prospect of a fully photoreal digital actor gracing our screens has been simmering along for several years now. But the appearance of the CG likeness of the deceased Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin and a young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story recently re-stirred the debate.

What debate? Well, it’s multi-tiered. First there are the legal and ethical considerations about whether a dead (or alive) actor should be brought to life in a digital role in the first place. Would that actor want to have appeared in another film, a TV commercial, a game? Ultimately, that might be something that is solved purely in a legal way, such as via a contract or estate permissions.

Then there are the technological issues. It can be done. We are at the stage where CG modeling, facial and body scanning, the capturing of performances, animating digital actors and rendering them can be done incredibly convincingly. It’s already commonplace for digital double and stunt work, and characters such as Tarkin, Leia, and others (notably the digital Paul Walker seen in Furious 7 and the young Sir Anthony Hopkins in Westworld) are evidence that the phenomenon is already with us as a filmmaking technique.

The digital Governor Tarkin in Rogue One

The digital Governor Tarkin in Rogue One, made via a combination of real actor Guy Henry, reference from now-deceased Tarkin performer Peter Cushing, and visual effects by ILM. (Photo credit: Lucasfilm/Industrial Light & Magic. (Photo credit: Copyright © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.)


The LEGO Batman Movie

A still from The LEGO Batman Movie. Animal Logic has diversified from a visual effects studio into animated features, including several LEGO films, and has its own production slate, too. (Photo credit: Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC.)

If filmmakers are crafting scenes that require digital humans, then digital humans will exist. So the question might not be, are CG actors ready for their close-up, but instead, how good will their close-up look? And the audience will always be the judge of that, even if the future of digital humans is already here.

But are these digital actors convincing enough, and should it be used in the first place? Have we brought CG humans out of the Uncanny Valley? Remember, making a digital actor is hard and requires a ton of nuance, technology and perhaps luck. And do we even need to replace actors – even dead ones – just because we (almost) can?

In the end, none of this debate might matter. If filmmakers are crafting scenes that require digital humans, then digital humans will exist. So the question might not be, are CG actors ready for their close-up, but instead, how good will their close-up look? And the audience will always be the judge of that, even if the future of digital humans is already here.

MAKE YOUR OWN IP (OR PERISH?)

Visual effects is a service industry, and that’s great when there is constant work available for visual effects studios. But with the advent of global competition in VFX, differentiating subsidies, fixed bids and the ebb and flow of work in the entertainment industry, it can be hard to predict just how much work – and therefore income – will be coming in.

One way studios have already tried to turn this around is to, instead of being the service provider, become the content creator. That can involve owning the IP itself and finding production partners, or simply diversifying into different areas of production. The idea is to capitalize on well-developed creative, artistry, and technical pipelines inside VFX studios so that they can create their own films, TV shows and other entertainment. It’s a way of keeping their own staff busy, too.

Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon required extensive digital sets, complicated greenscreen shoots, motion capture and CG imagery to become a theme park ride at Universal Orlando.

Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
required extensive digital sets, complicated greenscreen
shoots, motion capture and CG imagery to become a theme
park ride at Universal Orlando. (Photo credit: © 2016
Universal Orlando Resort. All Rights Reserved.)

Framestore VR Studio delivered a tie-in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them VR experience for Google Daydream. (Photo credit: Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.)

Framestore VR Studio delivered a tie-in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them VR experience for Google Daydream. (Photo credit: Copyright: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.)

Making content is expensive – and risky. There’s no guarantee of a ‘knock it out of the park’ hit. But visual effects studios are well poised to make these moves – especially in terms of offering their creative expertise on design and tech. They also often have an established infrastructure and already interact with filmmakers and production-side contacts constantly.

Look out for a push behind their own content ideas for years to come.

Some studios are, of course, doing this right now, in places like animated features and VR. Animal Logic, historically a visual effects studio that has segued also into animated features, now has several features on its development slate, including the live-action/CG-hybrid Peter Rabbit. Then there’s Stuttgart-based LUXX Studios which is putting its toe in the water of animated features with Manou the Swift. Cinesite and Double Negative now have animated features divisions. And several visual effects studios, for example Luma Pictures, have production arms that aren’t even necessarily for VFX-centric forms of entertainment.

The catch? Making content is expensive – and risky. There’s no guarantee of a ‘knock it out of the park’ hit. But visual effects studios are well poised to make these moves – especially in terms of offering their creative expertise on design and tech. They also often have an established infrastructure and already interact with filmmakers and production-side contacts constantly. Look out for a push behind their own content ideas for years to come.

A still from Ninja Theory’s upcoming Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice video game.

A still from Ninja Theory’s upcoming Hellblade:
Senua’s Sacrifice video game. (Photo credit:
Copyright © 2016 Ninja Theory Ltd.)

Michael Bay and crew during filming of Transformers: The Last Knight.

Michael Bay and crew during filming of Transformers: The Last Knight. (Photo credit: Andrew Cooper. Copyright © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

VFX EXPANDS ITS HORIZONS

We might traditionally think of visual effects being made mostly for film and television. That’s still the case, with TV enjoying a current explosion in cinematic-like VFX production. But there are other places where visual effects artists can be – and have been – lending their services.

Virtual and augmented reality experiences are the most talked about current opportunities. Partly, that’s because billions of dollars are being spent on this nascent medium by large companies like Facebook, HTC, Samsung, Sony and Google, which need content. With a history of shooting elements, stitching, locking CG images to plates, producing 360-degree environments and working with stereo imagery, it’s clear that visual effects artists are well-suited to working in VR and AR.

Studios like Framestore, MPC, Digital Domain, ILM and Mirada are well into the making of VR, 360-degree video and immersive experiences. To be fair, right now this content is a mix of original entertainment and promo material or commercials. Still, several studios are able to take advantage of assets they’ve already helped create for a feature film or TV project.

The Coke Mini commercial pushed the VFX envelope.

The Coke Mini commercial pushed the VFX envelope. (Photo credit: Copyright © 2016 The Coca-Cola Co./Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

Framestore delivered a Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tie-in, for example, and other VR experiences have been announced by the studios behind 2017 releases War for the Planet of the Apes and Alien: Covenant. There’s been a clear, dramatic upsurge in TV shows with cinematic production values. The attraction of working on the newest kinds of entertainment is surely an engaging factor.

Video games are another area where VFX skills can be interchangeable. The film and gaming industries tend to require understanding of similar technologies and artistry – design, 3D modeling, programming, animation, effects simulation, motion capture and rendering. Then there are opportunities for the creation of game cinematics and a wave of real-time rendered experiences coming on-board, again areas in which VFX artists and studios can offer their skills.

The possibilities are evidenced in games studio Ninja Theory’s Hellblade demos of late, which combine the facial animation, game engine, motion capture and rendering abilities of 3Lateral Studio, Cubic Motion Ltd., Xsens and Epic Games Inc. to capture an actress in real-time and render her, also in real-time, as a photorealistic CG character.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of Disney animated films, new Star Wars movies, Avatar sequels and other blockbusters is spurring on associated theme park rides. Witness Pandora – World of Avatar currently under construction in Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, the planned ‘Star Wars’ Land at two Disney locations, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon at Universal Orlando Resort, and the already in existence Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Fast and Furious – Supercharged experiences.

Virtual and augmented reality experiences are the most talked about current opportunities. Partly, that’s because billions of dollars are being spent on this nascent medium by large companies like Facebook, HTC, Samsung, Sony and Google, which need content.

Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast. (Photo credit: Copyright © 2016 Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

These attractions are realized with a mix of greenscreen shoots, motion capture, high level animation and compositing and often have very specific screen and immersion requirements, something VFX artists are again well suited for.

A CHANGE IN THE CONVERSATION

We all know that just about all of the blockbusters released at the cineplex contain heavy amounts of visual effects. Even smaller films often have more VFX in them than people realize (just look at films like Arrival, Silence, Allied, Deepwater Horizon and Sully released last year). Indeed, all these films – big and small – would not be able to tell the stories they do without visual effects.

But sometimes the strong presence of computer-generated imagery or over-the-top stunts and action can be considered a turn-off for audiences. Comments like ‘too much CGI’ are occasionally bandied around, while others pine for the days of practical creature effects, animatronics and miniatures. Perhaps that’s why both filmmakers and film marketers have been pushing the practical side of production in recent times.

The recent Star Wars releases, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, pushed heavily on the practical creature creations and the real sets built for the film (this was all true, and didn’t mean the VFX were ignored, but the message was about how much was delivered practically). Likewise, the early marketing and imagery for Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight releasing this year is high on the practical stunts.

What’s clear is that the practical side of filmmaking is being talked up more than ever before.


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