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April 03
2018

ISSUE

Spring 2018

Effects Pros Pivot from VFX to Directing

By IAN FAILES

Over the years, several high profile directors have started out in visual effects, including James Cameron, David Fincher and Neill Blomkamp. A number of well-established visual effects supervisors have also transitioned to directing, including Stefen Fangmeier (Eragon), Eric Brevig (Journey to the Center of the EarthYogi Bear) and Hoyt Yeatman (G-Force).

Of course, VFX artists and supervisors tend to be wellplaced to break into directing, with intimate knowledge of the production process and often having to be on top of story development, live-action shooting and post-production. It is perhaps now a career choice even more accessible thanks partly to the wider availability of digital camera systems and filmmaking software.

VFX Voice spoke to three visual effects artists, Hasraf Dulull, Victor Perez and Miguel Ortega, who are in the early stages of pivoting from visual effects into the world of directing, about their journeys.

Director Hasraf Dulull on the set of his film, The Beyond.

HASRAF DULULL

Starting out in video game cinematics, before moving into compositing and then visual effects supervision and producing in London, Hasraf “Haz” Dulull says his time in VFX has been his ‘film school’. Now he has several indie shorts and features behind him, beginning with his 2013 short Project Kronos and more recently the feature The Beyond.

Project Kronos scored well online and landed the filmmaker a manager in Hollywood. Although some writing gigs followed for Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, Dulull still needed to support himself with continued VFX work while pitching projects. “What I quickly learned was that it doesn’t matter how many short films you make or how many awards you win, you are still a first-time director when pitching for your debut feature film,” he says.

A scene from The Beyond. The film tells the story of a group of astronauts, modified with advanced robotics, who travel through a newly discovered wormhole.

That spurred Dulull on to self-fund The Beyond, calling on frequent past collaborators to help. He also relied on technical knowledge to acquire suitable equipment, with assistance from Blackmagic and Adobe. Ultimately, a private investor, impressed with what Dulull had produced, gave additional funds. The film was picked up for worldwide distribution by Gravitas Ventures and was released in January.

During production on The Beyond and a second feature, Origin Unknown, Dulull counted his effects experience as helping him get the best out of VFX from a limited budget. He also took advantage of previs and VFX shortcuts to plan things out.

“On both films I used VFX to quickly visualize shot compositions for the actors to know what was going on, I would do those on my laptop using Photoshop and sometimes Maya to help block out scenes so that when I do the walk through in the morning on set I had my laptop and played back the ideas to the DP and crew and also to the actor – which served to be very helpful on a tight shoot where everyone needs to be on the same page.”

During shooting of The Beyond, astronaut actors wore simple suits with tracking markers that would be replaced with CG elements.

“The big advice I would give anyone looking to make their first film is to surround yourself with the best possible people you can get, and on top of that listen to them. Throw your ego out of the window, as every decision made or action taken on every step of the film is for one motive only – to serve the film, nothing else.”

—Hasraf “Haz” Dulull

“The other hat I was wearing was the producer hat,” adds Dulull, “and one thing I had to embrace was the sheer amount of paperwork!”

Dulull has now been signed to a talent agency, APA, and set up his own production company, Haz Film, to tackle film and TV projects. The director believes any VFX artist can embark on the same dream.

“The big advice I would give anyone looking to make their first film is to surround yourself with the best possible people you can get, and on top of that listen to them. Throw your ego out of the window, as every decision made or action taken on every step of the film is for one motive only – to serve the film, nothing else.”

Echo director Victor Perez, left, on the motion-control greenscreen set.

VICTOR PEREZ

Also with several years of visual effects compositing and supervision experience is new director Victor Perez. His film credits include The Dark Knight Rises, Rogue One, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and 127 Hours. Perez is also well known for his work with The Foundry’s NUKE.

He recently branched out to directing with the short Echo, an experimental film about a girl who awakes in an undetermined location and who sees her mirrored reflection 10 seconds ahead of her own time. It’s a film where, says Perez, prior visual effects knowledge was always going to be key.

“For Echo, the process of post-production was a killer: 11,738 frames, 3K resolution, all-over greenscreen with full CG environments, no motion blur because of a limitation of the tech (so I had to create the motion blur of the plates using third-parties’ software), creating a synthetic mirror reflection with a synchronized set of motion-control rigs – never attempted before – all done in the ‘free’ time of me and my friends.”

Perez was able to capitalize on a pre-existing relationship with motion-control specialists Stiller Studios in Sweden in order to direct his short film, Echo.

“Delegate, don’t allow the project to overwhelm you because you are a controlling maniac. Delegate in others, others of your trust; that is a dangerous leap of faith. How can you trust someone if you don’t know him or her?”

—Victor Perez

Live action for Echo was filmed in one day, actually a 22-hour stretch at Stiller Studios in Sweden, a specialist motioncontrol studio. With his prior VFX experience, Perez says he considered himself very well prepared to handle the shoot, but it was still incredibly challenging. “As it’s a pioneering technology every time we found an issue we had to think how to solve it on the fly, without the possibility of asking anybody.”

What greatly benefited Perez and his team during the shootwas a past knowledge from on-set supervision and post work. He brought those lessons directly into production. One of the big ones was ‘don’t fix it in post’. “When you are on set, time is precious so you tend to be in a trance state of rush, and as a VFX artist you could oversimplify your own job and think that doing certain tasks in post could be easier than doing them in the moment as you have no time to waste, but sometimes spending one minute on set could save a huge amount of hours in post.”

“Also, with Echo I learned another lesson: you cannot get everything under control, no matter who you are, your experience or involvement in the project, even if you are paying the bills. Delegate, don’t allow the project to overwhelm you because you are a controlling maniac. Delegate in others, others of your trust; at the same time, that is a dangerous leap of faith. How can you trust someone if you don’t know him or her?”

The Ningyo director Miguel Ortega describes his short film as a “26-minute Faustian tale about Cryptozoology.”

Pursuing a career in directing can involve significant sacrifice. Miguel Ortega, and his partner Tran Ma, know that more than most. The visual effects artists, who had worked at studios such as Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks, embarked on their own short film, The Ningyo, with little funding but a lot of determination. Along the way, they would be filming key scenes in their own modified house for months, crowdfunding extra resources, and then working on the VFX themselves, along with many helpful associates.

The result was a four-year journey that resulted in a compelling story – about the search for the elusive mythical Ningyo creature – and a proof of concept for a feature film or even television series. Ortega directed his actors sometimes in the living room or on a stairway, almost any way he could knowing that he and his collaborators had the VFX wherewithal to extend environments and add the necessary CG creatures in the film.

This step-by-step breakdown reveals the design, shooting and postproduction work required for an establishing shot in The Ningyo.

One of the CG creatures designed and built for The Ningyo.

“VFX allowed me to know what I could cheat and what I couldn’t,” says Ortega. “We only built what was absolutely needed. I actually wish we would have built less in some areas. I recommend people watch the making-of video we created because it really shows how we used every inch of our house as a set. None of this would work without VFX. The experienced actors were terrified, I will say, seeing our cheap set-ups.”

Ortega had not had directorial experience before, but he drew on the support of filmmaking friends and his VFX history to get shots done. Nevertheless, he admits it was a major learning curve.

“The biggest problem was that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing! This was our first time dealing with dialogue, ensemble cast, even model T cars. Even on a VFX level we had never done an 80-person all-CG room with cloth simulations and hair. The other big problem was of course just financial. We didn’t work for three-plus years; our savings were completely drained.”

But Ortega did pull off the project, and has regularly wowed audiences in presentations about the short by revealing the innovative shooting techniques and the extensive visual effects work. And although Ortega does say “there isn’t a day when I don’t sit and wonder if I’m on my way to being a total failure,” he has been in regular discussions with interested parties about The Ningyo and possible future films.

Wes Ball: From VFX Newcomer to Major Film Director

Ball’s RUIN short, a CG-animated race through a post-apocalyptic landscape, quickly caught the attention of studios and fans alike. (Image courtesy of Wes Ball)

One director who has successfully made the transition from visual effects and animation to major feature films is Wes Ball, now with three VFX-heavy movies under his belt in the Maze Runner trilogy, based on the James Dashner novels.

Ball gained attention with his fully CG-animated short RUIN, set in a post-apocalyptic universe. Twentieth Century Fox then brought the director on board to helm the first Maze Runner film in 2014. The third movie in the trilogy, The Death Cure, released in February. Ball discussed his experience moving from indie VFX and animation to large-scale features.

VFX Voice: What was your first film, VFX or animation project ever?

Wes Ball: I guess, technically, it was a little short in high school I did with friends called The Bot. I know, super-creative title. It involved a student alone in high school hallways being chased by a mysterious flying robot. Nothing much happened, but it was my first attempt at marrying CG animation into a video plate. I used Lightwave 3D when it had just become a standalone application from its Video Toaster days. Fun stuff. My first animation project was a short called A Work in Progress. This was my thesis film in film school. It was my first attempt at full CG filmmaking. It can be found on YouTube for anyone interested.

VFX Voice: How did RUIN help you in terms of learning about creating worlds, directing and pitching projects?

Ball: RUIN was a pretty big deal for me. It basically launched my career. It came from the culmination of several previous short films and VFX projects and pitching other movies around that time. I had a very broad sense of a big story that RUIN came from; I just attempted to bite off a small piece from the opening of that story.

It definitely helped show people I knew how to move a camera and make something exciting to watch. And it certainly helped having a much larger story for RUIN when I wound up in various producer and studio offices around town. But I should say, I didn’t originally intend RUIN to be a short to ‘pitch’ or ‘sell’. I genuinely just wanted to make something and get it out of my head. I figured something good may come out of it, but I never dreamed it would be the thing that ultimately gave me a shot at directing a studio movie.

A scene from Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure, the final film in the trilogy. The film’s lead visual effects vendor is Weta Digital. (Image copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.)

Director Wes Ball on the set of The Maze Runner. (Image copyright © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.)

VFX Voice: What things do you feel you learned in VFX and animation that helped you when you started taking on The Maze Runner, and into the other films?

Ball: It was probably just a sense of how VFX are generally pulled off. What the tricky parts are of making a shot work. I never wanted to just shoot something and let the ‘VFX guys’ figure it out. I tried to use what knowledge I had to set us up for good shots. Things like not taking roto for granted. Things like making any given shot count by not just spraying and praying with the camera. I tried to design the VFX aspects just as precisely as scene dialogue.

VFX Voice: Do you have time to still get on the box and do any VFX shots or designs on your movies?

Ball: I still try to get on the box for every film I’ve done since the first Maze Runner. I enjoy flexing those muscles, although I admit my skills have gotten pretty rusty compared to the artists that work on my movies now. But yeah, I’ve had a few – admittedly very simple shots on every movie I’ve directed so far. Hoping to keep that tradition alive as long I don’t ruin my own movie.

VFX Voice: What advice would you give to visual effects artists or animators who are looking to get into directing?

Ball: There’s no one way to get into directing. Don’t get caught up in the ‘step’ or how others have done it. If you want to direct, go do it. Make your own stuff and make people see you should be directing. Also, don’t let VFX drive your projects. Keep story and character in mind. It’s important. If you have the ability to do great VFX work, make sure that’s not what’s driving the project, make sure those skills are servicing some interesting concept or story or character. It’s easy to fall into that place of showing off to an audience instead of engaging and exciting them.


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