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April 03
2018

ISSUE

Spring 2018

Image Engine and the Art of the VFX Breakdown

By IAN FAILES

These frames from Image Engine’s breakdown for CG-animated film Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV showcase the character animation and destruction simulations for a fight sequence the studio completed.

A good visual effects breakdown video that breaks down how a shot or sequence was put together can easily go viral. But these making-of reels serve many other purposes as well. They are used for award submissions, in marketing for film, TV shows and home entertainment releases, and of course to promote the visual effects studios and artists behind the magic.

There’s an art to making a VFX breakdown that can go viral, or help win awards, and visual effects studios spend significant time combining the expertise from their production and marketing departments in developing the best showcase possible.

VFX Voice asked one studio, Image Engine in Vancouver, how their team approaches breakdowns. Crews from different areas of the company shared their process, with examples of making-of videos from Logan, Power Rangers, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV.

GETTING STARTED

The first decision to make in putting together a VFX breakdown is who to involve. At Image Engine, that is typically the visual effects supervisor, the visual effects executive producer, the marketing manager and the editorial department. But due to the nature of breakdowns – which often show the layers of elements that go into a shot – the compositing team and other departments can also be heavily involved.

“Many times these breakdowns require us to create additional assets and renderings from the existing source material and as such they can be a little mini-production unto themselves,” explains Image Engine Visual Effects Executive Producer Shawn Walsh.

Then it’s a matter of deciding what’s important about the work that needs to be showcased. “We consider that these reels are not only for the purposes of promotion, but also in order to recognize the hard work of our teams by submitting for awards season,” notes Walsh.

When we put together the breakdown reel for our work on the film, we really wanted to make it have the same high energy and ‘epic-ness’ of the shots,” says editor Jeremy Szostak.

“The breakdowns we made were a huge collaboration between the comp and editorial team,” notes Szostak. “Comp created thousands of layers for the editorial team to use for simpler 2D breakdowns. They then worked on the more complex 3D camera moves and animation for more complicated work.”

Adds Szostak: “One section in particular was a combination of both of these techniques, where we use a custom 3D camera to ‘travel’ between several different shots and sequences that we worked on, on each shot stopping to do a 2D or 3D breakdown and then continuously moving back into the custom camera which travels to the next shot.”

For this Power Rangers VFX breakdown, Image Engine sought to demonstrate the process involved in integrating their CG character, the robot assistant Alpha 5, into live-action scenes. (Power Rangers images copyright © 2017 Lions Gate Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.)

“I really wanted to tell the whole story and process involved so that everyone could understand the complexity of what we did. For me it’s not just looking at pretty pictures, it’s actually being able to understand the entire process behind them.”

—Martyn Culpitt, Visual Effects Supervisor, Image Engine

STORYTELLING ABOUT THE STORY

So how do you then choose what goes into a breakdown reel? It can be subjective, suggests Image Engine Visual Effects Supervisor Joao Sita, who also notes that even before a show is complete there is much consideration about whether a particular shot may go into a making-of.

“We start with a basic selection of the shots that represent the best work done or the shots in which we had a specific story point to tell,” he says. “Usually the VFX supervisor along with the department supervisors will browse through the shots and select them for promo, and from there we come up with an approach of how this will be put together.”

Telling a story with the breakdown is often a key goal. Image Engine Visual Effects Supervisor Martyn “Moose” Culpitt, who oversaw the studio’s digital double and other VFX work for Logan, put together the breakdowns for that film himself. “I really wanted to tell the whole story and process involved so that everyone could understand the complexity of what we did. For me it’s not just looking at pretty pictures, it’s actually being able to understand the entire process behind them.”

However, how much emphasis is placed on telling a story or just showcasing ‘cool’ shots can depend on who the breakdown reel is intended for, according to Sita. “If we are presenting a breakdown for future clients, you might show the whole process involved in the shot or sequence from concept to builds and so forth. This allows for a greater understanding of the process and how that process might affect their experience working with us.”

On the other hand, says Sita, “If it’s a presentation for a bigger audience in which you can simplify how you present the work, most of the time befores and afters are enough, along with some on-set type of information, such as how it was shot, camera type, and brushing in the whole process in a more superficial way.”

Part of Image Engine’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them breakdown, which showcases the bluescreen stage plates, in-progress shots, and the final CG creature renders and compositing. (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them images copyright © 2016 WBEI. Publishing Rights © J.K.R. All rights reserved.)

LOGISTICS, PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

On most Image Engine VFX breakdowns, the editorial department gets involved early – the department also deals with key logistical issues like simply finding the right footage and layers, and making creative decisions about whether any new or additional layers might be required to add extra storytelling elements to a reel.

That first part, finding material, can be time-consuming enough, especially collecting archived material or re-rendering elements, but it is more than often confounded by the dreaded issue of studio permissions. Reels regularly need to be shown to the original filmmakers and/or film distributors before finalization. Music is also an incredibly important part of a VFX breakdown. It can often define the beats and rhythm of the reel, but of course requires clearances. According to Image Engine’s team, it’s best to know what might come up later and deal with it in the present.

“At times the logistical aspects of demo reels can seem overwhelming,” admits Walsh. “From security approvals, to whether or not we are able to show an actor’s face, to whether our breakdown is illustrative of the overall marketing campaign for the film – we can face many delays for exclusions of material that we would otherwise like to use. Over the years we’ve gotten savvy about getting to know who at the studio will ultimately help us shepherd the approval process so that  we can capture the broadest amount of material from our work possible.”

WHAT TO INCLUDE, HOW TO INCLUDE IT

Collecting final shots, layers, b-roll, individual renders and all the other elements for a breakdown will hopefully be a matter of trawling through the material produced during a production. But for extra elements that form part of a breakdown reel, editorial at Image Engine tends to look to the compositing department. “The comp team will handle any breakdowns that require actual 3D work or delving into the actual scene files,” states Image Engine editor Jeremy Szostak.

“An example of this would be a breakdown in which we stop on a frame and the camera pulls away from a model and spins around giving us a 360-degree view of the work that was done for a shot. For simpler wipes the comp team will supply layers of a shot to the editorial team and they will build the breakdown in their NLE [non-linear editing].”

There are several ways that a typical shot might be shown being ‘made’ in a breakdown. Simple A over B wipes are common, as are re-times and freeze-frames to swap between layers (Walsh says Image Engine has typically relied on transitions that “don’t distract from the goal of the breakdown or aren’t totally out of keeping with the source material”).

“Sometimes wipes can become too repetitive and the breakdowns become boring regardless of the complexity of the layers that are being transitioned to,” details Image Engine editor Ted Proctor. “We try to use some variation whenever possible to make the breakdowns less repetitive. Picture-in-picture breakdowns and cutting to surrounding finals in context are just some of the ways that we try to keep the breakdowns more interesting.”

“Anything that helps the viewer to understand the process is valid and ultimately it comes down to the ‘how much time’ you can actually put on this before the company resources are allocated in different shows,” adds Sita. “Often times rendering additional elements, turntables, additional camera moves help with the dynamic of the reel as well as keeping it visually interesting.”

A common goal among the Image Engine team is making sure the result is comprehensible. Visual effects can be complex and can sometimes involve fast-moving cameras. Slowing the action down and pin-pointing a key moment can help the viewer understand both the shot and how it was made.

“For a very dynamic shot with a lot of movement or animation happening,” explains Szostak, “you usually want to freeze on a frame and then do your breakdown on a frozen image. In contrast, if the shot is a locked off camera and a large wide of a big environment, it might work better to just let the shot play out in real-time and have the wipes happen simultaneously.”

“At times the logistical aspects of demo reels can seem overwhelming. From security approvals, to whether or not we are able to show an actor’s face, to whether our breakdown is illustrative of the overall marketing campaign for the film – we can face many delays for exclusions of material that we would otherwise like to use.”

—Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer, Image Engine

TOOLS AND TRICKS OF THE TRADE

The tools Image Engine uses to actually put the breakdowns together differs. Editorial relies on familiar non-linear editing programs, with NUKE and Maya used for compositing and generating any extra 3D elements. Culpitt notes that the most complex breakdowns remain mainly in NUKE.

“For Logan, for example,” says Culpitt, “we had one big breakdown that I actually did all the editing in NUKE myself and then rendered one long clip for editorial to add music to. That specific breakdown took a few weeks to create, as I had to source many different pieces from the show and even get the crew to render new passes for me.”

Ultimately, a VFX breakdown needs to sum up the spectacle of a particular shot, or surprise the viewer by perhaps revealing how much of a shot involved visual effects. It’s often more than people realize.

“First and foremost, a breakdown’s most important purpose is to show the extent of the work that was done on a shot,” asserts Szostak. “Once that is fully achieved, then we start to think about how to build the edit of the actual breakdown reel, which continues to forward this goal while also being enjoyable to watch.”

Visual effects breakdown videos discussed in this article can be seen on Image Engine’s Vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/imageengine

Stepping Through a Logan Breakdown Scene

For one action scene in Logan, a stunt double played the title character during filming and then was replaced with a photoreal digital Hugh Jackman, his head created by Image Engine.

“When we created the breakdowns for Logan our goal was simply to show the extent to which our team went towards creating a completely believable digital Hugh Jackman,” outlines Image Engine’s Shawn Walsh. “It was important to us that anyone viewing the breakdowns had a sense for the pore-level detail that we put into the asset.”

Here’s a look at some example frames from the limo sequence part of Image Engine’s breakdown:

Plate: The original photography featuring the stunt performer wearing a few tracking markers.

Clean plate: Parts of the plate around the head are painted to deal with the movement of the CG head during the shot.

CG elements: Image Engine’s gray-shaded Hugh Jackman head, which also included simulated hair.

Lighting pass: The render pass out of Solid Angle’s Arnold showcased the use of sub-surface scattering for Hugh Jackman’s skin.

Final composite: The final composited frame with added motion blur. In the breakdown, each of these frames wiped down in turn. This part of the reel also included run-throughs of the shot (forward and in reverse), and a quick side-by-side comparison of the before and after of the driving shot.


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