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July 09
2017

ISSUE

Summer 2017

VFX SUPERVISORS AT THE INTERSECTION OF TECHNOLOGY AND CHARACTER

By MICHAEL GOLDMAN

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Photo copyright © 2016 EuropaCorp, Valerian SAS – TF1 Films Production. All Rights Reserved.)

If there is one thing notable about the orgy of tent pole, visual effects-driven motion pictures battling for eyeballs during the summer of 2017, it’s the fact that the glut of so many “big movies” with huge, impressive digital shot counts over a summer release season is no longer a big deal – it is expected.

From photoreal animals who serve as lead characters in War for the Planet of the Apes to superheroes and villains doing battle in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman, to spacescapes and creatures in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to murderous aliens in Alien: Covenant to another giant robot battle in Transformers: The Last Knight, the return of an ancient evil, back from the dead in yet another incarnation in The Mummy, and a whole lot more, audiences can count on groundbreaking, photo- real, and highly entertaining work this summer.

The industry’s top visual effects supervisors, of course, are responsible for making sure that is the outcome, and for them, the pressure never ceases – each job has to end with the same, or greater, success than the last. The responsibilities have never been more complex, the consequences never greater, but at the same time, the creative possibilities for what they are able to execute, if their collaboration with filmmakers and facilities goes right, have never been more tantalizing.

VFX Voice recently caught up with a group of well-known visual effects supervisors involved with some of the major films originally slated to come out in the summer of 2017, and asked them to discuss various industry issues that please and vex them, sometimes simultaneously, as illustrated by their current or recent projects. Each supervisor highlighted different trends, themes, issues, or developments – both technical and human in nature – that they are passionate about. Following is a summary of their most compelling comments:

UNENDING RACE AGAINST TIME

Jerome Chen, Visual Effects Supervisor Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Once I sign on to supervise a studio tent pole summer release, I am racing against time. It begins when I open an encrypted script sent by a studio and ends about 16 months later. There are many stages in this race, requiring resources akin to a high-stakes competitive racing event, an endeavor that needs great experience, instinct, money and luck. Determining whether I ‘win’ is subjective. It’s clear that the work needs to look as good as everything else coming out this summer, irrespective of how much time or money has been given to me.

“There is definitely a [recent] trend – the numbers indicating budget and  post  length  are  going in the wrong direction lately: down. But numbers of shots are about the same, and image quality is always expected to be summer-worthy.”

— Jerome Chen, Visual Effects Supervisor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

The script analysis process requires multiple reads. My first pass will be as a viewer, without much consideration for the VFX work. This helps me understand the story and creates context for the work. My next reads will skim for VFX-centric sentences like “the helicopter races down the canyon” or “a herd of Rhinos attacks.”

Long huddles in the war room with my VFX producer are required to sketch the shape of our plan to accomplish the work. Parameters are identified. Some are fixed – namely the VFX budget, the length of our post period, and our delivery date. There is definitely a (recent) trend – the numbers indicating budget and post length are going in the wrong direction lately: down. But numbers of shots are about the same, and image quality is always expected to be summer-worthy.

We might as well bring out a dartboard and crystal ball to determine the two most important variables for our budget: how many VFX shots there are, and what assets need to be built. I have my version of the movie in my head after reading the script a half-dozen times, and I try to mind-meld with the director (Jake Kasden) to make sure I have something close to what he and the studio envision.

A short-term deadline looms, the first one in our race, and multi-faceted: filmmakers and studio want to see and bless our plan. We also need to form alliances with crucial partners – VFX facilities that will be awarded the work. This will spell success or failure in the execution of our plan. I need to get in the lineup before the bandwidth of the best facilities fills up from other tent pole projects. This movie can only afford two anchor facilities. Typically, I like three to support my show, but we end up picking great partners in Montreal and Melbourne. The studio blesses our plan, and we finally go to Hawaii to commence principal photography.

Then, toward the end of the shoot, I read in the trades that my movie is being moved from a summer release to Christmas. My first reaction is relief. My race is always against time, and now I have more time to get it right.

But then I think about it. That’s a lot more time. Like maybe another 16 weeks.

“It is also critical to understand that one of the biggest reasons the bar continues to rise each year  is  because  of  the  artists and craftspeople actually doing the work. They are so passionate and dedicated, and keep learning new things, up-skilling, and pushing the envelope of what is considered state-of-the-art visual effects.”

— Dan Lemmon, Visual Effects Supervisor, War for the Planet of the Apes

We had a great plan to pull off the original goal, and now they have the nerve to give us more time? More time means more notes and iterations. But it turns out they do not really want us around for all that time. They extend by maybe a couple more weeks. The movie will sit on a virtual shelf for a few months before its release.

Editor’s Note: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was originally scheduled for a summer 2017 release before recently moving to a Christmas debut.

ACCEPT THE SCIENCE, UNLEASH THE ARTIST

Charley Henley, Visual Effects Supervisor, Alien: Covenant

We’ve always had the VFX challenge of re-creating a realistic, photographic look. From how materials respond to light to the dynamics of hair in water to the movement of cloth, advancements in technology, software, and the increase in computing power have played a large hand in keeping the quality of VFX work ahead of audience expectations.

We used to spend a lot of man-hours and creative skill in order to balance the CG world with the real one. It was the job of the artist to fake the photographic look. But advancements in lighting, such as ray tracing becoming workable on a film scale, and improvements in simulating the dynamic physics of the natural world, from water flow to cloth simulations, mean the science in software can now do much of this work. This allows companies to be more efficient, and artists and supervisors to concentrate on the creative potential of working in a CG world.

For some of this, artists had to unlearn old techniques and allow the science in the software to take over.

“The dance between creative demands that push technology forward and advancements in technology, which allow creative visions to grow, is what keeps the industry moving forward.”

— Charley Henley, Visual Effects Supervisor, Alien: Covenant

Creatively, for some, this can feel like a loss of control – some old skills aren’t needed, like an old manufacturing trade giving way to machine manufacturing.

However, this progress allows filmmakers and VFX artists to push the boundaries of how we can imagine images, to further the story and expand the communication language of film. The dance between creative demands that push technology forward and advancements in technology, which allow creative visions to grow, is what keeps the industry moving forward.

Alien: Covenant. (photo copyright © 2017 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.)

For example, when we were working with the lighting and compositing teams at MPC for The Jungle Book [2016], we had the challenge of matching the CG environment to the look of the footage, as well as making CG animals feel photoreal. We decided to invest fully in Pixar Renderman’s latest ray-tracing capabilities, which were very computationally heavy, but gave us the best chance of recreating natural-looking light. So we started by designing the scenes and the lighting setups quite creatively, manipulating the high dynamic range imagery (HDRI) to geta result we thought aesthetic to the film, but it never looked real. Therefore, we finally gave in to the science of the software. Our creatures and environments were look-developed under a set of natural light HDRIs, ranging from overcast to sunny. By using these very clean setups for our scenes, we played to the renderer’s programing with a delicate hand, and the results were stunning. In compositing for that kind of work, the trick was to not overwork the renders.

Looking to the future of VFX, I would imagine the crossover from game and virtual reality technology to film would play a part. More scenes may become fully CG as the cost of building CG sets becomes less than practical counterparts in many cases. Virtual production using game-engine technology may become the norm and, eventually, final renders will become achievable through the game engine, allowing real-time shooting of CG scenes. This could eventually put VFX production closer in time scale to a practical shoot.

APE-BUILDING EVOLVES IN LESS THAN A DECADE

Dan Lemmon, Visual Effects Supervisor, War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes represents a big step forward for WETA Digital, not just technologically, but also in terms of the maturation  of our craft.

On the technical side, it’s the first film in the Apes franchise to fully embrace our Manuka ray-tracing pipeline. It is hard to overstate the significance of switching from a spherical harmonics lighting pipeline to a full ray tracer, especially for furry characters. Our lighting artists previously had to spend their energy wrangling pre-cached passes and dialing bias values and other parameters that only roughly approximated the way light really moves through an environment. Now, they are able to spend that energy making creative decisions on a larger number of shots that already look much more realistic out of the gate.

“There have been a number of hardware and software improvements over the last 20 years in VFX, but  what is even more phenomenal is the growth in the availability of amazing VFX talent that has evolved in that same time period. The accumulated human knowledge and skills of thousands of people are what have really led to the spread of the sophisticated VFX you see everywhere on (major  projects) today.”

— Scott Stokdyk, Visual Effects Supervisor, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Our shading and texturing artists are able to focus on adding more realistic makeup and environmental effects – cuts, blood, mud, tears, snow, ice – that are modeled more closely on the real physics of those natural phenomenon, rather than crude approximations that break down under different lighting situations. We completely rewrote our hair-shading model between The Jungle Book and War for the Planet of the Apes to more accurately model the cuticle/medulla interface, and the result is more natural, with accurate glints and break-up in backlit setups.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Photo copyright © 2016 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.)

War for the Planet of the Apes is also the first film to use our new ecosystem modeling and simulation tool, called Totara. Totara creates forests and jungles as simulations where the seeds of different species are scattered across terrain and then compete for resources as they grow to maturity, reproduce, and eventually die. The result is pretty stunning in its realism and variation, and also in the render-efficiency of the environment it creates. Totara heavily leverages our instancing scheme, but at the branch level rather than the whole plant, which means you can still get lots of plant-to-plant variation while leveraging the efficiency of instancing.

It is also critical to understand that one of the biggest reasons the bar continues to rise each year is because of the artists and craftspeople actually doing the work. They are so passionate and dedicated, and keep learning new things, up-skilling, and pushing the envelope of what is considered state-of-the-art visual effects.

I could point to any number of sub-disciplines within VFX, but just to pick one near to my heart, it’s amazing to take a step back and look at how far character facial performance has come since we started making (Apes) films in 2010. On our first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we were coming off Avatar, where we had done a whole lot of facial animation, and it was still a struggle to make (lead character) Caesar perform in away that carried the same emotional intensity and subtlety that we saw in (actor) Andy Serkis’s performance. Seven years later, we’ve learned a ton, and with each new character we build, we have greater confidence about what is required to make the characters perform the way we need them to perform. All this loving detail pays off as rich, emotive characters that live and breathe on screen – characters that connect with the audience in away that carries a film and allows us to tell stories that might not have been possible even 10 years ago.

“Now that we’ve become accustomed to seeing high-end VFX everywhere,  I believe it makes just as much or even more sense to start spending time evaluating the quality of the artistry, and how well visual effects are used to tell a better story.”

—Bill  Westenhofer, Visual Effects Supervisor, Wonder Woman

VFX MATURE WHEN VFX PEOPLE MATURE

Scott Stokdyk, Visual Effects Supervisor, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

There have been a number of hardware and software improvements over the last 20 years in VFX, but what is even more phenomenal is the growth in the availability of amazing VFX talent that has evolved in that same time period. The accumulated human knowledge and skills of thousands of people are what have really led to the spread of the sophisticated VFX you see every- where on (major projects) today.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Photo copyright © 2016 EuropaCorp, Valerian SAS – TF1 Films Production. All Rights Reserved.)

As the effects industry transitioned in the 1990’s from being a primarily practical/optical industry into a largely digital industry, a lot of people in VFX at the time were young and just starting their careers. By 2017, that talent has developed, matured and honed best practices. Many hard-learned lessons have led to a collective rise in the quality of VFX. We see less inventing things from scratch now, not because it isn’t do-able when necessary, but rather because it isn’t as necessary anymore. Instead, we see more tweaking and reworking of existing methods. Indeed, it is exceptionally hard now to find something that does not have its roots in a previous VFX idea or method.

Almost 30 of the other digital artists who I worked with on [1997’s] The Fifth Element [directed by Luc Besson, who also helms Valerian] went on later to work as visual effects supervisors in some capacity. Of course, that doesn’t take into account all the other VFX talent that makes the work happen besides the artists – producers, software engineers, and so on.

Themyscira, home of the Amazons, in Wonder Woman. (Photo copyright © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)

This group spends thou- sands of hours of metaphorically beating their heads against the wall until we all find away to break through on different projects.

I think the result of this accumulated VFX intellectual capital is that contemporary VFX supervisors now spend less time hammering CG to look “real,” and focus more on higher-level issues like creative designs and concepts. It is not enough to deliver a believable emotional performance from a CG character anymore. Now, you have to do it in a fresh-looking, creative way. Maybe that involves combining interesting effects into character design, or injecting a different reference into the animation performance or any of an endless list of possibilities.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Photo copyright © 2016 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.)

When VFX pioneers like John Dykstra combined computers and cameras to create motion-control systems, it took a higher- level view of the creative aspect of VFX work, and its needs to accomplish that. But it also required an amazing movie framework like Star Wars [1977] to really make a big impact. Today, there are a lot of clever VFX people from many backgrounds that bring their own skills to this mix. It is just a matter of being presented the right challenges in the right movie to produce the next interesting VFX combination.

 

IT’S ABOUT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, NOT TECHNIQUES

Bill Westenhofer, Visual Effects Supervisor, Wonder Woman

Visual effects have indeed become ubiquitous in entertainment of all forms lately. Not only are there more summer blockbusters featuring huge numbers of effects shots, but now, just about every- thing you see, including dramas and TV series, employ extensive VFX work. Perhaps, therefore, we’ve arrived at a threshold where the way we discuss visual effects needs to change.

For years, techniques were so new and their use was novel enough that the spectacle alone could generate audience excitement. It was fitting to devote articles on the next ‘big thing’ that detailed the latest advancement in a new process or technique. But now that we’ve become accustomed to seeing high-end VFX everywhere, I believe it makes just as much or even more sense to start spending time evaluating the quality of the artistry, and how well visual effects are used to tell a better story.

Alien: Covenant (Photo copyright © 2017 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.)

To be sure, there will continue to be advancements and new milestones, but now that we’ve come so far and the tools and hardware are available to so many people, I’d love to see us talk about who made the coolest imagery, even if it relies on tried-and-true techniques.

I recently finished supervising the VFX work on Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins). The work includes much of what is expected in a super hero(ine) movie, including digital environments, digital doubles and destruction. The level of detail and fidelity of the digital doubles and face replacements created by Double Negative (DNeg) and Moving Picture Company (MPC) allowed us to do some really fun things action-wise, and even allowed Gal Gadot [as the title character] to be a part of otherwise dangerous shots through the use of digital doubles. This includes shots that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, but the use of digital doubles as a process in and of itself is not new.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Photo copyright © 2016 EuropaCorp, Valerian SAS – TF1 Films Production. All Rights Reserved.)

One thing that sets Wonder Woman apart from other films in the genre is the compelling character drama between Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Patty Jenkins crafted a journey for them that stands on its own, and I’m proud to say our visual effects work plays a supporting role to create the world in which that happens. Hopefully, if we’ve done our work well enough, we’ll have helped make Diana a badass Amazonian warrior, people will find Themyscira – home of the Amazons, where Diana comes from originally –a beautiful place, and the final battle will have served as a fitting action setting for the culmination of her story. But Patty strived for a balance where the visuals of the film never overshadowed character development, but rather complemented it.

Of course, I could talk about how we specifically employed motion capture, how much of the set was digital at the end of the day, and perhaps surprise people regarding which shots actually feature face-replacements, but I’d be just as satisfied if audiences just get lost in the story and appreciate the work as part of the greater whole.



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