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March 20
2019

ISSUE

Spring 2019

What Apps Do VFX Supervisors Use?

By IAN FAILES

Director and Visual Effects Supervisor Victor Perez consults his iPad on the set of the short film Echo.

The explosion in smartphone and tablet apps has brought many benefits for visual effects production. Now VFX supervisors can – right at their fingertips – review scripts, carry out on-set surveys, record crucial data and measurements, take photographic reference, and help produce their shots from start to finish.

To help wade through the vast selection available, seven leading visual effects supervisors working in film, television, shorts, commercials and game cinematics share their go-to VFX smartphone and tablet apps with VFX Voice.

Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Harvey.

Visual Effects Supervisor Lawren Bancroft-Wilson.

APPS FOR SCRIPT REVIEW

The first thing that visual effects supervisors might do on any project is read the script and make crucial VFX notes on it. Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Harvey (Oats Studios shorts, Chappie) recommends Weekend Read, a way of reading scripts on an iPhone without having to print out hundreds of pages.

“I’ll often find I have a few quite minutes in some unexpected and random place and all I have with me is my phone,” he says. “If you have ever tried reading a script on a phone screen, it’s a huge pain. Weekend Read has fixed that. It’s a great, simple and secure app that formats scripts specifically to be easy to read on the smaller screen.”

Harvey and fellow Visual Effects Supervisor Lawren Bancroft-Wilson (The Terror [Season 2]), Unspeakable, A Million Little Things) both also highlighted the app Scriptation for use during the pre-production process for breaking down scripts. It allows for mark-ups, drawing and the tracking of script changes.

“It’s even great for things other than scripts,” Harvey adds. “I often create technical documents for going out on location scouts. I can load them into Scriptation and take notes right on the document as I go and even snap quick photos and insert them into the document. Then I can export and share with anyone else that needs it. You can even take notes on different layers, so maybe you are sharing a document and VFX has one layer, SFX has one, art department, etc.”

Director and Visual Effects Supervisor Victor Perez.

The virtual stand-ins in the Blocker app.

APPS FOR VFX PLANNING

When it comes to planning visual effects shots and live-action shoots, a number of apps can assist in these important early stages. One of those is Shot Designer, a staging tool. “This app helps get everybody on the same page,” outlines director and Visual Effects Supervisor Victor Perez (The Invisible Boy: Second Generation, Echo, Ensemble). “It creates quick animations for the cameras and allows you to use photos. I find it helpful also to work with data wranglers to explain what they should expect and exactly what I need and when.”

Blocker is also a staging-like app that exists in the augmented reality space. “It’s a pretty specialized AR app that’s designed to let you ‘drop’ virtual stand-ins into your locations when viewed through your phone,” says Harvey. “Then, as you walk around and view the location, the virtual stand-ins will be anchored to the location you dropped them.”

For further VFX planning help, a number of sun surveying apps exist. Sun Surveyor is “a great tool for plotting sun position and angle for every time of the day,” notes Brainstorm Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Eran Dinur (The Woman in the Window, Uncut Gems, author of The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects). “I find it especially useful for texture acquisition of buildings and other large elements – you can plan in advance the best time to shoot with flat, ambient light. It is also useful for greenscreen orientation to avoid strong shadows.”

Brainstorm Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Eran Dinur.

Director and Visual Effects Supervisor Hugo Guerra

AR techniques are used to follow the sun’s trajectory in Sun Seeker.

My Measures Pro used on set during greenscreen filming.

Light Meter by WBPhoto has free and paid versions.

Director and Visual Effects Supervisor and cinematics specialist Hugo Guerra’s sun app choice is Sun Seeker. “Using augmented reality, this app shows you the sun’s trajectory during the day; in fact, you can even check where and when the sun will be on any day of the year – a true lifesaver and always a great conversation piece on the shoot. It’s like magic.”

APPS FOR ON SET

Perhaps the most common – and helpful – kinds of apps in visual effects are ones that can be used directly on set for surveying locations, making measurements, mimicking cameras and recording much-needed metadata.

A commonly used app for doing quick surveys is My Measures Pro. It automatically measures objects and rooms in pictures taken by your phone using augmented reality. “I normally use this tool to document the height, angle and distance from the camera to the objects,” says Guerra. “It’s also a great way to get accurate measurements for both the CG modeling and tracking departments.” Perez adds that “you can manually set the measures, and the app even helps you calculate areas and volumes. I use it a lot in combination with my distometer to get the scale of a set and positions.”

In recent years, several VFX supervisors have adopted the use of Ricoh’s Theta 360 camera to quickly acquire 360-degree panoramic or fisheye-like images of sets or locations. Using the Ricoh Theta V Remote App, Guerra says you can remotely control a Theta to also generate bracketed HDRIs or take reference photos of light positions. “It does not replace a HDR using a full-frame DSLR with an 8mm, but when you have no time on set, or the location is too small or dangerous, this tool can make a very ‘quick and dirty’ HDRI. It’s also great for crew selfies!”

Another dedicated app used to capture Theta HDRIs is Theta S Bracket for HDR, something employed regularly on set by Bancroft-Wilson. “It’s quick, fast and non-intrusive, letting me get HDRIs where otherwise ADs would complain about me slowing things down. That said, for more important HDRIs that may be used for high-res reflections, I’d use my Sony Alpha A7RIII.”

Light meter apps can equally save time on set. Dinur recommends Light Meter by WBPhoto. “I use this app to quickly check light on a greenscreen. DPs usually try to set optimal lighting on the greenscreen, but when I know that the background will need to be dark – nighttime out the window, for example – I ask to reduce the light on the screen to avoid too much backlight on hair and soft edges.”

360-degree output from Hugo Guerra’s Ricoh Theta camera.

Meanwhile, Luxi produces a light meter app that works in conjunction with an attachment, something Guerra says “can convert your phone into a reasonable-quality incident light meter.” Keep in mind, he adds, “it has a margin of error of about 1/2 to 1/4 f-stops, but in my opinion, it is a great learning/testing tool before you invest in a more expensive meter.” Guerra’s other go-to in the light measurement space is LightSpectrum Pro, which allows users to check the Kelvin temperature of on-set lights.

Visual effects supervisors often need to be on board with cinematographers, and a range of apps offer options for emulating lenses, cameras and sensors. Among the most popular is Artemis Pro. Guerra says, “Don’t leave home without it,” suggesting that it is an essential app for the shoot, pre-light and the ‘tech recce.’ “Beware,” adds Guerra, “it’s limited to 19mm since the iPhone can’t go lower than that, but there are fisheye adaptors to open up the field of view.”

Perez likes to use the app on scouting to “get aligned with the DP regarding what we see in the frame,” while Harvey’s use of Artemis Pro extends to “capturing photos with correct camera and lens packages, sorting, making written and audio notes, filming quick movies, and recording a slew of technical information like time of day and GPS coordinates.”

A screenshot from LightSpectrum Pro. The app checks the Kelvin temperature of set lights.

With many different kinds of lenses available to shoot with, Artemis Pro can be a handy way to see how a shot may ultimately look.

A screenshot from Magic Universal ViewFinder.

Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor Sue Rowe.

A Cadrage frame that Sue Rowe has annotated in Annotable.

Perez likes to use the app on scouting to “get aligned with the DP regarding what we see in the frame,” while Harvey’s use of Artemis Pro extends to “capturing photos with correct camera and lens packages, sorting, making written and audio notes, filming quick movies, and recording a slew of technical information like time of day and GPS coordinates.”

Another app in this area is Magic Universal ViewFinder, an app that Dinur notes “has a comprehensive range of cameras, formats and frame guides that let you frame a shot pretty accurately.” Then there’s Cadrage Director’s Viewfinder, which offers ways to preview frames based on actual film lenses. Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor Sue Rowe (The Meg, A Series of Unfortunate Events) uses the app to ‘frame up shots’ to illustrate to the director the relevant VFX requirements. “I tend to take a series of images on the set, pre-shoot and send them to the director. This way the director can visualize the shot and be aware of the VFX work required.

“For example,” Rowe continues, “I will often shoot with a 21mm lens and do a quick sketch using Annotable [see below] of where the VFX extensions will be needed. Then I will flip to a longer lens like a 35 or a 50 and show the same frame. By changing the lens, the set extensions would be less extensive or the depth of field would play to our advantage, and a scenic extension would suffice rather than a digital solution.”

The Annotable app Rowe allows users to notate photos and documents, and then send them around quickly while on a production. Says Rowe: “I used it on The Meg to notate to myself where the shark was supposed to be in the chase sequence. The director was firing out ideas about each shot, and I found quick photos and a bad doodle of a shark told the story clearly. At the end of a 12-hour shoot the last thing you want to do is write up notes. With this tool I would put them into a document and make a PDF on the day of the shoot.”

APPS FOR VFX PRODUCTION

Managing the flow of information is sometimes just as important as the imagery itself. And there are plenty of apps to help. Westworld Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Worth relies heavily, for example, on Airtable, an app that plugs into database software FileMaker Pro.

“With working on multiple projects with multiple artists, this is the best method I have found to keep track of all the elements I need,” says Worth. “Something like Shotgun is great, but I don’t need to track that much data. For our most recent work on Westworld, we fully embraced Airtable and it was great – everything from financials and shot tracking to editorial count sheets and set data.”

Bespoke solutions can also be generated out of FileMaker Go, FileMaker’s own tablet and phone app. “Many people have their own custom databases they have set up prior on the computer in FileMaker’s main software application,” discusses Harvey. “Then in the app it’s all about being able to quickly record the needed info. If you don’t have a custom camera report database, the VES has a great free one at camerareports.org.”

Another common database solution is Setellite. According to Guerra, “this app is a complete package to create a full VFX report. It allows you to take notes, catalog all the cameras, lenses, lights, keep track of all the takes, and helps you label the VFX plates, among other things. It also has a cloud save in case you have 4G during filming. In the end, it creates a very complete PDF of everything that happens on set regarding VFX. This PDF is fundamental to keep information flowing between the VFX houses and the production.”

Bancroft-Wilson says the latest versions of Setelitte have improved upon initial releases of the app. “It allows sharing between accounts and a web readout which I at first was excited about, but the web interface wasn’t great for manipulation and data entry. They’ve since offered a standalone version, which is annoying after spending twice its price on subscriptions. I’ll give the app a go again and see what they’ve improved. It’s a great way to make sure data, reference and media are being gathered in a clean, searchable way.”

Finally, VFX supervisors who travel a lot during production might benefit from the use of Trip Case, an app that manages your flights all from one place. “For work,” relates Rowe, “I fly all over the world. All you do is forward the Movement Order or E-ticket booking to trips@tripcase.com and it puts your flights into the wallet. It will update you of changes and cancellations, and, very importantly, it reminds you that you have trips coming up.”


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