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June 24
2018

ISSUE

Summer 2018

What’s in Your VFX Kit? Tips from the Experts

By IAN FAILES

Visual Effects Supervisor Stephan Fleet

The Manfrotto MB MS-BP-IGR medium backpack is Fleet’s most recent carry bag for his VFX kit.

Fleet’s VFX kit bag and its contents laid out.

It’s a question that regularly gets asked among visual effects supervisors: what do you take with you on a job? And the answer, of course, often depends on the nature of the project – sometimes you need to be nimble and sometimes you need all the gear.

VFX Voice asked four highly experienced VFX pros to weigh in on the VFX kits they bring along for shooting. Visual Effects Supervisor Stephan Fleet details all the gear he relies on when on-set supervising, while fellow VFX Supervisors Mark Kolpack and Dan Schrecker as well as Creative Producer Eric Alba pinpoint specific pieces of gear and how they use them to help craft great visual effects shots.

STEPHAN FLEET, Visual Effects Supervisor

Recent projects: Season 2 of NBC’s Timeless, Misfits and Reverie pilots, and Marvel’s Iron Fist

IPHONE X

In the past 5 years or so, this has become the most invaluable tool in my kit. I don’t often bring a tablet. I want something I can fit in my pocket. It has to be an Apple device because I use a custom Filemaker database that I wrote to take all of my on-set notes and data. It’s a pretty cool database that lets me quickly get data for multiple cameras, add reference images, jot down notes, link to my VFX breakdown, and my coolest new feature is that I can grab GPS coordinates so in post we can hone in on the exact location we were filming. I also use the stock camera app, the stock compass/level app, an HDR remote app called Simple HDR that links up to my Ricoh Theta S, an app called Measures for recording measurement plans, Dark Sky for weather checking, Dax, Pix, and an app called VUER to livestream footage over wifi with a Teradek.

DELL XPS 15 LAPTOP

I use it over a Macbook because it’s cheaper, has a 4K screen, and I could get a model with 32 gigabytes of RAM. I do a lot of previs myself, using Cinema 4D with Redshift, and this little guy can handle that, as well as Photoshop and Premiere!

PANASONIC GH5 (LARGE CAMERA)

I recently switched from being a Canon 5D user to mirrorless, and the GH5 is perfect for my needs. Here’s why:

• Silent shutter: This is a huge advantage on set. I can snap away while they are filming.

• Shoots amazing video: The fact that this camera can shoot 10-bit 4k 4:2:2 footage in V-Log is huge. I have actually shot B-unit VFX plates for production with this little guy. You can even pull a decent key off of a greenscreen.

• It has a cool mode called 6K photo capture that actually captures a 6K H.265 movie. I have a unique technique where I can pull stills from that video and use Agisoft PhotoScan to make a great photogrammetry 3D model. I can literally whip the camera around an actor’s head like a magic wand in 10 seconds to accomplish this.

• I use a 12-60mm F2.8 Panasonic lens as my main lens. The only drawback for me is that the camera has a smaller chip size, so it struggles a little more in low light compared to, say, the Sony a7S II. Shows always shoot in super low light these days, wide open. To compensate for this, I keep the superb Leica 12mm F1.4 lens in my kit. It’s small and not too heavy. You can also up the ISO to around 3200 before it breaks.

SONY RX100 V (POCKET CAMERA)

This is a little point-and-shoot camera that stays in my kit at all times. In fact, I use it more than my GH5. It can fit in a pocket, it shoots great 4K and stills, pretty decent low light functionality. I highly recommend this camera as a backup, or even a main for a light, non-plate heavy show.

RICOH THETA S

This has been a revolution in HDRI acquisition for me. Paired with the Simple HDR app on my iPhone, I can now take HDRIs with something half the size of a phone, quickly and efficiently. I can put it in unique places, and even just put it out there while the crew is working, if I am in survival mode, to get ‘something’ (which is better than nothing, right?). Gone are the days in network TV where the crew will stop to let you get that perfect HDRI.

MANFROTTO 5001B 74-INCH NANO STAND

By far one of my favorite pieces of gear, and it’s only 50 bucks! This is technically a light stand. It’s super light, and it folds up to be under two feet long and weighs practically nothing. Here’s the crazy thing; most of the time, I only bring this, I do not bring a tripod. Coupled with a small Giottos ballhead mount, this thing holds my GH5 if I need to do a lock-off shot. I mainly use it for my Ricoh Theta and HDRI captures. It’s better than a tripod because the legs are low profile. I also pair it with my refractive laser. Most recently, on Timeless, I taped a 13-foot pole to the stand and used it as a height guideline for adding a CG timeship. This stand also raises very high, higher than 6 feet, which is great for HDRIs.

GREEN LASER GRID PEN WITH REFRACTIVE GLASS

At Ghoststop.com you can get a laser pointer that shoots an array of green dots. Often, when we are doing interior greenscreen, instead of slathering the screen with trackers, I set this laser up, off to the side, on my Manfrotto stand, and point it at the screen. I can art direct where I want the trackers to be, mostly avoiding them straddling hair. It’s just faster. Bring batteries though, this thing eats ‘em up!

X-RITE COLORCHECKER PASSPORT PHOTO

This is a small color chip chart. I don’t use it too much. Some companies like chip charts in their HDRIs, so I will toss this down near my Theta when I shoot HDRI images.

GREEN AND BLUE GAFFERS TAPE

I usually only keep one or the other in my bag, depending on what the day has in store. But gaffers tape is always a must for trackers and other tape needs.

BOSCH GLM 50 LASER MEASURE METER

This is a cheap little distance meter. I used to have a nice Hilti that broke. Honestly, I’m not the biggest distance meter fan; they are somewhat unreliable and struggle in filming conditions.

PING PONG BALLS AND VELCRO

I wrap ping pong balls in green gaffers tape and affix velcro to them in a plus formation. This creates trackers that I can toss up high and will stick on most green or bluescreens. You can also play fun bar games with the rigging grip crew.

LED TRACKERS

I rarely use these, but they come in handy in a pinch. For these just type in ‘LED White Party Lights’ in Amazon. You’ll find little small LED lights with silver bases that cost around 10 bucks for a bag. They work great.

PATAGONIA MICRO PUFF JACKET WITH HOOD

This is the smallest, warmest jacket I could find. It stuffs itself into a pillow. It’s so important to bring layers and never find yourself freezing.

ANKER POWERCORE FUSION 5000 2-IN-1 PORTABLE CHARGER AND AN IPHONE CABLE

My favorite little battery pack. It’s small, light, and actually has a power plug on it, so you can plug it in and use it like a regular charging plug for an iPhone or iPad, or you can get about three battery charges for one iPhone off of it.

LACIE RUGGED USB-C DRIVE, 2TB

For every season of a show I do, I get at least one Rugged drive to house all of my photos, video, etc – anything that’s too big to toss on Box. Make sure to back stuff up!

BAG TIPS

My bag is an ever-changing thing. I’m obsessed with bags and want the smallest, most comfortable and convenient bag there is. As such, I have used the Peak Every Day Messenger (it was OK), the Peak Every Day backpack (hated it), and, most recently, the Manfrotto MB MS-BP-IGR medium backpack for DSLR camera and personal gear. This is a small hybrid bag that lets me pack some camera gear, laptop, a jacket, and house my Manfrotto stand on the side. It’s not perfect, but I like its small size and how comfortable it is. If I need to bring my GH5 I use the Incase DSLR Pro Pack, which is just OK. If I am traveling, I have a Think Tank Airport AirStream. It’s a roller backpack, nice quality, small, and lets me bring my gear as a carry on. The perfect bag is still not out there for me!

KEEP THESE IN THE TRUNK OF YOUR CAR

In addition to what I carry on me, my nomadic lifestyle has taught me to keep the following in the trunk of my car at all times. First, a folding chair – get a nice one. Nothing makes life better on set than a good chair. I have a rocking one, it’s better than any director’s chair out there. Buy shell pants and a shell jacket for getting caught in the rain or for freezing-cold days on set. Bring strong weatherproof boots, which are also good for the rough terrain and cold days. Smart wool socks: a must. Finally, have sunscreen, toiletries, water, and a big heavy jacket at the ready. As you can tell I have shot in a lot of cold weather places!

MARK KOLPACK, Visual Effects Supervisor

Recent projects: ABC television show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Zoo and Shots Fired

Along with a nimble array of key camera, lens and tripod gear, Kolpack’s must-have on set is a shoulder bag containing his iPad Pro. “The iPad is for taking on-set notes in the FileMaker Go App with a camera note taking layout,” he says. “The layout allows me to get the camera data off of three cameras as well as my HDRI lighting sphere data.”

“The iPad also allows me to keep both video clips and concept stills to show the actors what the environment or creature is going to look like,” adds Kolpack. “This goes a long way to helping them to tie in their performances with what will be placed into the shot later.”

Having the iPad Pro also enables the visual effects supervisor to utilize a Structure Sensor. “This attaches to my iPad Pro and allows me to scan props, people, sets and costume pieces,” explains Kolpack. “While it is not at the level of photogrammetry that we do for our high-end scans of actors, it does allow me to capture those items that either give me a reference scan that is used for interactive CG pieces on actors as well as set environments.”

Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Kolpack.

Kolpack scans Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Visual Effects Editor Ryan Moos with the Structure Sensor.

Part of Kolpack’s on-set kit, including his iPad Pro.

Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Schrecker

Schrecker’s typical VFX kit is designed to fit into a single backpack and tripod bag.

Schrecker surveys an area for shooting the Darren Aronofsky film, Mother!

DAN SCHRECKER, Visual Effects Supervisor

Recent projects: Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and currently in post on the Jonathan Levine comedy, Flarsky

“My on-set kit fluctuates depending on the job,” says Schrecker. “If I’m on a bigger VFX show where I have some support crew and I don’t need to bring gear with me to set every day, since I can leave it there, I’ll carry more items. But if I’m flying solo and the VFX are less complex, or I know exactly what’s in store, I’ll strip my kit down to essential items which can fit in a single backpack and tripod bag.

“Those stripped-down items include a Canon 6D DSLR, Canon 17-40mm lens, Canon 24-105mm lens, Rokinon 8mm lens, Ricoh Theta V, Manfrotto 501HDV tripod, Ricoh Theta V monopod, Leica Disto E7300, MacBook Pro with Adobe After Effects, gaffers tape, small LED lights for tracking markers, cables, chargers, extra batteries, laser pointer, lens cleaning kit, Mini Mag-light, Leatherman, tape measure, Sharpies, USB drive, extra memory cards for DSLR, Joe’s Sticky Stuff (clear butyl), and paper and a pen.”

Schrecker adds three extra pieces of kit in special circumstances. The first is a Canon 5D Mark II if hi-res HDRIs or hi-res texture reference are required. He’ll also bring along a Structure Sensor attached to an iPad Pro for quick 3D scans of rooms or actors. The third is a set of two GoPro HERO4 cameras. “I picked these up to shoot reflection plates for a window where the glass had to be removed,” says Schrecker. “Because they’re so small I was able to hide them pretty well in the frame and get a decent reflection image of each take. They can also be used as witness cameras in some cases, but their lenses are so wide they’re not ideal.”

ERIC ALBA, Creative Producer

Recent projects: The immersive VR installation “Paraiso Secreto” for Corona, with production by The Mill

After countless hours spent on set, Alba decided to produce his own tracking markers, and to make them publicly available on his website [http://24liespersecond.com] for others to download and use themselves. “Each sheet of tracking markers is 20 inches by 30 inches,” he says, “made up of 16 5-inch markers and 32 2.5-inch markers.”

Alba suggests the printed markers can be placed on sheets of 20-inch x 30-inch self-adhesive foam-core boards cut to size. To help with laying out the markers, he relies on a laser level which he originally purchased to hang framed photos at home. “Now I use it  to lay out tracking markers evenly across floors and walls,” says Alba. “It can screw onto a tripod, it’s self-leveling and it has three modes: vertical line, horizontal line and crosshair. The only problem is that it’s good only for about 30 feet and not great in sunlight.”

Alba also has a quick-fire tracking marker solution for outdoor shoots on ground or grass when time is too short for a more elaborate tracking setup: golf tees. “They are super neon bright, so I only need the tip to show. They are easy to key out and big enough for the tracker to track them.”

Creative Producer Eric Alba

Alba’s self-made tracking markers that he makes available for anyone to download and print. He says he has seen them being used on sets in New York, Prague, New Zealand and Buenos Aires.

Black and white tracking markers being positioned on a greenscreen.

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