Digital Artists Roundtable

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Holding a virtual roundtable via blog, we asked six industry effects wizards about work they admire, pushing the field forward, and the relationship between technology and talent.

The Work

Creativity What effects work have you seen lately that you've admired (features or ads)?

McCabe I really enjoyed HP "Picture Book," directed by Francois Vogel. I admire it for its simplicity and seamless execution. If one were to give the "Picture Book" concept or storyboard to 50 different visual effects houses or production companies, each would create a completely unique commercial. I can't imagine any of us creating a more interesting spot.

Peristere Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has some of the best all-around effects work I've seen in a long time. The hippogriff is an amazing creature that is believable even while carrying Daniel Radcliffe over the surface of a beautiful lake. This installment, unlike the others, or other complex FX films released this year, was able to truly present fantastic creatures and places in a very realistic manner.

Kho I love the HP spots too. It's rare to see effects and good creative come together. Many spots and movies seem to be built around visual effects rather than great storytelling being supported by effects. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had some great special "lo-fi" effects that worked and helped tell the story.

Dougherty Filmtecknarna's Hummer "Evolution" spot: The modeling and animation on this is really well done. Such a simple idea but a totally entertaining way to watch a not-so-interesting car for 30 seconds. I also liked Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out." The designer in me appreciates the look of this video. It uses probably only 2-D elements but the overall feel is dimensional. In Modest Mouse's "Float On," the crudeness of the style of animation and elements works for some reason (probably because it's an indie band). It's nice when things don't feel like they need to be so photo-real and perfect and instead pursue both visual and animation styles that have a sense of personality. HP "Change" directed by Tim Hope works so well on all levels. The craft and execution is as amazing as the idea.

Creativity How do creatives use effects successfully?

Kho By writing great stories and knowing when to use effects, if any.

Peristere Creatives are using effects successfully by having them take the backseat to the story or singular idea. Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Modernista, and Goodby are masters at this kind of creative, as illustrated in Mini-Cooper, H2, and HP.

Barba I have seen a shift in the way creatives look to visual effects. It's becoming more and more acceptable, and even preferable to come up with ideas that only can be done with some visual effects. The notion that effects are "post" is really dead. Creatives are including the visual effects facilities in the initial planning; we are becoming part of "production". We have done quite a few [such projects] in the last few years.

Creativity What has been your favorite/most rewarding job to work on this year?

Peristere Working on the Mini Cooper "Robot" campaign with CP+B. This collaborative and unique work was innovative, fun, and new. I can't wait to work with this group again and again. My partner Chris Jones would say the same for the collaboration on "Picture Book" for HP with Goodby. This work rocks all the way to the day you finish. In fact, it becomes depressing when it's over.

Kho Two spots with JWT. From initial boards to tape in less than 3 days...A spontaneous, super rare and interesting experience.

Barba The most rewarding job I have worked on this year was a film test done for David Fincher. What my team accomplished has had many a jaw drop. We have gotten tremendous feedback from well-respected people in the industry. Unfortunately, I can't say much more.

Dougherty Fox Fuel's "X-Terminator". This was a 45-second I.D. for the Fox Fuel network (a network that features extreme sports and targets audiences who are in some way fans of or involved in the subcultures surrounding these sports). In this project we got to write the idea, direct some live action, edit, research music, design a city and terrain, do character animation, watch a bunch of B-movies for references, learn a bunch of new 3-D processes, and I'm sure I'm leaving something out.

Matin "Transformations," a spot I directed for Northwest Airlines was one of the most memorable of this year. It's airing in Japan now and will start airing in the U.S. in December. This project challenged the modelers, animators, lighter and compositors to new levels. We pushed many boundaries of commercial FX production, developing tools and technology that are rarely seen in commercial production. It is this striving for a higher standard that makes these 30 second mini-films that we call commercials such an exciting medium to work on.

McCabe We are working on a spot right now that I am really proud of. The spot takes place in the evening in a fantasy downtown world inhabited entirely by animated mobile phones and is being directed by Charlex ECD Alex Weil. We've played a major role in the design of the spot, and I've been able to allow my artists the freedom to do what feels right. What we've created is a beautifully stylized New York street. Now all we have to do is render 13 fully CG shots in five days.....

Design

Creativity What is the most important step in designing a 3-D element or character? How does that change if the element or character is photo-real?

Peristere Design and story- just ask [veteran Disney animators] Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston]. We must really understand who the charters are. Where are they from? How much do they weigh? How tall are they? What is their personality? How do they look when they are mad, sad, happy or silly? We use character sheets and short biographies, which are fleshed out, before we bring in the 3-D modeler, painter, animator, lighter, etc. Photo-real just brings along a whole list of contingencies that must be recognized. Photo-real is a commitment to time and money that you should be certain you need. A photo-real character can be just as easily creepy and awkward as it can be cool.

Dougherty You can really never have too many sources to influence what it is you are trying to re-create. These range from visual references that suggest color, texturing and lighting, to motion references that suggest how something should behave according to gravity and other variables. That's why we love Google. For character design, it helps to create things like walk-cycles and gravity tests even if you're not going to use these motion tests in the final animation. These first steps help determine a character's overall tone.

Matin We shouldn't confuse reference with inspiration elements. Inspirations can be broad and inconclusive. References need to be more precise and concise. It is not advisable to flood the artists with tons of reference that may cover many unconnected genres and styles. In the end this might result in a very muddled and diluted look. Being more specific allows the 3-D artists to focus towards a specific direction and results are more unique and defined.

The Process

Creativity What percentage of commercials do you think go to air without any effects embellishment?

Kho Close to none, even the intentionally lo-fi spots are being processed as much as the slicker ones out there.

McCabe Effects have become as important to advertising and filmmaking as sound effects and craft services. There are very few, if any, commercials that go to air without any effects work.

Matin The percentage of commercials that do not embellish effects is probably the majority. However by effects I mean "embellishment" of effects. If you consider telecine work, inferno color correction as effects work than I would say most spots rely on someone using some sort of digital effects tool.

Creativity What advice would you give an agency creative contemplating a script with a heavy reliance on effects?

Kho Write a great spot. No effects can save a lousy script.

Barba I would advise an agency creative contemplating a script with a heavy reliance on visual effects to plan, plan, and plan. Then do a thorough pre-visualization before the shoot. Get the effects team on board as soon as possible to make sure they are developing the creatives' ideas and growing them with the director. The difference between a good commercial and a great commercial is in the execution.

McCabe Involve us in the process as early as you can. We can help the agencies visualize their ideas much faster and more vividly than ever before. Being involved in pre-production allows us to really spend some time designing the spots and helping the agencies receive approvals on concepts from their clients early on, which will help minimize 11th hour changes. Also, this allows us to plan the shoot with the directors and agencies to ensure that the background plates are shot with the effects in mind. This makes the production process so much easier and allows us to focus on creating stunning imagery instead of fixing problems that result from poor planning.

Matin My advice to agency creatives would be "go for it". The world of visual effects when combined with the long established medium called "film" can create unimaginable stories. Anything is possible, given the right budget and time.

Technology

Creativity What are the new technologies or the upgrades in your existing gear that have made the most difference in the way you work?

Peristere This is a tough question, as the technology only advances as quickly as the talent who author it. Most companies with an eye for innovation often perpetuate the innovation from within. Zoic relies heavily on its artists and engineers to make these strides. It is this internal talent which pushes the software forward. We, like others, then task the providers to make their tools better, and if they cannot, we develop tools around them to achieve what we need.

Creativity How much difference do technological advancements make to a skilled artist?

Peristere Technological advances can make a huge difference. The better the tools are, the more time we can spend focusing on the quality of the work. For example, my partner Chris Jones can take 3-D cameras into his compositing setups, and work with and light 3-D objects with greater control than he could before he had that ability. He can now alter the element without going back to re-render.

Matin Technology aids in giving a skilled artist more choices and possibly more efficiency. However, no sooner the choice and efficiency is increased it is automatically balanced by new demands for greater efficiency and more flexibility. I think a skilled artist remains a skilled artist and technology combined with demand is the driving force.

Looking Ahead

Creativity In what ways are commercials pushing the quality of effects forward?

Peristere Commercials push the work, because they can. We have 28 seconds or less to do something completely unique. Clients, corporations, and the creatives who represent them are always willing to be unique. The most unique and captivating work wins. For the six weeks we work together, our spot is the most important creative in the world. If it isn't, we are not doing our job.

Dougherty: Commercials allow a place where application of ideas and technology are introduced to larger audiences. The more people see that type of production, the more they expect and the more they are comfortable with more inventive work. So I guess you could say that commercials create demand.

Creativity What kind of effect (if any) do 3-D features such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or The Incredibles have on digital artists working in commercials?

Peristere They have nothing but time, which can be a limitation. We can achieve everything they have and do on a regular basis. David Fincher constantly reminds us of this. Nike "Gamebreakers" is as complex as the work on either of these films.

Dougherty The production time in a feature versus the production time in commercial work is not (typically) comparable. To me, what's exciting about Sky Captain is that the use of virtual sets seems to be catching on more and more frequently, which makes the role of the digital artist and/or director much more elaborate and fun.

Creativity Is performance capture as big a deal as Hollywood makes of it?

McCabe Performance capture is cool, but it doesn't replace animators. Whenever a film comes out that uses motion capture it's an opportunity for the PR department to write a story. While at ILM, working on The Hulk, I witnessed Ang Lee in a motion capture suit. That data was mostly used as a good starting point, or for reference. What you see on the screen is good old-fashioned key-frame animation, for better or for worse. At the end of the day motion capture is a useful tool to CG animators, but contrary to what the media says, it's really not Ang Lee smashing that tank, but perhaps someday it could be.

Dougherty: It certainly makes a lot of options possible. Performance capture is hardly as easy as they tend to portray it. Nothing's automatic and if it were then this process wouldn't be fun. I think you tend to lose a lot of nuances in character and motion when too much is automated. There needs to be some human "hand" involved, and there is...thankfully.

Eng San Kho

Creative Director, Hornet

Sean Dougherty

Art Director, BrandNew School

"Effects have become as important to advertising and filmmaking as sound effects and craft services. There are very few, if any, commercials that go to air without any effects work."

-- Keith McCabe, Charlex

Arman Matin

Director, rhinofx

Keith McCabe

CG Supervisor, Charlex

"The technology only advances as quickly as the talent that authors it. Most companies with an eye for innovation often perpetuate the innovation from within."

Loni Peristere, Zoic Studios

Loni Peristere

Partner, Zoic Studios

Eric Barba

VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

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