Well, certainly, the software is always evolving, and each new evolution of software brings new possibilities. Sometimes the work being done drives the software development and sometimes the software drives the effects. In the first example, we are sometimes presented with an idea that a director may have or some effect that we want to create where there doesn't exist a tool to achieve it properly - so we would consult with our in-house engineering team and develop custom software solutions to get us what we or the director are looking for.
In the second case, where the software development drives the effects being done, sometimes a software developer will write a new plug-in (Spark, in the case of Inferno) or a new program that is maybe designed for a specific effect, and often we can discover really unusual looks out of playing with a tool that was designed for something else entirely. For example, there's a Spark that is designed to do sort of motion blur-type streaks, but by tweaking out the settings quite a bit you can get these really organic-looking lens-flare type effects that you would never be able to achieve with a traditional lens flare Spark. These kinds of "happy accidents" are one of my favorite things about my job.
What is the most significant, groundbreaking project of the past few years and why?
Obviously, movies like The Matrix or Fight Club are always raising the bar for effects work, but for me personally, Chris Cunningham's and Michel Gondry's music video work is probably what inspires me the most, and that kind of work, more than anything else, pushes me to keep learning and trying new things. I think they're also both very clever about their effects work. So, instead of opting for the most technically daunting method of creating a shot, just because they can, they will instead find ways of achieving the same ends using creative shooting solutions and are very intelligent about where they choose to use technology.
How have the demands of creatives (or script writers, or producers) changed?
I think they are becoming much more savvy in terms of what is or isn't possible. This is generally a good thing, in that they are not so easily impressed and therefore they continually challenge you to find new ways to impress them. It's also a bit of a curse in that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Meaning that you often have clients who think they understand how an effect is done and can't understand why it's taking so long or what's so hard about it, so you hear things like, "I was able to do this in Photoshop on my computer - why is it taking so long for you to do it?" Or "The editor was able to do it on his Avid." The thing that's hard to convey is that it's usually the last 5 percent of a shot that's the hardest part. Anybody can get it to 95 percent, but that last finesse is the most time consuming, and also the most important detail.
How has the process changed?
I find that more and more, the agency creatives are much more involved in the postproduction phase of commercials and that the director is taking a much less active roll in post. Method is fortunate in that we are lucky enough to work with some really great agencies who also have talented creatives, but I definitely see the exclusion of the director as not a very positive development. I think it's important to have a single vision driving a project, and often with agencies, because every decision is made by committee, you tend to get this sort of homogenized, watered-down end result.
What are the most significant technological developments of the past year or so. What has the impact of these developments been?
Software-wise, I'd say the technique of photogrammetry has certainly been a huge benefit to us, and has opened up all manner of effects possibilities. Basically photogrammetry is the process of deriving 3-D models from a 2-D image and then reprojecting that 2-D image onto those 3-D models. This has greatly simplified the process of modeling a CG environment. Not only has it made the process simpler, in that you don't need to build models as detailed as you used to need them, it has also improved the overall look of CG because you are able to reproject the actual photographed images back onto themselves using the real lighting and look of the original film. Of course, photogrammetry is not always a viable option, but when it's done well, it can look amazing.
How are skill sets for effects artists changing?
When I first started working on Henry, an effects artist was more of a technician than an artist. If you knew your way around the software, you were already so far ahead of the rest of the pack that you didn't really need much artistic skill. Now it's much more important for a visual effects artist to be both very skilled at working with computers, being able to learn and adapt to new software, having a very good mind for logic, etc., and also to have some traditional artistic skills. Graphic design, photography, painting, sketching are all beneficial. Also, because we're becoming a much more integral part of the production process, participating in preproduction meetings, supervising effects shoots, presenting to agencies - it's more important now that you have good people skills. We used to be the guy at the end of the hallway in the tiny dark room, but now many times, we are, along with the effects producer, the client's main contact point.