Digital Artists' Roundtable

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Alex Catchpoole, VFX Supervisor, Flame/Inferno Artist, Guava, N.Y. Andy MacDonald, Creative Director, VFX Supervisor, CreoCollective, L.A. Alistair Thompson, Executive Producer, The Mill, N.Y. Jerry Spivack, Creative Director, Partner, VFX Supervisor, Ring of Fire, L.A. Dave Waller, Founder, Brickyard VFX, Boston

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

AC I think the most interesting changes have happened with camera tracking software like Boujou, which we run on Mac stations next to the Flames. Though Flame and Inferno have always worked with 3-D space, it hasn't always been as easy to import and use live-action camera data. Programs like Boujou and Matchmover from RealViz have really changed that. Sparks keep getting better too. The new Tinder and Furnace plug-ins from the Foundry are great.

JS Working remotely has and will continue to be a fantastic resource for us and our clients. At this point, it's a given. The desktop systems also continue to play an important part in our work flow to support the larger, faster more expensive machines. Software like Boujou, Matchmover, Commotion, Combustion, Maya with Mental Ray for previzing and animation makes a lot of the challenges we used to face in the past a lot easier.

DW Boujou has really changed the workflow here and enabled us to do things we could never have done before. We set ours up on an assistant's Mac, and during a session I just buzz my assistant to give me a track of a particular shot while I move on to another task.

AT One of the most interesting new pieces of software that we have been using at The Mill this year is Massive. Massive was developed to create the large-scale crowd replication scenes for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It allows us to create CG crowds whereby the individual characters within the crowd can be programmed to react intelligently to their environment and to each other. We also recently used the program to create a mountain of people for a Sony Playstation commercial directed by Frank Budgen. The widest of the shots required a render of 146,000 "intelligent" digital characters.

AM I think the coolest stuff I've seen this year has to be the recombining of old techniques with new ones to create a third unexpected process. For example, Boujou or any other tracking software package creates a mass of data for camera scenes and has been great at bringing the 2-D compositing world closer to the 3-D world. However, we've been using it for texture mapping, and with 3-D photo reconstruction to create virtual reconstructions of sets with amazing success. Combining this with our improved high dynamic range lighting techniques has given use some highly detailed CG environments in a fraction of the time.

C What's the biggest change in the production process as it relates to effects?

AC Visual effects supervisors are no longer the most unpopular people on set. There is much more understanding and acceptance of effects as a creative tool, as part of the storytelling. Though turnaround times are still too tight sometimes, for the most part it is accepted that the sooner things have to get done, the more corners will have to be cut. No matter how fast the machines get, better quality still takes more time, and most clients understand this these days.

JSThe biggest change is that we used to have to emphasize the importance of our role in the preproduction phase, but more agencies and production companies now realize and embrace having the VFX team on board as early on in the process as possible.

DW I think the big popularity of Quicktime Approvals has changed things and sped up the process, too. It's a benefit when we get fast decisions from clients, but it can really bone you when you're presenting a tiny picture in the wrong environment. Ideally, the methodology is to back up the Quicktime with a phone call explaining exactly what is being shown and explain the limitations of the medium. For details, I post some jpegs of key frames.

AT We are often now involved in the creative process from a very early stage. This is ideal, as it enables us to guide the decision making process of the client as much as possible. Through the use of CG previsualization, for example, it is possible to plan out and sign off complex VFX sequences rather than wasting time and money at the later stages of production and post. Although we ideally like to be involved in a job as early as ball parking quotes and schedules for agencies, there can, on rare occasions, be a downside. There is sometimes a temptation for clients to go around in circles at the previz stage.

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

JS I believe that percentage is very low. Even when we do just a straight online, there's always some kind of cleaning that needs to be done, whether it's multiple color correction passes that need to be combined for a shot or grabs or cleanups of some sort. There's always something that needs to be embellished.

DW Tough to judge. If we do our job well, you'll never see most of the effects work. And when clients see what's possible, they get addicted to enhancing their spots. It makes it hard to put material on a demo reel unless you do a little "before and after" show. I love those little demos-even though I'm in the business, I can't help saying, "Hey, look at that!" when I see somebody has added a puppy or shaved an old lady.

AM Only the local regional market stuff might miss the VFX embellishment process. I think VFX is becoming an integral part of the production process. It is no longer just an expensive icing to high-end spots but a creative tool for all to use.

AT The days of most commercials requiring a simple conform and title are over. Production values are high and that often means spending time on augmenting and embellishing the aesthetics on even the most beautifully shot footage. These tweaks are usually invisible to the viewer but it would often be apparent in context if these subtle changes were not made. Interestingly enough, I still believe that the best effects commercials work of five years ago tended to have more of a wow factor than today's contemporary output. Although more jobs involve VFX than ever, it is perhaps harder and harder to find and pioneer new groundbreaking effects work. Your average viewer has become incredibly savvy with effects in cinema and on the television; consequently their expectations are higher than ever before. The challenge for us and our clients is to show them something they have never seen before.

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

AC I would advise them to get the effects house involved as early as possible, and not just for ballpark estimates of cost. The creative collaboration between agency and effects houses can be a really great working relationship, even as early as the scripting stage. I think that some ideas never get explored because there is a fear that they would cost too much or be too hard to execute properly. Though sometimes they're probably right, some ideas can be done really simply and quite cheaply. For example if you are going to a studio to shoot an actor in a set, the cost of shooting bluescreen and building a virtual set could be the same as building a real set in the studio. There's still a perception of effects as massively expensive, sometimes prohibitively expensive. But that's not always true anymore.

DW We like to get involved early if the effects are an important part of the project. For a recent iPod/VW spot, we created a previz version that allowed the production company to make an accurate bid and enabled the motion control team to design their rig. We then knew exactly what we were doing in the final composite. Most heavy effects spots are a combination of live action, stills and CG, so it makes sense to get a team together early and decide how best to create each element. It's short money, too, because at that stage everybody is eager to put their best foot forward to get the job. We often suggest the best approach is in-camera.

C The year is 2020. Describe your effects suite, your office setup and your work methods.

AC I hope to be sitting on a beach with a laptop, working remotely with agency and production companies from all over the world. Is there still television in 2020? Maybe we'll all be building interactive billboards and animated packaging-hopefully from that same sandy beach.

DW I'd like to work with a really big display screen-maybe 10 or 20 feet across. And I say bring back the knobs and the blinking lights-I really miss those things.

AM I don't know. I guess some 15-year-old computer punk will be doing it from his Palm Pilot in real time on set and I'll be talking about the old days of doing stuff by hand, hanging around rendering and long post schedules. While I'm working at McDonald's.