June 14, 2016

'Behind The Green Screen': Top VFX Supervisors on Craft, Commerce and Communication

Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
How does the most unnoticed job in Hollywood actually work? Four VFX veterans break it down.

Visual effects are more integral (and often unnoticed) than they've ever been, yet many of us—even in the industry—don't know much about how a Visual Effects Supervisor works. At Saturday's Sight, Sound & Story event in New York, four VFX gurus sat down for a discussion about their workflow, how they contribute to a film, and the state of the industry. Check out our takeaways below from an all-start panel moderated by Ross Shain of Imagineer Systems, with Sean Devereaux (American Hustle, Hardcore Henry), Ed Mendez of Alkemy X (The LeftoversJohn Adams), and Alex Lemke of east side effects (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies).

It was inspiring to hear from the people who do much of the heavy-lifting in today's film world for no other reason than a love of their art.

VFX Job #1: Be On Time and Under Budget

A Visual Effects Supervisor's job, according to Sean Devereaux, is to evaluate a director's vision, work with the editors of the film, supervise their own team, and, most important, bring the job in "on time and under budget," which, according to the panel, is becoming increasingly difficult. Lemke, who is originally from Germany (where, he joked, many of their films aren't VFX heavy), said that he was ˙happy he got his start on film, working as a compositor and using an optical printer, which was, for decades, the only way (other than in-camera trickery) to produce effects like dissolves, fades, credits, as well as to manipulate color and aspect ratio. 

ILM optical printer sight sound story VFX no film school
An optical printer in use at ILM in the 80s

Today, these machines have been mothballed, but Lemke was grateful for the experience because he said he learned about economy, as well as quality. He related an anecdote of how, as an apprentice, he spent eight hours working on the rolling credits of a film, just white type on a black screen that would run for three minutes. Today, the same job could be practically be done on an iPhone, but he stressed that the discipline he learned and the quality work it produced helped him in an age of digital filmmaking.

All the panelists stressed that today's digital industry operates at speeds that put stress on the entire post-production department. This stemmed in part from the release of 1993's monster-hit Jurassic Park, which ushered in a new era of visual effects and changed what was possible. It's surprising, then, to learn that Jurassic Park only had 40 FX shots in its entirety, whereas today it's routine for films to have an average of 200 FX shots. But, as Lemke noted, Spielberg is an old school filmmaker, who "storyboards everything."

Communication is the Key to Success and Savings

The supervisor has to work closely with the director, as early as possible, to "suck their brain dry," in order to get a sense of where things are headed; then, in post, they supervise their team and work with the film's editor, who is under just as much pressure, often expected to produce editor's cuts in 2 weeks and director's cuts in 10 (a far shorter time-frame than in the pre-digital age). 

Communication is also crucial because each effects shot costs money, and if what the effects house produces is not what the director or producer wants, the house has to redo it. This is dicey financially because, unlike the studio days, when there were in-house VFX departments (ILM, George Lucas's legendary post-house, was started out of necessity for Star Wars), VFX houses are considered "vendors," and thus are not legally on a production's pay roll. As Devereaux put it, "you could be expecting a check on Monday, and not get it for six weeks...if you got into [VFX] as a business, you'd sell the business." At the 2013 Oscars, when the team who worked on Life of Pi won and tried to voice their opinion on these practices during their speech, the orchestra played them off with (no foolin') the theme from Jaws.

Among the most surprising things the panel discussed was the degree to which complicated effects shots have become incorporated into films in ways which audiences would almost never notice.

There has been a VFX Solidarity movement, and according to sources in the industry, "Hollywood studio conglomerates...[pit] VFX facilities so strongly against each other that eventually one company ends up taking the project for a loss." One anonymous producer was even been quoted in a 2007 Variety article saying, "If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job." The end result is that most FX houses have a 3-5% profit rate each year, freelance status, and no union.  

Another trend that bothers the panelists is that they've found that they are no longer the "last line of defense," but must contend with the colorist, who, due to a lack of communication, often changes their work in the DI. The accelerating pace of the industry is partly to blame: it is very rare today that a successful director will be available through post-production, having moved on to a new project. 

Despite the challenges they face, the panelists were anything but negative about their jobs. Clearly, they do the work they do because they love it, and the work they do is amazing. 

Green Screens Aren't Glamorous, But They Pay the Bills

Among the most surprising things the panel discussed was the degree to which complicated effects shots have become incorporated into films in ways which audiences would almost never notice, and might not even be able to spot were they looking for them. For instance, how many FX shots do you think there are in the Coen Brothers' 2013 Inside Llewyn Davis, the story of a hapless folk singer in The early 1960s? The answer is 400, a mind boggling number for such a character-based film.  In fact, the majority of the shots take place during the film's many driving sequences; it seems that it was more economical (and feasible) to shoot these scenes on a green screen rather than with a camera truck, on location. The quality of the shots is such that they are invisible, unlike the stereotypical rear projection driving scenes familiar to viewers from so many films from the 1960s.

Sometimes, directors will combine takes,  as was the case with 2015's American Ultra, where parts of the grocery store massacre sequence which appear to be composed of one take are actually the result of the careful stitching together of 10, according to Lemke. 

It's now even possible to mix-and-match facial expressions, using one from a given shot to suit an overall better take. One director known to do this is David Fincher, though he was praised by Devereaux for being one of the most prepared filmmakers he works with; furthermore, because Fincher is a director who incorporates many static shots into his aesthetic, even though "for VFX artists these types of shots are the least creative, because of the time they take, they are your bread-and-butter." One example of this invisible VFX work can be found in Gone Girl, as you can see in the video below.

The panel discussion highlighted the difficulties facing these talented artists; there is mounting pressure in this industry for work to be more, faster, cheaper. More importantly, the event also highlighted the panelists' enthusiasm and love for the work they do. It was inspiring to hear from the people who do much of the heavy-lifting in today's film world for no other reason than a love of their art.      

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