This VFX master shares advice for post-production challenges.
To many, the world of VFX presents a neverending possibility, supported by a plethora of tools and technology.
“Everyone's trying to invent something new that isn't possible in reality,” VFX artist Shaina Holmes says.
While the name of Holmes’ post-production company, Flying Turtle Post, may indicate a love of inserting aerial-bound reptiles into films, the group tackles and troubleshoots elements like tattoo removals, split screens, CGI baseballs, and more.
“Most of the work I do is invisible,” Holmes says. “If I do my job, right, then you shouldn't know that I touched it.”
That work that Holmes mentions spans years in the industry, multiple roles, implementations, shifts, and workflows, and even other worlds: Holmes was on the team that oversaw the shift of Men in Black 3 from a film-to-tape workflow to a digital workflow, courtesy of a tsunami. And she’s contributing that knowledge to future VFX artists through teaching and creating a cyclical mentorship pathway for women in post-production.
So, when we had questions about workflows, we knew who to talk to. We came to Holmes with a key question: in a field where “every single frame touched by someone,” as Holmes defines it, how can we make sure we have a successful process from pre-production through post?
Lucky for us, Holmes has a few words of advice.
Always approach your project with industry-standard mindsets and tools
Whether you’re a one-person bandstand, or working in a post-house handling Hollywood blockbusters, using industry standard workflows, processes, and mindsets will only enhance your project. Even in the classroom, where students might be tackling all the steps themselves, Holmes readies her students for the real world by going through the proper industry standard steps.
Budget? Check. VFX script breakdown? Check. Lined script? Check. Using a proper VFX shot naming convention? Check. Exporting clips individually to be handled by another person in separate software, even if that person is you? Double check.
“I train them to do it the industry way, even though they're doing all the steps themselves, so that by the time they get out there, they're not confused why they're doing certain steps,” Holmes says.
Your job starts in pre-production
While VFX work may land in a so-called post house, the VFX team is in conversations from the beginning.
“When working in a post house, you are always involved in pre-production and production. Whether you're in visual effects, whether you're in color... all the finishing post-production workflow details have to be decided on before you start shooting,” Holmes says.
Those initial conversations, discussions, and storyboarding sessions can shape decisions about camera usage, codecs, processes, and workflows. Shooting test scenes in different ways is also an ideal step in the pre-production stage, and one that post-production is intricately involved in. Potential issues can be identified early on in the process.
In addition, the explosion of technical tools and requests to create virtual worlds has helped to expedite the shift from VFX being only considered at the end of a production process to the beginning of the project.
“Now that Unreal Engine is becoming such a big part of filmmaking, post-production has been shifted to the pre-production stage for a lot of projects. With virtual production, you have to create your environments and your assets before production happens. It’s bringing visual effects to the table earlier, and it's really helped communication and efficiency between all the departments,” Holmes says.
And as for the “fix it in post/fix it in pre” debate, spawned in part by the endless corresponding memes? It really depends on the issue at hand.
Holmes believes that if one starts VFX conversations in pre-production, it can make production “more mindful” of what kinds of things to fix in post vs. on set.
Those stellar scenes with unbelievable and irreplaceable acting? Go for it in post. Don’t stop that flow.
But, those glasses with a really bad reflection? That’s harder to fix in post.
“What we say in visual effects is everything's doable... it’s just what is the time, what is your budget, and do you have the right artist to do it,” Holmes says. “Sometimes you get the perfect storm and it all lines up. And, a lot of the time, you don't know until you get there.”
Don’t be afraid to learn more, and to remember the humans!
Part of Holmes' journey included developing an overview of the entire production process, and working at various stages.
“While I was an artist at a small VFX company, I felt very disconnected from the whole pipeline. I knew what companies were feeding us [film] scans, for doing the visual effects work... but I had no idea about where color happened or where we were in the whole process,” Holmes says. “So I decided to switch into producing for visual effects.”
That shift, and what Holmes learned along the way, helped situate where VFX, and corresponding elements, fit into a larger workflow.
As one learns more and tackles projects, particularly ones in a technical realm, it can help to remember that you, too, are an artist... and a human one. As tools develop, including the AI integration into VFX software, we can continue to train our creative eye to have an impact in the VFX world.
Holmes compares it to the apocalypse.
“I kind of think of it as like, when the apocalypse comes, who can build the fire and knows how to survive without electricity? And things like that,” Holmes says. “I really like teaching the fundamentals without AI technology to teach everyone, here's how you do it. Or here's how you fix it. That's why you are called an artist, a visual effects artist. You need to be the right person for that job, instead of being a button pusher.”
Unfortunately, Holmes didn't have suggestions for a zombie apocalypse, or what might happen if turtles do in fact fly.
But we need to remove them from a scene, after our conversation with Holmes, we feel a little more confident in our workflows to do so.