By Jesse Vartanian | This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Visual Effects Society (VES) Summit at the trendy W Hotel in Hollywood, California. For those of you who are not familiar with the yearly VES Summit, it is a gathering of some truly inspirational VFX leaders, coming together to discuss the dynamic evolution of the industry.
Keynote Speaker, Victoria Alonso urges us to “fill the gap”
It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, around 75 degrees, which was ideal since the entire event took place outside on the patio. Eric Roth, Executive Director of the Visual Effects Society, introduced Victoria Alonso, Executive Vice President of Visual Effects and Post Production for Marvel Studios. Alonso (who is currently producing the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie and has worked on numerous films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man and many more) was very energetic and extremely excited to share some of her experiences with us. Randy Star, a conference interviewer, immediately jumped into questions about her role at Marvel Studios, which lead her to discuss the role of VFX in Marvel’s movie making process:
“We can create what is not there. The fact that we have that power is an amazing power to have. If you look at our movies, with no backgrounds or characters in them, you are just looking at a string of performances that are usually solid. But they don’t have a playground to shine, and we have that power to say we can do it. The only reason you can’t do something is time, and I get that. Time is the enemy. Time is the four-letter word that hurts us in every movie. There is one enemy and it’s time. It will get you every single chance it gets, but we can do anything, and that is how we look at it even with two hours to go.”
It was interesting to hear her talk about this from the perspective of the feature film world. It just goes to show that everyone battles time, across all industries. As a freelancer, I have certainly felt the wrath of this “enemy”. We can literally create anything, if you give us time. This is why we have budgets and deadlines though, because as an artist we would never be done, literally ever. Time and budget keeps us on track, and we have to design and create around how much time we actually have to start and finish a project. The same applies to Marvel, they are given a budget and schedule, and they have to deliver within those guidelines. If Marvel didn’t have a schedule, we would never see the new Avengers film because they would never think it was quite done yet, and someone, somewhere just has to add one more thing…
Alonso continued to discuss the movie making process, and touched on the topic of egos:
“For the longest time in my career, editorial fought with visual effects. That is a fight that nobody wants to have. It’s not the editorial department’s movie, and it’s not the visual effects department’s movie. That is not fair to the movie. Keep your egos in check. It doesn’t do anything for you. The egos in our Marvel movies are our characters. We have to protect the Tony Stark storyline, as well as the Iron Man, as well as the Thor.”
The last thought before Alonso left also tied into ego, which was based around the idea of “filling the gap.” “If there is a void in a situation, put your ego aside and fill that gap. Don’t say no because you are an animator; go roto, go track, it doesn’t matter. You will get to animate at some point, but for now fill that gap.”
I actually live my life around this exact idea, and could relate quite well when she was telling this story. If you don’t fill the gap, then you are honestly closing doors and opportunities. Unexpected situations happen, especially in creative industries. There have been plenty of times where I had to fill the gap, and a great example was when I first got out of college. The agency I was with at the time needed someone to design style frames, but I was an animator and didn’t create style frames. There was a gap that needed to be filled, so I said, “Sure, I can do that!” Today, I would say that half of my work is designing and half animating. And you see, I did get to animate at some point, but not before filling that gap first.
Dogs in Hairpieces – The Game of Thrones round table
There were 13 different round table topics to choose from — each moderated by a subject matter expert. Influenced by my history working with HBO, I chose the Game of Thrones discussion for my first round table. About eight or so of us gathered around Stephen Beres, Vice President of Media and Technology Operations Group at HBO. Stephen actually came to HBO with Game of Thrones, and has been involved with the series since its inception.
HBO’s entire original content is out of the Santa Monica office. For those of you who don’t know, HBO actually does all of their own fabrication in-house, from physical props to armor and sword craft all done in Northern Ireland by Northern Irish Crafts people. They even have their own blacksmith and raise and own their own horses!
This was one of the first shows that HBO approached photography on the digital side. “Digital photography really allowed us to make a show like this,” said Beres. Given that it already takes 80 weeks to produce one season, the team simply cannot afford the time of shipping film back and forth across the Atlantic. In terms of post production, HBO has their own facility in Northern Ireland that (if I have this right) includes three editors, three assistant editors, two dailies people, a colorist, three post supervisors, one associate producer for post production and a head of post production. About 85% of the team for HBO is in Northern Ireland, and full sized sets are there as well, such as the throne room and part of the full sized ice wall.
In general, a lot of what their visual effects supervisors are doing is element gathering. HBO does so much texture photography every year with a little mobile texture rig that they send around, which gives the proper neutral lighting. Now they are trying to take things one step further, and see how they can scan their physical made props, since they kitbash many of them. For example, the dream catcher on True Detective is a handmade prop that took weeks to make. With that said, they are really looking into scanning and reproducing things like this for a number of uses. They may kitbash a hero that was made by hand, but then digitally create a model that is accurate to that hand made prop.
In terms of the animals in the show such as the wolves, they have two different sizes. They use actual wolves in Castaic, CA, and then huskies in Northern Ireland for the far away shots. The wolf packs, the bears, the giants, and anything that requires force perspective photography is done in Castaic, CA. They have used the same wolf pack forever, although, comically, they initially tried hairpieces on dogs. When our moderator, Beres, said this, everyone laughed as he continued to say, “it looked so silly we couldn’t use it, even after shooting a good portion like that.” It takes about two weeks to get all of the wolf photography since the animals can only work for about four hours per day. They have their visual effects editor and team there in Castaic when they are doing it so they can get the comps back live. By that time the episodes are so far along that the wolf shots can get cut right into the sequence, so at the end of the day they can see how everything is working out.
Beres summed up HBO in a nutshell by saying they are a “development entity, a production entity, a distributor and consumer products, with the exception of Disney is pretty rare”. This gives them the opportunity to take metadata, the set scans, and the things they have done in production and develop consumer experiences around them.
Software limitations in animation – The Animation Domination round table
After a short break for lunch, we moved to our next and final round table discussion. As an animator, I chose Animation Domination with Dave Walvoord, Visual Effects Supervisor at DreamWorks. Dave has been working at DreamWorks for 12 years now, and has worked on films such as Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda, Over the Hedge, How to Train Your Dragon 1 and 2, and is currently waiting on the script for the third Dragon installment. His impressive background resonated with me quite well and I was fascinated by what he had to say.
Walvoord actually started in live action, and moved to animation when he realized all of the things he hated about live action didn’t exist in animation, such as a cinematographer lighting the scene before he got to it. Going back to what Alonso was saying about “filling the gap”, Dave had a similar experience. When Blue Sky Studios first opened up to create Ice Age, he had to fill the gap and become the technical supervisor for the entire project. That ended up leading to more opportunities, such as going to DreamWorks to work on Shark Tail.
Going back 10 years, you had to be a big studio running large toolsets like ILM, Sony, and Digital Domain. Now with Houdini, Maya, Nuke, Mari, Shotgun etc., you don’t have to be so large. It was interesting to learn that even though technology is constantly changing as he is working on a film, Walvoord explained that he is locked into certain software when they start a movie. “During Kung Fu Panda 2, it was all about how to avoid these two furry characters touching each other. Now we are being asked to take the helmet off the character and run the hand through the hair!” In the broadcast industry, we are not working upwards of three years so, for the most part, we are never locked into specific software for too long. It’s funny though, Dave and I were talking before the session about this actually, and I guess I always took it for granted how I could pretty much choose whichever software I wanted as long as it came out the way it needed to.
A Paradigm Shift in VFX – The Visual Imaging panel discussion
The final segment of the day was a panel discussion with some of the most well known heavy hitters in the industry including; Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Grossman, Production Designer Bo Welch and Cinematographer Dion Beebe. The main focus of the discussion was virtual cinematography, and how much time and money is wasted doing it the traditional way. I found Ben Grossman’s contributions to the panel very powerful and passionate. He talked about how visual effects is no longer just explosions on top of live action footage, it can be almost the entire film. “As digital technology started transforming the way that we make movies, that got relegated to the visual effects department because it was technology related,” Grossman explained. “Visual effects is no longer visual effects, it’s just production by other means.” (It’s ironic that Gravity is on television in the background as I write this, but what a perfect example of this in more ways than one)
Grossman introduced a paradigm shift to the role of visual effects in the filmmaking process, asserting that visual effects — typically viewed as a subset of post production — should be incorporated earlier on, into pre-production and production stages. Providing preliminary visuals of the finished product, Grossman argued, helps actors, directors, and cinematographers visualize CGI scenes and characters when they are working in abstract settings: green screens, motion capture acting, etc. Grossman noted that visual effects in pre-production can be found in the animated film workflow, and he would like to see it cross over into the live action workflow.
My experience at the Visual Effects Society Summit was really valuable. As a freelance artist, most of the time I don’t even know what I am working on until the morning I show up. It could be animation, design, composite, art direction, visual effects, or something else. With that said, this event was great in terms of reaching so many different industries, from animation to visual effects and more. I am always excited and extremely grateful to attend these kinds of events, not only to be in the company of some of the best in the world, but also because I get to learn and have conversations with people that share my passion.
Digital Canvas was a proud sponsor of the 2014 VES Summit. For more information about the Visual Effects Society visit their website.
About Jesse Vartanian – I am an independent designer and animator. My work includes design, animation, modeling, texturing and compositing.