Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Bruce Woloshyn

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisor Bruce Woloshyn…

“I originally was a broadcast technical director doing NHL hockey and CFL football,” recalls Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Woloshyn who decided to make a career change. “I was at NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] in Las Vegas one year when Discreet Logic first came out with Flame. I was so floored with what I saw. I went back to the hotel, got my wife, and dragged her down to the convention centre. I said, ‘I’m going to work for whoever is going to buy me one of those.’ I was already working at a really advanced commercial facility in Seattle. It was six months later when Bob Scarabelli approached me to come to Vancouver to help start Rainmaker Digital Pictures and we were going to buy two Flames.” The native of North Battleford, Saskatchewan believes that there have been two major changes in the visual effects industry. “One of them is going from analog to digital technology. When I first started the best high end effects were all in television commercials because there’s nothing more expensive per-finished-second than a TV ad. The other biggest thing is processing power and storage. The other day I got a disk space report saying something to the effect that we were utilizing some ungodly amount. It was like 87 terabytes or something like that. All I could think of when we started Rainmaker was that, ‘Who the hell would need a terabyte?’”

“When the tsunami hit Japan it was evident pretty quickly that all of the high definition videotape in the world was made in one place,” recounts Bruce Woloshyn as the issue became a significant concern during business meetings. “Sony couldn’t make HD Cam tape because its factory had been damaged; there was now a finite supply of the industry standard in broadcast videotape.” Having at least one playback machine for each of the various digital videotape formats contributes to Method Studios keeping pace with the rapid advancement of technology. “We need to have all the leading edge stuff to do the leading edge work. When you start with a certain technology on a big project often times by the time the project is over you wouldn’t have thought to use it because there would be something better.” Advancements can happen within a year or even six months resulting in complications when creating a technology for a specific project. “We’re only tied to something for as long as we’re working on a show. The second that’s show is over you’re already thinking of using the next thing.”

“We go and gather lighting references with gray and chrome balls,” states Bruce Woloshyn who makes use of HDRs (High Dynamic Range images) when constructing a 360 degree view of the whole set “so we know exactly where the lights were and how they were placed.” Assisting the effort to blend in the visual effects into the actual footage are reports detailing the body, lens, and positioning of the various cameras. “When pre-vizing shots to be filmed in New York for Man on a Ledge [2012] all of the tools we used in Maya were based on what they would have with them on location. We made little artificial cranes and lighting rigs. That’s not always the case because one of the things you have in your visual effects arsenal is the ability to do anything. When you’re trying to make it look like you didn’t do anything, staying true to what could be done on set is key.” The situation is different when dealing with a stylized reality. “I spent years doing the fantasy world thing for the Stargate [Showtime, Sci-Fi Channel, 1997 to 2007] franchise. It’s a little bit easier in a sense that I used to say to the guys, ‘We just need to make it look cool. It doesn’t need to look real.’” Woloshyn is quick to point out “that the number one thing to come first is the story.”

“My background isn’t acting so much,” readily admits Bruce Woloshyn. “I’m privy to be extras in all kinds of things; it’s only because I’m familiar with the creative powers on the show and its fun.” Providing the cast with verbal and image references is important in enabling them to visualize the scope and scale of the scene. “I know years ago people were worried that the advancement in digital technology meant that we weren’t going to need actors and I was thinking, ‘That’s crazy talk.’ We’re always going to need actors because they are the embodiment of the characters.” In regards to the medium utilized in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011), Woloshyn observes, “Although motion-capture to make characters is very effective, it is also much more expensive than having the actor perform. It’s the reason why an animated feature price-per-finished-second is significantly more than a live-action feature.”

“When we were doing Breaking Dawn – Part 1 [2011] at the studio here, it was the only film we were working on that wasn’t being done in stereo,” reveals Bruce Woloshyn. “3D takes longer and everything costs more to do it right. I’ve worked on standard pictures which have had the stereo process applied to them later. We’ve also had a bunch of native stereo shows.” Avatar (2009) is an example of 3D being used effectively. “That story benefited from having stereo applied to it, whereas with other movies does it make a difference? Would it make the story better? I don’t know.” Woloshyn remarks, “It is a gimmick and sometimes a gimmick is fun. I can remember taking my kids to see Monsters vs. Aliens [2009] and absolutely, they did lots of gimmicky work but it was part of that type of movie.”

“I’m one of those guys who do not believe in having me between production and the crew,” states Bruce Woloshyn. “I try to do all the things as a supervisor that I wanted to have done when I was an artist.” The Canadian-born VFX supervisor remains connected to his early days in the industry. “My office is equipped with Nuke and Inferno. I still do lots of my own concept work then hand those files off, and go, ‘This is what I was thinking.’” Woloshyn has a hard time imagining the roles of the production designer and the visual effects supervisor merging into a single job. “I don’t know, especially, on jobs of significant scale that would be hard. I’m working on a movie right now with four visual effects supervisors in the same building because the project is so big.” Even though the memory capacity of computers increases this is not the case with the human mind. “We’re riding on the edge of that right now.” He adds, “Visual effects is a team sport and I’m blessed here in Vancouver at Method to have an amazing team.”

Many thanks to Bruce Woloshyn for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview.

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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.