Trevor Hogg chats with VFX Supervisors Alessandro Cioffi, Sean Faden, Richard Higham, Dave Morley, Charlie Noble and Edson Williams about the visual effects industry…
There was a time when visual effects were viewed as B-movie trickery. The path to mainstream respectability began with the landmark release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the establishment of Industrial Light & Magic in 1975. With computer technology developing to the point where dinosaurs roam freely in Jurassic Park (1993), Hollywood started to realize that visual effects could be instrumental in increasing the box office tally for its big budget productions. The growing demand from major studios combined with government investment incentives has resulted in the VFX industry expanding beyond California and into countries such as Britain, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and Germany.
“A really good effect is one that remains invisible but features something exceptionally spectacular that I know wouldn’t be possible to achieve in camera,” states Alessandro Cioffi, a VFX Supervisor for the German facility Trixter; his sentiment is echoed by his Fuel VFX counterpart. “Something the audience would never question. It’s the ability to trick the audience into believing what they see is real,” observes Dave Morley, a Visual Effects Supervisor for the Australian company. “There are so many steps to take in creating most vfx: matchmove, modelling, texturing, lighting, and compositing,” believes Charlie Noble, a VFX Supervisor for Double Negative in England. “Not only does each one have to be 110% but the overall effect has to look like it has come out of the camera; it has to support the narrative and wash over you, commanding your belief.” Edson Williams, a Visual Effects Supervisor for Lola VFX in California, says, “If the audience walks away from a movie completely oblivious to my work, I have done my job.” Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Faden, who is also based in California, agrees with Williams. “When it’s too over-the-top it takes me out of the movie.” Richard Higham, a VFX Supervisor for The Senate in England, feels, “A great visual effect has got to be something that fits the director’s storytelling; it could be anything from something you know it is not real, like a dragon, to simply replacing glass on a table.”
“Besides all the necessary skills, like solid technical knowledge and long experience in production, I think that a VFX Supervisor has to have the ability to push the boundaries of his imagination in the direction of his client’s vision,” states Alessandro Cioffi. “It’s a little bit like being an architect who has to intimately understand what his customer needs and secretly wishes, without losing sight of his budget!” Dave Morley suggests, “As a Supervisor, it’s all about communication and a great eye. You need to be able to understand your team, work to people’s strengths, motivate them in the right way, [and] guide them with enough information so they can add their own special sauce.” It is also a matter of staying current with technology. “I have always remained on the box. Being up to date with techniques, software and procedures always helps, not only in devising plans, but also in being able to help people with problems they may have.” Edson Williams remarks, “There are several elements that make a successful visual effects supervisor. You need to be able to spot the little details, and effectively communicate with both the artists and the production.” Sean Faden emphasizes the importance of keeping an open mind. “People are definitely more motivated when they feel their ideas are being heard.” Richard Higham adds, “The key things are having a very good eye, being patient, and being good at communicating ideas to the artists and having a strong will.”
3D and IMAX have had a significant impact on the visual effects industry. “Stereoscopy and large formats are standards that have been introduced to meet the audience’ increasing demand for greater quality and for something different and more spectacular than the home cinema experience,” states Alessandro Cioffi. “Fortunately, with the latest technological innovations, digital effects facilities are able to keep up with these demands, especially having to deal with enormous amount of data and complex work-flows. On the other hand it’s definitely true that we need to keep our IT and R&D departments busy developing more and more sophisticated solutions for our projects.”
“3D makes everything just that more precise,” explains Dave Morley. “Everything you used to do to ‘hide’ things doesn’t work anymore. You can’t just pull out a nice old faithful smoke element to cover up a lone matte painting. There’s a lot more to it. IMAX is less so but working at the 15perf res will test any network or box out.” Charlie Noble remarks, “Things have got a little easier since I did my first stereo IMAX job around 10 years ago. The leaps and bounds that hardware has made are obvious. But it’s the artists who are now much more au fait with the process, coupled with rendering a totally integrated stereo, and compositing pipeline that allows the stereo side of our work to go smoothly.”
For Lola VFX which worked on the reverse aging tale The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and transformed actor Chris Evans into a 98-pound weakling for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), their assignments have become more difficult. “3D has added a lot of complexity to the task of De-aging and slimming,” reveals Edson Williams. “We have worked on several films that were shot in 3D [not post converted] and it really pushes our pipeline. As a business owner, I am not a fan of 3D; as an artist, it is great learning new tricks.” Richard Higham confesses, “I don’t know whether or not 3D is going to last for a long time. The key thing is taking the time to make sure these things are done and planned well. If something is rushed you might not get the true benefit.”
The escalating demand for visual effects in movies has created a highly competitive market place. “Trixter has a long history in character animation, since the 90s, when Simone Kraus and Michael Coldway first founded it,” states Alessandro Cioffi. “In the following years the range of action has broadened to cover the entire range of visual effects. Many departments have opened and expanded while the core team’s pool of knowledge has grown considerably, staying always up-to-date technologically and creatively. That has allowed Trixter to stay flexible in the market and to successfully approach and accomplish a broad variety of projects of a different nature and scale. Naturally, the most challenging task remains the acquisitions of new jobs, while expanding the horizon on the international market. Recently, Trixter Los Angeles has been formed led by Simone, and is moving closer to the Hollywood scene; the results are already tangible with the work we’ve done lately on several international productions.”
Diversity is also essential to Fuel VFX. “We have our hand in quite a few different pies,” explains Dave Morley. “We work on television commercials and feature films for both local and international clients. We are a company driven by artists. We have grown from the 5 of us with our own ‘secret sauce’ to the now 90+ over 10 years. We are all still heavily involved in the projects that go through so the rapport and camaraderie amongst the team is high. We have a lot of staff that have been with us for a long time and I’m sure will be for a lot longer.” Morley adds, “The older we get the smarter we get in terms of building more efficient pipelines and systems to make the jobs go through the building smoother; this is a big part of how we try to remain competitive and maintain the high standard of work, but make sure we can deliver it more efficiently/cost effective. Our R&D department has grown to six times what it was two years ago to enable this new philosophy.”
“The visual effects industry is in turmoil; many of my good friends have lost their jobs due to the outsourcing of work to other countries,” reflects Edson Williams. “Fortunately, Lola Visual Effects has a unique skill set, and we have been able to weather the storm better than many of our competitors. The VFX industry is maturing and I miss the old Wild West days.” Sean Faden explains his survival strategy. “I try to get along with the people I work with, so people will want to work with me. It doesn’t make sense to be a big jerk in this industry because the industry is too small.” Richard Higham is impressed by the technical achievements resulting from the cinematic ambitions of James Cameron (Avatar) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). “Everything is now so much more believable in film,” observes Higham, who remains focused on the end result. “The tools for me are second to the storytelling and to what you’re trying to achieve visually. Its great fun to explore new technologies and it’s amazing what has been coming out over the last few years. But for me it’s maintaining a good creative appreciation of filmmaking as a whole.” Charlie Noble thrives in the ever changing environment. “That’s one of the main attractions of this industry for me. I’m constantly learning. Every show is different with its own unique set of challenges and solutions.”
Industrial Light & Magic CGI ‘Before & After’ on Jurassic Park…
For an in-depth look at the visual effects behind Captain America, be sure to check out Trevor’s article Raising the Shield: The Making of Captain America: The First Avenger over at the CGSociety.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.