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September 27


Fall 2018

Meeting the Challenge: How Would You Solve Three Big VFX Problems?


Barson won a VES Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program for Game of Thrones in 2012. (Image copyright © 2011 HBO)


It’s often said that visual effects is about problem solving – how can the best shot be achieved in the time necessary and the budget allowed, with all the many other variables that tend to get thrown in during production? What exactly does problem solving in visual effects involve?

For insight into the process, VFX Voice asked three supervisors how they might tackle a particular visual effects scenario. They were asked what first steps they’d take, how they’d actually plan the effects work, and things to consider during any live-action shoot.

While there were no scripts or story treatments to go from – usually the source of many answers (and perhaps further problems) for VFX supervisors – each scenario presented these common issues apparent in VFX problem solving: Where do you look for reference? Should the approach be practical or CG? How would the shots be bid out? How do you collaborate with the other filmmakers? Read on for fun and frank discussion from seasoned Visual Effects Supervisors Angela Barson, Adam Howard and Brendan Taylor.

Angela Barson

Scenario No. 1: A firefighter races through a house – ablaze and collapsing – in search of a child inside.

Angela Barson: Is a Co-founder of London VFX studio BlueBolt. Barson won a VES Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Broadcast Program for Game of Thrones in 2012.

First steps: This type of scenario is a great example of how the visual effects supervisor needs to work very closely with other departments. Communication and planning is key. It’s critical to have an early discussion with the special effects supervisor, stunt coordinator, production designer, director and producer. Any sequence involving fire has a level of complexity and safety requirements beyond a normal shoot. Putting a child into the mix increases that complexity.

Initially, it’s important to know what the location is, how much fire, smoke and destruction is wanted, and how close all of this happens to the actors. Storyboards would be a huge help, even at this early stage. Anything which involves SFX, VFX and stunts always needs careful planning, and visuals will make sure everyone is imagining the same scenario.

This scene from Deadpool could serve as inspiration for the fire scenario. Here, a scene of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) caught in a factory fire was filmed mostly without much real fire. (Image copyright © 2016 Marvel)

Rodeo FX would add fire to the shots from their own effects elements or CG simulations, ensuring that they managed to show individual parts of the building actually burning, rather than just placing the elements over the top. (Image copyright © 2016 Marvel)


Planning the VFX: The best results will always be achieved using practical fire, which means the amount of practical vs. digital will mostly come down to safety. Where practical fire can’t be used, interactive lighting would be needed so the VFX fire looks like it’s affecting the environment. The amount of smoke is also a consideration. Depending on the location, practical smoke may not be allowed. Ideally, the smoke would be mostly practical with more added in post where needed.

The collapsing building needs to be considered – which pieces collapse, what is revealed behind, how close is this to the actors, and if additional fire and sparks are thrown up. Burning embers and ash help make the scene look hotter and more dangerous. These are relatively straightforward to add in post, so it’s worth considering doing all or most of this in post rather than adding an additional layer of complexity to the shoot.

Instead of creating CG fire and smoke, it would be worth doing an element shoot of practical fire which can be added to shots. Even if CG fire and smoke are needed, it’s always good to be able to mix this with practical elements. Depending on the location, rather than just shooting simple elements, it’s good to create some structures that can be burnt to give form to your elements – window frames, beams of wood, etc. Smoke elements can also be created in confined spaces so they react correctly with the shape of the rooms.

Bidding: For bidding, the sequences would get split into easy, medium and hard shots, with an estimate of the number of each type of shot needed. The script pages are a good guide for this. If there are storyboards, then the breakdown can be done against the boards which would give a far more accurate estimate. For each shot it should be noted what additional VFX work is required – fire, smoke, heat haze, embers, falling debris. If this isn’t accounted for at the early bidding stage, costs will increase when in post.

During the shoot: When fire is involved, it’s always worth shooting additional reference footage of any practical fire that’s used on set. If this is shot as if for an element (underexposed, locked off, full frame), then it can be useful as additional elements to add into the final shot. There is often a desire to add heat haze in front of the lens. This is fine to do in non-VFX shots, but where you know you have to do any VFX work, it’s best to add any heat haze effects in post. Otherwise you’re battling with moving distortion on the shot, which obviously makes things very difficult.

Adam Howard

Scenario No. 2: In space, several astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle conduct experiments, enter data into tablets, view the Earth below, and go about their daily routines.

Adam Howard: Is a freelance visual effects supervisor with recent projects including Hurricane Heist, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He has four Emmy awards for VFX related to various Star Trek TV series, and was also nominated for a VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Framestore’s visual effects for Gravity dealt with many aspects of space scenarios. A liveaction shoot with the actors shot with partial spacesuits and props against pre-animated LED panels helped inform light interaction, with the studio producing digital suits, space structures and reflections. (Image copyright © 2013 Warner Bros.)

First steps: After reading the script and coming up with a few visual ideas, it’s important to get to know the director and know the way he or she thinks. During the production the VFX Supervisor can be working very much as the director’s right hand and extra set of eyes, and you need to be able to communicate very clearly from the beginning. After meeting with the director, I meet with the DP to get his or her ideas and concepts. The process of creating is very much one of teamwork, so early discussions set the groundwork for great communication throughout the production.

Planning the VFX: I would come up with lots of questions as script, casting and production design are all fleshed out:

  • Does the production designer plan on building a full interior and exterior set of the space shuttle or will he or she build partial sets and have the VFX department extend digitally?
  • Does the director plan on doing previs for this sequence? If so, does he or she want it to be run through VFX or handled as a standalone department with input from all department heads?
  • What is the design of the spacesuits and are there elements of them that will require VFX augmentation?
  • How do we handle reflections of the surrounding space on spacesuit visors?
  • Do we go with practical LED panel reflections or do we add the visors in post to help speed up the production schedule and make the shoot more comfortable for the actors?
  • What does the stunt department have in mind regarding flying actors in the interior and exterior sets for zero gravity shots?
  • What will we be seeing outside the space shuttle windows?

In this case it is Earth, but might we be seeing other areas of space represented on screens or data tablets, and will that ‘look’ be coming from the production design department or will it be coming from VFX (or both)?

For Interstellar, more in-camera effects for cockpit space scenes were relied upon, including rear-projection screens for outside the spacecraft, and wire work for weightlessness scenes. (Image copyright © 2014 Warner Bros.)


Bidding: Bidding is a pretty standard process of breaking down exactly what will be required within each shot and then assigning line item prices to that. Once we get numbers back, I work with the VFX Producer to decide which houses we will go with and which work will go where. In most cases the VFX budget tends to have been predetermined by production and the studio. This can be a challenge when the director has a specific vision that might not be able to be accommodated within the predetermined budget. But part of the job is helping the director get what he or she wants while staying within the budget and delivery schedule.

During the shoot: Having been a VFX compositor and animator for nearly 30 years, I am particularly sensitive to the way live action and elements are shot. When possible, my aim is always to make as little unnecessary cleanup work as possible for the VFX crews so that they can really concentrate on the job at hand of making a beautiful and believable shot. So, clean greenscreens, minimal roto (unless it is absolutely needed), accurate camera data and really good, clear descriptions of exactly what will be required in the final shot.

A production still from season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Taylor’s Mavericks VFX worked on shots located in Fenway Park, where they extended plate photography to include a digital stadium. (Image copyright © 2018 Hulu)

Brendan Taylor

Scenario No. 3: Twin brothers fight atop a moving train as it leaves a major city, along the countryside, and through various tunnels.

Brendan Taylor: Is the Founder and CEO of Mavericks VFX in Toronto, where he recently supervised visual effects for The Handmaid’s Tale, Man Seeking Woman and The Light Between Oceans. Taylor was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role for 11.22.63.

First steps: The first thing I do is research. Usually, it starts with my own experience, but quickly evolves into looking at other movies. I mean, there are a lot of really smart people who have come before me, so why not learn from them and apply those perspectives to my own ideas? You are really looking for examples where you think it worked, but also where it didn’t work. For example, for this particular scene, I would look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Skyfall, The Wolverine and The General for the train sequence, and at Moon and Orphan Black for twins-related VFX.

Planning the VFX: I’d try and do the whole thing on a real moving train. You could replace the background to be whatever you want (to a degree). You also would have to allow for some close-ups against greenscreen because some people are uncomfortable on  the tops of trains. I’d probably recommend that these be really close (take another look at Skyfall). But, here’s the problem: the chances of getting a major city to agree to allow you to shoot something like that are less than zero. No city employee wants to be at the receiving end of the following headline: ‘A-List movie star and all the crew, including craft services, fall to their deaths off a moving train.’

It’s a lot easier – I know this from experience – to rent a section of track in a rural or even private area and shoot there than it is to try and shoot in a city. But that still doesn’t solve the ‘leave from the city’ problem. You can’t replace the background here (i.e. shoot in a rural area and replace the background with buildings), because the lighting between the big buildings should cast shadows on them and the roto and light bleed would be brutal and maybe even unworkable.

So I would break it into two sections: 1. city, and 2. rural. In the city, it would be second unit shots of the train (mostly wide) where the action would be a combination of comping wide greenscreen shots, full CG actors and close-up greenscreen shots. In the rural, it would be mostly practical train with a few greenscreen closeups.

It is really up to the supervisor to convince everyone to get out of the city as quickly as possible to get to the practical train stuff. I’ve found using the words ‘expensive’ and ‘time-consuming’ work well with producers, while ‘laughable’ and ‘very-CGI’ work well with directors. In all seriousness, they need your help to inform them of what will look best. It really can be an intimidating venture and you need to help them through this.

Also, talk to the director. Ask what is more important: the reality and danger of the scene, or showing that they are twins? If it’s the reality and danger, then outside it is. If it’s that they are twins, then it’s in a controlled environment. I still stand by that a lot of this needs to be as real as possible. I’d say shoot it on a train with doubles and face replacements where necessary. For the hero moments you’d use greenscreen and shoot with a ‘twinning’ method. (See sidebar below)

Taylor considered the carefully choreographed train fight in Skyfall as inspiration for his scenario. (Image copyright © 2012 Sony Pictures)


Bidding: The process for bidding is usually two rounds; the first one is all ‘blue sky’ – if we have all the money in the world. The second round usually starts with a phone call: ‘Hi, I don’t know how to say this, but we have one third of what you bid.’ And then you go through the ‘fun’ process of figuring out how to get great stuff for less money. It’s a tough slog. All of the computers, software, people, rent and insurance cost a ton of money. If you want good-looking effects, you have to pay for them. But not every production has a ton of money. As long as you are transparent, you can usually find smart ways of doing things well.

During the shoot: I carry my still camera around my neck at all times. It’s a bit of a security blanket. If I ever feel like something isn’t going to work, or I feel uncomfortable, I just start taking photos. It’s also grist for the mill. You can accumulate a lot of material that will be useful for matte paintings, textures and reference. I am also obsessive about HDRIs. If there is the smallest inkling that there will be CG, I’ll do an HDRI. The most important thing is probably to be in sync with the cinematographer and director and to establish a connection. You are going to be working together for the next few months.

A scene from Orphan Black shows the characters Sarah and Cosima, both played by Tatiana Maslany. (Image copyright © 2016 BBC America)


Phone a Friend

You never need to be alone in VFX problem solving, suggests Mavericks VFX Founder/CEO Brendan Taylor. When working through the ‘twins fighting atop a train’ scenario, he decided there was no need to re-invent the wheel in how the twins part of the sequence might be achieved. So he rang Visual Effects Supervisor Geoff Scott who had regularly worked on cloning shots for Orphan Black, where the same actor played different characters in the same scene.

“Geoff said that a lot of the success of the clone sequences [twinning, he calls it] relies on the actor who is playing the double on set who will be replaced,” relates Taylor. “If the double is a good match and a good performer, the shot has a much better chance at succeeding. A quick breakdown on how to do twins shots: you shoot the actor as one character and the double as the other character, either in a lock off or in motion control. Then you shoot the actor in the double’s spot and do the whole thing over again. Then you roto out the actor in one plate and comp them into the other.

“Geoff also said that the very first clone shot they did on Orphan Black was outside, and because you don’t have control over the way the sun moves during the day, by the time you get to the swapping the actors, the light has completely changed. Then you have to composite an actor who is lit left to right into a plate that is lit right to left. It will never match. So they never did it outside again.”

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