VFX Voice

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July 28

The Making of The VES Handbook: The Definitive Authority of VFX


The VES Handbook of Visual Effects – Industry Standard VFX Practices and Procedures has cemented its position as the de facto ‘VFX bible.” The much-anticipated Third Edition has just hit the market on Amazon.com — and just like the first two editions — has been lauded by leading practitioners as the definitive visual effects textbook and the essential reference guide for the craft and art of VFX.

What was originally conceived as a resource for visual effects practitioners has evolved into a valuable tool for the industry as a whole and those professionals who intersect with visual effects. More than that, from the outset, it quickly became a foundational text for college/film school students as their entre to the profession and trusted guide as they jumpstart their careers.

In the coming months, VFX Voice will share excerpts and practical advice from The VES Handbook, Third Edition, which includes the work of 115 authors covering essential techniques from pre-production through production and postproduction. To lend some more insight into “the making of,” we talked with the book’s co-editors, renowned Visual Effects Supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun, VES and Visual Effects Producer Susan Zwerman, VES, who have invested more than a decade of their volunteer time and talent into realizing this important series.

VFX Voice: What was the genesis of the first VES Handbook (published in 2010)?

Okun: From my years on the set, I would typically be asked the same questions – “Why a blue screen or a green screen? Can you get that work done in and out in minutes?” And I understood in a tangible way that we need a book available to inform the people we work with, to help ‘up’ the knowledge quotient about what we do and help practitioners problem-solve.I was a huge fan of the ASC Manual [American Cinematographer Manual] and started to ruminate on a manual that would cover the depth and breadth of the vast VFX profession. Because our field has so many verticals, I brought the concept to the VES Board, which expressed great enthusiasm and a healthy dose of skepticism on being able to harness the information. Susie [Susan Zwerman] raised her hand and our collaboration was born.

Zwerman: Back in 2009, I was working on my first book [The Visual Effects Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX] and I fell in love with the art of writing and sharing our collective knowledge of VFX. When Jeff shared the concept for the VES Handbook and his ideas, I jumped at the chance to work with him, wholeheartedly. I feel that we have a responsibility to share what we know and what we have learned –with our seasoned colleagues, with new VES members and with those just joining the community – because we are all part of the learning curve with this developing technology.

Jeffrey A. Okun, VES

Susan Zwerman, VES

VFX Voice: What were some of the challenges and bright spots in getting the first edition from concept to market?

Okun: Creating the book in conjunction with the VES meant that we were exposed to a wide array of experts in many fields, and we had enormous access to that knowledge base to cull our writers – almost all of the book’s writers on all three editions are VES members. This book was also an extension of what VES has always focused on – increasing the understanding and respect for our craft and for the legions of artists and technicians and innovators who contribute so much of the exceptional work in filmed entertainment.Susie and I divided and conquered – I was in charge of the editing and ghostwriting, while Susie took up the mantle of organizing the work, managing the flow with the writers and clearing images. That model has worked really well across 12 years and three editions.

Zwerman: The first edition was the hardest, as we worked to formulate the ideas and topics to cover, with so much potential ground on craft and technology. We aimed to pick what’s most relevant, while at the same time, it’s changing beneath our feet. I worked on organizing everyone against the timeline and getting the hundreds of images cleared, and with Jeff to ensure that despite having hundreds of writers, we put forth a cohesive style and consistent voice. It was a daunting two-year process to get the first book published, but I was really happy and so proud of what we produced.

VFX Voice: How did you hope the book would be received and what has been most gratifying?

Okun: My original goal was to write for visual effects practitioners, but it has pretty much blanketed the industry and is used by everybody. It’s enormously gratifying how the book has been received. We didn’t set out to write an educational textbook for students, but seeing it become a main text and hearing from students and young practitioners over the years who made it into the business and point to the help of this book…it makes this so worthwhile. Here’s the thing – no one can be excellent at everything (with rare exception) – take stereo 3D filmmaking for example. You can browse the book and glean as much as you need to interact intelligently with the stereographer, the director, the cinematographer – if we can provide that fundamental knowledge, that language, that translation that enables everyone to work that much better together, then the book is fulfilling its purpose.

Zwerman: I have always been a champion of teaching others about VFX and encouraging students to become knowledgeable, it’s the most rewarding part of my work. I always hoped that readers would see the book as a way to help them embrace new technologies and increase their skills. I feel that we have a duty to give back and share what we have learned on the journey.

The first edition received a PROSE Award [from the Association of American Publishers] in the Art Technique category, and getting that recognition from this body for professional and scholarly publishing, was an amazing testament. As the book has received reviews, I think this one really encapsulates and validates our work:

“The first day of each semester at USC I bring a copy of The VES Handbook of Visual Effects to class, asking the students to buy it and in idle moments, start reading. And they do. The VES Handbook is a treasure trove of world-class writing in visual effects by the best of the best in this wacky art…There is no book like The VES Handbook if you want to be a fully immersed visual effects practitioner.”

– Michael Fink, VES, Professor, USC School of Cinematic Arts, George Melies Endowed Chair in Visual Effects

VFX Voice: With the publication of the third edition, what has evolved in your process over the last decade and what is exciting about this latest volume?

Okun: When we are writing a book that takes a long lead-time to publish, we are always trying to look forward and be knowledgeable. We are in the predictive business, so it’s incumbent upon us to stay on top of the writing and expand our knowledge of the topic or get more experts involved to vet things we don’t know. This new edition delves into machine learning, AI, VR/AR, interactive games and virtual production. As the industry moves at great speed, it’s almost impossible to figure out where we would be now, when we started this book 2 ½ years ago.

Take The Mandalorian and its use of the LED wall for example. When we started this edition, Gravity had been released. They made the light cube, basically an LED wall with lower resolution graphics on it to provide the lighting. But to do The Mandalorian, which is essentially replacing an age-old technique called front or rear projection, they kept it top secret. No one was allowed to speak that it existed, so it came out and suddenly we are faced with revolutionary new technology, which is an awesome game changer for our industry. But we didn’t find out about it until around Christmas 2019, and started to dig up writers to do fast turnaround and get it through the publisher – when the book was already in layout. There comes a certain point of no return in publishing when you can’t add or change any more, and I think we have done an exceedingly good job in navigating these hurdles.

This is why I knew from the outset that the book would be an ongoing series….and why I’m ruminating on the fourth edition – as so much has come up during the pandemic and VFX will change radically from a post-production medium to a production medium. And these issues need to be codified and identified and written about so that our members and the industry can stay up-to-speed and on the cutting edge.

Zwerman: With each edition, we are striving to add what is new and contemporary and keep serving up the core disciplines and best practices. I think with each book, we’ve learned the ins and outs of publishing, how to best attract and leverage outstanding talent – who all give of their time as volunteer writers – and in presenting a body of knowledge that serves practitioners at all points in their career, from students and aspiring filmmakers to seasoned professionals. While there are books that cover aspects of our field, there is no other book of this intense magnitude and I definitely think each book is better than the last one.

VFX Voice: How would you sum up The VES Handbook, Third Edition?

Okun: Far beyond basic information on techniques for visual effects artists in general, it shares the combined practical hands-on experience and tips from leaders in all VFX verticals. It is THE guide to navigate the practical day-to-day issues that will be experienced by every working professional at various points in their careers.

Zwerman: This is a must-read for all visual effects filmmakers. The writers have combined wisdom and practicality to produce an extraordinary book that covers every aspect of visual effects techniques in a concise manner without losing sight of its art and innovation.

The VES Handbook of Visual Effects – Industry Standard VFX Practices and Procedures is available on Amazon.com and other leading online booksellers.


Watch the webinar with Jeff Okun, VES, Susan Zwerman, VES and a cadre of contributors to the 3rd edition of the The VES Handbook:

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