VFX: The biggest star in movies part 1 [The Graphic Masters Series]

14 March 2016

Case Study

How Hollywood’s reliance on visual effects is driving new workflows and technological advances in the VFX industry Hollywood’s affair with screen trickery is nothing new.

VFX: The biggest star in movies part 1 [The Graphic Masters Series] (Desktop)

From Gertie the animated dinosaur in 1914 and the intricate miniature models in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, to the first appearance of fully computer-generated scenes in Stephen Lisberger’s 1982 Tron, visual effects have played an integral part in filmmaking for over a century.

But today the desire for greater spectacle on screen is constantly accelerating and driving equally spectacular advances in technology and workflows, with powerful bespoke software solutions, automated systems and vast amounts of processing power.

A black box

One of the major shifts undergoing VFX is the sheer scale of the work: the number of shots, the amount of data generated and the complexity of the 3D projects.

Having worked in the industry since the mid-1990s, Jonathan Harb, CEO and creative director of renowned California-based studio Whiskytree, can remember a time when dealing with VFX meant delving into the mysterious unknown. “An overwhelming dynamic that’s changed is that back in the mid-1990s, VFX, especially digital VFX, was a black box still,” he says. “There was very little that was understood about just how this stuff got done, and so there was much more mystery surrounding it and it was a much more rarefied experience on the whole. Now, it’s more understood about how visual effects happen. This has led to the complexity of what’s possible really changing.”

Harb and the Whiskytree team are all too familiar with complexity, having provided approximately 80 VFX shots for Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi action film Elysium, which is centred on a luxurious space habitat. “Elysium is a great example of the difference in complexity,” Harb comments.

As the industry has continued to evolve, so too has the technology, says Whiskytree’s visual effects supervisor Votch Levi. “As Jonathan says, things were very ‘black box’ in the 1990s, and even into the early to mid-2000s, there was a lot of proprietary software being used,” he says. “If you wanted to do something like Elysium in the early 2000s, you’d have to write your own tools, your own renderer, layout tools, and so on – there was nothing that could handle something like that. Now, we rely much more heavily on off-the-shelf software. We use Softimage pretty much straight out of the box. Yes, we write some tools, but they’re not the same kind of tools they would’ve been back in the 1990s. Now we just write the glue to speed up some of the processes, to really help us build efficiencies and automation into the system.”

Software solutions

This combination of knowledge and more accessible software has also changed the visual effects industry from being a niche field to an incredibly sought-after profession. But despite this, there are still areas that need some work, suggests Harb. “There’s definitely still a portion of work where constant innovation and invention are required, even now. No doubt, there are still black boxes, but now there’s an awful lot of work that can be done by so many people in so many places. And that’s a major, major change.”

“Back in the 1990s, you’d be excited if you could render a couple of million surfaces. With Elysium, we were working with trillions of surfaces” Jonathan Harb, Whiskytree

Still from Elysium

Part of making Elysium convincing was the combination of organic areas and vast structures

Around the globe

Another big change that’s affecting the industry is globalisation. The usual territorial borders of being a US effects house or UK VFX shop no longer apply; most big vendors have satellite offices situated all around the globe. During 2014, Framestore opened an operation in Montreal, while Industrial Light & Magic set up a facility in London.

One studio that’s realised the benefits of having artists based in different parts of the world is Double Negative. Having originally formed in London in 1998, the studio now has offices in Singapore and Vancouver. “The VFX film industry has changed a lot, both globally and locally,” says Paul Franklin, VFX supervisor at Double Negative.

“The business has become a lot more international in that the US studios, who are the main purchasers of feature film VFX, are much more willing to look at VFX vendors all over the world. That isn’t to say they weren’t doing so in the 1990s, but back then the primary reason to go overseas for VFX was price. Price is still very important today, and there are plenty of tax incentives and subsidies to encourage filmmakers to pick one location over another, but quality and working relationships with the filmmakers play a much larger part than they did 16 years ago. A large part of [Double Negative’s] success is down to us developing strong relationships with great filmmakers who come back to work with us time after time.”

Franklin has also noticed significant changes much closer to home. “In terms of local business, the VFX industry in London has grown from a couple of hundred people to a couple of thousand and more,” he says. “UK VFX houses have gone from being niche specialists to comprehensive one-stop facilities, capable of handling all aspects of the VFX, even on the largest shows.”

Unique opportunities

Despite the industry’s competitive nature, Double Negative has remained a leading VFX vendor, providing various effects for some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, including The Dark Knight Rises, the Harry Potter series and Godzilla. But it was the studio’s work on Inception that saw it gain the major plaudits. Limbo City and the Paris fold-over sequence required extraordinary effects work, an achievement recognised by the Academy Awards in 2011 when the team bagged the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. “Inception was a unique opportunity to do something a bit different,” says Franklin, “where VFX was placed at the heart of storytelling, and it was good fun making it.”

For this project, the art led the science, requiring the Double Negative team to build custom tools in order to achieve the correct result. “Without a doubt, the biggest challenge was creating a dilapidated shoreline of Limbo City,” says Franklin. “The original idea was to have a city that had grown so dense and so old that it resembled a natural land form, such as a cliff line or a glacier bordering the sea. After fruitless attempts to conceptualise the city directly through drawings and paintings, we developed a piece of software that analysed the interior volume of a 3D model of an actual glacier from Antarctica to solve the problem. It would have been very difficult to realise some of the scenes in Inception without modern VFX technologies.”

Art leading science

As technology continues to evolve, it’s safe to assume the visual effects industry will follow in its footsteps. “Fortunately for us – and everyone else in VFX – Moore’s Law continues to march on with no sign of stopping, giving us faster and faster computers every year,” says Paul Franklin. But it’s also clear that, in many cases, art is leading science, with talented VFX artists developing the new tools they need to fully achieve the directors’ visions.

To read more in this series, click here.

Read more in the Graphic Master Series.

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