VFX: The biggest star in movies part 2 [The Graphic Masters Series]

14 March 2016

Case Study

VFX is shifting from a purely post-production role to the very heart of the movie-making process

VFX: The biggest star in movies part 2 [The Graphic Masters Series] (Desktop)

One company that’s had a front-row seat in the evolving VFX industry is Framestore. Formed in 1986, Framestore has become one of the world’s leading VFX vendors, providing all manner of effects for TV and film. Arguably its greatest project was the ground breaking work it produced for Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity.

A film of considerable technical achievement, it’s not hard to see why the team picked up the 2014 Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Providing the majority of effects for the film, which account for about 80 per cent of what’s seen on screen, Gravity pushed Framestore’s visual effects pipeline to new heights.

“The space suits, vehicles, space environments and the majority of the interior sets are all computer generated, with the only ‘real’ elements often being Sandra Bullock’s and George Clooney’s faces,” says head of R&D Martin Preston. “We delivered approximately 84 of the 86 minutes of the film.”

Incredible complexity

Sandra Bullock in Gravity Often the only ‘real’ elements in Gravity are the actors’ faces. Everything else is computer generated.

The incredible complexity of these shots required a mixture of commercial and proprietary tools, with a team of artists driving them to achieve the director’s vision. “We primarily use Maya,” says Preston, “but we have a large collection of custom tools built on top of it. Framestore has dedicated software teams responsible for the development and maintenance of our custom technology, and a large number of tools were developed for this show.

Some of this was motivated by moving to the Arnold renderer during the movie, and hence requiring new lighting technology and shaders, and some was in response to the unusual nature of the film.” Preston explains how Framestore had to make changes to its pipeline to cope with the abnormally long shots in the film – the opening sequence runs for 17 unbroken minutes. “To cope with this we split shots into sub-chunks, which we called beats.”

“On a normal VFX show, we would expect a shot to be on average around 100 frames in length. On Gravity, shot lengths could run into minutes.” Martin Preston, Framestore

“There are two main difficulties working like this, says Preston. “Firstly, making the technology cope with such quantities of data, and, secondly, coming up with a workflow that allows multiple artists to work on separate parts of the same shot. The technology changes included work such as extending our in-house geometry file format, to allow animation to be split into beats too. This means we could more easily manage the I/O requirements. Similarly, we needed to develop technology to allow simulation TDs to layer up simulation so they didn’t need to do hours of work prior to knowing whether they were heading in the right direction.”

Specialists

Having artists specialise in such specific areas is a change Preston has noticed since his career in VFX began back in the late 1990s. “I think the biggest change has been the need for people working in the industry to have a greater degree of technical knowledge in their area of specialism,” he says.

“Previously it was common to find generalists filling the bulk of roles in VFX houses, but over the years each area has become considerably more complex, and as a result it’s unlikely any one individual would be able to contribute as much unless they focus on one area.”

Central role

Perhaps the biggest transformation undergoing VFX production is its shift from a purely post-production role to the very centre of the movie-making process. “I feel like visual effects has really expanded to touch every part of a film,” says Framestore’s Kyle McCulloch, VFX supervisor on Guardians of the Galaxy. “When I first started, especially on big projects, you’d have a handful of visual effects shots and they’d be very expensive and very time consuming, and a tremendous amount of work would go into planning and creating the shots. What you see now, in a film like Guardians, is that over 90 per cent of the shots in the finished film have visual effects in them.”

Guardians of the Galaxy - Rocket

Photorealistic characters, like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Rocket, drive technology forward

McCulloch explains how the crew is increasingly called upon to do all manner of work. “It’s not just your talking creatures and digital environments,” he comments. “We’re fixing make-up, we’re doing beauty fixes [such as removing a female extra who looked like she was making a rude gesture], we’re merging plates where you get two different performances that the director prefers.”

This in turn means that the VFX team is now tightly integrated into the entire production. “From the sound to editing to pre-production and pre-visualisation, visual effects touches everything now. I think that’s a huge change.”

To read more in this series, click here.

Read more in the Graphic Master Series.