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B2 DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING Visual Effects Industry


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

Visual Effects was always an interesting field that didn’t seem to have any boundaries. Countless films portraying worlds described in books, sometimes accompanying static drawings were brought to life on screen with not only movement but sound to complement characters we always wanted to be or meet. Visual Effects is defined as the various processes by which imagery is created and/or manipulated outside the context of a live action shoot. This can be seen in nearly every film created, even some films where you believe there is none. For example, in the ‘Social Network’ the twin brothers who

Area of Interest - Visual Effects

were fighting for acknowledgement of being the creators of facebook were not actually real twins. Two separate individuals played the twins and only one actors face was used as the twins. The other actors face was digitally replaced with the main actor chosen as the face of the Winklevoss twins. The best visual effects are the one’s that no one notices, which many people including myself did not realize. An example of a book, which heavily relied on visual effects, was ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Staying true to the book, the entire world was created through various visual effect techniques.

Some worlds we think may not look interesting actually surprise us, for instance, the computer world of ‘TRON: Legacy’. Who knew the inside of a computer program could be so visually pleasing. While these films and many others like them benefited heavily on the various visual effects techniques created today, many other films made in the past used non-digital techniques to create unimaginable worlds. Most techniques used in the past are still being used today; some have been more refined due to technology or completely replaced.

RESEARCH Below: Images from Tron: Legacy (2011).This visual effects breakdown shows how they used facial recognition technology and 3D modeling to replace the face of one actor with another. The face being replaced was digitally recreated to resemble a younger Jeff Bridges who was 62 when the film was being shot.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

There are numerous techniques found in the visual effects field, although before the digital revolution, visual effects was known as special effects and most tricks were done with clever illusions, miniatures, makeup and elaborate stage creations. Several techniques for both special and visual effects were found in a book called Special Effects: the history and technique. One such technique still used today is Optical Illusions. This is the manipulation of optical and photochemical principles of film itself. Light, lenses, filters and film were all investigated to enable new forms of photographic trickery. Optical illusions were used to manipulate an image in many ways; from making an actor become as large as a skyscraper or as small a pebble. Another technique used was creating detailed miniature models of objects. If a story required 20 ships

Special/Visual Effects History at sea to be battling against one another, to save time and money, 20 detailed miniaturized model ships would be created to act out the violent scene. This was also very helpful in case a scene needed to be filmed again. A boat that was destroyed for the scene could be replaced easily. Models were used to create large cities, spaceships and even objects that were planet sized on screen. In relation to rebuilding cities and landscapes, another technique used for this was Matte Painting. If there was a scene that required a large landscape view of an imaginary world, a painter would be hired to create the scenery in detail on glass or canvas but the area where a scene would take place would be left empty. This was done so the scene with the actors moving could be overlaid on the empty area in the matte painting and fused with an optical camera illusion to create a complete scene.

RESEARCH

Special Effects Make-up was normal make-up in some cases to make someone young look very old or vice versa. In other cases it was used to create cuts, bruises, deep wounds, diseases and creatures. King Kong was a man in a suit while skeletons were small models animated using stop motion animation. Physical Effects consisted of imitating nature. If a scene required actors to be out at sea during a storm, a large tank of water would be used with lights flashing to imitate lightning. Dumping another tank of water from one side would create large crashing waves. These conditions could be manipulated by engineers and stopped if needed. These special effects had many variations to them due to the demand of the story and sometimes they were combined to create other desired effects. But due to the digital age, most of these effects are created on a computer.

Below from left to right: Images of films that have benefited from the development of Special/ Visual Effects. (Metropolis (1927), Jason and the Argonauts (1963),The Ten Commandments (1956), Star Wars (1977), Jurassic Park (1993), TRON (1982),The Matrix (1999) and AVATAR (2009))


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

While researching the various techniques of the past and present effects in the industry, several major companies were discovered, which were noted as the best visual effects companies in the world. While most companies have been around for several years, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was found to be the most well known studio in the world because of its creator George Lucas and his internationally known franchise ‘Star Wars’. Since 1975, the company has been at the forefront in developing new visual effects technology in the industry. Individuals that

Professionals in the Industry

worked for several years at ILM left the company to create their own studios and have also made a name for themselves. James Cameron, who created the recent blockbuster film ‘AVATAR’, also used to work for ILM before he founded his own company Digital Domain. Framestore, The Mill, Double Negative, Moving Pictures Company (MPC) and Cinesite are all VFX companies situated in London with several branches around the world. They are the most well-known and largest VFX companies in Europe, while Weta Digital not being one to be left out is also another popular

VFX company that is situated in New Zealand and is known for creating effects for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, District 9, King Kong and AVATAR. While all of these studios would be very helpful to contact and question, it was very difficult to find specific individuals from those companies to interview. This lead to the idea of researching institutes that taught Visual Effects and maybe getting in touch with recent graduates. This would also help clear up any ideas of what is required of a VFX Artist and the various jobs they work in.

RESEARCH

Below: Logos of the world’s leading visual effects studios.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

Luckily an open day was scheduled at the perfect time during the research aspect of the brief. Attending the open day presented answers to many questions, which proved difficult or unattainable online. The student had an option to study a range of courses from Compositing, Character animation and Visual Effects. While seemingly a small offering as it sounds, each course had a plethora of knowledge for the student to learn. Their method of teaching was focused on the practical side of the industry, which involved numerous software programs that allowed you to create any object (Maya)

Escape Studios Open Day

with proper real world lighting. Compositing software, which allowed the combination of live action with computer-generated images (Nuke) and other camera editing software that allowed a wobbly shot to be streamlined and focused (PFTrack). They were very clear that it was not an institute that taught filmmaking or story writing, they were focused on the digital aspect of the effects. During the explanation of what there courses offered, they also mentioned several graduate students who created impressive work during the 12 weeks of studying the

course. Many of these individuals were noted in order to contact them for further questioning. It was also noted that they not only offered intensive 12-week courses but mentored online courses as well as evening classes, which would accommodate those with day jobs but still wanted to increase their knowledge of a specific subject. After leaving the institute with a better understanding of what the industry was about and what software skills a VFX artists must know, it was time to contact professionals in order to gain more knowledge into the industry and what was expected of an individual.

RESEARCH

Below: A Maya class in session and the Hallway to the focused classes of Escape Studios.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

While researching the background of several graduates of Escape Studios, only three could be interviewed due to the others not having their email online.Victor Perez was one student who studied digital compositing at Escape Studios and currently works for Cinesite.Victor was an important person to contact because he had a bachelor’s in drama arts and cinematography.This brought to light some questions as to whether this knowledge of film was important in the industry. Alexis Haggar studied Visual Effects at Escape Studios and is currently working freelance with his own studio. Alexis also had a background with Physical Effects, so practical skills such as Model Making, Sculpting, Engineering were important skills to know.

Professional Opinion

In order to find other artists to contact, a live panel featured on the guardian’s website was focused on breaking into the visual effects industry.This panel consisted of 12 skilled visual effects artists from different companies with some more experience than others. Using the list from the panel, research was done on the artists’ backgrounds and some contact details were acquired while others were not presented online. From the list, Kyle Mcculloch (compositing supervisor at Framestore), Alan Lewis (head of visual effects & animation at the Met Film School and Sofronis Efstathiou (joint associate dean & postgraduate framework leader for the Computer Animation Academic Group at Bournemouth University) were contacted.

DEVELOPMENT

In respect to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg who were both known as directors before VFX masters, a storyteller named Andrew S. Allen was contacted. One of his creations the ‘Thomas Beale Cipher’ was highly recommended online as a great short film and since he directed several other short films, it was decided to get his input on the industry as a director. The final VFX artist contacted was found during personal research of visual effects artists separate from the brief. Ruairi Robinson created several short films online that were highly recommended. One was even nominated for an Academy Award. It was hard to understand how someone who studied visual communication could create engaging short stories as well as high quality visual effects by himself.

Images Below: Top left: Digital Compositor Victor Perez. Top Middle: Alexis Haggar’s physical effects work in Dead Set. Bottom Middle: Ruairi Robinson’s popular short film ‘Blinky’. Bottom left: A clip from Andrew S. Allen’s ‘Thomas Beale Cipher’. Top right: Logo for MET Film School where Alan Lewis teaches. Bottom right: An image of Sofronis Efstathiou.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

Contact Report Summary

DEVELOPMENT

During research of the visual effects industry, a news article found on the guardian website revealed a live question & answer: breaking into the visual effects industry. This live Q&A consisted of experienced professionals and some recent graduates who worked in the industry. While there were some useful questions asked during the session, they weren’t questions formulated from personal interest. Using the list of experienced professionals and recent graduates, all the names were collected and background research was done on each visual effects artist. Of the several VFX artists on the list, only two had emails that allowed me to contact them. They were Alan Lewis (head of visual effects & animation of the MET Film school) and Sofronis Efstathiou (Joint associate dean & postgraduate framework leader for the Computer Animation Academic Group at Bournemouth University). Other artists contacted consisted of Victor Perez, a VFX artist who studied at Escape studios in London and graduated as a digital compositor. He also has a bachelor in drama arts and cinematography. He was mentioned while attending an open day at Escape Studios and was regarded highly as a success story. Andrew S. Allen was discovered after watching his animated film ‘The Thomas Beale Cipher’. He is a graphic designer but is well known for his modern storytelling skills. The other artist who was contacted was Ruairi Robinson. While being more of a director that a visual effects artist, he is still capable of doing compositing and using other VFX techniques. He was discovered during personal research of the industry. It was noted that he had popular actors perform in his films ‘Blinky’ and ‘The Silent City’. Contacting him was very important because he studied Visual communications and was able to produce high quality films and visual effects as well as being nominated for an academy award. All of these individuals were contacted through email except Ruairi Robinson because he did not have a direct email address. As an alternative, I was still able to contact him through vimeo’s message service since he had an account. Victor Perez was the first to reply to his questions. His input was very helpful and he guided me to alternative places to study to become a VFX artist. It was noted that while there

are various techniques used in the industry there are no single solutions because every film is different. He also told me as a person interested in the field, I should always keep studying, learning and researching and never become complacent. Sofronis Efstathiou followed with his input by informing me of the skills necessary to succeed in the industry as well as knowing the film aspect of the industry. This consisted of the genre of film, cinematography, telling a story, scriptwriting, history, language, lighting, directors, how cameras work and the pipeline involved. He also mentioned that a broad understanding of the creative field would help improve any work produced. Andrew S. Allen provided his input on the importance of storytelling and said ‘to make it in the industry you have to be a good storyteller’. Storytelling has made its way into products, teams, brands and politics. He also mentioned that there isn’t one single technique more useful than another, whatever effects are helpful in telling a story they should be used. The more techniques you know, the better prepared you are to tell your story. His main point was never be afraid to fail and keep making stories, not talking about making them. Finally, Alan Lewis answered his questions with the most important information focused on what is important in the industry. For him back in the day the industry was new and to some extent everyone was making it up as they went along, ‘nowadays it’s important to have a showreel, understand the way different pieces of software integrate with each other and to have a good understanding of the digital production pipelines that are in use throughout the industry’. He recommended always keeping up to speed with how VFX is used within the industry, having strong communication skills, the ability to work well within a team environment and make sure to study VFX at a film school since their approach would be different to an engineering department. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson’s responses weren’t very helpful but they did confirm most of his talent was self-taught. The information gathered from these interviews proved to be a great help and it has helped me understand the industry better as well as put me on the right path to my next step in further education.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

As a way to illustrate what was learned from interviewing the VFX artists, a personal project, which was planned for sometime seemed like a good concept to use. This concept was to recreate the digital effects found in the film ‘Iron Man’. The character Tony Stark created an artificial intelligence system that was integrated throughout his house and any communication system. The idea was to recreate an artificial intelligence within the flat. When the homeowner enters, the AI greets him and several screens appear on the walls of the house and follow him

Inspirational Idea

throughout. As in the film, a voice would be heard conversing with the owner. This voice would be heard throughout the house and would tend to the owners digital needs. The idea would be recreated with the owner of the house played by myself, entering the home and asking the AI if there were any calls, to which the AI would respond, only Mr. Perez. The AI would be asked to call Mr. Perez and display the video chat stream on the wall. This is where the interview would begin with myself asking Mr. Perez several questions about his work and the visual effects industry.

Upon finishing the interview, the call would be completed, and the AI would be requested to post the recent interview on the blog. Due to the hardware, not every aspect of the effects from the film would be recreated thus only allowing the video call of Victor Perez to be created for the interview. After planning the idea, the questions asked and answers given would be used as the script for the film. With the idea planned, the first aspect of the interview to be setup would be the location of the interview followed by the pixilated digital face.

DEVELOPMENT

Below: Images from the film ‘Iron Man’. These show the effects used to illustrate the AI user interface for the home of Tony Stark.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

The first scene to be shot in the house was the front door. The camera would follow the owner of the house up the stairs to the hallway where the interview would take place. Although because there would be limited effects for this short video, the timing and location were changed to the owner reaching the top of the stairs and stepping into the hallway. In order to test how the image would look on the wall at specific camera angles adjacent to the position of the owner, several pictures were taken at different angles in order to make a proper decision as to whether the angels would work. A decision was required to deliberate what would be the main angle

Planning with Pre-Visualized shots

to view the streamed call and what would be a good angle to show the interviewer asking questions. A large green A2 sized paper was placed on the wall to simulate where the streamed call would be seen in the camera. After establishing the necessary shots for the scene, several dots were placed behind the green A2 paper in the corners and the large green paper was removed. These would be used to track the position of the video stream and set the correct perspective of the video on the wall in reference to the camera. With the correct angles set for the scene, the next phase of the interview consisted of the pixelated digital face.

DEVELOPMENT Below: The first row of images shows several camera angles photographed for the scene, which were possible choices for the interview. The second row of images shows the installation of tracking points, which would be used later for the streamed video call.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

In order to create a pixelated digital face, a tutorial was found to help in the technical aspects of the design. The overall look of the digital face was not to look complete as a surface in real life but to appear fragmented with independent particles moving in a slight erratic order. When the interviewee speaks, the particles would react by leaping out towards at the interviewer in a wave like manner from left to right. While not having anyone around to help with the development of the digital face, it was decided that since the photo of Victor had the same beard cut as myself, I would have to become the digital compositor. In order not to resemble my likeness too much, a similar black sweater was worn in relation to the photo of Victor along with a hat to cover my head. An A2

Particle Based Imagery

sized green paper was used as a green screen to single out my upper body in order to create a solid base for the particle face. Due to insufficient lighting equipment, the green screen was placed in the same hallway as the scene with a lamp to balance the light hitting the green paper recorded by the camera. The answers from the questions asked were recorded and uploaded to the computer for editing. Unfortunately, it was realized that my voice would already be heard as the interviewer, so it could not also be the interviewee. Therefore, a voice reader program was used to articulate the answers for the pixelated face. With the necessary visuals and audio recorded, the pixelated face was rendered and ready to be inserted into the live action scene.

DEVELOPMENT

Below: Images of the green screen setup and the result from the completed render of the pixelated facial structure.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

The live action scene was next in line to be recorded. Since most of the camera angles were planned during the pre-visual stage, it only took a short time to record the necessary scenes. After assembling the footage, and inserting the pixelated face onto the wall, the next step was to edit the color within the video to simulate a dimming light and dark room. At a particular time in the scene when the call is displayed on the wall, the AI dims the light in order to allow the owner to view the video display clearly. The camera also cuts to the owner in some cases when he is asking a question. For this part in the scene, the blue light being projected by the video call should be illuminating the interviewer. Instances such as these were taken into consideration before rendering the final composition.

Color Correction & Lighting

DEVELOPMENT Below: Images in the left column consist of the original footage recorded for the scene, while the right column shows the edited footage for the final composition.


DESIGN INVESTIGATION & WORK BASED LEARNING

The visuals for the final composition were assembled and completed. The final aspect was the voice for the AI system. In the scene when the owner asks who has called, the AI must respond. Thankfully a fellow classmate acted as the voice for the AI. After recording her voice, the audio needed to be tweaked so the sound would have a slight echo that would simulate the voice being heard throughout the house. Upon finalizing the audio effect, the clips were added to the final composition to complete the interview

Victor Perez Interview

of Victor Perez. Some issues noted later after rendering the final composition consisted of grainy picture quality and the alternating volume of the audio during the scenes with the owner speaking to the AI. These were all researched and found to be equipment issues. The video was grainy due to lighting, which the camera could not display clearly and the sound should have been captured using a boom microphone. These were all noted and will be corrected for future use in shooting live action material.

FINAL

Below: Final images from the completed version of the Victor Perez Interview.


Design Investigation: Visual Effects