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DYNAMATION … from a lecture by Ray Harryhausen in 1984

Dynamation is a term which was coined by producer Charles Schneer when we started making black and white films together in the 1950s. We specialised in combining live actors with animated models and, since nobody knew quite what stop motion photography was, they would call it an animated film. We were trying to establish a new division between cartoon and three-dimensional animation, so we came up with the word ‘Dynamation’ for that process. As the years went by, the publicity department felt that they had to enhance the word, so we got ‘Super Dynamation’!

Georges Meliés experimented with stop motion photography in France before 1900 with his unique short film Trip to the Moon but it was Wilis O’Brien in America who first found a commercial use for stop motion. His greatest triumph was King Kong which set me off and I have never been the same since!

It left such an impression on me that I felt it was the type of career I wanted, so I made it my business to find out how it was done – hence Dynamation sprang out of the basic O’Brien technique.

The principle behind the technique is that we project a small picture of the live action. Unlike many companies who build 50ft models, we build small models and shrink the actors down to size in order to have control. The larger you go with complicated hydraulically controlled mechanisms, the less control you have – particularly in dramatic situations – so we use a small rear-projected image of the live action behind the animated model, sometimes adding matting process.

When we were presented with the story of Gulliver’s Travels’ we wanted to make it as inexpensively as possible. We had heard of the yellow backing travelling matte process used in England at that time (1959) making its own matte instantaneously using a bi-pack camera. We thought that would simplify combining big people with little people. Since we had planned 150 travelling matte shots, we came to the UK to investigate and we have been here ever since. We used the yellow backing system on three pictures, then it suddenly went out of fashion. That was the darkest day I can remember. Now, of course, we use the blue backing system.

We had just perfected the miniature projection duping process for Twenty Million Miles to Earth where you could hardly distinguish between the original negative and the Dynamation shots – and I would have liked to do the next picture that way – but Charles Spooner said you could not shoot an ‘Arabian Nights’ type picture in black and white, so we made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in colour. This took some experimenting as we did not have a choice of colour film which we could use for back projection plates. However, we took the plunge and it worked out quite well commercially. Not too many people found it objectionable to see rather grainy Dynamation shots intercut with the original negative. People who are technically minded are far more aware of that than the average cinema audience, although audiences today are very astute and certainly do not accept things that they would have done twenty years ago.

One of the biggest problems with colour film is contrast and change of colour and we found that the new low contrast print film, designed mainly for television, was very useful. It is much easier to control the colour balance today than it was back in 1958, when you could not leave an unfinished shot in the camera overnight. If you did, it was quite evident the next day to see a colour change jump due to the California temperature drop during the night.

Many times I set my own challenges and I find that my goal is always a little too high for the assets we have. I think that one of my greatest challenges was in Jason and the Argonauts where three men fight seven skeletons. That sequence presented a lot of problems and there were times when I averaged about thirteen frames per nine-hour day – which is less than one foot of film. The accountants got very uptight because they expected me to grind out the footage very much faster than that!

Some of the animated figures used in Jason and the Argonauts

It was necessary for me to handle all the skeletons myself as they had to be synchronised very intimately with the three miniature-projected swordsmen. The skeleton’s feet had to be fastened to the floor and, the minute they left the ground, I had to suspend them on wires for accurate control over the animation. Being keen to make the skeletons look professional, I studied fencing myself but unfortunately, I threw my hip out of joint and had to give it up!

The whole fencing sequence had to be choreographed like a ballet and broken down into numbers. We had to pre-plan the cuts ahead of time through the storyboard – and I cannot stress enough how important that it. When you get on the set you do no want to have a lot of arguments and discussions on how shots should be set up. I always make a number of pre-production drawings which aid everyone concerned in visualising just what the final effect will look like on the screen.

The famous Skeleton Fight from Jason and the Argonauts

I always prefer to animate models of animals for exotic settings and situations instead of using real animals. It is so difficult to find a talented crab who will perform just the way you want, or a baboon who can play chess! You do not want to be at the whim and mercy of a lizard, hoping he will go from point A to point B in so many seconds. I find that real lizards become lethargic under the hot studio lights and barely blink or yawn for the benefit of the camera. The animated ones will perform exactly as directed.

For the bulk of the shots in our films I prefer to use miniature rear projection instead of travelling mattes because it’s easier to execute intimate interplay between actor and model. You have the projected image right there in front of you, rather than wait for weeks to see the combined effect from an optical printer. However, we do resort to many travelling matte shots which, in themselves, are very time consuming to put together.

Dynamation is a word which really means using every trick in the trade – but there comes a point in the economics of doing stop motion animation where you cannot do as much as you would like to do in the way of retakes and careful matching. The time factor is quite considerable. The ideal situation in the future is the Chroma Key method as used in television. When this method has the same resolution as film, you will be able to make instantaneous travelling mattes. I believe that some companies are working on this at the moment.

In recent years there has been a great exposé of the ‘behind the scenes’ details of making complicated special effects. It is my belief that it rather spoils the illusion when the audience is told how it is achieved. It is like a stage magician who tells everyone how he achieves his illusions of magic – soon the audience loses interest in the show!

 

 

 

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The Art of Illusion … by Wendy Laybourn

THE BOOK!

I’ve been really busy for the past couple of years helping my Art Director friend Terry Ackland-Snow to write a book about working in the film Art Department. We decided to call it The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film & Television because illusion is what making a film or a television programme is all about – what the audience sees on the screen isn’t altogether real!

Like all good things, this project was started over a glass of wine. Maybe I should think twice next time – but I’ve really enjoyed working with Terry and helping him to pull this whole thing together.

Essentially, the book is aimed at anyone wanting to make a career in film production and it will take you through the processes involved in creating a film set step by step. Film sets have been constantly developing from the simple canvas backcloths used on theatre stages, right through to the present day where computer generated effects augment the highly sophisticated art of designing, building and dressing sets.

The Art of Illusion will be available on 11th September from all good bookshops and on-line providers with ISBN number 978 1 78500 343 1. If you want to pre-order you can take advantage a discount offered by the publisher, Crowood Press on Crowood Press

 

 

 

 

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The State of the Global VFX Industry 2013

VES

Visual Effects Society issues White Paper: The State of the Global VFX Industry 2013. A Comprehensive Analysis of Business Drivers and Best Practices

Industry Experts Cite Improved Business Management as Key to Adapting to the Dynamic Global Marketplace; VES Commits to Further Action

Los Angeles (July 16, 2013) – Today, the Visual Effects Society (VES), the industry’s professional honorary society, released “The State of the Global VFX Industry 2013,” a strategic analysis of the business drivers impacting all sectors of the VFX industry working in film production – those emanating from within the business infrastructure and those imposed by a global economy – and presentation of solutions to mitigate instability. Initial recommendations focus on improving business and financial management acumen among artists and facilities management through training programs and new standards and practices. The whitepaper is the first outcome of a working group of diverse industry stakeholders convened in March 2013 by the VES, which has committed its continued leadership to forge and execute a blueprint for action.

“In recent months, worldwide dialogue in the visual effects community has created a sense of urgency to address the complex pressures on artists and facilities dealing with issues of frayed business models, financial instability and an increasingly ‘nomadic’ workforce operating without a secure vision of the future,” said Eric Roth, VES Executive Director. “The VES saw a need and an opportunity to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the global issues at hand. We’re proud to have initiated a vital effort to analyze and update the business models that govern our industry and hope this resource serves as a catalyst for change.”

This VES whitepaper is the result of a rigorous process, which incorporated input from more than three dozen industry representatives including artists, studio, business and labor leaders and facility executives, whose companies have operations in eight countries and 15 cities around the world, as well as data from several online surveys and published works. (Note: participants are listed in the paper under Section 5: Sources). It was co-authored by two widely respected professionals, Carl Rosendahl, Associate Professor at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and former President of PDI/DreamWorks, and Ken Williams, CEO and Executive Director of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC and co-founder of Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Four complex independent drivers of this widespread industry shift were identified: growing competition nurtured by technological advancement and globalization; varying tax incentives and other government dynamics; industry dynamics related to an unpredictable production pipeline and pricing models for bidding and managing jobs; and non-business motivations that may contribute to counterproductive business decisions.

“The collection of challenges facing the VFX industry related to workflow, profit margins, business models and workforce issues ranged in characterization by participants from natural business evolution to turmoil based on their individual position and geographic locale,” stated Rosendahl. “But ultimately, the perspectives and information coalesced into two distinct categories – those factors outside of our control and endemic to the realities of a global economy, and those the industry can and should take ownership of.”

In the category of impressionable factors, the immediate need to improve business knowledge for artists and facilities was widely cited among interview participants. As such, the paper presents a number of important actions the industry can adopt to increase business and financial management acumen, including: development of industry standards and practices; fixing current models; considering alternate pricing models to fixed price bidding; exploring flexible business and staffing models; and continuing to assess the relative costs/benefits of forming global business and labor organizations.

“In this new landscape, companies will continue to pursue options they believe will enhance both efficiency and profitability,” said Williams. “It is our opinion that widespread participation by artists and facilities in a focused business training program would result in better forecasting, bidding and managing of jobs, a more educated and empowered workforce, increased transparency and accountability – and would usher in a more stable, influential VFX infrastructure with a greater skill set.”

The VES and its working group will advance this process through continued discussion and development of business guidelines, training program elements and other recommended ideas. In addition, a series of public forums on specific business and career management topics relevant to artists and facilities will be explored as opportunities to continue the public dialogue.

“It is clear from this analysis that certain business practices have contributed to today’s uncertain business climate,” said Roth. “Many dynamics are outside of our reach, but this strategic roadmap can help us alleviate some of the insecurity. Now is the time to embrace change, to chart a better, more sustainable future for this industry we all love.”

For complete White Paper pdf go to: Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Visual Effects

 

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From VFX Supervisor to Viral Short Film Director

Hasraf Dulull

I knew I wanted to work in film when I saw ‘Batman Begins’ and several years later I ended up working on ‘The Dark Knight’ – one of the proudest moments in my compositing career! – Hasraf Dulull

This article is published in Network Nine News – if you want to subscribe to the magazine go to www.network-nine.com or e-mail info@network-nine.com

I am currently a Freelance Visual Effects Supervisor working at Prime Focus London on several broadcast shows and feature films.

I was recently nominated for two Visual Effects Society awards – BBC One’s ‘Planet Dinosaur’  and Nova’s ‘Life Beyond Earth’ – and I’m currently getting ready to release my own short film ‘Fubar Redux’, an epic motion comic film about a political war set in an alternate reality with cats and dogs!

I have wanted to work in film since the age of twelve when my dad put on a VHS copy of the film ‘Bladerunner’… I was totally blown away by it and  would make mini models of cityscapes in papier maché whilst holding a cylinder to my eye like a camera.

I went to college and did a A-Levels in Technology, Art and Computer Science. (there was no clear route to get into films and my parents were pretty strict about me being too focused on the arts, so I compromised with the computer science part)

At the time of college (early 90s) video games were really a big part of my life and I was able to combine my love for cinema with the interactive world so, whilst I taking my degree, I did work experience for a games company working on cinematics and promotional material.  I was exposed to editing and early visual effects compositing and throughout this time I was always trying out camera moves, doing things you wouldn’t be able to do with a real camera like spin around a bike as it’s racing along the track!

During early 2003, the video games industry started to collapse due to big studios buying out the smaller studios. I was then working in a small studio in the North and really didn’t want to move back down South. So, to keep my self in work and busy I setup my own little CG company and was doing animation for music promos and corporate using high end visual effects.. in the evenings I would then work on my own small projects and did a short trailer called ‘The Chase’. I attended an Autodesk event and there was a ‘show and tell’ session but one of the presenters couldn’t make it. I overheard that they were urgently looking for a presenter to show off work and so I volunteered as I had a DVD of ‘The Chase’ with me anyway!

Nervous as I was, I did the presentation and played the short trailer – and it got a standing ovation! I was asked to play it again and Autodesk asked if they could use it for their marketing campaign. I then got offered a job at one of the largest game developers/publishers in Europe and lead their team in creating action packed cinematics and marketing promos for their driving games.

As the cinematics technology was getting more impressive in the games market, the more I wanted to combine the skills I was using with my love for cinema. I started sending out my showreel to companies dealing with VFX in film. Back in those times games and film were seen as separate industries, whereas today the two blend in really well as both use the same tools, craft and technical knowledge (particles, normal map creations, high poly modelling, motion capture, scanning etc).

I knew I wanted to work in film when I saw ‘Batman Begins’ and I said to my partner I would like to work on the sequel if they make one! Several years later I ended up working on ‘The Dark Knight’ – one of the proudest moments in my compositing career!

I started off doing roto and paint at Moving Picture Company and then ended up moving into compositing, mainly because I had already shown my compositing skills when doing complex rig removals plus my knowledge of Shake.. from there it was upwards over the years at several facilities worldwide as Junior Compositor then Compositor to Lead Compositor and then to Compositing Supervisor, which lead me to becoming a Visual Effects Supervisor.

One of the many things I learned working in different areas of the visual effects industry, from feature film to commercials to music promos and even long form broadcast is – it’s all the same in terms of craft, technical and creative workflows.. the only difference is budget and schedule.  With music videos you have very little time to do very ambitious things and usually work crazy hours, mainly for the love of the music track or directors work… I did loads of music promos at Partizan as well as co-directed some with Little Red Robot in San Fransisco with my good buddy Seth Shevosky who is now Exec Producing my short film ‘Fubar Redux’.

Freelancing at vfx facilities on a project per project basis was the best model for me as opposed to being a full time staff artist because it meant I could have more variety in projects as well as pipelines.  To do this I set up my own company – HaZ-VFX.  I started it up as a way to keep on supporting independent projects such as short films and indies, whilst still working freelance on major feature films. 

These indie projects need VFX done to a tight budget whilst keeping production value high.  Also, working on these indie projects keeps my feet on the ground and allows me to still enjoy and appreciate the film making process which you don’t often get whilst working on those big movies doing VFX in a dark room in a big facility. Working on smaller projects in my spare time also increased my experience as a Visual Effects Supervisor and Producer which got me gigs on high-end broadcast projects like ‘America – The Story of Us’ as well as feature films… so yeah, even though the indies are often low pay or no pay at all… it paid off as it enabled my Visual Effects Supervision career.

Over the years I worked with some amazing people from artists to VFX Supervisors to Creative Directors and Producers at various facilities and studios worldwide and that’s one of the things I love about this industry, everyone knows everyone. So, when it came to me venturing into directing and creating my first short film, I knew it had to be visual effects driven.

I was very heavy into 2.5D compositing, this is basically cheating 3D in a compositing environment as apposed to going into actual 3D CG cameras.  I was one of the early users of The Foundry’s Nuke. So I had a good relationship with them and demo’ing the tool often for them in productions I was involved with.  I approached The Foundry with an idea of creating a short film entirely inside of their powerful compositing tool Nuke and emphasising on the key function of a 3D space inside a compositing tool.  I did some presentation boards and tests in late 2009.

Instantly I was getting support from Matt Pleic and Richard Shaketon, senior product managers at the Foundry. They were key in getting all the support I needed to make this short film. I developed a visual style which would work well with the technology but also served the story telling aspect of the film. This style was – Motion Comics.

Motion comics are basically cut down animated versions of each comic book frame using cut outs from the artwork to create parallax and depth with each shot. Examples can be seen on the Blueray of ‘Inception’ with the ‘Cobal Story’ or on the Blueray of ‘Predators’ – which have several motion comic stories which didn’t get covered in the film and of course, there is the ‘Watchmen’ animated comic DVD.

I wanted to use my VFX compositing experience to take motion comic cinema to another level with extra depth and production values but still keeping the core principles of motion comic story telling. With 2.5D compositing this opens up a load of possibilities to push the motion comic visuals with better animation and more depth and cinematography yet treating each shot like a comic book frame or panel with good pacing, framing and action. I wanted to get away from the usual static like animated action or comic book drawn visuals you get in most of these motion comics. I wanted a photography based visual look to the film.

I then did a presentation at the 2010 International Broadcast Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam as part of a show and tell presentation using ‘Fubar’ as a case study. I cut together an early trailer of the shots I had done and made it look and feel like a Hollywood film by bringing in my good friend Deelan Sital who cuts trailers and promos for feature film marketing – and Luis Almau on the audio and score to help package it all up into a nice glossy presentation.

The trailer was received so well that I had people from the audience coming up to me asking when the film was going to be released – and it started getting press and media attention online with quotes like  ‘Platoon’ meets ‘Animal Farm’. This completely changed my concept of the film from being a technical VFX short, so I started putting a story together and brought on a writer friend of mine – Geof Wolfenden.

One of my favourite books of all time is George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. I loved the idea of using certain animals to depict the chain of command politically. With ‘Fubar’ I chose cats and dogs as they have always been territorial animals but, at the same time, reflect certain characteristics which makes them stand out from one another. Each of them have their strong and weak points yet they both strive for territories. I used that to create the world of ‘Fubar’ and the metaphor of what’s happening around us today with the military, government, war, media and politics.

I released the short film in Sept 2011. Again, its success completely took me by surprise – it was getting reviews and press attention from Vimeo – Short of the Week, VFX forums as well as short film forums.  It was getting huge!

It was really great that it was getting so much exposure but, because of its overwhelming success I felt it only right for me to get the opportunity to finish and release the film in its original final cut version – which wasn’t possible due to financial restrictions.  There was so much that could not be shot and animated which, if included, would have completed the film – especially with some of the characters, plot and story elements that didn’t make it.

I decided to figure out a way to fund the extended version and found Kickstarter.com from a friend of mine, who got his animated short funded that way. I liked the idea of crowdsource funding rather than the traditional route of getting funding from a film council funding board etc, because I wanted to own and keep all the rights to my film and do what I want with it.

The idea is if you like the current short film and want to see the full version as it was originally intended, then please pledge and fund the Extended Redux Edition.  In a way it was kinda like the short was a presale version.

This was also my first foray into crowdsource funding as a producer/director, so I was very excited yet scared. One thing I learned is that you have to put so much work into pushing your crowdsource funding via social media and word of mouth. I managed to raise $6.256 from the pledged goal of $5K.  This was enough for me to pay the editor and audio and use it for marketing and PR and additional VFX support work I needed to make the final cut of the film.

I didn’t need much funding since I was doing all the shot creations and animation myself but there were some elements, like the motion graphics of on screen displays, that needed doing and rendering out as elements for me to put into Nuke, so I had some help with that, as well as the extensive amount of rotoscoping required for the DSLR photography I shot with my partner May Ngo for the miniatures – posed marine models, tanks, helicopters etc and, of course, the cats and dogs.

I was able to gain so much interest from the fans and new audiences of the film to allow me to make the extended redux edition. The power of social media is amazing and is definitely the future for indie film making and distribution!

Following the same VFX support model I used for the first version, this extended edition has visual effects technology support from Peregrine Labs (the developers of the powerful depth of field plugin – Bokeh), Gen- Arts (the award winning Sapphire plugins used for years on big movies) and Shotgun (the asset management tool system used in most of the major facilities worldwide).

In fact having VFX technology support not only allowed me to have access to these tools but also free exposure with their marketing team. For example for 2011 Siggraph ‘Fubar’ was used as a demo to show off Shotgun’s new asset management tool and The Foundry had shots from my film in its Sizzle Reel!

‘Fubar Redux’ is now released, it has been selected for the 2012 Cannes Film Festivals Short Film Corner, as well as other festival eg www.fmx.de and can be viewed on www.fubar-movie.com

Haz’s film credits include: Fubar – 2011, Prince of Persia, Sands of Time – 2010, The Conductor – 2010, Don’t Look Back – 2009, The Dark Knight – 2008, Hellboy II The Golden Army – 2008, Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian – 2008, 10,000 BC – 2008, Tales of the Riverbank – 2008, Elizabeth, The Golden Age – 2007, Spring Heeled Jack – 2006, Chicken Tikka Masala – 2005.   Television: Nova – 2011, Planet Dinosaur – 2011, America, The Story of Us – 2010, Inside the Perfect Predator – 2010, The Colour of Magic – 2008, Superstorm – 2007.   Games: Enemy Territory – 2007, Battalion Wars – 2005.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2012 in Visual Effects

 

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Do you want to work in Visual Effects…?

 

Dayne Cowan

Visual effects, or VFX as it is commonly abbreviated, is an exciting, constantly changing and rapidly growing area of the film industry. These days, it is all pervasive. In many feature films, such as ‘Avatar’, it’s use is completely obvious. In others, such as the ‘The King’s Speech’, it’s success depends on it not being seen at all – but it is there regardless!

This article by Dayne Cowan was published in Network Nine News magazine – for further information or to subscribe go to www.network-nine.com

So what is it like to work in this field, how do you get in to this line of work and what does it take to succeed? Before the advent of university degrees designed for this industry, you could come at it from several angles. When I started, it was common for your fellow artists to have backgrounds in architecture, fine art, computer science or mathematics. I’ve even met people who had degrees in robotics!

This Visual Effects industry demands a curious mix of technical and artistic skills. The left and right brain need to work together, which can be harder to achieve than it sounds. You need a very strong eye for detail and aesthetics, coupled with the ability to cope with some extremely complex software and hardware. The software packages that have so much depth that it isn’t uncommon to go for 16 years without even venturing into certain aspects of it.

Of course, not everyone has a perfect mix of artistic and technical talent but fortunately, there is room for many diverse talents in between. Specialist areas range from colour experts to character designers, to computer programmers, to concept artists and editors.

All these disciplines mean that the experience and entry points are highly varied but the bulk of people in the field share a common experience. Most will work as either 2D artists (compositors), or 3D artists (note: not 3D as in ‘stereo’!) and around 80% of any crew in a VFX facility will fall into these two categories. It’s also worth noting that the distinction between the two is blurring over time, as the software and skills change. Perhaps in the future they will all just be referred to as ‘VFX Artists’.

For everyone in the industry there are some common factors. The job is demanding and can be very high pressure work with tough deadlines. The hours are usually long, typically with a burst of weekend and late night work towards the end of the project. Most of that time is spent behind a computer, where you often lose track of time.. ‘wow, midnight already?’…. so your partner needs to either be very understanding or working with you!

Being a creative process, never expect that your first effort will be the last and never mention that dreaded word ‘final’ The work you produce is going to be poured over many times by many people – sequence leads, vfx supervisors, directors and so on – before it gets approved. Work can often be ‘unapproved’ and worked on further – so be ready for that. It’s hard to let go of that piece that you’ve laboured over for hour after hour but sometimes that’s what you have to do. Shots get changed, work can be omitted from the film. Patience and perseverance are vital! Start by being your own strongest critic. Does it actually look good or right? Would you want that work projected on millions of screens worldwide?

Being a creative industry, not everything that occurs is rational, logical or predictable. It helps to be able to keep a level head and, although we long for it, there is no ideal and it is your ability to solve those inevitable problems with a good natured approach which will set you apart as a skilful and reliable practitioner.

Last of all, be persistent, have a good enthusiastic attitude and keep it fun. After all, no matter what happens, you have to enjoy your work!

Dayne Cowan’s credits include: ‘Battle Los Angeles’, ‘Paul’, ‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’, ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’, ‘The Reader’, ‘10,000 BC’, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Mee-Shee: The Water Giant’, ‘Batman Begins’, ‘Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life’, ‘Below’, ‘Thunderpants’, ‘Blade II’, ‘Dragonfly’, ‘Revelation’, ‘The Beach’, ‘The Avengers’.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2012 in Visual Effects

 

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