It is my pleasure to bring to you an exclusive interview with two visual effects professionals: one in lighting, the other in digital matte painting and environments. Both artists currently work for Moving Picture Company (MPC), a subsidiary of Technicolor and the creator of a laundry list of award winning visual effects.
As the Head of Digital Matte Painting and Environments at MPC, Marco is responsible for painting photo-real environments, elements and textures for matching into live action footage or to stand on their own as an entirely CG shot. His work on Prometheus (2012) was nominated by the Visual Effects Society with for Outstanding Created Environment in a Live Action Feature Motion Picture. Prometheus was also Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects.
Simon is a Head of Lighting. This role is all about creating a mood within a scene by altering its light and color palette. As he notes below, one of his favorite projects was helping create the Oscar Winning visual effects for Life of Pi.
The two have worked on many other films including, but not limited to:
- The Jungle Book, coming 4/15/16
- The Martian
- Man of Steel
- Life of Pi
- John Carter
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2
Additionally, their work on Exodus: Gods and Kings and Guardians of the Galaxy is pictured below.
What inspired you to pursue a career in the industry?
Marco: As with most of my colleagues, I too have been captivated and inspired by movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Clash of the Titans, Terminator, Alien, and others. At that time, visual effects felt to me like an unknown land to explore – an almost magical marriage between science and fine arts. I couldn’t resist and I did everything I could to embrace the adventure.
Simon: My sister always wanted to be an actress so when my parents got her a video camera I started making short movies and playing around with the editing side of things. One thing led to another and I started playing around with Blender 3d. There is something about being able to create an image from nothing that is incredibly infectious. I caught the bug and the rest is history.
What are some niche areas of VFX an artist may choose to specialize in?
Marco: Most of the big VFX companies are organized in small teams focusing on a single discipline to make sure their crew can specialize and master a specific part of the process. However, because different films require different approaches we encourage and support the growth of multiple abilities, along with a broad understanding of all the techniques useful to create environments, from digital matte painting to full CG.
Throughout the years I have worked in different contexts and I had to adapt to the needs and the technical constraints of the given situations. So, I guess I had to be a bit of a Jack-of-all-Trades, but then I also had the opportunity to specialize in digital matte painting. However, creating VFX is a moving target and you always have to learn new things to stay relevant. Hence, at times I feel it’s important to move toward a happy medium between these two extremes.
Simon: There are many areas of VFX that you can choose to specialize in. On set data capture, matchmove, stereo triage, roto, prep, modelling, texturing, rigging, lookdev, animation, technical animation, fx, environments, lighting, rendering, compositing, and production…to name a few.
A basic understanding of all the disciplines is important to being a good all round VFX artist. I’ve done a little bit of everything but I mainly focused on the lookdev, lighting, rendering, and compositing side of things. In general I think it’s good to focus on disciplines that complement each other rather than just picking one. Some studios hire more generalists rather than specialists so it’s good to have a variety of skills on your portfolio.
To those unfamiliar with the craft, what are a few landmarks in visual effects history?
Marco: Undoubtedly some of the movies that motivated me in the first place have been landmarks and we still see a constant stream of breathtaking VFX today. However, many of the main technical problems have been solved and it’s getting harder and harder to find areas where we can make big leaps forward. In fact I think that right now a lot of the emphasis is on making the process more interactive for the filmmakers as well as scalable and affordable for the studios, whilst we continue pushing ourselves to improve the visual quality of the images we create.
Simon: If you take digital graphics out of the equation, the 20th Century has so many examples of the visual bar being pushed. Ben-Hur, King Kong, The War of the Worlds, The Ten Commandments, Jason and the Argonauts, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to name just a few. Star Wars, despite having little CGI in the early films, was a turning point in what people could expect to see visually in the cinemas.
I think Jurassic Park was probably the most pivotal moment in CGI for the VFX industry. That film along with Toy Story a few years later, really cemented the idea that the computer was capable of both delivering amazing visuals and being used as a story telling medium. Very shortly after, the quality and quantity of CGI in VFX increased dramatically in films like The Matrix and Hollow Man. A more recent example of a film that I feel has pushed the limits of VFX would be Life of Pi for the tiger and water work. Nearly all the tiger and water shots on that film were either fully CG or a blend between live action and CG.
What 2015 film had the best VFX?
Marco: That’s a very hard question to answer as I haven’t watched all the movies made this year and often films can have a mixture of great and less great VFX. Among those I watched this year were The Martian; what impressed me was the level and consistency of the stunning work…and the Falcon Chase sequence in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was really well done.
Simon: I’m too busy working on movies to go and see them all so I can’t say I’ve seen every single VFX heavy film over the last year but from what I’ve seen my vote would go to The Martian. It’s not a film about VFX, it’s a film with a story and while there is plenty of CGI in it you don’t notice because it’s done well!
What are the unique challenges in creating visual effects for an animated film versus a live action film?
Marco: Although both types of project might share a lot of the same technology, normally the aesthetic goals of feature films are all about photo-realism while animation aims for a more distinctive and stylized look.
Simon: There is definitely a difference but through the years the line has become a bit more blurry. The main difference is scale. With an animated movie every shot needs working on, while live action films can have a much more selective shot count that requires visual effects. Not only shot counts but also asset counts. While a live action shot might just need a dinosaur added into a plate (the raw footage shot on location or green screen) an animated version of the same shot would need background environments, grass, props, characters and a dinosaur. Another difference is in the art direction. There is a lot of flexibility with fully animated films and this can lead to a longer creative decision making process.
Live action typically has a plate that we are somewhat tied to creatively. This can help a lot in narrowing down the choices but it also means that the look has to be spot on to match something that was already filmed. Some live action films are more like fully animated features so we see both sets of challenges merged together. Life of Pi and the yet to be released Jungle Book from Disney are good examples of this.
I have noticed many social media personalities speak negatively against CGI because of a perceived over-reliance on the technology. Do you think CGI is over-used?
Marco: Possibly. I think the big problem is when VFX are used to fill a void: a lack of good ideas, bad creative decisions or an unclear direction. Ultimately people watch a film to immerse themselves in a different reality. The story and the believability of the characters are still at the core of this experience. The other crucial aspect is that great VFX are still the result of an incredibly complex process, which requires great talent, constant investment on the technological infrastructure, and enough time and planning. Unfortunately nowadays we don’t always get all of these things.
Simon: I think you’ll find that in most cases the argument is against bad CGI, not CGI itself. The danger of having an “invisible” craft is that if we do our job right no one notices. Good film making is about capturing an audience and telling them a story. While this can be done without CGI, some stories are easier to tell with it. I think that if a film maker is just choosing CGI or practical effects because it’s “the right way,” that’s not an informed choice that furthers the story. There are a lot of VFX heavy films with bad stories and there are a lot of films with great stories that have bad VFX. Anytime you rely on one to make the other it’s a mistake.
When you work on a shot for a feature film, how much do you know about that scene as it relates to the plot of the film?
Marco: We normally receive direction from a VFX Supervisor who makes sure the shots are consistent and they make sense within the broader picture. I guess different disciplines require different briefs. For instance the animators need to know the plot and feelings of the characters they are animating, whilst this might not be strictly necessary for someone simulating an explosion. I would love to see VFX artists being more aware of the film’s story, as we are all passionate about film making and this would make us even more involved and passionate.
Simon: It depends on your discipline. If you’re a matchmove artist then a ton of story detail might not assist you in doing your job. If you’re an animator it might be essential to giving your character the correct performance. As a lighting technician, I always want to know what’s happening in my sequence so that I can justify my light placement and the mood of my shots, but I don’t need to know the entire plot to do that job well.
Is there a “busy season” for a VFX professional?
Marco: Yes, normally the few months before Summer or Christmas are the busiest because most of the shows are released during those periods.
Simon: I used to see more of this. There is a Summer blockbuster season and the typical Christmas movies that the film studios release but project lengths vary and individual VFX studios do their best to balance out the workloads across the year so I don’t see as much of this type of ebb and flow that we used to see in the earlier days of VFX when there were fewer projects and more stable project lengths.
Do you ever turn the TV off or walk away from a movie because the VFX are so poorly done?
Marco: Oh, yes. To become a good artist you have to develop an instinct for what’s wrong in a shot. So, after a few years you almost feel it in your guts even before being able to describe it with words. This training becomes a reflex that can sometimes make watching a show with poor VFX quite painful experience!
Simon: Not at all. I don’t watch movies for VFX, I watch them so that I can experience a story. After a while you learn to switch the critical eye off so that you can enjoy things. Besides you always learn more from seeing mistakes than from seeing something perfect.
Are their any tell-tale signs of imperfection or corner cutting you commonly see?
Marco: As I said, making VFX is a really difficult job. It’s almost like having an orchestra with 200, 400, 600 people all playing an incredibly demanding composition together. Sometimes this happens whilst the composer is still writing it! Hence, keeping everyone in tune and in sync is crucial. As an experienced department head, I can tell if someone didn’t have enough time to render the complexity required by a certain setting, or if a simulation was approximated or if an animation didn’t quite follow the rules of physics. Most of the time you’ll know something isn’t quite right with a shot, but you’d have to watch it several times to put you finger on exactly what that is.
Simon: There’s an old saying that, “You never finish a shot, you just run out of time.” Being able to know when and how to cut corners is very important to delivering things on time. We’ve all gotten very good at cutting the right corners without people being able to notice (hopefully). I won’t say what our commonly cut corners are though – that would spoil the magic 😉
What project or specific shot are you most proud of?
Marco: There are many project that I remember with pleasure. I would say that Prometheus was one of the most challenging and the result really shows the passion and time MPC’s team put into it.
Simon: Life of Pi was a project that I will always be extremely proud of. Not just for the film itself which I think is great but for the team at Rhythm and Hues that I had the honor of working with. It was a tough show but I met some amazing people that I’m proud to call friends. R&H and MPC won an Academy Award for VFX for that movie.
In conclusion, what is the most challenging part of your job?
Marco: As an artist the challenge is to constantly find a way to achieve the quality we want despite time constraints. As a manager the hardest task is finding artists with the right talent, skill set, and passion – and to make sure that the team is engaged from the start until the end of the project. The metaphor of an orchestra is quite relevant, in fact I find people work best together after they have known each other for a while.
Simon: For me it’s finding the balance between creativity and the business aspect of VFX. These things tend to be diametrically opposed to each other but they are both important aspects of what we enjoy doing so much.