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Virtual? Real? Can we tell?

At what point will the world of VFX and cinematography blend to make the real and the virtual the same?

By Tom Inglesby

The elephant in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang was rendered in, fRibGen by Framestore. Courtesy of Framestore and Universal Pictures
The elephant in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang was rendered in, fRibGen by Framestore. Courtesy of Framestore and Universal Pictures

We’ve all seen the results of computerization in film and video production. Post is often done completely in the computer; virtual effects (VFX) dominate more and more films. Where is the frontier today?

Christian Manz has been doing VFX for many years and has racked up significant credits on productions such as Nanny McPhee Returns and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 as well as television’s Primeval series. Having recently completed work on 47 Ronin and in post on Dracula Untold, Manz took time to discuss the state of VFX today.

Heavily supported by VFX, 47 Ronin presents the epic scope of a modern Ben Hur Courtesy of Framestore and Universal Pictures Creating a realistic unreal world is the realm of VFX as shown in this still from Primeval. Courtesy of Framestore, Impossible Pictures and ITVCreating a realistic unreal world is the realm of VFX as shown in this still from Primeval. Courtesy of Framestore, Impossible Pictures and ITV
Heavily supported by VFX, 47 Ronin presents the epic scope of a modern Ben Hur. Courtesy of Framestore and Universal Pictures

“I think visual effects are a big part of how movies are made today,” he says. “Obviously with something like 47 Ronin, which is avery VFX driven movie compared to 15 years ago, you are contributing to everything from the set to the actors – in terms of how we’re putting creatures into the show – to stunts, art direction, everything.”

Manz works for Framestore (www.framestore.com) and over 17 years in the business, he’s seen visual effects become more respected. “Generally you’re involved a lot earlier in the process than you were before, now even before pre-pro. Sometimes it’s even before a director is engaged; or a director might come to us before the film is even green lit to come up with ideas and ways to bring their vision to the screen. That’s a big change.”

Oscar-winning film Gravity with VFX  done by Framestore. Image Source: Warner Brothers 2013
Oscar-winning film Gravity with VFX done by Framestore.
Image Source: Warner Brothers 2013
The sabretooth tiger in Primeval  certainly looks evil in VFX Courtesy of Framestore, Impossible Pictures and ITV
The sabretooth tiger in Primeval
certainly looks evil in VFX
Courtesy of Framestore, Impossible Pictures and ITV

The quality of VFX has gotten so good that we may someday, not too far off, have virtual actors in lead roles. “Framestore did a baby in Children of Men that lots of people didn’t know was CG,” boasts Manz. “Iron Man 3 recently had Guy Pierce at the end as CG – he’s burning up so there’s a lot going on. I don’t believe that suddenly actors will be gone. Obviously, we do digital doubles but I don’t see there being a point where you would do a film of random CG people when you could film an actor doing it.”

It’s becoming harder and harder to fool the public. Manz recalls, “The challenge is that budgets are dropping a bit, and you’re having to find creative ways of coming with amazing visions, and actually having to use creative solutions combined with the technology to get something out there that’s pushing the boundaries every time. Gravity has done it, has lifted that bar again. Every year there’s been different movies that push that envelope more and more.”

The VFX for multiple Oscar winner Gravity was done at Framestore. Manz notes, “If they had rendered it in one process, they would have had to start in the age of the ancient Egyptians to have it rendered by now. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to render that movie but now the level of computer power is becoming more economic and more possible.”

Computational power makes rendering better, but there is still the human element in film and video. Jim Clark and Gretchen Miller run Hive-FX (www.hive-fx.com), known for their work on the television series Grimm.

“I think, except for Avatar, nobody has been successful with making believable human characters,” Clark explains. “But Avatar was successful and that ideal has come closer and closer, I think we’re getting there. I imagine somebody is going to do a film with a new actor who doesn’t exist and try to fool everybody. I think it’s going to be something that, after the movie is out, they’ll discuss that it wasn’t even a real person, almost like a ploy to sneak it in and see what happens, to see if people know it and understand it.”

In Grimm, the Baron is a Cracher-Mortel
In Grimm, the Baron is a Cracher-Mortel
In Grimm, the Baron is a Cracher-Mortel
In Grimm, the Baron is a Cracher-Mortel
In Grimm, the Baron is a Cracher-Mortel, capable of changing into a puffer fish-like creature. Hive-FX follows a multiple-step process to create his morphing.

Clark adds “It always comes down to the eyes and the face. If you can’t make the face believable and you can’t see the humanity in the eyes, it won’t happen. It’s really, really difficult to bring that look, to get that believability. We as humans recognize the human spirit in people. We see the sparkle in someone’s eye. You say there’s a sparkle in someone’s eye, that special thing that makes them a star or makes them special. I don’t think we quite even understand what that is, and I think that in order to reproduce it we would have to really deeply understand what that sparkle is.”

“The bigger issue is, why create virtual actors?” Clark questions. “For studios it’s going to be financial. They can pay Tom Hanks $10 million to do the movie, or they create a virtual character they can repurpose over and over and put in any film. I think it will be a financial decision.”

It will cost a lot of money to do it. “The first time it’s expensive, but it gets cheaper over time. I mean I think they’ve done it very successfully with Lord of the Rings, with Gollum. He’s a virtual character, he’s incredibly believable, and you buy into it. He tells the story with his eyes, his performance, and I think Gollum is probably the most successful virtual character ever done. But it’s interesting that you still have to have a performer behind it. There’s still an actor there, and the only reason the actor was necessarily is because Gollum is a creature in a form that doesn’t exist, and you couldn’t produce him as a form, so it required he was created virtually but his performance is by a human.”

Speaking about their work on Grimm, Clark says, “All the wide shots are typically prosthetic, and then any time we do a morph from a human to a creature, it always starts with the real actor, and then back to the real actor. We never do monster to monster, monster to human. We recreate the human head in photorealism in three-dimensional photos. They’re Photoshopped from all different angles, so we literally reproduce the character and then sculpt the creature on top of that digital character.”

Miller adds, “They give us the designs, or they’ll give us a reference shot of the actor in the practical makeup, so we’ll create our 3-D model based on that reference creature. That’s why we have to match it exactly so it’s continuous. And then in the morph, it stays digital the whole time, even though we’re matching practical makeup.”

It’s really on a case-by-case basis in that they don’t use practical makeup for every creature. “It depends on the look of the creature,” Miller continues. “There are also a lot of fight scenes where, if they can get away with prosthetic makeup, they’ll do that, just because it’s easier and they do some amazing work. It makes it a little easier for us, because then we’ll just match directly the creature that they’ve created. It’s already determined what it’s going to look like.”

Computer graphics and VFX are appealing to the creative urges of many young people. But is it a good career move? “It’s a career. It’s a hard career. I mean these people work really hard, really long hours, and not many people make it past about 40 without wanting to do something different. It is a burnout business, and there aren’t bonuses for overtime. It is balls to the wall, long days and weekends, and it’s definitely a young person’s business. Unless they get to a very, very high level, they are never going to make more than $65-70,000 a year. If you go to school to learn the trade, you’re looking at spending a third to half of your income in your first five years just paying back student loans.”

So the first thing Clark would tell a potential VFX artist is. “Don’t go to school. There are plenty of resources now to learn on your own. There’s plenty of information online. Money is much better spent on actually buying your own equipment and just learning that way, and building a reel.”

But not just any reel. “We look at the quality of the work, and we look for the discerning eye. What’s really important is you can see potential in somebody, but you’re only as strong as the weakest piece, and if they don’t have the discerning eye to understand the difference between their good work and their bad work, then it makes them a questionable subject to employ. It’s really important that people have that, and people need to know whether their work is good or not. You don’t want to just fill a reel with crap; you want to fill it with your best stuff and, even if it’s just 20 seconds of great stuff, you want to show that.”

 


March 13, 2014