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Creating Visual Effects with Tech-Savvy Artists

disneyFor today’s filmmakers, visual effects (or VFX) have become a fundamental component of the storytelling process. Productions are expected to push the envelope visually to create amazing yet realistic-looking scenarios that would be too dangerous, expensive, impractical or simply impossible to shoot in real environments. As a result, both the industry and the technology needed for top-quality VFX have quickly evolved.

Prime Focus World CEO Namit Malhotra has always been drawn to movies with spectacular visual effects that teleport audiences into make-believe worlds. His childhood favorite was Star Wars — and once he saw how the magic on screen affected theatergoers, he wanted to know how the filmmakers did it. Malhotra’s wonder about the physical mechanics behind visual storytelling became his ambition and his destiny. His company Prime Focus World offers filmmakers the latest technology to create compelling stories via visual effects and 3D conversion, such as for the high-profile films Gravity, World War Z “With today’s technology and computing power you can see more and more of that capability available at a lower cost,” Malhotra explains. With multiple locations across the globe, Prime Focus World stays busy with numerous film projects, including I, Frankenstein, Maleficent (starring Angelina Jolie) and the sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow (starring Tom Cruise). According to Malhotra, the company takes extra steps to help filmmakers realize their dreams, including packaging incentive deals, if necessary. “It’s a lot of conversation and understanding and listening to bring [a film project] to fruition,” he says. “We don’t think there is any limit to what can be achieved. We mean that on all levels from a creative perspective.”  

Greg SM“Filmmakers are picking up on the trend to include visual effects,” says Greg Maloney, COO of the San Francisco-based 32TEN Studios (pictured right). Formerly a compositing supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, Maloney has worked on over 60 features, including numerous blockbusters nominated for special-effects awards. He insists that it’s imperative for filmmakers get their special effects team involved early in the process, and to work out important details during the pre-visualization phase of production. As a key part of the production process, pre-visualization includes sketching out ideas, especially when it comes to a film’s more complex elements. Today’s filmmakers can now create low-resolution animations with intricate details of their creative intentions. These visual aids will map out movements within scenes so filmmakers can study how to best interact in a dynamic way. The production team can step back to strategize camera moves and predict possible scenarios, such as knowing how fast a live camera needs to move to capture a specific motion. Pre-visualization allows filmmakers to find the balance between digital and practical needs in order to efficiently organize the entire production. 

A talented VFX team gives filmmakers much needed support and saves money for the production. Visual effects producers and supervisors play an important role early in preproduction, as they will guide filmmakers until the final frame is finished. “What visual effects people offer is not only the work experience and creativity, but they also offer continuity for the production because we’re the only people that are there with the writers and storyboarders and on set and then all the way through post,” explains HOAX Films Creative Director Rick Sander. “Our job is always evolving and taking on new roles. I think visual effects people are very resourceful, and I think uniformly we all want to do the best, most creative work.”

Sander recently worked on “Bad Universe,” a Discovery Channel show that relied extensively on VFX to depict the end of the world. He developed five picture boards to help him visualize the type of visual effects needed for the production. “The Discovery Channel liked it so much, they doubled the visual effects budget for the show,” says Sander. And on an action movie project, Sander showed how a visual effects team can save money in many areas of production, such as for scenes involving gun shots. “We can help in the discussion of where these shots are going to go, and help coordinate the armor, stunts wardrobe, makeup, sound [and more],” he explains. “We can help coordinate how we can all work together so we don’t have to do six takes of something and ruin the wardrobe on each take, [so] we just saved $1,000 of wardrobe for that day. We can say up to what point we are going to do all that digitally, [so] we just saved them two hours for that day.” Budgeting for VFX can become challenging, especially when producers see it as a line item without understanding how VFX money can be spent and how VFX can save money in the long run. “It’s basically [that they tell us] how much money they have for visual effects, and we tell them what we can do for them,” Sander says. “I do a budget to figure out what it’s going to cost my company to do the work.”

Sander believes that eventually more producers will realize the value visual effects supervisors bring to the table and the money they can save for a production. “By showing the kind of value that we add to the production, which usually takes working on a few projects together, everyone starts to get it,” he says. As an example, Sander notes that by the end of the first season on the Spike show “Deadliest Warrior,” the producers had his team tied to every phase of production: “They had us involved in the preproduction [and] production meetings, and I was in the edit bay editing with the editor and the executive producer of the show.”

As digital technology continues to expand and improve, so will the role of the visual effects team as they build trust with storytellers. So for filmmakers looking to create anything from the distant planets in outer space to magical snow or fiery weather on Earth, make sure to include your visual effects team early on in the process.

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