Spark Series: Intro to vfx, part I

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The Spark

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StaticVFX

Here, at StaticVFX, we thought about starting a series of articles based on art, cinematography, technology and visual effects which could provide as an explanatory guide for everyone passionate about these areas but also how they can make the most of them. In a few key words – “Winter’s coming”, Renaissance, Chroma Key, VR, Cahiers du Cinema, The Mill (we love them).

We wish to test as many ideas as we can and document our journey of developing a studio, a team – not just for visual effects but also for creating and exploring visual arts. Whether you are a producer who wants low costs, a director who needs certain shots or a vfx artist that contrary to popular beliefs, has many other skills besides pushing the “make beautiful” button, we will go through the ups and downs of visual effects. This industry manages today to gather people educated in various areas, from acting and anatomy to business, cinema, physics and art. Yes, not the first thing you would expect. We haven’t won any Oscar or a Bafta award yet, but that is our goal in the next 20 years. This is our personal view and we’re more than happy to share it. And now, let’s start with the beginning.

 

VFX short history
 

Effects were born roughly at the same time the art of cinematography did. Compared to other arts, cinematography is the youngest of them, because of the technical means needed to occur to enable expression and this started only in the late 19th century. Although it managed to combine all other arts in one environment of expression, it is in constant evolution and experimentation, taking into account new technologies that appear every day, opening new perspectives. And yes, we are talking here about VR (which is still looking for it’s place in the market).

We’ve always compared cinema with the physical expression of how dreams or thoughts manifest. Everything you imagine or feel, you can show and express through a wide range of instruments and techniques. Cinema might guide you from relaxation and entertainment, to introspection, reasoning and meditation. In any of the cases, we cannot deny the impact that cinema has on society – we want to love and live just like the way we see it in the movies, we copy lines and behaviors. We explore in movies deep topics of the unconscious,  of dreams, or of how we would like to become and live. We continue to create imaginary worlds and show how we want to change reality to fit with our minds. Our world is invaded by analogies and series that gave birth to not only featured films, but cults – Matrix, Star Wars, Godfather, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Avengers etc.

In recent years, we strongly felt the presence of effects thanks to improvement in digital work environment and processing power, although they were present in cinema since the days of George Melies – Un homme de tete (1898). No wonder filmmakers looked like magicians back in the days. Others have continued to innovate and to use them in The Great Train Robbery (1903), Sunrise (1927), Last days of Pompeii (1935), Ben Hur (1959), The ten commandments (1923, 1956, 2006),  Mary Poppins (1964) and so on until Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003), Interstellar (2014), Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The Revenant (2015) and Jungle Book (2016), just to mention a few. Have a look at the all-time VFX Oscar winners, a short clip made by BurgerFiction. Do you know what’s interesting? The first vfx award was in 1927! Try to imagine those movies without effects. Enjoy!

 

Ok, but what are visual effects after all? You can have visual effects (VFX) without having robots, imaginary worlds, monsters, explosions and destructions, as they can be present in various forms.

The term visual effect is used to describe any imagery created, altered or enhanced for a film, or other moving media, that cannot be accomplished during live action shooting , and further expanded to include virtual production (the process of capturing live images and compositing them or reinterpreting them into a scene in real time.) – The VES Handbook of Visual Effects, Industry Standard VFX Practices and Procedures

Simply put, if the cars or the cable wires from the background must be removed because the action takes place in the 14th century or you need to add a castle with a waterfall created/enhanced digitally, this means you need to have vfx. At the same time, we must make the distinction between special effects and visual effects. Special effects also known as practical effects, are made on the set (real explosions, animatronics, fake blood, prosthetics, forced perspective etc.) whereas visual effects, nowadays, are made on computer. They help one another and are necessary because sometimes, it would be dangerous, expensive or impossible to be made on set.

 
What’s happening today?
 
Yes, we think there are productions that rely on visual effects to get profitable in the box office, just as others rely on a handful of famous actors to convince people to pay the ticket. Nothing new, but do not confuse the means with the process. Great vfx has always been present and you didn’t even notice, because it was so well done it tricked you or you believed it. As always, the purpose of effects is similar to all other departments of a production – to help the story work, to fascinate you, to make you care. Just like a good montage, if done in that spirit, nor feel, nor do you know that effects are there – everything seems believable. Vfx artists combine a wide range of artistic and technical skills, working days and weeks and months to craft their shots, and if they do their job well…nobody even notices it. But they still do it, because they understand and they are part of this magic that we call visual art. Time and space in cinema can reach different depths, create other perspectives and manages to convey ideas, feelings and stories and we trust this is the most important thing one should look for.
 

Nowadays, visual effects are present in almost every production, from removing/adding elements in frame to characters, locations and full digital shots (CGI). Why? Because it gives flexibility for productions and more than that you couldn’t make it in any other way. Whether it’s documentaries, commercials, short or feature films, all can benefit, having three main reasons: logistics, budget and artistic direction. We are not supporters of films made entirely on greenscreen and we encourage existence of scenography. We just want to emphasize the importance and benefits gained from involving visual effects where appropriate, and how they can combine with all other departments.

And for those of you saying VFX and CG ruined the movies, please have a seat and take a moment to listen what this guy from Rocket Jump Film School has to say. We couldn’t say it any better:

 
Why would producers and directors rely on visual effects?
 
I. Logistical and financial reasons (are interlocking very well): some shots may be hard or impossible to achieve on set, others are very expensive in this regard (eg, moving the whole crew in another location or recreate one which does not exist).
 
A few useful examples:
  • Changing the background and by default the location or adjusting existing set. This may come in handy when shooting indoor as well. This way, what you see outside can be replaced to create the feeling that the action takes place elsewhere. The same technique is relevant for shots filmed from a car and/or airplane
  • Crowds of people or populating the scenes with certain environment elements
  • Adding some elements of fire, smoke, rain, snow, fog that are not possible or available when shooting on location
  • Simulating disasters, explosions, car accidents, broken windows, wounds. Besides what can be achieved on set with special effects, those can be enhanced or created from scratch.
  • Shots that cannot be physically executed or are extremely hard to accomplish – passing the camera through a wall, window, even cars in traffic or places where it’s physically impossible; shots of airplanes / helicopters / rockets through the air / space. 
  • Creating elements / objects that were not present at the filming location for various reasons – it could have been too expensive to have a Ferrari being hit by a BMW in your shot or there was no snow and the action should have taken place in winter. That’s why you may use VFX.
  • Beauty shots of product placement, packshots, digital interfaces, improvement / alteration of elements from the frame.

II. Artistic reasons: specific things that require control and flexibility. May include characters, effects, vegetation, creatures, scenery or concepts. Here are some well known examples.

  • The Tesseract from Interstellar
  • Amazing reality bending effects from Inception
  • Transforming the dancer from the Chemical Brothers – Wide Open music video
These examples are just a few from many others that do not fail to intrigue and amaze with the creative solutions found by the directors and their entire team. 

In the end, we leave you with amazing interview with the creators of Jungle Book and also the 2017 VFX Oscar Winners. Looking forward to questions and suggestions from you. Meanwhile, we are handling the next post.