ENVY Advertising’s VFX experts Martin Waller, Bill Wright, Dean Wyles and Kieran Baxter talk going unnoticed, new global opportunities, and the latest in VFX tech
LBB dives into the details and depths of VFX craft with ENVY Advertising’s senior VFX artists Martin Waller, Dean Wyles and Kieran Baxter, as well as senior motions graphic designer Bill Wright.
LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?
Martin Waller> The invisible post can sometimes throw up more challenges – there is less time to plan, and you often have to work with what has been captured. Working on the ‘big glossy shots’ you often have time to prepare – you will know what you need ahead of the shoot and what you want to achieve during the post process, so there are less surprises.
Dean Wyles> The thing is, a lot of the work we do is designed not to be noticed. Sometimes you can look at a project at the end and it feels like you haven’t done much work despite hours of complex work being involved.
For example, on a recent hair product commercial that we worked on for nearly a month, almost every shot was worked on from extending sets, creating hairspray, adding volume to hair, removing flyaway hairs, pack replacement and face beauty work, but the final result gives the impression that everything was captured like that in-camera.
With the big VFX shots, the main challenge is pulling together and keeping track of a lot of different elements which come together to make the final shot. This might be grading passes from Baselight, CG builds from Maya, tracking data and clean up from Nuke, rotoscoping from overseas and re-edits from Avid. It is crucial to have a solid workflow in place to keep everything up to date, and spreadsheets to track what stage each shot is at, but ultimately a lot of the info is stored in the operators head, and probably sometimes he/she is the only one who can tell the subtle differences between versions of a shot.
LBB> And when you first receive a project, what is your typical starting point?
Bill Wright> I like to thoroughly read the decks and scripts, and really get a a grasp of the concept. You have to align your understanding with the director's vision as much as possible before you put pen to tablet.
Dean Wyles> After viewing the storyboard I usually have an in depth discussion with the director to fully understand the vision of what he/she is trying to achieve. This is normally swiftly followed by meetings with the production team and post producers to see what is actually achievable for the budget and timings of the job.
With regards to my actual physical project on Flame, I do like to work in a very similar way on every job - even colour coding all my folders, much to the amusement of my fellow operators. I find it helps me be more creative if I know I have everything in order and can easily get back to earlier versions.
Martin Waller> I also like to know everything about the project ahead of the game - planning is everything. I like to have all relevant resources in place in order to make the project as smooth and stress free as possible.
LBB> Aside from technical challenges and time constraints, one of the trickiest things about VFX must be deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?
Kieran Baxter> When the client is happy! You can definitely spend too much time over analysing a shot, so getting feedback from colleagues or taking a break and coming back to it with 'fresh eyes' helps. I recently finished a job where the client said "it was exactly how they imagined it to be" which was nice, so I guess that's a good time to stop.
Dean Wyles> As a VFX artist, you tend to get so involved in the project you are working on that you keep working away at a shot until you can no longer see the wood for the trees. This is where it is really crucial to get feedback from your peers as they can take an objective look at your work. This is also where a really good post producer comes into their own. They can tell you that a shot is good enough and keep the project moving along to hit budgets and timings.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Martin Waller> The job that made a lasting impression on me was for Ford B-Max. The spot was originally for a car show but was adapted for broadcast. It was my first VFX heavy job, and the first that I led.
Bill Wright> A DVD menu for Mean Streets that Martin Scorcese personally thanked me for. He gave me a framed, signed Mean Streets poster which unfortunately got stolen from reception and I'll never see it again... Good times/ bad times.
Kieran Baxter> A couple of years ago I got into the office and within an hour I was on a train up to Manchester to supervise a shoot for adidas. Not only did I get to shoot some great players but I got the chance to work with director Dave Meyers, who I had been a fan of for a while. The end product was a great collaboration between some amazing people which I'm very proud of.
Dean Wyles> My first milestone project was editing a pop promo on a lightworks non-linear system for a band called The Almighty. At that time, most pop promos were being edited on tape to tape systems, but because I was working in a nonlinear way, I could edit far faster and make changes easily. I slept on the cutting room floor for two nights, but I loved it!
LBB> Which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of from a VFX perspective, and why?
Martin Waller> This is a hard question! But the ones that stick out for me past and present are:
- The all time favourite Guinness ‘Surfer’ Johnathan Glazer ad. It was before my time but what a commercial with ground breaking VFX. It’s the reason I worked in commercials and on Flame.
- Southern Comfort beach ad ‘ Whatever’s Comfortable’ - What’s not to like about this ad, makes me smile everytime I watch it which is so important.
- Lacoste ‘Crocodile Inside’ - Flawless VFX. Nothing else needs to be said about this spot.
Dean Wyles> My favourite advert of the moment is Money Supermarket with the Money Calm Bull, the dinosaur and car. All the CG is so well done - you totally believe it, even though almost nothing in the shot is real.
LBB> How about your very first job in the industry? What lessons did you learn at that time?
Martin Waller> I started the same as many people in the industry as a runner. I learned to always be aware of what is going on around me. You need to be able to think on your feet.
Kieran Baxter> Running is a great way to meet people from different areas of the post production world. The biggest lesson I learned was no matter how difficult a job is or how tight the deadline is, remain calm and be nice.
Bill Wright> I was also a runner, then junior. There were a lot more restrictions back then on what you could do and achieve. Technological progress has made everything so much more flexible. No laying-back to DigiBeta these days, thank God! And worrying about fields (the interlaced kind) has largely gone the way of the Dodo too.
Dean Wyles> I first got into the industry by writing hundreds of letters to post production houses and TV studios until finally I was offered a job as a negative cutter. This involved literally gluing together pieces of original negative to match someone’s edit, which in those days existed as a roll of film called a cutting copy.
Our clients were film editors, so I got to know lots of them and eventually I was offered a job as a second assistant film editor and progressed from there. I learned so much about editing by observing a master of his craft at work.
LBB> How did you handle the move to remote working during Covid? What lessons did you learn from this experience?
Martin Waller> Moving to remote has been relatively seamless – I am fortunate to work within a company that has excellent infrastructure and engineering resource. The more challenging aspects to the shift came from having no clients in the suite anymore.
We work as a tight knit team, constantly bouncing ideas off each other and the assistants, so that has also been tough. We have replaced the actual face-to-face with lots of virtual meetings, but it will never be quite the same.
On the other hand, we have proved that remote working can continue post Covid. It opens up the opportunity to work with creatives worldwide. We do not need to restrict ourselves to London-based talent only.
Kieran Baxter> I've definitely worked with more directors and artists from around the world than I ever had before. Pre-Covid, we relied heavily on attend sessions and artists coming into the studio. Although Covid may have introduced a more isolated way of working, it's really shown that no matter where you are on the planet you can still collaborate and produce some great work.
Dean Wyles> In March 2020 I walked out of ENVY with a Mac, monitor, tablet, keyboard and pen, and have been working remotely from home ever since. After a few days of teething problems, our excellent engineers came up with a system that now works seamlessly. Now, everyone seems to have got on board with this new way of working. The use of Frame IO for approvals (where clients can type or draw feedback straight onto the screen with a timecode) has proved an incredibly useful tool.
I think the flexibility that working from home brings, is something we should definitely hang on to. Rather than being tied to a traditional 10am-6pm day in Soho, the ability to start early or work late to achieve the same result is a great thing. Why not start at 6am if you want to, and play golf in the afternoon? The work is still getting done on time. I think the future will be hybrid.
LBB> Looking ahead, what technology or software is exciting you in VFX right now?
Bill Wright> X Particles in C4D - it can do almost anything but is fiendishly vast in terms of getting your head around everything it does. You can simulate gas clouds, liquids, abstract forms - anything. The results are beautiful when you get it right.
Also photogrammetry and the ability to do 3D scans of real-world objects and port them straight into your software - it's getting faster and easier all the time and takes a fraction of the time compared to a scratch model.
Kieran Baxter> I couldn't be more excited to get my hands on Flame's new camera tracker and run it through a few jobs. It's been long overdue as we've had to use Nuke to get them sorted, so it's exciting to see if its useful and speeds up our workflow.
Outside of Flame it's crazy how good machine learning is getting in such a short time frame, it's something to keep an eye on!
Dean Wyles> I am excited by Unreal Engine which is using gaming technology to create real time 3D visuals that can be used to project detailed backgrounds on shoots, alleviating the sometimes cumbersome green screen process.
I am also excited by the AI elements that Autodesk is developing on Flame, allowing the machine to recognise skies/faces/depth of field etc. I think this will create lots of exciting and time saving techniques as the technology develops, and as people come up with creative ways of using these new concepts. A recent project we worked on was using deep fake, face mapping technology to put Scott Parker into a Streets video!