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The VFX Factor: Stefan Gerstheimer on Mimicking Reality

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Saddington Baynes' head of CGI on creating believability though VFX

The VFX Factor: Stefan Gerstheimer on Mimicking Reality

With over 20 years of experience in the VFX industry, Stefan’s worked with the likes of Dyson Technologies, MPC, The Mill and Nvizible, where he challenged convention and delivered awe-inspiring imagery and film. Now at Saddington Baynes as Head of CGI, Stefan pioneers the 3D team in pushing the boundaries of visual creation, working closely with clients to develop their creative concepts. With visual effects as his consuming passion, he inspires others to desire and achieve the best possible results, whilst nurturing their talent.

Using the flexibility of CGI and visual effects, Stefan’s goal is to present a new, forward-thinking style of imagery for brands across every media channel.

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? 

Stefan> The challenge that comes with the invisible post is to truly understand what you’re recreating, among other things it requires an in-depth understanding of how optics and light behave in the real world – you have to mimic reality in order to reproduce it. There is also a skill in knowing when to stop, you don’t necessarily get to make it look the way you would like to from an artistic perspective, you have to make it blend and balance so it is unquestionably ‘real’.

It can often be challenging with the big VFX heavy shots to create believability because the starting point is asking the artists to create something that has never been seen in reality. There are usually many artists all contributing elements to the one big shot sequence so the planning and supervision is crucial, all elements need to come together and blend seamlessly to make the imaginary believable.

LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them? 

Stefan> The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, it really needs to be a collaboration as we all bring our specific skills to the table. We’re all on the same team working towards the same goals, let’s build trust, respect, and effective communication from the start in order to achieve the best end result and help you craft and realise your vision.

LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?

Stefan> I started by studying architecture and then moved onto VFX which did indeed teach me many valuable fundamentals but I learned the ‘craft’ on the job. I’m fortunate to have always been surrounded by talented artists at all levels. I’ve learned an awful lot from supervisors along the way and nearly as much from junior artists coming straight out of university as well, the industry is full of crazy talent and we all learn from each other. I’m still learning my craft!

LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?

Stefan> It’s always a similar starting point, as much communication and collaboration as possible with relevant parties and determining an agreed and clear direction for the project. Researching, reference gathering, sharing, reviewing, and planning always pays dividends even when it all changes – and it often does! It can feel like one step forward and two back sometimes but you have to stay flexible and ready for change. The work you put in at the front end will always be worth it for you and your team.

LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?

Stefan> I don’t think I can answer that with ‘time issues aside’, it’s pretty much all about time. If artists could keep tweaking and polishing a shot forever they would, we all say it but it’s true – it’s never done! We don’t get to decide when it’s finished, it’s finished when time and/or budget runs out. The deadlines are a good thing, we need to deliver and there would be very few finished films or TVC’s if perfectionist artists got to decide. It’s a balancing act, the shots need to look great but also deliver, as artists we need to have the experience to know where to put the time to get the most believable visuals in the time given.

LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?

Stefan> It has to be the obvious answer, realtime rendering. It’s getting very believable and is incredibly efficient for the creation of CG. It’s not a replacement for offline rendering just yet but it’s getting better with each passing day.

LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.

Stefan> Yes it was really quite a shift but it was incredible to see how quickly we all adapted. Aside from seeing my team- face to face it hasn’t changed that much and I’ve been really impressed to see that productivity hasn’t dropped at all. My experience has been positive overall, tricky when the kids had to do home schooling but somehow I survived!

LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?

Stefan> I’ve found it really great that many of my colleagues have experienced improved mental and physical health since working from home, they have found the time to take care of themselves and that goes a long way towards improving their overall work performance as well. I hope that aspect of health and balance will continue for many. It’ also been interesting to see some people find their voice during lockdown. In the pre-covid meetings where we were all around a table together it was often the same loudest voices who dominated the meeting and others remained in the shadows. I feel like there are more voices pitching in ideas and feedback now with remote working, the more introverted artists are more comfortable with it. I really believe that every voice counts and I’d like to provide a platform for that to continue even when we’re all back in the office. I’d like to think we have now proven that working from home in our industry can really work and that there will be more of a balance in the future for those who benefit from it. 

LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time? 

After graduating, I moved around quite a lot and worked a few different places before finding one where I wanted to stay, that turned out to be MGM Studios in Vancouver. I learned a lot along the way but at MGM I really felt in my element, incredibly talented artists and supervisors surrounded me and I just absorbed as much knowledge as I could. I learned that every person on the show is important and it takes a collaborative team to deliver even one shot, let alone a whole episode or film.

LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of? 

Stefan> I can’t pick one, there have been so many milestones along the way that I’ve been proud of, each new one surpassing the previous. What I love about VFX is that it’s such a fast moving and evolving medium, the core artistic fundamentals remain the same but the technology moves fast and has allowed us to create better and more realistic work with each passing year. I’m not most proud of a single project, I’m proud of it all – to be a part of the whole and to have contributed to some amazing work. 

LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why? 

Stefan> Burberry Open Spaces is just a wonderful experience, just everything about it – the sound and vision really nails the feeling of freedom! Being totally free and exploring with friends has been impossible during Covid times, maybe that’s why Open Spaces resonates with me and so many others… I want to be there!

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Saddington Baynes, Mon, 28 Mar 2022 12:30:00 GMT