Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Why Post and VFX Studios are the Mafia of Filmmaking

London, UK
There’s more to post production than meets the eye, finds Laura Swinton

VFX and post production can appear nothing short of magical. Filmmakers can conjure up talking animals, dinosaurs, futuristic dystopias and utopias, fairylands and intergalactic adventures thanks to the wizards working their dark arts in darkened rooms. This eye-popping spectacle is the sort of stuff that catches the eye of award show judges, magazine editors and time-starved agency producers and casts its spell…

But behind the excitement and noise of the flashier reaches of VFX, there’s a subtler form of trickery and skulduggery that’s often overlooked. While some briefs definitely call for exuberant creations, much of the really skilful post production work is the stuff that you can’t even see. The non-descript street scene composited into the background, the stunt woman’s safety harness deftly erased, the subtly tweaked packaging design in the packshot: it’s all stuff that, by its very nature, is supposed to be invisible. 

What that means is that post production studios are less like sorcerers’ castles and more like ninja dojos or assassins’ guilds – working in the shadows, unseen, organised and stealthy.

It’s an analogy that the team at Glassworks take to heart: “A large part of a VFX studio’s remit is to hide things, to make them disappear. We are the mafia of the filmmaking process.”

The Paradox

These days, VFX work is ubiquitous in commercials and even the most unexpected spot will involve some skilful yet discreet tinkering, reckons Rushes’ Director of VFX, Paul Hannaford. “I expect that almost any spot you watch will have some amount of hidden VFX work in it, to a greater or lesser degree. Most people at home would never have an idea of the kind of man-hours that go in to a spot but that just means we’re doing the job right. The whole art of it is making sure that it’s not noted. Like with great lighting, or sound, if you notice these things it actually usually means that someone is doing a bad job, as these crafts should not be noticeable!”

Indeed, there’s a painfully real paradox that emerges when VFX is so skilfully crafted that it passes unnoticed – and so commonly relied upon that it’s often taken for granted.

“In an age when both technology and technique are at an all-time high, we are now able to craft elements in VFX that to the untrained eye (and even the trained one) often go un-noticed; from the most basic end of the scale, pack shots and rig removal, to entire environments, vehicles and characters crafted entirely in CGI,” says Neil Davies, ECD at the Mill London.

“We know we’ve done our job well when the work we’ve painstakingly crafted is completely invisible. Our task as VFX artists is to make the unbelievable believable, and to bring stories to life in a seamless and beautiful way. With the exception of big monsters, mythical creatures and pink elephants, a lot of the less obvious VFX often goes un-noticed and un-credited, despite the hours, days even months of work that goes into these hidden effects. It’s ironic that the better we do our job, the less people know we did any work.”

Keeping It Real

One of the biggest challenges involved in adding invisible alterations to live footage is ensuring that the effect matches up with the rest of the image.

“Regardless of the type of effect, the goal with our work is always to maintain the photographic integrity of the live action,” say Robert Owens and Stephanie Gilgar at Method Studios in LA. “We use the live action photography as a measuring point for how our digital elements should look when added to a scene. It’s always trickier to integrate hidden visual effects when they replace significant areas within live action plates as you’re asking the audience to believe what they are seeing was actually photographed.”

The key to ensuring that the effects and the photography are as seamless as possible lies in the lighting (after all the word ‘photography’ is rooted in the Greek for ‘light’). “Rule number one is that the light always has to match. If it doesn’t, you have a big problem,” agrees The Ambassadors’ Halbo van der Klauw. “Sometimes you can’t create a ‘real life’ effect at all so everything has to be created in CG.”

This realism can be particularly challenging in certain sectors. Mark Beardall, Head of 2D at Gramercy Park Studios (GPS), reckons that beauty work, in particular, requires a delicate balance. Too much of a heavy hand can leave models looking weirdly synthetic, while not enough can fail to sell the product. “Beauty work on people and products can also be tricky as if you go too far it becomes obvious that something has been done. But it depends on the client as to how far they want to go and what is acceptable to them. So the tricky part is knowing how far to go with it to meet their needs. Everyone has a slightly different take on it.”

Perfectly Imperfect

When people think of post production and the process of ‘finishing’ a piece of film, it’s often the gloss and the glamour of a final polish that springs to mind. However, when it comes to creating effects and CGI imagery that can fool the human eye, much of the skill lies in knowing how to manipulate and create the sort of flaws and imperfections that appear on real-world objects.

“Modelling, material assignment and creating the product – The ‘Logic’ – gives you 90 per cent of an image. The extra 10% per cent is where the Magic happens,” says the Mackevision London team. “What’s so interesting about this aspect of CG is that it is the imperfections that create stunning imagery. This 10 per cent is down to the CG artist’s previous experience and the often time-consuming process of adding the smallest details.  Awards given to artists with a particular talent or those individuals and small teams that have created incredible photo-real images for certain campaigns should perhaps win more awards. The level of skillsets needed to create beautiful imagery, whilst maintaining a realistic edge is extremely high but it is also where some of the best work is created and for that, those CG artists should be recognised more than they currently are.” 

Expect the Unexpected

In a perfect world, post producers would be able to plan out the schedule down to the last detail well ahead of getting the offline edit through the doors. In fact, for the more complex jobs post production studios are increasingly being consulted at earlier stages of the creative process.

“We increasingly see the involvement of post production from the outset of the filmmaking process. Of course, we’ve had animatics and pre-visualisations for years. But getting the creative and technical minds of a VFX studio on board early on can open doors, unlock locks and clear mist,” says the team from Glassworks.

But perfect worlds don’t exist and the footage can often throw up unexpected challenges – blazing sunlight when a slightly overcast sky would be more appropriate, distant landmarks creeping into shot, or the lead actor recovering from an unexpected case of chickenpox. It means the teams have to think and work quickly and flexibly.

“The trickiest hidden VFX is always a result of ‘fixing’ areas of film which haven’t been planned for,” says Finish’s Justine White. “With filming you can never predict all of the different outcomes and if we are not on the shoot, or involved from the beginning of the process, unplanned changes can be very tricky as more areas of the film will have to be treated. For example, if say, a character’s clothing or features must be altered in post and they haven’t been shot on a clean background (blank and un-textured), we have to make changes to the person as an object but also to whatever may be behind them/around them. This is where invisible post isn’t frequently given the creative credit it deserves. The thought process behind altering hidden areas requires honed problem solving skills and a bucket-load of imagination.”

Working in off-piste is much more common in jobs that involve a lot of hidden tinkering, says Ben Davidson, a VFX Supervisor at MPC LA. "When doing a big VFX-driven job, everything is planned out so that it can be as efficient as possible. We know the camera is locked down or there is motion control and acres of green screen with lots of lovely trackers. Whereas with hidden VFX, we’ll sometimes have to work on footage where there can be a number of reasons that a shot needs work. You might have to hand-track the impossible such as footage shot without markers, or rotoscope (which is still done by human hands), and complete prep work before tackling a shot. I’ve had to break arms, hands and fingers before animating them so that they touch the right part of a phone screen. Shots of sunny Southern California have had palm trees removed. We’ve matte-painted cityscapes, replaced skies, and I must have hand-painted all of the cracks out of downtown LA by now!"

Weather Wizards

Weather can be an unpredictable beast – but it’s a familiar foe for VFX and post houses. Quite often, campaigns tied to a particular season can be shot several months in advance, requiring artists to whip up a Christmassy snow storm or a summer blaze. 

“We have also worked on quite a few jobs lately that have required weather alteration such as creating snow covered landscapes and streets, adding snow and rain and extra atmosphere,” says Gramercy Park Studio’s Mark Beardall. “Again if this is done well it shouldn't distract from telling the story but help strengthen it. The Debenhams Ice Skating Christmas spot is also a good example as most of the shots required more Christmas lights and decorations to be added to make the piece feel more festive and magical.”

One of the particular challenges with weather effects is that they have to interact with and respond to the landscape around them. For a recent campaign for Macmillan Cancer Research through creative agency VCCP, the team at Finish had to whip up a blizzard and a thick mist – and the mist proved especially tricky. “To create the mist, special attention was needed in replicating the landscape environment. This involved modelling mountains, rocks and uneven grounds. Only then could we really create a sense of depth and space within the mist and integrate it convincingly,’ says lead 3D artist Harin Hirani.

Mother Nature can be a fickle – and dangerous – lady to muck about with, so often it’s far safer to recreate dramatic weather effects in the comfort of a warm, dry studio. That becomes especially pertinent when the action leaves dry land.

The team at Glassworks found this to be the case when working on a 2012 Prada spot with Stink’s Adam Berg, which shows a slow motion take of a catamaran in a stormy ocean. “As creative and technical heads were scratched as to how to shoot it, insurance premiums were skyrocketing,” they explain. “It had an ambitious big idea at its core. Our role as the VFX studio was to crack that nut, to make it possible. The boat was shot in a studio using 4 camera rigs travelling at over 50 mph; the separate takes were then re-tracked and stitched together into one shot with CG oceans, skies and water effects created.

“And therein lies the crux. When VFX is at its most efficient, firing on all cylinders, it is a solution finder, a code breaker, able to find a needle in a haystack. It succeeds on taking a holistic view, able to see the wood from the trees.”

Cheeky stunts

One area where post production houses find themselves in a particular bind is when their VFX and post expertise is used to ‘help out’ with in-camera, ‘live’ stunts. These campaigns are often PR’d to trade and consumer press with an emphasis on bravery, skill or daring that it takes to pull off a trick shot or stunt. 

“Yes it’s been known to be true on quite a few occasions shall we say!” says Finish’s Justine White, chatting to us on a naming-no-names basis. “We’ve had projects before, for example, which appear to be shot in one long clever take, or things didn’t go to plan on a shoot and elements have been augmented. Even if in camera trickery was used – and sometimes very successfully – stabilisation of shots is often needed or the viewers at home might be reaching for the sick bag! Stabilisation can often mean filling in large areas of the image that don’t exist, so post can essentially save the day.”

In fact, thanks to increasingly sophisticated audiences, these particular jobs almost demand a more exacting attention to detail than normal.

“This is very common, almost to the point now where it is assumed by the audience so the work needs to be incredibly integrated to remain unseen,” explain Robert Owens and Stephanie Gilgar at Method Studios in LA.

For Halbo van der Klauw at Ambassadors, VFX is often brought into these kinds of jobs to solve problems around time scale or budget. In 2013, he worked on a Turkish Airlines spot featuring Lionel Messi doing crazy keepy-uppies – only they only had access to shoot Messi for one hour and so had to use some clever effects and a (highly skilled!) body double to pull the job off.

“It’s a very practical aspect to commercial work today in the sense that there’s often a strictly allotted time frame, which makes live action impossible. The same goes for people at different locations and so forth. A lot of the time you simply can’t have everyone at the same spot at the same time,” explains Halbo.

“Hidden work can save a lot of the production budget that can then be allocated elsewhere to lift the final piece as a whole. Ten years ago, production and post-production didn’t really talk about this, now it’s definitely more of a collaborative process – we’re all on the same page.” 

The most  dangerous stunts are, clearly, pulled off using safety rigs and harnesses. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but a 30-second commercial just ain't worth risking someone's life over. What that means is that post studios spend a lot of time painstakingly removing safety get-ups from shots - as of yet there's sadly no magic 'erase' button. 

"Complicated rig and wire removal, anything that is actually attached to talent is always a big job," explains MPC NY's senior VFX supervisor Aleksandar Djordjevic. "99% of that work involves reconstructing what you see behind elements that have been removed, tracking it, creating set extensions where necessary, and then making sure no one notices the patch. It's an incredibly lengthy and repetitive process, where a lot of onus falls on proper supervision, and having enough eyes on it before the work is signed off. But it's good fun, only for the biggest VFX fanatics out there. Artists often find a real Zen moment while handling these tasks, or rock out on their headphones to some hardcore music. It's always interesting watching folks in the middle of this kind of work, as figuratively everyone has some kind of a personal ritual to doing prep VFX work."

The Sport of VFX

The Ambassadors’ Turkish Airlines job is a prime example of the sort of invisible or hidden post production that is become vital for jobs involving sports stars. Wrangling the schedule of a one million-pound-a-month soccer star is hard enough, but when you’ve got several sporting prima donnas to fit into one film you’re going to need some compositing done just to give the appearance that they’re all in the same room.

There’s also the added problem that these multi-star jobs often involve players competing in some sort of epic match. Filling a stadium with hundreds of thousands of fans is a logistical nightmare. Instead the production teams have to generate large crowds that look and behave believably. 

“With sport’s globalisation, there is huge demand for seeing our favourite stars up close and personal. But, shooting them in the heat of battle isn’t easy. Nor is getting them all in the same place at the same time for a shoot,” says the team at Glassworks. 

“Our Creative Director of 3D Jordi Bares is one of the industry’s leading crowd specialists. He says, ‘what we are able to do with intelligent CG crowds now liberates production costs and logistics but, more importantly, offers the director and cinematographer the freedom to shoot whatever they want’.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

With all this talk of ‘invisible’ post, it’s surprising how much of the more subtle work is hidden in plain sight.

Pack shots, for example, are often created as CGI models. There are also cases when product packs that feature within an ad have to be changed last minute – and rather than re-shoot the whole ad, they’re transformed in post.

“CGI is flexible and often much more cost effective than live shooting and so it’s hugely beneficial to have CG models of products, such as a bottle of branded water for example in a pack shot,” explains the team at Mackevision London. “The fundamental bottle design may not change over a long period of time, but the label wrap will change constantly with different branding, promotions, colours, information and images. With a CG model the label can be changed quickly and the process is faster and more efficient than having to create the physical label and photograph it in a live setting.” 

Justine White at Finish agrees that this sort of work is very common. “We see a lot of this. Quite often the correct artwork doesn’t make it to the shoot. This can be down to a number of logistical reasons, usually because packaging has changed by the time it comes to air or that the brand is global and has different artwork for each of its territories. It’s cheaper for brands to change packaging in post that it is to shoot an advert multiple times with all of their packaging. However if there are multiple versions shot we can sometimes have to change packaging as both films have been chopped together in the editing stage to get the best composed outcome. We’re there to support the creative vision of the director in each case and ensure it’s seamless. You probably see this kind of post all the time but would never know!”

Giving the Fixers their Dues...

All the experts we’ve spoken to are somewhat torn about the paradox of invisible post and VFX. On the one hand, the fact that much of their best work goes unnoticed by the viewing public is a source of great pride. After all, it means that they’re really, really good at their job and the lack of attention is a testament to their stealth and craft.

“Clean up, set extensions, rig removals – these are the bread & butter that we all quietly get on with,” says Rushes’ Paul Hannaford. “We obviously take great pride in all of our work and feel gratified with the final results. You’re right, these kind of VFX accomplishments are never really noted but of course we don’t have a problem with that because it’s simply what we do and what is expected.”

On the other hand it can create an issue when clients don’t appreciate or understand the sheer volume and complexity of the work that goes on to make their campaign as cohesive and ‘normal’ as possible.

“Sometimes this work is hidden because it needs to be. Beauty work, product fakery, screen composites, different takes of actors composited together are not necessarily things that should be revealed. If nobody notices and all looks real then that is satisfaction enough because we know we have done our job well,” says GPS’ Mark Beardall.

“But I once worked on a job for eight weeks that had a lot of post work on it. Someone contacted me and asked how long it had taken. When I told them they said "How? It doesn't look like anything has been done? But that was the goal. The director also wanted to keep the post work a mystery so we couldn't do any breakdowns.”

Clients aside, another group prone to misunderstanding the subtleties of invisible post are the youngsters coming into the business, reckons MPC NY's senior VFX supervisor Aleksandar Djordjevic. "Rotoscoping, paint fixing, wire/rig removals, beauty work, set extensions, and so much more are all-present in a day’s work, however they are not honored publicly," he says. "These basic skills are crucial to understanding the subtle artistry of compositing. young talent, especially compositors, are often drawn to VFX by the high-end effects, but are surprised that 80% of what they may do throughout their career is oftentimes non-flashy. Even as a senior artist with over a decade of compositing and VFX supervision experience, I’ll always go back to basic compositing skills. The basic skills of a dedicated, professional digital compositor involves being adept at the “low-key” techniques first and foremost, then compositing complex CG follows.

One of the biggest frustrations post production companies face is at award shows. Whereas agencies are increasingly submitting case study videos to better explain the challenges they faced with a particular campaign and the campaign’s effectiveness, post production companies are not afforded a similar opportunity.

“With industry awards we can’t submit the before and after of a film or even provide notes as the process doesn’t accommodate it and in many cases the client wouldn’t want films in their offline edit stage shared to a wider audience due to many reasons. Therefore the kind of work that has invisible effects ,no matter how complex or simple, is reliant on the judging panel knowing where they are to be able to award it. Really, a testament to good post work is that these things aren’t meant to be spotted by the untrained eye,” says Finish’s Justine White, who also has a solution to the problem. “Often there isn’t a VFX specialist on awards juries and without seeing the contrast between the offline and final films it can be hard to judge against the flashy work where it’s obvious what has been created.  We’d love to see more VFX specialists on an award juries. It could make entering work with ‘invisible’ post worthwhile.”

Ultimately it’s a case of education. As the lines between VFX and live action continue to blur, even the most entrenched luddite will have to get their heads around the subtleties and intricacies of post. 

“Invisible post is probably the hardest thing to pull off as you have to achieve true photorealism, but it’s also what The Mill has built its reputation on,” says the Mill’s Neil Davies. “Perhaps it’s time to start celebrating the invisible and not just the monsters and explosions.”

And we agree. But until then, just make sure you pay your respects to the industry goodfellas (and ladies) who make things happen and make sure that problems go away…

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