Category Archives: Advice

My oh my… I’ve done 10 years of VFX work.

It’s now a decade since I first cut my teeth doing VFX on music videos. Lots has changed, technology has marched on at a huge pace, and yet the fundamental way of approaching a shot is almost the same.

Simple solutions are often the most effective ones and in particular those you know and can trust. For me this has meant finding appropriate methods for a particular time & situation and sticking with them for similar projects in the future. Consequently alongside my extensive Softimage, Terragen and PFTrack experience, my VFX fingers have touched Adobe products, GIMP, Deep Exploration, SpeedTree, Global Mapper, Inkscape, Combustion, Nuke, Maya, Max, and Cinema 4D.

As a generalist with such a broad background skillset, I found myself recently in an unusual position; that of a 3D lead artist on a 60 episode long TV series. All in all I spent a year working alongside a team of staff from both the production and post production side of things. I was even on set for a stint, something I hadn’t done for many years. Rather irritatingly, the whole thing is under wraps so I can’t say a word about that directly until it’s broadcast.

In the past 10 years I’ve learnt more than I could possibly have imagined when I left college. Here’s a few things I’d like to pass on to those entering the brave new (actually quite old) world of VFX. They’re based on my experience, so might not match the opinion of others.

Firstly and most importantly, listen to those telling you not to be sedentary. Stand up often and walk around. Consider a standing desk. Exercise regularly. You need it. Yes you do. Fresh air too, and daylight. By daylight I mean directly from the Sun, not a simulation bulb. Plus if you work from home, which you may well do at some point, human contact is essential. You need those breaks from the screen to be a human being rather than a ‘zombie’ as I’ve heard execs refer to VFX guys as.

On a similar note, burning the candle at both ends does nobody any good. Try to avoid long hours, even if you are enjoying a project. Past a certain point in the day, I find the work I am doing is deteriorating in quality and my brain is no longer functioning at its best. On that note, drink plenty of water. Lots of offices are air-conditioned and will dry you out very fast. If you must work extra time, try to wangle a weekend, especially if you’re a freelancer. You’ll get paid an extra day and will have the benefit of further sleep. Some of my best work has been done on a Saturday.

Don’t be ashamed to take shortcuts or cheat. The whole of VFX is a cheat, a lie. It’s OK to use stock libraries for footage, elements, sound, textures and even models. Quality varies so do your research, but the time you could save will actually save money in the end too. For an HD project, consider rendering out elements at 720p, then upscaling in the comp. 720p has less than a million pixels in it. 1080p has over 2 million. Render times are much lower and many cannot tell the difference in image quality. There are rare exceptions to this, but I’ve even passed SD anamorphic widescreen renders of skies and the like to be composited before now and nobody’s noticed or cared. If it is matching something soft in the background footage or is out of focus anyway, it just doesn’t matter.

Keep curious. Ask questions of those around you, whether they’re older or younger, wiser or greener. Everybody knows something the person next to them doesn’t and in this profession, that’s especially true. Whether you are self-taught or degree educated, you cannot possibly know all there is to know about the huge amount of software and associated techniques. Remember what I wrote earlier about simple solutions? The more experienced near you will possibly know them, so just ask. Don’t waste four hours struggling to do something that could be done in one hour using a technique they know.

VFX isn’t all about big budget movies and long form TV shows. Consider using your skills elsewhere. There’s a huge amount of corporate and educational work out there. I did quite a long stint of work on illustrative animations for educational websites and kids TV. As another example, did you know there’s 3D warehouse simulation software, requiring many real-time 3D models? Now you do.

Finally, if you’re a freelancer, get used to this question: “So what are you working on at the moment?”
My answer is currently, “Nothing,” so feel free to get in touch!
If you have no money, don’t, but do read this: http://www.ajcgi.co.uk/blog/?p=855

So what is VFX? I do it for a living, yes, but what is it?

When I am asked what I do for a living, there is a follow-up question that is so common I begin to answer it right away now. That question is, “Ok, that sounds interesting. So what do you actually do? What is Visual Effects really?”

It’s a fair question actually and one whose answer changes as time goes on. If I’m stumped for an answer to the question, I try some of the following.

My staple answer now is,

“I add stuff to video footage that wasn’t there in the first place, or take it away if it wasn’t meant to be there.”

More often than not, the actual answer is,

“I create something with the appearance of having been shot as real life, but which is actually impossible to shoot, be that for practical, artistic or financial reasons.”

Ah, so that will answer it, right? Nope. I find these answers are enough for most people to understand at least vaguely what the end result of my job is. However, some are mad about film, TV dramas and whatnot and really want to show their interest. Again, fair enough. A question you might get is,

“So when you say you add things into video footage or film or whatever, how do you do that?”

That’s the really tricky one to answer, especially as everyone’s preconceptions of media, especially digital, are different. There’s the Make Awesome button right? It’s all done by the computer right?
However, wonderfully, a lot of people use Photoshop now and kind of get the concept of layering things over each other. Lately, I’ve been explaining with,

“VFX has similar principles to editing photographs, only these photos are on the move. Imagine using Photoshop for moving images, with all the layers and masks moving, the colour corrections animating and so on. I make elements, series of 2D images, that are composited on top of others, like layers are in Photoshop.”

I do almost exclusively 3D VFX, by which I mean those elements are created in a 3D package, such as Maya, rendered out as 2D images, just like photographs have no physical depth to them. I no longer get bogged down into details when explaining VFX. To begin with, I don’t even mention the many jobs available; compositor, modeller, 3D generalist, render wrangler etc. I used to say I did 3D animation, but that would lead people down the path of thinking I did Toy Story or was about to reinvent Wallace and Gromit. Another danger with the 3D moniker is the recent resurgence in 3D cinema which is another kettle of fish altogether.

So there we are. A fairly basic answer which most people understand! Incidentally, I am a 3D generalist, available to hire in London, UK. Check out my work on the home page at http://www.ajcgi.co.uk.

How long is a piece of string? – Budgeting for your VFX

This post aims to be a bit of a follow up to the Stick vs Carrot post I wrote a long while ago about why I don’t work for free. It presumes you are not wanting something for nothing, so if you are, or have little budget, I strongly encourage you to read Stick vs Carrot first. This post is aimed at exactly the same people, ie small industries, students/graduates wanting help with their videos, musicians wanting music video help. It is also for those who have never hired someone before to do VFX or consider all VFX to involve a green screen.

Regularly I’ll get emails saying something like, “I’ve just completed my first album and am looking to hire a VFX guy for help with my first music video. How much will it cost to add VFX to my dancers?”
Your question opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of new questions. Much more information is needed.

In an ideal world, before you start a thing, even putting pen to paper to create a storyboard (you are creating a storyboard right?), plan out shooting, chat to VFX companies about what can and can’t be done. There are many quick, cheap solutions, but you may find some of your plans are way too adventurous. When filming with VFX in mind, rather than applying a fix-it-in-post attitude, a few pitfalls can be avoided, but also planned for. For example, many VFX are so-called invisible VFX. They don’t go bang, they don’t melt buildings into a raging torrent of water, they just sit in the background and hide things that may draw attention to themselves. Sometimes they’re even in the foreground. Period dramas are an excellent example of this. In Britain, we are lucky enough to still have many beautiful regency houses in fantastic condition, but they are often bordered by various modern paraphernalia such as electrical cables, gift shops, a nearby oilseed rape farm, a satellite dish, a Starbucks. All of this needs removing so it doesn’t feel incongruous with the regency feel of the drama. These invisible effects appear in many types of show or promo. On a small budget video they may also be invisible costs you haven’t considered. Look out for them.

When contacting VFX companies, (or especially in an effort to save cash, individual artists), check your budget. Really now, check it. If it’s really low, only a few thousand, consider how essential your chosen VFX really are. Junk things you’ve added because you saw it in The Hobbit and think it might be cool in your shaver advert. Don’t be offended if individuals like myself tell you to go away and save some cash. Add an extra contingency of about 40% on top if you can. Why? Things change. All the time. We’re all human and you may find that you don’t like the results, even if they do look thoroughly convincing. All VFX houses can provide quotes for you to assist roughly with your budgeting.

Make a storyboard. Even if it’s really rough sketches. There are guides to it online, but quick pointers are the following; an image for each shot, large arrows showing camera movement, VFX motion and direction. The more detail the better. It may seem time-consuming, but overall it will save you time and money. When chatting about VFX, refer to the boards, to scripts, to reference images, heck even full-on style guides and treatments are great. Knowing the camera you will shoot on is advantageous.

Even after all of this, there will be to-ing and fro-ing. This is natural as oddly enough it’s a creative process, but with some forward planning you’ll become a respected creative rather than one who inspires groaning upon entering a room. Take your time, plan ahead, ideally chat to VFX types before production, shoot only what you planned to, don’t move the goal posts and you’ll hit the end with minimal compromises.

Why you need compositing in your 3d life

Recently I’ve been retraining in Maya and giving myself extra alone time with the Arnold renderer from Solid Angle.
I decided to use this as not only an opportunity to find out how my Softimage lighting and rendering skills translate to Maya, but to show how basic compositing is something that every 3d artist should embrace if they don’t already.

One thing which has surprised me again and again is how little students and graduates of 3d courses are given a grounding in understanding what goes into their image and why it’s beneficial to use the compositing process as part of their workflow. Some students are even penalised for not showing their raw unenhanced render, having points deducted for daring to composite. To give a parallel, this to me is like a film photography student handing in negatives and no prints. The job is half done.

This won’t be a tutorial, more a pointer in the right direction for those who are starting out.
The example I use, a still life of a bowl of fruit, is a model from the very first lighting challenge hosted over at CGTalk. The files and others are downloadable at 3dRender. The model’s pretty old now so it’s not especially high detail but is still sufficient to show you what I intend to.

After a bit of setup in Maya and throwing on some pretty rough textures, here’s the beauty straight out of Arnold:

Beauty renderer

It’s lit with 3 lights; A cool exterior light, a warmer interior light, and a fill for the shadow in the middle. On their own, the images appear like this:

Lights Contact Sheet

These images can be added together in any compositing software and they will give exactly the same result as the beauty above, to the extent that a pixel on the beauty will be exactly the same colour as when these three images are added together.

Each of these images is itself a composite image. Arnold, Mental Ray, Vray and other renderers consider many different material properties when returning the final colour for a particular pixel. Each property can be saved out as an image itself and added together to form the final image. In the case of the beauty itself, these are the images that I’ve rendered out of Arnold:

Component Images

Again, added together, these form the same image as the beauty above perfectly.

(A side note here: A few component images are missing, including reflections, but were missed out of this contact sheet as they are entirely black. As none of the materials are reflective in the traditional sense, the reflection image is returned as black, whereas the direct specular contains highlights that mimic reflections. Arnold is peculiar in that it can consider reflections in 2 ways and transparency in 2 ways, depending on what is trying to be achieved.)
 

So what am I getting at here?

Here’s the beauty again:

Beauty renderer

Now here is a warm, evening setup:

Evening

And finally, a night lighting setup:

Night

All three use the same component images, composited together in different ways: For example, tinting the lights, changing the intensity by blending the images with varying opacity, or even desaturating the key light to achieve a moonlit interior effect. On the night lighting I’ve changed the apple using a matte together with the specular & sss channels from the fill light. It was too bright and waxy. I could have re-rendered the 3d perhaps, but a tweak in Nuke was a lot more efficient.

The compositing process, even at this basic level, allows for flexibility from the get go. Where clients are concerned, flexibility is key. When passing work by a client it’s inevitable that changes will be requested and often they are something subtle that can be achieved in the composite. If you try to achieve that yourself using only 3d solutions, the render times will get long, especially when working on tv or film. Ordinarily I work alongside compositors and it’s up to them to do compositing tweaks whilst I work on a new shot or more substantial alterations to a current one.

Similarly, when first lighting a shot, working with many rendered channels, including additional ones of your own creation, is a rapid method of figuring out whether your setup is indeed heading in the right direction. Using the same component images for multiple looks is a time saver too.

One thing to bear in mind is once you know which channels are likely to be needed, it’s time to stop rendering the others as these can fill up hard drives quite nicely.

In short, stop tweaking your 3d scenes asap. Render out your initial lighting setup and see how much can be done in the comp. It isn’t cheating; It’s part of the process. It allows you to render the shot out, pass it on, and start a new one. Ultimately it will help your relationship with compositors who like to know what’s going into your image and what they need to add, plus [perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but here goes] it will make you more employable.