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VFX Are Everywhere Blog Series

Interviews with VFX studios Method Studios and Shed Inc. By: Ben Fischler, VFX Curriculum Director, Animation Mentor
To commemorate the launch of VFX Fundamentals, the Animation Mentor crew has interviewed studios big and small to learn of their impact in the visual effects world. You can read about their work in our new VFX Are Everywhere blog series. From the big screen, advertisements, corporate projects, amusement parks and all places in between you learn that visual effects truly are everywhere.

VFX Are Everywhere Blog Series: Argo, Cloud Atlas, and More
Originally Posted: June 19, 2013

Click image to play a VFX Breakdown of Cloud Atlas from Method Studios
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Recently, Patrick Ferguson, Lead Compositor at Method Studios in Los Angeles, joined VFX Curriculum Director Ben Fischler to discuss Methods work on Super Bowl ads, their workflow, and what they look for in artists. Today, the Method team returns to share more of their creative magic and insights. Joining us to continue the VFX Are Everywhere blog series are Jeff Werner, Methods Digital Studio Manager and Keith Roberts, Methods newest Animation Supervisor.

Thank you to Patrick, Jeff, Keith, and all of our friends at Method Studios. Enjoy. The Animation Mentor Crew Our blog series is titled VFX Are Everywhere. What is one project youve worked on at Method that most people wouldnt know include visual effects work? Jeff: Once we did a 50-foot purple dragon for a cell phone commercial, just kidding. The best Seamless as we call it visual effects show we have done would have to be for the movie Argo, where we created the Azadi Tower as it looked in 1970 and all the surrounding environment with a full rush hour feel filled with people and cars as the camera swept in close. Also, at the most dramatic moment when they are escaping at the end, all the close up airplanes on the runway were CG. Shhhh dont tell anyone. Keith: VFX are everywhere yes they are! Its often more easy to tell if you see something fantastical but VFX has become so price competitive that there are very few shots in any movie that has not had some kind of VFX enhancement. Take a look at the Method Reel on our website, it has a lot of making of footage and you will be surprised by how many things are not shot in camera, but are layered in afterwards using VFX. Please explain how your specific role works at Method. Jeff: Im the Design Studio Manager and I manage most of the artists as in hiring, placement on jobs, and reviews. I work to keep a positive and proactive environment for and with the artists to help projects finish on time. This is done by actively being involved with hiring and developing new talent for the future and daily maintenance of studio projects. I am also involved with global connectivity of all the Method Studios. Keith: An Animation Supervisor at Method is involved in all of the work that comes through the department whether it be the technical aspects of how it will get done as well as the creative aspects of what the finished animation should look like. The Animation Supervisor casts the shots to the animator and meets with the film director to generate ideas and distill what the needs of each shot are from an animation and narrative perspective. What has been your favorite project to work on while at Method? Jeff: I would have to say it is a split between a Kia commercial, where we created furry hamsters and robots that were dancing to the LMFAO hit song Party Rocking and then the feature film Cloud Atlas. Both projects were very complex with big teams and both had a lasting success that people remember. Cloud Atlas was in the final 10 films to be considered for an Oscar. Its a great feeling to go see a project on the big screen and have a sense of pride in what your artists and company have accomplished.

Click image to play Kias Party Rocking spot

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Do you manage commercial and feature work differently? If so, what are the main differences? Jeff: Both commercials and film can be managed the same as the tasks to get them set up are similar but its the time you have to finish them in, is the difference. Commercials need to be set up and staffed quickly because they are due in weeks, while a film needs to be set up quickly but the ending date is months away, so a bit more room to configure. Keith: The most critical element of the animation of course is that it has to fulfill the expectation of the film director. The second most critical element that helps the other departments further along the production pipeline is that the animation is valid from a spatial and technical perspective that is, can the tech department simulate the clothes or skin accurately, can the lighters cast shadows on surrounding geometry and terrain accurately etc. The collaboration between animators and other departments is constant over the production life of the show. If the track looks off we try to shoot out other angles to show the tracking department the issues. The lighting department does the same for us if they see an issue. Often, pictures can more accurately describe the problems we encounter than words. But we are constantly involved with the artists from other departments before and after the animation process to make sure our animation is valid technically.

Given Methods global nature, can you talk about the successes and challenges of working within a global pipeline? Jeff: We currently are working on our global pipeline so that is our current challenge. But our current methods of globally working together are pretty basic but were aiming to make it a system that will best utilize our global resources. Keith: Method is refining connections between our international facilities. The goal is to share assets and artists and to pool knowledge and talent to make us more economical and better able to meet the ever-increasing quality of VFX for films and commercials. The mirroring of pipelines and tools is very important as it makes Method a functional and robust company.

VFX Are Everywhere Blog Series: Method Studios

Originally Posted: June17, 2013

Click image to play Method Studios demo reel

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The VFX Are Everywhere blog series continues today with Patrick Ferguson, Lead Compositor at Method Studios in Los Angeles. VFX Curriculum Director Ben Fischler chats with Patrick about Methods work on Super Bowl ads, their workflow, and what they look for in artists. Enjoy. The Animation Mentor Crew

Click image to play DirecTV Troll spot

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Ben: Our series is titled VFX Are Everywhere. Visual effects are prevalent all around us. Quite often, audiences will watch something and not even be aware that theyre watching visual effects. What are projects that youve worked on at Method that most people wouldnt even think include visual effects work? Patrick: Sky replacement is pretty prevalent throughout. I would say over 50 percent of the skies always need to be swapped out. And sometimes, not even swapped out maybe enhanced here, put a cloud here, put a little interest there. That happens all the time. We also do a lot of foliage enhancements like trees a lot of sweeping of trees, adding more foliage where theres dead grass and just fixing landscapes that dont look beautiful. Theres a lot of work that goes into matte painting. We did a show DirecTV Troll which is playing during the NBA Playoffs now. Many scenes had to be matte painted to make sure that they looked like idyllic settings, with greenery and trees specifically positioned. We did a spot for Verizon about a year ago called Payload. It was shot in San Francisco and it was an armored car heist sort of theme. There was a lot of enhancement of the city. Theres always signage enhancement or signage removal. A lot of that stuff I would say over 50 percent of that stuff shot in cities always has to be augmented also. Thats VFX that you never see, whether it be adding specific signage or getting rid of specific signage.

Click image to play Verizon Wireless Payload spot

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Ben: With compositing now, is every job in the comp department a two-and-a-half D or 3D job? Are the days of traditional comping in 2D over? Patrick: Well, it still depends on the job. Pretty much, if theres budget for it, every shot will be tracked in 3D. Once you have that camera information, yes, we use all that stuff to create a virtual layout so that the compers can place cards wherever they need to, have tracking locators, and do whatever they need to do in 3D space basically. Theres still some shows where its not as necessary there you can track in stuff in 2D. We use Mocha Pro a lot, which is a planer tracker, which is sort of a two-and-a-half D sort of thing. But yes, if it requires it, it will go through the Integration Department (tracking and match moves) and well get a real 3D camera for it and that just opens up the flood gates on what we can do, what we can place, and how we can augment the environment. Ben: Is the Integration Department considered part of the comp team or a separate department thats clearly delineated? Patrick: At Method, its a clearly delineated department that has its own Integration Supervisor who runs that department, and they have a staff that ramps up and ramps down depending on shows. They have a very specific task of tracking the scenes, match moving whatever needs to be match moved, creating layout geometry that is a low-res poly so that we can bring it in. They are their own department. Ben: Tell me about the role of Lead Compositor, both specifically to the Kia Space Babies spot and the general roles and responsibilities, and how that varies from show to show or in

different studios. What does it mean to be the Lead Compositor? Patrick: For Space Babies and most large Super Bowl-esque commercials we do, the Lead Compositor works with the VFX Supervisor and the client director to set the look of each sequence. So for Space Babies, the tricky part was trying to figure out what the look of the baby planet was. So youll work with the director and the advertising agency and with matte painters to sort of come up with what the style look is. Once the look has been established for each one of these sequences, whether it be the baby planet or the space sequence, then the Lead Compositor doles out all the

Click image to play Kia Space Babies spot

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shot plates and all the stuff that was shot as elements to the individual compositor. I think for Space Babies, we had seven different compositors both Flame and NUKE on the show. And then as the show progresses, well have daily updates and daily walk-throughs to make sure that each compositor is getting all the elements and continually improving all the comps as they go along. At Method, the compositing supervisor also works on shots. So I had three or four shots that I was working on, as well as supervising all the other comp artists. And then, the compositing supervisors are also involved in all the reviews with the director and agency. I put the whole edit together. I work with the editorial to make sure that any changes on my end get relayed back to editorial. Many times, on huge spots, you come up with what you think the director and agency think is an edit but its somewhat rough because there is so much thats not in there, because weve only gotten so far with our animation previews and all that sort of stuff. So once all that comes in, it definitely influences how the cut is shaped. For example, maybe the elephant walks slower or the rocket ship shot needs to have more play on it just because its so beautiful. Ill work with the director and the agency to figure

out what the flow of this new idea and edit is. And for the NUKE artists, since I know NUKE, Ill set up the templates so that all the shots look similar, all the shots coming from CG have a similar breakout so all the NUKE artists can get working in the same realm. Ill try to do the same thing for the Flame artists and have templates for them also, so that they are looking through the same sort of filter and scope to unify the project between Flame artists and NUKE artists, and to maintain continuity. Its a lot of daily upkeep, making sure that the compositors are continuing along with their shot. Then Ill pull every shot in every day and well have daily reviews. Ben: One of the things were trying to teach is overlap. Thats to say that to be strong in lighting or comp, its good to have experience in both areas. For example, as a comper, it behooves you to have an understanding of lighting and rendering so that you can work with a separate lighting team or if necessary, you can light your own shot and vice versa. Everything is connected. In your setup, lighting and comp are separate departments. Is there any crossover, where you may have lighters comping their own shots or vice versa? Patrick: We definitely encourage that here at Method. We have educational seminars on a weekly or biweekly basis, where each department informs all the other departments on how they are doing things and how certain problems have been tackled and stuff like that. I definitely agree that you need the knowledge base of each department to make your specialty shine. At Method, all the compositors are primarily compositors they dont light their own shots. The lighters are primarily lighters. Theres information flowing from both departments. And there is knowledge of each other. But predominately, in most of the places that Ive worked the lighters light shots and the compositors composite shots. Ben: You said that youre a NUKE and Flame shop? Patrick: We have a whole Finishing Department here which is mostly Flame, which is mostly the hourly jobs. Then we have a whole Flame Department that is VFX Flame, and thats the long-form scheduled commercials. We also have a NUKE Department for both commercials and features. Theres a lot of cross-pollination of artists between those three groups. Ben: Any propriety tools to help you move cohesively? Patrick: We have a few tools that just make things easier. We have a LUT (Look Up Table) publisher that publishes a LUT that comes in so that it is seamlessly viewable in NUKE, Flame, RV, FrameCycler, or Houdini. Thats a nice tool that we have. Ben: Last time I used Flame, it still struggled with EXRs. Patrick: It has gotten better. You cant arrow up like you can in NUKE. But you can bring in EXRs, all the different layers, AOVs, and pull them out. Flame is keeping up with the curve as far as

compositing large-scale CG environments. Ben: What renderers do you typically use in production? Patrick: It depends on the show. We have a huge V-Ray Department here. All of our hard surface stuff is done in V-Ray. Our fur pipeline is through Houdini/Mantra. Ben: When youre thinking about skills for artists that are coming into your team, what are some of the important qualities and skills that you really look for? Patrick: The biggest thing is to learn how to craft your eye. You have to be able to see something, know what it should look like, and strive toward that. Sometimes, I get a lot of compers who just start versioning supervisors to death and thats just not the way to go. You really have to work on figuring out what the supervisor is looking for and strive to go toward that and personally, you should do that before showing something on a repeated basis. Ben: Dont show if its not ready to show. Patrick: Exactly right. I think a lot of young compositors come in and do the note and thats it, and then kick it back for review. But then this ends up becoming spiraling, unending versions of not looking great. So young compositors definitely need to figure out what their eye is, and thats something that happens over time. But they need to figure out what the comp supervisor is looking for and just see it in their minds and then strive toward that. And really know that before theyll be happy with it, you have to be happy with your own work. You should be happy with your work before you move it up the chain. Ben: One of the things were trying to emphasize in our program is the importance of photography as the bedrock essential tool for developing your eye. I used to feel that was more important from a compositing standpoint but now with the current generation of renderers like V-Ray and Arnold, photography applies to lighting and rendering in the same line as compositing. Now, to be a lighter, you need the same eye of a photographer essentially. And thats a life-long skill. In our program, you are required to shoot X number of shots every week with different goals in mind. It quickly becomes apparent to students how valuable that is, as well as developing a reference library. Patrick: Just seeing everything in your environment and taking a snapshot of it and seeing how real things interact with real things thats lighting and compositing in a nutshell. Then theres composition, also. Sometimes, we have to come up with an effect, design, or something like that and having that photography background is essential for that sort of stuff. Knowing how design works, what looks good, what sides and pieces of the frame are important I agree, a photography background is almost essential for lighters and compositors.

VFX Are Everywhere Blog Series: Shed Inc. Interview

Originally Posted: May 29, 2013

Click image to play Shed Inc.s VFX Demo Reel

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We kick off the series with VFX Curriculum Director, Ben Fischler, chatting with Shed Inc. in Montreal. Shed produces cutting-edge visual effects for films, corporate projects, and advertisements. Joining us are Sheds Vice President and Visual Effects Supervisor, Sylvain Lebeau and Director of Animation, Pierre-Hugues PH Dallaire. Enjoy the read and the series. The Animation Mentor Crew Ben: Tell us about Shed. Sylvain: Me and PH have known each other for 10 years. Before Shed, we had another company. Then we met others and realized that there was a mutual benefit. We starting working together to form Shed 8 years ago. Pierre-Hugues: We are currently concentrating on advertisements for the past 5 years, with some effects for a movie. The film work is more an exception to the rule. Sylvain: We dont do much interactive stuff. But working with advertising agencies, they ask for animation for web and print. We also do corporate work.

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Click image to play Centraide spot

Ben: When you think of your visual effects work that is seamless when the audience doesnt even know that its visual effects what does that mean to you? What examples come to mind of VFX Are Everywhere? For example, your work with the client, Centraide commercial. To me, that doesnt look like a visual effects piece. It looks like a beautiful film. Pierre-Hugues: We work in the industry and we can spot the effects, if there are any. We did a campaign that involved placing angel wings behind some actors shot in live action. The goal was to make them look as realistic as possible. They had props strapped to their backs for tracking and matchmoving purposes, but you would never know since we erased them. Sylvain: This was much different. People are used to costumes. If we stayed with people and costumes, we wouldnt have the range of motion. we wouldnt have gotten there. Pierre-Hughes: We wouldnt have gotten the same range of flexibility and control over actual wings that we managed to get in 3D. Ben: The audience thinks theyre seeing something that they can readily identify with. For example, this is a prop wing and theyre comfortable with that and so they dont bother, they accept it, and they buy into the story on screen. But the fact that its CG frees the storytelling up so much because you are not limited. Pierre-Hugues: Exactly. if youve forgotten something or something needs to be fixed, CG is a good option to add objects or remove them.

Ben: We are teaching our students the importance of collaboration in the studio. That takes a few different forms. Teamwork within a studio means different things at each studio. As a smaller or mid-sized studio, how do you guys think of collaboration between artists in teams, or working with artists outside the studio? Pierre-Hugues: Were about 15 artists in our 3D department. Of those, we have about five animators. So we have an animation and rigging department; and a shading, lighting, and rendering department. And we split into two teams that work collaboratively, which means that after the modeling pipeline step, we can split the asset into two groups where the model can be sent to rigging and to the

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Click image to play IGA spot

texturing department at the same time, as long as the topology is the same so that the number of points on both models remains the same. The UVs carry through and that allows us to animate and prepare the final look at the same time. Sylvain: We need this type of pipeline in the advertisement world because normally, schedules are pretty tight. So as soon as we start and the modeling goes out of the modelers hand, everybody works on the asset on both sides (rigging and texturing). Then we regroup all those assets into the shot and scene. We only import the position and adaptation of the render model so everything splits up and (is then) brought back into the final shot and scene. Also, the 3D department is an open space, and its pretty small, maybe 2,000 square feet. Shed is like a family, very tight. All the people (have known) each other for a long time now. Ben: You are using Alembic to cache out animation data and thats what the lighters work with?

Sylvain: Yes, but not for the hair simulation. We havent tested extensively yet. But this is something were going to look for to create hair that is inter-related takes time and we would have to cache out all the hairs and not only the guides. (For the hair rendering) its all Arnold. Ben: Is your pipeline built internally or are you using off-the-shelf products? Sylvain: Its all used inside of Shed. Were also using Shotgun for organization. Our pipeline tools connect to Shotgun to be able to know which shot does what. And we do the same for NUKE as well. Everything is optimized, nobody needs to do any file open or menus. Everything is listed for every department and always with the latest scene selected for you. As soon as you want to work on something, you choose either asset or shot, and it lists everything for you thats in the folder, so thats very nice. Ben: In our VFX curriculum, we are trying to build strong artists who have an understanding of how to get to a look or finished image across different skills. For example, you may want to go into compositing but you need a knowledge of shading and geometry to make you a better artist. For Shed, theres a certain amount of specialization. But within the look development process, do you let people takes things all the way from shader work through to final comp? Sylvain: Artistically speaking, to have a good eye, you have be a photographer first before all the technical stuff. When youre used to taking photos, youre able to emulate camera optics. And this is very important, to make things more real by lens distortion, things like that. As for shaders and

Click image to play The Making of Lotoquebec spot

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look dev, we have a dedicated shading scene with 12 sIBLs already like sunset 1 or sunset 2; daylight and forest. We place these in the scene and this is where the shaders come in. And as soon as you export a model from that scene, the model is ready to be imported into the render scene to be shot. As the show starts, at the animation and even the layout stage, we export the elements of every asset that we need for that shot. These are all in the still position, not moving, while the animators continue their work and we can start lighting it at the exact same time. The lighting is evolving all the time until the animation is completed. Then we render the frames simply and comp it in NUKE. We keep working on the still until we are ready to render sequences. Ben: Its an eloquent process. For rendering, you use Arnold like we do in our classes. Im curious, what lead you to Arnold and have you had situations where you werent able to get the results you wanted? Any Arnold pointers? Sylvain: We started using Arnold maybe four years ago. It was still in its early stages and we were only using it in testing. But it didnt take long for us to see the potential with the speed increase and how interactive it is for the artist to place lights. The light is nice in Arnold. From there, we started buying other licenses and we totally jumped into production 100 percent. The only drawback early on was the ability to render volumetric stuff, like fire. Other than that, we didnt have any problems that we werent able to work around. Arnold has a super-cool forum list that is awesome with a lot of talented, elite, advanced people who can help you out. By being there with them, we can solve any problem we have. Ben: When rendering with Arnold, is your compositing workflow any different because of the Arnold processes? How much do you lean on the composite to get your final image? Are you still compositing? Or do you still use all the AOVs, etc.? Sylvain: We render mostly beauty class, RGB matte pass. We call it puzzle here. And yes, we render all the AOVs to be able to control more in comp and also to denoise the indirect diffuse and indirect specular channels. Sometimes, you get noise in there, so its good to minus it from the beauty pass. You de-noise it so that you can keep render times fairly usable and keep getting smooth images. Ben: Do you render locally on a farm or do you do any cloud rendering? Sylvain: We have our own render farm. Its not super big. We have 25 good blades, 16 gb to 32 gb of RAM with 24 threads and they self-allot. The other blades are for NUKE. Theres a lot of work (involved) to be able to render on a cloud service. We have all of our add-on tools that we have to have so it would be very hard to make that setup happen in the cloud. We have to place them here. Ben: Our VFX students and our community want to know about the hiring process. If youre hiring a VFX artist for lighting, for example what do you look for in your ideal candidate?

Sylvain: Since were small, we look for artists who know lighting, shading, and compositing. So the artist creates the passes, creates the look, and brings all the shots to the final stage. We render in Arnold and we comp in NUKE. We also have the Flame Suite and Smoke Suite here we dont use for comping, theyre more for client sessions where we put logos and erase a couple of things live with the client during an online session. The most important thing is the attitude of the people. Its nice when you have people who are passionate about what they do, you see that they are curious about technology, they practice a lot, and you feel that they want to become better and better all the time. This is important to me. Everybody can learn tools from having people around them showing them little tricks here and there. And in a production environment, you learn very fast I would say. But yes, the attitude is a very important factor. Ben: We try to emphasize that to our students you can be a great artist, but you still need to work well with others. We teach them not to be too precious with their work. Yes, you should be passionate but you still need to take the criticisms and notes and get your work done. Thats one of the hardest lessons for our students to learn how to work with others. Pierre-Hugues: When youre a student, you work on your own shots and films nobody tells you

Click image to play Shed Inc.s CGI Demo Reel

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intentions, its all up to you. But when you are working on advertising or (outside) films, directors and clients have their vision and you need to be able to adjust. Sylvain: Technical and artistic (skills) are important. But being a teammate helps a lot. Its cool to have somebody come to your desk with suggestions. Maybe you should consider adding light here, a shade of blue on this shot. You need to be open minded to even try it.