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Changing Roles — Part 2: The Visual Effects Supervisor

Rick Baumgartner talks with some of the top visual effects supervisors about how theyve had to adjust to changes in the industry.

With visual effects films swinging to new heights, the supervisors job is becoming more crucial.  & © 2004 Marvel Characters Inc. © 2004 Sony Pictures Digital. All rights reserved.

With visual effects films swinging to new heights, the supervisors job is becoming more crucial. & © 2004 Marvel Characters Inc. © 2004 Sony Pictures Digital. All rights reserved.

A transformation is occurring in the entertainment industry that could have as much impact on production roles as that which occurred in the early days of film when filmmakers stepped from behind the camera to direct the action and the cinematographer stayed behind the camera to capture the performance. The roots of this transformation lie primarily in the increasing reliance by productions on digital technology and the constant drive by directors and creatives to deliver increasingly elaborate visual stories to audiences.

Once upon a time, visual effects supervisors were in charge of shooting the elements or plates required to make a shot. Today, clients expect visual effects supervisors to deliver flawless plates along with a tremendous variety of ancillary services such as production and shot planning, general technical problem solving and providing creative input at all phases of production. Supervisors regularly make on-the-fly decisions, which impact the bottom lines of the production and the organization responsible for delivering the work.

At the same time, supervisors and their teams design, create and deliver partially and completely virtual sequences in record time and at the lowest cost possible. And these sequences can be upwards of 1,000 shots or more, even in primarily live-action projects.

As a result, some suggest that visual effects supervisors are becoming as important to the typical production as the director, writer and editor. One of the possible ramifications of this expanded brief may be a renewed drive to establish industry-wide standards for a new screen credit and rate schedule.

There are as many ways to be a supervisor as there are to make a shot work. The roster of professionals interviewed for this article includes people who work in the U.S. and abroad and those who work or have worked on commercials, episodic television and effects-driven blockbusters. Some are currently on hiatus, some are deep in production. Some work for facilities as in-house supervisors, others are freelance or independent supervisors working on behalf of the production. Some have come up from the stage floor as camera operators, others learned their craft at a computer screen before stepping on to the shooting stage. Some supervise other supervisors; others are one-person bands. Most have worked for several companies and in many capacities during their careers.

This article will examine how this key production role has changed over the past five to 10 years and may change further over a comparable span.

The visual effects supervisors interviewed include (in alphabetical order): John Gaeta (The Matrix trilogy), Darin Hollings (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), Chas Jarrett (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Troy), Tim McGovern (A Sound of Thunder), Erik Nash (I, Robot), Jeff Okun (Elizabethtown and The Last Samurai), Rocco Passionino (Spider-Man 2 and The Day After Tomorrow), Loni Peristere (Serenity and Firefly) and Scott Stokdyk (Spider-Man 2).

Great Expectations: What Clients are Asking for

Clients see the same work the rest of us in television shows, commercials and movies. So it is natural for clients to ask visual effects supervisors to create newer and better ways to tell visual stories using current work as a starting point. But unlike a decade ago, today the underlying issue is not if but when. And when inevitably leads to how much? As Stokdyk of Sony Pictures Imageworks puts it: In the past, the question was: `Can you do this? Now everyone assumes that it can be done and that the big question is: `How much does it cost?

Scott Stokdyk (left) of Imageworks (Spider-Man 2) and Chas Jarrett, visual effects supervisor on Troy.

Scott Stokdyk (left) of Imageworks (Spider-Man 2) and Chas Jarrett, visual effects supervisor on Troy.

Clients expect more than just correctly-shot plates, they expect extensive R&D, tests, design work and re-work as part of the standard visual effects package. And in many cases clients also expect the supervisor to make this work invisible to the shooting portion of the production. Adds Jarrett, I dont want the director to be worried about the technology. I just want the director to tell me what he or she wants to see.

One of the issues visual effects supervisors face is that clients often do not understand the complexity and resource requirements of the shots they ask for. This is especially true in visual effects for episodic television where clients typically demand effects they have seen on the latest visual effects-driven blockbuster for a fraction of the cost and schedule. Episodic clients often expect shots similar to those appearing in the recent summer blockbusters, suggests Passionino, but they also sometimes have difficulty understanding that the shot they want may have taken weeks or months to complete. They want it in a matter of days.

Some visual effects supervisors find themselves battling blowback from the over-hyping of visual effects. As Okun sees it: We have so [hyped] what it is that we do as visual effects people and what can be done with visual effects making it sound like its easy and fun and no problem that now, nobody believes that some things are hard to do. Computers are so ubiquitous that everyone thinks they can understand what is take to do the work. The work is often so good that it looks relatively effortless. Adds Okun, Everybody and their brother feels qualified to be a visual effects supervisor. Other visual effects supervisors feel that quality among the leading facilities in major production centers is becoming consistently high. Says Hollings, Whats really changing is the speed at which clients expect shots.

Youve Got the Whole World in Your Hands: Outsourcing Visual Effects

Clients ask for all of the above at the lowest possible price. The development of visual effects production centers outside of Los Angeles has, of course, been going on for years. Thanks partially to a succession of financial incentives for local production, the U.K., Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have developed world-class expertise in complex visual effects production.

The next frontier for outsourcing is Asia, especially China and India. Still, some supervisors see the increasingly visual complexity of todays productions requiring, if not face-to-face communication, then at least a common language. Its hard enough getting people who speak your language to understand your vision, says Hollings, much less people who do not speak your language.

Even with a technically competent outsource facility, its important for the visual effects supervisor to have a local representative to keep an eye on things and identify and communicate cultural differences (such as the meaning of the word final). Sometimes the problem with younger firms is over-engineering doing the work so exactingly that it is impossible to render within a reasonable time.

Supervisors such as McGovern, who do extensive international work, have also found themselves becoming experts in exchange rates and the minutiae of international co-production deals which dictate how and where production funds can be spent. On set, explains McGovern, youve got to know when a production problem arises if it will kill you and has to be solved on set or if it can be saved one way or another in post the decision is needed immediately if you force an on set problem to be solved by production it better have been the only way to fix it or at least the most cost effective way. Understanding the local culture is key. In one instance [working with an Asian overseas vendor], adds McGovern, not knowing the culture very well we were very complimentary about the first pass of the work, it turned out to be a bad move because then the work never got any better.

However, Hollings sees a silver lining to this increasing global expertise, especially when a maxxed out facility is faced with hundreds of additional shots late in a production schedule, which was the case with Sky Captain. Supervisors routinely engage the services of additional facilities through the course of production. Says Hollings, It gives you a comfort level knowing that there are all the companies out there with a lot of talented people. Unlike several years ago, if your lead facility cannot handle the work, you can still complete the project.

Schedules and budgets for these multi-year projects demand simultaneous production by multiple facilities around the world. Ancillary media such as games and spin-offs developed in parallel make these projects even more demanding. Some even require a

Schedules and budgets for these multi-year projects demand simultaneous production by multiple facilities around the world. Ancillary media such as games and spin-offs developed in parallel make these projects even more demanding. Some even require a

Embracing the Humungous: The Rise of the Mega-Franchises

Several interviewees have worked with the recent phenomenon of mega-franchises such as: Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Harry Potter and Star Wars. Often the scope of the work for these requires a supervisor team in which camera-oriented and digital-oriented supervisors are paired.

Schedules and budgets for these multi-year projects demand simultaneous production by multiple facilities around the world. Ancillary media such as games and spin-offs developed in parallel make these projects even more demanding. Some even require a supervisor to supervise the supervisors. According to Gaeta, If you are the top guy, you are absolutely reliant on a support infrastructure that is doing the logistical management and oversight while you are doing shot administration and design with the directors.

Moreover, visual effects supervisors are becoming increasingly expected to develop complex international production pipelines in order to deliver shows on schedule. Sometimes this means creating production facilities from the ground up or beefing up existing facilities. Theres a great responsibility to organize a huge machine that operates internationally, in parallel across multiple time zones, adds Gaeta, You have to have a production nucleus which operates on a digitally sophisticated level that means coming up with global strategies for 24/7 asset management, digital dailies and creative communication.

Getting into the Game: Visual Effects and Interactive

Visual effects supervisors and other visual effects professionals are being courted by large interactive companies, such as Electronic Arts. According to some supervisors, the financial deals offered are rivaling those of the top film studios. Gaeta, for one, who is currently making the transition to interactive media, predicts a massive exodus from the visual effects industry when the specs for the next generation of gaming platforms are made public.

For Gaeta, the interactive industry will inherit the innovative drive once dominated by the visual effects industry. Try to maintain the sprit that birthed the visual effects industry in the first place, by creating places people cannot go unless they take the trip through the artistry of these creatives. In my opinion, this spirit, this new frontier, is games. Other supervisors interviewed suggested that movies might someday become the ancillary media for a major release in another media, such as gaming.

Loni Peristere (left) of Zoic Studios (Serenity) and Erik Nash, visual effects supervisor on I, Robot. Peristere photo credit: photos by Raoul Bolognini.

Loni Peristere (left) of Zoic Studios (Serenity) and Erik Nash, visual effects supervisor on I, Robot. Peristere photo credit: photos by Raoul Bolognini.

Pipelines `R Us: The Role of Pipeline Development

In fact, some supervisors suggest that visual effects production pipelines for mega franchises (with robust 24/7 asset management and creative feedback mechanisms) may become the de-facto production models even for smaller non-effects-driven productions. Technical development no longer stops at the authoring tools it needs be addressed throughout a production. According to Peristere, The better your asset management system, the more revisions you can put in front of the director for feedback.

Such pipelines may also help visual effects facilities maintain their hold on high-end CG work in the face of experienced digital project development behemoths like Electronic Arts. Another by-product, strong digital asset management systems, will be developed for licensable asset libraries. Peristere predicts: Libraries of environments, characters and performances will be important resources for visual effects supervisors in the future.

The pipelines that supervisors create extend out of the facility and into the core of production and post-production. This extra attention to editorial means less time is available for supervisors to manage day-to-day production. According to Nash: Since so much of the visual effects supervisors time is spent in editorial, you have to rely on your digital effects supervisor, CG supervisor and composite supervisor to handle decisions that once fell to the visual effects supervisor. Some supervisors are experiencing that a significant portion of the show really begins in editorial. A lot of creative design and redesign happens when the footage is cut together, says Stokdyk, so the editorial department has a much bigger hand in the design of visual effects shots than ever before.

Films like The Polar Express are blurring the line between animation and visual effects. © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Films like The Polar Express are blurring the line between animation and visual effects. © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: DGA Bound?

More than ever before, visual effects supervisors and their teams are responsible for designing and creating major portions of productions and that often begins early on with previsualization. In fact, the role of the visual effects supervisor has changed from someone who supervises the motion, lighting and photography of multiple layers or plates to one who manages the design, construction and animation of entire sequences.

In some cases, visual effects supervisors are on the project as long or longer than the director. As one supervisor stated, On the big visual effects films, the job of visual effects supervisor is more of a directing job than anything else. This is a sea change from the past when many supervisors started in production or even post-production. In the words of another supervisor, For most of the production crew, the film ends when the principal photography ends, but visual effects supervisors are often on long before shooting starts and always on long after shooting ends.

The digital juggernaut transforming the film industry puts visual effects supervisors in an ideal position to take on more and more roles traditionally reserved for other production departments. For example, visual effects supervisors have also become the go-to people for solutions to non-visual effects production problems. Says Passionino, Any time production gets into a difficult situation even if it is not a visual effects shot they rely on the visual effects supervisor because he or she knows what can be done in post and at what cost.

Recent projects such as The Polar Express blur the line between animation and visual effects even more. One supervisor predicts, There will be an increasing number of techniques for capturing performances and environments using photographic methods. This means that the visual effects supervisor and the corresponding production pipeline will spread into what had once been a distinct field: animation.

So, does the title visual effects supervisor adequately reflect the supervisors true contribution to productions? Would something like visual effects designer or visual effects director better fit the bill? Will supervisors lobby for specific role and rate classifications in professional labor organizations like the Directors Guild?

The More Things Change

Despite these changes, many of the core qualities of visual effects supervisors remain important today and will continue to be important in the future: curiosity, imagination, an even temperament and a desire to create new worlds.

Still, it is clear that the rise of digital technologies and markets suggest that the visual effects supervisor (regardless of his or her actual title) will continue to be the nexus between one persons imagination and our experience of it.

Rick Baumgartner (rick@vfxproducer.com) is an Emmy-nominated freelance visual effects producer based in Los Angeles. He most recently worked as visual effects producer on Untitled Mike Judge Film for Fox. This article is dedicated to the memory of friend and colleague Kyle J. Healey, visual effects supervisor.

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