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Book Review: 'The VES Handbook of Visual Effects'

Our VFX Beat blogger tries to figure out if the new VES tome is the definitive textbook for our times.

The VES labored for five years with five editors and 89

contributors to chronicle the current state of VFX. Image
courtesy of the VES and Focal Press.

Since the time authors have been writing large tomes people everywhere have tried to avoid actually reading the books while still gleaning the information contained within. Wading through the hundreds of pages of Moby Dick seem an unnecessary task if you can simply get the gist of the story by reading Cliffs Notes or some other shortened version. Woody Allen once said that he had taken the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Course and that he had read War and Peace in 15 minutes. His synopsis: "It's about Russia."

When my oldest nephew was in the fifth grade, he was required to do a book report on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Like all 10-year-olds, he procrastinated until the day before the report was due and there was no real chance of both reading the book and doing a report. As luck would have it, that very Sunday afternoon, KTLA, the local television station, was broadcasting the 1938 version of the film with Walter Brennan as Muff Potter and Victor Jory as Injun Joe. He settled down on the couch and spent the whole afternoon watching the film. While the story was still fresh in his mind he quickly wrote it down on lined paper and enjoyed the rest of his Sunday evening. Just prior to leaving for school the next day, my brother, his father, asked to read the report before it was turned in. Apparently the book report pretty much got it right until the last paragraph when the report noted that the book ended with Sid getting a pie thrown in his face by Tom.

So it was with heavy heart that I opened the package containing The VES Handbook of Visual Effects (Focal Press). I had the same instincts as my nephew and quickly turned on the television. No luck. A volume so large would take a little getting used to and would require a lot of leisure time to ingest the whole thing. It comes in at 922 numbered pages and weighs in at four pounds even-if you believe the scale in Ralph's produce section. The book represents the work of 89 vfx practioners and five editors (including VES chair Jeff Okun). Over the past several weeks I have left it on the coffee table and frequently refer to it to get some idea of the logic and the spirit of the book.

When I first entered the business, the volume most perceived as the final word on visual effects was Raymond Fielding's The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography. I pored over that book and got a fair overview of the visual effects field.  Additionally, there were numbers of other small volumes dealing with the film business that contained just three or four pages of visual effects information so while the number of books on my shelf increased, the acquisition of real knowledge remained primarily in the area of actual experience.

The VES manual is divided into 10 logical sections. Starting at the beginning, the first chapter includes a brief history of the visual effects industry. From there Scott Squires and Mat Beck lay out the requirements of pre-production, budgeting and conducting oneself professionally on set. A full 250 pages are dedicated to acquisition and shooting, clearly an area where a lot of mayhem characteristically is introduced into the process. It was within this chapter that I felt deep affection for some of the older approaches now gone. Bill Mesa's and John Coats' discussion of front and rear screen projection systems seemed positively sentimental for days gone by.

Performance and motion capture make up the fourth chapter, which explains the process well and will serve as a checklist to anyone interested in this burgeoning technique (next year's Tintin and Rise of the Apes, anyone?)

Seventy-six pages are dedicated to the challenges of stereoscopic 3-D. This chapter was particularly useful for me and provides a good overview of this newer but arrived technology. Lenny Lipton, one of the 3-D gurus, offers the lead-in, and as long as I have been in the business his name has always been in the fore of the background of film-making. His The Super 8 Book was one of the first volumes that focused on democratizing the film making process. Even the most perfunctory search online brings up the fact that when he was 19 he penned the words for "Puff the Magic Dragon," an enormous hit for Peter, Paul and Mary.

The next 240 pages deal with post production and image manipulation followed by more than 100 pages focused on the problems of digital element creation. The final three chapters are devoted to interactive games, complete animation and other workflow considerations. Included in the rear of the book are a glossary and a section dedicated to charts and formulas.

According to Okun, it had been five years since the inception of the book and it took the last three to write and pull it together. What they have created is the definitive visual effects textbook for our times and there is no doubt that it will remain the bible for those laboring in our business for many years to come. If you're in the vfx, animation, gaming or production business in general, you've got to have this book. Not on your shelf, but in your hand as you commence each new project. It's the most definitive book on the market today.

As a final note for those of you who can't remember how Tom Sawyer actually ends. Tom is involved in a conversation with Huck who is suffocating under the protection of the Widow Douglas and has run away. After several days of searching Huck is discovered by Tom sleeping in an old barrel down by the river. Tom convinces Huck to return to the Widow's care for one more month. As a reward, Huck will be allowed to join Tom's gang. Huck exhorts Tom to affirm this promise by swearing on a coffin and putting it in writing in blood.

Rick Kerrigan writes the VFX Beat blog for AWN ( He began his career as an assistant visual effects cameraman on The Empire Strikes Back, has also worked on The Right Stuff, Ghostbusters and Ally McBeal, where he supervised the Dancing Baby episode.