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The Digital Eye: The Chemistry Degree

With the production of vfx looking more and more like the principal unit, Jenny Fulle discusses the importance of chemistry in matching people with projects at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

At The Visual Effects Society (VES) Awards dinner last month, not only was there a room filled and I do mean filled with many of the vfx worlds masters and commanders, but there was also a thought provoking comment made by Doug Trumbull, who it could easily be argued blazed the trail that many of us have widened today, when he presented the evenings top awards. As he surveyed the room, where t-shirts and jeans had been traded for tuxedos and gowns, he remarked at how visual effects used to be a tiny department and a line in the credits. To look at us now is to witness the growth, importance and responsibility that we now carry. When the visual effects were an intricate exercise in optics and engineering as was the case in Trumbulls greatest efforts like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner the distant boundaries of imagination, while ever-present, were nonetheless constrained by the limitations of technology. Rigs were hardware and the enabler was the precision machinist, not the software engineer. Where a big effects film only a decade ago meant at most a couple of hundred shots, todays movies can call for more than a thousand. With so much of a movie today being made in the computer in Spider-Man 2, for example, there were entire sequences that were as much an all-CG experience as The Polar Express or The Incredibles the production of visual effects looks more and more like the principal unit.

From my perspective at Sony Pictures Imageworks, where we are just as likely to be producing invisible shots for an intimate movie as we are eye-popping sequences for a spectacular adventure, the healthy mix of art and science comes down to chemistry. A big part of what I do is matching people and the projects. Even though almost everyone here is capable of doing just about anything, the fact is that we are a company of individuals in a world of individuals. The key here is to know and understand the requirements for any given project and match those with the perfect combination of individuals to accomplish it. It is basic but not simple.

The process begins when we first contemplate a project. Who are the filmmakers? What are their personalities like? What is the tone and intention of the picture?

The initial pairing is usually between the film and the visual effects supervisor. Different supervisors bring different qualities and skills to the show. How will their working styles and abilities mesh with the creative talent on the film? Ultimately, our job supports the storytelling but in many cases our shots can be the storytelling. So how well a director, producer, production designer and so forth relate to the visual effects supervisor and his or her team is critical to our ability to deliver that ideal vision. Its about rapport.

All of this is so critical because often times when we work on a film, you spend 12 hours a day, for more than a year with each other and become almost a family. If I can match up a directors personality to share some common interest with the supervisor, this becomes a much more gratifying and successful relationship. These common interests can be cultural, recreational or artistic. The point is that we can connect on a number of levels and in the end it all contributes to the work.

Ive also found that some directors prefer to be more hands on in the visual effects process and details. Those filmmakers are well suited for more technical supervisors. Others appreciate plain English and comfort of just knowing that what they have imagined will in fact be brought to life on the screen. The trick for me is to match the styles appropriately.

Jenny Fulle.

Setting the producer is the other essential combination. It has become an enormously complex job now. When this was a business of lock-off cameras and optical printers, there were fewer moving parts and people. Now I would suggest that while not necessarily as important as space exploration, the complexities of a massive show can be equal to or greater than the real-life space adventures that we are sometimes called upon to portray. With millions of dollars invested in visual effects on the big shows, the producer is part production manager, part accountant, part creative confidant, part coach, part clairvoyant and always in control. Producers not only have to figure out how to get things done but they need to figure out what it is going to cost to do it and then deliver what they say they can. Its not as if most of what we do comes out of some catalogue. When you rent a camera rig or grip equipment, its pretty straightforward to figure the cost. But how do you budget for that which has never been done before? Experience, I would suggest, is a key here. Producers, the best of them, really understand the complexity of production. They know what it takes to make a shot. They understand the logistics of the live-action set. They know how many artists are working, for how long and with what technical resources it will take to get a shot done, and they know how to deal effectively with the ever-changing production schedules.

The producer is cast not only for their ability to meet the demanding requirements of the job, but also to complement the supervisor and filmmakers. Some shows require a softer, more nurturing approach while others need clearly defined limitations and a no-nonsense attitude.

Production leadership is only part of the equation. How one composes the army of individuals and technical resources is the next step toward success. When the chemistry is in balance, we have a perfect reaction. That is why the producers job is so masterful. Adding just the right elements to the mix brings the production chemistry into balance and when that happens the results can be astonishing.

There is also a chemistry informed by the projects and the challenges they present. Creative people respond to creative opportunities. There is a certain energy invigorated by stimulating projects. We are on the edge of an extremely creative period. There is a greater trust and confidence in the work we do and what can be done not only at Imageworks but across the industry. So that other piece of chemistry is the combination of technology and experience know how with how to.

Jenny Fulle, evp of production and executive producer for Sony Pictures Imageworks, joined the company in 1997. Fulle served as executive producer on the Academy Award-winning film Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Bad Boys II, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2, the Academy Award and BAFTA nominated Spider-Man, as well as The ChubbChubbs, Imageworks first animated short film and the Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film in 2002.

Currently, Fulle is in production on the live-action feature films The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Zathura, Bewitched, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3. Additionally, she is in production on the first two fully animated CG feature films from Sony Pictures Animation, Open Season and Surfs Up.