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The Digital Eye: VFX Supervision in Commercial Production

In this months Digital Eye, Geoff McAuliffe and Dave Waller of Brickyard VFX get down to the nitty gritty of vfx supervision in commercials.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Imagine a Cadillac hurtling down a narrow street, taking out every parked car in its path and sending debris flying in all directions. Relentlessly pursued by a mysterious sedan, the Cadillac is forced into the path of an oncoming concrete mixer. The collision is so fierce, that the mixing drum is torn from the truck and arcs over the perfectly undamaged Cadillac to crash onto the street below.

How would you shoot a scene like that? How would you craft it for maximum visceral impact, but safely and at a low cost -- and within the ultra-tight turnaround window that is typical of commercial productions? These are the kinds of questions a visual effects supervisor is tasked with every day. This article will look at what it takes to provide effective vfx supervision and highlight the reasons that budgeting for a vfx supervisor on the set of an effects-intensive commercial is a valuable, and cost-saving component to the production team.

Vfx Supervision and Commercials

Where does the vfx supervisor fit in on a production? In the commercial production world, a vfx supervisor will correctly acquire the necessary materials to realize the agency and directors creative vision. Vfx supervisors are commonplace on feature film sets -- but that isnt always the case in the commercial world. Whether its budget, time constraints or tradition, vfx supervisors often find themselves called upon much later, deep into post, to fix things that could have been avoided had they been involved early in the pre-production process and present during the shoot to coordinate complex shots.

Brickyard VFX supervised Indestructible, a recent Farmers Insurance commercial in which a Cadillac hurtles down a narrow street, takes out every parked car and sends debris flying. Unless otherwise stated, all images © Brickyard VFX.

At Brickyard, we try to make recommendations for going on set on a case-by-case basis once weve taken a look at the projects boards. If there are shots that need CG and compositing, well need to stress to the director and agency that our presence is essential. But if the spot contains only straightforward shots our on-set supervision may not be necessary.

Vfx Supervisors in Pre-Production

Getting involved in pre-production has always been important for us -- its an opportunity to help solve puzzles before they ever become real problems, and allows us to suggest different approaches and help explore new ideas. There are, of course, boundaries set by the agency or the director that we work within. For example, a director may want to keep it organic and avoid CG completely, when that might not be the easiest way to achieve a shot.

We often recommend pre-visualization as well, especially when there is a heavy amount of CG in a spot. It helps explore the shots with the agency, and the director is able to start editing before a single frame is shot. Camera timing, moves and lenses can be explored, as can relative size of CG objects and real sets, and its even possible to work out if a particular camera rig will be able to maneuver correctly in a given space. Previs saves time and headaches for everyone involved, and it takes a lot of the guesswork out of shooting, and ultimately saves money.

When Brickyard VFX took on Indestructible, it realized that visual effects were needed. The spot hvarkens back to classic movie car chase scenes, with very high production values and a cinematic look and feel.

The Vfx Supervisor on the Set

A vfx supervisors job is to help directors realize their vision. It isnt always obvious how to make a vfx shot happen, and you cant look through a viewfinder to see what the final shot will look like. Most effects-driven shots are filmed in component parts, and our job is to ensure that these parts are captured in a manner that will fit together in post. Its a bit like shooting with a blindfold on, and a great amount of trust is placed on us by the agency. Longstanding relationships with directors and agencies have built that trust and confidence.

Our job is to also provide guidance and answer simple questions, like, Will that reflection be a problem in post? Yes isnt always the right or responsible answer. It may be a five-minute fix in post, whereas it may take the crew 20 or 30 minutes to re-adjust the set and rigs at a huge loss of time and money. A good supervisor will know when to insist that an exposed rig is going to cause an even bigger expense in post. It isnt a black-and-white world in production. Its much more fluid, and were there to help on set, not hinder.

What in the World is That Vfx Supervisor Doing?

If youve ever worked on a production, you may have noticed supervisors busily taking digital photographs, placing tracking points or shooting with a long lens into a chrome sphere. It looks odd, and you may have wondered what he or she was doing exactly. A vfx supervisor will record the light setup at the time a shot is made by gathering HDR high-resolution photographs at many different exposures using a digital still camera equipped with a special lens. This enables us to light our CG models with the same lighting that was present on set, as opposed to guessing with our CG lights. Reflections for shiny objects can also be generated from these photos.

Too often vfx supervisors are not hired during pre-production and production for commercials, perhaps due to budget, time constraints or tradition. They often fix problems during post that could have been avoided earlier.

A vfx supervisor can also be seen taking numerous other still photographs on set. This is for obtaining textures for CG, survey photographs, and reference of all angles of the set. Were firm believers that still photos are one of the most valuable assets in emergency situations, and you can never take enough. These stills can fill in the gaps when something isnt quite making sense on the film, and theres always time for a few comedy shots to wile away the hours while the guys shoot the same live-action dialog shot over and over and over.

Youll also see vfx supervisors measuring everything, which really aids in re-creating the environment in CG. We usually do a basic set survey, including ceiling heights, lengths, etc., and also record positions and sizes of key props.

We log extensive records on lighting and camera setups. This data includes scene number, lens, zoom, filter, inclination, T-Stop, shutter angle, height, bearing, movement, frame rate, film stock we make a habit of recording it all. The script supervisor is a great resource for getting this information.

We pay particular attention to the process screen setups. A nice even green or bluescreen may seem like a no-brainer, but its amazing what you can end up with if you dont properly shoot it, or feel rushed when the shoot is running late. Talk to the dp -- he or she is the person who can make it happen correctly. Its also fascinating how often a screen is set up that is clearly too small to contain the action. Its best to mention this to the gaffer quickly, or it will be shot!

Vfx Supervisors in Post-Production

After the shoot, the supervisor will have a huge amount of notes, measurements, still photographs and data to pass on to the team that will be doing the work. Usually at Brickyard VFX, the supervisor is either the lead 2D or lead 3D artist on a commercial spot. Theres plenty of verbal data and special instructions to pass along, such as why we shot things in a particular way, if anything has changed or if new requirements arise. Since the supervisor may have already spent weeks with the agency and crew at a faraway location, he or she will have an intimate understanding of how the client sees the finished product and plays a key role in guiding the effects team through the job.

Indestructible: A Case Study

One example of the necessity of an on-set vfx supervisor was the Farmers Insurance commercial titled Indestructible. We worked on the spot with advertising agency Accent Marketing and director Martin Weisz, and helped orchestrate a complex crash scene involving a Cadillac and a concrete mixer.

When we were first given the boards for this crash sequence, it was clear that the job called for much more than special effects work, which is typically regarded as specially rigged scenes filmed entirely in camera.

The spot required visual effects because multiple plates, digital compositing and computer graphics were needed. And because the Farmers Insurance spot harkened back to classic movie car chase scenes, with very high production values and a cinematic look and feel, it was agreed during pre-production that we would provide on-set supervision to ensure the collision scene went smoothly and to minimize clean-up in post.

During pre-production, we participated in several conference calls with agency creatives and the director and his production team. Together, we devised a scheme for every shot. A stunt stand-in for the Cadillac would do the dirty work of sideswiping parked cars, while the Cadillac (driving down the empty street) would be substituted in post. Motion control was not an option that was available to us. So, we would need to consider our shot setups very carefully.

Dave Waller (left) and Geoff McAuliffe of Brickyard VFX.

The downtown Los Angeles production involved complex greenscreen and location environments. We shot one pass using a tired old Ford F-150 stripped down to the engine with four tons of concrete poured in for ballast. The axles almost broke, but the truck performed well enough to earn its "job-rated" badge.

For the concrete mixer gag, a structurally weakened truck was remotely driven into a massive blockade, with the mixing drum rigged with a small explosive charge to fly forward on impact. Five cameras covered the action to make sure we had coverage for the edit.

The Bottom Line

Prepping a complex visual effects shoot is a bit like the invasion of Sicily; you try to plan for every contingency, but in the end, you're always limited by budget, resources and time, and you need to remain flexible when things veer off course. The aim is to always find the most efficient method to produce the best picture and realize the vision of the creatives. Wed all prefer spending $50,000 to make an amazing shot rather than $50,000 fixing a shot. The vfx supervisor plays another vital role as well. He or she takes responsibility on set for making sure elements are shot correctly and guides the job through the post-production process.

Weve certainly encountered instances where clients have perceived the vfx supervisor as an interference or intrusion to their work, or even unnecessary, but really our role helps everyone involved and only benefits the quality of the end product. With most of Brickyard VFXs repeat clients, our involvement is very collaborative, and we have clients that now insist that were present at their shoots without us ever having to mention it.

Dave Waller and Geoff McAuliffe are both co-owners of Brickyard VFX, based in Boston and Santa Monica. They have worked as visual effects supervisors and vfx artists on many memorable television commercials and music video projects.