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VES Festival: A Convergence of Technology and Creativity

VFXWorld editor Bill Desowitz and Animation World Network editor Sarah Baisley venture to this year's VES Festival and report back about the convergence of technology and creativity.

X-Men 2 visual effects supervisor Michael Fink. All photos courtesy of VES

X-Men 2 visual effects supervisor Michael Fink. All photos courtesy of VES

VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects, held June 27-29 at the Los Angeles Film School, was as informative and topical as ever, highlighted by discussions of X-Men 2, Terminator 3, Finding Nemo, Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded and Tron. In addition, the well-received panel on shorts (moderated by AWN publisher Dan Sarto) along with the music video panel provided a further glimpse of where the cutting-edge technology and noteworthy vision will be coming from in the near future. Thus, for its fifth anniversary, the festival celebrated technological ingenuity as well as the practical challenges of completing the work with as much efficiency and creativity as possible.

On X-Men 2, visual effects supervisor Michael Fink had a larger scope to deal with, but was blessed with improved practical and CG elements. Of course, having to complete 800 shots in 18 weeks was still a daunting task. "This was a different animal," Fink told [Director] Bryan [Singer] was more experienced and sure of himself with this film. We had a shorthand and a trust. Bryan didn't freak out as early over bad things, and he came up with some clever solutions. My own modus operandi is to keep it focused and not to let the FX get in the way of the story."

Fink maintained that lighting is key but that effective animation must come first. He cited advances in rendering and high dynamic range imaging as very exciting. Cyclops was improved overall, as were Wolverine's claws.

When effects were being developed, and problems with the original conception started to become apparent, such as the original concept for the Pyro scene, Singer was quick to work with Fink to find another approach that, it turns out, was a performance issue.

Physics problems tackled in a SIGGRAPH paper helped this T3 shot come to life. © Copyright 2002 Warner Bros. Pictures

Physics problems tackled in a SIGGRAPH paper helped this T3 shot come to life. © Copyright 2002 Warner Bros. Pictures

Picking up where Fink left off in terms of environment being key, T3's visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman stressed that you shouldn't start a project until the art direction is completed. He said a lot of the Terminatrix's fluid movement was based on a paper written for SIGGRAPH. The skull underwater scene was done on a 40'x50' stage and all the water was CG. The ground of the skull scene stage was then used for the destroyed city shots. Helman added that in these cost-conscious days "you must think about how to do things cheaper or you're out of business." That is why as a CGI man you need to know how to pitch ideas, processes and visual imagery to the director.

Production designer Ralph Eggleston (left) and supervising technical director Oren Jacob.

Production designer Ralph Eggleston (left) and supervising technical director Oren Jacob.

Speaking of water simulation, Finding Nemo's supervising technical director Oren Jacob and production designer Ralph Eggleston regaled the audience with Pixar's latest CG feats. Every underwater shot featured a special effect of some kind. Despite a budget crunch and creative compromises on the blockbuster, Jacob and Eggleston both agreed they were forced to be more creative. In fact, the funny seagulls were created during one story meeting when director Andrew Stanton suddenly blurted out, "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

Plus the edict came down from Disney early on that there were to be no long stretches of darkness in the film. That didn't deter Eggleston from using color to tell the story with his usual assortment of chalk pastels, going from bright to dark in compliance with the emotional

One of the biggest challenges, though, was where to cut in this vast aquatic expanse? Why, on character movement, of course, which is why they used dance as a primary inspiration and had shots that were four or five times the length than on previous films."

Scenes like this came about when the effects wizards were really rockin. © Copyright 2002 Warner Bros. Pictures

Scenes like this came about when the effects wizards were really rockin. © Copyright 2002 Warner Bros. Pictures

The Matrix Reloaded artists stole precious time away from the third Matrix film to give their insider look at incredible VFX challenges they've been hurdling for the two films and the videogame. John (DJ) DesJardin, VFX supervisor on Reloaded, worked on the first Matrix and led pre-production on Matrix 2&3. Dan Glass is sharing those duties with DesJardin, as well as Kim Libreri, founder of ESC Entertainment, which was essentially set up to do the sequels. Attendees were impressed with the daunting amount of work to be done in these overlapping productions, even with pieces parceled out to subcontractors such as Jim Berney, VFX supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, who joined the presentation. His crew was given three months to do a year's worth of work. Sony did the multi-monitor scene, which involved using footage from the Matrix movies as well as stock footage. Glass said the work had to be done fast, but the complexity of some images required 60 hours of rendering per frame, and that was when they were "really rockin'."

During the lively Tron retrospective, moderated by the stately visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, we were reminded how revolutionary the movie was for its time back in '82, how difficult and ground-breaking its effects were and how indebted current films are to its achievement.

"Matrix is the exact opposite of Tron," director Steven Lisberger complained while divulging that he is having a much harder time getting a movie sequel off the ground at Disney than launching a video game. "'This reality is getting too much for me; maybe there's another one out there.' We're in real trouble because there is no other reality out there. Each generation sees through the Emperor's nudity. My son, who's grown up on CG, loves Ghostbusters because [it's so refreshing]. We are backing ourselves in a corner in movies. Action and stunts are killing the need for storytelling. But games are more efficient at that [craving] than films."

Retrospective Panel Moderator: Harrison Ellenshaw

Retrospective Panel Moderator: Harrison Ellenshaw

The VES 2003 closed with a look at music video visual effects. While the artists find music videos more engaging because they are invited to contribute more to the creative process and there are less levels of approvals, the work is usually more challenging due to shorter deadlines and no pre-planning or interface with the director or director of photography before and during the shoot.

Eric Durst, VFX supervisor, and Jeff Goldman, CG supervisor from George Michael's Freek! did get to do some pre-planning on the shoot, but with the complexity of the project was enormous, plus dailies were sent back and forth between Santa Monica, Santa Maria and the U.K. (Michael paid for the video personally and was involved in every aspect.) They ended up delivering it six hours before it was to air in U.K. Due to the highly graphic content and sexual content, the video has not been shown in U.S.

Andrew Orloff and Emile Edwin Smith, CG supervisors on Linkin Park's Points of Authority had to create a tremendous number of robotic creatures and crafts in a massive battle with little direction and a short window. They, like the Freek! team, found it difficult to explain what the video is about. Music videos seem less likely to follow a linear storyline.

Perhaps the most amazing performance was by fire artist George Fitz, and his crew at Colorado Effects, who got the call on a Wednesday night to finish Lucy Woodward's Dumb Girl music video in 36 hours, for a Friday delivery. The director had done some pre-planning, using an around-the-world camera rig to shoot the sets, so one scene would revolve up to the next. The director, Ulf, said they could mold shots together using wipes. They gave the edges of each scene an industrial style border with motion blur to help the transition of the wipes. They also ended up having slip and slide it to get it to synch, added light sources and shading, inserted images in a music box prop and composited in the head of another actor, since the one they shot it with was not cleared.

"This was one of those rock & roll projects," said Fitz, shrugging when asked about the short turnaround. "These people aren't as experienced as in commercial work, they think we have a magic button that does these things.

Amy and Burt Yukich were also scheduled to present their work on DMX's X is Gonna Give It To Ya, but had to bow out that day.

Bill Desowitz and Sarah Baisley are the editors of VFXWorld and Animation World Network, respectively.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.