VFX Literacy

BY Lars Guignard
www.larsguignard.com

Early on in William Goldman’s classic Adventures in the Screen Trade, he offers would-be screenwriters sage advice: don’t write a script that features fifty camels racing through Central Park. Goldman’s point was, of course, that screenwriters could write themselves right out of a deal by suggesting such an expensive and difficult to execute scene. Sound advice when written in 1983 – but contemporary advances in visual effects have in some ways rendered it less meaningful. So much has changed that it’s tempting to suggest that screenwriters both put the camels in Central Park, and throw in a few thousand Bedouin for good measure. Before doing so, however, it’s imperative to grasp just what tossing those camels at the screen means.

Firstly, it’s important to distinguish between special effects and visual effects. Special effects are those effects which are done practically, like stunts, and pyrotechnics. They’re old school, they’re done on location, and they’re generally expensive. Visual Effects, or VFX, on the other hand, are created digitally and inserted in post-production.  Peter Mohan, showrunner on the hour-long drama, The Listener, notes that “with shrinking effective budgets compressing what used to be eight-day shoots into seven days or even five, a visual effect like a virtual set is a game-changer.”

Mohan says that “using standard production techniques, it’s difficult to pull off two crew moves in an eleven hour shooting day and still get the show in the can on schedule. With digital environments it’s possible to pull off more, or harder to access locations, because it’s no longer necessary to put an actor physically into every environment.” – instead the actor performs in front of a green screen and the environment comes to them.

Image Engine, the pioneering Vancouver company responsible for the VFX behind both Neill Blomkamp’s ground-breaking 2009 feature film District 9, and his new project Baja Dunes, divides their project teams into disciplines. While these disciplines often work together to create the final effect, its useful to distinguish between them to shine a light on the process. Being aware of how the effect is created, can give the VFX-savvy screenwriter a sense of what’s achievable without resorting to budget-blowing setups or locations. According to Image Engine’s VFX Executive Producer Shawn Walsh, “the three major disciplines represented in every team are Character Animation, Digital Environments/Set Extensions, and Compositing.” 

Character Animation, as the name suggests, is the creation and animation of a unique digital character that exists solely inside the computer. Likewise, digital environments are environments that exist virtually. Digital environments can be used in conjunction with green screen techniques to put an actor into a set that may or may not exist in the physical world – a set definitely not there in front of the shooting camera. Similarly, set extensions are digital environments that extend a physical set to make it look larger or more detailed. Compositing, finally, is the combining of separate images into one image. A common example of its use is when an actor, who performs in front of a green screen, gets inserted into a location.

Perhaps what’s most astonishing in the evolution of visual effects is how utterly, unaffected they are. VFX are in no way solely the domain of the science fiction and action genres. Even regular scenes in a present day drama, set in everyday reality, that look like they are being filmed on location, are, in many cases, being filmed with the actor in front of a green screen. For a production set in the most prosaic part of New York city, we may not be looking at a Canadian city standing in for an American city anymore, but a Canadian green screen standing in for that same American city. And note, the effect doesn’t have to be big or explosive – VFX will surprise you in what they can offer. Stargate Studios (no relation to the television series) has a clip on Vimeo labeled their “virtual backlot demo.” Watch it at http://vimeo.com/8337356. You’ll be amazed at the everyday frames that are in fact effects magic.

Full article available in print edition.


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