The Invisible Effects of “Tracks”

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in "Tracks"

Small film. Big country. Interesting times.

Add these things together and what you get is Tracks. Adapted from the book by Robyn Davidson and directed by John Curran, Tracks tells the true story of one woman’s trek across the Australian outback. Accompanied by four camels and a dog – and observed by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan through his camera lens – Davidson endures hardship and finds inspiration in the one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth.

Australia’s iconic desert landscape has provided a dramatic backdrop for countless memorable films including Walkabout, the Mad Max trilogy and Baz Luhrman’s Australia. In Tracks, the dusty wilderness not only presents the ultimate challenge to its protagonist Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) as she faces up to the harsh realities of nomadic desert life, but it also marks a rite of passage for the Australian movie industry as outback filmmaking marches into the digital realm.

“This was one of the last feature films in Australia to be shot on film and processed locally,” observed Tracks’ visual effects supervisor James Rogers. “In addition it was shot with period anamorphic lenses. It was beautifully lensed by Mandy Walker, and was a fond farewell to film for many of us.”

I mentioned interesting times. These are what were experienced by Rogers and his team while working on the film. The VFX work on Tracks was begun under the Method Studios Australia banner; since then the feature film team of Method has now been incorporated into Iloura. Both companies are owned by Deluxe Australia, which has nationalised the Iloura brand in a move to grow its feature film capabilities.

“Now that we’ve come together as one brand,” asserted Rogers, “Iloura’s combined feature film and television teams are further strengthened, enabling us to work on a greater volume and complexity of projects. Method Studios Australia is now 100% focussed on the Australian commercials market.”


With a reported budget of just $12 million, Tracks is about as far from a Hollywood summer blockbuster as you can get. But even the smallest film can feature some great visual effects work.

The modest budget both allowed for and demanded close collaboration between the visual effects department and director John Curran. “I’d worked with some of the key crew, including production designer Melinda Doring and post production supervisor Colleen Clarke,” said Rogers, “but I’d never had the chance to work with John, though I’d previously discussed projects with him. This time around, everything came together.”

Pre-production on Tracks involved sourcing as much real-world reference as possible, to inform the look and feel of what Rogers describes as “a ‘non-VFX’ show with an emphasis on realism”. One important reference was the drama-documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel. Set in Mongolia, it follows two boys on a trek across the Gobi Desert in an effort to save an imperiled white camel colt. Also useful were a number of 1970s documentaries about the Australian outback.

“Intrinsic to the story are the photographs of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver),” Rogers added. “These really formed the best reference, and Rick himself was very generous in providing us with as much information as we needed.”

In all, Iloura delivered 133 shots on Tracks, over a period of around 3 months. They also designed the titles and credit sequences. Visual effects shots included a number of matte-painted vistas, sandstorms, extending an underwater sequence and various composites.

One of the big challenges was the camels – in particular the scenes showing these beasts of burden being shot and killed. Early on, it was thought that fully 3D CG camels would be required but, as production progressed, the team began to favour a 2D approach.

“While we explored the options of making CG camels,” said Rogers, “we pulled back to something which was very live-action based. This wasn’t just a consequence of budget, but also factoring in the look of the film. I think we ended up making something that sat elegantly within the edit. The subtle, almost matter-of-fact appearance of the killings underscores the profound effect it has on the lead character, and is a turning point in the drama of the film.”

For the shooting scenes, shots of tranquilised camels were enhanced by Iloura

For scenes in which the camels are shot, Iloura added bullet entry and exit wounds, and CG patches on the animals’ flanks to make the flesh appear to spasm

To create the sequence, male camels were filmed being dosed with tranquiliser darts.

“We manipulated the way they fell in comp, so they crumpled, shook and came down in a quietly dramatic way,” Rogers explained. “We did this using spline warps and rotoscoping appropriate elements from various takes. We added small bullet entry and exit wounds, as well as small CG patches on the flank which ripple and spasm.

“Additionally, we added froth to the camel’s mouths, using a base of motion-tracked 3D and live action elements. For the blood that pours out of the camels, we mixed up a few litres in the kitchen at work using recipes we’d found on the web. Then we filmed appropriate pours over objects in the car park, which we then composited in. The mouth foam was glycerol, art glue, and shaving cream – we shot it with a puppet camel mouth we’d made. There were quite a few elements included in the sequence, but ultimately it was a very simple, old-school approach.”

The limited budget encouraged the visual effects team to apply the same approach throughout the rest of their work on the film.

“We looked to create solutions that were a combination of camera, digital matte painting, and compositing work,” remarked Rogers. “The domestic Australian film industry is quite small, and demands a nimble approach to logistics and general approach in any aspect of production – including VFX. With tools like Nuke and Mari, we can dip into the simpler 3D side directly from comp software. But we did turn to 3D simulation for the heavy lifting in the sandstorm and rutting camel sequences.”

Reflecting on Iloura’s work on the film, Rogers concluded: “We had to come up with the most efficient way to approach a problem, without compromising the look or feel. We moved to an increasingly heavy element collection process, so that we were making bespoke elements that would work well. Coupling the elements with more modern, efficient workflows for projection and 2.5D manipulation meant we were able to turn shots around pretty rapidly. All in all, it was a good show for stripping back current, conventional solutions for VFX and rethinking them or bringing them back to basics.”


Special thanks to Hayley Davis. Tracks photographs copyright 2013 See-Saw Films.

Celebrating Cinefex – The Video

Celebrating Cinefex

If you weren’t at the Billy Wilder Theater in LA on May 16th, then you missed one heck of a celebration.

“Celebrating Cinefex” was a special evening of conversation with Cinefex founder and publisher Don Shay and Cinefex editor in chief Jody Duncan. The event was presented by the Visual Effects Society and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and featured visual effects supervisor Craig Barron as host.

If you did miss the show, don’t worry – we have the whole thing right here on video. Now’s your chance to spend a couple of hours in the company of the team responsible for 35 years (and counting) of in-depth reporting on visual and special effects, covering films from Star Wars and Star Trek to Jurassic Park, Avatar, Gravity and beyond.

If you were there in the audience, why not watch again anyway? Everyone loves a re-release, right?

Here’s what Don Shay had to say about “Celebrating Cinefex”:

Jody and I have spent a good part of our professional lives asking other people questions, so it was fun having the tables turned for a change. We wondered what we’d have to say to fill an evening’s worth of questioning, but that turned out not to be an issue. When our allotted time was up, we felt we were just getting started. Craig Barron did a great job of directing the conversation at a breezy pace, and we enjoyed sharing our thoughts and recollections with him and with our fans who came out to spend the evening with us.

Although there were only three of us up on stage, many others contributed to the success the evening. Inspiration for “Celebrating Cinefex” came from visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer, who, during a lunchtime chat with Jody during her Game of Thrones interviewing, asked if the Visual Effects Society had ever done something of that nature with us. No? Well, a few weeks later we heard from the VES proposing a 35th-anniversary celebration of Cinefex. So, thanks, Joe.

Ben Schneider of the VES and Paul Malcolm of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which co-sponsored the program, worked tirelessly behind-the-scenes to organize and promote the event. Craig Barron stepped in at the last minute to host it, and was a relaxed, yet focused moderator. Van Ling and Gene Kozicki gathered and presented a wealth of video and still imagery to enhance the evening’s visual appeal, and Jeff Casper recorded the event on video, edited it crisply, and made it available in its entirety for us to share with our fans. I’m sure there were others involved, as well. We’d like to thank them all.

Double Negative and Prime Focus World Unveil Merger

Double Negative merges with Prime Focus World

Europe’s largest independent visual effects company Double Negative and the international creative services provider Prime Focus World have just announced their decision to merge. According to an announcement on the Prime Focus World website, the result will be the world’s largest integrated VFX, 3D Conversion & Animation services company.

The news comes hot on the heels of Double Negative’s announcement in April of their new high-end CG feature animation studio, and anticipates the opening of their Vancouver branch later this year.

Alex Hope, Managing Director of Double Negative, said:

“Our new relationship with Prime Focus World combines fantastic opportunities to grow our business with the freedom to continue to manage Double Negative in the way we always have: Providing a great creative environment for our artists and producing ground breaking effects for our clients.”

Namit Malhotra, Prime Focus founder and CEO of Prime Focus World, had this to say:

“This is a transformational event – both for the companies involved and for the industry. Prime Focus has proven over the last five years the undeniable benefits of global collaboration: the flexibility of working in different time zones; the coming together of creative talent from across the globe; and the ability to leverage tax incentives. We can now bring this together with Double Negative’s unquestionable creative excellence to build a truly formidable offering.”

Double Negative’s management team of Matt Holben and Alex Hope will manage the global VFX business and will become Directors and Shareholders in Prime Focus World, while Namit Malhotra will become Executive Chairman of the Board. According to Holben and Hope:

“We have ambitious plans to build on what we’ve achieved in VFX over the last 15 years. This deal allows Double Negative to develop into a truly global operation that provides great work for our clients and great opportunities for our staff.”

The combined credits of the two companies – both recent and upcoming – include Godzilla, Maleficent, Edge of Tomorrow, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, Interstellar, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Jupiter Ascending.


Exceptional Minds

The students and staff of Exceptional Minds

It takes an exceptional mind to do great work in any field. That’s as true for visual effects and animation as it is for everything else. So what better place to look for talent than in a place called … Exceptional Minds?

Exceptional Minds is a non-profit vocational centre and animation studio that caters exclusively for young adults on the autism spectrum. During a three-year course, students learn the skills they need to earn a living in multimedia, computer animation and post production.

It doesn’t stop there. Not only does Exceptional Minds provide its students with experience working on major productions, but it also operates as a working studio in its own right. Its success is all the more remarkable when one considers that, for young adults on the autism spectrum, the average unemployment rate is around 90%.

I spoke to Susan Zwerman, who is both Job Developer at Exceptional Minds and an experienced VFX producer.

Yudi Bennett, Susan Zwerman, and Ernie Merlan of Exceptional Minds

Yudi Bennett, Susan Zwerman, and Ernie Merlan of Exceptional Minds

What was the inspiration behind Exceptional Minds?

Exceptional Minds was started in September 2011 by a group of parents and professionals who were alarmed at the lack of jobs for young adults with autism. Most have a child or grandchild of their own on the autism spectrum, and so have a personal interest. They view this unique school as a way to provide opportunities for their kids where none existed before.

I became involved through my good friend Yudi Bennett, who helped co-found the school, which her son now attends. It’s been a real joy to be able to use my experience and contacts in the VFX industry to help set up the programme from the beginning and, more recently, to bring in work for the students.

Josh, Arielle, Eli, Patrick discuss a shot

Josh, Arielle, Eli, Patrick discuss a shot

What skills do you teach the students?

The school provides the bridge between high school and the working world, so our instructors teach technical, creative, and work skills needed for animation and visual effects. They have real working experience in the digital arts fields, so the knowledge they pass down to our students is hard-earned and practical.

Students gain proficiency in graphic arts, animation, web design, visual effects and rotoscoping. We train them to use Adobe software, gaining ACA Certification in Flash, Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver and Premier Pro. We also teach Silhouette and are starting Maya classes.

Watch the Exceptional Minds sizzle reel for breakdowns of the students’ work:

Are there other ways in which the students benefit from being on the programme?

Our students work both individually and on group projects; the latter give them the real-world social skills they need to be successful working collaboratively. The more proficient students function as project leaders, sharing their knowledge with other members of the team.

They also learn the basic skills necessary for employment, as well as how to start a project, manage workflow, and understand deadlines. Students work on projects from the commercial world as well as internally generated content. They’re taught how to market themselves to prospective employers or clients and how to create and present their resumes, portfolios and proposals.

Graduating students display their diplomas

Graduating students display their diplomas

How much emphasis do you place on forging industry links?

Exceptional Minds is known for having close working relationships with the visual effects industry. We get a lot of support and encouragement from companies including:

The Exceptional Minds students on a field trip to Zoic Studios

Exceptional Minds field trip to Zoic Studios

These links have enabled us to provide our students with hands-on experience, including screen credit for student work on features including American Hustle, Lawless, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. We’ve also delivered graphic work for United Front, and animation work for Film Roman.

Throughout the first and second year of our three-year programme we plan many field trips to these facilities so that our students can explore the work environment and what they might be interested in pursuing as careers. This has led to real work for our studio as well as employment for our students once they graduate.

Exceptional Minds field trip to StereoD

Exceptional Minds field trip to StereoD

We recently had a major industry networking event to celebrate our first graduating class – seven exceptional young men and one exceptional young woman – after three years of hard work.

We were humbled by all the industry executives who came out to share that special day with us and to offer their encouragement.

What are your long-term plans for Exceptional Minds?

We just moved into a new facility last year with blue room and state of the art computer workstations … and we’re already outgrowing it! We’ve grown three-fold since we started, and we have a waiting list, as you can imagine. There’s huge demand for programmes like ours as more and more young people on the spectrum enter adulthood seeking meaningful employment. Exceptional Minds isn’t the answer for everyone on the spectrum, but we’re told that we’re a pretty good model for what works in teaching and preparing these young adults for careers.

Long term, we expect to continue to expand. We have students applying from all over the US and Canada – we even had a student travel from his home in Singapore to participate in one of our summer workshops.

Summer activities will likely be a part of our growth as well – these include workshops for younger high school students. The sooner we can introduce these individuals to the field, the more prepared they’ll be. Recently we received scholarship funds from Autism Speaks and a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to help out with this.

So do individuals on the autism spectrum have a particular aptitude for this kind of work?

Yes. They are very focused and pay close attention to detail, and many of them are visually gifted. Plus, they show up on time and rarely miss work!

We look for students who are talented and passionate about their work. Passion is key – and there’s no shortage of that at Exceptional Minds, as anyone who has been around someone on the autism spectrum will guess. Sam Nicholson, founder of Stargate Studios, told us this was one reason he was interested in one of our students for employment. In fact, Kevin Titcher from our first graduating class started his job at Stargate this week.

Sam Nicholson of Stargate Studios with new employee Kevin Titcher

Sam Nicholson of Stargate Studios with new employee Kevin Titcher

Yudi Bennett, Exceptional Minds Director of Operations, is an award-winning Assistant Director with feature film credits including Kramer vs. Kramer, The Four Seasons and Pleasantville.

Ernie Merlan, Exceptional Minds Program Director, has a background in visual effects and a passion for mentoring and inspiring young minds.

Susan Zwerman, Exceptional Minds Job Developer, has worked in the film industry as a VFX Producer for over 20 years and is the author of The VFX Producer: Understanding the Art and Business of VFX.

Now Showing – Cinefex 138

Cinefex 138 - From the Editor's Desk

The doors are open on the latest issue of Cinefex!

Issue 138 features in-depth articles on the visual effects of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Marvel’s all-American superhero (Chris Evans) battles against the threat of a powerful Soviet agent. Next up there’s Maleficent – a live-action fantasy starring Angelina Jolie as the villainess from Walt Disney’s 1959 animated feature, Sleeping Beauty – and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a second outing for Andrew Garfield as the web-slinging crime-fighter, who this time goes up against Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Rhino (Paul Giamatti), and The Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan). Rounding out this issue is Godzilla, in which the iconic monster wreaks havoc once again in an adaptation directed by Gareth Edwards.

But wait. It doesn’t stop there. Also in Cinefex 138, we’re proud to publish O’Brien vs Dawley, a special article in which Stephen Czerkas presents startling new evidence about the legendary Willis O’Brien and his bitter rivalry with producer Herbert M. Dawley … and which effectively rewrites the history of visual effects. Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan calls it “The Da Vinci Code of visual effects.” And multi-Oscar-winner Dennis Muren says: “A shocking betrayal fit for Extra or TMZ finally gets told … in Cinefex. And it’s a doozie.”

Before you take your seats for the main feature, here’s Jody with a few thoughts about this new issue:

Jody Duncan – From The Editor’s Desk

As I was writing the Captain America: The Winter Soldier story for Cinefex issue 138, I was struck – yet again – by the extraordinary cooperation offered to us by Marvel Studios. Under the leadership of Victoria Alonso (one of the most dynamic, compelling people I have ever met), Marvel let me come in and see the film very early, when there were still a lot of unfinished effects shots – something most studios will never do. They fear we will think an unfinished shot is a finished shot, and then go out and spread the word that the effects in their film stink.

Marvel “gets it”. They get that we have been doing this for 30-plus years, that we DO know a finished effects shot from an unfinished effects shot, and that we aren’t in the business of going online to critique a film or blab about its plot-line. Our confidentiality record is squeaky-clean, yet most studios treat us as if we are newcomers with an “I Leak Film Plots” blog. (Do you detect some exasperation on my part when it comes to dealing with movie studios? You detect correctly.)

Getting to specifics, issue 138 features the first byline for FXGuide’s Mike Seymour, who has been a big supporter of Cinefex for a long time. Mike’s friendship with Godzilla director Gareth Edwards afforded him a front-seat view of the making of the film. Joe Fordham pulled off a particularly heroic feat this issue, meeting the deadlines for both of his articles – on Maleficent and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – while also writing a soon-to-be-published book on the Planet of the Apes franchise. (I don’t think Joe got much sleep the past three months.) Finally, issue 138 is a nice “culmination” moment for me, because I first interviewed Maleficent director Rob Stromberg many years ago when he was a shy, 19 year-old matte painter. I love seeing the talent rise!

Thanks, Jody. Now, is everyone sitting comfortably? 3D glasses free of fingermarks? No rustling the candy wrappers when the lights go down. You two in the back row – stop that at once! Everybody ready? On with the show!

Firing Up The Machine

The Machine - birth scene

Pick a robot from the movies. Go on, I know you have a favourite. There are plenty to choose from, so I’ll give you a moment …

Maschinenmensch - Metropolis

Which did you choose? Was it the Maschinenmensch – the mechanical doppelganger of Maria, as seen in Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis? Or did you opt for Arnold Schwarzenegger as the relentless cyborg assassin from The Terminator? Or how about Robbie, that benevolent Ariel-analogue from Forbidden Planet?

Perhaps you picked one of the replicants from Blade Runner, arguing that, for a filmmaker, a genetically-engineered organism serves the same narrative function as most fictional robots – namely to hold up a mirror to our own humanity. Bishop from Aliens would probably agree with your thesis – after all, he does prefer the term “artificial person”.

As an alternative to all these classic movie icons, I’m inviting you to consider Ava, android star of British indie film The Machine, released this week in the US on DVD/Blu-Ray. Like many of her illustrious android predecessors, Ava is a physical marvel. Intellectually and emotionally she’s no slouch either; indeed, she may very well possess world’s first self-aware artificial intelligence. Make no mistake – Ava is a robot to be reckoned with.

Caity Lotz as Ava in "The Machine"

Caity Lotz as Ava in “The Machine”

The Machine begins with computer scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) trying to create a true thinking machine. When a military agenda adds robot weaponisation into the mix, the result is Ava – an acrobatic, intelligent robot with plenty going on beneath her artificial skin.

Development of The Machine’s visual effects began early on, during the production of a three-minute proof-of-concept film by producer/director team John Giwa-Amu and Caradog James of Red and Black Films. Bait Studio created the promo’s VFX, in particular developing a look for the robot’s glowing skin. Once finance was secured, they worked alongside Minimo VFX and Tim Smit to deliver the visual effects for the feature.

“Pulling together such a talented team of VFX guys across Bait (Wales), Minimo (Barcelona) and Tim Smit (Holland) was a key factor in the film’s success,” said Giwa-Amu. “We knew that The Machine might live or die on the quality of the VFX and our three lead providers allowed us to compete with some of the best films on release.”

Director Caradog James on the set of "The Machine"

Director Caradog James on the set of “The Machine”

Christian Lett and Llyr Williams, Visual Effects Supervisors at Bait Studio, described the scope of their work on the film:

“We designed, animated and composited the computer user interface graphics, CG prosthetic enhancements, set extensions and matte paintings, gore and gunfire, skin glows, and all the eye glows. We worked very closely with the director, helping to shape the look he wanted, developing approaches that matched his vision, and giving us a real insight into how our work fitted into the narrative, as well as the look of the movie.”

As well as contributing to the near-future ambience, the film’s many and varied computer displays also communicate key story points.

“Caradog wanted the computer UI to look cool, but functional – and not too slick,” said Lett and Williams. “In particular, he told us not to get UI envy from films like Avengers Assemble or Minority Report. He wanted the system to look like it might have cost a lot of money to develop back in the day, but had since been hacked by many MOD engineers to make it do what they wanted. We researched some real-world military UI design – along with designs from other films and TV shows – to help us find the right balance for The Machine. Bait Studio has an award-winning motion graphics team alongside our VFX artists, so these shots in particular played to many of our strengths.”

Ava glowing skin effect

Ava glowing skin effect – before and after digital enhancement

The Machine features an array of robot tech, from prosthetic limbs and brain implants to the star of the show, Ava, played by Caity Lotz. All the tech – Ava included – looks human on the outside, but its fleshy exterior conceals a powerful metal chassis that, under certain circumstances, emits light.

“We worked a lot with Nuke on the skin glows,” said Lett and Williams, “using projection mapping techniques to track the movement of the actor’s skin. This meant we could quickly achieve and fine-tune the subsurface ‘metal under skin’ look that Caradog was looking for. The compositing department had the most heavy lifting to do because of the volume of shots. Most of the work was 2D, with small amounts of CG being brought into Nuke’s 3D environment, rather than relying solely on render passes out of Maya.”

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In one memorable sequence, created by Minimo VFX, Ava explores her physicality by dancing through a huge underground chamber. Shot in near darkness, the lyrical scene makes striking use of the robot’s glowing substructure. Minimo VFX Directors and Co-Founders Felix Balbas and Maurizio Giglioli explained their approach:

“Minimo VFX worked extensively with the director on the design of the glowing inner skeleton, in order to create not merely a believable effect, but something with a dreamy-evanescent feeling. Our design had to reflect the very intimate journey taken by the character in the sequence. The footage was already very elegant, so it was a matter of preserving it, adding a touch of “magic”. Because it was shot in darkness and silhouette, the dance sequence was a very difficult body-tracking challenge, for which Minimo turned to Peanut VFX for support.

“We went through several iterations of shading and comping tests, trying to successfully incorporate all the ingredients: internal layers of self-shading, sub-surface scattering and normal ambient effect – all quite challenging for objects that are inside a body, and almost completely in silhouette. After many tests, we realised that the sharper the contrast was, the better it worked. This way we maintained the original feeling of the photography, and kept the layers as subtle as possible.”

Prosthetic and digital effects create the illusion of Dawson's missing skull

Prosthetic and digital effects create the illusion of Dawson’s missing skull

In the film’s dramatic opening sequence, McCarthy interviews a wounded soldier, Paul Dawson (John Paul MacLeod), whose catastrophic injury has cratered a large section of his head. The soldier’s startling appearance was the result of Bait Studio’s digital work, combined with prosthetics by Paul Hyett.

“The actor wore prosthetic make-up for the edges of the wound, with a green section that was removed and replaced with a CG prosthetic,” said Lett and Williams. “We used Autodesk 123D Catch to create the CG wound from the silicone prosthetic, then cleaned it up and rendered it in Maya. The actor’s head was tracked using SynthEyes, and the final composite was done using Nuke. The most challenging part of this shot was rebuilding Toby Stephens’s hair as it passed in front of the yellow tracking markers.

“The opening sequence has 55 VFX shots, ranging from glowing eyes, tabletop computers (later covered in blood) and gore to robotic tentacles lifting a girl into the air. We were really pleased and proud to have our biggest sequence at the very start of the film, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. This scene establishes the film visually as a cut above most low budget science fiction films, and helps sell the world that you’re in. Being able to help with both these things was very rewarding.”

Watch the video for breakdowns of Bait’s visual effects from The Machine:

"The Machine" posterIn all, Bait Studio delivered 250 shots for The Machine over a period of about four months from concept to delivery. Reflecting on the company’s first feature experience, Lett and Williams concluded:

“We’re constantly learning on projects and applying that knowledge to the next, so we can streamline our workflow and develop as a studio. It also showed us how beneficial it is to have a design capability within the studio, so we can offer creative as well as technical solutions to filmmakers. The Machine was a great opportunity to showcase our work and also to show that we have the resources and talent here in Wales to tackle this type of project.”

Images copyright © 2014 Red and Black Films & Bait Studio.

Sony Pictures Imageworks Moves HQ to Vancouver

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" with visual effects by Sony Pictures Imageworks

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” features state-of-the-art visual effects by Sony Pictures Imageworks.

“The survival of Los Angeles has always depended upon the daring use of massive resources to create new opportunities in a difficult environment.” Robert M Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis, University of California Press, 1993.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the area where Los Angeles now sits was a semi-arid plain dotted with pueblos and prone to catastrophic flooding. Although it was close to the sea, it had no natural harbour, and transport links with the rest of the US were rudimentary. It’s hard to imagine a less likely spot for a major urban centre to rise up.

Yet rise it did, a sprawling metropolis conjured into reality by sheer force of will, a city pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. Little wonder Los Angeles is know as the City of Dreams: the place literally dreamed itself into reality.

It’s fitting that cinema – an industry built on dreams – should have played such an important part in the growth of the region. Culver City in particular has lain at the heart of filmmaking ever since 1915, when city developer Harry Culver encouraged film pioneer Thomas Ince to move his centre of operations to the growing urban centre. The historic tract of land on which Ince’s Triangle Studios was built is now part of the Sony Pictures Studios lot.

"Ince Culver City Studios Now Open" - from the February 5, 1916 edition of "Motography"

“Ince Culver City Studios Now Open” – from the February 5, 1916 edition of “Motography”

It’s ironic, therefore, that Sony Pictures Imageworks – the visual effects and animation unit of Sony Pictures Digital Productions – should be the latest filmmaking enterprise to move its centre of operations not only away from the Los Angeles region, but all the way across the US border and into British Columbia.

As announced in a press release of May 30, 2014, the company is moving into a state-of-the-art facility, leaving only a small presence in Culver City to interact with local filmmakers. With accommodation for up to 700 employees, the new headquarters will have the largest footprint of any visual effects company in Vancouver. The move follows the opening in 2010 of SPI’s Vancouver production office with a staff of 80 artists, and the subsequent growth of the workforce in 2013, during the production of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, to over 350 staff.

According to Randy Lake, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Digital Production Services, Sony Pictures Digital Productions:

“Vancouver has developed into a world-class center for visual effects and animation production. It offers an attractive lifestyle for artists in a robust business climate. Expanding our headquarters in Vancouver will allow us to deliver visual effects of the highest caliber and value to our clients.”

Sony Pictures Imageworks

Sony Pictures Imageworks recently delivered the visual effects for Edge of Tomorrow, and current and future projects include Guardians of the Galaxy, Pixels, Angry Birds, Hotel Transylvania 2 and the next as-yet-untitled Smurfs movie. It’s a line-up that will keep the Vancouver team busy for the foreseeable future, and further cement British Columbia as one of the world’s go-to places for visual effects.

The good news is that Sony Pictures Imageworks appears to be thriving, and that its artists continue to create jaw-dropping, award-winning work. It’s encouraging to see continued investment in, and commitment to, the visual effects industry. In Vancouver, VFX is on the up, just as it is in London and other centres around the world.

But there’s a cost, not only to the workers watching their jobs march across the horizon, but also to the regions that find themselves unable to attract industries in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Plenty of commentators are warning of the potentially fragile state of the VFX industry, particularly when a company’s decisions about where to set up shop may be significantly influenced by government subsidies.

Life After Pi

Scott Leberecht, director of Life After Pi, a film documenting the demise in 2013 of Rhythm & Hues Studios, had this to say about SPI’s move to Vancouver:

“While making Life After Pi, we quickly realized that only movie studios and the corporations that own them benefit from the temporary nature of subsidized regions. When the handouts in New Mexico stopped affecting the bottom line, Sony pulled out. They will do this again when things change in Vancouver. Decision makers at the top don’t care about the consequences, because it doesn’t affect them in a negative way at all. They don’t have to move their lives to a different country or state every time a new deal is negotiated. As long as it is legal, they will continue to milk governments all over the world, regardless of how damaging it is to the lives of their workers and the future of the visual effects industry.”

So where does all this leave the visual effects industry in Los Angeles? Will VFX prove to be just another gold rush that brought brief prosperity to the American West, only to collapse, leaving behind abandoned facilities and ghost towns? Has the time come for the City of Dreams finally to wake up?

The romantic in me hopes the home of cinema has a few surprises left up its sleeve. Given the history of LA, I want to believe the dream isn’t over yet. After all, was the city not founded on the belief that anything is possible? If Robert Fogelson is to be believed, all it needs is for someone to come along who is daring enough to use “massive resources to create new opportunities in a difficult environment”.

Any takers?

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” image copyright © 2014 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. “Motography” page image from Media History Digital Library.

They’ve Been Fixing It In Post For Years

Say “visual effects” to the average person in the street, and what will they think about? Enormous monsters? Even more enormous spaceships? Superheroes performing enormously impossible stunts?

Sounds about right to me.

Say “visual effects” to a visual effects artist, and they’re just as likely to think about wire removal, background replacement and the tedious restoration of some tiny detail that should have been photographed in production, but wasn’t.

It’s tempting to imagine that, given the pixel-perfect possibilities of digital manipulation, fixing things in post is a relatively new thing. Not so. To prove it, I’ve unearthed an article from the September 1939 edition of International Photographer magazine, discussing the role of Paul Lerpae, who at the time was Paramount’s first cameraman in charge of optical printing and montages.

Paul Lerpae laces up a Paramount optical printer, circa 1939

Paul Lerpae with a Paramount optical printer, circa 1939

I fell in love with this article right out of the gate. Here’s how it begins:

All camera wizardry is figurative. The special effects branch of motion picture photography includes a number of able gentlemen who combine science and ingenuity in a form of magic as baffling as any trickery concocted by Merlin for visiting Connecticut Yankees.

The notion that visual effects artists are “able gentlemen” might be considered sexist today, but in context it’s utterly charming. As for what these gentlemen did, well, some of it was as mundane as it gets:

It was discovered one day that in an important scene, an American flag had been photographed with the stars on the right instead of on the left, as they should be. To retake the scene with the flag hung correctly would have cost from $5000 upwards. The optical printer was called into service and the flag was “doubled in.” The job was photographically satisfactory and the saving was obvious.

And there you have it: fixing it in post, circa 1939. Here’s how the article sums up the revolutionary process of applying a photochemical Band-Aid:

The most spectacular aspect of the work of the optical printing cameraman is this sensational and wizard-like ability to save scenes, to solve problems and, in short, to play the role of “safety man” for the rest of the production team.

So, was being “safety man” the only thing a visual effects artist had to look forward to in those pioneering days? Not at all:

Under modern production conditions … the special effects and montage work is an integral part of the story preparation from the early stages of scripting. Method varies on different lots, but the general procedure calls for advance planning for unusual and dramatically effective photographic twists and stunts, rather than using special effects and optical printing merely as time and money saving mediums.

The way this is shaping up, I reckon the day-to-day toil of a 1930s VFX artist was similar to that of his modern counterpart. Could the same be said of his working conditions? Well …

Each studio organization likes to train its own men to its particular method of operation. Familiarity with the particular studio’s individual technical gags and devices, trade secrets and pet ways of accomplishing results, is absolutely essential. Consequently, there is less shifting from one lot to another than in any other branch of motion picture photography.

Hmm. In a week when Sony Imageworks announced it’s moving its head office from Culver City to Vancouver, I guess we can hardly assert the 21st century VFX industry enjoys “less shifting from one lot to another”.

Given all this emphasis on the technicalities of the profession, and the training of staff in the “studio way”, was there any place for artistry in those early days? Were visual effects artists just grunts obeying orders, or were they actually furthering the art of cinema? Here’s what the article has to say:

Special effects workers view their jobs as integral parts of the complete task of creating dramatically effective screen entertainment. They can’t see why special effects can not be regarded as equally legitimate phase of artistic contribution to screen entertainment with the dramatic tricks of a skilled playwright or the artistic license taken by poets and painters. In other words, special effects tricks and stunts are just another aspect of industry progress toward placing a richer and more effective type of entertainment upon the screen.

Finally, Lerpae has his own views on where visual effects might take filmmaking in the future. While he doesn’t cite an actual year, it’ s tempting to imagine he might have been looking a nice round 75 years ahead … say to the unimaginably futuristic year of 2014.

Future of special effects progress holds great possibilities for the industry, Lerpae believes, dependent entirely upon the enthusiasm generated among production creators for more and trickier special effects work, plus ability of special effects technicians to satisfy this enthusiasm with practical results.

Enthusiasm. Ability. Great possibilities. Is there anyone working in the industry today who can’t get behind those three things? And is there anyone who wants to contradict the simple truth demonstrated by this article?

The truth that, for the most part, nothing changes so much as it stays the same.