H is for History of VFX

by Graham Edwards

"H" is for "History of VFX" in the Cinefex VFX ABCIn the VFX ABC, the letter “H” stands for “History”.

How important is the history of visual effects to the modern VFX professional? In an industry built on innovation and imagination, does anyone really need to remember the past? Who wants to linger in bygone times when there’s a bright, shiny future waiting right around the corner? It’s like the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said:

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

But wait! Maybe history’s not so bad. In fact, isn’t history just about the most important subject going? The past is a vast repository of wisdom, knowledge and experience. We’d be fools to ignore it! The philosopher Machiavelli was on board with this:

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past.”

When it comes to visual effects, who are we to believe? To find out, I put two simple questions to a panel of VFX experts:

  • How important is it for a modern visual effects artist to know about the history of VFX?
  • Can you name a VFX sequence you’ve worked on that was directly inspired by something from the past?

Here’s what the panel had to say:

Hal Hickel – Animation Director, Industrial Light & Magic

“I think that in any endeavour it’s important to know what came before, and to learn from it. There are valuable lessons to be learned from both the failures and successes of the past. The trick, of course, is to know which is which. Something that was a failure or limitation of older technologies could be an asset today.

Talos from "Jason and the Argonauts" and Gypsy Danger from "Pacific Rim"“In the pre-digital era, good planning on set, low VFX shot counts, and clever solutions to problems were a necessity, not a choice. This forced a certain restraint in the use of VFX. At the time, those limitations were something that everyone involved with VFX wanted to conquer. Nowadays, I’d say restraint is something that filmmakers using VFX could use a good dose of.

“In Pacific Rim, the scene where a seriously damaged Gipsy Danger strides ashore and collapses equates to the Talos sequence from Jason and the Argonauts. Ray Harryhausen’s compositions in that sequence inspired the sense of scale we were going for in our work on Pacific Rim.”

Lou Pecora – Visual Effects Supervisor, Digital Domain

“Absolutely without question, knowing about the history of visual effects makes a VFX professional better. All that reference becomes a shorthand that can be used to convey the type of effect one is looking for. Also, knowing some of the techniques, tricks and shortcuts used in the past to creatively solve problems can inspire solutions to the same types of challenges today.

“The great Richard Edlund has a story about the trouble he had lining up two different scale models of the Death Star as the POV from an approaching X-Wing pushes into it. In the end, they had one of the laser cannons flash the frame to allow for the “seamless” transition between the two models. If you go back and watch that scene you can see exactly what they did, but you would never know just watching the film cold. I’ve used that trick a few times in the past to get me out of a bind!

“In X-Men: Days of Future Past, we had a bit where the 1973 Sentinels lift off and hover over the crowd in DC. In order to achieve a sense of menace in the otherwise expressionless Sentinels, I thought back to the scene in The Terminator where we get a glimpse of the Future Wars. The Terminators that shoot up the underground human HQ had glowing red eyes that were all you could see in their dark silhouettes. I remember seeing that when I was a kid and thinking how terrifying it looked, so that was what we went for.

“We also drew inspiration from that same part of The Terminator for the shot where the Sentinels fly out of the smoke and into the stadium behind Magneto. The way their silhouettes are obscured by the smoke, and the shadows they cast on the smoke, were directly inspired by that scene.”

The Sentinels from "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

The Sentinels from “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Thomas Dyg – Environments Supervisor, Cinesite

“Knowing about the history of visual effects isn’t a must. But understanding at least some fundamental events and procedures can bring inspiration and deeper knowledge, which can advance VFX artists’ skills.

“The biggest difference in going from analog to digital could be symbolised by the “undo” button. Before digital, choices had consequences and artists had to have knowledge about exactly what would happen once they committed to a creative decision. Now, technology has made it possible to create ever more fantastic visual effects, which would have been impossible before. However, as a child of the digital age, I feel that we have perhaps lost sight of one important thing, and that is not to overthink solutions and complicate matters unnecessarily. Maybe the old magic and the simplicity of old techniques are something all modern VFX artists could learn from. Those pioneers are the giants whose shoulders we stand upon.”

Pablo Helman – Visual Effects Supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic

“It’s kind of ironic that, although our VFX business is based on “innovation”, I often think about how specific challenges were met in the past. That’s how I came to be in awe of miniatures, and the work done on the original Star Wars movies. Having worked at ILM for eighteen years, I’ve met and worked with some legendary modelmakers – artists who are hyper-aware of reality, scale, weight and speed, and who have an insatiable urge to search for the details that complete the illusion.

“So it’s no wonder I found miniatures to be one of the pillars of the VFX process in War of the Worlds (2005) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I literally had a blast destroying a miniature New Jersey neighbourhood by an alien invasion, and a complete New Mexico town by an atomic bomb. However, before destroying them, we photographed the miniature buildings to use as projections in computer models that were used for dynamically manipulated backgrounds in different sequences. In that way, we combined old and new techniques to tell the story. I love my job!”

The Doom Town miniature for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

The Doom Town miniature for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was shot using four 35mm cameras and one motion-controlled Vistavision camera on a raised platform beyond Kerner Optical’s backlot slab in San Rafael.

Björn Mayer – Visual Effects Supervisor, Pixomondo

“Yes, knowing the history of visual effects is important – even though VFX is considered a “young” field, we have a long and fruitful history to learn from. Technology is always changing, giving us better and more powerful tools, but we often use those tools in addition to – or to augment – previous techniques. That’s why it’s important to know as much as possible about the field – not only camera techniques and computer skills, but also how to find a clever work-around if needed.

“A visual effects artist is not just a button-pusher in front of a computer, or a single-skilled technician aware of one or two software packages. Most of us are creative, visual problem-solvers driven by passion and the diligence to go the extra mile to generate the shot that helps to tell the story. The more techniques an artist knows and can draw from, the richer their ability to create extraordinary visual effects.

“In Oblivion, a large part of the action takes place in the Skytower, a luxurious glass residence built high up in the clouds. To create the surrounding environment, we could have shot everything in front of a bluescreen and inserted the background later in post. But it would have been very difficult to extract all the reflections from the plates. Instead, the Skytower was build as a full size set, surrounded by a 42-foot x 500-foot projection screen. Cloudscapes were projected by twenty-one cinema grade FullHD projectors hidden in the set. Not only did this help with subtleties like eye reflections and skin subsurface scattering, but it also helped the actors, because they could see the environment they would be in. Front projection is an old technique that’s been used in movies for decades. By scaling it up for Oblivion, we were standing on the shoulders of giants to achieve seamless effects.”

Watch a featurette about the creation of the Skytower sequence:

Joan Panis, Head of FX, MPC London

“I believe it’s very important to know the history of VFX. When creating something new, we often look at references to inspire ourselves, usually in the form of past films that use digital and practical effects. This helps us understand how we can create and shape our current effects. Other times we use this knowledge to tell us what not to do too. Doing this helps us define quickly how and what our effect should look like. At MPC, we sometimes nickname shots based on the type of effect it’s inspired from.”

Aladino Debert – Visual Effects Supervisor (Commercials & Games), Digital Domain

“I don’t think it’s necessarily important for a modern visual effects artist to know about the history of VFX, because each show is unique. Sometimes, coming with fresh eyes, unencumbered by past experience, can be a plus. Yet knowledge of film history – and visual effects history in particular – can be advantageous when it comes to creative decisions to new problems.

“I directed a trailer for Microsoft’s Ryse: Son of Rome, which had a shot that was greatly influenced by sequences in both Spartacus and the later Gladiator (probably the latter was itself influenced by the former). And by “greatly influenced” I mean I tried to make it very much the same shot! It was such a great sequence in the original movie – one of my favourites – that it was a pleasure being able to re-create it on our show. Like they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.”

Christian Alzmann, Senior Visual Effects Art Director/Concept Artist, Industrial Light & Magic

“I think it’s important to know how problems were solved with older techniques. Conceptually, those solutions can bring a lot of light to solving visual problems today.

“Recently I was designing a section of a long science fiction hallway – using 3D to create concept art – and the geometry was getting pretty heavy. I didn’t want to duplicate the section over and over to make the hallway longer because the scene would have been too slow to work with. So what I did was place a single polygon at the end of the hallway section and give it a mirror shader. When I did a test render, that section of hallway seemed to extend to infinity. It’s an old technique used in many early movies and theme park attractions, and it continues to be useful in the digital realm.”

Now we’ve heard from our panel, I’d love to hear from you. How important is VFX history to you, either as a fan or an industry professional? Should the old-school be locked in a cupboard and the key thrown away, or could today’s young whippersnappers learn a thing or two from the textbooks? Or do you think the past should keep itself to itself, allowing the forward-thinkers to spread their wings and fly?

Perhaps, like me, you believe that there’s room for both, that past and future are not divided things at all, but simply different aspects of a single continuum. As William Faulkner wrote:

“There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity.”

Thanks to all our experts at the following companies:

Special thanks to Greg Grusby, Joni Jacobson, Helen Moody, Tiffany Tetrault and Jonny Vale. X-Men: Days of Future Past image copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull photograph copyright © 2008 by Lucasfilm Ltd and Paramount Pictures.

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