About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Alien Memories

The xenomorph returns in Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant"

Back in 2014, I marked the 35th anniversary of the release of Alien by blogging about my love for the film. Three years on, I’ve just completed work on our upcoming magazine article covering Alien: Covenant, the latest film in the spine-tingling sci-fi franchise. The film hits US theaters today, and you’ll be able to read our in-depth behind-the-scenes story in Cinefex 153 — the new issue is out in June and available to preorder right now.

While writing the article, I spoke at length with the key supervisors who worked on Alien: Covenant in the visual effects, creature effects, and special effects departments. At the end of each interview, I asked everyone the same question: “What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?”

You see, I had a hunch that most people just can’t shake off the effects of early exposure to Ridley Scott’s classic horror flick. We never quite recover from what we see in the shadows as a kid, right? And facehuggers do have a tendency to cling.

Was my hunch right? I’ll let you judge for yourself …

Director Ridley Scott on the set of "Alien: Covenant"

Director Ridley Scott on the set of “Alien: Covenant”

“I remember being a small kid, watching Alien on a tiny TV in my room at night, and being totally overwhelmed by it. There was nothing else like it at that point. After watching lots of Star Trek, watching Alien I felt like this must be real. It’s so unique, and very powerful. It’s been amazing working with Ridley on another one.”
Charley Henley — production visual effects supervisor

“I did science at university, but I also always did sculpture. Until I was 25 or 26, it hadn’t dawned on me that there was this job out there which suited me. The only book about films I had from my childhood was about Alien — I had Giger’s book up on my shelf — and that was the only reason I got into this business. To actually end up doing Alien: Covenant was quite unique, quite special.”
Conor O’Sullivan – creature design supervisor

Alien was just shocking. It was so out there, so new, and frightening — a proper horror movie. I don’t think there’s anybody who can do it better than Ridley. It’s his baby. He thinks the alien is beautiful, you know.”
Neil Corbould — special effects supervisor

Alien was one of the reasons why I wanted to make creatures and makeup effects. The chestburster scene with John Hurt — when we first saw it, it was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was brutally intense, and beautifully done. Right before we started Alien: Covenant I watched Alien again, and I remember coming into work and just going, ‘Shit, how are we ever going to compare to this?’”
Adam Johansen — creature effects supervisor

Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston) go up against the ultimate foe in "Alien: Covenant"

Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston) go up against the ultimate foe in “Alien: Covenant”

“I was quite young when I watched the first Alien. They put such care and attention into this futuristic environment that felt at the same time very lived-in. The camerawork moving through the corridors at the beginning — everything feels quite pristine, but there are touches like someone left something hanging on the door. And the chestburster scene, of course — that goes without saying!”
Ferran Domenech — visual effects supervisor, MPC Montreal

“My memories of Alien are getting my hands on it on VHS when I was too young to watch it. I was at my mate’s house. I was scared shitless!”
Ben Jones — visual effects supervisor, MPC London

“I rewatched Alien at the start of this project, just to familiarize myself again. I think what was so strong about the original Alien was the use of not seeing the alien. We wanted to make our creature work scary by not revealing too much too quickly.”
Christian Kaestner — visual effects supervisor, Framestore, Montreal

Alien scared the living daylights out of me. I remember not long afterwards going to see Aliens. It was a midnight screening — probably not the best time to go, coming out at two o’clock in the morning! It’s been an honor to work on Alien: Covenant — kind of a dream come true. Our artists were literally queueing up to come and work on it. We had to turn away so many people.”
Stuart Penn — visual effects supervisor, Framestore, London

“I was over at my friend’s house and he had Alien on videotape. We weren’t allowed to watch it — we would have been pretty young — so we sneakily put it on when his mum and dad were out. I remember being totally freaked out by it — mainly the chestbursting scene. I’d never really watched a horror movie. I’d seen some black and white Quatermass stuff, but I hadn’t seen anything as graphic as that. It scared the crap out of us!”
Paul Butterworth — visual effects supervisor, Animal Logic

(L-R) Amy Seimetz (Faris), Benjamin Rigby (Private Ledward) and Carmen Ejogo (Karine) in ALIEN: COVENANT

Faris (Amy Seimetz) and Karine (Carmen Ejogo) try to save Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) in “Alien: Covenant”

Alien is one of the reasons I got into visual effects. I loved the spaceship interior. It wasn’t clean. It had wear and tear. It felt lived-in. It felt like there were stories and experiences that you weren’t aware of, but that you could imagine. That’s definitely what inspired me, and what’s kept me in visual effects.”
Brendan Seals — visual effects supervisor, Luma Pictures

“When we were little, our babysitter took me and my brother to see Alien at the cinema. She covered our eyes for the horrible bits, but it still had a huge impact. It’s why I got into the industry — it’s one of those films that really influenced me. So to work alongside Ridley Scott has been a huge honor.”
Adam Paschke — visual effects supervisor, Rising Sun Pictures

“My dad let me watch a fair amount of movies that I wasn’t supposed to when I growing up, but Alien was not one of them. One of my close friends in college found out that I hadn’t seen any of the films. He was a huge superfan and had the whole quadrilogy, so we started watching through all of them, one movie every night. It was kind of fun to watch them sequentially like that. It was awesome.”
Jim Gibbs — visual effects supervisor, Atomic Fiction

“I was at college in 1979. I went to see Alien on my own, in the evening. It was back in the day when you had B-movies, so there was a support feature about a woman alone in a house. She eventually got out and into her car, and then this person came up behind and cut her throat — so I was already kind of pumped! Then I watched the film, which was absolutely incredible. I was so scared that I ran all the way back to college.”
Paul Round — visual effects supervisor, Peerless Camera Company

What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?

Do you remember the moment you first saw the alien derelict looming out of the mist? How about the scene where Kane loses his lunch in the worst possible way? Or Ripley singing You Are My Lucky Star while the big fella bares his fangs? The comments box is open — now it’s your chance to reminisce.

Robert Stromberg Q&A — “Raising a Rukus”

Raising a Rukus by VRCIn the animated adventure Raising a Rukus, feuding twins Jonas and Amy receive an unexpected birthday surprise in the form of Rukus – a magic dog who transports them to a fantastic prehistoric realm. During their adventures, they encounter dinosaurs galore, learn some fascinating facts about bioluminescence, and emerge with a new appreciation for the value of getting along.

More than just a cartoon, Raising a Rukus is a series of virtual reality family adventures produced by The Virtual Reality Company. The first episode – which features an innovative branching narrative – will debut at the flagship IMAX VR Centre in Los Angeles on May 19, marking the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR. Raising a Rukus is available for the Samsung Gear VR on the Oculus Store and will roll out on major VR platforms, mobile and premium HMDs through 2017.

Watch the trailer for Raising a Rukus:

At IMAX VR centres, audiences are seated in a virtual reality motion chair that incorporates a premium virtual reality head-mounted display, providing an experience similar to that experienced at a theme park. IMAX Chief Business Development Officer Robert D. Lister said:

“We’re excited to partner with VRC – which brings an immense amount of creative talent and expertise – to premiere Raising a Rukus at our IMAX VR centres. This family-oriented fare is becoming increasingly important as we are seeing visitors of all ages come through our successful flagship centre in Los Angeles.”

Directed by Josh Wassung, co-founder of previsualisation studio The Third Floor, Raising a Rukus features an original score by composer James Newton Howard and an immersive soundtrack mixed at Skywalker Sound. Guy Primus, co-founder/chief executive officer of VRC commented:

“VRC has brought together the best artists, storytellers, filmmakers and technicians who are working to create impactful and immersive VR experiences that will bring people face-to-face with imagination. Raising a Rukus is one of many milestone VR experiences we will announce and release in 2017. This is the premium VR experience that people have been waiting for, and we know they will be thrilled.”

Twins Amy and Jonas just found a dog - or did he find them? Either way, Rukus has a magical secret – he’s about to take them to a whole new world. “Raising a Rukus” is a first of its kind animated VR experience from the Academy Award winner Robert Stromberg and The Virtual Reality Company. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

Twins Amy and Jonas just found a dog … or did he find them? Either way, Rukus has a magical secret – he’s about to take them to a whole new world.

Cinefex spoke with Raising a Rukus producer Robert Stromberg, Academy Award-winning director and co-founder/chief creative officer of VRC.

Cinefex: Where did the idea for Raising a Rukus come from?

Stromberg: When we started VRC, we wanted to focus not just on interesting ways to tell stories, but on targeting the family audience. We wanted to make something that anyone from 10-80 years old would enjoy. We started compiling ideas for what that could be, and Raising a Rukus came out of that.

Cinefex: Steven Spielberg is on VRC’s board of advisors. What did he bring to the party?

Stromberg: There’s a magic that happens when creative people like Steven and our team talk, so having his words of wisdom was extremely valuable. Just having that pedigree of creativity to bounce off gives it a unique signature.

Cinefex: Did you go through the same creative development process that you would for an animated film – concept art, storyboards and so on – or did VR introduce any new steps?

Stromberg: Well, what we’re doing is cross-pollinating specialists from the gaming world, and specialists from film. So yes, the approach was to create artwork and storyboards, to define the look as we would in preproduction on any film. Then, we built assets and all of the elements that we needed to run at 90 frames per second in a game engine. The challenge really has been to make both of those worlds work together – cinema and gaming. I think we’ve accomplished that.

Cinefex: What about the director’s role?

Stromberg: The special challenge with VR is: how do you keep the focus where it should be? That’s more of a directing thing. You have to create not just visual cues but also audio cues that direct the viewer to where they should be looking. If the story and what’s happening in front of them is engaging enough, hopefully people won’t be compelled to look behind them for no reason.

Cinefex: I guess the design of the world is integral to that.

Stromberg: Yes, it’s like doing a matte painting, knowing how to direct the viewer’s eye into the composition. I think a lot of those techniques that I used to use for matte painting and visual effects in general apply here. The psychological tools that we use in traditional cinema are still valid.

Cinefex: Only this matte painting surrounds you completely.

Stromberg: Right. In that regard there were elements and techniques we learned from Avatar. When we were creating those 360-degree worlds, I would go into that environment with a virtual camera – almost like a virtual location scout – and compositionally place the assets and elements. I moved through the world before we actually added the animation and the characters, to make sure that it stayed visually appealing as you went down the path.

Cinefex: Did you use similar techniques to previsualise the world of Raising a Rukus?

Stromberg: We did previs with rudimentary assets, as you would on any film. Then we took that into the headsets, retextured everything and bumped it up to a higher resolution. Previs techniques work well in VR.

Cinefex: So all that movie experience comes in handy when you’re doing VR?

Stromberg: There are so many elements from traditional cinema – including visual effects – that apply themselves well to creating something in VR. I think the only unique difference is that we have to cover ourselves more, because it’s 360 degrees. Other than that, all of the old techniques work really well.

"Raising a Rukus" debuts at the Los Angelese IMAX VR Centre on May 19 - the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR.

“Raising a Rukus” debuts at the Los Angelese IMAX VR Centre on May 19 – the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR.

Cinefex: Tell me about the branching narrative in Raising a Rukus.

Stromberg: At one point in the story, Jonas and Amy get split up. If you’re looking at Jonas, you will go down his path. If you’re looking at Amy, you will go down her path. So if you rewatch it, you can watch the other path and see the different problems that they face along the way, other dinosaurs that they run into and stuff like that. The branching narrative angle is very powerful, and this is the first of its kind. In future episodes or other projects that we do you’ll see many more branching narratives. The repeatability of experiencing the same story from a different angle is very important to us.

Cinefex: This first episode of Raising a Rukus runs for 12 minutes. What made you choose that length?

Stromberg: We wanted something that would be friendly to younger audiences, and we didn’t want to overburden people with an enormous amount of time in the headset. We did elaborate testing with families and kids, and this amount of time seemed to be the sweet spot. Everybody who watches it says the same thing: “Wow, that didn’t feel like 12 minutes – it felt like five minutes.” The subject matter is always moving and energetic, so you get swept up in the story and lose track of time.

Cinefex: The VR industry is evolving at a breakneck speed. Where do you see Raising a Rukus sitting in the context of everything else that’s going on?

Stromberg: In terms of what we’re trying to do at VRC, honestly, I kind of look at this as our Steamboat Willie – although I’m not for a minute trying to say that we’re Walt Disney. What’s interesting is that Disney showed that this art of animation could be a vehicle to tell stories, and a powerful one. Then it just grew from there, and the ability to tell stories in animation just went through the roof.

Cinefex: So it’s achieved what you wanted it to achieve?

Stromberg: I think Raising a Rukus is a milestone for VRC. It’s the first project where I feel like we’ve succeeded in doing all that we set out to do, which was to tell a story in a unique way, in a brand new medium. I grew up watching cartoons and animated films, and now for the first time I feel like I’ve actually been immersed in one. Hopefully we’ll start to see many things evolve out of this: longer VR experiences, cinematic events in VR … I think the door’s wide open.

Cinefex: Robert Stromberg – thank you.

IMAX will also roll out VRC’s Raising a Rukus to its IMAX VR centres set to open in New York City, the UK, and other locations worldwide in the coming months.

Images courtesy of PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company. Special thanks to Jeff Fishburn. Article updated 05/26/17.

The Future of VR — A Roundtable Discussion

Cinefex VR RoundtableEarlier this year, Cinefex published The Dreamsmiths Unleashed, an in-depth look at the current state of play in the virtual reality industry. In the course of writing the article, we spoke to over 20 VR professionals and amassed around 80,000 words of interview transcript.

Looking back through the wealth of material that didn’t make the article, we thought how great it would have been to get all those people physically round a table together. An impossible task, of course. But maybe there was a virtual solution …

And here it is. The following conversation is made up of choice extracts from all those interviews, woven together to create something unique: a virtual roundtable discussion attended by our own special assembly of VR dreamsmiths.

CINEFEX: So what is virtual reality?

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Virtual reality is an immersive experience that you can’t get in any other form of media. I view it as sort of an amalgamation of cinema and theater.

PATRICK MEEGAN: I agree it’s like theater in that everyone on stage has to be active in the scene, there is no framing out someone and then cutting back. That is pretty critical to virtual reality capture, because you’re doing much less editorial and everything can be seen.

CINEFEX: Cinema … theater … what about games?

LOGAN BROWN: Video games provide huge insight into how to guide users to interact with the virtual world. However, the gap between gamers and non-gamers can pose problems for developers. How do we make an experience challenging enough for a gamer who is familiar with interactive input, and yet easy enough for a non-gamer to enjoy without frustration?

TOM VANCE: Of course we are going to bring things to the table from theater and film and television, and of course we are going to bring gaming into the picture. The exciting thing is how we turn those things into a new way to tell stories.

CINEFEX: So it’s all of these things combined?

ARUNA INVERSIN: Well, I actually think virtual reality is a new medium. It’s not cinema, it’s not television, it’s not the internet — and those are the three main consumption modes that people have right now. And within those modes there are so many avenues other than entertainment — there’s action, interactive, passive, live-stream, educational, medical … these are avenues that haven’t even been tested yet in virtual reality.

ROBERT STROMBERG: I agree that it’s a brand new medium, with an unwritten rulebook on how to tell stories. I’m fixated on that particular aspect of it — how to get real actors in real situations, with real emotional scenes.

CINEFEX: You talk about a rulebook. Do the rules of cinema apply to virtual reality?

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Yes, because you are still telling a story. Gamers who put on a headset are going to be very active, obviously, but for most people who watch content, yes, there’s that initial moment where they say, “Oh wow, this is really cool,” but you’ve got this diminishing curve where people then say, “I just want to be entertained.”

ALEX HESSLER: We do have a lot of techniques in cinema that we know how to use to steer the viewer, but unfortunately those techniques don’t generally work in virtual reality. But, there’s a whole batch of other techniques that people are only just discovering, and I do think working in film gives you that mindfulness and that curiosity about observation that is really important for designing virtual reality.

CINEFEX: Is there still a place for traditional job roles — do you still need a director of photography, for example?

BEN GROSSMANN: There is absolutely a role for a director of photography, but it is a completely different thing. It’s funny when we see a director of photography operate in virtual reality for the first time. They are focused on staging the scene in one direction, and they get frustrated when they put somebody else in the headset and the first thing that person does is start looking in every other direction! It’s like going onto a movie set and giving the camera to a 12 year-old child! The hard part is wrangling the audience into looking where you want them to look, in order to catch the part of the story that you want them to catch. You do that by lighting, by sound, by emotional interest — and that language has yet to be codified.

CINEFEX: How do you go about doing that?

SEBASTIAN MARINO: There’s all these rules of virtual reality that everyone seems to want to make, but as far as I can tell, they’re all things you’re not allowed to do. I personally reject that — it’s just horrible. It’s way too early to make a list of things you can’t do. You just have to build a world that is self-consistent. If you do that, I think you can use all sorts of techniques and make something that looks really interesting.

CINEFEX: So can it actually be a hindrance, holding onto the old ways?

ANDREW MCGOVERN: It’s always a learning curve when you move into a new format, especially with virtual reality. At the same time, people love the freedom that it gives.

PHIL TIPPETT: I think it links in somewhat with the creative process. Throughout the course of a career, you build up your skills as a craftsman, and you have a certain way of going about doing things. But then, once you have created something, you kind of need to forget it, so that there’s room for another idea. It’s like intentionally trying to figure out a way of not falling into the franchise trap. The next thing that you do has got to be something worth doing because it’s different.

ARTHUR VAN HOFF: If you get a Hollywood director to do virtual reality, they’re going to use all the same language, and it’s just movies in virtual reality. Then you have some people that go completely crazy — they put actors all around you, and you have to swing your head around like a madman to follow a conversation. Then there’s where I think most of the action is, which is the young, upcoming directors who have something to prove. There are tons of people still at film school, experimenting with GoPros, who are going to be the Steven Spielbergs of virtual reality.

SASCHKA UNSELD: I actually think the longer people have worked in film, the harder it is for them to switch away from the ways of thinking that they have. The younger people are, the more easy it is for them just to embrace the newness of this medium. The wave of experiences that we’ll see from people who have virtual reality as their first way of expressing themselves, and not as their second or third … I think that wave will be enormous.

CINEFEX: What about visual effects artists — are they generally well adapted to working in virtual reality?

AMY SMALL: A lot of our people at Framestore have adapted super-well, but they all tend to resonate in different areas, depending on what their backgrounds might be. So we look at a project when it comes in, and then try to match the creative who makes the most sense with the project.

ARUNA INVERSIN: I think some visual effects artists don’t want to go into the 360-degree world. But then, every artist that I bring on is new to virtual reality in some form. Everybody’s learning it for the first time.

CHRIS HEALER: As our own toolset has matured, our artists have all pretty much consistently warmed up to virtual reality. They’ve gotten past the tech and math, and they are now into creative thought. But it took time, and the ones who were cold to the idea needed to warm up by seeing other people’s excitement and other people’s success. It’s cool to see that transition.

LOGAN BROWN: The person who adapts well to working in virtual reality is likely someone who embraces the unknown and is persistent enough to work through setbacks. Everything is so new, and there are so many major areas still unexplored. A strong creative willing to wade into the deep end of bleeding-edge technology can make a huge contribution to the medium.

SEBASTIAN MARINO: I really don’t know how you do virtual reality coming purely from a Silicon Valley background. If you’re not used to dealing with artistic criticism, you’re in for it.

CINEFEX: Is the technology anywhere near mature yet, or is there a lot more innovation to come?

SIMON ROBINSON: We’re trying to improve the number of products that we have that make previewing virtual reality very easy. That’s really just an engineering challenge to make sure that output into a headset is as simple as output to a flat screen. But, we are interested in how toolsets in the future might be completely immersed. I think that’s a fascinating challenge for us — if artists wore the headsets full-time, would that fundamentally change the way they did their work, and would you then have to engineer products for media in a completely different way to the way you do them now?

ROBERT STROMBERG: The equipment will get refined, smaller, sexier. Then there’s the social aspect — the option to experience something where you can look over and see your friend, like you do in a movie theater. I think that’s all going to become very standard.

OLLIE RANKIN: But it’s wrong to assume that the virtual reality headset is the final viewing platform. I think the headset is kind of like the laser disk — something that was, at the time, the best way of storing and playing back video but was superseded quite quickly. Just don’t ask me to look into the crystal ball and tell you what is going to replace it!

ARUNA INVERSIN: I think the next big revolution is the software experience. In the next year or two, we’re going to see some really great software that leverages touch controllers, hand controllers and motion controllers. We’re going to see people develop software that allows collaboration in the virtual reality space.

MICHAEL BREYMANN: There are all kinds of analytics and data that can be gathered and processed based on your eye movements, so there is both a scary and wonderful world coming for virtual reality. It’s almost like when you put on sunglasses — you feel a little bit protected because nobody can see where your eyes are, but you have the privilege of gazing wherever you want. In virtual reality you also have that feeling because you’re in your private little box, and you feel safe. But, with sensors and tracking technology you are very much not safe. The things that enables are kind of like science fiction.

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Everybody on Wall Street is going to make money trading paper on the newest virtual reality tech, but that is all meaningless if we are not creating content that the general public is going to download and buy. We need to start investing much more heavily into content, otherwise virtual reality will be just a fad, destroyed because it was overly hyped.

CINEFEX: Is that a real risk — that virtual reality is going to crash and burn?

RAY TINTORI: You know, I think virtual reality is the future, but I actually don’t think it’s an entertainment medium. People think it’s going to have a trajectory like 3D movies, but I feel like virtual and augmented reality is more like the internet — there are so many practical applications that it’s just going to become a part of a lot of stuff that we do, in an invisible way.

CLINT KISKER: Yes, in the future, I think virtual reality will be invisible. It will just be a part of the way that we work, consume stories, learn, travel, buy homes. How all of that will work from a consumer interaction standpoint, I couldn’t say. But I do believe that my son and daughter will not see anything unusual about a persistent virtual world that exists attached to their Vive or their PSVR, that they can check in on at the end of the day.

PATRICK MEEGAN: Right. We will eventually be looking at the virtual reality and augmented reality spaces as a single continuum, creating experiences that can accommodate elements of the real world, but then completely obfuscate the real world and transport you into a virtual one.

CHRIS MORLEY: I think that’s a philosophical question for anybody who wants to put on those goggles! It’s a multi-faceted technology. I see use in medical training, in theme parks — you could have a ride but then have different content for different people, so that they can choose what they want to experience. I think it’s going to be everywhere in the end. It runs the gamut.

CINEFEX: So we’ll all soon be fully immersed in a totally fabricated world?

JOHN GAETA: We can talk all day long about super-complex futuristic scenarios, but we’re a long way away from being Neo running through the back streets in The Matrix. But, it’s not impossible to see a dot between now and then. The next step is to figure out what is the right first thing for us to try to do, so that virtual reality is a joyful, positive, enlightening experience. Being in a cinema is a very powerful form of immersion. People remember things that happen in film so strongly that they carry them throughout their whole lives. It’s natural for us to think that way now about virtual reality. We want people to be able to say, “I stood inside this moment, and I saw these characters up close, and it gave me an emotional reaction.” Hopefully, that will happen not too long from now.

CINEFEX: People say that working in virtual reality right now is like being in the Wild West. And here you all are, riding your wagons along the trail. How does it feel?

RAY TINTORI: You know, virtual reality is so funky right now. It’s like using leeches or medieval technology — everything is jaw-droppingly advanced and embarrassingly clunky at the same time. In five years, everything that we’re doing now is going to feel silly, because there’s all this stuff that just hasn’t been invented yet.

ROBERT STROMBERG: Sometimes it feels like we’re in the early days of Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. I know that’s dramatic, but it really is a very inventive time.

BEN GROSSMANN: Well, I have always enjoyed being an explorer, and the landscape of virtual reality is certainly unexplored. There are no rules written, no language that has yet been defined, and no leaders. There are no legendary filmmakers in whose shadow we all stand. So we’re getting back some of that passion that we had in the early days of visual effects, when we were figuring things out for the first time.

Thank you to all the dreamsmiths on our virtual reality roundtable:

  • Michael Breymann — co-founder, Kaleidoscope VR
  • Logan Brown — virtual reality producer, MPC
  • John Gaeta — executive creative director, ILMxLAB
  • Matthew Gratzner — creative director, New Deal Studios
  • Ben Grossmann — chief executive officer, Magnopus
  • Chris Healer — chief executive officer, The Molecule
  • Alex Hessler — virtual reality supervisor, Tippett Studio
  • Aruna Inversin — creative director, Digital Domain
  • Clint Kisker — co-founder, Reality One
  • Sebastian Marino — co-founder and chief technical officer, Evercoast
  • Andrew McGovern — vice president of augmented and virtual reality, Digital Domain
  • Patrick Meegan — creative director, Jaunt
  • Chris Morley — visual effects supervisor, Tippett Studio
  • Ollie Rankin — head of production, Uncorporeal Systems
  • Simon Robinson — chief scientist, The Foundry
  • Amy Small — global head of virtual reality, Framestore
  • Robert Stromberg — co-founder and chief creative officer, VRC
  • Ray Tintori — director and visual effects supervisor
  • Phil Tippett — founder, Tippett Studio
  • Saschka Unseld — creative director, Oculus Story Studio
  • Arthur Van Hoff — co-founder and chief technical officer, Jaunt
  • Tom Vance — head of content, Jaunt

Photograph courtesy of Magnopus.

Now Showing – Cinefex 152

Cinefex 152 - From the Editor's Desk

Filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack had a motto about the kind of story they liked to tell: “Make it distant, difficult and dangerous.”

Those three adjectives certainly describe the movie they co-directed in 1933 – the original King Kong. They also apply to Kong: Skull Island, the action-packed reboot that’s been thumping its chest at the box office this Spring. That’s why we’re proud to feature the big ape himself on the front cover of our latest issue, with a stunning exclusive picture of Kong chowing down on the giant squid he’s just earmarked for lunch.

Not only will Cinefex 152 transport you to a lost Pacific island filled with mythical monsters, but our new edition also contains an eerie insider look at A Cure for Wellness, blood-splattered coverage of Logan, and a towering article on The Great Wall.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with more details about our April 2017 edition:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

I don’t think it is stretching too far to say that if there hadn’t been a 1933 King Kong, there wouldn’t have been a Cinefex.

If there hadn’t been a King Kong, it wouldn’t have been broadcast on television every day for a week one summer in 1955. And if it hadn’t been broadcast, a certain ten-year-old boy in upstate New York wouldn’t have watched it every day that week, instilling in him a passion for movie special effects. Twenty-four years later, that boy founded this magazine.

Many movie Kongs have come and gone since then, and some have been more satisfying than others – but, no matter its commercial or artistic success, there is always a warmth in our editorial loins when we get to cover a King Kong movie. He is our spiritual father, our Grand Poobah, our main man.

Graham Edwards dug deep for his definitive story on the latest Kong: Skull Island, brought to us by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the visual effects crews at Industrial Light & Magic, Hybride Technologies and Rodeo FX.

Joe Fordham tells the behind-the-scenes story of A Cure for Wellness, a Victorian-era creep-fest that makes encounters with a 100-foot-tall ape look like child’s play. Logan – the last Wolverine picture that will feature Hugh Jackman in the role – and The Great Wall fill out our issue #152.

Happy Spring, everyone!

Cinefex 152 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will be roaring its way into your mailbox very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Meet Cinefex at VRLA Expo 2017

The Dreamsmiths Unleashed - Cinefex at VRLA 2017If you’re in Los Angeles this weekend, here’s your chance to meet us in person. Cinefex has a booth at the world’s largest immersive technology expo, VRLA Expo 2017. If you’re in the main hall, drop in and say hello – we’d love to meet you!

We’re also hosting a panel at VRLA at 4:30pm on Saturday, April 15. The moderator is Cinefex’s very own Bernice Howes, and the speakers are Emily Cooper, producer and director at Holor Media, Ben Grossmann, co-founder and CEO of Magnopus, Aruna Inversin, creative director and VFX supervisor at Digital Domain, and Sam Macaroni, director at Thundership.

The title of Saturday’s panel is From VFX to VR: How to Transition. If you’ve picked up a copy of our February 2017 issue, Cinefex 151, you’ll already have a head-start on this hot topic. In our article The Dreamsmiths Unleashed, we spoke with a wide range of VR industry professionals – including Ben and Aruna from our panel – about the business of virtual reality, the state of the art, and the close ties VR has with visual effects.

In the article, Ben Grossmann – a former visual effects supervisor – had this to say about his experience of transitioning from VFX to VR:

“Over the past decade or so, the problems we’ve challenged in visual effects have gotten harder, but we’ve overcome them all … So, our enthusiasm to take storytelling into new areas was starting to run a little bit dry … If we really want to explore ways to make an audience feel more immersed, then we need to move beyond the rectangle.”

Hear our speakers dig deeper into this fascinating subject at our panel on Saturday. You’ll find VRLA Expo 2017 happening at the Los Angeles Convention Center, April 14-15, 2017. For more information, and to buy your pass, visit the VRLA website.

Photograph courtesy of Magnopus.

The VFX of T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting Quad Poster

In 1996, director Danny Boyle tapped into the fashionable ‘Cool Britannia’ movement with Trainspotting, adapted from the novel by Irvine Welsh. With its colorful characters, frank depiction of heroin use, and Ewan McGregor’s unforgettable dive into a public washroom toilet, the black comedy enjoyed both critical acclaim and box office success, and captured the zeitgeist of an era.

When Boyle set out to make a sequel – loosely based on Welsh’s follow-up novel Porno – he turned to long-time collaborators Union VFX to realize some of the new film’s more memorable images. For T2 Trainspotting, a team led by visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne handled over 400 shots, running the gamut from broad fantasy flourishes to the invisible doctoring of the film’s bleak Scottish locations.

“As with the original film,” commented Danny Boyle, “we were faced with the challenge of visually depicting Irvine’s particular style of written fantasy on screen in a way that remains true to the characters and situations depicted in the book, but is consumable by audiences. Having worked with Adam numerous times before, I knew that together we could come up with creative ways to tackle these challenges and tell this story. We’re both really proud of how it’s turned out.”

Watch a breakdown reel of Union VFX’s work on T2 Trainspotting:

In T2 Trainspotting, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) is running a pub in a run-down part of Leith, near Edinburgh. Production shot a suitable building in Glasgow, leaving Union VFX to remove the surrounding architecture and blend in background plates shot separately at Leith docks.

Union VFX altered the environment surrounding Sick Boy's pub. The image on the left shows the original Glasgow plate. To create the image on the right, artists replaced architecture and added photography shot at Leith docks.

Union VFX altered the environment surrounding Sick Boy’s pub. The image on the left shows the original Glasgow plate. To create the image on the right, artists replaced architecture and added photography shot at Leith docks.

“We created environments that enhanced the narrative,” said Adam Gascoyne, “ensuring Sick Boy’s pub was in a virtually derelict setting where almost everything else had been destroyed. The actual pub was near a train line – we moved it closer and created a CG train to travel through frame. The idea was to reflect the status of the characters’ lives visually in their habitats, and Sick Boy’s pub is situated very much at the end of the line.”

Visual effects also enhanced the apartment block home of Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner). Production photographed exteriors in Greendykes, Edinburgh, and interiors on a stage backed by bluescreen. Scheduled for demolition, the building goes through three distinct levels of decay as the story unfolds. “The change is very subtle over the duration of the film,” Gascoyne commented.  “We end the film watching the tower block collapsing, symbolizing Spud moving away from his self-destructive past as a junkie and onto pastures new.”

Youthful characters from the original "Trainspotting" appear projected on the walls of Spud's flat, in this composite shot by Union VFX.

Youthful characters from the original “Trainspotting” appear projected on the walls of Spud’s flat, in this composite shot by Union VFX.

During a flashback sequence, images from the youthful lives of Spud, Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) appear in a railroad warehouse. Union VFX used head replacement techniques to combine footage of the younger actors from the original Trainspotting with live-action shot on location. “We placed the actors in an approximate position in the warehouse,” explained Gascoyne. “Then it was a fairly meticulous comping task, done in Nuke. We aligned the actor performances with the archive footage mostly by eye – we didn’t want to over-complicate the process. The images then appear projected on a wall in Spud’s flat, which allowed us to introduce optical effects and smoke to bed in the footage, with pretty seamless results.”

Renton and Spud flee the scene of the crime in this replay of the opening sequence from "Trainspotting," which visual effects artists enhanced with cartoon faces.

Renton and Spud flee the scene of the crime in this replay of the opening sequence from “Trainspotting,” which visual effects artists enhanced with cartoon faces.

Director Danny Boyle referenced the original film on another occasion, with a replay of its opening sequence in which Renton and Spud flee the scene of their latest shoplifting spree. Visual effects artists tracked the original footage and superimposed cartoon faces inspired by a 2015 advertising campaign for the department store Harvey Nichols.

Union VFX helped Renton and Sick Boy play out their sporting fantasies by transplanting a soccer pitch into a pub interior.

Union VFX helped Renton and Sick Boy play out their sporting fantasies by transplanting a soccer pitch into a pub interior.

“Other effects provide subtle accents to moments in the story,” said Gascoyne. “Like when Spud demonstrates his forgery prowess by scribing signatures in the air with light, and deer gambol across the walls and ceiling. It was really rewarding to see the outcome of that on the screen.”

Spud shows off his forgery skills in this composite shot for which Union VFX animated an airborne light trail.

Spud shows off his forgery skills in this composite shot for which Union VFX animated an airborne light trail.

The ‘trainspotting’ theme continues in a lengthy traveling shot created by Union VFX, in which turned Renton’s railroad-themed bedroom into a seemingly endless tunnel. “We created a set extension so we could pull back at great speed,” said Gascoyne, “like a train departing the station, for about a minute whilst the credits roll at the end of the film.”

Renton's bedroom becomes an endless tunnel, courtesy of a CG set extension.

Renton’s bedroom becomes an endless tunnel, courtesy of a CG set extension.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be part of Danny’s creative team for nearly 17 years,” Gascoyne reflected. “Our work is always collaborative and knowing the creatives involved really helps. This project was particularly creatively liberating given Danny’s history of illustrating Irvine’s stories and characters through fantasy, flashbacks and hallucinations.”

T2 Trainspotting is currently on limited release in US theaters, and on wider release from March 31, 2017.

“T2 Trainspotting” photographs copyright © 2016 by Sony Pictures Releasing. Special thanks to Lucy Cooper.

Cinefex 152 Preview

Cinefex 152 - coming soon

March is here! Which means the April issue of Cinefex is just around the corner. To whet your appetite, here’s a sneak preview of each of the four films we’re covering in Cinefex 152.

Kong: Skull Island

It’s an incredible 84 years since Hollywood’s favorite big ape first hit the screens in Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 film King Kong. In the action-packed Kong: Skull Island, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts transports the giant primate to the 1970s, with visual effects supervisor Jeff White and Industrial Light & Magic serving up a supersized portion of visual effects, supported by Hybride Technologies and Rodeo FX. Production designer Stefan Dechant visualizes the perilous realm of Skull Island, with practical illusions handled by special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus and makeup head Bill Corso.

A Cure for Wellness

In this dark tale about a sinister sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, director Gore Verbinski works with visual effects supervisor Thomas Proctor, special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer and makeup effects supervisor Barrie Gower. Visual effects come courtest of Double Negative, RISE Visual Effects Studios, Lola Visual Effects, One of Us and Prime Focus World.

The Great Wall

Yimou Zhang directs this epic story about a monstrous mystery surrounding the building of the Great Wall of China, with visual effects overseen by Phil Brennan and delivered by Industrial Light & Magic, Base FX, Hybride Technologies, and Animal Logic. Weta Workshop. Quantum Creation FX provided practical and makeup effects, while Halon Entertainment prevised the film’s complex action sequences.


Currently riding high with a score of 93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the latest outing for the X-Men’s Wolverine is directed by James Mangold, with Chas Jarrett supervising visual effects by Soho VFX, Image Engine, Rising Sun Pictures and Lola VFX. Special effects supervisor Garry Elmendorf and makeup head Joel Harlow bring the gritty near-future world to blood-soaked life.

So there you have it. Four big movies, four big articles coming soon. The tough part is choosing which one to read first. So which will it be?

VFX Oscar Win for “The Jungle Book”

Adam Valdez, Robert Legato, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon accept the Oscar® for Achievement in visual effects, for work on “The Jungle Book” during the live ABC Telecast of The 89th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Photo: Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Adam Valdez, Robert Legato, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon accept the Oscar® for Achievement in visual effects, for work on “The Jungle Book” during the live ABC Telecast of The 89th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Photo: Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Walt Disney Pictures’ The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, has won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the 89th Academy Awards, held at the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood & Highland Center on Sunday, February 26, 2017.

Collecting the award were visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, MPC visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez, animation supervisor Andrew R. Jones and Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon.

Working with Disney senior vice president of visual effects production Dave Teritero, Legato developed the concept of shooting a live performer (Neel Sethi) as Mowgli and immersing him alongside animated creatures into a digital jungle environment.

In an interview for Cinefex 147, Legato remarked:

“We have tools now to do pretty much anything a filmmaker can imagine. But those tools aren’t always user-friendly … Jon [Favreau] had a tremendous interest in technique, but I knew from his background as a performer that he was used to making decisions more as a live, chemical reaction. I wanted to provide him with tools that felt analog, and that were as intuitive as they could be.”

During a preshoot, Digital Domain explored the interaction between the real and virtual realms. On set, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created animal puppets for use on a bluescreen set and special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm rigged a range of practical gags. A team including Animatrik and Magnopus configured the motion capture system and streamlined the complex virtual production process.

 As lead VFX studio, MPC artists blended Mowgli (Neel Sethi) into a photoreal digital jungle populated by 54 species of animals including lead characters Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan. Photo: MPC.

As lead VFX studio, MPC artists blended Mowgli (Neel Sethi) into a photoreal digital jungle populated by 54 species of animals including lead characters Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan. Photo: MPC.

Leading the visual effects drive, MPC undertook three jungle expeditions before constructing a digital environment covering around 30 square kilometers, populated with intricately detailed flora and fauna including such classic characters as Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Baloo (Bill Murray) and the dreaded Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Weta Digital entered the fray for a sequence set in the temple stronghold of the treacherous Gigantopithecus, King Louie (Christopher Walken).

Commenting on the Oscar win, MPC visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez said:

“This is a very proud day for me and my crew at MPC. I speak for everyone who was lucky enough to work with Jon Favreau and the great team at Disney when I say how grateful we are for this honor from the Academy. Taking part in making a great film is a rare gift. Being recognized for our craft is deeply gratifying.”

Cinefex 147 Cover - The Jungle BookRead our in-depth story on the visual effects and virtual production of The Jungle Book in Cinefex 147.

Now Showing – Cinefex 151

Cinefex 151 featuring "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Rebellions may be built on hope, but the latest issue of Cinefex is built on five massive articles exploring the state of the art in visual effects and virtual reality.

First up in Cinefex 151 is Joe Fordham’s in-depth story on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, featuring a wealth of behind-the-scenes details and interviews with director Gareth Edwards and the visual effects team supervised by Industrial Light & Magic’s John Knoll. Add to that our articles on Westworld, A Monster Calls and Passengers – plus a special look at the VR industry – and we think you’ll agree that Cinefex 151 is one heck of a way to start 2017!

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with more details about our February 2017 edition:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

I am not the first – or even the 1000th – to observe that some of the most impressive ‘film’ work is now being done for television. (I agree with Stephen King’s assertion that Breaking Bad was the finest piece of fiction ever broadcast, and I can think of only a few films of the past two decades that come close to rivaling it.)

No surprise, then, that Cinefex has started to look toward television for content. We did a piece on Game of Thrones a couple of years ago, and hope to do another when the series comes to an end. And our new issue Cinefex 151 has a story about HBO’s Westworld. What I found most fun about covering this high-buzz series was creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s commitment to live, in-camera, old-school effects.

The issue also features Joe Fordham’s coverage of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which includes particularly personal and interesting insights from John Knoll), and A Monster Calls, a smaller cinematic offering that won a lot of hearts in the movie theaters.

And now for something completely different – Graham Edwards’ exploration of virtual reality and its intersection with filmmaking. This is our first virtual reality story, but given where the technology is going, it is probably not our last. Stay tuned.

We round out the issue with my article on Passengers, which includes a lot of commentary from production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, along with visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby and others.

You’ve counted correctly – five articles in this issue, rather than our customary four, a trend we’re hoping to continue. In an age when candy bars and boxes of cereal are shrinking, giving you less for your money, Cinefex is aiming to give you more!

Cinefex 151 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy should emerge from hyperspace into your galaxy very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

What’s New in VFX?

What's New in VFX?

They say there’s nothing new under the sun. It isn’t true, of course – just ask a crowd of visual effects professionals how their tools and methods have changed recently and they’ll soon tell you how fast things are developing in the field.

So that’s precisely what we did. In one of our regular straw polls, we asked a range of people from the technical and creative sides of the industry this simple question:

What’s New in Visual Effects?

To find out what our contributors had to say, read on …

The Rise of the Machines

Visual effects have contributed to countless sci-fi films about the rise of the machine, from The Terminator to The Matrix and beyond. Now it seems life is imitating art, as automation begins to make its presence felt in the world of movie magic.

The Matrix

“In recent years, machine learning algorithms have already been surprising visual effects practitioners with the quality of the image results. The barriers have been practicalities of scale and control. The algo guesses correctly remarkably well if you can build a huge dataset and train it cleverly, but the sacrifice is artist control. These are black boxes, churning out the trained result, and they can’t be reasoned with. I think the forthcoming generation of algos will focus not on jumping directly to a result, but rather on building control assets along the way to enable artists to choreograph the performance. Development we’re seeing supports this as the way forward – producing an early version very quickly, with tweakable controls if it’s not exactly what you wanted off the bat. Early results are exciting.”
Rajat Roy, global technical supervisor, Prime Focus World

“We’re currently doing a lot of research on how to use machine learning to accelerate processes that take a long time to calculate, such as simulations, rendering and so on. We’re still experimenting, and have not yet applied it in production, but our goal is to get to a stage where it can be applicable to our pipeline. I think machine learning will truly revolutionize the way we work in the future.”
Mathieu Leclaire, Head of R&D, Hybride Technologies

One clever algorithm that’s caught the eye of artists recently is the Smart Vector toolset in The Foundry Nuke. Working on just a single frame, artists isolate part of a moving object with motion vectors. The Smart Vector process then automatically propagates that work throughout the rest of the sequence.

“One of the best tools that appeared these last few months is the new Smart Vector feature in Nuke 10. It has saved us an incredible amount of time and resources in production and allowed us to work on dozens of tricky shots without having to rely extensively on matchmove geometry or camera tracking.”
Bruno Leveque, Environment TD, Image Engine

“In the latest version of Nuke 10, Smart Vectors can be generated which analyze the pixel movement in the shot. This has meant the matte painting team has been able to pick up shots which would normally go to effects – blood and wound work on Logan, for example. Not only that, but for these shots we also don’t require a camera, as everything is frame-related. No distortion, no camera, no match move. No fuss!”
Conrad Allan, Matte Painter, Image Engine

Visual effects has always relied on accurate keying – the separation of a foreground element from a background. A recent paper by Yagiz Aksoy, Tunç Ozan Aydin, Marc Pollefeys and Aljosa Smoliç of ETH Zürich and Disney Research Zürich describes a ‘color unmixing’ algorithm that addresses what the authors describe as ‘difficulties dealing with image regions where the colors of multiple objects mix, either due to motion blur, intricate object boundaries or color spill from greenscreen.’

“Keying is one of the oldest tricks in the business and not much has changed since the early days, so this paper from Disney may be a game-changer. Allowing high quality mattes to be extracted with very fast turnaround and virtually no artist time is an important milestone in our industry. No matter how good the CG you put in your shots, if it’s ruined by edge issue it will take the viewer out of the story.”
Lucien Fostier, compositing TD, Image Engine

Heads in the Cloud

Nowadays we can store almost anything in the cloud – and frequently do, often without even realizing it. The cloud storage challenges for visual effects companies – not least huge file sizes and the need for high security – are considerable. But one by one they are being overcome.

“Expansion into the cloud looks to grow this year, with more visual effects providers adopting a global presence and the security implications having undergone further discussion with the major film studios. Initially the demand will be for extra on-demand computing resource, but the appeal of cloud storage is hard to ignore. This will inspire a lot of investment and brainstorming into pipeline design or redesign that model the cost of data transfers in sophisticated ways.”
Rob Pieke, Head of Software, MPC

Off-site capabilites open up new possibilities for everyone involved in visual effects, not least smaller companies eager to make the most of the current boom in television drama, and the associated requirement for high quality visual effects.

“For the past couple of years there has been much talk of mainstream VR, 6K, on-demand offsite resources – I’m not sure where stereo went – but technology aside, the growth of quality television drama has had a massive impact on the visual effects industry, and on the industry as a whole. The ambition and scale of shows for HBO, Netflix, Amazon and others has led to some interesting co-productions. and channels in the UK are upping their game – it’s very busy out there. On these larger projects, the availability of on-demand rendering and storage can really help the smaller companies compete with the bigger houses.”
Rob Harvey, owner/creative director, Lola Post Production Ltd

Gut Level

Once upon a time, an animated CG character was little more than a lump of virtual clay hanging off a few digital bones. These days, characters boast complex internal structures, with effects simulations driving nested layers of CG flesh to flex and jiggle just like real anatomy. Ziva Dynamics’ ZIVA VFX is a plugin for Autodesk Maya that takes things a stage further.

“Most character tools for visual effects focus on what the outside of an object looks like. Ziva uses FEM (Finite Element Method) which accounts for the various layers of bone, fat, skin, and muscle inside a character. Until recently, tools that included a complete interior simulation were in the realm of automobile and aerospace companies. That technology is now finding its way into the fast-paced visual effects pipeline.”
Michael Levine, senior creature effects TD, Image Engine

Changing the Game

The line between the film and gaming industries continues to blur, with games beginning to achieve near-cinematic levels of fidelity, and film adaptations of popular games attracting enormous budgets and top-drawer filmmakers. As a discipline that readily spans both areas of entertainment, visual effects is eager to keep its feet in both camps.

“The convergence of games and visual effects has been slowly taking place for many years, but this year it feels like it’s reached a turning point, with the visual effects industry reaching for a lot of technology previously only used by games. This has largely been driven by the huge growth of demand for ‘game-like’ VR experiences – often to complement major film releases – but it has also highlighted the rich authoring tools that many visual effects productions could benefit from.”
Rob Pieke, head of software, MPC

Gaming engines traditionally rely on powerful GPUs – graphics processing units – to render fast-moving imagery in real time. Now, the speed benefit of GPU hardware is making its presence felt in the world of cinema visual effects.

“GPU accelerated rendering is finally production ready. We have finished numerous projects over the last year and all of them utilized the GPU for final image rendering. Until now, we have found that GPU renderers had a hardware render signature or feel to them. Recent advances now offer a solution that rivals software quality renderers while maintaining the hardware speed advantage. We are seeing at least three or four times speed increases which allows for more iterations, in turn giving us better images, happier clients and happier artists. The speed, combined with new in-house techniques allow us to avoid the need to compromise on scene complexity. This freedom convinced the studio to fully integrate GPU throughout its entire pipeline for the upcoming feature film Colossal, from assets to simulation to final comp. We also recently completed a sequence for Journey To The West 2 which required a large creature simulation – previously, we would have been concerned that it would be impossible due to the traditional hardware limitations of previous GPU renderers, but issues like texture size limits are not a concern any more.”
Will Garrett, VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

Casting the Net Wide

As many companies are discovering, visual effects has applications beyond just film and gaming. From virtual reality to art installations to theme parks and beyond, artists are constantly finding new ways to explore the boundaries of the business.

"Artes Mundi" image courtesy of the artist, Bedwyr Williams, Limoncello Gallery, and, Bait Studio.

“Artes Mundi” image courtesy of the artist, Bedwyr Williams, Limoncello Gallery, and, Bait Studio.

“Using visual effects outside of the norm has been something interesting for us in the past twelve months. Alongside our TV, film and advertising work we’ve taken on some contemporary arts projects which show how visual effects can be used in any visual medium. We worked on content for Cardiff Contemporary Visual Arts Festival, creating a fake meteor landing for Mark James Studio, which went viral. We also created a 4K, 20-minute matte painting for artist Bedwyr Williams as part of the Artes Mundi prize exhibition. It’s been good to look sideways at other types of content that VFX can play a key role in.”
Pete Rogers, visual effects producer, Bait Studio

“What makes the Artes Mundi project different to the typical type of visual effects work is that it was made to be viewed and experienced rather than just being part of a larger narrative. This kind of work is something that more and more visual effects studios are taking on with the recent developments in VR technology. It’s about creating an immersive environment where the viewer has more control.”
Llyr Williams, lead visual effects artist, Bait Studio

Dream of Anhui

“Dream of Anhui” image courtesy of Tippett Studio.

“In the past few years we’ve seen a boom in new forms of media available for public consumption. In 2016, we worked on a huge 6K theme park ride called Dream of Anhui, completely in CG and rendered in Clarisse, that we directed and produced from start to finish. The finished renders had over 1,000 assets and some shots contained well over a trillion polygons, which really shows how things are changing to make incredible things possible. We even worked with the motion control company to sync our digital cameras to the movement of the seats.”
Niketa Roman, PR manager, Tippett Studio

“As we’ve branched into large scale environments – specifically for high resolution theme park rides – we’ve had to extensively invest in our production pipeline. Not only are we creating orders of magnitude more assets, we’re having to render more and more of them in a single pass at higher resolutions. A combination of new asset management systems, and the introduction of Clarisse has given us a workflow that scales above what would have been possible even a couple of years ago. On the capture front, we’re now using drones and photogrametry to do large surveys of outdoor spaces – this has given us accuracy and information about locations which traditional photo scouts lacked. In terms of visualization, we aren’t just making images for flat screens. From 180 degree domes to bespoke horseshoe shaped screens, we use VR headsets to preview content and make editorial decisions.”
Alex Hessler, CG supervisor, Tippett Studio

Powering Up

Moore’s Law – the observation that computing power doubles roughly every two years – has recently been called into question. However, one thing remains certain – the speed and power of computers will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. While this steady advance can only benefit professionals working in the visual effects industry, one truth remains the same – a computer is only as powerful as the human being who uses it.

“For me, instead of using the word ‘new’ I prefer to summarize everything in power and speed – those are the keys. When I started with 3D software back in 1995 or 1996, to render a 320-pixel image with just a few geos was a nightmare. Nowadays I can create entire worlds, scatter millions of objects, render huge images with photorealistic quality, do photogrammetry with my phone, sculpt billions of polygons. So we have speed and power, but for sure there’s something that is not new – the magic behind this.”
Pablo Del Molino Izquierdo, matte painter, Image Engine

Please Can We Have …?

Visual effects technology and techniques may keep progressing, but there’s always room for more innovation. What better way to end this roundup than with a request for what may turn out to be next year’s “what’s new in visual effects?”

“There’s one thing that does need inventing – a harness for wire work that doesn’t make the actor resemble a bluebottle in spider’s web. Invisible wires? Opposing magnets? A low-powered jet pack? Come on, guys – put those VR headsets down and do something useful. Oh, and a self-matting camera please. It’s the 21st century and we’re still drawing around things!”
Rob Harvey, owner/creative director, Lola Post Production Ltd

Thanks to all the visual effects professionals who contributed to this article, from the following companies:

Related articles:

Special thanks to Jake Basford, Anne Tremblay, Sepi Motamedi, Che Spencer, Jonny Vale, Tony Bradley, Niketa Roman and Alexandra Coxon. “The Matrix” photograph copyright © by Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow Pictures.