Not so long ago, visual effects were an isolated corner of post-production, a “black-box” process headed by amiable engineers who kept largely to themselves.
Nowadays, though, the vfx supervisor of an effects-heavy tentpole is part of pre-production, shooting and post. He or she starts on the film before the editor and continues after the writers and d.p. have moved on.
That has turned the job into a kind of uber-technician-diplomat whose job touches all departments, as Sam Raimi was somewhat shocked to discover when he started work on the “Spider-Man” franchise.
“Here was a department that usually would provide a specialty part of a single shot,” he says. “But now this department would provide not only the main character, which is outrageously different, but entire environments. Suddenly they have the power and the responsibility of the costume department, the acting department, and they work immediately with the directors, versus just the editors.
“Then, in addition, because they create the environment, they now are the people to consult with about what the set is going to look like, and how the set will be designed and where the action will take place and the feel of the film.”
That hasn’t been an entirely comfortable transition for other department heads, who are used to supervising their work directly. After all, it will have their name on it.
“Spider-Man 3” vfx supervisor Scott Stokdyk calls those newly overlapping responsibilities “a huge issue” on sets.
“The creative guidelines are laid out by the heads of departments while you’re shooting. The cinematographer lights a set that’s designed by the production designer and that creates the look for a sequence. The visual effects match what’s established, which is less of a creative kind of task and more of an execution task.
“Where it gets tricky is there’s a fine line between matching and creating something that’s similar to the design, where you have to interpret the work of the cinematographer and production designer, and then you have things that are created only on the computer.”
Casting, the digital way
On a film with important digital characters, the vfx department even contributes actors. This can be achieved, for instance, by tweaking motion capture data as was done to animate Davy Jones in the second and third installments of “Pirates of the Caribbean”; by animating characters that must match live-action actors, as in “Spider-Man 3”; or by creating fully animated performances, such as the daemons in “The Golden Compass.”
Chris Weitz, writer-director of “The Golden Compass,” had never done a visual effects film before. He relied on his supervisor, Michael Fink, to give the animal daemons a slightly human, slightly magical quality that reflects their supernatural abilities, and to give them a convincing intelligence as they interact with real thesps.
He sympathizes with Fink as “a department head with the pressure of a big departmental budget on his back, and the pressure of explaining to people who aren’t familiar with what he does how things get done.”
Vfx have become less mysterious to other designers as they have become familiar with Adobe Photoshop software, with its vfx-like tools. But everyone is still adjusting to this new world.
Joe Letteri of Weta Digital, vfx supervisor on new release “The Water Horse,” remembers a “King Kong” meeting where someone passed photos of period New Yorkers to the costume designer.
“I said I need a copy of that,” says Letteri, “and they said, ‘What, are you designing costumes now? Oh, I guess you are.’ Because I was going to do the digital doubles.”
Vfx supervisors aren’t just passive observers on the set, either. On “Transformers,” Scott Farrar says he worked every day on set, much like a d.p., consulting with helmer Michael Bay and the camera operators. “I’m sort of an adviser and a visual referee,” says Farrar. “Sometimes when something isn’t working at all, I have to speak up and say, ‘Let’s try something else.'”
This explosion of power for the vfx supervisor has its roots in a more basic change, says Bay.
“Visual effects have become a serious way of creating whatever you can imagine,” he says. “Before, they used to be a little thing where we can fix this and fix that. Now we can change everything. Whatever your palette, whatever you conceive in your mind, you can envision and make. That’s how powerful it’s become.”
As Spidey fans well know, with great power comes great responsibility. Yet even character-oriented helmers like Weitz are discovering that their vfx teams can handle that responsibility.
“(The CG artists) really are creative types and artists just as much as anyone else working on the movie,” says Weitz. “They’re just as concerned with the look of the film as anybody else. They’re not just guys who are concerned with robots and want to have things blow up.”