VFX: keeping the illusion

Harry Potter: vfxVFX Houses may have tighter budgets, but their work has to be more integrated and refined than ever, sue to increased client and audience expectation. Matthew Griffin reports.

From the early days of the moving image, writers directors and studios have continued to push the boundaries of storytelling. From painted backdrops to green screens, or animatronics to complex CGI, filmmakers are always on the search for the next technology that can fulfill their vision. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film, television or TV projects, the intention of the director isn’t always just point and shoot; their creative ideas, in order to be translated To the screen, need to be in the language of visual effects.

This is where VFX houses step in. 2D and 3D artists work to make fantasy a reality. Whether a dedicated VFX studio or an all fronts post-house fits the bill, the outcome needs to be the same. A flawless representation of the creator’s intent. One way this can be achieved is early collaboration with the production and the people who make it possible. Executive producer at Rising Sun Pictures, James Whitlam agrees.

“It’s important to be first and foremost collaborators. Our clients define a brief and we work with them to create a result that exceeds their initial expectations,” he said. “It must be done from the very start of a shot or sequence’s life, with the team of conceptual artists defining the creative scope of the work sometimes even before filming begins. This has been an integral part of our ongoing relationship with the Harry Potter team (films 4-7) in London.”

Whether it is because of creative or economic motives, the early collaboration of ideas by the production and those helping to make those ideas a reality is an integral part of creating interesting and successful entertainment, often problem-solving as a creative team to offer an alternative perspective. Simon Rosenthal, general manager of Iloura VFX agrees.

“We are being brought in to projects prior to production to work with directors, studios and VFX supervisors to problem-solve on both a creative and technical level. For example, the increased reliance on pre-visualisation work provides an opportunity to work closely with directors and explore a multitude of possibilities. This can and should be a very collaborative and creative process.”


We are living in an incredibly quickly evolving technological age. It’s a time when storytelling is supplemented with amazing visualisation, and whether it is on the big or small screen, in video games or any other form of media, VFX are increasingly present and even necessary.

John Lee, president and founder of Cutting Edge, believes a diverse portfolio of work can keep the creativity flowing. His team is currently working on the home grown World War I film Beneath Hill 60, doing CGI enhancement and creating a large explosion for the final part of the film; they’re also wrapping work on the CGI title character for Beauty and the Beast, an American World Pictures telemovie for the Sci-Fi Channel in the US.

“Our VFX team is getting a chance to work on a wide range of projects, which is always creatively stimulating,” said Lee.

New technologies have expanded this field to gigantic proportions. Anything is possible, so the question isn’t ‘can we do this?’, but rather ‘should we do it?’ There’s a fine line between what is real and what is not, and modern day films often grapple with this concept. Visual effects should be used to help tell a story, help build characters and convey meaning, but they shouldn’t be the story. When is too much VFX too much? Genre and intent are key to this balance.

Audiences look at what is being told. Horror film moviegoers have an expectation of copious amounts of gore and violence. Action films buffs will undoubtedly expect explosions. These have become conventions of storytelling and the advancement of visual effects only highlights these elements and elevates them to integral parts of the experience. Countless Hollywood films feature a heavy use of visual effects – many of them created by a number of different companies in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and other post-production destinations. Films such as Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and the reboot of Star Trek both relied heavily on VFX to help tell their stories, to two very different reactions from the audience and critics. Whitlam of Rising Sun believes that VFX are a welcome addition to the escapism that cinema can provide, as long as the story is well told.

“But if a story is weak, filmmakers are usually blamed for relying too heavily on VFX to draw a crowd. What is surprising is that you rarely hear that the visual effects let a story down, which is a telling sign of the maturity and skill of the industry at large,” he explained.

From films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator Salvation, work doesn’t seem to have slowed for Rising Sun Pictures, now working on the final two entries of the Warner mega-franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The company survived the Wolverine leak which spread throughout the Internet, when RSP was quickly made the scapegoat by some misinformed media outlets.

“It was a first hand experience of how the internet has turned journalism into a cut and paste exercise,” complained Whitlam. “Thankfully anyone who knows anything about the studio filmmaking process saw straight through the implausible scenario that a visual effect vendor could be in possession of an entire cut of the film. It simply never happens.”


The economic climate has shifted. Even those somewhat unaffected by it have re-evaluated what is important to their business and how things run. The entertainment industry has had its fair share of changes and the Australian market has definitely felt the difference. According to Jason Bath, executive producer and founder of Fuel VFX, quality must be maintained, crisis or no crisis.

“We have to find ways to maintain standards with shrinking budgets… What’s been good in our experience is that everyone from client down has worked together to find good solutions.

“The film studios do a lot of budget modeling when deciding where to base a film, so incentives help regardless of the economic environment… although ours become less effective once the dollar breaks the U$0.80 cents mark. International competition is always tough for film work and will continue to be regardless of where vendors are based.”

That is why promotion is essential to keep Australia front of mind as a VFX destination. With government support helping to solidify the Australian VFX reputation of quality and cost effectiveness, Ausfilm works on securing overseas work to help the local industry grow. Having industry figures such as Deluxe Australia MD Alaric McAusland as Ausfilm deputy chair and RSP’s Tony Clark also sitting on the board, the relationship between industry, government and how both can benefit is a very real goal. According to Whitlam, Ausfilm played “a large part” in securing the current federal rebate structure and have been a great advocate for bringing work to Australia.

“They maintain regular contact with US studios and provide valuable intelligence on what’s coming, he said.


The Australian division of the Visual Effects Society (VES), launched in 2008, organises events and screenings to promote VFX to industry professionals, VES has representatives in 17 countries and thousands of members all working towards the same goal, to enrich and educate. Taking steps into new and advancing directions, VES is also bringing digital video content to its members, to showcase the innovative work of their peers and inspire further advances.

Innovation is critical for the industry to evolve. And while different technological tools are required for different purposes, the intention of the creator is unwavering: to bring to life ideas otherwise impossible.

This same intent is held by the creators of the software packages themselves, as Marc Petit, senior vice president of the media and entertainment division at Austodesk explains.

“Our hope is to take the drudgery out of the process, and harness the power of hardware and multiple computing models to make intuitive, immersive, interactive tools that allow artists to express their creativity.”

As 3D picks up momentum once again, and with companies such as Autodesk, Adobe and Da Vinci now supplying a solution for 3D stereoscopic colour grading and compositing, we may see more and more 3D features in the works. And as the technologies become more sophisticated, the integration of it will become more seamless, heightening the story rather than overshadowing it. Bath, of Fuel VFX, comments.

“Creating films for 3D stereoscopic release is probably the main technological shift evolving at the moment. But there’s also been interesting advancements in liquid simulations and CG facial work (a la Benjamin Button). Such developments are actually about being able to tell stories in different ways, increase engagement of the audience.”

Solutions created specifically for the in-house team are also important to maintain a stable and constant reliable workflow to ensure a high standard of output. And as software advances, each team of each VFX or post-production house has to look at what best serves their needs, as Tony Cole, compositing supervisor and D.I. technical director at The Lab, explains.

“Software is continually being developed. Most 2D visual effects for the feature film market are being realised on desktop solutions. Many 3D artists also pre-comp using Nuke and pass on their setups to compositors making it a more collaborative workflow. The cost of desktop compositing makes them a viable alternative, however Flame, Inferno and Smoke are still a one-stop shop solution for TVCs and are the benchmark for interactivity.”

VFX is an important element in filmmaking, creating something new in an otherwise ‘normal’ reality, but we are now seeing a shift to the other side: filmic qualities in completely computer-generated worlds, and a convergence of film and videogame storytelling –where the skills of VFX specialists is crucial – is inevitable.

The trend is becoming evident, with the creation of previously unthinkable alliances and mergers. Earlier this year, Hybride Technologies, a Montreal based Visual Effects studio whose recent credits include 300 and Sin City, was acquired by Ubisoft, a large global producer, publisher and distributor of video games and interactive entertainment.

This merger is a telling sign that media forms are converging and digital entertainment is the direction the industry is headed. A short film series entitled Assassin’s Creed II: Lineage will be released at the end of the year to coincide with the video game Assassin’s Creed II. And while the Ubisoft employs Hybride to create a much more cinematic experience for the game player in the videogame environment, the story is further explored in the films giving the player a better insight into storyline and characters.

With each passing year, the software, hardware and people who use it, evolve and as 3D, CGI and other techniques are mastered, the seamless integration of these elements become more natural and organic. Conventions of one form of media are beginning to bleed into one another, as film, television and interactivity combine. As audiences view this as commonplace, the lines of fantasy and reality are blurred, and visuals become the catalyst for the story and vice versa.

Those with the skills to create these visions will be continually in high demand. ■


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