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Training your f/x eye Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

Some inside the Acad's vfx branch once worried that if there were five visual effects nominees, the general membership would vote the Oscar to "the wrong movie." That argument will be tested this year, as there are five vfx nominees for the first time. So for those who are a lot more comfortable sizing up a star turn or a screenplay, Variety asked supervisors from each of the five nominated pics how they judge the quality of vfx. REALISM Paradoxically, the less real an object is, the easier it is to make it "realistic." No one's ever seen a flying dragon; but everyone's seen trees and hills and buildings, and can tell when they look wrong. Yet when they look right, it's hard to tell they're vfx at all. "It's almost the curse of good visual effects," says Tim Burke, vfx supervisor on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." "If we've done our job very, very well, the audience won't be able to appreciate what we've done. That makes it difficult to judge." In the climactic battle of "Deathly Hallows," for example, it's tempting to focus on the magic elements and miss the fact the sets and locations are mostly virtual. "It's so photographically real, people are just going to think we just went to a location and there was a real castle," Burke says. "Of course none of those things existed. The whole thing was shot on the backlot of Leavesden studios." SEAMLESSNESS "Real Steel" vfx supervisor Erik Nash says: "One thing I look for when I watch a big visual-effects movie is how consistent is the work from beginning to end. You can build up a lot of great work, scene after scene, shot after shot, but when a visual effect falls flat, or doesn't ring true to the tone and the overall look, it takes me out of the movie." A vfx picture, then, is arguably only as good as its weakest shot. In "Real Steel," for example, Nash's team worked hard to blend shots with animatronic and CG robots. "We should shoot reference and then render and composite our CG version right next to it, in all different environments," Nash says. "Until we couldn't tell the difference, we knew our job wasn't done." DIFFICULTY Most voters would probably agree great work on a hard task ought to count for more than equally great work on an easier task. But how to judge difficulty? "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" animation supervisor Scott Benza observes one thing to look for is destruction. "Although Michael (Bay) was given unprecedented access in Chicago," says Benza, "he didn't have permission to do any physical damage to the city. And the quantity of the damage being done is directly related to how hard that is to achieve." So the wreckage is f/x, be they practical or digital. In the sequence where a glass skyscraper is broken in half, note that the glass is all reflective, so all those reflections have to be rendered too. That makes the job very, very difficult. PERFORMANCE "Transformers" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" both rely on CG-animated characters as major actors that must carry entire scenes. "The goal as with any actor is to have them be something the audience wants to engage with and wants to watch," says "Apes" vfx supervisor Joe Letteri. Letteri and Benza both tend to point to quiet, subtle moments that deliver a lot of emotional impact through performance. Caesar, the CG simian played by Andy Serkis with the help of performance-capture technology, goes through a "growing-up story," notes Letteri. "He's forced to be away from his family and find his own path. Everyone in the audience can relate to some aspect of that." ARTISTRY Non-pros think of vfx as a technical craft, but nowadays it's rare for one company or another to have much of a technical edge. "If you can make water or fire, that's no longer the achievement," says "Hugo's" vfx supervisor Rob Legato. "It's how well does it work, how does it help you advance the story." He adds, "You're judging the artistic merits of the films in every other category. And now I would love for people to judge visual effects the same way." He is proud of the fact that the compositions and shot designs in "Hugo" aren't compromised for visual effects. "If we had all the money and the world and we were David Lean, we would probably shoot it the same way."

Legend3D Honored for Industry Excellence and Technology Innovation on National and Local Levels

SAN DIEGO - (BUSINESS WIRE) - May 23, 2011 - Legend3D, Inc., the leading innovator in 2-D to 3-D conversion technology, today announced the company and its team are finalists for a trio of awards- Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year(r) 2011 San Diego Award, The 2011 American Business Awards SM, and San Diego Business Journal's Information Technology Executive Of The Year Awards. It was also announced today that two of Legend3D's seasoned employees have been appointed to the Vision Committee for The Visual Effects Society (VES), a professional society dedicated to advancing the arts, sciences, and applications of visual effects worldwide. These honors are a testament to Legend3D's technology excellence and extraordinary success in the entertainment industry, and its profound impact on national and local business communities. Recently, the market for 3-D conversion and content experienced rapid growth and Legend3D's work played a critical role meeting the industry's high demand for 3-D content. Over the past few years, Legend3D has significantly grown its team of skilled artists and stereographers around the world to support its dedication to seamlessly complementing the storytelling process through 3-D conversion. "Our management team and artistic staff are proud to be identified as visionary leaders with such a prestigious lineup of honors," said Dr. Barry Sandrew, founder and COO/CTO of Legend3D. "To be recognized for our exceptional technical expertise fuels our longstanding commitment and passion to deliver the highest quality 3-D conversion product possible." Legend3D's recent honors include: Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 San Diego Award Dr. Sandrew, an internationally recognized visual effects pioneer and digital imaging expert with 24 years of feature film and TV experience, is a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 San Diego Award. Now entering its 25th year, the award recognizes entrepreneurs whose ingenuity, hard work and perseverance have created and sustained successful, growing business ventures. A panel of independent judges selected Dr. Sandrew as a finalist from hundreds of nominations. Award winners will be announced at a special gala event on June 16, at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla in San Diego, Calif. The 2011 American Business Awards Paying tribute to its proprietary 2-D to 3-D conversion technology, Legend3D earned finalist standing as one of the most innovative companies of the year-in the computer software category for The 2011 American Business Awards. As part of the coveted Stevie(r) Awards, The American Business Awards are the nation's premier business awards program. Nominations for this year attracted more than 2,800 submissions from organizations of all sizes and in virtually every industry for consideration in more than 40 categories. Stevie Award winners will be announced during the annual gala on June 20 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City. San Diego Business Journal's Information Technology Executive Awards Anthony Lopez, director of information technology for Legend3D, secured a spot among finalists for the San Diego Business Journal's annual Information Technology Executive Awards. Now entering its fourth year, the awards recognize the most outstanding IT executives working in San Diego. Lopez has been a key innovator and driving force in building Legend3D's IT staff and helping the company successfully meet the increasing demand from studios. The VES Vision Committee The prestigious VES appointed Legend3D's Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Squires to its Vision Committee and Senior Visual Effects Producer Toni Pace Carstensen as Chair of the Committee. The VES is the entertainment industry's only official organization representing the extended community of visual effects practitioners, and its Vision Committee is committed to exploring artistic, technical and business frontiers to find creative and commercial opportunities for VES members in the evolving future of entertainment and beyond. Additionally, Carstensen and Squires both serve on the organization's Board of Directors, applying their artistic and technical expertise as well as their vast industry experience to enrich and educate its members.

Riding the CG Wave

One of the most challenging assignments in visual effects is simulating photoreal CG water on a large scale. It was only two years ago that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards to the software brainiacs behind water simulation, and the best-known uses of this technology have been in fantastical films such as 2012, Poseidon, and Pirates of the Caribbean (read more about the water simulation technology). So it was notable to see water simulation playing a pivotal part in Warner Bros.' Hereafter by Clint Eastwood, a director hardly known for cutting-edge fantasy effects. Yet when Eastwood read Peter Morgan's script for Hereafter, he knew he would need to simulate a terrifying tsunami in order to propel this tale. When Eastwood sent the script to Michael Owens, a former ILMer who's been his visual effects supervisor for the past decade, his message was, "Let me know what you think." Owens had overseen the digital crowds for Eastwood's Invictus and flotillas of warships for Flags of Our Fathers, but this challenge involved a level of complexity that they'd not tackled before. Hereafter, their ninth collaboration, would require what Owens calls "platformed" effects-effects that are meant to be noticed. "This was a more platformed thing because everyone knows we didn't have a tsunami on set." Creating a terrifying flood that sweeps away a main character was crucial, especially since it comprises the first 9 minutes of the film. Actress Cécile De France, who stars in Hereafter alongside Matt Damon, is walking through a beachside village when the tsunami hits. Her experience of drowning, glimpsing a "herafter," and then being revived profoundly affects what happens next. Owens replied to Eastwood's query by saying, "'We'll use a location for the street scene, but quite frankly I think everything else will be virtual.' Clint understood and agreed," he says. Owens said that they would need to storyboard and possibly previsualize the tsunami so that they'd know to approach it. "Clint never storyboards sequences himself, but he's always been very respectful when I've requested it because I only do it when it's really, really necessary. For this film, it really helped him to solidify in his mind the visual of the script. Then he lets go of it and goes off and shoots." The prolific Eastwood was already in England shooting Hereafter while Owens was completing the post effects on Invictus, so the overlap was intense. In designing the tsunami sequence, Owens scoured footage of the 2004 Asian tsunami, and used some shots of it as placeholder images as the sequence design took shape. He hired visual effects art director Peter Rubin to draw the boards, and began interviewing facilities to handle the CG water simulation. But most pressing of all was preparing to photograph De France in the water tank at Pinewood Studios while Eastwood was still shooting in England. Owens recalls Eastwood saying, "'Don't worry; if we make a mistake we can always come back. But let's see if we can do it.' So I put together a whole shoot with the tank," he says. Since Owens was still in North America finishing Invictus, to prep the shoot in London he hired Scott Squires, an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor and a fellow alum from ILM. Because the lighting was tricky, they used cineSync to conference with Hereafter DP Tom Stern and go over the storyboards. "Then I flew over a couple of days before the tank shoot and we shot it on the production's last day in London," Owens says. "We got a great deal of footage of Cécile in that water environment and wound up using most of it." The only other real footage in the entire tsunami sequence was shot near the ocean in Maui, which was dressed to look as much like an exotic village as possible. "The only footage we planned to shoot for plates was Cécile walking up the street," Owens explains. "As soon as she gets hit by the wave, that's the end of the plate. But once we got to Maui, Clint had this other notion. He had seen all the footage and thought it was very good, but there was something not quite organic enough. When you have a bunch of guys with paddles disrupting the water during a tank shoot, it isn't a natural environment for an actress to be in. So when we were in Maui, Clint said, 'What if we took her into the surf and see what we get?' "So we photographed her in this surface water. That day, there were lots of undulating swells, and you could see her absorbing the environment." That footage, combined with the tank footage from Pinewood, became the only physically captured water shots in Hereafter. The rest of the tsunami sequence-comprising about 100 shots in total-was purely digital. For this, Owens hired Scanline LA, a three-year old production offshoot of the German company that had won a Sci-Tech Award for its Flowline simulation software. The company had created floodwaters for 2012 and the liquid battlefield for 300. Supervising Scanline's work on Hereafter would be Sci-Tech Award recipient Stephan Trojansky, along with Bryan Grill. Owens worked with them to develop the storyboards into a full-fledged previz. Throughout the process, Owens knew that he shouldn't get to attached to his design for such a complex sequence. "Clint values previz a great deal, and he wanted the crew to look at it so everyone understood what we're doing," he says. "His method is to study it and then completely shoot from the hip. So even though Clint thought the previz was great, we didn't actually shoot it. After we shot everything, I re-edited it to make all the ends meet. Very few filmmakers allow themselves to do that. It's a little less polished-on purpose-and I think that adds more believability to the visual effects in a non-effects-driven movie." Owens stresses that the key thing to remember about Hereafter is that it not a film that takes place in a supernatural realm. "It's really a romantic movie about people trying to deal with the Hereafter who fall in love. So the tsunami sequence needed to be captivating, but not upstage the story. The interesting thing about working with Clint is that he gives you creative, financial, and technical maneuverability. If you have nowhere to move creatively or financially and have to solve something technically, it really limits your options. But Clint has always allowed me room to maneuver, and if the edit changes, so be it. Nothing is that precious to him." Which is probably a good mindset to have for anyone attempting to work within the highly iterative process of simulating a gigantic flood. Owens had chosen Scanline because the layers of details they could capture made the water look absolutely photoreal. To do that, Scanline's Trojansky says, "You need to go all the way into the deep hell of the physics of water. You need to have a simulator that can simulate a droplet of water that's photoreal, and then apply the same dynamics on a large scale and still maintain the fine details." After six years of working on water, fire and smoke simulation, Scanline has developed methods that allow artists to control sims using key frames. This enables clients like Owens to tweak the simulation results for the intended effects. "It's an iterative process," Trojansky says. "You set the parameters for the simulation and let it go. It's very unlikely that everything will do what you want at the same time. The randomness and the physics play with you. Instead of being completing dependent on the randomness of the physics, you go from rough simulation to finer simulation. The first simulation gives you overall motion and how far something travels. That runs in realtime, interactively, and for the director, that's often the most important because he can use it to design his shot." actors who were photographed in the tank and the open ocean. "We had to find a way to track the real-world water characteristics exactly to the simulated water. So that the closer you get the character, the more that the CG water does exactly what the live action water is doing," Trojansky says. "We tracked the camera, the movement of the character, and the water motion itself, which was pretty tricky. We had to get a polygonal representation of the water surface and roughly get the movement of the waves. Then we could take the tracked motion of the water and apply it as a constraint to the simulation in a soft way. So where the live action plate ends, the CG simulation behaves exactly like the tracked motion. You basically create a feathered range from the live action to the CG." "The job involved not only matching the water," Grill adds. "We had to have the wave take the character and move her down the street. When they shot the plate, the camera was locked. But in the final shot, we're moving down the street at 30 miles per hour, so we had to put in camera moves. It was amazing to take something that was so straightforward and add danger to it." The tsunami also sweeps cars and debris alongside De France and causes CG-modeled buildings to collapse into the water around her. "The dynamics of the debris had to affect the water," Trojansky says. "Once we roughly defined where the debris and the water went, then we up-rezzed this and we ran it in refinement with photoreal details." "When you get to that point," Grill adds, "the creative part is trying to keep what works and fix what isn't working. Every time you run a simulation, you don't get the same response, so you have to be creative in figuring out how to keep the best of both worlds." While the main focus of the tsunami sequence is on the fate of De France's character, she's not alone in this disaster. But the other victims populating the sequence were primarily digital doubles. "We shot extras running, and once we got to the point where they were hit by the wave, we removed them and replaced them with digital doubles that would interact with the wave," Owens says. Owens also had a scan done of De France, so sometimes even she was replaced by her CG double. Owens directed the motion-capture sessions at Giant Studios, using a rig that allowed the mo-capped actors to rotate freely on any axis. Over the course of five days, Owens notes, "We did the mocap several different ways, where we yanked people and pushed them and had them jump." Scanline Animation Supervisor Chad Finnerty then used this data to make the digital doubles react to the water simulation of the wave. "We had to bring in stunt men to simulate being on the surface of the water," Grill says. "The hardest thing in dealing with the motion capture was dealing with how a person reacts while they're swimming if they're not actually in water. It was trial and error until we got to the point where we were able to look at the motion capture within our water sims and get a sense of the speed and the movement. Then when we got that into our 3D software, we were able to animate on top of it. You want the character to have a certain motion and speed throughout the scene. The water simulation is moving at a certain speed, so there was a lot of creative tug and pull. The characters can't move faster than the debris in the water. Sometimes we'd have to change the shot if it didn't look plausible." To achieve all of this, Scanline used a variety of tools, in addition to its Flowline simulation software. "Flowline is integrated into [Autodesk] 3ds Max and the rendering engine V-Ray [from Chaos Software]," Trojansky explains. "We also used Massive and [Autodesk] MotionBuilder for the character animation, and then everything was composited in [The Foundry] Nuke X." Owens had warned Eastwood that the tsunami sequence had by far the most complicated effects of their decade-long collaboration. "He just said, 'You'll figure it out,'" Owens says with a laugh. "He trusts me more than I sometimes wish he would!" Eastwood already has Owens prepping Hoover, the story about the legendary FBI chief starring Leonardo DiCaprio. "Clint's never done digital makeup like that before," Owens says. "It will have to be at least partial prosthetics. But he's just rolling with it. He's not fazed at all about the technology." If Owens himself harbors any reservations, he's not admitting it. "Every once in a while, I let Clint know if I'm especially worried about a particular thing," he says. "And because he's so secure and not egotistical, he'll say, 'Don't worry, Michael. We'll cut around it, or we'll shoot something else.' But I hardly ever have to ask him to do that because I know we'll make it work. Of course, if you keep pulling a rabbit out of the hat, people get used to thinking, 'What's the big deal?' Sometimes I feel like saying, 'Well I just about killed the rabbit! You can't do that all the time!'"

VFX enhance pix for Eastwood, Aronofsky

In this brave new digital filmmaking world, there's no shortage of grousing that visual effects have overwhelmed story. Yet two determinedly story-oriented directors have movies out this fall that depend on vfx for critical moments. "Black Swan," from helmer Darren Aronofsky, follows the disintegration of an obsessed dancer trying to master the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake." Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" weaves together the stories of three people touched in different ways by death, including a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. It was up to Dan Schrecker and Michael Owens, the vfx supervisors on "Black Swan" and "Hereafter," to make sure the vfx fit with their respective directors' approach. Both say their directors are "all about story." Owens, for his part, says Eastwood "likes the environment to show up when it's necessary, but it's not about that. He's not a kid in a candy store when it comes to what you can do." Eastwood's famously loose, spontaneous shooting style isn't ideal for visual effects, which thrive on planning. And he doesn't storyboard or previsualize his pictures. Yet Owens, who's worked with Eastwood on pics going back to "Space Cowboys," has made a virtue of that. "If you stick to (previs or storyboards) too closely, you get something that's overcrafted sometimes. Clint doesn't believe in overcrafting or overthinking something." Eastwood understood when Owens had to previs the tsunami sequence, in which a French TV reporter has a near-death experience. The whole sequence was a tricky balancing act for Owens, who had to keep the vfx from overwhelming the drama. "If the tsunami upstaged her hereafter experience, we would have gone too far. And the hereafter experience needed to be dramatic without overstating it." Schrecker, whose credits include several Aronofsky pics and last year's "Precious," says, "In the kind of effects we do on 'Black Swan' and 'The Wrestler,' it's crucial they're completely seamless." Like Eastwood, Aronofsky shoots very fast once setup is done. So Schrecker says, "We try to have a small footprint on set." Some moments in the story simply couldn't be done without vfx, though. For example, while Natalie Portman did her own dancing on "Black Swan" for most shots, there were moments that required a professional dancer. Portman's head had to be digitally attached to the dancer's body. Even in the movie's more fantastical moments, Schrecker had to ensure there was nothing to take the audience out of the movie. "It's all got to be part of the same world, which is different from 'The Fountain' or even something like 'Precious,' where there are fantasy sequences that break out of the main narrative." The bottom line, says Schrecker, is that the approach to vfx on an arthouse drama shouldn't be different from that on a big-budget tentpole. "Any project we work on," he says, "the focus is always on story."