Jonathan Victory went along to the Irish VFX + Animation Summit, which hosted masterclass sessions, presentations and discussions, bringing industry talent from both Ireland and overseas to share their experience and techniques.
Google’s Dublin Headquarters played host to the Irish VFX + Animation Summit, a gathering of leading figures from the worlds of design, animation and visual effects (VFX). This summit is becoming an annual fixture for those working in the animation industry here, providing an opportunity for training and networking as well as for promoting Ireland as a talent hub for this field. The work that animators do has become increasingly important to the audio-visual sector and meeting the speakers at this summit, seeing their openness and infectious energy, reveals the vibrancy of their field.
Sponsors included the American Embassy in Dublin, suggesting some international interest in Ireland as a location for developing this industry. There was also support from our own government with Screen Training Ireland and Animation Skillnet facilitating many of the talks and an appearance from the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan. She told Film Ireland that, “There is a misunderstanding that there aren’t careers from a variety of arts subjects” and that creative subjects are something she wishes to support throughout all levels of education. When asked what specifically this government has done to support creative industries she highlighted that, “The government introduced some special tax breaks earlier on this year which I know from some of the discussions I’ve had here today are encouraging filmmaking here in Ireland and I think we will see a considerable growth now that those tax changes have been introduced.”
Yet it is not just the increased use of VFX in film and television that provides career opportunities for animators. As Andy Hayes and Paul Timpson of the effects house Framestore outlined, there are also skilled people needed in the fields of advertising, design and even bio-medical research, as imaging is a crucial way to communicate with patients. Timpson is shortly setting up a new effects house in Dublin called Studio TM, while Hayes is Head of FX at Framestore, one of the world’s foremost VFX companies. Their experience covers a range of feature films that required practical shot sequences tailored to augmentation with VFX.
They collaborated on the fantasy-sci-fi film The Golden Compass (2007) in which the young heroine rode on the back of a polar bear that was animated later. They had to design a rig the actress could ride safely that would then match up with animation. Gravity (2013) is a more recent project Framestore worked on and Hayes explained that not only was the outer-space environment pre-lit ahead of time but the entire movie was pre-visualised years in advance. The challenge for the film crew then was to shoot the elements that required actors but with precisely programmed camera movements and LED lights that matched the computer-environment’s lighting.
The precise work required in designing such movies along with the thousands of man-hours in then animating completed effects has employed more and more people in recent decades, becoming something of an economic behemoth in its own right, a field in which Hayes and Timpson insist there are plenty of job opportunities. Initially, VFX were intended to achieve what couldn’t be done with practical in-camera effects but now VFX are prevalent throughout all sorts of movies, at least in Hollywood’s output. Is it possible that with all the investment in VFX, film productions are pushed towards relying on VFX?
Paul Timpson believes this is an aesthetic choice that comes down to each individual filmmaker. The experience of Mark Ardington, a VFX artist with Double Negative, seems to have been positive in this regard as he worked with director Alex Garland on the relatively low-budget Ex Machina (2015). He gave a talk about his work on the sci-fi film, in which Domhnall Gleeson’s IT man is introduced to an artificially-intelligent cyborg Ava, played by Alicia Vikander.
The seamless effects in this movie have parts of Ava’s torso become a translucent mesh, which were achieved by animating the footage frame-by-frame, following marked points on her costume. Ardington said that they tracked movement with basic “rubber black rings that are in the design of the costume and they’ve got these little reflective studs in them” so that they didn’t “impose any restraints on how they filmed it by having to set up motion-capture settings or anything like that.” The result is VFX that serves the story, something that Ardington feels can get lost in more bombastic blockbusters:
“Visual effects films fall into one of two categories. Most of them fall into the ‘I’m a visual effect, I’m all-singing and dancing’ and they really want you to see it and notice it so they can show off they spent all this money on the visual effect. Ex Machina is different to that. The visual effect is there in your face the whole time you’re watching the film but it’s seamless and it’s subtle and you accept it. It doesn’t grab you and go, ‘Aah! I’m a visual effect!’ If the visual effect was always trying to take over, it would take away from her performance and the believability of her character.”
Is such a balance between practical effects and VFX lost in larger-scale productions? Are modern movies and modern computer-generated imagery (CGI) itself suffering from a decline in quality? There are those who argue for this idea and those who argue against it insisting that each production find its own needs when it comes to effective VFX design.
This summit also featured showcases of design on animation projects like the upcoming Danger Mouse reboot from Anglo-Irish animation house Boulder Media and graphic design for live-action film. A talk on design for live-action film was given by Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins who worked on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won the Oscar for Best Production Design. She has since worked on Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies building on her specialty in replicating historical documents. While she highlighted that working in an art department can mostly entail unglamorous paperwork and intense research (she recommends scouring books and flea markets as opposed to Google Image search), she was able to share delightful details about her work with Wes Anderson.
The Mendl’s pastry boxes were mass-produced with a spelling mistake (you’ll know you bought a genuine one off eBay if “patisserie” is spelt with two Ts), highlighting the importance of proofreading. The calling cards of Willem Dafoe’s character were based on contemporaneous cards that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun used. So much work went into properly aging, stamping and marking an envelope in front of Harvey Keitel’s character. When asked why an art department must build so much detail for seemingly inconsequential props that are unlikely to be noticed she said that if historically-correct details hadn’t been added, you would be left with a blank piece of paper for an envelope. Were this to be reflected across the board, sets would start to look to very sparse and low-budget. Details that build a world go unnoticed but a world without details is very noticeable. She also told Film Ireland that, “We’re not always designing directly for the people in the audience. We have to design for the actors and director and the people on-set in order for them to do their work.”
Two highlights of the summit came from the United States. The first of which was Professor Stuart Sumida, a professor of biology at California State University, renowned for consulting on the anatomy and movement of animals for films such as The Lion King (1994) and Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (2015), which screened at the summit. His study of physiology and movement informs animators’ efforts to create believable characters on-screen; even fictional animals such as dragons are typically designed by combining attributes of existing animals. Basically, the characters must be grounded in reality as best they can before they open their mouths and talk and stuff.
When Sumida spoke to Film Ireland, he explained how you get an animal’s mouth to move like a human’s; “It usually involves studying both a human’s way of communicating and the construction of an animal’s face and then making some design decisions about how we’re gonna move lips and cheeks and so on. The farther you get from a human, the harder it becomes.” One would think that motion-capture performance such as that pioneered by actor Andy Serkis when playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy would help in this regard but Sumida warns that you can still lose authenticity when it comes to other aspects of animal movement. His trained eyes found inaccuracies in the recent Planet of the Apes series too distracting, saying that, “Although the digital effects were massively impressive, the physical movements were appallingly incorrect. The posture was incorrect. Even the hand motion was incorrect. So with all due respect to Andy Serkis, he’s been much better in other films.”
When offered the example of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) in which Serkis also performed motion-capture for a primate character, Sumida was more positive:
“Some of the facial animation in King Kong was stunning. It was beautiful acting. It was what animation should do. You looked at the face of that character and you saw that character. You didn’t think that ‘Someone was captured for this’. I was very impressed. The flipside of that is an animal that big could never have done the things he did. So if you want me to believe he lives in my universe I don’t buy it. He’s too heavy.”
This highlights the importance of plausible physics as well as biology when it comes to animation. This was something touched upon throughout the weekend, including Andy Hayes’ tale of a day where they set off fuel explosions and filmed them so that they could get a better understanding of how fire moves and how far you could exaggerate the physics in service of a director’s brief before it starts to look wrong. Scientific research is crucial to developing VFX and animation that looks good and sometimes that striving for perfection can lead to surprising reciprocal rewards for the scientific community. The medical profession’s need for improved imaging technology was touched on throughout the summit. The recent sci-fi film Interstellar (2014) had characters travelling through black holes and in designing a black hole the animators contributed to advances in understanding what a black hole actually does look like, according to the film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne.
Sumida told Film Ireland it is very important to promote and support the link between the scientific community and the creative arts. A scientifically-literate arts community can promote scientific literacy through their work, which increases scientific literacy and support for science, which continues to support the arts and so the positive feedback loop goes on. Sumida wants such an interaction between science and creative industries to continue:
“That interaction is not yet as appreciated as it should be. One of the things I like to do is remind people in the animation and visual effects industries just how much science they are doing. It helps us convince the youth of today that art can be scientifically exciting and it helps us convince the scientists of today that science can be artistically beautiful. And it gives a greater appreciation of both and when that appreciation exists, the collaboration begins and we’re always better when we collaborate than when we stay apart. Always.”
The spirit of collaboration and collegiality was high at the VFX Summit but another speaker from the US united the summit in reverence. Jim Morris is the current President of Pixar and delivered a masterclass on the history of VFX on which he is an unparalleled guide of great clarity. He is a towering figure in the industry having been present for most of the advances in VFX since beginning work in this area at ILM in the 1980s just as the transition from photochemical post-production to the digital revolution began. He oversaw key advances made on films like James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) in which computer-animated creatures of liquid were realised, using processing power that Morris notes is probably available on an iPhone now. Death Becomes Her (1992) saw the first transplanting of Meryl Streep’s face to the back of her head and Jurassic Park (1993) was the game-changer that ushered in the modern era of VFX.
Having been there at so many iconic moments in the history of VFX, he is now the President of Pixar and still speaking highly of technological advances made on their projects, notably the use of real geological survey data from Montana and Wyoming to create the backgrounds in The Good Dinosaur. I asked him how Pixar approaches the writing of its most successful films and he outlined how they will have a handful of projects in production at any one time which allows directors to give feedback on each other’s films. The process from pitching a story to cinema release takes roughly five years for them and much of that time is spent on rigorous refining of a rough-cut assembled from storyboards so they can essentially see their finished film before taking it to animators. This is a luxury their unique set-up affords them, allowing them to refine stories well but often the story comes from a place of emotional resonance to the director. He cites Finding Nemo (2003) and Inside Out (2015) as movies whose directors were dealing with the challenges of parenthood and expressing themselves through the story.
Animation is in its own right a great medium for storytelling and an area for growth in Ireland with companies like Cartoon Saloon and Brown Bag Films already finding international success. VFX and animation offer exciting jobs for creative projects and are open to anyone with the interest, passion and commitment to contribute, with scientific literacy being a huge bonus. The effects houses represented here all said they need to recruit more talent. If the people at this summit were anything to go by, it’s good company to be in.
The Irish VFX & Animation Summit took place 20 – 22 November 2015