Tips & Tricks for VFX Supervision

by on Dec.17, 2009, under In the News, Supervision

Recently, in the November 2009 issue of Post Magazine, Molecule’s visual effects supervisor and lead compositer, Luke DiTommaso was interviewed for the article “Early Intervention.” Luke discussed some tips and tricks, stemming from his experiences with on-set vfx supervision. In this blog you can read what Luke had to say for the article.

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Tips for VFX Supervision:

Be prepared:

There was a time when I would show up on set to VFX supervise with just my hands in my pocket. If I needed tape to make a tracking marker—I’d ask Scenic for a roll, if I needed a tape measure—I’d ask an AC, for a pen I’d ask the Scripty. For the most part people are friendly and happy to help, but there was one incident that made a light bulb go off in my head.

The scene called for a fire at the end of a dark hallway and my borrowed tape tracking markers were disappearing into the shadows. So I had the brilliant idea of taping some mini Mag-Lites to the walls as tracking points. I was going to go around to all the gaffers and start collecting their mini flashlights. When I asked the first guy, he stopped coiling a massive cable around his forearm and looked at me for an uncomfortable period of time. He calmly explained that he would in fact lend me his mini mag-lite if I really needed it, but he said it in a way that led me to understand he would in fact give me CPR if I really needed it. Unless this were a dire situation, you just don’t ask another man for his mini Mag.

After that shoot I went back to the office and we bought a pelican case, stocking it with rolls of tape of every color, Sharpies, little LED tracking points, tape measure, laser level, still camera, etc. Everything we could think of we threw in there like it was Batman’s utility belt. When I saw that gaffer at the next shoot, I made sure to flash him a smile—and my new min-Mag.

Wardrobe & Hair/Make-up can save you more Roto than you can imagine:

Especially on a greenscreen shoot, the Wardrobe person and Hair stylist can save you so much time in post that it behooves any VFX supe to be super friendly. There are the obvious situations where you show up to a music video shoot and the dancers are wearing reflective outfits and big fuzzy hair-dos, in which case you stop production or plan for a roto slumber party at the office. But often times it will be a more subtle detail that can cost weeks in post.

On one shoot, the production opted for ReflecMedia greenscreen which is notoriously difficult for very fine details like hair because of the ghosting/shadow issues with the technology. I happened to know the hair person from another production (NYC is a small town in this industry), and we chatted amiably during the long stretches of downtime between shots. When it came time for my greenscreen sequence, one of the actresses had a few single strands of hair sticking out that I knew would not key well. So in the frantic moments of “last looks” I asked the Hair person if she didn’t mind smoothing it out. No big deal, right? Well, they ended up doing many takes from several angles and those stubborn hairs kept coming undone. I’m convinced had I not made friends with her earlier, she would not have been as eager to run out onto the stage in between takes to flatten out of those few strands of hair time after time. That small extra effort on her part must have saved us hours and hours of frustration in post.

Similarly, there was a scene shot against a black screen that involved firefighters covered in soot and ash. The firefighter outfits are dark and I knew that unless they were covered in white ash it was going to be a tough roto. The wardrobe person had given the actors a nice delicate sprinkle on the shoulders. Had we not been friendly I’m not sure she would have made the effort to take fistfuls of soot and mash it all over their uniforms—for several takes. It was messy for everyone involved but it saved us gobs of roto down the road.

Production designers need you, speak their language, make their life easy:

Visual effects are often determined by a simple subtraction equation—the script calls for something, the production designer can only provide some portion of it, and the difference is made up with VFX. An easy example would be a cemetery scene we worked on where one of the characters is visiting the grave of a deceased character and his name needs to be on the tombstone. It’s cheaper, faster and better to carve a name into the marble digitally than practically. Often times we’ll do a set extension and there will be a greenscreen flag set up where the set ends, or where a location needs to be modified. Those are obvious examples, but other times being a little creative can make a big difference. In one scene, the script called for a long hand-held shot around the corner of an L-shaped corridor in the basement of the WTC. During the pre-production meeting, the Production designer expressed concern about the scope of building such a set with all the destruction and detail involved. We suggested building just one straight corridor and dressing it twice. A hidden cut between the two could be buried as the actor turned the corner. It was a simple suggestion but it made a world of difference to the Production designer. Alleviating that burden allowed him to think of the production design in a different way. He was able to focus his resources and still have his set look amazing and we benefitted because he became our staunchest ally for opting to use VFX in scenes.

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