The VFX Industry: Part 1
I woke up this morning with the sudden urge to start writing down some of my experiences in the visual effects industry. I’m worried I will start forgetting things as the years go on and it also seems like all statute of limitations would have passed, so here we go!
I applied for the LA Program at Emerson College in Boston on November 2, 2001 for the Spring 2002 semester. After watching the VFX features on the Jurassic Park DVDs a few too many times and also taking a CG Animation class at Emerson, I was determined to secure an internship at a visual effects company.
I didn’t realize at the time how few visual effects companies there were in LA, and even fewer were taking interns, but I did hear about a VFX Producer that was a very proud alum and actively looking for interns. I sent my resume in and a week or two later I remember running out into my parents front yard (for best cell reception) when I realized that someone from LA was calling me on the phone. It was Diane, a recruiter at the time from Centropolis FX in Culver City - and she was calling to setup my interview.
Once in LA and settled into my temporary studio apartment at the Oakwoods on Barham Blvd, I got psyched up for the meeting. I was familiar with Centropolis’ work, and thanks to Cinefex, I also knew what projects they were working on currently. Being able to cite their current work, I later was told, set me apart from all other candidates, and I was offered the spot – as a side note, I have given out this advice more times than I can remember at this point; such a small amount of time and research literally changed my life.
Centropolis needed 2 interns for the spring semester (each intern splitting the week along with classes, etc); the other person they offered the spot to turned them down because the commute from the Oakwoods to Culver City was “too far” for them. When they told me this, they all laughed and said, “good luck in LA then!” I had two 4-hour classes a week, but with only one of those during the day, I got approval from both the college and my new boss to work the maximum number of hours I could each week.
Warrior. Legend. Intern.
The Scorpion King
When I started at Centropolis in January of 2002, work was well underway on The Scopion King, an off-shoot of The Mummy franchise staring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Chuck Russell.
We had a few involved sequences like the fully-CG fire ants, the sandstorm, and the flaming sword battle to complete along with a ton of wire/rig removals, CG arrow additions, and weapon reconstructions.
Watching hours of DVD featurettes on CG dinosaurs hadn’t taught me anything about how many other unseen effects shots there were. Much of these had to do with keeping things safe at the actual shoot; from painting out wire rigs and harnesses to adding many CG arrows to a shot that would have been otherwise dangerous to shoot practically.
There was a pile of sword hilts lying around (in addition to the real swords), each with a green ball attached where the blade would normally be – these were used when the actors were riding horses to keep both the actor and the horse safe in case of a tumble or fall – we would add CG blades back in afterwards using the green ball as a marker.
CG Fire Ants
During a screening of the film for PETA as a final confirmation that no animals were harmed, they got very upset that so many ants had been killed on-screen - they also asked what species the ants were, to which Universal replied, “computer generated.”
A week or two in, I walked into my boss’s office and asked him if I could attend shot reviews - on that day in particular, the director and a representative from Universal were there to review the current shots and give notes. At this point, I was still gaining his trust, but he sat me down to explain how the last intern they let in the review started giving their opinions on the shots in front of the director of the film. A finaled shot can quickly become a work-in-progress based on the whim of the director and when this results in a profit or loss of tens of thousands of dollars (or even hundreds of thousands in some cases), the goal was always to make the best work possible within the budget. They hadn’t let another intern attend shot reviews since that incident, even internally. That said, he said I could go to listen and observe, but I had to keep my mouth shut.
I remember that day not only because I was so excited to be in the review, but also because of what happened. In addition to the film’s director, the head of VFX at Universal was also in attendance - he was there to represent the studio’s approval of the shots in addition to the director’s feedback.
At one point, we were all gathered in the lead compositor’s office and my boss asked me to go and find the guy from Universal who was suddenly not there.
I saw him out in the lobby - he had stepped aside to take a phone call in between the screening room and the office - and I let him know where the group was and offered to walk him over.
As a joke, while we were walking back, he told me to go back into the room without him and say the following:
“XX told me to say that he doesn’t give a fuck about this film and that he’s put me in charge of approvals on the studio’s behalf moving forward”
I walked back into the room, my boss looked up at me and asked if I had found him (at that point the guy was standing outside the door within earshot) - I looked back at my boss and had the following immediate thought in my head:
While it’s very possible that what I was told to say will result in some laughter, it’s also even more possible that the only one laughing will be the guy that told me to say it. I don’t work for him, I work for my boss and I’m not about to jeopardize the remainder of my internship because this guy wants a laugh at the intern’s expense.
The guy came back in the office, called me a chickenshit or something to the like, and then the review proceeded.
I could have handled that a few different ways in retrospect, but given it was probably my second week on the job, I think silence and therein loyalty to my boss would have won in any case.
Embedded in the show, I sat in the production pit across from my boss’s office with some of the coolest people I have ever known. Not only was the work incredibly interesting, but they all taught me that the best way to deal with stress was with laughter and they’d crack me up all day.
The VFX PA loved to talk shit (and also spoke English as a second language), so the VFX Coordinator kept a file of her best quotes and we would all recite them with endearment - some of my favorites were:
“It’s not broken, you just need to fix it”
“Plants have assholes! They do take a shit! I took a biology class.”
“What about French, they don’t believe in anything” (Trying to find a restaurant that is open on Good Friday)
They were both brutally honest with me about the job and the life that accompanied it - they would normally work long hours at least 6 days a week; if they were lucky enough to have a Sunday off, it was usually spent sleeping.
I learned a ton from them just watching how they interacted with everyone there; from the runners, artists, and other productions, to the film’s director as well as between each other.
Baja Fresh Addiction
The shows would order lunch for the team a couple times a week and the preferred place to order from was Baja Fresh. I became an instant addict after my first bite of a steak ultimo and never looked back.
I would eat a Baja Fresh burrito for lunch at least 4 times a week; often topping it off with many espresso shots.
This is not something I would even think of now knowing both a long day and long commute was ahead of me - it makes me long for the resiliency of my 20-year-old stomach.
One day when I was coming back from Baja Fresh (like most), and I stopped at the gate to scan my card and enter the lot. As the gate arm went up, I started moving forward and didn’t realize someone had started crossing the driveway while I was watching the arm raise.
That person was Ron Jeremy and I almost hit him with my car.
I went back to my desk and stated to my coworkers what I had almost done thinking, wow that was weird, I bet everyone else will think so also.
Forgetting where I was and what I had seen so far, I should have expected what I heard instead, “oh, you saw him too?”
Main Title Sequence
The show asked us, rather late in the game as I was told, to create a main title sequence for the film. We rushed concepts and lookdev across a couple teams; I even got to go to an exotic pet store to pick up 2 emperor scorpions to crawl across blue-screen stretched out across the screening room floor for one of the concepts.
Towards the deadline, we had to figure out the most cost-effective way of delivering on-time (albeit at the last possible minute).
Using 1 or 2 Laser Recorders @ Cinesite
We had 2 options to get the 2,140 frames to Universal on the due date with the more expensive option giving us a 3-hour lead on the other - we went with that option and the footage made it to Universal just in time.
A Typical Shot at Centropolis FX
I wrote this overview of a typical shot’s workflow - it’s now almost 20 years outdated, but an otherwise interesting snapshot of how the technology of the time drove shot production.
A VFX crew is present on the day of shooting to record reference data, physical data, and to place markers down on areas of the set to be used as reference later.
Developed film is sent to CFX. CFX sends the film out to be cleaned. All particles, dust, and hair are removed from the film in preparation for scanning.
The negative is scanned and converted into digital cineon files. These are very high-resolution images that represent one frame of film for each image file.
As a “just in case” the shot is backed up on digital tape in the event that the cineon files are lost, corrupted, or destroyed.
SENT TO AVID
The shot sequence is sent to the Avid where it is checked for correct frame range and picture position.
By the time the shot is online and ready for treatment, the production staff has meticulously kept track of all aspects of the shot. There are separate database entry sheets for all of the above information as well as what must be done to the shot, who will be doing it, and a detailed breakdown of the cost of the total shot treatment.
A shot will visit any number of combinations of departments within the facility. If 3d elements are being added in the shot must be tracked. If treatments are being done in the foreground and background of a shot then the elements in the middle must be rotoscoped out of the shot in order to be layered back into the shot by a compositor later. If reference points, rigs, or harnesses need to be taken out of a shot they will be removed by the paint department. Depending upon how many different treatments a shot needs, the shot might eventually be sent to almost all departments within the facility. The final place a shot will always end up is in the compositing department. This is where all elements of the shot are combined to make a seem-less finished version. If it works, anything that has been added into the shot will look like it was filmed at the same time the original footage was shot.
WORKING VERSIONS REVIEWED AT THE 1K
At any time in a shots progress it can be sent to the 1k viewing machine to see how it looks or how it is coming along. This progress is checked by supervisors, VFX producers, and above all the client (director, producer, etc.) to make sure everything is going as it was imagined. From here it is decided whether or not the shot will be put to film for review.
COMPOSITE SENT TO DATA I/O
Here the shot is written to digital tape so that it can be sent from the facility to be put to film.
FILM VERSION AS PENDING FINAL
During the course of a show, the client will come in for frequent visits to see what is being accomplished. If a shot is nearing completion or is considered to be done it will be shown on film to the client and they will either final it or say what has to be changed.
The treatment process is repeated until the shot is finaled. Once the shot is finaled, it is sent on film to the production company doing the motion picture and it is archived at CFX.
Before going to my first wrap party, I learned another valuable lesson from my boss. Once everything was planned out and confirmed, he admitted to me that had he not padded the original budget to cover a wrap party, there wouldn’t have been one. From this action I learned, no matter what, it’s imperative to always find a way to thank people for their hard work. They had pushed very hard to get everything done on time and they all deserved, at minimum, an acknowledgement of that in the form of at least a few hours to burn off steam.
A friend from Boston had come out that weekend to visit me in LA and wanted to come with me to the party. I have a couple dozen pictures from that night that I won’t share, but overall, the entire crew drank a heroic amount of alcohol.
At one point, I was out on the patio talking to my boss and he started telling me how much he enjoyed working with me; I thanked him for the opportunity and he thanked me for my hard work. It felt like we were having a moment and my very next question would have been career-related, until he said, “hey, is that your friend over there?”
I thought you guys were from Boston?
Not more than 6 feet away from us, my friend from Boston was puking his brains out into a trash can on the patio.
The Matrix Sequels
There was an all-hands meeting one day and when I saw the concept boards on display in the screening room I immediately knew what we would be talking about – we had landed shot work on the Matrix sequels.
I don’t think I blinked once during the presentation - the head of recruiting noticed the look on my face and asked me to hang back for a minute to talk. She reminded me that everything I saw there was confidential, which I immediately acknowledged and agreed with, but inside I was freaking out!
I got to help a bit with the setup of these shows, but at the end of my internship I went back to Boston to graduate and decided that I would get a job to save up enough cash to move back out to LA as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, The Matrix sequels were the beginning of the end for Centropolis FX. The company was technically owned by the German post-production house Daw Werk since it was sold in 2001 by Centropolis Entertainment. Das Werk went bankrupt and it’s stock crashed on the German exchange; Centropolis FX itself was solvent thanks to the Matrix work, but Warner Bros. didn’t want to take any chances and pulled the work once the Das Werk news came out.
Centropolis FX closed it’s doors on December 17, 2002 and the Matrix work was picked up by Imageworks. That said, my soon-to-be new employer, knowing they didn’t have enough people on staff to cover the Matrix work, hired the head of recruiting from Centropolis and started bringing over as many of the crew as they could.
At the time, I was devastated that Centropolis had closed their doors; in retrospect though, it charted the path on which I would return and get to work with some of my friends again.
Overall, I don’t think I’ve ever learned as much as I did in the same short time period - the majority of which I still utilize today.
In addition, the people that I met and worked with at CFX literally changed my life and directly influenced the serendipity that led me to the present day.
Next: The VFX Industry: Part 2