New Zealand Lockdown – Day 2.

Puppet tigers and impossible FX.

Weta Digital, the famous VFX house that brought the world that Gollum guy and pretty much-defined CGI in the process, is now working remote. Sounds pretty current for the times. Most big tech firms went remote early, after all, isn’t that what they excel at? IT? Networking and routing and all that jazz?

The VFX industry seems to be, on the outside, basically a big bunch of computer boffins. Very much like Google, Apple or whatever the latest super tech company is. It is, but it is also predominately a creative endeavour. Traditionally a workforce of artists and storytellers. People who saw movies as a kid and never got over it.

Over the course of the last thirty or so years, it has been inching towards the tech world. Tech in terms of computer reliance and development. Film FX and especially animation have always been industries that utilised technical advancements, like the camera and rotoscoping for example, but it’s just now its the inseparable marriage of art and computer science that makes movie making a brave new world.

Gone are the days when big-budget Hollywood films would enlist the help of mechanics, silicon mixers and hair punchers on mass. FOr decades relying on physical models and animatronics to get that big dinosaur to move on set.

Things had begun to move towards the geeks way back. It wasn’t a sudden shift. A young James Cameron had a hand in it, bringing the water snake to life way back in 1989. Then he was back with the molten man effect in Terminator 2. Using George Lucas’ fledgeling FX company ILM, most of the VFX boffins working today will cite these movies as core reasons they entered the industry.

We can’t forget the incredible stained glass dude who frighteningly comes to life in Young Sherlock Holmes. This was earlier in 1985, but also courtesy of ILM.

Mapping the demise (death is too strong a word) of SFX is fairly easy. A nail in the coffin was Ridley Scotts Gladiator where Oliver Reed was recreated after an unfortunate heart attack in 2000. The lid was firmly down once Jurassic Park (again ILM) hit the ball out of the park with “That TRex Scene In The Rain.”

Allot of SFX work began to be used for standins rather than the hero FX. (Ridley Scott/ Crowe. Gladiator)

Early CGI work was time-consuming, to say the least. Hit render on a sphere and the hours if not overnight wait would begin. There must have been quite a few meltdowns — what if the Rex came back with something missing. The eyeballs were turned off before someone pressed the button? Another late nighter.

Alongside ludicrous wait times would have been the reliance on sheer person power. Butts on seats. Similar to the early days of drawn animation. Big rooms of artists churning it out. This still happens.

The computers got faster, the techniques got smoother but this is an industry that continuously advances at breakneck speed. The asks got more difficult. Bigger, better and more realistic FX the mantra, no matter what the last film achieved, the next will REALLY blow your minds.

Many VFX artists rate the TRex scene as instrumental in their joining the ranks. (Jurrasic Park)

This is what makes the job exciting for many artists. The idea that what’s being asked is actually ridiculously impossible. Let’s make a photoreal Pangolin wearing a full set of Victorian undergarments ride a bike through the rain before reciting Shakespeare and flossing its teeth. Fullscreen.

Ultimate problem-solving. Creating something that’s never been done before. Handovers (where the VFX shots are delivered to the VFX companies) quite often elicit gasps of incredulity as supervisors let their teams know what the directors have asked for. Laughter occurs sometimes in the meetings and definitely later at desks.

Hence the shift from studio to remote pipelines is impressive. Some VFX studios employ over a thousand people. There are a multitude of departments from layout, through environments to characters and animation. Its a very complex system and whole teams are dedicated to keeping the machine running whilst its in production. Hundreds of millions of dollars are riding on that.

Once remote pipelines are sorted, VFX lends itself remarkably well to remote working. One needs a powerful computer of course, but potentially the geekier of the crew have those already at home for all their “other” hobbies such as gaming, personal CG projects and well, because they are geeks.

It is an industry that has changed from inhabiting workshops to being sat at a desk. In the old days, there was a lot of physicality about film FX. Usually housed near the set, the animatronics and SFX crews would be physically making the models, puppets, pyrotechnics. We would be carrying all sorts of things around the lot. Heavy things. Covered by insurance for things like a bandsaw accident rather than a latte burn.

Change is inevitable in any industry. Change is happening right now as industries battle to adapt to #WFH. Anyone interested in the social/occupational evolution from a cultural standpoint would do well to study the ever-evolving movie-making business.

Agreed the changes have been over a longer period of time, but as an industry who continues to take risks and adapt, its quite the example of resilience.

***