VFX – Production Workflow
By Sharon Lark
Visual FX Producer
When is the best time to start to involve VFX in your project?
Ideally the script budgeting stage, particularly if you have a Period, Fantasy or Sci-fi project. Action and Thrillers will also usually have a surprisingly high VFX shot count.
Who do you approach for your VFX budget breakdown?
This can vary from using an independent VFX Consultant or Producer, or a VFX Supervisor to a VFX facility. They will provide you with initial budget information as well as suggestions on how to approach the script to stay within budget. They will do this by reading the script and reviewing any artwork that may be available and then doing an initial VFX pass of the script (see example). This will be discussed with the Producer or Director (if available) and then a ballpark estimate can be made of potential costs.
When VFX is involved at this early stage you stand to save a great deal of money compared to trying to make script or shooting adjustments later down the production timeline. You should be aiming to have a ballpark figure to use in your budget in the same manner as you would for a figure to use for Editorial, Construction, Post Production or Talent.
VFX Script Markup Example
Click to view and download
How do you find your VFX crew?
If you think you have VFX needs, contact a VFX facility in your area and go and meet with them. Take your script and any artwork and have a chat! Get recommendations from other Producers / Editors / Art Directors you know. There is often more than one way to approach VFX, particularly if you have complex needs, so meet with more than one facility if you can. The Film Commission website has a list of NZ VFX Companies but it is not exhaustive and does not cover independent Producers or Supervisors. Google is also a great resource.
What do a VFX Supervisor and a VFX Producer do?
A VFX Supervisor provides both the creative and technical information required to achieve the Director’s vision of the script.
The VFX Producer will budget and schedule this work as well as collaborate with the Supervisor on alternate approaches if there are budget constraints.
Both will work closely with the Director, Producers and Art Department to ensure story telling needs are met within the overall budget.
Your VFX Supervisor and Producer are there to ensure that the way you approach your VFX is the most efficient and cost-effective way to meet your budget. Whilst most Producers and Directors can identify what is going to be a VFX shot or sequence, you need VFX experts in order to understand the scale of your requirements and therefore the cost. This is particularly relevant when dealing with water, e.g. the sea, storms, boats, sea creatures, but also character work requiring CG builds and animation, e.g. animals or creatures.
A U-boat was created with VFX for the short film Milk (Courtesy of Punakaiki Productions)
Your VFX Supervisor and Producer will work closely with all departments. For example:
Art Department – most important will be their work with the Production Designer to help with practical set builds, location extensions / additions, crowd replications. Stunts – ensuring that stunts are as creative as they can be whilst being as safe as possible with the use of safety rigs and lines.
VFX budget – whatever this is – add at least 10% contingency and expect to spend it! This is for the additional shots that you didn’t know about before you started shooting, and something towards increasing the shot count! Additional shots could be repair shots featuring booms dropping into shot, reflections of your crew on windows or polished surfaces, such as cars or kit in shot, to name but a few!
It’s also impossible to estimate how many cuts of a VFX shot that there might be in the final edit. It always tends to increase as this is the finished film not a script. Be prepared for the VFX facility having to compare what they estimated the cost of the work and number of shots to be with the reality of the actual final edit. Keep them informed and up-to-date on the edit as it progresses so that they can help you stay on budget.
When should VFX start working with you after you are Green lit?
Pre-Production – the VFX consultant or Facility joining you at this stage will help you lock down costs and also allow you to schedule to shoot any specialist VFX elements required.
- plate shooting of locations that require enhancement
- elements that will be composited together to create a shot
- scanning of locations for tracking e.g. building top-ups or adding CG creatures / characters
- crowd replication elements
- explosion elements
Pre-Visualisation – this is often used to supplement storyboards for action scenes, particularly complex set ups or productions with CG characters. These are basically animated storyboards and assist with shooting correct coverage.
It is never a good idea to ‘make up’ VFX shots without a VFX representative there. Just shooting ‘plates’ or ‘elements’ for VFX without their input may not actually work when you give it to them. There may be problems with lighting direction, scale, parallax etc.
Tech – 2k vs 4k vs 6k vs 8k Resolution
Tech changes constantly! Make friends with your VFX local techie or Supervisor. They love to talk about the pros and cons of resolution! There are many choices that can be made now and they are useful for different things so it is worth exploring and discussing all the options before a final choice is made. The greater the resolution, the more complex the workflow in terms of camera equipment, lenses, DIT requirements and data storage you will need and this brings its own challenges both in editorial and VFX. However, it seems some Studios working in both Film and Television are ‘future proofing’ their product by requesting higher resolution.
DOPs will also explore resolution and aspect ratio so you need to understand clearly why they are making their requests. You need to understand what benefits their choices will make to your production. You also need to understand what cost implications come with the choice of resolution. This is something that needs to be discussed with both VFX and your Post Production facility.
Shooting with VFX
The VFX Supervisor and Producer will be required on set while you’re shooting to ensure that all the VFX elements required are captured. This could be full time or part time depending on the production’s VFX needs. There may also be need for additional specialist VFX crew like Data Wranglers who take High res technical photos and measurements of sets as well as collect or collate metadata captured by the camera for VFX to use in putting together shots later.
You may also need to LiDAR scan* to capture and measure sets. This is to enable or speed up tracking for placement of objects or characters in scenes. Or Photogrammetry* to capture faces or bodies for CG characters.
‘Fix it in Post’
Shooting is also the time when the dreaded ‘Fix it in Post’ phrase rears its ugly head!! This is when time pressures, inadequate preparation, technical failure, weather or Director requests either combined or individually mean that shots are not achieved as expected and a decision is made to ‘Fix it in Post’.
This is always a VERY expensive phrase! This is because there will have been no budget allowance made and, more often than not, production has spent any financial reserves in order to achieve shoot costs. As this will affect your budget bottom line, you should always be made aware if this happens – preferably whilst it is happening – so that you can try to mitigate it. Your VFX Supervisor will try to ensure that you also have alternates for use in these situations.
How do you work with VFX in Post Production?
During the edit period temp VFX will be done mostly by the editorial team although on larger shows you may have a VFX editor. These temp VFX will be at a lower resolution (e.g. Avid resolution) than what is required in the final film.
If you have a heavy VFX show or TV series you need to ensure that your Editorial assistant has strong VFX knowledge. It is key that your editorial team is prepared for turnover to the VFX facility of the high-resolution material.
VFX Turnover – Technical & Practical Requirements
During the editorial process you will need to find a balance between starting work on shots at full resolution and waiting until the cut is locked. This is because any work you do will need to be paid for. So, if shots VFX have started to work on are dropped as the cut changes, you will have to pay for them and then you will also pay for any new shots that replace those dropped.
This part of the process is one of the most difficult to manage as there has to be a balance between the time it will take the VFX facility to complete the work to the Director’s approval, in time for release or broadcast, and when the final lock is approved prior to delivery. This is often made more difficult by needing VFX shots for test screenings or trailers. You need to work closely with your VFX Producer to plan a gradual build of your specific requirements.
Depending on your project some work may have been put in place whilst you are shooting. This can be for several reasons: complexity of shots, CG architecture, CG characters to be built and animated etc.
Avid – it should also be noted that there are some edit tools that are difficult to replicate in the DI process and so these cuts become VFX shots including some split screens, re-speeds, re-sizes and re-framing. These will become some of the shots on your additional shots list.
Like so many departments on a production, VFX is a specialist area, utilising highly skilled crew with many years of experience behind them. They are there to assist you telling your story, so use their expertise!
Budgets are just not big enough to waste so get in contact with VFX sooner rather than later.
*See Glossary for explanation of terms
Page last updated on 30 August 2022
Top Image: VFX Artist Nuno Cortinhal on Punakaiki Productions’ Milk (courtesy of Nuno Cortinhal)
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