VFX Editor Interview - "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists"

An interview I did for UK crewing website thecallsheet.co.uk is now online, at http://www.thecallsheet.co.uk/news/21052

 

Excerpt:

This film has a lot of Aardman firsts – it’s the first stop-motion feature for which they’ve used previs to guide the floor when setting their shots up. It’s the first time they’ve managed their VFX in-house, with a team of around 100 VFX artists up in Bristol working on the 1500+ shots which are in the film. Every single shot has some form of visual effect, some are entirely CG, and some have additional characters or buildings added in amongst what they shot on the floor. But it’s all entirely in-keeping with the Aardman style. I challenge anyone to tell me where the stop motion animation ends and the CG begins!

 

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is released in the UK on Wednesday 28th March 2012 (today).

 

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Almost there! (But not quite yet)

Principal shooting on The Pirates! has finished. The cut is (mostly) locked. Many of the sets have been dismantled, shooting crew have left, and we can still get parking spaces if we arrive slightly late. We even have Shaun The Sheep setting up where the Pirates sets used to be.

 

 

 Access: DENIED

We had a spectacular wrap party last weekend at Bristol's Mshed, where everyone dressed up as Pirates, Scientists, and some of the lesser-known (and potentially spoiler-y) characters.

We have 4 more weeks of work before final delivery. That's two before Christmas, and two after - in which all versions are finalised, confirmed with edit (who'll be finishing in London by that point), and delivered. It's getting quite close - after 5 years in the making.

 

However, it's proving quite difficult to get the company to get out of the mindset that now that filming's finished the film is over. Yesterday (Friday) afternoon and this weekend, half the phones aren't working while they "upgrade" the system. We've had whole days of not being able to access the viewing theatre. And we're not a small department - we've easily over 100 people. Plus there are outsourced shots to be approved. And still some final bits of sequence which aren't even locked yet.

So, please - everyone.

It's not over when the fat/ thin lady sings at the Wrap Party.

 

Some of us are still going, and really hoping to not have to work over Christmas - with or without added disruptions! Spare a thought for your post people this Christmas. We're still working really hard to make everyone look good.

A Day In The Life at Aardman VFX

Here's a sample day to show what I presently do at Aardman as the editor in the VFX department on Pirates. My job has evolved a lot since I first started and basically loaded and exported shots, and after 6 months I gained an assistant of my own - which helped a great deal.

Of course, there's no such thing as a typical day in a job like this. Some days are packed full to bursting, others more relaxed. On some days nothing breaks, on others.... well, yes. It changes around a lot. And of course it's all much less segregated than this.

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The blessing and curse of stop motion

 

 

It's a defining characteristic of stop motion animation that it takes a long time to make.

I've been on Pirates! for over a year now, in previs and VFX. They've been shooting for slightly longer than that, and are due to wrap in November. The processes generally associated with 'post' have been going on for even longer than that with animatics, dialogue records, and test work-ups to get the look right.

So you'd think that with an 18 month shoot, up to 12 times the length of a 'traditional' feature shoot, that keeping track of everything in post would be easy, right? 

 

Wrong.

 

Firstly, every single shot in the film has some form of VFX work. So that's over 1000. There are often foreground plates and background plates - some of which require re-syncing in edit.

There are rig-removals, greenscreen work, and entire environments to create in situations where it is impossible or impractical to animate on the floor. The big one in a pirate movie is obviously the water. There are several options to be chosen from creatively - some form of physical element which is animated along with the character/ ship/ sail/ other movements, which may not look realistic but allows for interaction on set; seperate plates for water which may not allow for interaction with the elements, although the interactive parts could be added in VFX with the bulk of the water; or total VFX creation which is potentially infinitely (until the film needs to be released!) tweakable.

Another major consideration is the shooting schedule. A lot of features are shot within a few weeks or months, especially those which are 90 minutes or less. Our 18 month shoot needs every day of shooting, and an incredible amount of coordination by our amazing production manager. We have different sets set up on over 40 units at the last count, several sets span multiple scenes from various stages of the film.... but also the relevant puppets need to be allocated to each set. There are more of certain major characters (also allowing for costume changes where relevant), but there's still not a lot of wriggle room. The impact of this is that sometimes shots get unexpectedly bumped up the schedule, some plates can get shot months later than the plates they go with, and sometimes script or edit changes happen which require re-shoots and the un-approval of previously approved takes.

The major plus side on Pirates! for the points above is that VFX is based in the same building that the movie is actually being shot in, and we can pop along to see people and live sets when necessary - or communicate changes and changed urgencies via the walkie channels. We can request clean plates (without the models), tracking passes (with markers at specific places), chrome ball photos (for lighting ref), and clarify technical requests or potential difficulties which may require a reshoot - all within about 30 minutes of the shot being finished - before they strike the set.

 

It's an amazing experience to be a part of, and being effectively "on set" is something which a lot of editing and/or VFX people may not often get the chance to be a part of. Aardman has now run its friends and family tours of some of the sets - which was a great experience for my parents who have supported me throughout film school and subsequent employment gaps.

It's also a great chance to work with some brilliant people. Our previz and VFX crews have worked on some fantastic projects in the past, and the editing team vary in experience from those who've worked on previous Aardman productions to those with a primarily dramatic experience base. Our workflow is constantly in flux as we encounter new requirements and difficulties, and the documentation and communication also changes over time as we find better ways to do things.

 

In this way, it's a totally ideal first feature for me to be working on. We have the time to make things better, and for me to suggest things as I see them. We have constant communication with the floor and the lovely directors who are on-site and split their time between pre-production (now largely over), production, and post - which allows for an appreciation of the challenges that they all face (again, often something not encountered in a post-production environment except by way of anecdote). AND I think we're going to get a rather good film out of it.

 

For more information on Pirates!, please see the official press release.

Working with the edit department (from the outside)

A few months ago I rather rapidly acquired a new job - my first on a feature, a stereoscopic stop-motion animation. But I'm not working in the editing department. They've been in place now for some time. I'm working in Previs and VFX. On an Avid.

Now, this was a rather contentious point. In fact, it still is. The previs reviews bring in a number of changes to the edit, where the editor isn't even present. As an editor, you become used to people making changes to the shots that you've selected - even not being present at the decision and therefore not being able to argue your case is something you have to live with on occasion. But this involves entire sequences being shaped away from the department. And is, understandably, somewhat frustrating.

I'm in a rather unique position on it all. I sympathise entirely with the editor's wish to be the one in control of these decisions. But from the previs perspective, the sequences need to be viewable at our reviews with the director. It was one of the reasons I was hired in the first place - to be able to tidy up sequences and show the director different possibilities within reviews without the entire thing having to go into the main edit suite and involve about twice as many people. But with the massively hectic schedule we have, the added complications of dialogue selects coming back on a near-daily basis, sequences being updated in edit with incoming shots and newly recorded/approved dialogue whilst they're being updated in previs to solve issues with sets, models, actions.... well, it's impossible to request the editor to attend all of our reviews, and impractical for previs notes to be given within edit reviews when there are so many feedback sessions required per sequence before they're approved.

The upshot of it all is that our approval workflow is changing on a monthly basis, as we sort out what's working and what isn't for our relative departments as well as the overall production. The meetings are vastly interesting as we all get to say what would work best for us, and then hear what that would imply for the others further down the line. It's a masterclass in communication and adaptation. And it's actually pretty damn enjoyable.
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