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VFX Advantage conference helps filmmakers hone visual FX, 3D skills

Conference expands to two days at Ravensbourne.

On July 4-5, the Directors Guild Of Great Britain held the second VFX Advantage Conference at Ravensbourne, funded by Creative Skillset. Through case studies, lectures and discussions, the conference allowed filmmakers to gain insights into the latest techniques and practices in visual effects and 3D production, with particular application to feature films.

The conference content was divided into two sections. Day One focused on visual effects, day two on stereoscopic production. Attendance was diverse, with a few delegates still doing degrees, others with decades of experience under their belts, and the crafts represented included cinematographers, compositors, stereographers, editors, directors, producers and screenwriters. In a recent industry survey, 50% of those polled said they needed help understanding how technology is impacting their job. The VFX Advantage Conference sought to meet this need.

Producer Vikki Scott of Fahrenheit Films organized this year’s conference, with Directors Guild chair Ivor Benjamin, which was expanded from last year’s single-day event. “Visual effects and 3D have been specialist subjects that are now becoming more mainstream. It’s everywhere. We’ve had interest from visual effects supervisors who are in adverts, but who want to cross over into film.” It was important to Scott to keep the conference focus on professional feature film development. “We could have opened it out to complete beginners or people interested in the film industry but not working in it, but we wanted people who had a credit who would really be working in these areas.”

Scott, currently producing Fortunate Sons, starring Emily Watson, believes visual effects have moved well beyond the summer blockbuster, “I am interested in how it’s going to cross over into other genres. I do think that what can sometimes happen with visual effects is that people forget about story. The really great films have a fantastic story in place as well as all the visual effects.”

Sue Rowe of Cinesite gave the Day One opening visual effects address. Her keynote on the visual effects of John Carter gave a thorough overview of the visual effects supervisor’s place in the current industry. The vfx supervisor was often “First in, last out,” Rowe said, particularly with larger, design-intensive movies. The traditional roles in the film are becoming blurred which Rowe didn’t count as a negative. John Carter, she said, was a major case study for the ever-evolving role of the vfx supervisor onset. Rowe believes that early involvement with the vfx team paid dividends, “Preparation is my big thing. If you prepare for it, then you can make better adjustments when things do go wrong.” Still, visual effects were not a substitute for capturing an image on camera wherever possible. “The best visual effects are when you can get it on location, then enhance it.”

Rowe was followed by Dan Barrow, John Carter’s VFX Producer. Barrow addressed the negative hysteria over the film by noting that John Carter’s effects department actually came in under budget. Other highlights of the visual effects sessions were Nvizage’s Martin Chamney on previs for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, SFX Supervisor Alexander Gunn on special effects for The Expendables 2, and Cinesite’s Simon Stanley Clamp on Moon.

Day Two’s 3D sessions were kicked off by a keynote from cinematographer Geoff Boyle, whose Cinematography Mailing List (CML) is a resource revered by cinematographers worldwide. Boyle, in his usual style, emphasized the practical aspects of 3D production over theory, urging people to experiment, giving case studies from his own experience. He noted that most of 3D case studies presented – at VFX Advantage and elsewhere – are inevitably examples from high-end, high-budget productions with tremendous resources at their disposal, which may not have much to teach most filmmakers. “We all obsess over Neimann Marcus and Fortnum & Mason, but most of us are going to be working in Sainsbury’s.” Boyle believes that 3D production needs to be taken out of its ivory tower if it is to evolve and achieve its potential. He cited cinematography legend Jack Cardiff who won his first Oscar for Black Narcissus when he defied the heads at Technicolor who told him he wasn’t using their camera properly. “Throw the men in the white coats out!” urged Boyle.

Other 3D speakers included, Chris Parks of Vision 3, editor Keith Mottram, Chrisophe Malessa of Pixomondo, Prometheus VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers and Onsite CTO Richard Mills.

Though the viewpoints and experiences presented at VFX Advantage were diverse, there was virtually unanimous agreement that the business and technology of digital imagery is moving and evolving at an exponential rate, a truth frightening for some, very exciting for others.

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