H is for History of VFX

Cinefex magazine’s Graham Edwards discusses the history of visual effects, asking a panel of VFX experts including Pixomondo’s Bjørn Mayer. Read excerpts from the original article below.

How important is the history of visual effects to the modern VFX professional? In an industry built on innovation and imagination, does anyone really need to remember the past? Who wants to linger in bygone times when there’s a bright, shiny future waiting right around the corner? It’s like the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said:

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

But wait! Maybe history’s not so bad. In fact, isn’t history just about the most important subject going? The past is a vast repository of wisdom, knowledge and experience. We’d be fools to ignore it! The philosopher Machiavelli was on board with this:

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past.”

When it comes to visual effects, who are we to believe? To find out, I put two simple questions to a panel of VFX experts:

How important is it for a modern visual effects artist to know about the history of VFX?

Can you name a VFX sequence you’ve worked on that was directly inspired by something from the past?

Bjørn Mayer – Visual Effects Supervisor, Pixomondo

“Yes, knowing the history of visual effects is important – even though VFX is considered a “young” field, we have a long and fruitful history to learn from. Technology is always changing, giving us better and more powerful tools, but we often use those tools in addition to – or to augment – previous techniques. That’s why it’s important to know as much as possible about the field – not only camera techniques and computer skills, but also how to find a clever work-around if needed.

A visual effects artist is not just a button-pusher in front of a computer, or a single-skilled technician aware of one or two software packages. Most of us are creative, visual problem-solvers driven by passion and the diligence to go the extra mile to generate the shot that helps to tell the story. The more techniques an artist knows and can draw from, the richer their ability to create extraordinary visual effects.

In Oblivion, a large part of the action takes place in the Skytower, a luxurious glass residence built high up in the clouds. To create the surrounding environment, we could have shot everything in front of a bluescreen and inserted the background later in post. But it would have been very difficult to extract all the reflections from the plates. Instead, the Skytower was build as a full size set, surrounded by a 42-foot x 500-foot projection screen. Cloudscapes were projected by twenty-one cinema grade FullHD projectors hidden in the set. Not only did this help with subtleties like eye reflections and skin subsurface scattering, but it also helped the actors, because they could see the environment they would be in. Front projection is an old technique that’s been used in movies for decades. By scaling it up for Oblivion, we were standing on the shoulders of giants to achieve seamless effects.”

Watch a featurette about the creation of the Skytower sequence:

Now we’ve heard from our panel, I’d love to hear from you. How important is VFX history to you, either as a fan or an industry professional? Should the old-school be locked in a cupboard and the key thrown away, or could today’s young whippersnappers learn a thing or two from the textbooks? Or do you think the past should keep itself to itself, allowing the forward-thinkers to spread their wings and fly?

Perhaps, like me, you believe that there’s room for both, that past and future are not divided things at all, but simply different aspects of a single continuum. As William Faulkner wrote:

“There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity.”

Thanks to all our experts at the following companies:

Digital Domain
Industrial Light & Magic

Special thanks to Greg Grusby, Joni Jacobson, Helen Moody, Tiffany Tetrault and Jonny Vale. X-Men: Days of Future Past image copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull photograph copyright © 2008 by Lucasfilm Ltd and Paramount Pictures.

To read the original article in its entirety and see thoughts by other VFX experts, check out Cinefex’s blog here.