vfx diary – part 2: The shoot
The second of 3D World’s special VFX Diary series sees visual effects supervisor Stephan Fleet share his top tips and tricks for shooting
We continue our VFX Diary series as Stephan Fleet shares his top tips for getting the most out of a shoot
In part 1 of 3D World’s VFX Diary series, we learned from experienced visual effects supervisor Stephan Fleet about the important things to keep in mind during pre-production.
Now, using examples from Fleet’s career in overseeing episodic effects, we look at the role of the visual effects supervisor during the shoot, a stage in the process that is often referred to as ‘production’.
What actually happens on a shoot?
Several people who are part of the visual effects process might be required on set for the shoot. This includes the overall VFX supervisor, a dedicated on-set supervisor, various vendor-based supervisors and artists responsible for data-wrangling or surveying on set.
“At its core,” expands Fleet, “a TV or streaming on-set supervisor is responsible for making sure all planned VFX shots go as smoothly as possible and that the proper data and imagery is acquired. They also help troubleshoot if anything comes up that may require VFX help or impact on budgets.”
It’s during the shoot that a visual effects supervisor will be directly collaborating with other departments and department heads, such as the director, director of photography, producers, grips, electrics, costume designer, make-up team and props. Here, a VFX supervisor might share previs done for a particular sequence, or be required to come up with on-the-fly solutions for filming a scene or getting the required elements, say, on greenscreen.
“You’re working with all of those people to get all the pieces of the puzzle and paint
a beautiful picture,” says Fleet. “It’s about understanding possible camera movements. How cranes work. How Steadicams and gimbals work. Russian Arms. Studio mode versus handheld. It’s about watching the screen and feeling the composition in front of you as it unfolds. Suggesting intelligent camera moves or even, at times, performance shifts, that help build the best world for your show.”
Fleet also warns that it’s important not to only think about visual effects. He suggests not inundating other crew members with Vfx-speak. “That’s like yelling at someone louder who doesn’t speak your language. It doesn’t help. Instead, take it upon yourself to learn other dialects of the set. Make sure you work with the crew and understand their hardships. Saying, ‘We need 80 feet of greenscreen out here,’ last minute, at night, in the rain, isn’t going to buy you a lot of friendship.”
Indeed, knowing set etiquette is a major part of being a visual effects artist or
supervisor on the shoot. Fleet’s main rules here are, “Try and be as nice to everyone as you can, while still being firm. You don’t want to get stepped on. But you don’t want to be a jerk. This is where understanding what other departments do is important.”
One experience early in Fleet’s career has guided his on-set approach ever since. “On one of my first TV pilots, I was outside on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, California, doing some basic background replacement stuff. I was super nervous. The director of photography (DP), who was nice in preproduction, asked me if I wanted a car windshield in or out of a car. I hesitated, I wasn’t sure. He then started screaming, at the top of his lungs, ‘In or out!’ I made a snap decision to take it out. Then, later that day, I took out my light meter – I had one from film school – and measured the foot candles on a greenscreen. I was, more or less, just curious as to what the light level was, as a personal study. Anyway, the DP caught me out of the corner of his eye and started screaming, ‘I’m the DP, I measure the light, I know how to light a greenscreen!’
The lesson learned here, for Fleet, was two-fold; to make sure to respect the roles of others on set, but also to be aware that people will scream in high-pressure situations. That’s simply a reality sometimes in production.
efficiency on set
It is usually a fast-paced environment during the shoot. While it’s important to try and acquire as much data and reference as possible while filming is taking place, or to place tracking markers in as many places as you can, or take detailed notes, there can also be a limited time for all that to happen. Most VFX supervisors do not want to slow production down.
However, Fleet says there are a number of ways to acquire the right things on set in as an efficient way as possible. For example, HDRI photography – which helps with re-creating the correct lighting in any CG elements added later – has become a lot faster and easier, suggests Fleet. “I use a Ricoh Theta V with a colour chip chart. It’s a fast solution to grabbing a pretty good HDRI. I also take a ton of photos. Now, organising thousands of photos is timeconsuming, so I try and hone in on textures, environments and layouts that I need photos of and get just what I need.”
Fleet tends to rely on a Panasonic GH5 camera, or GH5S for better low light, for on-set reference capture and HDRIS. “A smaller, lighter, digital shutter means you can shoot photos while rolling,” he says. “It is also one of the few smaller cameras that can shoot a 10-bit 422 vlog colour mode in 4K, which is great for plates or back-up stuff. I also came up with this technique, using the 6K photo mode, that allows me to take a very fast Photoscan of a subject. It’s not nearly as good as scanning an actor in a facility, but I have been able to pull off reasonably good 3D scans of heads and bodies in minutes.”
Capturing reference with a chrome ball is something often associated with on-set VFX work, but it’s a method Fleet has largely ignored. Instead, he prefers the use of his Theta V and a unique trick that, until now, he has rarely shared with anyone.
“I tie a weight to some string around the nodal point of my lens. The string is at such a height that if I hold the camera up at chest height, the weight dangles just a few feet off the ground. Something like a 12-dollar plumb bob from Home Depot works great as the weight. I then look down at the weight and centre it over a penny. I take bracketed photos, looking down at the penny and stepping around it. This lets me spin around nodally, or close to nodally. Then I use PTGUI to stitch the stuff together. It usually works pretty well, but I also don’t really care if the seams aren’t perfect.”
tales From timeless
For the pilot episode of NBC series Timeless, Fleet helped orchestrate the crash of the Hindenburg airship from 1937. It was a sequence where a research scout of the original location had been done, and storyboards and previs completed. A working airfield was then used for the shoot.
“One big challenge for me on these shots was scale,” recalls Fleet. “The Hindenburg was just about 800 feet long. That’s huge.
“take it upon yourself to learn other dialects of the set. make sure you work with the crew and understand their hardships” Stephan Fleet, visual effects supervisor
When we got there, there was this idea that we could shrink everything down and use a smaller patch of grass to get the shots we needed. But I pointed out that the people running away from the Hindenburg would look really huge, it just wouldn’t work. When we tried to push people back further, it turns out there was this almost invisible – to the naked eye – ditch in the grass, designed specifically to keep people from going further out in the field!
“So what to do? Well, one thing came to me. I’d watched the real footage time and time again. The cameras back then were all on ‘sticks’ or tripods. Which meant to match the archival footage for all the crash shots we could be ‘nodal.’ Nodal is like the great compromise in TV these days. No one wants a ‘lock off’, where the camera doesn’t move, but an operated pan-and-tilt-only camera move can be a good compromise.”
With those things in mind, the production team filmed the plates (the Hindenburg and crash effects would be added later). These were acquired almost like still tiles for a panorama, but on video. In post, VFX artists were able to stitch together the plates and re-create the foundfootage and zoom-like tripod shots. “It worked quite well,” says Fleet. “And it made me remember, always have a back-up plan on set. Or be able to think fast, at least.”
Fleet also shot fire elements for views of the crash wreckage, even though the demise of the airship was done as a simulation. “Special effects had rigged this giant metallic structure, probably about 60 feet wide by 30 feet high, to light up. Here I am, in the middle of the night, it’s freezing cold, but this giant furnace lights up the world. I can remember the feeling of the heat burning my face! I took my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera – I would use a GH5 now – and a stack of ND filters, and filmed a bunch of fire elements. You just can’t beat real fire – experiences like this are why I love making TV shows!”
Visual effects supervisor stephan Fleet during production on the nbc series timeless
Greenscreened puppeteers rehearse performing the reverie balcony stunt with actress sarah shahi
the set of a war-related episodic shoot for timeless. During on-location shooting, the VFX supervisor will need to work with many other departments, including makeup, props and special effects
left (above): Fire elements for shots of the aftermath of the hindenburg crash in timeless were acquired as separate plates left (below): Just the necessary section of the hindenburg control car section is filmed on location for timeless Below: Fleet’s typical kit and kit bag that he brings onto set. says Fleet: “the perfect kit allows me a lot of versatility and is also not too heavy, so i can stay nimble and save my back!”