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

3D World - - CONTENTS -

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!”

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