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Art Directors And The New Age: Part Two

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Over the past few years, visual effects have taken a prominent position in most every film and television show. Entire sets are regularly fabricated, including characters themselves. How has the integration of practical and artificial sets and locations affected the art department? In this conclusion of our two part series “Art Directors And The New Age“ production designers Jim Bissell, Tom Sanders, Corey Kaplan and Alex McDowell share their viewpoints and practices in collaborating with the visual effects departments.

Marj Galas: I wanted to discuss VFX and art direction. With so many created environments regularly being utilized in films and television, what is the collaboration process like between the two departments? Does it start at the point of story boards? And when does the art department let go, and the visual effects department take over?

Tom Sanders:
I usually break it down a bit. It’s like motion capture or – well – there is a lot of different things that visual effects needs to work out. Especially if they are doing something like “The Hulk” or something similar, where they are actually trying to integrate an animated character as an actor into the film.

Jim Bissell: But even motion capture presents intrinsically design problems. You have to work out the design, then you have to work out the mo cap problems. If the person who picks the location has no knowledge of mo cap technical issues, they can pick the completely wrong locations.

TS: They have to design the shot; the mo cap thing. They have to make a stunt cable or a ladder or an apparatus to do a stand-in for an environment that doesn’t exist there.

JB: The environment has to have been designed, or else it doesn’t work.

TS: yes, you can’t just have people running around, jumping at random. You design around them.

JB: When I think about these guys that say, well, we’ll just put up some green screens and we’ll figure something out….

Corey Kaplan: One one of Tom Shaddack’s last films, “Evan Almighty“ some of the editing people told me he doesn’t normally do story boards but it was a whole sequence with an arc they were working with. They were determined they weren’t going to build a whole fricken arc. They had to nail down what he wanted (from the actors) and then build for that, then the rest would be added in CGI.

MG: That leads to something I’m really curious about. Do you have a color standard that’s shared between the art department and visual effects? Something that’s used when effects are built on or around a physical set, such as with the arc in “Evan Almighty?“

JB: Well, as we’ve all noted in HD TV, there is a slight color shift. There is also a crispness that doesn’t follow in that natural depth of field when you start adding in the middle ground in digital effects. That is one of the big problems. That’s why they should have a production designer and a DP working together catching all this stuff before it goes into the final pipeline. You then can catch the stuff that pulls an audience out of the show.

TS: They were making a big thing out of a program that was designed for“ Wall-E,“ a computer-generated animated thing. The program made it look like they had a live action camera creating distortion. It was meant to make it feel more alive, and not so perfect.

JB: That’s the big thing. I think producers are getting smarter about that. VFX was once the department in the mysterious box, and producers are beginning to realize what that mysterious box is doing. They already have a department set up to do, which is design stuff, paint stuff, and make stuff….

TS: …With artists who have been doing it for the whole movie….

JB: …And the fact that these two departments haven’t been fused for so long has been one of the reasons why VFX costs have skyrocketed. If the visual effects a production company is asking to have done in post hasn’t been planned properly, that gives the VFX company more work, and more work means more money. But if there is a production designer and a whole art department that understands visual effects and we have the VFX supervisor come over to the art department and be part of the team, it’s going to be a lot cheaper.

TS: (On a recent shoot) the producers were walking through my department and they see the illustrators and they asked what they were working on. I told them I was going to get them on effects. “No, you got to get rid of them.” They wouldn’t let my illustrators do any special effects shots because that’s a different budget. So what happens is they get all the bids for the VFX from all these companies, and then they nail the jobs. Then they don’t pay the illustrators and they have the effects houses do the artwork for free. The producers don’t care if it matches. Then what happens is, they take it to the director when he’s busy with this and that and at his least moment of clarity and say ”Hey, how do you like this?” and he says it’s great and then it’s in the movie. It happens almost all the time.

JB: It doesn’t happen on my movies because I make sure that every effect shot is…

TS: ..Yes, I draw as many as I can. I try to do that so everyone understands.

CK: There was some give and take on “Jumanji” if I remember correctly. There was some back and forth.

JB: But remember the previs that we did? You had to make sure we had the hallway the right way and all the physical effects figured out.

CK: I remember ILM doing character design and having them shut down when they got to production. And we used all that previs stuff. It was all good.

JB: But that was a whole different world. That was when studios looked at it in terms of their business model. VFX averaged $100,000 per a shot, and you get x many shots. On “Jumanji,”it was 64 shots. So the question was how do you get 64 shorts integrated into our live action sequences and get the most bang for our buck. It was planned, and we did a lot of stuff in camera.

CK: There were puppets, like the lions. They’re the one Robin Williams kept talking about on the talk shows. It was doing a very fay thing at him while he was swinging for his life. Ugh, I’ll get you, I’ll get you!

(Everyone chuckles)

M: It’s clear there are a lot of issues to work through in the coming years. What’s working really well for you right now, what are you enjoying?

JB: On the last two shows that I worked on I did work really closely with both the DP and the VFX supervisor. We made a move for $70,000.00 and it looks like it cost over $200,000,000.00. To me it was really satisfying. It was hard but it was really satisfying.

TS: You get a lot of bang for your buck in your shows.

JB: Yes, well…

TS: We are all working still, so that is working!

As the group was forced to move on, art director Alex McDowell (Fight Club, Watchmen, Man of Steel) sat down with me for a brief discussion. McDowell has spent the last five years building the 5D Society, a collective of creative minds geared towards discovering how to effectively merge the principles of art direction, gaming and architecture disciplines.

M: We had just been discussing various issues related to high ratio shooting, savvy cameras, and types of visual formats that have become so advanced that the look of the images pulls the viewer out of the story. Is there a way of finding solutions or developing standards, perhaps aided by the 5D Society?

A: I do, yes. 5D is focused on development stages, so maybe quite deliberately we are staying away from finishing conversations. The big push we are making in 5D is towards a fundamental cross divisional, cross platform, cross industry space. The tools that we are really looking at are inspective tools; they are not really about finishing, although there is a lot of overlap with tech. I do believe the tools we put into the beginning of the processes flow all the way to the end.

M: Do you still find it enjoyable to occasionally step back into more basic art direction, working with practical material, and taking a break from being so computer focused?

A: I feel like I’ve had a bit of a foot in both camps all the time. Except for animation projects, I’ve never been in 100% digital space. I get huge satisfaction from physical sets, but I actually get this other layer of satisfaction from doing a physical set that is un-designable without computers and digital tools. The central house in “Man of Steel” was sculpted by hand then scanned digitally. The scans were then enlarged, cut with computer driven tools, then the construction team put it together with plaster. There is no single place that the world resides anymore – it’s all about having to answer questions across all the different problem sets, just with a common story driver and technology driver hand in hand.

M: Do you find most directors understand that the blending of the two technologies has become necessary to make a realistic environment?

A: I don’t think very many people get it at all, actually. I think the problem is if you are brought up through a traditional film background, it’s hard to make the leap to the technological, and if you come from digital effects, it’s hard to make the leap to the physical. At the moment we have a very polarized industry. I’m now teaching at USC, and I’m really trying to say there is no difference. There are just forms and application of the right tool for the right job, as it always has been. It’s just the tools we use now have different capabilities, and perhaps there are more of them. My hope is that the new generation will be the ones who have learned this, and can keep a foot on both sides of the line.

To review Part I in this series, visit: