Practical CG Art in film
Slavik IA talking about practical visual effects and CG generated effects
Every year for the past decade or so, a very dull and one-sided monologue takes place. It is a monologue about disdain for Computer Generated (CG) Visuals and the unconditional love and praise of PRACTICAL FX and STUNTS from famous Directors, even more so famous Actors and not so famous “Youtube Film Critics".
The reality is that both PRACTICAL and CG VFX have their strengths and weaknesses and allow different elements to be sewn and embedded into the picture. The result is best when both are used correctly either by themselves or in conjunction with each other, but this topic is actually a lot deeper than it initially seems.
I wanted to approach this subject from a DIRECTOR’S point of view, despite my decade- long VFX background. In this time, I’ve been a part of countless multi-million dollar feature films, expensive commercials for top brands and even my own projects. I know all about the meticulous work that goes on into the background, but I also know that VFX as ART is rarely explored.
So, what can happen when money, politics, and deadlines were no longer the driving forces behind it all, but rather only TIME and TALENT?
Live Action Film Director
Slavik IA is most known for his work on TR2N , Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, but after a decade in the industry Slavik decided to steer away from vfx and to direct his own films, music videos and commercials.
On top of live action directing, Slavik is a co-creator of Orange Wolf Content alongside his creative partner Jack Kasprzak. Orange Wolf Content creates and develops new and exciting content such as feature films, episodic shows, interactive apps and commercial campaigns.
cg VS practical
Take the shot from the original Terminator of the T-800, which moves in a rigid and somewhat clunky way. Both the rig and the movement which were actually limitations of technology at that point in time are its greatest strength. Not showing the full Terminator adds to the unknown, disconnected feel of the machine.
This movement is actually pretty bad in the context of what is considered "good’ animation, but it adds to the chilling effect that is clearly absent from the CG T-800 from the most recent Terminator film (Terminator Genisys). This Terminator feels like it could knock on your door right this second.
This CG Terminator, on the other hand, has incredible movement, above and beyond what was done in the original. It breaks walls and interacts with objects and weapons while trying to kill the film’s protagonists, correctly and seamlessly integrated with the live action.
The end result however, while spectacular in its look, lacks a sense of horror, especially compared to its practical counterpart. Less is more in the case of Terminator, but can you get the best of both worlds? Yes!
This is a Commercial Campaign that I created and developed. The main character is a mannequin that imagines what he would do if he had the ability to move. He sprints, cycles, shatters windows, and falls in and out of love, but all of this is always contrasted by the actual version of himself that is completely still and unable to move, only to think. The two versions of himself had to be completely identical for this concept to work.
This character is very different from T-800 in almost every way possible. He doesn’t have or need rigid movement, and is not trying to destroy anyone or anything. Instead he reflects on humanity from an observer's point of view, while trying to mimic it. He is after all “The most interesting mannequin in the World.”
We had a very talented (Ryan Cargill) actor play the part and decided to go with CG head replacement. As much as I wanted PRACTICAL prosthetics to work, it was simply impossible to do it correctly.
No person on earth had the mannequin’s proportions and physical characteristics. To pull off the seamless transitions, we had to turn to CG, but the invaluable lessons from the PRACTICAL FX were still applied. In the early development of the character a question regarding animation came up. Do we add facial animation to the already convincing performance to bring him even more to life - or do we keep his face static?
I decided to keep his face completely rigid and retain the important subtleties of the actor’s performance. Any extra animation to the face would not add, but actually distract the viewer and take away from the acting. From a VFX point of view the animation is minimal, but that is exactly what the character needed. When you watch the final spot, you pay attention to one thing only, the persona. You don’t even think about CG. Less was more and taking the best of CG and combining it with elements of limitation that PRACTICAL provides, delivered a seamless story, rather than a CG spectacle.
exploration of FX as ART
The greatest strength of PRACTICAL FX is what it doesn’t show. -Slavik IA ©
While it is a byproduct of its limitation, it adds an incredible value to the image. It doesn’t work in every situation, but when it does it works really well.
But I will go as far as saying that there is one major advantage that CG has over PRACTICAL FX. This advantage enables the exploration of FX as ART.
PRACTICAL FX has and will always be limited by the level of technology available at that time. Hence, filmmakers have relied on creativity to solve those shortcomings, but that creativity usually stopped as soon as the problem was solved. With CG on the other hand, the final images are a direct result of its creator’s talent. CG VFX, no longer bound by the performance of computing power, lets anyone with the right skillset create whatever their imagination can conjure up. It opens up a territory which PRACTICAL FX can’t tread in practice.
Just you and the unknown
Imagine if you were able to visualize the most beautiful sunrise possible. Yes, possible. It would have all of the elements of what you think of as beautiful. Vivid, rich colors, brought to life by highlights on one end and deepened by shadows on the other. The gorgeous glow of the sun or two; maybe even more. It's reflection in the water with a mountain background. Perhaps visible nearby moons or planets, a hint of our galaxy and universe. Keep going. Done? OK, great!
Is this the end of visual exploration? Done and next? No need for any more sunrises?
What if you tried to keep pushing this image? What would you visualize next? The good news is that you are knocking on the door of ART, the bad?
ART is not a very pleasant place. This is a place is where traditional creativity does very little for the image. Completely new ways of thought must be applied. This is where CREATIVITY truly exists. A place where fine draftsmen shed their old skin and venture into the UNKNOWN. This is where your image starts to take on a deeper meaning and appreciation. It begins to TRANSCEND its visual attributes into something else. ART exploration is a foggy void, in which there are no visible paths or directions for you to take and no one in which to turn.
I had a rare chance to fully dive into the world of VFX from a completely different perspective and to explore the UNKNOWN beyond imagery that masks it.
MIND CHOKE HOLD
I was in complete and absolute creative control for the first time both as a DIRECTOR and also as a VFX ARTIST on a “MIND CHOKE HOLD” music film. This five-minute film, which took me three years of my life to complete is a direct reflection of what I was capable. I didn't have to deal with the traditional conveyor belt process and the 3 p.m. dailies, the politics of too many chefs in the kitchen and most important of all, the necessity for photo-real imagery of Hollywood productions. I had a real opportunity to start exploring VFX not as a cold, rigid process that only exists in order to complete the final image, but as an entity, a persona that is able to stand on its own and become the story.
This freedom allowed my VFX experience to help my DIRECTORIAL ability in a strange, but the ultimately rewarding way. I started thinking less about the photo-real/high production quality or integration of the final image that is constantly on VFX artists’ minds and much more about how VFX could enhance the story beyond the image, the same way PRACTICAL FX added its own elements.
I allowed "mistakes" and "artifacts" to breathe and allowed them to lead me to new places of thought and experimentation. I started to feel and most importantly recognize nuances that enhanced the project.
And if they didn’t make it into the final image, the exploration itself left many questions and ideas in my mind. The important part was that it got me thinking in a completely different way. I wasn’t always able to TRANSCEND, but I started to TRY whenever I saw the opportunity.
In the VFX industry, these "mistakes" would not live beyond a single day of 3 p.m. dailies; they would be corrected the next day without question or thought. The DIRECTOR would ultimately never see them, and their short-lived existence would never have a chance to question, change or challenge his or her creative mind.
When I first saw the final frames of more than 100 shots rendered for the background of my music film, I noticed a flickering in one of the passes. It didn't look very good from a VFX perspective; the quality of the render was set too low and my first thought was to re-render at a higher quality and "fix" the artifacts.
I thought if someone from my industry would notice this mistake, my reputation would suffer. After all, what would it say about my critical eye. When I actually re-rendered one of the shots with the new "fixed" background, it no longer flickered; it was solid and visually correct, but something was suddenly missing.
As time went by, I realized the flickering backgrounds were not only helping the story and the mood, they actually added a new character into the story. A character I didn't even foresee in the initial conception of the project.
"...This is mass illusion…," a lyric from one of the verses in the “MIND CHOKE HOLD” song, went hand in hand with this flickering image. Sure, there were already many concepts and themes revolving around those words, but none came from a place like this. It felt projected, it felt organic and alive, it felt like another element that pushed the story.
From a DIRECTOR’S point of view, these were not “bad” VFX, but another element to enhance the themes and ideas of the film. The flickering “Maze of Stairs” became a silent character, quietly joining the rest of the cast. It might not be something you’d notice visually right away, but you would sense it.
What I realized was that when I no longer could add to the image in a traditional way, I reached the threshold and had to start thinking more conceptually and outside of the box. I had to start layering ideas and concepts. Absolutely nothing was off limits. Whenever I’d try to find a context to my exploration, I found myself in that same fog with which I began. I couldn’t see it, but could sense the difference very strongly. I sensed the TRANSCENDENCE, even though it was hard to describe and very few people actually understood what I was trying to do.
Maybe ART is a place of many questions and rarely answers. I was lucky enough to experience this process early on in my DIRECTORIAL career and I hope to do so again. It seems like there is a lot to explore