Movies have reached a state with Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) in which teams of artists can render vehicles, buildings, explosions, animals, and people on a level of photo-realism that can be eerie and even disorienting. This has allowed groundbreaking films like Avatar to create full CGI characters and environments and expand the definition of filmmaking. However, while a film like Avatar is impressive technologically and, on many levels, enjoyable, it’s still obviously animated. That’s not inherently good or bad; it’s just not what excites me about visual effects. As a VFX artist, I’m more interested in the idea of creating unique effects by building practical sets, props, and equipment, while also employing photographic techniques like perspective, stop motion, and rotoscoping — to put it simply, using the computer to enhance practical effects, rather than replace them.
Sam Worthington in Avatar (2009) © 20th Century Fox
Digital vs Practical
Our eyes are the ultimate lie-detector test, and if realism is our end goal, it always starts with capturing as much as possible in-camera. At some point, the computer becomes necessary to stitch everything together and render a final effect, but up until that point, everything that can be shot in-camera, should be. Sometimes that involves a green screen, rotoscoping, wire removal, even building ridiculous contraptions like a television helmet for an actor to wear. Its all for the sake of realism and creating a seamless effect. The most gratifying moment for a VFX artist is when an intelligent person asks an absolutely ridiculous question like, “Did you actually blow up that dog?”
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar (2014) © Paramount Pictures
In an interview with the Directors Guild of America, Christopher Nolan — director of such blockbusters as Inception and Interstellar — expressed a similar view of CGI. “The thing with computer-generated imagery is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool for making better visual effects,” he told the DGA. “But I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation.”
Nolan is suggesting that good visual effects require forethought and innovation, not just fast computers, using expert planning to determine which elements can be shot and which effects will require some level of CGI. This concept is something that I personally refer to as the “Arnold Palmer Effect,” based on the popular beverage — it’s the perfect blend of capturing real people, places, and things in-camera with the right amount of computer-generated imagery to make the final effect feel seamless. Below are a few examples of how I’ve used the Arnold Palmer Effect to create these results on little or no budget in my own productions.
The Shades (Web Series)
Mike Barnett was my classmate at Syracuse University, and we now co-own Novelty Hat Productions. Mike is a wizard when it comes to creating visual effects on a limited budget. From years of compositing VFX shots, he’s learned how to prioritize what is absolutely necessary to capture on set and what can easily be reproduced by the computer.
One example that comes to mind is from a web series our company is producing called “The Shades”. We had a scene that required a police car and, as Mike explains, “We had no budget to rent a cop car, but one of our crew members mentioned he had access to a white mustang.”
The decals on the car were from some images that Mike found on Pond5 and elsewhere. He cut and sized them in Adobe Illustrator and then brought them into After Effects and motion-tracked them to the car. “The trickiest part was the police lights,” he reveals. “After my research, I settled on some profile-view still images of police lights and silhouetted them in Photoshop. The motion blur really helped sell the effect as natural. After that, it was a matter of adding some lens flares and level adjustments on top of the car to achieve the flashing lights.”
What makes Mike a good VFX supervisor is that he’s able to identify potential problems while on set. For example, he knew that filming the car from a profile view would make adding decals in post easier and save him some work. He also knew that he would need a solid point that he could motion-track on the car — the mirror. In an ideal world, we would have had an actual police car, but in the end, the effect works, because the audience doesn’t doubt that there’s actually a car driving through the space. The foundation is real, while the computer creates the final result. That’s the Arnold Palmer Effect.
Running to the Sea (Music Video)
This is a music video I made for the Röyksopp song “Running to the Sea”. The project required the creation of a character who is human in every way, but has a vintage television set for a head. One option was replacing the actor’s head with an entirely CGI television, but I had a sense that using a CGI head wouldn’t feel as personable, and would be harder to make seamless. The other option was to try to strap a functioning television set to the actors head, and have live playback on the screen — however, that seemed dangerous and, quite frankly, impossible. Instead, we tested and then built a practical television helmet that the actor could wear comfortably, with the screen and all electronics removed. The screen was to be added in post production, using a similar motion-tracking technique to the one that Mike used on the police car in the example above.
We shot the entire film with the actor wearing this helmet, and then, in post-production, we used NUKEX, a compositing software, to add the contents of the screen onto the physical helmet — resulting in an effect that looks more photo-realistic than a CGI television head ever could have.
We also inserted reflective tin foil in place of the glass screen, in order to provide natural reflections, which then helped in the compositing phase.
At the end of the film, the character sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, as seen in the storyboards below. Again, we were faced with the same two options — create a CGI character and animate him sinking, or shoot somebody in a pool and make it look like the ocean. As you probably guessed, the best solution was a combination of those two things. We shot some footage in a pool of the character hitting the water and sinking — this was the practical effect. We then shot the character on a green screen pretending to sink in water. The combination of the two works better than either of them could alone. The pool footage allowed us to capture live elements like bubbles, the way his clothing reacts to water, and a real human body, not a computer-generated character. Meanwhile, shooting the character on a green screen allowed us to put him into any environment we wanted.
The next question became, “How do we get to the ocean floor?” To accomplish that, we found some underwater footage on Pond5 that cost us less than $40 — and saved us the massive headache of going scuba diving.
Using After Effects, we removed the green screen and isolated the actor wearing the helmet. We composited that footage onto the ocean-floor clip and added some additional textures, like air bubbles, to help place the character in the space.
We also animated him slowly sinking, in a way that gives the weightless feeling of being in water. Once he was composited and animated properly, we added some color, as well as some video distortion similar to the static found on an old VHS tape. The final result is a surreal scene where the character is essentially drowning in the undersea realm, and as he fades, the video becomes more distorted to match the emotion.
Of course, storytelling should always remain the primary objective, and the effects only serve to tell that story. This story was about a man revisiting memories of an old love in the style of watching old VHS tapes. We were able to tell that story in a compelling way by employing visual effects — some practical and some digital. We were able to create a realistic character with a TV for a head, and our only expense was a broken old JVC television, which we got for free. By combining practical effects with compositing software like After Effects, we were able to create an effect seamless enough for people to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. I know this because, after seeing this video, people turn and ask, “How did you get a TV onto that guy’s head?”
Jon Conklin is a filmmaker and visual effects artist. He received his BFA in Transmedia at Syracuse University and is co-owner of Novelty Hat Productions. You can follow him on Instagram @mrjonconklin.