How to make a transatlantic VFX relationship work

New York-based prodco Engel Entertainment and London-based visual effects experts Jellyfish Pictures describe the process of working together on VFX shots from different sides of the pond for the new film Earth's Revenge. Here, in their own words, they give tips on how you can do the same.
September 8, 2008

New York-based prodco Engel Entertainment and London-based visual effects experts Jellyfish Pictures describe the process of working together on VFX shots from different sides of the pond for the new film Earth’s Revenge. Here, in their own words, they give tips on how you can do the same.

1) Start to talk about the project even before commissioning to make sure all eventualities are considered.

Heidi Burke met Phil Dobree of Jellyfish Pictures at a conference in New York in December 2007 to talk through shots for their upcoming film for A&E Television Networks’ History channel on the dust storms that swept across the USA in the 1930s. At the time, the film had not been given a green light by A&E, however Engel had the foresight to realize that early discussions would be essential. Jellyfish Pictures had started to make waves in the TV VFX world with major awards (including a BAFTA, VES and RTS for best visual effects), in particular for their work on the BBC series Fight For Life. Heidi attended a presentation by Phil on the making of Fight For Life in New York, during which he outlined the process and method of working with VFX. Phil managed to persuade Heidi that there shouldn’t be any problem with working between the US and UK, even given the comparative weakness in the dollar at the time, which has actually now begun to change in favor of the dollar.

2) Before filming starts, particularly if no shoot attendance is possible due to budget, hold discussions between the DOP, producers and VFX team to make sure all bases are covered.

Discussions between the team at Jellyfish Pictures and DOP and producers at Engel started before the shoot to clear up any uncertainties that may have arisen, and where possible Engel provided Jellyfish with location stills and a breakdown of the shots. At this point Jellyfish had already submitted more than one outline version of a budget and the processes they would adopt to complete the shots. Engel provided reference and expectations for what they hoped to achieve. The HBO series Carnivale provided good reference, as well as archival stills of the ‘black blizzards’ to show their scale and scope, to give a clear idea of the look Engel was after. This is always essential to achieve the best outcome. The more reference material and expectations that are covered at this stage the better. Jellyfish knew exactly what they would be expected to achieve and Engel felt confident they would get the results they wanted. Jellyfish had worked on similar effects for a BBC series called Nuclear Secrets that needed explosions and waves of dust ‘riding’ across the plains, so Engel felt confident that Jellyfish could produce the finished shots. Using the detailed shot list that they gave to Jellyfish, the Engel team shot plates in the field. If there were unexpected obstacles with weather or framing, a quick email to Jellyfish was sent off end of day and in the morning they had notes, which helped the team tailor their shots or pick up new ones. Once the Engel team was back in New York, they uploaded the plates to Jellyfish Pictures’ FTP site.

3) Send stills from the shoot to update and check as necessary.

Where necessary, the team at Engel was able to send stills to check with Jellyfish in the UK that the plate shots they were taking wouldn’t have a detrimental outcome on time and budget. Too often work is left to finish in post; this is not a sensible option in the constrained budget world of TV. It is much safer to make sure that obstacles in shots or angles and lighting set-up questions are all covered and checked rather than having to spend money in VFX cleaning up. In most of the shots the storms needed to be put in by Jellyfish coming over the horizon, and largely the questions covered related to what was between the camera and the CGI or layered storm that was going to be composited by Jellyfish.

4) Setup a good workflow/ pipeline via FTP.

The plates were shot with HD cam at 1280 by 720. These were sent over by Engel as TIFF image sequences via FTP. Jellyfish then worked on these plate shots compositing their dusts storms and effects, sending them back at the same resolution. Draft image sequences were sent back to Engel and cut into their edited show to see how the VFX were working. Once a shot was approved, the final HD image sequence was uploaded. Engel ultimately scaled these up to full HD 1920 X 1080. Jellyfish created an initial shot very early on, which was worked on at length to establish the look, movement and feel of the storm. Once this had been completed the team was able to establish a workflow for the following shots. Jellyfish initially always sent over a lower-resolution QuickTime for Engel to sign off before the full resolution shots were uploaded to the FTP site. The process was much the same as they would employ when working with a production company in the UK. The most important aspect was constant communication between the VFX supervisor at Jellyfish and the VFX supervisor at Engel. Consistency in communication is so important. Sometimes a new person stepping in to the mix mid-stream can cause slight hiccups. Given turnaround and time difference, it was also critical that feedback be given as soon as possible to keep the workflow going. Everything was in writing so it was clear and there was a paper trail on each graphic. At the end of the day, the overall impression left between the two companies was one of a job extremely well done. Engel was very pleased with the quality of the work provided by Jellyfish for a budget within their means, and was thrilled by a smooth transatlantic collaboration.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.