By Ann Fisher
Issue: October 1, 2004


Post interviewed a cross section for this article - a production house, an animation house, plus various post production facilities that routinely provide onsite visual effects supervision. Their experience made it easy for them to tick off tips about who was the best type of supervisor to get the job done and, most critically, exactly what they should do to get the best results most efficiently.

For visual effects, virtually all types of effects require post attention onsite - ones with motion control and tracking, ones using greenscreen, anything that's going to be composited later.

"There are some things you simply cannot do at all unless there's someone there - virtual camera tracking, HDR lighting - but in general there's always something that's going to go wrong no matter how brilliant everyone involved is," says Jonathan Keeton, co-founder and creative director of Radium (, an LA post house that provides effects for spots, music videos and feature films. "There's no way that someone who does not do what we do everyday, day in and day out, would know all the weird little tricks that are available to fix problems that occur. If there's no visual effects supervisor on set, they'll overshoot. Sometimes for very simple things they'll spend maybe half an hour shooting something on set that we can paint out in five minutes. Sometimes they will forget to lock their camera off and shoot a clean plate and cost us three days."

Lava animator Todd Peleg is pictured on set taking refrence shots for a Florida Lottery MegaMoney spot.
Lack of preparedness cuts both ways; it's not just the directors and clients who can get burned. "It is a common failing of junior visual effects supervisors to go, 'Oh, you know, can you also do this?' which is often a $15,000 request," adds Keeton. "It only takes screwing up like this a few times and it's in your bones and you never want it to happen again for the rest of your life."


Someone with 100 percent knowledgable in the field. Blueyed Pictures (, with offices in Los Angeles, London and Tokyo, is a production company that reps directors and produces spots plus music videos. If the job has a small crew, the director will supervise the effects. Depending on the level of intensity, a supervisor from the post house will be brought on set. For this fall's Price Waterhouse Internet campaign - with nine :05 segments using colored water as a metaphor - Blueyed visual effects director Jeff McGann provided supervision. The client was Hill Holiday and it did the post in-house, slicing the Blueyed segments into the client's Web site.

The campaign features nine questions superimposed over liquid backgrounds. Clicks on the questions cause two drops of water to fall in super slo-mo and come together as one in a pool of water. Different dyes and oil were added to the water and these concoctions were shot using a Phantom camera, which shot at super slo-mo speeds up to 15,000 frames per second. A paint gun with different color pellets shot a balloon filled with oil underwater with the effects lensed both below and above the surface. Blueyed producers located the specialized camera and Panavision lenses, which fed its data directly into a hard drive with monitor for immediate viewing on set at NYC's Ceco Stages.

This metallic ball was later re-created in Softimage.
Someone realistic to the shooting demands of a particular project. Music videos and car commercials are very different animals. "If this is a music video, you know you're not going to get a locked-off camera and you know you're not going to deal with motion control because the artists aren't going to sit around for it," says Blueyed executive producer, Brent Coert, whose career started in visual effects doing miniatures for Species 2 and Deep Impact. "In a 14-hour day, you can't spend eight hours on motion control. So you know you're dealing with tracking, you make sure you put up a bunch of Xs everywhere."

"In commercials, if you're dealing with cars, you say 'motion control,' the agency knows. We're going to be sitting around, it's going to be one pass, two passes... It takes, more than anything, the patience and understanding of the process."

Someone with a strong personality. "It's a trust between the director and the visual effects supervisor because when this visual effects supervisor says, 'I need another pass,' the director's first [reaction] is, 'no,' adds Coert. "There's a really delicate relationship. It does take a very strong personality as a visual effects supervisor to say at that moment on that set because they know the realities later on in their world how that's going to impact them."

Adds Radium's creative director Keeton, "Ultimately we're the ones who stay here until it looks good. It's not like we did our part and whoever's next down the stream makes it look a little better. I've been doing this for over 20 years so I know exactly what that feels like. And it doesn't matter what excuses people give in advance of that, we're the ones who have to clean it up. If we don't insist on certain things we literally either simply cannot achieve the result ever or else it takes a gazillion more hours to do."

Rhythm & Hues CG director John-Mark Austin was recently on set for an X-Men videogame spot. Previz played a key role.


Provide a detailed methodology. Radium gives a shot-by-shot breakdown to the production company very early in the process and revises it at critical junctures, like after the tech scout location report. "It's very tense out there, and there's a lot of money going down," says Keeton. "If something [gets screwed] up and there's anyone who can be blamed, they tend to be blamed. It's very important, we discovered, particularly because a lot of people don't understand why we care about shooting clean plates. So, when we do insist, we've already laid the groundwork and no one's surprised."

For :30 and :45 McDonald's spots celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac, Radium had an enormous amount of discussion before the shoot in Australia began. The visual premise is of a man - whose appearance doesn't change, just like the Big Mac's - walking down a boardwalk that is updated 40 years through timelapse photography. The city environment was created in CG with Alias Maya, with compositing done in Discreet Inferno.

The motion control shoot was done on the beach, with clean background tracking plates and a huge amount of tracking marks for everyone who interacted with him. The camera rig then had to be reassembled on stage to shoot all the timelapse greenscreen elements, which had to line up exactly. The original plan of shooting everything on location and pulling difference mattes (an alternate way of separating people from their environment) was discarded for various reasons and the solution - matching the location shoot with a small stage shoot - required hours of measurements and motion control passes. And the motion control rig broke down because of flying sand.

Deep Blue's Carlos Rondon supervised the shoot for this Special Olympics PSA while directing. This allowed him extra input into the creative look, which complemented the cinematography.
"There were a lot of little issues like that: 'This is not going to work, it's not going to track, can you take what it does do and put it back in place or are we going to be completely shut down?'" says Keeton, who was visual effects supervisor and lead artist on the project. However, he adds, "This was a director that I'd worked with for years who knows visual effects pretty well so he got the gist of what we're talking about. It's a pretty ambitious idea so everyone knew [that]."

Communicate post requirements verbally. Lava Studio visual effects supervisor Robert Kirkpatrick and his team did much testing of a complex concept for a recent :30 Florida Lottery MegaBall spot ( The storyboards showed a giant metallic ball rolling into a man's apartment, transforming it into another world. Kirkpatrick immediately knew the tricky areas and proceeded to test the ball's metallic surface with actual gazing balls. With a 360-degree reflection on only a two-sided set, Kirkpatrick would have to re-create the missing two walls, which he ultimately did by redressing and shooting the two walls a second time. The giant ball was created in Softimage.

He explained this very carefully to client, agency Cooper and Hayes, based in Miami.

Radium's Jonathan Keeton: "If there's no visual effects supervisor on set, they'll overshoot." The studio recently provided on-set supervision for this McDonald's spots.
"It's definitely the ability to communicate - particularly with the director - and understand the concept that came before we were involved," he says. "An agency comes up with storyboards well before we are involved, so we have to be sure we understand what their goal is and what they're really trying to achieve, and then try to take it a step or two further.

"The earlier we get involved in the process the better," continues Fitzpatrick. "We've even gotten involved at the point where we redo storyboards with our clients in order to streamline the process and, with our experience, really come up with ideas for effects for something that may not have even occurred to them."

Lava Studio creates visual effects primarily for commercials and is on the set at least half the time; Kirkpatrick says he always encourages production companies "to put us in."

Radium's Jonathan Keeton
Do animation and pipeline testing - and get the client to sign off. Nerd Corps ( is a full service 3D animation company, specializing in children's television series, which also uses a system to prevent surprises and put the most money on screen. Department heads from all CG departments (animation, modeling, visual effects, software development, design) work with the creators to hammer out the creative look. Then the production people tear down scripts and examine the necessary amount of resources (time, money, equipment and, obviously, people). A budget is formed. The client must sign off on the creative and pipeline assumptions - and agree to follow Nerd parameters - before the project moves forward.

"We're very focused on the front end," says Chuck Johnson, VP/head of production. "It's a difficult thing that a lot of people have tried to do effectively in this industry for a lot of years, to quantify a creative methodology. We've come up with a system that enables us to get pretty close and to limit that amount of contingency that we need to deal with those unforeseen circumstances that happen." Adds president Ace Fipke, "We found that is the most assured way to go forward in any job, particularly in the types of jobs we get."

Nerd Corps, in conjunction with the creators of Storyhat, is currently producing DragonBooster, a kids show of 39 and a half one-hour episodes that will premiere this fall on Disney Saturday morning. Executive producers are Alliance Atlantis. Creatively, it mimics the look and feel of cel animation but is done all CG, so its characters - 20-ton land dragons racing at 200mph - have speed and energy, and can be seen from different angles. Its animators use Softimage|XSI 3.5 running Windows 2000 on Dell PCs.

There have been no challenges to date. "We're very incredible nerds so nothing has gone away from our predictions," says Fipke. This project is the largest to date for Nerd Corps, which opened in fall 2003.

Show samples. "The most efficient thing is to explain to the director before you start shooting what is it you're going to do so there's no questioning halfway through when you have your camera set up," says Carlos Rondon, executive producer at Deep Blue Sea (, a Miami-based post house that specializes in commercials. Rondon and creative director David Woodard supervise most visual effects shoots. "Sometimes we have to show samples of how things will look because a lot of times the clients cannot visualize."

He adds, "A Sharpie is a great tool to draw on the client's monitor being fed from the video tap to say, 'We're going to place this character we're shooting right now in greenscreen over' and you ask your VTR operator to roll back the tape and show the background plate. You've drawn it on the monitor and they understand now this guy's going to be pasted over the foreground element. Again, before the shoot you have walked everybody through it so nothing comes in as a surprise."

Deep Blue Sea just completed a PSA series of three :30 Special Olympics spots that aired in late summer. The Campeon Group was the client. Rondon supervised the shoot while directing, allowing him extra input into the creative look, which complemented the cinematography. The spots are largely B&W with one accent color each - swimming highlights the blue pool, the soccer field is green. Timelapse clouds open until the athlete appears and the pace resumes normally. Deep Blue Sea replaced all skies using Flame to rotoscope and create sky replacements, pulled from the facility's archives. Rondon designed the last shot of each spot to link the athlete with the Special Olympics logo of people holding hands in a circle. The facility's 2D designer animated the athlete in the group with a ghostly-colored appearance so they stood out.

Get involved early. "If you have a director who is partnering in the post process, it opens up so many doors to what you can do - there are so many ways you can enhance a project," says John-Mark Austin, CG director at Rhythm & Hues (, an LA-based post house that provides onsite visual effects supervision for nearly every spot it does. "We prefer to get involved as early as site survey, to get out there and look at the location and make recommendations on shot framing that might or might not make a post effect much easier.

"Directors that have more self confidence in their roles and our roles are not intimidated by our being involved in the process. It makes everyone's job enormously easier. We're not spending our time rotoscoping something that shouldn't have been there in the first place, instead we're able to spend that time really nuancing a shot to perfection."

Rhythm & Hues created the visual effects for a CG/live action :30 X Men videogame spot that is airing this fall. The client was Secret Weapon Marketing, a Santa Monica ad agency. Storm Chasers features two guys chasing a tornado who find that it's actually a battle of X Men characters. Rhythm previsualized a rough form of the tornado and took that to set with them, where they blocked out the path of debris. On set, the bluescreen talent was keyed over the previz so they could work out eye lines and timings in this :12 continous shot with no breaks or cutaways.

"It was really critical that we pin down all of those timings in the previz and then have them onset and available for everybody on the crew to see to know how to coordinate the effects," says Austin.