PHOTOSHOP TURNS 20: A FILMMAKER'S PERSPECTIVE
Adobe Photoshop marked its 20th year in February 2010. Today, I am stricken by the impact Photoshop has had on the filmmaking industry and on me personally. My career would be entirely different if Photoshop was never invented, and many recent great films might not exist at all.
I guess Photoshop has always had its roots in filmmaking. John Knoll was working at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) when he first approached his brother Thomas Knoll about using his research in “processing digital images” as a tool for filmmakers. The rest, as they say, is cinema history. But it’s incredible to think that the mind behind some of the greatest visual effects you’ve ever seen (including the Star Wars prequels, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Avatar) is also the brother of the creator of the greatest imaging software ever made. It’s the kind of family genius that can make you sick with envy!
When I landed my first “real” job as a graphics and VFX artist, the company sent me for a week’s training course on a proprietary systems costing half a million dollars. I spent the whole week asking, “How can I do this, like in Photoshop?” or “How can I do that, like in Photoshop?” Needless to say, they didn’t really like those questions because for a thousand times the cost, you couldn’t do any of those things. So I just gritted my teeth and got through the week and went straight back to using Photoshop.
The systems I was being trained on enforced a rigid, linear creative process that didn’t fit with the way I thought. Photoshop, on the other hand, was based on layers and let me non-destructively play with ideas. Photoshop let me change my mind without having to redo all the work over again. And I could keep a whole history of different versions of my work in case I wanted to revert back to a previous idea. It was the no fear approach to creativity… I guess I’ve always had commitment issues!
BLENDING CAMERAS AND COMPUTERS
I think the real trick to digital filmmaking today involves understanding when to use the camera and when to use the computer. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I live in the UK, and it’s technically possible to “walk” (through the channel tunnel) to the edge of China. It doesn’t mean you should. It’s far more sensible to take a plane. Filmmaking is no different, and the beauty is that typically, the things that are really hard to film are often easy to create with a computer, and vice versa.
Because of this, I try and film all the foreground footage in camera “for real” and only replace the distant background in the computer. This makes my FX work much more efficient and very Photoshop intensive. But I don’t really consider myself an expert user; I just use the same few Photoshop functions over and over. For me it's cut, paste, transform, levels, color balance, blur, erase, clone, and paint. That is the beauty of the software; anyone can pick it up and learn the fundamentals really quickly and start creating.
The way that Adobe After Effects integrates with Photoshop, means I can create very “rubbish” versions of my final shot, to see if the idea for the shot is right before I do all the hard work. Essentially, because all my painting becomes automatically updated in After Effects, I can instantly watch the shot back, which means you can be very efficient and put effort where it is needed most.
250: THE MAGIC NUMBER
I’ve used Photoshop and After Effects, as well as Adobe Premiere Pro, for a lot of big projects at this point. On the BBC’s Attila the Hun, I had to digitally create a vast army and a lot of sweeping historical vistas. All together, the show required 250 visual effects shots, various foreign locations, and five months of post production.
With Photoshop and the other applications in Adobe Creative Suite Production Premium, I can make last-minute changes, even when a film is almost completely finished. For Attila the Hun, attention to historical accuracy was vital. During a test screening, the production designer noticed an incorrect detail on a city wall. Using Photoshop, I was able to make the last minute change and the whole thing automatically updated in the film.
My latest project is a science fiction feature film, Monsters, which had its world premiere at South by Southwest in March 2010. Again, I got to the end of the project and counted all the shots and it was also 250 (about a shot a day). I don’t know what it is about this ‘magic number’, I guess it’s the maximum number of shots I can complete in the time anyone will give for post production. Doing a shot a day would normally be an insane task, but thanks to Photoshop all I’m really doing is a painting a day, then just sticking it into the shot.
When people ask me what software I use, I often neglect to mention Photoshop, because I always feel it goes without saying. I mean, how can you do anything without it? It’s like a painter explaining his process by saying he uses a brush, of course he does! I think it’s a tribute to how much I love the software that I take it for granted (that line doesn’t work on girlfriends though!).
I always thought after film school that I would have to claw my way up the career ladder over decades. I would have to ask permission to do projects and know the right people to finance films. But now, a red pixel costs the same as a blue pixel and cutting and pasting costs nothing. With tools like Photoshop, filmmakers can create Hollywood-scale films on home movie budgets.
But what really excites me are the films Hollywood can’t make, because it’s too much of a risk, sounds too different, or people just can’t picture your idea until they see it. That’s the true excitement of all these tools; we should have some great film ahead!
I can’t help comparing this current film revolution with the breakthrough of word processing. Just because it became ten times easier to edit and write a book didn’t mean there were suddenly ten times more great novels out there. What it does mean though is creative people no longer have to wait in line for their turn at the wheel. If you have the ideas and determination, you can make anything you want, completely on your own terms.
It occurred to me the other day that I’ve probably spent more time looking at the Adobe Photoshop interface than I’ve spent looking at everything else in the world combined! I don’t know what that says about me, but it definitely says something about Photoshop. Here’s hoping the next 20 years are as creatively absorbing and rewarding.