Identifying trends in visual effects is fraught with danger. Technology is constantly changing, as are the VFX location hotspots. Right now, a truly worldwide visual effects industry exists, propelled in part by an explosion in comic book and sci-fi films, animated features, virtual reality and TV visual effects. Here’s a look at 5 current trends that are shaping the future of VFX – from returning to practical roots to new technology and creative innovations.
1. The push for VFX as creative partner
Filmmaking is clearly a collaborative medium, yet historically visual effects and post-production has come in, unsurprisingly, mostly at the end of the line. However that’s certainly changing, not least of which because VFX changes can be quite substantial, meaning planning is crucial.
Research by Animal Logic into fractals, among many other things, paved the way for the look of the Internet as shown in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Another reason VFX studios are finding themselves a larger part of the creative process is that they are now made up more and more of talented concept artists, designers and visual effects supervisors who are good at problem solving and have the tools to do it with. The director might only say, ‘Just make it look cool’, and suddenly a lot is left up to VFX.
Take Animal Logic’s work for Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example, where they had to design what the Internet looked like. The studio did that via weeks of R&D, both conceptual and technical. Or how about Iloura’s recent work for the Battle of Bastards episode in Game of Thrones, where they conceptualised the look of battling horses and soldiers in a very messy fight. The trend here isn’t so much a technical development but more a higher degree of trust and collaboration placed in the VFX team to get the job done.
2. Going practical, or making it look practical
Although pretty much anything can be done with CGI now, there has, of late, been a resurgence in practical effects nostalgia. In what might be a response to criticism that visual effects are becoming ‘too CGI’, it could be argued that more and more shots are being handled with practical gags, or at least attempted as ones.
Shooting as much for real was a large part of Chris Nolan’s approach in Interstellar, even though visual effects remained a crucial part of achieving that film.
Some of the best filmmakers already approach their films with this as a key consideration – think Christopher Nolan and the use of large scale sets, practical effects and miniatures in the VFX Oscar-winning Interstellar. Or George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens.
Of course, all of these films also involved substantial digital visual effects work. The point, though, is that the starting line seemed to be what could be achieved on-set practically, rather than the other way around. And even when VFX were relied upon, any digital shots were imbued with a sense of real life photography and phenomena. Likewise, the success of some digital tools that draw on the practical side of effects – Pixologic’s digital sculpting tool ZBrush is a great example – it helps let artists return to hand-crafted beginnings.
Looking to the future of VFX, it will be interesting to observe whether this trend persists, even as realism with CGI continues to improve.
3. VFX is VR is VFX
We are clearly in some kind of virtual and augmented reality revolution. A lot of money is being spent on and invested in this technology which is likely to find use in gaming, home entertainment, advertising and…who knows what else. Interestingly, the studios behind some of the best VR/AR work are also visual effects outfits. That’s because some of the hardest things to solve in VR are things that VFX artists have been trying to solve for years, including stitching panoramas and 360 degree video, compositing, HDR lighting, dealing with stereo and making digital assets.
Behind the Scenes: Jack Daniel’s “Storytelling: VR Distillery Experience
The VFX studios hitting VR hard right now include Industrial Light & Magic (with its ILMxLAB), The Mill, Digital Domain, Luma Pictures, Framestore, Mirada and MPC. Plenty of VFX supes have also made the transition to VR studios, as well.
While pipelines and techniques in VR are still being constantly developed, several plug-ins supplied by AV3 are right at the forefront of VR and 360 degree video solutions, such as Imagineer Systems’ mocha Pro 5 and Mettle’s Skybox Studio 2.0 for Adobe After Effects. There’s also Kolor’s 360 degree video tools.
4. The rise of digital humans, ultimately the future of VFX?
It’s often considered the Holy Grail of visual effects – to make a photorealistic and believable human performance, digitally. Hollywood has had several successes, from Digital Domain’s breakthrough Benjamin Button work to Weta Digital’s almost invisible digital Paul Walker in Furious 7. But making CG humans is hard, and there have also been some oft-discussed journeys into the ‘Uncanny Valley’ with films like The Polar Express and TRON: Legacy.
A breakdown of Weta Digital’s face replacement work for Furious 7. Along with 2D and projection methods, the studio also crafted a photorealistic 3D representation of Paul Walker after the actor passed away during filming.
Still, the mission remains. For several years, digi-doubles have existed to help with stunts and impossible shots, but in terms of close-up emotional performances, we might not quite be there yet. Luckily, several technologies are coming together (and have been for some time) to make digital humans more possible and more palatable. These include technologies such as high fidelity facial and performance capture, body, face and eye scanning and re-lighting techniques, rendering, muscle and skin simulation, and even just a greater understanding of the underlying movement behind human motion.
And there are artistic and technical breakthroughs, too, in the use of digital make-up on real actors, to smooth out blemishes, make them look younger, older or like someone or something else. Lola VFX is one of the leaders here – their recent efforts in making a Skinny Steve in Captain America and a younger Michael Douglas in Ant-Man are stand-outs. Artists looking to get a handle on how to deal with digital retouching techniques have immediate options, too, such as Digital Anarchy’s Beauty Box Photo 3.
5. Tools for the job
A final trend highlights the passion and innovation that’s clear in visual effects; coming up with cool new tools. Just like VFX studios are being asked more and more to be creative partners, they also have to solve large and complex problems. And they do that by drawing on their existing toolset of off-the-shelf software, proprietary tools, and by inventing new ones.
Take ILM’s LightCraft, for instance, which the studio developed for the film Warcraft as a system to automatically determine the parameters of digital light rigs using on-set imagery. They subsequently adopted the tool for The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. And if one new tool wasn’t enough, ILM also made a new hair grooming tool for Warcraft called Haircraft that saw major use in the bear attack in The Revenant.
An ILM featurette on their work for Warcraft.
There are countless other examples. Pixar developed a new crowd system called MURE specifically for The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory, as well as a tool called AutoSpline for animating curves for their CG Octopus Hank in that film. Atomic Fiction, the studio behind the freeway chase VFX in Deadpool, built its own cloud based renderer called Conductor. There are a lot of smart people in visual effects.
That’s 5 trends that are shaping the future of VFX and the industry as a whole, but there are clearly many others to take note of such as physically based rendering tools, real-time rendering, tools to deal with higher frame rate filmmaking and, possibly one of the biggest, the greater accessibility of tools and plug-ins for artists. What are some of the biggest trends you’re following in visual effects?
Ian Failes – www.vfxblog.com