10 expert tips for managing a visual effects project
Successful post-production takes planning, before, during and after the live shoot. Julia Kerguelen, VFX producer at Mathematic, provides 10 tips to ensure that your own visual effects project runs smoothly.
In this article, I will be providing you with my advice for how to manage a visual effects project, learned through more than 10 years’ experience in the industry, including my current role at award-winning Paris-based studio Mathematic, where I work as a post-production supervisor and VFX producer.
Although Mathematic is best known for commercials and music promos, the advice applies to any project that requires someone to co-ordinate post-production, from movies to short films and student work. Some of the tips are specific to visual effects, but many of the principles also apply to animation and motion design.
So what does a VFX producer actually do?
A VFX producer works closely with the VFX supervisor to project manage the entire visual effects production process, defining the resources required, and hiring artists and crew. The role breaks down into three parts: before, during and after the live shoot.
Before the shoot
The VFX producer goes through the director and the creative team’s ideas for the project. This means reading the script, analysing the storyboard, and from there, estimating the resources required to complete the work within the time and budget available, including which types of artists to assign to the project, and the technical solutions needed to create the best work possible.
The VFX producer sends a supervisor to the set to ensure that the artists have all of the assets they need during post-production. It’s important that the VFX producer stays in touch with the supervisor during the shoot, so that they can warn the production team if any decisions made on set will have consequences for the post-production schedule, or the cost and quality of the work.
After the shoot
Assuming that everything went well during the shoot, and that everybody followed the script – or at least, that the decisions made on set had no consequences for post-production – the VFX producer monitors the progress of the visual effects work, ensuring that the project remains on schedule, and helping to mediate contact between the director and the artists on the project.
A good VFX producer should stand up for themselves, while listening to the concerns and needs of both their clients and the artists working with them.
The more potential problems you can anticipate during pre-production, the more efficient you will be. An animatic created from the storyboard – or, for a CG project, 3D previs – is an essential planning tool.
1. Establish ground rules during pre-production
The client always has final approval on a project, so to avoid wasting time and energy, it’s important to establish exactly what they want. At the very least, this means talking to the director and their creative team, and getting hold of the script and storyboard. Other reference material – props, mood boards, test animations, grading references, and so on – is also welcome, since it allows you to have some say over everything that will affect the work you do later.
From there, you can begin to plan the project. Creating a boardomatic from the storyboard gives the director a rough draft of the timing of each shot, the way it will be framed, and the camera movements within it, even before shooting begins. It also helps to sell the basic idea to the client, and gives everyone involved an overview of the final result you hope to achieve.
Don’t move on before you have final approval for the animatic. If the client is pressuring you to start work without a locked cut, explain to them that this may result in extra costs and delays later on: when using CG, you can’t easily go back and forth, so any changes you make further down the line often mean having to redo previous parts of the work.
Even if a client has worked with CG before, I prefer to remind them of the order in which tasks are done during post-production – modelling before rigging and animation; look development before lighting, rendering and compositing – and which are the stages after which it is difficult to go back. It is important to establish early what is negotiable, and what is not. Failing to do so will almost certainly result in money problems and relationship issues with the client.
Depending on the project, pre-production can take anything from a week to a month or more. Usually, the timescale is defined by when you get budget approval, and your delivery date.
Having an experienced VFX artist on set means that they can warn the director when any choices they make will affect post-production. The on-set supervisor can also collect information you need for the visual effects.
2. Choose the best on-set supervisor for the project
Having an experienced visual effects artist on set will help you gather the right footage and avoid costly mistakes. The more shots you are filming, the more important it is to have this person there. Even if you’re just doing one shot, see if your artist can stop by for a couple of hours.
The ideal on-set supervisor is probably the person who will be completing the visual effects in post. They’ll be the most invested in the work, and will be able to offer suggestions that are within their capabilities.
Wires, camera rigs and tracking markers all have to be removed manually in post. The more that you can keep them to a minimum on set, the easier your job will be when you come to work on the visual effects.
3. Don’t do in post what you could do on set
Everything that you can do live will be more realistic, less expensive, and faster than trying to do the same thing in post-production. Make sure that someone (possibly you yourself) is clearing cables, signs, stray crew members and other undesired objects from the edges of each shot.
If your production requires complex visual effects, make sure your on-set supervisor is taking reference photos of the set. Even pictures taken with a smartphone are better than nothing. If you’re doing set extensions or matte paintings, it also helps to have photos of anything that might be referenced or re-used in post-production: the surrounding landscape, the sky, and materials like grass, dirt and rocks.
If you have to use tracking markers, take photos before placing them: these will be helpful when removing the markers in post.
Two more things: be careful that shadows of crew members don’t appear in shot, and that they aren’t reflected in mirrors or windows; and watch out for continuity errors. It helps to take photos of every shot, so that you have a reminder of what clothes actors were wearing, and where props were placed.
4. Choose the right mixture of artists
The number of VFX artists you need and the way in which you divide work between them depends on the nature of the job. For a project with a long deadline, like a movie or documentary, it is usual to divide the work between several artists who specialise in particular disciplines: concept art, modelling, look dev, rigging, animation, texturing, fur and cloth, other effects, lighting and rendering, compositing, matte painting, finishing, and so on. If you have a tight deadline and/or a limited budget, it is better to hire a 3D generalist for most of the work, and only bring other artists on board for highly specialised tasks like simulation.
The shorter the deadline and the more complex the VFX work is, the more senior the artists you will need. If the production will last several months, you can afford to take on some junior artists – who will need to be supervised by the lead artist of the department they join – to tackle less important tasks. Remember that ‘junior’ doesn’t mean ‘bad’, just inexperienced. Investing time in supervising a junior artist will help them develop their skills and become a star artist in future.
There is no exact formula for determining the number of artists you need. The main factors are the complexity of the work, and the deadline. The less time you have, the more you will need to reinforce your teams. I work with my VFX supervisor, analysing the director’s notes and the schedule and comparing them to the profiles of the artists available.
However, while both figures vary greatly from project to project, I usually consider that a single artist can produce a basic character in two weeks – something more detailed or realistic can take much longer – or produce 10 seconds of animation per day. Remember that junior artists work more slowly than experienced ones – I usually estimate that they will take one and a half to three times as long to complete a task properly.
5. Communicate constantly
Stay aware of the state of a project. It’s important to keep an update of your line test every day in order to see what’s going on in between shoots.
And talk to people directly! We may use computers for work, but we’re still human. Even if you’re using a production-tracking system like Shotgun or Frame.io, it’s important to talk to your VFX supervisor or the lead of the department about what has been done and what hasn’t.
The biggest warning sign that a project is going astray is when the agency, the director and the client are not on the same page about what needs to be done, but also watch out for individual tasks that are going back and forth a lot. Working on the same task for more than a few days quickly becomes unsatisfying, so you can often see artists becoming stuck, or losing motivation.
If things are getting deadlocked, you can always stand-by a production until you have definite approval to move on. Rather than wasting time and energy on contradictory ideas, get everyone in the same room, and make them find a compromise that satisfies them all.
A camera report showing the lens and camera settings used for each shot is vital when it comes to matching the real-world camera within 3D software. Your on-set supervisor can collect the information required.
6. Collect the right information
After the live shoot, you should receive the EDL (Edit Decision List) with all of the necessary footage and transcodes, the camera report, and the shooting report.
The camera report tracks the camera lenses and settings used on each shot: essential if you need to replicate the real-world camera inside 3D software to match the effects to the look of the background plate. Automated reporting systems generate some of the necessary information alongside a thumbnail of a clip, but they are not complete, so your supervisor should note down all of the important information on-set.
This information can include:
- The name of the clip
- Its duration
- The scene it relates to
- The number of the take
- The lens used
- The height of the camera
- Any filters used
- The frame rate (fps)
- The camera angle
- Any camera tilt
- The ISO setting
- The point of focus
Although online production-tracking systems will create VFX shot lists for you, for smaller projects, a simple spreadsheet containing a thumbnail image and key information for each shot will often do the job.
From this information, someone needs to generate a VFX shot list to pass around to the team. This contains notes on what the effects should look like, plus timecodes for the corresponding footage. It may be part of an online database, like Shotgun, or a simple spreadsheet, and should contain information like:
- Shot name
- A thumbnail image
- Scene number
- Description of the effects
- Shot length (in frames)
- Lens information
- Source timecode in
- Source timecode out
- Destination time code in
- Destination timecode out
- Work in progress notes
Secure online services like Frame.io can help to streamline the process of screening and reviewing dailies, particularly when working with people located in other parts of the world.
7. Set up a system for reviewing dailies
During post-production, the director will want to see how things are coming along, and provide notes on the work in progress. To do this, VFX facilities generate ‘dailies’ showing the latest version of everyone’s work.
There are plenty of software platforms available designed specifically for screening and reviewing dailies. Usually, these are secure web streaming services to allow your team to work remotely. Examples include Frame.io, ZedDrive, DAX Production Cloud, PIX and COPRA. Choose a platform that suits your needs and your budget: if you’re a small team, a simple shared Google Sheet can do the job.
8. Get your edit handles right
It’s convenient to have handles – extra frames before or after the visible portion of a clip – so that you can adjust the edit. But those extra frames also need 3D tracking, rotoscoping, cleaning and restoring, and whatever else you need to do to the footage before you can begin working on it.
So match the length of the handles to the complexity of the effects. If you’re just colour grading, you can afford to have 25 frames in and out, but if you’re working on a tricky effects shot, you will be grateful just to have five. Whatever figure you choose, make sure that the director, the editor and the production team are aware that they won’t have a lot of trim in certain shots.
Including key information in the name of the file – and burning that information into the video itself – ensures that you always know which version of a shot you are looking at, helping to avoid costly mistakes.
9. Be organised with file names
Even if you’re the sole visual effects facility, you aren’t the only team working on a project. So be organised with the files you send out. Using the same nomenclature on each job will also help you to find files later.
For example, here is one possible file-naming convention:
In addition, each time a file goes out, I ask for the following information to be burned into the footage:
- The logo of the company I am working for
- The number of the shot or name of the clip
- The name or version number of the line test
- Timecode or frame number
I know that this bothers video assistants, but I am very strict with this rule. Believe it or not, it saved me several times on jobs! When clients modify the name of the file, you will always know what version of a shot you are looking at, and there will be no possible confusion.
One final tip: increment shot numbers by tens. This allows you to add new shots between those you have already assigned. For example, if something was missed between shot 010 and 020, you can simply add an additional shot 015. This allows you to preserve continuity in your file naming and ensures that shots are numbered sequentially, making life easier for your team.
10. Don’t strive too hard for perfection
The tighter your deadlines and budgets, the more organised you will need to be. Give everyone daily and weekly goals (yourself included), and keep working step by step. As a VFX producer, you sometimes have to make tough decisions, but always think of your team first. They are the ones creating the magic, so you need to give them the right conditions in which to do so.
The last piece of advice I can give is: don’t be perfect if you don’t have to be. It’s better to have worked on a rough version of every shot in the project so that you can see the big picture, than to have tried to refine a single shot to perfection. That way, you avoid wasted effort if the original direction you take doesn’t work out, and avoid spending too much time on a single shot when you still have 20 more to complete.
About the author: Julia Kerguelen is an independent artistic director and graphic designer. Since 2008, she has also worked as a post-production supervisor, mainly on TV commercials, for studios including HRCLS, BUF and the award-winning Mathematic, where she works with national and international clients. You can see her personal portfolio on her website.