Independent Filmmakers and VFX Unite!


This week in Santa Monica, a panel of impressive VFX experts converged with independent filmmakers to bridge the gap of creative possibilities. Hosted by The Visual Effect Society and Alliance of Women Directors, the panel aimed to prove “filmmakers can affordably incorporate visual effects into future projects by inviting visual effects professionals to collaborate in the early stages of production.” With 3000 VES members globally, a third of those are located in Los Angeles, the hub of networking in VFX, they are spearheading an initiative to connect filmmakers and VFX artists and help the former understand what’s within their creative reach.

Moderated by AWD’s Hilari Scarl, the panel was comprised of Kathryn Brillhart (VFX Coordinator, Zoic), Lauren Ellis (VFX Producer, The Molecule), and the Emmy-Winning VFX Supervisor Tammy Sutton (credits include Harry Potter, Twilight, Avatar, Cell). The three different types of VFX roles comprise a pipeline of producers that get the job done. Each woman explained her role in the VFX process, to enlighten directors and offer insider insight into the visual effects pipeline. The following are excerpts from each woman:

Kathryn Brillhart

The goal of this event is to bridge the gap between director, cinematographer and visual effects artists, removing both financial and creative barriers to visual effects. Filmmakers should think through the back end and front end of projects at same time. You don’t need to simplify your vision because it requires VFX, but you do need to consult with the experts! VFX will help you stand out and improve your work as a filmmaker, but should be incorporated from the beginning stages of a project. Directors who avoid VFX usually aren’t sure how to break down scripts for VFX, or break it down budget-wise. The secret is to collaborate with the big three: VFX Supervisor, VFX Producer and VFX Coordinator. VFX Coordinator is the communications manager, and gives support to the VFX Producer. 

VFX on a budget: Final total budgets (including VFX!) of “Fruitvale Station”: $900,000 and “Between Us” by Dan Mirvish: $40,000. Significant networking took place to make it happen and filmmakers who were not afraid to break technical barriers. Brill hopes to prove the belief wrong that films with budgets of $2 million or less cannot have VFX. They can! For instance, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” used live wild pigs and composited them. Decide which visual effects should be done practically and which should be in post. Be inspired to work with VFX professionals from the start, include them as an artist in the process. See visual effects as an accessible new skill set to take with you on your next project.

Lauren Ellis

The VFX producer acts as a sort of UPM (Unit Production Manager), who deals with financials and scheduling, to make sure the VFX comes in on time and on budget. Why? Because you need someone to put a price on your dreams. They work in tandem with VFX Supervisor (and some people do both jobs). They help you shoot things correctly so things go smoothly in post, wrangle a lot of departments, and serve as the administrative and business head. They also negotiate vendors.

What is the VFX pipeline? Modeling –> Texturing –> Surfacing –> Lighting –> FX –> Compositing (layer elements for final shots). Other elements that VFX wrangles include rigging, animation, dynamics, particles, match moving (match in 3D space in same angles of live action), and matte painting.

How does a filmmaker get started with VFX? Approach a VFX producer and talk about the script and discuss your vision. A good way filmmakers can find VFX producers is using effect they like in certain films, then looking up the VFX artists on IMDB. Allow the VFX producer (who is either hybrid VFX Supervisor or brings in a VFX supervisor) to break down the script and find out what elements are needed for every shot. They can then advise you which shots can be shot practically, which can be difficult but pulled off, and which have to be done How many soldiers/artists are they going to need for the shots? Once budget is approved, there is a bidding process. Then series of phases: storyboarding if necessary, not many pre-visuals (low poly animations) with indie film, animatics, pre-production to map out how it’s going to work. Rule of thumb: 1/3 of your budget should be reserved for VFX.

Tammy Sutton

The VFX Supervisor’s role has a lot of overlap with VFX producer. She’s the “fix it in post” person who does script breakdown of VFX, collaborates with different departments (like camera, lighting, wardrobe, and practical effects. The VFX Supervisor is on set, consulting with lighting, collecting set and camera data (such as lens, height of camera, tilt), because the more artists have based on reality, the better they make fake reality look (VFX Supervisors take a lot photo references). Trust your supervisor to get the best image, ask questions, and be eager to learn. Supporting VFX can include: Day for night, beauty shots, wig touch-up, palm tree removal, logo removal, stunt pad removal, wire removal, crew reflections, and split screen. For VFX on a budget: plan ahead, be flexible with deadlines, and lock your edit before starting VFX.

VFX tips? Practical smoke in VFX shots will make everything more difficult. Rotoscope is not as bad as everyone says. Locking off camera for certain types of shots will save time and money. Be consistent with look of VFX, even if it’s low budget.

What are some VFX cheats for indies? Use stock CG elements! They are pre-rigged, just need a rigger to animate them. Clarity of your vision is your ultimate gift to the VFX unit in order to plan ahead, and execute it on time and on budget. Have a big contingency line. It’s important to have a VFX supervisor on set to help. As director, you should sneak in meetings with your DP and VFX Supervisor. VFX is collaborative and depends on other departments, but they sometimes feel like the bad guy. Bridge the gap by choosing a director/producer team that’s excited to collaborate with VFX team. “You can create collaborations and teamwork like that with VFX,” says Kathryn. The Director of Photography for Revenant and Birdman lights his faces in post and stitches together 10 shots for what looks like a single camera movement. This is a great example of advanced level DP/VFX Supervisor work.

What do filmmakers need to know? There is a lack of understanding that VFX is everywhere. Supporting visual effects are ubiquitous. They are “effects that play a supporting, minor, or background role in the telling of the story. When taken as a whole, they may help create the setting, environment, or mood of an entire film, but are generally intended to be subtle or invisible to the average viewer.” The panel hopes that VFX is treated like every other unit on the production side, which comes from a place of education and understanding. Tammy’s advice to filmmakers? Treat the VFX department them the same way as other departments. It makes all the difference on set.

Take Aways

  • Take your new VFX knowledge with you on your next project.
  • Be confident in creating a financial plan for your vision
  • Continue this conversation with VFX professionals who you are inspired to work with!

Filmmakers are limited only by their own awareness and willingness to consult with the experts. The truth is that a director’s creative vision can be a visual reality! Empower your filmmaking and explore the possibilities of VFX.

Follow and connect with these brilliant VFX experts here:

Kathryn Brillhart @ktbrillhart
Lauren Ellis @laurenfellis
Tammy Sutton @tamity
VFX Society @VFXSociety