visual effects

Inspiring Advice from 3 Top Animation Studios

No matter whether you’re about to start your program at The New York Film Academy’s 3D Animation & Visual Effects (VFX) School or are already deep into your journey into the magical wizarding world of professional animation and effects, we are sure that the hard work and long hours you put into your work are motivated by a lot of passion and a lot of creativity.

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Because you work so hard at what you love, we rounded up some inspiring advice to give you a boost. So regardless of where you are on your path as an animator or effects artist — whether you’re gearing up for class, tackling a tricky challenge on a project, or hunting down your next professional animation job — we thought you could use some extra insight and inspiration from animators who work for Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, and Dreamworks.

Here are 8 great tips to inspire your animation and effects work:

1. Research

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Just like actors who do research for their role, animators should do research too. Even if you’re just jumping into a shot, take the time to draw or do video research. Make sure that it becomes a habit.

2. Animation Motion

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Chances are that at some point in your career, you’ll have to animate something that you aren’t familiar with creating. If you need to, break the animation down into simple components to help you.

According to Andrew Gordon and Robb Denovan, directing animators for Pixar’s  “Monsters University,” the team had to color-code Terry-Terri’s tentacles to help during the process.

3. Drawing It Out

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Aaron Blaise, an animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios, tweeted, “Try forcing yourself to draw by just laying single lines down. No searching lines. This will force you to think about every line.”

4. Mastering Technology

According to Scott Wright, an animator for Dreamworks, always look to enhance your skill set. He wrote on Twitter, “Technology changes fast. Don’t rely on mastering one program. You never know how the next software package will enhance your imagination.”

Don’t be afraid to use the different types of tools that you have. Computers and software can do CGI well. Put your efforts into the performance and let the computers help you fine-tune everything.

 

5. Polishing Your Work

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If you prioritize correctly, you will know what aspects of your project may need more polishing. Animation requires a great deal of time and effort to bring an idea to life, and you will need to spend a lot of time to achieve a level of work that is polished and ready to share.

6. Show Your Work

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It’s better to show your creation early on versus keeping it under wraps: you can gather valuable feedback, see your work from a new perspective, and find new opportunities to collaborate or flesh out an underdeveloped part of your idea. Creating solid animation is teamwork and that means being open to critiques.

7. Seek Out Advice

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There will be times when you feel stuck while working on an animation project, and there may be a time when someone else’s work fits better in a scene. If that is the case, go find the person who created the work and talk to them. Some animators will open up and go over scenes to show another animator how they made a scene work. Again, collaboration and critique are vital tools to help you grow and improve your work, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice from your colleagues and peers whose work you admire.

8. Live Your Life

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Animation is similar to acting in that it requires emotional understanding, a passion for storytelling, and an awareness of life experiences to develop believable characters.

Your creativity and discipline at work will draw from how you live your life, so take the time to travel or go see a show, watch people, and write about memorable experiences. Your own life can serve as a valuable resource and support for you as you develop animated scenes, whether you excel at creating funny scenes or subtle and dramatic scenes.

Either way, it’s important to learn to draw from real life, as that can give you immense insight into understanding what makes a scene entertaining for the audience. After all, your audience is full of people living their lives, too.

Do you have any inspiring advice for our animation students? Let us know below!

Behind the Visual Effects of “The Man in the High Castle”

One of the challenges of filmmaking is making sure your world feels believable. Even when you have “Star Wars'” many species and planets or you’re dealing with various races and magic like in “The Lord of the Rings,” all the visual elements need to keep viewers engaged. This task is even more difficult to pull off when you have a story set in an alternate universe.

“The Man in the High Castle” is a fairly new television show that took on the challenge of alternate history and got it right. The Amazon Studios series has already received numerous awards in only two seasons, including praise for its outstanding special visual effects.

Below are some of the creative hurdles the VFX team faced and how they overcame them:

An Alternate 1962

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In “The Man in the High Castle,” America lost WWII. The Axis powers emerged triumphant after WWII, leaving Nazi Germany and the Japanese to split the U.S. between each other. This means the entire country, especially the major cities the TV series is set in, would look drastically different.

But since the show is set in 1962, the crew had to first study what New York, San Francisco, and Cañon City, Colorado looked like half a century ago. They also had to consider how developed these cities would actually be without the post-war boom the U.S. experienced after the actual conclusion.

Amazon Studios clearly did their homework and created a scary, new 1960s America. Despite the series being shot in Canada, the audience is able to feel like we’re seeing a New York and San Francisco that has embraced an imperial Japanese and Nazi German society.

Getting The Details Right

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It took much more than slapping swastikas and Japanese Kanji all over to make this alternate history believable. Every department had to make sure the people and places look like they actually live in these fictional cities. Wardrobe, for example, had the job of recreating what fashion in America would be like while influenced by two different cultures.

Of course, the visual effects department had plenty of work to do as well. Everything from the signs and advertisements to even the cars had to be thought out and executed well. This is why you’ll see vehicles in the show without any American influence, such as the classic tail-fins made popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

They also had to consider the major differences in style between the two global superpowers. While Germany under Hitler used impressive statues and neoclassical architecture, the Japanese preferred neon lights and propaganda influenced by their Rising Sun Flag.

The Best Kind of Visual Effects

When most people think of visual effects they think of breathtaking CGI monsters and environments. Some shows and movies depend heavily on VFX to create their world, such as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. As technology advances, the artist’s ability to create believable visuals with computers gets better and better.

But most of the time, the best effects are the ones viewers never suspect. This was the case with “The Man in the High Castle,” where a lot of the visual elements you see in city streets and on buildings aren’t real. Instead, they were created with computers in such a way that you’d think they were actually there.

Amazon Studios had to rely plenty on their VFX team, especially when certain communities where the show was shot weren’t 100 percent on board. For example, some locations, including Canadian and Chinese communities, refused to allow their buildings to be covered with swastikas and imperial Japanese content. So many of the large Nazi flags and Japanese banners were actually placed in digitally.

Have you watched “The Man in the High Castle”? What are your thoughts about this show’s use of VFX to create an alternate world? Let us know in the comments below!

Ways to Create Space When Filming in a Small Area

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If you’re having trouble making a confined area appear larger when filming in a small area, you’re not alone; professional filmmakers also find themselves returning to the drawing board when attempting to create space and illustrate depth and scale in a small area. And even with all the fancy CGI and other advanced technology at their disposal, filmmakers often choose to rely on techniques that have been around for almost as long as cinematography itself.

Below are some of the ways you can make your small space feel much grander and make the most out of a limited area — so that you’re not forced to cut any awesome ideas you had in mind. With enough practice, soon you’ll also have an eye for making even a tiny room appear bigger.

DEEP SPACE

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One of the oldest tricks in the book for creating the illusion of depth is called deep space, and can be used to trick the audience’s brain into imagining that the space is deeper than it actually is. Why do we use the word “trick?” Because any screen you are looking at, whether it’s a movie screen, a computer, or your handheld device, the image has height and width but there is no depth. The audiences’ eyes are always focused on the surface of the screen. Depth is an illusion created by photography. But in the look of “deep space,” we are doing everything possible to enhance this illusion.

Here are a number of things you can do to create deep space:

1. Use wide-angle lenses.

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Wide-angle lenses expand space, while telephoto lenses compress space. By using the wide-angle lens, we can create the illusion that the space is much deeper than it actually is. The wider the lens, the deeper the space.

2. Use high number F. stops.

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Using the higher number F. stops (f. 11, f. 22, f. 32) when exposing your image, will dramatically increase your depth of field.  Depth of field is a technical term used to describe how much of the image is in focus. We can have everything in the frame from three inches to infinity in focus or we can shrink depth of field so that someone’s eyes are in focus and the tip of their nose is out of focus. By using high f. stops, we can put the background into focus; the audience will be more likely to look at it. And when they do, their brains will be fooled into thinking that they are refocusing from the foreground to the background and back again, heightening the illusion of depth.

3. Stage your actors perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

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By staging one of your actors in the foreground and another in the background, the audience will be fooled into imagining that they are looking into the distance of the shot.

4. Move your actors perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

Watching the actors move toward or away from the camera will reinforce the illusion of depth in your shot.

5. Move the camera perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

Moving the camera into or out of the shot, even slightly, is like taking the audience by the hand and leading them through the space, giving the depth more credibility.

6. Light with shadow.

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Shadow is something our brains use to determine the depth of objects. Just imagine if I drew a circle on the page. It would appear flat. But as soon as I began to shade it, the circle would have the illusion of a third dimension. So use light to create shadow on your actors and your set, to reveal the contours and depth of your image.

7. Place bright objects in the foreground and keep the background dark.

Bright objects have the illusion of advancing, while dark objects have the illusion of receding. By placin actors in bright costumes, against dark backgrounds, we can enhance the illusion of depth.

8. Place warm colors in the foreground and cool colors in the background.

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Just like bright and dark objects, colors have a similar effect. Warm colors have the optical illusion of advancing, while cool colors have the illusion of receding. So by placing actors in warm colored costumes against cool colored backgrounds, we can, once again, enhance the illusion of depth.

A SIMPLE TRICK FOR DEALING WITH EXTREMELY SMALL SPACES

This all sounds good, doesn’t it? But what if you’re shooting in a really small space, say a bedroom in a typical student apartment. It’s probably the size of a closet! Perhaps the room is so small, you can’t even get the camera inside it. Some cameras are large. If you throw in the tripod, assuming you’re using one, you might find that you’ve taken up 2-3 feet just with the camera. In addition, some lenses have a minimum focusing distance. In other words, even after squeezing the camera into the room, you can’t get far enough away from your subject to focus on it.

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Well, here’s a handy guerilla shooting technique: shoot into a mirror. That’s right. Get a mirror and mount it on the wall and back your camera away. By doing this you can effectively double your distance from your actor. If the mirror is 3 feet from the actor and the camera is 3 feet from the mirror, you’re now 6 feet away from the actor. This means you can use a longer lens if you choose and solve that tricky problem of minimum focus distances. Of course, your image will be flipped left to right. But if that bothers you, you can always flip it back again in the editing room. Naturally, the better the mirror, the less likely you’ll have ripple distortion in the reflected image.  

What’s your favorite trick for capturing expansive footage in a small space? Let us know in the comments below!

8 Movies Where Miniature Special Effects Trump CGI

From the stop-motion animated works of the legendary Ray Harryhausen to that White House scene in Independence Day, effects involving miniatures have long been a part of cinema’s rich history…though some examples have aged a lot better than others.

In this age of rampant CGI, miniature work is an art form all unto itself and today we’re going to celebrate the finer set pieces that have endured in popular culture. Presenting:

8 Famous Movie Miniatures

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King Kong (1933)

Although stop motion had seen use before this point (most notably in 1927’s Metropolis and the works of Georges Méliès), it was the era-defining monster epic King Kong which really showed off the potential of miniatures.

In the above climactic scene, King Kong scales the Empire State Building in what could be the most iconic movie scene of the 1930s.

Naturally the effects employed 80 years ago have since been eclipsed by modern techniques, but the scale of what was achieved in this classic was nothing short of impressive even in retrospect. Marcel Delgado was commissioned to create four different scaled-down models of Kong (which was then known by the slightly less snappy moniker “Giant Terror Gorilla”) as well as a huge bust of the creature’s head and upper chest to use during close-ups, operating by three workers operating it from within.

Alien (1979)

Miniatures saw a lot of love during the sixties and seventies, particularly within the sci-fi genre. Star Wars, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, and Star Trek all made extensive use of miniatures to depict a huge sense of scale at a lower budget.

Featurette on bringing the Alien universe to life using miniatures.

The introduction of the intricately designed Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien is a premier example of this, and as you’ll hear in the “making of” clip above, the amount of work that went into the miniature effects on this movie was unprecedented at the time.

And really, the term miniature for something so huge doesn’t seem particularly apt. The separate landing leg model—used in scenes where the ship touches down on LV-426—measured an impressive 42 feet high and, like the main ship itself, was moved into shot using a forklift truck.

Blade Runner (1982)

A production steeped in mythology, inter-crew fighting, and bad blood, Blade Runner may have left a sour taste in the mouth of many of those who made it (including Harrison Ford, with whom Ridley Scott frequently butted heads) but to sci-fi fans it remains one of the most visually impressive movies ever released.

Creating an entire city with miniatures and forced perspective, back when 3D computer modelling wasn’t an option.

A huge amount of miniatures were used to bring Philip K. Dick’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles to life (and one which the writer was reportedly very happy with on seeing test footage shortly before his passing.) The model work can be seen most prominently in scenes involving the Spinner vehicles and establishing shots of the city, but we can also thank Imgur user Minicity for uploading this huge collection of behind-the-scenes shots earlier in the year.

Back to the Future Pt. II (1989)

The second installment of Robert Zemeckis’ quintessential trilogy raised the bar for a lot of special effect techniques (digital compositing and motion control cameras in particular were used to great effect in Part Two.)

Miniatures only saw limited use, but when they do appear, you’d still be hard-pressed to identify them let alone figure out how they did some of the shots. Consider this one, for instance, which has the 3-foot scale model of the DeLorean touch down from the sky, pull into the driveway, and then…people get out of the model?

You can re-watch it a few times and still probably not figure it out, but because it’ll drive you wild if we don’t reveal the trick, pay close attention to the street lamp. This is in fact two separate yet perfectly matched shots, with the lamp providing the nearly imperceptible seam between the two.

GoldenEye (1995)

The first Bond flick to feature CGI, but it’s the miniature work that stole the show.

GoldenEye was the final movie worked on by special effects master Derek Meddings, to whom the movie is dedicated. Incredible miniature work was a defining quality of Meddings’ career, and he certainly pulled out all the stops for Bond’s 19th outing—here, fellow visual effects designer Nigel Blake discusses his colleagues work on the movie (featuring some pretty mind-blowing shots of the GoldenEye miniatures without the forced perspective you see in the final cut):

Independence Day (1996)

The aforementioned “Time’s up” scene in ID:4, because it’d be virtually criminal not to tip one’s hat to it while talking about ultra-memorable miniature set pieces:

Everyone’s day gets ruined in Emmerich’s iconic disaster flick.

Miniatures were also used (alongside CGI) for the aerial fight scenes, as well as the skyscraper explosion. In fact, the movie still holds the record for the most miniature model work to appear in a single title (and with the dominance of CGI, it may well hold the title forever.)

An interesting facet of the production is that those destruction shots were filmed with the models placed sideways—naturally, flames go upwards but Emmerich wanted them to appear as if they were exploding towards the camera (as explained in this “making of” segment around the 14:00 mark.)

And as you can imagine, they only had one shot to make sure those explosion scenes were a success, otherwise a lot of model makers would have been on overtime to recreate all the miniatures again (with the original, 12” wide White House model costing around $50,000 to construct.)

The long-awaited sequel nearly ended up on our list of movies that’ll never get made, but it looks all but certain that we’ll get an Independence Day 2 next year. That said, you can bet your bottom dollar that the follow-up will eschew the kind of miniature work that won the original an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in favor of heavy CGI.

The Lord of the Rings Series (2001 – 2003)

For Peter Jackson’s landmark achievement in the world of special effects, lead actors were digitally altered to hobbit proportions… and conversely, the miniature cities were blown up to epic proportions.

The LOTR team on making the “bigature” photography look realistic.

And the team in charge of the miniature special effects had their work cut out for them, working longer than any other SFX crew during the entirety of the production. Coining the phrase “bigatures,” many of the cities seen in the final cut were shot from beautifully crafted models (including Helm’s Deep, Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, Isengard, and the Black Gate.)

Further complicating the work of the special effects and model making teams was the varying height depictions of the characters; Bag End, for instance, was built at two different scales—one which allowed Elijah Wood to walk through doorways of a seemingly appropriate size, and another which had Sir Ian McKellen having to stoop in order to enter them.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Huh? They used miniatures in Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic?

They sure did, and extensively so… though as is the measure of all good visual effects, most audience goers were none the wiser.

Visual effects supervisor Nick Davies discusses the practicalities of using miniatures on the set of The Dark Knight

That incredibly impressive scene in which the tumbler slams into the garbage truck at high speed was all miniature work (as were most of the chase scenes involving the tumbler on the streets of Gotham.) We’ve got New Deal Studios to thank for this seamless piece of work, who also masterminded the miniature shots of the opening plane scene in The Dark Knight Rises.

So there we have it—eight exquisite examples of miniatures proving they’ve still got a place in the world of special effects. 

Of course, there’s plenty more that we’ve not covered here; got any favorite scenes missing from the list? Head on down to the comments below!

Learn more about the School of 3D Animation & Visual Effects at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.