Nov. 30: Mike Fink

Many students choose to attend film school because of the amazing worlds they experienced in the movie theater growing up. Chances are, visual effects artist and new SCA adjunct faculty member Michael Fink had a hand in creating them. Fink has visual effects credit on over thirty films including Tropic Thunder, X-Men, Mars Attacks!, Braveheart, and Blade Runner. In 2008, Fink won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for The Golden Compass, and was nominated for the Oscar in 1993 for Batman Returns.

Fink will begin teaching CTAN 432, The World of Visual Effects, during the upcoming spring semester. He spoke to us by email about the “wars” he’s been in on set and what students can expect as the world of visual effects transitions into the CGI age.

How did you become a visual effects artist and supervisor? I was a studio artist, creating tableaux that referred to what I hoped were universal difficulties in life and then photographing them. I got my first job in the business as an attempt to find some way to make more money for my art, but was swept up in the collaborative artistic effort that is filmmaking. After about 2 years, the hook was set, and I left my art studio behind. The demands of finding creative, technically challenging ways to solve thorny problems was invigorating. In late 1981 or early 1982, I started on the film WarGames. Actually, I would hang out in the WarGames offices, and go to meetings to offer up whatever I could to help. But, I hadn’t been hired, and only got involved because I had a friend in the art department. After a few weeks the producers figured I was worth keeping around, so they offered me a job. In the discussion, they asked me what I should be called, and I said “Visual Effects Supervisor” (I probably made sure the capital letters were felt).

What are some of your early and/or continuing influences as a visual effects artist? Early influences in visual effects were Bud Abbott, Linwood Dunn, Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and Peter Ellenshaw. Directors were/are Cocteau, Hitchcock, Capra, Sturges, Huston, Coppola, Ridley Scott, Zemeckis, and Weir. Beyond that, Pre-Renaissance and Renaissance art, the Futurists, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Clampett and Stan Freberg, Etienne Marey, and Harold Edgerton.

What’s the most challenging part of your job? Any war stories you can tell? The most challenging part of my job is clearly communicating what I want and what is needed to an incredible band of characters – and then getting them to do what is needed. Whether it is dealing with producers, directors, cinematographers, writers, actors, special effects, visual effects artists, computer scientists, or craft service, communication is the most challenging part of my job. War stories? You are joking! I think there are people in this business who do it just for the stories they can tell. Way too many to relate here…Of course there was the time when I was dangling in a basket 1000 feet above the Colorado River…Or the writers on one film who told me that they were waiting for me to finish animating the pre-visualization so that they could write the script…Or the director who said “What’s this vision s–t?  That’s your job!”

Talk about the class you’re teaching. From the description, it seems that you’ll be talking a lot about the history of early visual effects. Why is that important? The class is about way more than early visual effects. We will discuss this, of course, but we’ll also discuss current effects as well. I hope to have guests – my compadres who will do short talks featuring one shot, or one sequence, on a film they have worked on. But your question is a good one. I think it’s important for students to learn about the kinds of creative problem solving that went on early in film history, and still goes on today. The truth of the matter is that as much as the technology of film has changed, the things we do are much the same as those that were done decades ago. Sometimes going back and looking at these early efforts is not only fun (and funny), but is also incredibly revealing of the creative process.

VFX are dominated now by CGI, but you seem to have an affinity for, as well as a background in traditional techniques. How did that background affect your work with CGI, and how do traditional techniques still apply today? What we think of traditional techniques were state of the art techniques when I started. So, that part of my background was unavoidable. And actually, I don’t have an affinity for traditional techniques. I do have an affinity for techniques that work to tell the story. I’d as happily shoot a plate for an original negative matte painting as I would create the same shot with photographed and painted elements projected onto geometry. Well…except for the fact that you can’t find a good o-neg painter anymore whose paints haven’t dried up in storage. What I took away from traditional techniques and applied to CGI was a knowledge of lighting. Years building and shooting miniatures, and matching model photography to live action plates gives you a real appreciation for good lighting. The traditional techniques still hold up in many instances. Miniatures are still a part of filmmaking, even if not as prevalent as before. But, more than anything, you have to keep in mind that we are still just combining different elements into one shot to form a convincing whole. The concepts behind the combination of these elements are essentially identical in traditional visual effects and contemporary visual effects. It is the technology that makes them seem wildly different. The first pre-multiplied elements were bi-packed elements in an optical printer. The math is the same.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for students or young people who are interested in pursuing VFX as a career? Learn as much as you can about the creation of beautiful images. Study art, film, and architecture. Spend hours contemplating how the things you like to see become the things you like to see. Learn to trust your sense of taste. Don’t decide before you start that you want to do a specific job. Get whatever job you can, throw yourself into it, and find your way from there, always playing to your strengths. Get involved in the kind of projects that capture your imagination, even if it is a low level job. Then keep your eyes and ears open, ask lots of questions, and watch how the people around you do their jobs. I learned more about filmmaking from watching Ridley Scott while I was working on Blade Runner than from any book. And at that point in my career, I was many levels down from daily contact with directors. Be willing to take risks, be persistent in your efforts to succeed, and never say no to a job you don’t know how to do (yet). Within reason, of course.


Nov. 9: Paul Debevec

Paul Debevec leads the Graphics Laboratory at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, is a Research Professor in the USC Computer Science Department, and is the Vice-President of ACM SIGGRAPH. He earned degrees in Math and Computer Engineering at the University of Michigan in 1992 and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UC Berkeley in 1996. He began combining research in computer vision and computer graphics in 1991 by three-dimensionally modeling and rendering his Chevette automobile from photographs. At Interval Research Corporation he contributed to Michael Naimark’s Immersion ’94 virtual exploration of Banff National forest and collaborated with Golan Levin on the interactive art installation Rouen Revisited.

Debevec’s Ph.D. thesis under Prof. Jitendra Malik presented Façade, an image-based modeling system for creating virtual cinematography of architectural scenes using new techniques for photogrammetry and image-based rendering. Using Façade he directed a photorealistic fly-around of the Berkeley campus for his 1997 film The Campanile Movie whose techniques were later used to create the Academy Award-winning virtual backgrounds in the “bullet time” shots in the 1999 film The Matrix.

Following his Ph.D. Debevec pioneered techniques for illuminating computer-generated objects with measurements of real-world illumination. His 1999 film Fiat Lux rendered towering monoliths and gleaming spheres into a photorealistic reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, realistically illuminated by the light that was actually there. Techniques from this research known as HDRI and Image-Based Lighting have become a standard part in visual effects production, used to dramatic effect in films such as the The Matrix sequels, The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonTerminator: SalvationDistrict 9, and Avatar. Debevec leads the design of HDR Shop, the first high dynamic range image editing program, and co-authored the 2005 book High Dynamic Range Imaging. Debevec’s 2004 film The Parthenon used 3D scanning, inverse global illumination, HDRI, and image-based lighting to virtually reunite the Parthenon and its sculptures, contributing to depictions of the Parthenon’s history for the 2004 Olympics, NHK televison,PBS’s NOVANational Geographic, the IMAX film Greece: Secrets of the Past, and The Louvre.

At USC ICT Debevec has led the development of several Light Stage systems that capture and simulate how people and objects appear under real-world illumination. The Light Stages have been used by studios such as Sony Pictures Imageworks, WETA Digital, and Digital Domain to create photoreal digital actors as part of the Academy Award-winning visual effects in Spider-Man 2 and King Kong, the Academy Award-nominated visual effects in Superman ReturnsSpider-Man 3Hancock, the Academy-Award winning visual effects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and most recently James Cameron’s Avatar. The most recent light stage process based on polarized gradient illumination was used in 2008’s Digital Emily project, a collaboration with Image Metrics which produced one of the first digital facial performances to cross the “Uncanny Valley“. Other recent work led by Debevec includes ICT’s 3D Display and 3D Teleconferencing systems.

In 2001 Debevec received ACM SIGGRAPH’s first Significant New Researcher Award for “Creative and Innovative Work in the Field of Image-Based Modeling and Rendering”, in 2002 was named one of the world’s top 100 young innovators by MIT’s Technology Review magazine, and in 2005 received a Gilbreth Lectureship from the National Academy of Engineering. In 2005 Debevec received the Special Award for a Distinguished Professional Career in Animation/VFX from the Mundo Digitales Festival in A Coruna, Spain and in 2009 received the “Visionary Award for VFX” at the 3rd Annual Awards for the Electronic and Animated Arts.

In February 2010, Debevec received a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award® for “the design and engineering of the Light Stage capture devices and the image-based facial rendering system developed for character relighting in motion pictures”, shared with Tim Hawkins, John Monos, and Mark Sagar.

Debevec is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Visual Effects Society, and ACM SIGGRAPH. He chaired the SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival and co-chaired Pacific Graphics 2006 and the 2002 Eurographics Workshop on Rendering.

Nov. 2: Evgeni Tomov

EVGENI TOMOV is an esteemed Production Designer, Conceptual Artist and Illustrator specializing in feature animated films, animated TV series and shorts.

Born in the former Soviet Union, Tomov studied at the Nikolai Pavlovitch University of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria from which he received a master’s degree in Fine Arts and Illustration in 1986. In 1990, Tomov moved to Montreal, Canada, where he worked as an Art Director and Illustrator for various Advertising Agencies, working on accounts such as Royal Bank of Canada, L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (OSM) and Lotto Quebec.

In Montreal, his interest focused on the world of animation and he began work on numerous children’s TV series for the large Canadian studio CINAR Animation. Engaged as an Environment Design Supervisor for CINAR, he developed the series Animal Crackers and Mona the Vampire. During this time he also worked as a background painter for the Cactus Animation series Fennec le Détective. Tomov’s pursuit in art direction fanned out to encompass projects in computer games as well. In 1997 his role as Assistant Art Director on the animated short The Old Lady and the Pigeons saw his first collaboration on an Oscar® nominated film.

From 1999 to 2002, Tomov worked as the Art Director and Production Designer on the critically acclaimed animated feature film The Triplets of Belleville. The film was an Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, and received acclaim at numerous other film festivals. Nominations and awards included an Oscar® nomination for Best Animated Feature. Following the completion of Triplets of Belleville, Tomov again collaborated with Director Sylvain Chomet in Scotland as Production Designer and Art Director for Chomet’s newly established Studio Django, working on the development of the CG-animated film Beaks!; 2D-animated film Barbacoa and the 2D-animated feature The Illusionist, for Pathé Pictures International.

From 2006 to the end of 2008, Tomov has worked in London, England as Production Designer on the CG-animated feature The Tale of Despereaux, for Universal Pictures.

Currently he is working in Los Angeles, US as a Production Designer on the CG-animated feature Arthur Christmas, a co-production between Aardman Animations and Sony Entertainment.