Nelson Coates is the president of the Art Directors Guild, IATSE Local 800. His film credits include “Flight,“ ”Runaway Jury,” “The Proposal,” “Hot Pursuit,” and “The Secret in Their Eyes,“ among others. He received an Emmy nomination for his work on Stephen King’s “The Stand” and is currently designing the sequels to “50 Shades of Grey.“
Many elements must blend together seamlessly to create effective narrative production design. One of the most challenging aspects of carrying that design through to completion relates to components executed after wrap of principal photography - namely visual effects shots.
Most productions and production companies plan for the director of photography to color-time and otherwise be involved with the “answer print” of a project. Most do not budget for the production designer to oversee visual effects during post. When in talks with a director and producers prior to taking a project, I always discuss the visual effects work involved, and my desire to be involved every step of the way, even if that requires some pro-bono post production work. With that involvement established, I work with the director & producers to select a visual effects supervisor, and once that supervisor is chosen, we begin to map out the scope of the visual effects work, shot by shot. Often I join the VFX supervisor as they interview potential VFX vendors. I make sure every shot is planned in such a way as to enhance the story-telling process, as well as to maximize the look and minimize cost. Here is where the director and I really work through what elements to construct, and what will be best to create digitally. As we begin to scout locations and start to design sets, we often find new shot requirements and potential shot consolidations.
As most shows have some sort of VFX shots total and budget parameter in place long before any crew is hired or location scouted, a bit of horse-trading takes place to get the look and hold the budget line. I then work with my team to create key frames representing the look of each major shot. These key frames, once approved by the director, help solidify the work and serve as a guiding tool for actual design, construction, and shooting. By effectively incorporating VFX even in a smaller budget feature, a designer can extend the reach of a budget enormously. Only building what is absolutely necessary for performance and blocking can actually make a scene more taut and visually stronger. For instance, in FLIGHT, we had planned to build an entire church exterior, and find an old farmhouse with a hangar and grass runway. When we realized we needed to construct the farmhouse, our budget only could accommodate two sides of the church. All four sides were designed and texture-mapped, and the remaining un-built sides were created in post for the jet fly-over. This required some minor restaging of action in the field to film with the church as the background, but made for a very effective tableau that sold the story. I also had to do quite a bit of math for the speed and trajectory of the plane as it crashed, what size to build the church, how tall to build the steeple so that it would be clipped during the plane’s decent, and just how far to place the crash site from the church. We actually shot the “live cell phone footage” when the set had just been framed. The texture mapping of the finished church was then skinned on to the framing to complete this shot.
During the filming of an effects shot, I have the key frame images mounted for the director and crew as a reminder of the final image we want to achieve. Usually I create a VFX photo comp guide utilizing a still from the dailies, to further clarify the end result. If graphics or 2D elements are needed to insert into the VFX, my team then creates those deliverables as possible prior to completion of principal photography so the design remains cohesive and all can see and approve.
Even after shooting has wrapped, I remain in contact with the director, VFX supervisor, and editor to make sure I am afforded the opportunity to see, give notes, & approve progress comps, and major completed frames. All this requires developing a strong relationship with all team members, so they see the value of your involvement as the designer in the completion of the visual narrative. Visual effects, whether used for straight forward set extension, erasing non-period elements, or entire world creation, are just some of the tools in the designers tool box. Knowing how and when to make them work to the advantage of the narrative is key. Creating a collaborative environment with the entire VFX team from start to finish is to the designer’s advantage, helping to maintain a clear voice and singular visual language during the completion of their designs.
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