I’ve been supervising visual effects for TV & Film for 23 years, and one of the most vital relationships is the one I have with the Production Designer and how I interface with their art department. A VFX Supervisor is one of the earliest hires on any given VFX-Driven Production. I’ve been hired by the director for films, the showrunner for TV, occasionally a line producer, and sometimes even studio execs. No matter who hires me, or when I come on, usually the only department head hired before me is the Production Designer. After a hopeful mind-meld with the main creative, I look forward to this relationship. Deciding on projects is driven by creative chemistry, past experience, or future confidence with directors and showrunners, but executing that vision really starts in the Art Department.
“It’s their world, I just live in it,” I might find myself uttering early in a project. I usually ask to have an office in the art department or at least nearby. I find that to be truly effective I have to be 25% Director, 25% DP, 25% Editor, and 25% Production Designer. I may at times need to help create a vision, or even direct 2nd Unit, but it is NEVER my vision. I may at times discuss exposure of greenscreens, lighting strategy, or be asked to paint out unwanted equipment, but I NEVER hold a light meter. I may discuss pacing, rolling a cut, head and tail trimming to make a cut better, but I NEVER sit at the Avid. I may suggest how we build things practically, digitally, or strategic combinations thereof. I may offer up grace notes or embellishments to concepts, but it’s simply NEVER my design. Collaboration for a VFX Supervisor is figuring out how to fit in. I find we’re usually forgotten, or not the first person to have a discussion, but ultimately, we get our fingers in EVERYTHING, and when everyone else is gone in post, we’re asked to make it all work.
I’m always excited to view that first Look Book. I’ve already read all the scripts, and had images dancing in my mind, but that first look at the concept boards and art presentation is where the show starts to breathe. I see it and I get excited. The scout for me is seeing all the possibilities the Designer is presenting. To me nothing is right or wrong. It’s all puzzle pieces. I’ve been to locations that were amazing, and all I need to do is finish a piece of set, or remove an unwanted view in one direction. I can make any location work, but does it make sense? Really figuring out where the art department starts and stops is a fruitful discussion.
A fun example was on the movie "Eurotrip". We shot in Prague, but needed to recreate London, Paris, & Rome. The main set piece we needed was to recreate the St Peter’s Basilica and exterior. Allen Starski had gone to Rome to scout and get reference. He had a plan to build a three-quarter scale, front façade of St Peters and the footprint of the Piazza. The question posed to me was “Can you do the rest?” We mapped out our shots. Allen built the ginormous exterior set in line with the sun path in Prague to mimic the sun path of the real St Peters in Rome. We shot on our set with large flanking bluescreens, and I went to Rome afterwards and shot high resolution still photography from each perspective that went off the set. We built very simple 3D geometry and projected the real St Peters to surround our set. We did it on a very small VFX Budget and it was very satisfying. There have been many other examples where the designer had small resources and I extended sets in the 90% realm. On the flip side, I have seen many wonderful sets where I just needed to add the finishing touches.
I always view every show as a house that the director or showrunner is building. The Production Designer is the architect of that house. An art director might build the physical set, but visual effects will fill it out or expand it within and occasionally beyond a Production Designer’s wildest dreams. Visual Effects Supervisors are a lot like genies in a bottle. We have masters. We grant wishes, but we have limitations, like numbers of wishes (budgets). Together Designers and Supervisors collaborate to build worlds for our directors and showrunners and hopefully grant their wishes.
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