VFX SUPERVISOR: Kevin Blank
Kevin Blank's VFX career started on the television shows “Hercules” & “Xena.” Over the years he has supervised VFX for dozens of TV Series & Films including “Lost,” “Cloverfield,” and “Alias.” He has enjoyed long collaborations with filmmakers JJ Abrams & David Goyer. Kevin won the Primetime Emmy for “Lost” and multiple Visual Effects Society awards. His upcoming project, “Lovecraft Country” is due to premier on HBO in August 2020.
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.
VFX SUPERVISOR: Eric Pascarelli
Eric Pascarelli is a visual effects supervisor, producer and cinematographer with numerous feature film, commercial, music video and television credits in a career spanning twenty-five years. He’s a member of the Visual Effects Society and the International Cinematographers Guild.
First I want to say that there are many varied types of “visual effects shows” and that the roles and interaction of the vfx supervisor and production designer can vary wildly from project to project. At one extreme, for example, are vfx and animation driven serialized tentpoles employing large visual effects vendors. These vendors can be engaged by the studio sometimes even before the director is hired and often have their own art departments responsible for a lot of the design work on the visual effects portions of the show, which can end up being significant. At the other extreme are shows which have only a small amount of vfx work and serve to fill gaps left during principal photography – just enough gaps to employ a vfx supervisor at all.
The type of project I’ll talk about here falls somewhere in the middle: a project where vfx plays a premeditated and strong supporting role in a primarily live action production. For these kinds of projects (and really for any type project) my belief is that the goal of visual effects is not to try to mimic reality but instead to mimic photography.
And specifically, the photography being mimicked is that being created by the other filmmakers on a given project. However ambitious what is being created by me and several hundred digital artists doing the work in various parts of the world, a given shot needs to appear as if it was directed by the director, designed by the production designer and photographed by the cinematographer on one single camera at one place and at one time.
My first goal in working with any production designer I don’t know is to try to make all of the above very clear! Especially that although I consider a big part of my job to be a tastemaker, I have no aspirations to try to design the film myself. I rather consider myself the guardian of the designer’s work through the post process and to make sure that everything I contribute at that time fits in the language established during prep and shoot by the principal filmmakers.
If there is any mistrust from the production designer I try to confront it head on while in prep. I’m often asked by producers to help them make fairly large financial decisions (“practical or CG?”) and we all have to work from an assumption of trust if we are going to work together to make the best decisions. It’s not always the case but I appreciate it when the production designer has taken the effort to get to know me, my work and my capabilities, my photographic background as I always try to do of all of the principals I work with.
During production I usually don’t get much argument from any production designer I’ve worked with when I push to do as much as possible practically. It’s almost always the best way to go. For the things that we need to take to post, as CG, matte paintings etc. I try to engage the designer in at least an on-set conversation about what we are doing in post might look like. Even better, if he or she can take the time and resources do concept art or a design, I encourage it. It’s really helpful to me to have something to bring to a vfx vendor when we start to put shots together. I am constantly filing still photos I take on set and art department reference for later retrieval. If the production designer sends me relevant reference unsolicited, to add to these shot files, I love this! At the end of production I make sure to collect every scrap of research from the art department on a giant hard drive.
Finally, assuming the director approves, if the production designer is still reachable during post I will always get in touch when appropriate for guidance on things that have not been well established during photography.