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.