Eamon Yates, a VFX Production Coordinator who has worked on films such as Thor: Ragnarok, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Legend of Tarzan, talks to us about the unsung heroes of special effects-laden blockbusters, when 'fixing it in post' is a step too far, and how he got into the industry.
Hello Eamon, thanks for taking the time to chat to us about your work. What is the role of the Visual Effects Production Coordinator?
Ultimately, this role is closest matched to that of a Project Manager. You are the metaphorical oil applied to the wheels of projects to ensure that delivery of the post production VFX happens on time and on budget. Effectively, we are the people that make the “fix it in post” statement a reality.
As a Production Coordinator, you will work with large teams of artists and specialists providing the deadlines and schedules to help deliver the hundreds of shots to the high quality the Directors and Studios expect. You will be part of the production team that is caught in between the Director or Studio and those on the front line. You are usually the first in and last out, the person that ensures the Studio get that final shot they need to finish the film. A good coordinator worth their salt is one that can take an accurate note of what the Studio or Director are looking for and translate this to an artist in a way they understand with enough technical knowledge to direct them to produce the right results quickly with minimal resources.
Knowing that, I suppose it goes without saying that a key skill of the role is that of communication. You have to be able to be direct enough to get the job done but sensitive enough to keep those in your teams motivated and up for working the often tough notes provided by those at the top. Any time you can help save on delivery of a project is always a win so the clearer your communication often the better.
That being said, there are also many other nuances and facets to this role. Skills such as organisation and being able to prioritise effectively when everything seems to be a priority is also critical. Creating Oscar winning VFX takes huge man power and resource to deliver these top quality effects that you see in the cinema. The teams producing these images are all led by the Production team. A bad production team often leads to bad schedules for the work, poor results on screen, extended delivery timelines which of course all leads to more money being used to finish the project, never a good thing.
What’s the ideal stage to get involved in a new project, and what do you find to be the best working process?
As a coordinator you can come in to a project at multiple points, and each point has its own ideal requirements.
More often than not, you will come into a project after the majority of filming is complete and the asset development has been completed and as such will be working on simply delivering shots required either for a trailer or for the final film. At this point, the ideal process falls largely into your own hands. Getting a clear brief of what is required, seeing any rough edits or previz that show a rough idea of what the shot should be, along with any concepts or storyboards to help direct the teams you are working with will be useful. Reading the script and understanding the flow of the story is always handy too. The more information you can arm yourself with the better. It will no doubt change as the Director and Studios start to get a feel for the characters and the film and start getting their feedback from friends and family screenings but being as prepared as you can be will always help if you are coming in at this stage.
If you are coming in earlier into a project you will more often than not be focused on the development of the CG assets such as the characters and the environments that you will use and insert into shots when entering the delivery phase of a project. At this stage you can be largely involved with creating a lot of the concepts and previz to help portray the story and the characters the Director envisions. Here you need to really understand the Directors and Studio’s vision as best as possible, even if they aren’t entirely sure themselves. Any narrowing down you can do to give some direction to your teams will help. You will no doubt go through hundreds of iterations of characters and other assets to help deliver that special something the Director really wants so be prepared to make extreme changes on a moments notice.
Sometimes, you will be on the studio side of things and at this stage you will largely be involved with a VFX Supervisor who will work closely with the Director to help get the best results on camera that also allow for the best VFX work in post production. Here you will also help pass media and communication to a lot of the VFX houses that are involved in the project to ensure they have what they require to deliver the best results.
As you can see, the role can be hugely varied and I think that's what makes it so entertaining but ultimately, I think the key thing is understanding as much as you can about a project as quickly as possible so you can impact in the best possible way.
The ideal process largely depends on the stage you enter the project. I personally love getting involved on the studio side of things and find that the most fascinating but also the hardest to get involved with.
Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve done on recent projects such as Thor: Ragnarok and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?
So these two films were great contrasts to each other in terms of my role with them.
On Fantastic Beasts I came on board on the latter parts of the project so was largely involved in helping deliver the final project. I looked after a number of departments that worked at the end of the VFX pipeline. This meant that I would work with my teams to ensure the assets we received by other departments earlier in the pipe were of the right quality to be able to use or, if not, push them back for re-work or help find workarounds if there were quicker and more effective options. Its amazing what a good compositor can do with so little!
In terms of the actual work that we did on screen, we had a great range of characters we had developed which meant we got to work on a huge variety of sequence and shots all with varying style and tone. One of the key scenes we worked on was with the Erumpant in Central Park. We helped create the Central Park environment and also worked on developing a lot of the look and feel for the final scene. The odd thing was, just after Fantastic Beasts was released I actually went to NYC for the first time and got to see the areas of Central Park we had worked on. Its amazing how accurate we got some things and also interesting to see the things we adjusted to create a better look on the film.
For Thor, I got involved a lot earlier with this project, the main bulk of the filming was still to happen and when I joined, the team was very small. This in turn meant that I got to utilise my experience to pretty much work on the full range of the pipeline from start to finish until we started growing the team further.
It was great fun developing the characters such as Korg the rock monster, Miek the knife wielding parasite along with the other gladiators. Working on digital doubles for Thor and Hela was fascinating, Hela especially. I remember being in one dailies session and looking at images on the screen of Cate Blanchett. As we discussed the images we started to question where these new reference photos had come from that we were looking at as they were great for the people working on the assets. Needless to say, they weren’t reference photos, they were CG renders the team had created. I wish I could show them to you as they were incredible! The level of detail was astonishing and just goes to show what can be created with the right time and care.
As we rolled into delivery for the project we worked largely on the final Asgardian scene with Megasurtur. It was an incredible scene to work on and Megasurtur was an incredibly interesting character to develop. The level of detail we went into in our discussions about the real physics a character his size would create was incredible. We went through stages of assessing the speed that his movements were actually creating and at one point I am sure we came close to hitting mach 100! That in itself lent its own challenges as you quickly realised that you had no frame of reference to what an object would do when hit at that speed and with the force that Megasurtur could induce. We used a huge amount of reference images of the sun to get an idea of what an object that big and on fire actually looked like. The sheer science that went into creating that character was truly incredible and sometimes I think its a shame that audiences can’t see this development as it can be wildly interesting.
Working with rock monsters and aliens must be a dream job for a lot of people! How did you get into VFX coordinating?
Funnily enough, I used to do a lot of coordination for IT projects before entering into the film industry. I used to enjoy it but always found my true passion was for film.
Ever since a young age I have loved film, as a kid I grew up in a family without a TV licence so we used to watch films on VCR instead. I think the passion has stemmed from there. I always wanted to work and be involved in creating these epic stories that evoke such emotion on screen and I related to them so much but I always thought it was beyond my grasp to get involved in.
After I had been through a rather frustrating patch in my IT career and was feeling a little despondent about things my partner challenged me saying why don’t I see what was available in film as I always go on about it and I would clearly enjoy it. At first I laughed it off but the thought wouldn’t go away. Why don’t I at least try, what have I got to lose? As such, I started to draw up a plan and look at the goal objectively. As I investigated, I found that a lot of the skills and experience I had on paper were skills that could easily transfer to any industry and I was always developing other more creative skills outside of work such as a little compositing and animation or editing here and there to help friends out with their projects. It had to help so I started searching for film production work to see what sort of things were available.
I quickly learnt which studios were at the top of the game and thought why don’t I try reaching for the stars and talking to them to see what happens. I always want to be the best in what I do and to do that I know I need to work with the best. In my searches I found that VFX Production fit my skills perfectly and so I sent out some applications and messages, called the large studios to see if people were looking for VFX Production staff and started connecting on social media with people that could give me advice or a possible in route. Before long I got an invite to come in to talk to people and the next thing I knew, I had done it. I was working in film and top level films at that!
You must have plenty of stories, but what are some of the most challenging or rewarding experiences you’ve had in your role?
Challenges, I can name a few but there are two that particularly stick in mind.
The first was on Fantastic Beasts, we had reached a crucial stage on delivery and there was one shot that just wouldn’t work for love nor money. The problem was, that this one shot was a good couple of minutes long. I mean we are talking well over 4000 frames. It involved assets developed by many different vendors and transferring between vendors is never the smoothest thing at the best of times. Any CG rendering took huge amounts of time to render and would often be done in parts to accommodate the length of the shot and allow compositors to work on bits while the rest was rendering.
As crunch time approached, we received everything for our final asset to finish the shot at 7pm the night before our drop dead delivery cut off of 9am the next morning. At 5am we thought we had cracked it until one eagle eyed member of the team piped up, “whats that?” It turns out that one of the eyes of one of the CG characters were floating in front of their head rather than in it - don’t ask me how these things happen but they do! It had to be fixed though and delivery seemed doomed. One amazing compositor later and I think the final delivery to the studio was 8:41am. We worked straight through the night to get this monster shot delivered and to be honest it looks great in the final film, but goodness me it was tight for delivery!
The second challenge was on Thor: Ragnarok. We had received some shots filmed in a certain location and had been working on these. One day we heard from the Studio Execs in Marvel that they wanted to change the location of the scene. Great, not a problem we all thought. When are you doing the re-shoots? I remember the response clear as day, “oh, we aren’t re-shooting”.
Suddenly it all became clear, we were using the stuff they had already shot, cutting out everyone in it and putting them into a completely different environment. Sound tedious? Well when you consider that putting someone in a new environment means you also need to recreate them digitally so you get accurate shadows, reflections, interactions with the environment, etc, etc, and that these shots contained crowds of people, what should have been a reasonably simple thing suddenly became a heap load more difficult and time consuming. We did it though and the results aren’t half bad but it did take an awful lot to do. Personally, that’s when “fix it in post” just goes that little bit too far.
In terms of most rewarding, I think every time I watch a film I have worked on and see the shots we slaved over, the easy ones, the tricky ones and the downright painful ones all linked together to create a powerful and emotive film it gives a huge sense of achievement. Seeing your name on the end of great films just fills you with a huge sense of pride and spurs you on to make the next wonderful masterpiece, maybe even that next Oscar winner!
Fingers crossed you get your hands on one of those golden statuettes! In the meantime you must be learning all the time. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far that apply to any new project?
This is a tough one but I think the biggest lesson I have learnt is that no matter how hard you try there will always be things that go wrong. Great films are not films that are made perfectly but films that encountered issues and then, with the collaboration of great people, took those issues and overcame them gracefully and masterfully. The projects that have been most successful are those that have had the best communication throughout and a clearly articulated vision from start to finish that people could understand and deliver.
I would also say, from a production point of view, establishing processes for organisation early is key to ensure you have what you need when you need it. What a lot of people on lower budget projects probably don’t realise is the sheer amount of reference photography and supporting material that comes with every shot or character. I mean we are talking hundreds of Gigabytes of data which might be useful but then again it might not. Either way, you need to have this arranged in a clear and concise way that allows you to find your data as quick as possible. You can guarantee, if you do need it, you will need it in a hurry!
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the same line of work?
First of all, are you crazy?! Hehe.
Seriously though, this industry is not for the faint-hearted. Absolutely there will be times when you will pull all-nighters, sleep on a sofa in an editors suite because there is no point heading home just to be back 2 hours later, but if you can stomach that, it can be hugely rewarding in a way that no other industry can be.
If you want to get into this, you need to think pragmatically about what your skills are that you are bringing to the table and work out where these fit in the cycle. Once you have established that you can start to narrow down where you want to work. Start reaching out to the big VFX houses like Framestore, Double Negative, Method Studios and MPC. Talk to the studios such as Pinewood, Leavesden and Shepperton and see if they have projects starting that are looking for people to get involved, you may get lucky, I know people that have got into films this way.
Finally, start connecting with people, build your network and talk to people. Find out what they are doing and maybe see if you can help them out. I’ve heard people say its not what you know but who you know and in part, they are correct. I do, however, think this is a slightly naive view. Personally, I think its who you know that can open doors for you but it's what you know that allows you to take the steps needed to walk through them. You can’t succeed without one or the other you need to have both.
And finally, a big question on behalf of short filmmakers. What advice would you give for those looking to add VFX to their projects with little or no budget?
This is a great question. It is true that if you have the money you can pretty much do anything with VFX. The reason for this is down in part to the sheer amount of specialists needed to get through the VFX pipeline. A lot of low budget filmmakers simply don’t understand what goes into the process and think that a person with a computer can create equivalent VFX in after effects overnight to rival those done in huge VFX houses with hundreds of artists. Realistically, that is simply not possible.
To give people some idea, here is a list of some of the departments needed to create a basic CG character shot in a replaced environment, it is by no means exhaustive: Paint/Roto, Tracking, Environments, Modelling, Rigging, FX, Creature FX, Groom, Lighting, Comp. All these departments, and there are more, require a specialist in them to work on a particular aspect to get the VFX that go in to the final shot. It requires all of them and very rarely can it all be done by just one person.
Without that budget, you really need to put consideration into exactly what VFX is needed. I strongly recommend that filmmakers working on tight budgets and want to use some VFX should talk to someone that knows how to make VFX. Their knowledge will help maybe suggest ways of filming that can give you a similar result with half the VFX work needed simply by being smart in the way its filmed. This can help dramatically.
Another thing I would say is really be prepared to work hard to get what you need in camera, nine times out of ten it will look better recording something live than any VFX you can produce, especially those on a low budget. If you can get it in camera, do it! I would say thats even a message that big budget films could take heed of too. Sometimes those dreaded words, “fix it in post” are uttered too quickly without the thought of the consequences.
Ultimately, I think film is a medium where you should be trying to stretch boundaries and adding VFX into low budget films helps give that extra edge if done properly. The rise of better technology opens up more opportunities to bring these affordably into smaller budgets. If you are talking to the right people and are smart about it you can definitely produce something on a skinnier than normal budget and VFX crew. This may, in the end, get your desired outcome with less budget and help you to stand out a little.