Code of Effects
Sharing Some Secrets from the Cutting Room
by R. Orlando Duenas, photos by Owen Thomas

Tab delimited text files help to cut down on human error.

When asked by my peers why I “give away” my procedures, I tell them I think it’s important that we all share our insights on our editorial procedures. That’s how advanced systems evolve. Anyway, chances are that most of the technical achievements we attain today will be obsolete in a few years anyway, so why not contribute your knowledge to the future?

Each year, there seems to be more and more visual effects shows––each with its own unique requirements and each requiring yet another way to manage the editing, turnover and tracking of shots. Some involve Avid Filmscribe lists, others EDLs, and most of them some sort of database. Over the last few years, the projects that involved the use of actual paper, and the faxing thereof, have disappeared along with our splicers and Acmade coders.

I believe it’s important for us to explore all of these methods in an effort to streamline and standardize the procedures we will be using in the future. Simplifying cutting room procedures is always high on my priority list, because it gives people the opportunity to get involved in the creative process. To that end, I would like to share my procedure, the vCode Method of Visual Effects Turnovers.

This system has developed over many years, on various types of shows, most recently on Keenan Ivory Wayans’ Little Man, where we replaced the head of a ten-year-old little person with that of 6’4” Marlon Wayans. Always keeping a long-range view of the data, both traditional and obscure information, logged in along with your original dailies, easily can be used to relay crucial and useful information to the vendors.

A scene from Revolution Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment's Little Man. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Little Man had over 1,500 shots turned in to six different vendors––more than 4,000 separate elements, amounting to nearly three hours of scanned frames. Throughout the course of the show, more than 500 shots were omitted and another 400 changed in some manner. Over 5,000 versions of the shots were logged in. The vCode Method of Visual Effects Turnovers allowed smooth and efficient communication between our three-person visual effects editorial staff and the vendors.

The basic steps involve prepping each shot in the Avid and breaking them down to their original source elements, assigning keywords and simple codes to those elements and then exporting that data as a tab delimited text file. This is imported into a FileMaker Pro database, where the data is organized and disseminated to the visual effects house as another tab delimited text file. This file, along with a QuickTime file of each shot––or sequence of shots––is generally all the vendor needs from editorial to begin.

The tab delimited text files––where each field of text (18 all together) is separated from the next by a tab––contain the same painstakingly entered and checked information that has gone into the Avid. But instead of transferring that data either by hand or by cut list (to then be re-entered by someone at the effects house), the lab roll, keycode, tape and timecode numbers are among the many pieces of data that are transferred to the vendor in a much more automated fashion, thus cutting down on human error.

Assistant editors Mike Wilson, left, and Clark Campbell work on the effects of Little Man.

Naming conventions are the key to creating a successful, organized system. The vCode Shot Name, for instance, is structured like this––scene number, two-letter scene designation, shot number, shot alteration code and editorial designation:

Each element that makes up a _EFX shot has a different editorial designation:
009_pp_020_A02_L1P1 (Line-up placement, layer 1, part 1, etc.).
The plate purpose code tells everyone what the element was shot as:
009_pp_020_A02_L1P1_main (the main plate, or base layer of the effect).
009_pp_020_A02_L2P1_gs_m (the greenscreen element of character _m).
009_pp_020_A02_L3P1_bg (The background element, or process plate).

The description field of the _L#P# element contains frame range and other notation regarding speed changes, flops and the like. If necessary, a line-up was also generated via Microsoft Excel.

Editorial designations exist to help distribute and track other important elements:
009_pp_020_A02_RPlate (reference plates, chrome balls, etc…)
009_pp_020_A02_TRef (timing reference, work print…)

After a bit of practice, the vCode naming structure is quickly and easily decipherable.

The exported files are then e-mailed to the vendors, where it is imported to their hub. The scan facility also adds an additional piece of information––the slate name of the originating shot tagged onto the end of the vCode Name: 009_pp_020_A02_L1P1_main_9-1a.

Eventually, shots start coming back; when they do, it’s important that vendors maintain the complete shot name, sans the EFX designation. This name can be followed by any additional information vendors desire, such as their version number.

Shot notes are entered into the Version Notes field of the VFX Tracker database, and subsequently returned to the vendors as a tab delimited file containing just two fields, vCode Name and Version Notes. Every note regarding the shot is listed date first, then version number. This helps to create a complete history of the shot in the Version Notes field.

The procedures we use today will evolve into those of tomorrow. I believe we can all benefit by adding structure and fluidity to the sometimes volatile and chaotic process of large visual effects shows. Even small shows, where the first assistant editor wrangles the turnovers, will find the time-saving steps of the vCode Method a step in the right direction.

In a nutshell, those are the basics. Anyone interested in how I manage the rest of the system is invited to download the “vCode VFX Packet” posted via the Guild’s website, techtips/ Open the alias to “The vCode Method” document and have at it. This document spells out in great detail my entire procedure sheet with step-by-step instructions for each step. Watch for one of those Guild postcards regarding an upcoming training seminar. Simply open the vCode Method document and follow the steps outlined therein. l

R. Orlando Duenas is a picture editor specializing in motion capture, visual effects and animation. His credits include The Polar Express, and most recently he has contributed his talents as an editorial consultant on Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, and James Cameron’s Project 880.

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