From the Guild
HOW VFX EDITING WORK FLOWS
A Count Sheet.
How VFX Editing Work Flows
by Edward Landler
Over two weekends and a Wednesday late in January, Scott Anderson — visual effects (VFX) editor on Gladiator, Charlotte’s Web and, most recently, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island — presented two seminars and supervised three workshops on the job of the VFX editor and the VFX workflow in the Editors Guild Training Room in Los Angeles. Guild Board Member and head of the Training Committee Suhail Kafity, MPSE, welcomed members and introduced Anderson at the seminars held on Sunday, January 22 — one for beginning and intermediate levels in the morning and another for advanced level in the afternoon.
Throughout both of the heavily detailed and informative seminars, Anderson presented his points clearly with visual demonstrations of his own procedures from a few of the films he has worked on. About a third of the members attending the first seminar were editors and the rest were assistant editors. Well over half the audience had had experience with VFX.
“I’m not saying my system’s perfect,” said Anderson. “But it’s what works for me.” He started out with a basic definition of visual effects: “Anything on screen that was not captured in camera, or altering the image that was originally captured in camera. It is the non-traditional manipulation of imagery after photography beyond the traditional use of fades, dissolves and superimpositions.”
He elaborated on this definition with some specific examples of VFX work — from compositing an image that couldn’t be captured on camera or removing an image (like a camera caught in a shot on a multi-camera shoot) to creating intricate computer-generated imagery (CGI) effects (such as a single pan shot by tiling together a background plate from successive green screen tiles of Moscow’s Red Square).
Count Sheet detail.
Anderson followed the definition with a clear and basic explanation of what VFX editors do. “The visual effects editor is the person who handles all the information, he said. “You are responsible for everything that goes in and out of the Avid. You build the blueprint for the effect and give it to others — compositors and other vendors — to construct. A VFX editor acts as an architect and supplier of materials — like scans and elements — to those who actually create the shot.”
Interfacing with the editorial department, studio post-production supervisors, executives and vendors, the VFX editor incorporates and tracks all versions of VFX shots through to final composites into the current cuts of live action sequences for review. Anderson then broke down the departments with which the VFX editor interacts into specific personnel.
In the VFX department, the VFX supervisor is the person who has the creative vision of what has to be done; the VFX producer is in charge of keeping things on schedule and within budget; and the VFX coordinator does the data-wrangling, maintaining records and transferring files to scanning facilities on a well-run show. On some films, everything that goes in and out — scans, extracts, QuickTimes, budgets and more — goes through the VFX coordinator and VFX producer.
The VFX editor also keeps in direct contact with the editor and the first assistant, who runs data management for the show in the editorial department. The VFX editor deals with the studio through the post-production supervisor.
“Ideally, when you start a job, you start when editorial starts and you sit in on all discussions,” said Anderson. “That way, as VFX editor, you are in sync with editorial. This fosters an atmosphere of trust and helps you identify and prevent problems before they arise. It gives you a chance to work out all the bugs before things get too crazy — or, at least, to be aware of them. For example, if any custom or odd-format cameras are used in the shoot, be sure to double-check their compatibility with the rest of the show. This also helps in determining the specs for QuickTimes being delivered to vendors and requesting extractions, etc.
“I like to pre-load everything,” Anderson continued. “I do anything that I can do to automate a task or make things simpler when — or before — a show starts. Don’t wait until you’re under the gun to address a problem. Always stay one step ahead. For example, on a digital show, the Look Up Table (LUT) for each camera should be assigned early on. Once it’s assigned, I write a script for my database so that when an extraction is requested, the LUT is automatically assigned. It doesn’t seem like a big thing, but when you’re dealing with hundreds of shots and working long hours, it eliminates the potential for human error. You hope the extraction house does this automatically — but they don’t always — and you may be working with several types of cameras, so be prepared.”
Anderson also handed out a set of valuable printed materials supporting his perspectives on workflow, including step-by-step guides to VFX turnover procedures for both film and digital shows prepared by VFX editor Mary Walter (Armageddon, The Matrix). Through the rest of the session, he went over the procedures as mapped out by the guides, elaborating on the steps with detailed insights and notes of caution.
He described going through the parts of the movie that have to be turned over, determining what elements the vendors would be need to work on, and confirming this information with the VFX department. After identifying all the elements needed to create the effects, Anderson said, “You tag or mark all VFX shots in the show by scene number and description, and add locators to each, as well. You’ll be starting with one bin for scans and one for exports for the whole show, but as it gets more complicated, you’ll create separate bins by sequence or numbers of shots — depending on what works for you.”
Anderson also noted that he creates sub-clips for importing into the database from which the extraction or scan order will eventually be created. He organizes these sub-clips so, at a later time, if someone wanted to see what was requested for a particular shot, he could retrieve the visual reference quickly.
For further protection, he mentioned that you should always also create burn-ins or watermarks for each shot with a serial number for each specific output, and that a record of each QuickTime should be kept for future reference. When sending the elements to the vendors, he recommended including surrounding footage to give a feel of the scene in which the effect is to be done. Also, different vendors will have different specs and you will need to be aware of them so you can deliver QuickTimes that they can accurately reference.
The VFX editor creates the extraction or scan request to tell the lab, or extracting facility, what frames to scan for export, what they are to be called and to whom they are to be sent. After this is done, the VFX editor creates a Count Sheet that lists all the elements involved in the shot and a general sense of how they are used. For more complicated shots, he creates a Line-Up Sheet — similar to an optical line-up sheet — to help the facility understand how he put together a particular shot. Then he showed an example of a completed shot set-up with its accompanying line-up sheet that took a full day to create.
“As slow as it is, you have to set it up yourself,” said Anderson. “Normally, you should be able to do at least 40 shots in a day. This is 98 percent of what you’re going to do on the job.”
From the audience, film technician Jeff Nicholson — with experience in optical camera effects — said, “The more elements in the effect, the more you have to double- and triple-check as you go along.”
Anderson stressed the importance of using the FileMaker Pro program to create a database for the dailies and all VFX information for a show. “I can request anything I need and I can find it in the database,” he explained. “This way, I can access any information for anyone who needs it. If something is changed and you don’t know about it, you enter the VFX shot number and the database links to the previous information on that shot; you can figure out what you need to do by comparing the old and the new information.
“But there’s no automated system to monitor changes effective enough for you to be secure,” he continued. “Keep checking for changes with the other departments and keep scanning the cut for any changes. If you notice anything, ask the VFX editor and, depending on what they tell, you act accordingly.” He also strongly recommended the free training available on lynda.com and advised attendees to get a password for the site from Guild Training Coordinator Dieter Rozek.
Someone asked about using third-party software like AfterEffects or PhotoShop to do VFX. Anderson replied, “I don’t use them. It means a lot more work. I can do practically everything I need to do with the Avid. I’ve used AfterEffects only once. It’s very cumbersome. The vast majority of editors I’ve worked with prefer to have the temp work done using the Avid software. That way, if they want to change something, they can just do it without having to explain what they’d like to me or someone else. It speeds up and simplifies the turnover process if you’ve done everything in the Avid.”
Picture editor Ann Trulove added, “Producers always ask if you know things like AfterEffects, but 99 percent of what it does can be done on Avid.” At the end of the session, assistant editor Howard Flaer remarked, “This has been kind of a reminder of how much tedious work there is to this. You have to be very precise. There are no steps you can skip.”
About 30 people came for the afternoon’s advanced seminar. Half of them were VFX editors and the other half was split between editors and assistant editors, but all had worked on digital shows.
The session began with a demonstration of a labor-saving computer program written and introduced by Marty November, a picture editor specializing in VFX. Compatible with Windows 7, November’s EDL Change Manager allows the user to generate a list of changes that have been made to a show more easily. For more information about the program, contact November at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the afternoon session, Anderson followed the hand-outs on turnover procedures as he had in the morning. But the greater familiarity with the process of the participants allowed for a more open discussion about specific aspects of the workflow process. For example, assistant editor Scott Janush contributed some valuable information about the use of camera LUTs: “You have an input value for color and luminescence. You have to transform from one set of values to another set of values to arrive at correct contrast in digital intermediates.”
Anderson also went into more detail about naming conventions for tagging elements: “Three numbers for the scene in the show followed by three letters, which are descriptive of the scene, and four numbers for the shot. And when numbering shots, enter numbers in increments of five. It has become fairly standard to do it this way or in a similar fashion.”
As in the first session, Anderson stressed the importance of outputting QuickTimes to vendors using their codec preferences. He added, “Make sure you ask the vendors to tell you if they haven’t received everything. You won’t have time to find that out when things get busy. It’s your job to help them so tell them what they should expect to receive — extracts, count sheets, QuickTimes, etc. — but they need to tell you if they don’t receive something or if it has become corrupted.”
Discussing the use of count sheets vs. line-up sheets, Anderson said, “I view them as different entities entirely. On a count sheet, things are pretty straight forward — frames line up one to one, no complicated frame ramps, etc. You use a line-up sheet when there’s too much to explain on a count sheet. The line-up sheet is essentially an optical line-up sheet similar to what people did years ago. There are additional steps for film, because you have to deal with negatives and couriers. But from the standpoint of a VFX editor, the differences between projects captured digitally or on film are nominal.”
Anderson cautioned the advanced audience about third-party software, saying, “After you do something with third-party software, it can’t be manipulated again when you bring it into your timeline,” he warned. “If you’re in the middle of a turnover and you’ve been using AfterEffects and the editor decides he wants to swap out a plate, you have to stop everything you’re doing and make that change before you continue since you are the one who created the original comp. Generally speaking, it’s a pain and not necessary. I’m not a compositor; I’m an editor. I’m busy enough.”
Someone asked if working in 3-D complicates the VFX work and Anderson replied, “It takes up to three times as long but it doesn’t really complicate things. It takes a bit of time to get used to working in that environment, but after a week or two, the biggest difference is that you just need to allow for more time.”
As in the first session, Anderson strongly recommended using the online training available on lynda.com and completed the seminar by saying, “Don’t start doing things at the beginning of the show that you’re not willing to do all the way through. Be very thorough. Build redundancy into the process.”
After the seminar, two assistant editor, Ron Rauch and Jim Thomson — who had both worked on VFX shows — said that they found Anderson’s presentation especially rewarding in the process of bridging their expertise as assistants to becoming full VFX editors.
Picture editor Aric Lewis offered another perspective,: “I haven’t worked a lot with VFX, but I wanted to learn enough to speak the language when I do work with VFX editors.”
The Saturday and Sunday of the weekend following the seminars and the Wednesday after that were devoted to full days of practical workshops on AVIDs with databases from FileMaker Pro. Anderson returned on all three days to supervise five two-person teams doing practical applications of turning over shots, doing color correction, resizing QuickTimes and making count sheets.
Participating in the Sunday workshop, picture editor Ken Yankee said, “I usually get this stuff when it’s already finished. Now I’m getting the full perspective from the beginning. It’s really helping me understand how the work can be streamlined.” “This is the seminar and the workshop I should have had before taking the job when I had a lot of VFX,” said assistant editor Stephanie Hernstadt. “I’m improving my skills vastly.” Assistant editor Myron Santos said, “This is totally new to me, but it’s something I want to break into. It’s good to know I can come here and have these tools available to learn on.”
The seminars held on Sunday, January 22, were videotaped and can be viewed by Guild members on the Editors Guild website.
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at email@example.com.