Detailed planning for the visual effects that appear in a film starts during the early stages of the pre-production process. Visual effects producers and supervisors work with the director to translate his or her vision from paper to the computer and finally to the big screen.
Many people are familiar with the terms "blue screen" or "green screen." Most have seen a weather forecaster standing in front of a map that really isn’t there; it’s actually a blank green wall used to mask in a digitized image of a map. This is an easy way to understand what a visual effects crew does on a movie set, only on a much larger scale.
The visual effects (VFX) team maps out the green or blue screen process on the set with the director, the cinematographer and the special effects crew. During post-production, the VFX team replaces the blue or green portion of the footage that was filmed against the blue or green screen with a live-action background plate or a completely digitized environment.
Other visual effects are more complex. Collaborating with the production designers and the art department, the VFX artists and animators design a new world, a world that exists solely inside the computer’s digital realm of mathematical equations.
Starting with storyboards drawn in pencil, these drawings allow the director and VFX designers and animators to flesh out their visual interpretation of the script. After receiving approval from the director on the proposed creative direction of a specific character, such as Stuart Little, the VFX team then creates a three-dimensional model of the character. Using the latest technology available, a three-dimensional digital scan of the model is created and stored in the computer’s hard drive.
From there, artists create digital wire-frame models of the characters. Digital Character Animators initially work with these rudimentary, low-resolution wire-frame images to create the character’s movements.
When live-action background plates are filmed during principal photography, computer animators and the VFX team are on the set throughout this process, taking detailed measurements and lighting references from all angles. The data gathered is then downloaded into the computers so that the digital characters can be properly lit to match their live-action environment.
Once a visual effects shot is completed and the sequence has been cut together by the director and an editor, the VFX artists will position a rough-animation of a character into the background plate for the director to view and analyze. After the director approves the shot or sequence, more detailed animation work begins. In the case of the characters in STUART LITTLE, this painstaking process moved forward in what is sometimes referred to as a "digital assembly line." The character was built, and in this case, lit, furred, clothed, and fully integrated into the scene of the movie.
Other visual effects work includes digitally painting a sky or ocean or removing the shadow of a crew member who is mistakenly in the shot. Sometimes the weather does not always cooperate when shooting on location. If a production crew has spent many days at a location, and the sequence being shot takes place in real-time, it’s imperative that the background be consistent. For that reason, visual effects artists may be called upon to make the sky bluer - or not.
One of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s companies is an Academy Award® winning, state-of-the-art digital production studio called Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc., which is dedicated to the art of visual effects production and character animation. The Imageworks production environment facilitates integrated pipelines for live-action visual effects and character animation, ImagemotionTM performance capture, all-CG animation, Imageworks 3D stereoscopic, and Imageworks Interactive, a full service creative group that produces websites and supports digital marketing for the studio and outside clients.
Imageworks’ achievements have been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with Oscars® for its work on SPIDER-MAN™ 2 and the CG animated short film THE CHUBBCHUBBS!. In 2008, SURF’S UP was nominated for the Academy Award® for Best Animated Feature. In 2007, two of Imageworks' projects, SUPERMAN RETURNS and the all-CG animated feature MONSTER HOUSE, were nominated for Academy Awards® in the Outstanding Achievement in Visual Effects and Best Animated Feature categories respectively. With those two nominations, Imageworks became the first studio to be recognized in the same year in these distinct areas, an indication of the diversity and quality of the company’s capabilities. Other Oscar® nominated projects include Walt Disney's THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, SPIDER-MAN™, HOLLOW MAN, STUART LITTLE and STARSHIP TROOPERS, for a total of ten nominations.