The 8 (or 9) Studio Habits of VFX

8studioHabitsOM_starsSML.jpgPeople often think of VFX (Visual Effects) as a young discipline, a product of the digital era. Some people often vaguely assume it started with Star Wars. The earliest example of VFX I can find is Alfred Clark’s “The Beheading of Mary Queen of Scots” in…1895. It’s only 18 seconds long, and is notable as one of the first films to use trained actors. Notably Mary Queen of Scots is played by a man, (you’d be hard pushed to notice due to the quality) and it’s the first death scene in cinema history (VFX has been killing people in spectacular ways ever since). The particular effect used is a substitution cut- as the axe connects the actor is replaced with a mannequin with a detachable head. In today’s cine-literacy soaked world, it’s hard to estimate the shock and surprise of such a scene.

So, VFX was there at the very start of film history, and in fact predates many of the narrative conventions we take for granted in narrative film. Interestingly VFX seems to have a different lineage from film. Whereas early film took conventions from theatre and photography, VFX came from spectacular magic acts performed at music hall venues.

One of the most influential early film makers Georges Méliès (whose iconic image of the Moon with a rocket stuck in its eye is well known) was a stage magician before he became a film maker, and bought his first film venue from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the world famous magician.

However despite Visual Effects’ long presence riding shotgun with film, it has relatively little of its own intellectual hinterland. Film critics seem to focus on its spectacular or uncanny aspects, and Norman Klein’s “From the Vatican to Vegas: The History of Special Effects” is one of the few books that raises its head above the film parapet to look at the wider landscape of visual pleasure and storytelling from art and architecture.

Because of this VFX can seem like a technical software based skill, an ahistorical technology rather than a craft. Potential students and casual observers only see the part of the iceberg that is above water- a myriad of YouTube software tutorials or triumphant VFX breakdowns from film DVDs.

Potential students and employers are often implicated in the myth of technological mastery as the key to entry into the discipline. Potential students assume they are already creative and need topping up with technical operation skills, whilst employers sometimes are focused on short term skills deficits rather than the bigger and more sustainable picture.

To break this myth of technical supremacy and exceptionalism we need to look further afield for ways to think about the creative study of VFX. In other words we can help students to formulate their own learning development by adopting pedagogy and frameworks from other creative disciplines and co-opting the working artist’s mindset.

One useful framework is Lois Hetland’s Studio Thinking Framework and what are called the 8 Studio Habits. These are an accessible “ordinary language” guide to training and nurturing an artistic mind, which is what we need in VFX. They are, in fact, the basis of best practices in a creative studio of any kind, describing what aptitudes create quality artefacts. These eight habits are Stretch and Explore, Express, Develop Craft, Envision, Understand Community, Observe, Engage and Persist, Reflect.

They work for VFX too. Hetland refers to them as dispositions which we should nurture. In practice, the Habits stack, cluster and amplify each other. Habits don’t happen in isolation but interact, like real behaviours do. These VFX Habits fuse and play off each other.

Let’s sum up how these 8 habits can foster a new future for VFX, decoupled from its attachment to industry, and re-aligned to art practice


Habit 1: Stretch and Explore


We need to stretch the definition of VFX away from being a ‘guns for hire’ service industry for films to an art that can imagine and build new worlds that exist in their own right. VFX needs to expand and find new centres, away from even the strictures of narrative, and should explore new social themes and ideas.

When you’re responsible for an image in a commercial film, budgets dictate you need to be exactly aware of what your final work will look like, but now VFX software is ubiquitous and inexpensive you can change the straitjacket of detailed predictability to a more serpentine or rhizomatous approach, embracing ambiguity, and welcoming accidents, noodling and serendipity. Stretching beyond the comfort of the immediate horizon can introduce unexpected elements that stretch both the artist and the medium.

Students can often stretch themselves in new social situations as they are often exploring living away from parents for the first time. They need to also develop a confidence to stretch in their work, which is often difficult as they are still unaware of Higher Education modes of learning and the inherent value of experimentation and “fail faster” approaches, and are often reticent to depart from the straight and narrow caution that has rewarded them throughout their education thus far.


Habit 2: Express


VFX like Animation can express inner states as well as the external world. Take the interdimensional spaces of Doctor Strange or the quantum tesseract construction of Interstellar.

Most students don’t join a VFX course in order to communicate. In fact, some, through years of screen interaction and passive consumption are resistant to engaging in this way. They see VFX as an exciting way to engage with making cool films. Saying something that has meaning to them and deliberately sharing that is very alien. Developing a VFX practice that enables them to comment on the world around them is going to be tough, especially as there aren’t many exemplars. This is the first generation that has free VFX software, the tools available to make startling new art or commentary. It takes a while to realise the tools are there to tell stories about what’s happening on your street as well as what’s happening in an empire far, far away.

Isadora Duncan said, “If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” VFX as an artform can pull on metaphor, symbolism and the photo-real at the same time.


Habit 3: Develop Craft


The craft of VFX is only partly software, like painting is only partly the brush. I’ve noticed in learning about VFX there’s a principle that I call the 95/5 principle. That is getting 95% of any project or image finished will take around 50% of your time, but getting the last 5% right will take the remaining half of the total time. In two years of teaching students rarely want to stray into this 5% time-sponge, even though it’s the route to mastery and success. To them, 95% seems good enough. To a professional, it’s unfinished.

Craft is usually linked with tradition, and as we have mentioned VFX has a long tradition of spectacle. But VFX has a parallel concurrent tradition- that of tromp l’oeil or verisimilitude. It’s been said that 85% of all VFX is invisible- no-one knows it’s happened. The wire removal, the crowd or cars that are not really there, the digitally extended building or vista. It’s mundane but necessary, and rarely acknowledged. It is the foundation that allows spectacles to happen. This craft of erasure or carapace is the left brain of VFX, the less glamourous cousin to all the extravagant legerdemain of spectacle. However it’s both hemispheres that make the craft of VFX.

Inadequate craft diminishes the artwork, and affects its reception if it draws attention to itself. We’ve all seen bad Green Screen work or bad edits because someone thought 95% was good enough.


Habit 4: Envision


Thinking you know what you want to achieve is easy, but forming a mental picture of your piece, or even conceiving of something as a possibility is not. We need to learn to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed and imagine possible steps towards making a piece.

By envisioning and working backwards you can plan properly. There are many ways that VFX artists envision. They envision with storyboards, with pre-vizualisation software, with ‘slap comps’ (quick composites via rough unprocessed layers of Photoshop).

Students find envisioning difficult. If they are designing a building they can tell you what it is but not how it would be occupied on a daily basis. “If I see an interior, like a room, I want to know where the occupants put their coats and bags” said a VFX colleague. Part of envisioning is getting the internal logic of your world right. If a character has a tail, how does that effect both its domicile and gait? How might a door be scuffed or dented by constant usage? In order to envision an object, you may need to envision a world.


Habit 5: Understand Community


Community can seem like a nebulous concept when you think your end goal is only to be employed. The first contact students have originally with communities is through online fora and networks, where they may be the supplicant asking for help. There can also be a reticence to join communities full of professional VFX artists as students are conscious of not being professional yet.

It could be seen that the VFX student progresses from individual practice (first seen in portfolio application at the interview), through to team practice at points on the course, and often finally to company practice in internship or eventual employment.

Unlike a team or company, a community has porous edges and often little or no hierarchy. Navigating this can be confusing for students who on one hand are learning the demarcation of roles within teams and simultaneously experiencing the non-hierarchical flatness or even constructive chaos of community.

The student’s sense of community accrues almost by stealth in parallel with teamwork. This Habit calls for a student to be aware of what it means to be part of a community, not necessarily to exploit it. Are there responsibilities? Is there socialisation and adoption of mores through the experience? Awareness of support and obligation moves the student beyond the narrow identity as part of a company, and brings the focus back to artistic practice and a love of this form of creativity, and a love of exchange.


Habit 6: Observe


The power of VFX is based on its trompe l’oeil roots, and the mimicry of natural physical laws. That’s where it departs from Animation as an expressive medium. Indeed animation within the discipline of VFX is all about simulation and mimicry, not exaggeration or ‘squash and stretch’. VFX monsters and chimera conform to the world they are placed in.

To do great VFX you have to understand light and shadows, be aware of how lenses distort images, and know how materials break or grow. Atmospherics, optics, bone joints, reflections all need to be observed. It’s surprising how many students design shadows around their creations badly because they haven’t looked at shadows. They just assume they know. In a visually mediated world we don’t look out of the window, but into the screen for our references. The methodology of 3D software is particularly complicit in corroding students’ observational faculties. No cubes in real life exist without some kind of bevelled edge, and no spheres are really that smooth.

It’s been pointed out there is a creative tension between Envision and Observe. Envision is the seeing you do in your head and Observing is the seeing that you do with your eyes. Observing is difficult because we don’t know how bad we are at doing it.


Habit 7: Engage and Persist


When a student is completing an exercise, or a professional is creating work to a deadline, it is defined by its finite nature. As a creator they are entering into a social contract of some sort to finish the task, and extrinsic motivation can be a spur to action; being paid, or getting a good grade. In short it’s easier to engage and persist in these Pavlovian scenarios, replete with sanctions and repercussions if you don’t.

In University, those negative reinforcements are removed and the student has to learn to replace them with intrinsic grit or resilience.

It’s very easy to be engaged when you are on your driving test with the instructor setting next to you, but harder when you are reading the highway code alone in your room, or are a passenger in someone else’s car.

This double-barrelled Habit is the antidote to failure and apathy. Many students find it difficult to keep engagement going. An environment of distraction pervades all our lives, and theirs particularly. It’s easy to forget that students have often never had the opportunity for long term sustained study and even at university their time is cordoned and fragmented. Couple this with a consumer paradigm where ‘ease’ is idolised. Students will often ask what the easiest way to do something is, rather than what is the most instructive or rewarding. Engagement is the ignition, but persistence is the fuel.


Habit 8: Reflect


Reflection is often portrayed as a solitary activity, almost meditative, but its power can be magnified by communication and discourse. Individuals can find it surprising that others have similar thoughts and issues, and then find it surprising why they never thought others were in the same situation in the first place. The VFX practice of ‘Dailies’ can be marshalled to nudge students into the mindset that discussion “raises all boats in the harbour”.

Reflection is how we come to conclusions about quality. It can be activated with a series of questions, or challenges. Students can simplistically lump reflection and research together as elements of the process that get in the way of the actual ‘doing’, with one occurring before you start and the other afterwards, rather than seeing both as suffused throughout the creative process. The power of reflection is unleashed when the student no longer just sees it as a form of review of what happened once the artefact is finished. Reflection isn’t something to do once you’ve crossed the finishing line, but rather it is the Sat Nav along the serpentine path of creation.

Thinking about these Habits, I wondered if there might be another maybe quite counter-intuitive Habit that is missing. It might be the Planet X in our nicely ordered solar system of VFX. That is the Habit of Efficiency. Now efficiency has a bad press, and doesn’t seem to be mentioned much within wider artistic practice, but I’ll recount why I think it deserves adding to the pantheon of Habits described thus far.


Habit 9: Efficiency

EFFICIENCYCalling it Elegance might also be an idea, as there is often a beauty in solving a visual problem with small brushstrokes. What I’m calling Efficiency is the concept that the Japanese sumi brush can sometimes say more than a high-definition photograph.

Efficiency in your VFX work means more energy for what really matters. If the eye isn’t going to go there, don’t over embellish it. Don’t waste computer power on distant objects in your scene. Don’t build in 3D when 2D will do.

Prioritise where the viewer’s eye will be. Don’t render the stubble on the back row of the Mongolian hordes. Remember in some cases good audio can suggest more than your VFX can (they say the pictures always look better on radio).

The ‘just enough’ approach of efficiency can be seen to rub against notions of the other Habits, but ‘just enough’ isn’t an excuse for not reaching for hard-won perfection; rather it’s the way you do it. As an example, Jungle Book was an incredibly efficient VFX film, full of elegant solutions, but no-one can say the VFX artists did ‘just enough’ to create that jungle and its inhabitants. Efficiency cuts no corners, it takes pride that mental and resources are spent where they are needed.


So with these 9 Studio Habits, which represent attitudes of both mind and practice, nascent practitioners can master the discipline of VFX. These Habits are transferable, but I’ll leave how they apply in other domains to other enthusiasts. The challenge is how to embed them in the day to day volatility or grind of VFX work. The key is mindful monitoring through Habit 8, that of Reflecting, and Habit 6, of Observation. Telling stories about how great work was achieved through different permutations of the 9 Habits will enable students to identify how they might be used and appreciate their value. You will meet resistance because this stuff’s hard. Interpreting what great exemplars and practitioners from the world of VFX have produced through the lens of the 9 Studio Habits may well be the first persuasive step.

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