By Keith Kamholz
Technical Director and CGMA instructor Keith Kamholz talks about the challenges faced in the visual effects industry, and the satisfaction of problem-solving…
Visual effects is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and varied sectors in the computer animation industry, but it also deservedly has a reputation as one of the most complex and challenging. In truth visual effects is an umbrella term for a whole variety of specialties, but pretty much all share the same need for a careful and considered approach to the balance between the stylized and the realistic, the physically correct and the artistically directed.
As Keith Kamholz – instructor on CGMA’s Mastering Destruction in Houdini Masterclass and an FX Technical Director with film credits at Double Negative, ILM, Blue Sky and Tippett Studio on a raft of tentpole vfx movies (including Jurassic World, Captain America: Winter Soldier and the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising) – explains, it’s essential to determine when a visual effects sequence needs to mimic real world behaviors, and when to create something more stylized.
“As a CGI artist, you often find yourself entranced by the smallest of details in the world around you. This could be light scattering through an object, the natural turbulence fields in a cloud of smoke, visualizing the musculoskeletal system of an active animal, or any one of a near infinite number of real-world phenomena that you may need to recreate digitally. Although good reference is an important part of creating realistic effects, it’s also vital to know when to break from reality. Animated productions are perhaps the most obvious scenario in which you would do this, as cartoon physics and highly stylized effects are an essential part of the genre’s visual style.
One fun example that comes to mind is when I animated some falling flowers in the movie Rio. It might have been acceptable to do simple basic tumbling flowers, but by adding a very stylized non-realistic swirling motion the sequence took on an extra unique, more playful vibe. This sort of artistic judgment isn’t limited to animated productions, though; it’s nearly as important in realistic film VFX. The real world often doesn’t look cinematic enough, and directors are typically striving for a much more polished/stylized interpretation of the world than your eyes or even the camera would actually capture. Balancing the real and the hyper-real can be a delicate part of the job, and it’s always interesting to see where the end result deviates from the natural world.”
Visual Effects: The Big Picture
When not running CGMA’s Mastering Destruction in Houdini Masterclass, Keith Kamholz works as an FX Technical Director on films such as Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them, Justice League and Transformers: Age of Extinction. Here he discusses the importance of finding simplicity in the endlessly complex world of visual effects design.
“When working on any creative projects, be it visual art or music or something else entirely, it’s important to not get too caught up in the fine details before sorting out the broad strokes. In destruction shots, for example, it’s often a waste of time to fix the little inaccuracies in a rigid body simulation before adding the smaller scale debris, because those elements may very well hide those inaccuracies. And by extension, fixing little issues in the debris may be a waste of time, as they then may be covered up by a heavy dust layer! One helpful trick to keep in mind is to ask yourself what’s the most important change or addition to make if the shot HAD to be finalized and put into the finished product.”
“Another thing to be aware of is that it’s very common for people to overcomplicate solutions to VFX challenges, often at the expense of artistic control. For some artists/developers that fall prey to this, such over-engineering is actually a point of pride, even though it’s really not necessary! As a destruction specialist myself, the first examples that come to mind are related to that type of work. For instance, sometimes advanced bending/crumpling/deforming simulations are the best option, but it’s often much more difficult & time-consuming & tough to control. Incorporating some simple manual sculpting and procedural non-simulated deformations can yield beautiful results much more quickly, and by extension allow you to respond to notes much more easily. These principles aren’t limited to complex FX; they’re equally applicable to other parts of a production pipeline. It becomes even more important to keep this elegant simplicity in mind when you consider that many productions are done on an extremely tight budget and deadline!”