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Q&A with Eran Dinur, author of The Filmmaker's Guide to Visual Effects

Eran Dinur, author of The Filmmaker's Guide to Visual Effects, discusses his newly published book and the field of visual effects.

The Filmmaker's Guide to Visual EffectsWhy did The Filmmaker's Guide to Visual Effects need to be written?

I felt that there is a strong need for a book that explains the process of visual effects from the filmmaker’s point of view. Most books are written for VFX artists, and are not very useful for directors or producers who want to get the best out of VFX for their productions. There is a lot of information out there, but it’s scattered and fragmented, and often laced with too much technical jargon.

I wanted to write a book that gives filmmakers the information they need to successfully plan, budget and shoot VFX, and provides insight as to what goes under the hood of VFX production. This knowledge is important today for anyone involved in film and video production, because VFX have now spread into all genres and formats.

Another reason that led me to write the book is the relative absence of VFX education in film schools. Everyone knows the importance of teaching film students the basics of directing editing, cinematography, and sound, but somehow VFX still haven’t made their way into the curriculum of most film schools. I think this needs to change – VFX are now such a widely-used filmmaking tool, and students should get a good head start on this subject. I hope that my book will contribute in this respect.

What experience led you to write this book?

As the visual effects supervisor of a NY-based company, and by nature of my work I collaborate with directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, first and second AD’s and script supervisors. I regularly deal with the questions that pop up during pre-production, on the set and in post, and I often witness the dilemmas that filmmakers encounter when dealing with VFX. I can say categorically that filmmakers who are well-versed with VFX have a clear advantage, and sail through the VFX process smoothly. Disappointment and frustration (and there can be quite a lot of it when dealing with VFX) often comes from lack of understanding of the medium.

How is it different from other books in the field?

VFX involves many crafts like modeling, animation, lighting, compositing and matte painting. Most VFX books focus on a single craft only, because VFX artists tend to specialize in one area, and because the amount of technical know-how for each craft is substantial. These books are great if you want to become a better animator or improve your compositing skills in Nuke. But they are not discussing the VFX process as a whole, which is what filmmakers really need.

In the book’s middle part, I describe every VFX craft, from camera tracking to dynamic simulations, as part of a wider coverage of the process of VFX. But I explain those crafts in a simple, non-technical language, and with the filmmaker’s needs in mind. For example, when describing expensive processes like fluid simulation, I advise on alternative ways to achieve comparable results at a much lower cost.

The first part of the book covers many fundamental concepts like 2D vs. 3D, parallax and perspective shift, roto vs. green screen, and key notions like photorealism and integration. While discussions about some of these terms can be found in various articles and books, I believe my book is unique in bringing them all together.

The third part of the book follows the course of production from the initial stages to final D.I., and is essentially a collection of tips for planning, budgeting, shooting and reviewing VFX. There’s a specific emphasis on the communication between editorial and the VFX team, as this part of the process is crucial (and often neglected).

What got you interested in visual effects?

I got into VFX pretty much by mistake. Music was my life – I studied composition at the Juilliard school, and for the next 15 years or so worked as a professional musician, writing music mostly for theater productions. One night I downloaded a demo of the (now defunct) 3D software TrueSpace, simply out of curiosity. I got hooked immediately, and from that moment onwards, CG became an obsession. I taught myself modeling, texturing, lighting and animation by reading every book I could get my hands on. But this all remained a hobby until I was hired by ILM Singapore, and moved there with my family.

Visual effects are more cerebral and technical than music – you work less through emotion and more through visual analysis. But there are common grounds: timing, form, texture, color, movement… and my experience working with directors in the theater helped me a lot as a VFX supervisor working with directors in cinema. Different mediums, yes. But the essence of collaboration within a creative project is very much the same.

What are some of the misconceptions about visual effects?

1. You only need VFX if you make a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/disaster movie.

It’s true that these genres are the biggest consumers of visual effects. But they are certainly not the only ones – VFX today are being used everywhere. It’s important to mention here that many visual effects are used subtly, and are not intended to attract the viewer’s attention. These “invisible VFX” are often used to overcome production obstacles and save money. VFX are an incredibly versatile and powerful filmmaking tool.

2. You can’t get high-quality VFX on a low budget.

Many of the films I’ve worked on were in the mid to low-budget range. My team of VFX artists is small, compared to the hundreds that work on any recent blockbuster. Yet I am proud of most of the quality of the work we are doing. As a filmmaker on a small budget, you want to go for quality rather than quantity. Limit the VFX to only key moments and avoid repeating VFX. There are many ways to have great VFX even on indie films – it all boils down to the filmmakers having a good understanding of the VFX medium, its potential and its limitations.

3. Visual effects are not real.

Well, nothing in a movie is real. It’s all fakery. That said, the nature of visual effects as a post manipulation does put them in a special category, and I discuss this distinction, and the difference between realism and photorealism in my book.

4. VFX do not belong in a film school’s curriculum.

I have heard this more than once, and I strongly object to this sort of purism (or snobbism?). The art of cinema and television is very young, and is constantly evolving, technically and artistically. Everything is changing – form cutting to lighting. To me, it makes no sense for a student to graduate 4 years of film school without knowledge of even the most fundamental notions of VFX.

How is the field of visual effects evolving?

I still remember the utter excitement I felt as a child while watching Star Wars (the original!), and I can recall a similar exhilaration years later, watching Weta’s wonderful matte painting work on the LOTR trilogy. But in the past 15 years, there has been such an influx of VFX in a never-ending series of blockbusters, that it seems like the audience is starting to feel somewhat numb – it’s just very hard to get people excited about VFX nowadays.

On the other hand, I see VFX as becoming much more of a bread-and-butter filmmaking tool. Just like editing or cinematography or costume design – VFX are part of the filmmaking process. Sometimes they are meant to grab your attention, other times they are there to help the story-telling. Perhaps in the future some of the novelty of VFX as showpieces will wear off, and they will be used instead in a more subtle (mature?) fashion. 

  • The Filmmaker's Guide to Visual Effects

    The Art and Techniques of VFX for Directors, Producers, Editors and Cinematographers

    By Eran Dinur

    The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects offers a practical, detailed guide to visual effects for non-VFX specialists working in film and television. In contemporary filmmaking and television production, visual effects are used extensively in a wide variety of genres and formats to contribute to…

    Paperback – 2017-04-10
    Focal Press