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Posted Nov 18

The value of generalists and ownership in episodic VFX

by Jane Bracher and Marlies Isabella Riepl
The value of generalists and ownership in episodic VFX by Jane Bracher and Marlies Isabella Riepl

What is the value in being a generalist in the current visual effects landscape of accelerated content consumption? What kind of approach does episodic visual effects require if you’re coming from film? And what does ownership of the work and communication transparency mean for VFX artists and the team as a whole?

Pete Jopling, Executive VFX Supervisor for MPC Episodic, has been witness to the evolution of the visual effects industry since the 90s and has worked extensively both in episodic and film landscapes. Jopling, who has worked on projects such as The Bourne Legacy, Captain America: The First Avenger, and award-winning 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, started out as a runner at MPC then got his foot in the door as a junior compositor. He eventually moved on to work in VFX for commercials before getting into TV and film, then went up the ranks to roles such as lead compositor, compositing supervisor, head of 2D, VFX supervisor, and global head of compositing.

Read our insightful Q&A with him.

What does a typical day look like for you? It probably varies now with covid-19, working at the office and working from home.

The consistent parts would be, making sure nothing's happened overnight that changed anything or thrown any curve balls into the mix, keeping close connection with the show supervisor, ensuring supporting the teams with what they need, listening to them.. I'd be involved with identifying candidates that we want to try and actively pursue. We’re always looking to strength our team wherever we can, this is always pretty high up on the list of things to discuss.  We may have identified some new shows that might be open to us doing a pitch for, either because they've asked us to or we just want to as it’s something we feel strongly about creatively. Once we've identified what the visual effects challenges might be, we all go off and put together some images and just send it to them. Usually that gets a really great reaction, they'll not be expecting that. They're usually blown away by that and it gives us a great foot in the door to then have more conversations. And it can often be before they've even got a director. It can be often be in the embryonic stages of the script. The thing about that is it can also influence the way in which they are thinking about shooting this, the methodology and that's where we want to be. We want them to start thinking about visual effects while they're thinking about the shooting everything else.

Tom Williams (Managing Director, MPC Episodic) said the objective was to be more transparent with the team especially about projects, to have a constant stream of communication.

The more you feel like you're connected the more you want to give to something. If you feel like you're being hired for a job, that's fine, but it's much, much nicer if you are being hired to be part of a team and to be part of what it's going to become, what you want it to be. Everyone's got a voice in it, I think.

I think everyone's got to feel like they want to contribute and I think they should be a forum for everyone to contribute because there's no exclusivity on good ideas and I think it would be crazy not to see that. I don't want it to be dominated by the classic hierarchy because I've been on both sides of it in my career, and I think I've seen where it works well and where it's not.

(READ: MPC Episodic MD on the vibrant age of streaming, future of episodic content)

You've worked on feature films like The Bourne Legacy and Captain America: The First Avenger and you've also worked on episodic projects like Chernobyl so as a VFX supe how do you make that transition? What has to change in terms of the approach?

Put simply, to work in episodic you have to work more efficiently. And I think you have to be more pragmatic.  what's refreshing about episodic is that with smaller budgets, come more involvement in some ways. even with something like Chernobyl. That was a good budget for TV but it was still really small compared to a similar-level film project. What I really noticed when I first came to episodic was the clients can be so much more open to your involvement and to your ideas. I think on a big film project it's pretty much pre-destined it seems, a lot of the time, because they've got their ways of doing things and they've got a lot of money and they can do those  things, big CG environments, cool CG characters, everything's on the table. For a typical episodic show, that isn't an option for them, they don't have that sort of money. We have to influence the way they shoot things, because if they shoot it a certain way we may not be able to achieve it for their money so they’re smart  to include us whether they like it or not, because we won't be able to help them realise it for the budget, but it very positive and collaborative experience.

Does it also happen that, once they know what's possible and what's not, scripts sometimes get re-written or they lean into VFX more because they now know it's achievable within that specific budget?

I think once they become aware of what they can get for that money, they'll get more comfortable with it. And assessing their comfort zone with visual effects is a really important part for that relationship-building, whether the director and producer fit in that spectrum, the comfort, and if they're really averse to visual effects -- some directors are and you still meet a lot of people in TV that haven't worked with visual effects very much at all. Some can be very averse to it. But I think they do warm up to it, if you approach it in the right way and you can hold their hand through the process and make sure they feel good about how it's being done, and show them lots of examples of shows that might be similar to what they're trying to do, then show them the results. If they shoot it a certain way, they can achieve really good results for their drama.

Talking about this balancing act between staying within budget and achieving high-quality visual effects, are there specific tools that you use for episodic content that are different to what would be used for feature films?

It's not really the tools that are different. It's more the approach, how we approach solving the problem. The team we build is more of a generalist team of artists. The core team will be of a more generalist skillset. We put the artists abilities at the front and they pick the tools they need to do that particular job, and if they're multi-skilled, which a lot of them are, a very talented bunch, they can dive into whatever tools they need. They can look at the visual effects challenge and go, I think we can actually do this with two people because person A can do all the modelling or texturing while person B can do the lighting and compositing and maybe that's actually all we need. We don't need to go through all of the disciplines as in the film pipeline. The great thing about that is it creates a sense of ownership of the work from the artist's point of view. They invest in that shot, they made that happen because of their involvement, they're not just in the assembly line like a film project. I'm not saying that's not rewarding but for me I prefer as an artist to work on a shot as much as I could from beginning to end.

In terms of the team's skills, we’re aware you gravitate toward the generalist approach, what advice would you give to people who want to work in visual effects but more on episodic content?

Depends on what their background is but if they've come from broad-based university career experience, try and get as much experience in all disciplines as much as possible and be open to opportunities to learn as many software packages as possible.. When I started in my career, generalists were the only type of 3D artists there was. There wasn't anyone else. Then obviously you went through this period of 20 years where people were becoming very much specialists in one thing and now, bizarrely, in episodic at least, it's all working up back to the generalist thing again. So it's all coming back full circle. I still think that people that have those sorts of skills, those sort of multi-skilled artists, just have a greater understanding of the entire process and that's incredibly powerful and those people always become the CG supervisors and ultimately VFX supervisors. If you want to specialise, that's brilliant too, we always need people that are particularly skilled in doing that. It depends on what you really feel you like doing.

What are your favourite shows at the moment?

I just started watching Succession. I really enjoyed The Boys season one, I thought that was a really clever take on the superhero thing and that's a great example of where TV excels. You're spinning off some of those big superhero franchises and creating something really dark and interesting. Obviously I was really a fan of Chernobyl, I didn't supe it myself personally, I was the exec supe and I was involved with it on a daily basis for quite a long time, and that was an incredible show to be involved with. That's when visual effects really comes to the fore on shows like that where it absolutely serves the story. – thefocus.com

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