Episode 172 — Eran Dinur, VFX Supervisor

 

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Episode 172 — Eran Dinur, VFX Supervisor

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 172! I’m speaking with Eran Dinur, a VFX Supervisor for Brainstorm Digital in New York City. I’m really excited to do this interview. On top of being a VFX Sup, Eran has written and published The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects. I thought it would be great to share Eran’s story on how he ended up in visual effects from a completely different industry. I leave this as a surprise!

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[01:33] I just got really good news that The Avengers: Endgame trailer and poster that I worked on just got released. Big shoutout to Bond that worked on it. I worked on an ash effect. I will have the Art Director from Bond Enrique on the Podcast soon.

When they pitched the job to me, they couldn’t tell me what it would be. I nearly turned it down. Marvel came by 5 hours after I started on the job. It was my first ever movie poster! Having spent time at Bond, I was amazed how many people and hours go into scrutinizing over a poster. These guys are great!

I believe Avengers: Endgame comes out in April 2019. And I hope we get to see the poster everywhere.

[04:48] We just wrapped up the Venom training. It’s a chance for everyone to through it together. I find that very valuable to have an expiration date on a training because then it forces people to go through it.

[05:46] I have a lot of these crash courses that I’ve spent time building: Plasma, Decay. These are 10-hour free training courses, like Venom. I will be rereleasing these as commercial products later this month. I’m super excited about that! There is a lot of awesome stuff in there. So be on the lookout later this month.

It makes it a bigger point: You can either do my free training — for free, when it comes out — or pay to own it later on. There will be a lot of new content coming to my website: www.allanmckay.com. To access the training, please visit my Inner Circle at www.allanmckay.com/inside/.

[09:05] I will also be doing visual effects case studies on films like Venom. We will be going through the entire film and breaking down individual sequences. We will be discussing them from a Supervisor’s point of you and how I would approach doing each shot with a team. We’ll tackle Venom and Infinity War. If you find these valuable, I will be doing more of these later on. Again, join my VIP Insider Circle for more announcement: www.allanmckay.com/inside.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ERAN DINUR

Eran Dinur is VFX Supervisor, Composer and published author. His career in visual effects began with a fascination for creating 3D natural scenery. Through his early years, he became well known as a VUE expert and innovator. When he joined ILM Singapore, he created visual effects for films such as Iron Man, Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Terminator Salvation.

After moving to New York, Eran worked at Framestore on Salt and Clash of the Titans. He joined Brainstorm Digital and became a VFX Supervisor in 2011. In this capacity, Eran won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Effects for Boardwalk Empire and two VES Awards for Outstanding Compositing and Outstanding Modeling (for Boardwalk Empire as well). Eran has been leading Brainstorm Digital on numerous films and tv projects, including The Wolf of Wall Street, The Greatest Showman, The Lost City of Z, Hereditary, Boy Erased and many more.

In April 2017, Eran published The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects, a practical guide to VFX for directors, producers, editors, cinematographers and other film professionals, as well as film students. He has also been teaching at the School of Visual Arts and online courses at FXPhD.

In this Podcast, Eran talks about transitioning into his second career as a VFX Artist and Sup, the value of having a generalist’s skills, great communication skills — and the importance of constant learning.

 

[10:56] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Eran, do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Eran: I’m Eran Dinur. I’m a VFX Sup. I also teach at the School of Visual Arts. I’ve been doing courses at FXPhD. I also wrote a book that came out last year, called The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects. 

[11:19] Allan: I actually have it. I was really curious about how you got started. Did you always think you would work in film?

Eran: I’ll start with my childhood. When I was a kid, I really loved music. I loved listening to it and I think I also wrote some tunes. And I also drew! I usually drew orchestras and musicians. When I look at those drawings now, I’m amazed. I don’t think I can draw as well as I did when I was 5 years old. I can hardly draw a circle right now! I think there are these two sides, the visual and the auditory (the musician side). By the time I was 11, the music took over. I studied music at the Juilliard School. I never finished the studies, I went back to Israel to join the army. Over there, I was a keyboard player. I had a career as a musician. What I did mostly was write music for theatre. I did that for about 15 years. My career was going really well.

Back then, if you would have told me I would be a VFX Sup on feature films, I would laugh! I didn’t know what that meant. I bought my first computer in the late 90s to use it for my recordings. One day, I downloaded the demo for software called TrueSpace. It was an easy version of 3DS software. I got completely hooked. The minute I started playing with it, I couldn’t think of anything else. This visual part of me — that got turned off at 5 years old — came back; and also my love for technical things. I taught myself anything I could: modeling, lighting, animation, rigging. There weren’t many online tutorials so I just bought lots of books. I was still doing theatre. I would sit in the back of the audience and I remember having the Learning Maya book open for my downtimes. I would play the cue and read the next chapter. I didn’t know if I would do it professionally.

It really changed because I fell in love with a program called VUE. It was designed by Nicolas Phelps who is still a friend of mine. It was a way of creating your own vision. I started posting stuff I’d create and I got a name for myself as a VUE expert. Eventually, I got asked by E-On software to produce some work for them, to do their renders remotely. That’s the point I stopped working as a professional musician — and started working as a professional CG person.

[16:36] Allan: Two questions: How old were you then? And to change careers at that point, did you have any hesitation?

Eran: Working for E-On software was a nice middle ground because I could still do it remotely from home. The big bang of my career came when ILM emailed me asking if I would want to join their Singapore branch. Suddenly, it became clear that I was switching careers. I was 40 years old at the time. I had two kids and my youngest one was only a few weeks old. My wife was a lawyer in Israel. It would be more than just switching a career — it was switching a life. I just felt like there was an opportunity to do something I really liked and to learn a lot. Something about that — starting everything anew — was really enticing. I dragged everyone with me. I got to ILM as a VUE expert. (Later on, they used my demo scenes when they were looking to do Pirates of the Caribbean.) But there wasn’t really any VUE work to do there, so they said, “Maybe you could be a compositor?” I said, “Why not?” It was the best school I’ve ever had. The first thing I learned was to really look and to train my eyes to really see things — and the meticulous review of everything. It was a weird switch. There were times I would be sitting there, asking myself, “What am I doing here? I’m a musician!”

Then my wife got accepted into NYU and we made another decision to move to New York. It wasn’t my first choice (New York has mostly commercials) but we came here and I worked for different companies: Framestore for half a year and then Brainstorm Digital. I’ve been doing supervising for 18 years now.

[20:50] Allan: I was talking to someone about New York having a different culture of visual effects. I’m never surprised whenever I land there to get a message, “Hey, I heard you were in town. We have a project due in the morning, are you available?” For you, there were such big shifts going on: from music to Singapore, to New York. I guess you have TrueSpace to blame for that.

Eran: I don’t want to blame them! I look back and I’m very happy I did it. It paved the way for me to live in different countries and see the world. Music as a job is difficult, not just financially. You’re spilling your guts out for someone else. It’s not always easy because it comes from a place of emotion. It’s hard to do it as a job. But because I’ve worked with directors all this time, I had something that gives me the ability to work with them. They speak in a different language, a filmmaking language; and you have to interpret what they need and pass it on to the artist. I’m happy I’ve done this change. It opened up a whole new world for me, and I wrote this book (and I’m ready to write the next one).

[23:30] Allan: I used to date someone who was studying music. She and her friends went on to do film scoring. You’re right: For such a beautiful industry, you don’t study it to get rich.

Eran: I don’t think you do VFX Supervision to be rich either. You should go into banking for that! You mentioned that you knew a lot of music people connected to visual effects. There are a lot of similarities. And sound itself is coloring as well. We talk about sound as color. When a musician listens to a song, he’s able to separate different instruments and focus on one instrument or one line. For us as VFX artists, we have a similar way of looking at a shot and taking it apart; and feeling the highlights and colors. Color is probably the most important thing in VFX. Everything is color! People who have a musical talent, they can view color the same way.

[25:47] Allan: I like that observation! I’ve met a few people who swore that having learned music, it helped them learn everything, including coding. I guess learning to read music changes one’s perspective. It fascinates me.

Eran: I completely agree! I would advise anyone in VFX to learn music — and vice versa. If you’re in music, do some visual arts. I think there is a connection between all arts. I think music and sound and visuals go very much together. I still think of keys in colors: A D-Major has a certain color in my mind, and it’s only that color. I know there are people who do that with numbers. There is a technical term for that. I think it’s helpful. Music helped me a lot. I never had any official training in visual arts. I’m self-taught. I taught myself photography which is really important. But I always felt it was a weak point that I never studied traditional painting; but being a musician compensates for that.

[29:01] Allan: Why do you see not having learned to paint as a weak spot?

Eran: We, as digital artists, are a little lazy. We have all these amazing tools, you just have to put the lights in the right place. If you’re a traditional painter, your only tool is color. That’s how you create light, shadow, glows. You have to be able to do it without tools. If you have the ability to learn painting, you have the ability to look at the world in a specific way — and that makes you a better visual artist. We tend to get lazy with all the tools.

[30:29] Allan: I feel the same way about photography. When you’re learning it, it changes everything. When you’re working with junior artists, they’re looking at what excites them in an image. But how do you control where an audience looks? How do your prioritize what to tackle first? That comes down to painting as well: color theory and composition. 3D is different because you think you have complete freedom.

Eran: Yes, I completely agree. And I can add to that the fact that the way we see it — is not the way the camera sees it. When you point and shoot, it doesn’t come out through a photograph. The way camera treats exposure, it’s either / or; it’s cruel. We compensate in our eyes, we fill in a shadow, we explain what we’re seeing. Being able to understand how a camera sees the world allows you to create images that are photo real. Not the way we see things! When you integrate an element into a photo real footage, we need to feel that it was always there. And part of intergrading elements into shots is to think like a camera. For that, you have to do some photography or cinematography.

[34:00] Allan: You’ve really nailed something that a lot of people overlook. If people want certain results, they need to understand how a camera would interpret light. One thing you touched on was traveling, especially with your family. In your 20s, once you’ve gotten your experience, you can leverage that it’s a global career. I’ve never traveled to NY just for fun. It is a global industry and there is a need for artists in almost every country. 

Eran: There is good and bad. If you’re younger, it’s easier to move your base. When you have a family and you get attached to certain places, it’s harder to move. One of the subjects is what tax incentives have done to the industry, and how many people had to move to Canada because everything was migrating there. But now [the industry is] more global. There are companies popping up in India and China and Europe. I see it as a positive, not a threat. Those shifts that are forced onto artists are a bit harsh. I personally enjoy going somewhere interesting. For The Lost City of Z, we spent a lot of time in Colombia. For Papillon, we shot in Serbia. It’s not just about seeing a new place but about working with the local crew and artists. I take it as a bonus. Most movies I work on are shot in New York. There are tax incentives here, if you do your post-production here. That’s how we get a chunk of the work.

[38:09] Allan: For you to go to E-On was a great transition, especially at 40 years old. It was a more stable transition, I assume. To go from E-On to ILM, was it a bit of a culture shock to go into that environment? 

Eran: It was every kind of shock that you can imagine! Moving to Singapore was different! I loved it and miss it so much, I feel it’s been a second home! I haven’t been since 2009.

[39:09] Allan: Just to interrupt really quick: Which is more brutal for summer, Manhattan or Singapore? 

Eran: I think in Singapore, it’s the same weather all around. But I think it gets hotter here, [in New York]. It’s different kind of heat. It gets brutal here, but only for a few days. About ILM and the culture shock: I’ve never worked for a corporation before. I used to work with directors and actors. This structure of a big company took some time to get used to. And the artists were from all over the place, it was a melting point. All these cultural differences were a challenge for ILM. Coming to New York, it is very diverse. My students at the School of Visual Arts are from all over. I’m not sure I’m happy working for a big company. I think I generally prefer to work for smaller guys. But it was a nice experience!

[41:59] Allan: Was Ironman your first project? 

Eran: It was! My very first compositing shot was the one where he starts building these thrusters. The interesting thing was I had to paint out all the rigs that were holding him. But then they needed me to add smoke and flames coming out of the thrusters and there was no CG simulation. I was just going through the library.

[42:44] Allan: They have such an amazing stock library!

Eran: Oh, yeah! When I work here at Brainstorm Digital, I try to keep things on the 2D side. If you find the right element, it will look better than any simulation. They’re long and tedious and expensive. (I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying that.) But anything that’s been done practically has that photo real quality to it.

[43:30] Allan: One hundred percent! As a Supervisor, I’m always going to choose something that was done practically — shot in camera — over anything else. Otherwise, you’d be fighting against anything that looked simulated first. Coming from the 90s, all the magic is done in comp.

Eran: I come from the comp side but it’s clear that CG has changed a lot. What has been accomplished is amazing! The level of complexity! It’s fluid and liquid simulations. We have access to much faster computers, better systems. It depends on where you work. Our company Brainstorm Digital is relatively small and most of the movies are not high-budget movies. No one is going to see Papillon or Hereditary for its visual effects. We did some of the most complex effects on The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s completely a movie that you don’t expect to see visual effects in. So whatever we do, we have to make them seem invisible. So you tend to go toward the 2D or using footage and photography and matte painting; because working with real images already takes you half way there. But on The Lost City of Z, there is a scene where [the people] fall into the water and get attacked by piranhas. Obviously, that was all CG. But because we have very good compositors — most of the work we do is hacking, the stunts or shots that don’t work when they shot them — we help fix and work around those things.

The big shot on The Wolf of Wall Street was when the camera pulls out during tennis; when we realize he [is playing] it in prison. Scorsese didn’t like the original camera move. To make it faster, you can’t speed up the footage. We had to take apart the entire shot, roto out every element, and re-project them onto cards and design a CG camera that could move faster. Some of the actors were cut off. Rob Legato, the great VFX Sup, understands the shooting and the CG side of things. He did a new session of shooting new actors on green screen. He was so meticulous that he put giant TV screens showing them what the actors were doing in the original shot; so they could time their tennis playing. It was a big undertaking. And then we put out a nice reel and it all looks so easy. I take it as a compliment when people say, “I didn’t notice there were any visual effects in that movie!”

[49:08] Allan: A lot of my friends who work at Weta pretty much hand frame the entire shot. But in every interview, it’s Andy Serkis’ performance [is the one that gets noticed]. 

Eran: That’s a totally different subject! It’s a big debate. But part of it is because visual effects is a new industry and a new craft, and it keep changing. To motion capture actors, Andy was the first to invent it, in a way. He was the first to become famous for doing motion capture. And now there is this whole profession. How do you treat that? Nothing is a one-click process. A lot of times, I will be on set and I will hear, “That thing in the background, we can paint it out.” Painting out something, it must be easy. But there is a whole range of these works. It’s my job as a Sup to try and explain it and help the Producers to set up a realistic budget. We’ve had all kinds of green screen shots that have been easy and complicated. That’s the reason I wrote the book: I wrote it for people who work with visual effect but don’t do special effects. Directors, producers, even set designers. There was a place for this book. The truth is that even people in the film industry thing that visual effects are just for Marvel movies and Jurassic Park like movies. I realized that so many people who bought the book are actually visual effects artists. It’s a good book for them!

[53:13] Allan: No matter what area of visual effects you’re in, it’s so important to understand the whole process and understand the surrounding areas. If your effects go into comps, you can communicate to the compositor what you need. The more you understand that — the better you can communicate!

Eran: Absolutely! That goes for every field of visual effects. If you know how things will look in certain light, you’ll know how to model them to look better. It goes through a whole process. Even people who do roto: It’s looks as the most simple task, but it’s not true. You have to understand how to cut the line, what to include and what not to include. The only way to know that is to learn some compositing. I think the problem is when big companies don’t want to spend money on teaching the overall training. And if you need to be a Sup, you need to know everything. Not be great everything, but learn it. I’ve spent so much studying books!

[56:16] Allan: It’s what you were saying about music and film. You need to learn to speak the artists’ language to communicate fluently what you need from them.

Eran: Communication is the most complicated thing we need to do. Notes that come from Production that aren’t clear can cause so much confusion! I’m spending a lot of time on better ways to do that. On smaller films, I can be a VFX Sup and talk to people directly. Sitting in the same room with the Director and the Editor cannot be replaced! But that can’t always happen on big shows and multiple vendors. That starts to become really complicated. You need to notate everything and communicate everything through Shotgun. It’s the price you have to pay when you have 1,000 artists working on a movie. You have to work with different companies. The work is not always consistent.

[59:22] Allan: Visual effects is still an immature industry, but consistency is always going to be an issue. Talking about your book, how long did it take you to write it? You’re so passionate, you get obsessed and get into those trenches.

Eran: Look! I gave the publisher a deadline. I said I’d do it over a year. That was so optimistic! It was so much more difficult. First of all, I have a full-time job. I’m a VFX Sup and I go to set. A lot of the book I’ve written while traveling. I went to Northern Ireland and there were days when I wasn’t needed on set. It’s hard when you have a job AND because writing is hard. Things seem so clear when you think of them. But it’s hard to try to communicate that. The next book I’m going to write, I’m going to give myself more time.

[1:01:48] Allan: What was the most challenging part of the process? I have friends who write books and some find the Table of Contents the most complicated; others find challenge in the editing.

Eran: I can’t pinpoint one part. Table of Contents is hard. I still recommend writing a preliminary one, but it’s important to have it because you’re trying to shape a structure. There were certain parts of the book that were easy to me, like descriptions of crafts. Describing the areas was easier than the chapter camera movements and the complexity level of a shot. It’s a hard concept to understand. Why did you change more on this shot?

[1:03:33] Allan: Why was it so much more? Because you took the hairband off the woman and put a fan in front of her. That’s why!

Eran: It sounds easy to explain but you need to put it into a principle. Sups come either from behind the camera, or from the CG world. It doesn’t matter what your origins are, you have to learn the other side. I came from the CG world and it took me a while to realize how different things are on set. As you said, there is no [Control + Z] when you’re shooting. There are two hundred people waiting for you to make a decision. Understanding the other person’s craft is so important! If you come from the cinematography side, you have to think from a compositor’s point of view. If you know a lot about compositing and you don’t understand the needs of a cinematographer — you’re in trouble too!

[1:05:42] Allan: You’re so right! If you were to map out a career of a CG artist or a Sup, there isn’t one path. I do think it’s interesting to start out as a generalist, learn the way of the land. But then you can start to specialize. You’re going to eventually move into Supervising. Going from a generalist to a specialist, you will need to relearn a department, to have an understanding of what you need to know. Being a CG Sup, you’re relearning everything all over again. But when you going into VFX Sup, you’ll need to bridge over into understanding cameras. If you come from being a DP, you’ll have to learn visual effects and it can be pretty intimidating.

Eran: Definitely! And I’ve worked with Sups who are more on the on-set type and they lack experience. The good ones just have an understanding. You need to understand the requirements but it’s hard without any hands-on experience. The bottom line for me is to keep learning all the time. The minute I stop learning, I’ll need to retire. It’s the essence of everything. It’s amazing how you learn everyday. This weekend, I was looking into Arnold 3 to look at their shading. It’s not really for a job I’m doing right now; but it’s information that adds to it. There is no such point where you just know stuff. For a VFX Supervisor, the main thing is to have curiosity:

  • How other departments work;
  • What other artists are doing;
  • Budgeting.

I don’t love Excel sheets and I don’t enjoy budgeting but it’s part of my job too. You have to have some curiosity toward areas you aren’t interested in. Curiosity and the will to learn are important in many areas in life.

[1:10:54] Allan: You’ve mentioned your new book. Are you going to keep it a secret for now?

Eran: It’s in very early stages. It has to go through the proposal. At this point, I cannot tell you, but it’s not a big secret. It’s going to take over from the first book.

[1:11:30] Allan: Having your experience and teaching at SVA, do you have any advice for artists who are starting out?

Eran: It’s hard. When you go to school, you’re being pampered. The teachers are there for you. When you take the first step into the real world, it can be stressful. Students here in New York don’t have an understanding of the layout of companies. I tell them to go try out as much as they can and figure out what they like to do. Hopefully, you end up doing what you liked originally. If you try the work and don’t like it, it’s fine. I started in visual effects really late in my life. It’s important to know that you can do whatever you want. And also, to be aware of your surroundings. If you don’t like where you work — leave. I think it would make our industry better. It’s a difficult industry, it’s competitive and stressful. You’re working on movies and anything can change. It’s up to an artist to leave. 

[1:14:23] Allan: Because money is shifting at the moment, I’ve had many discussions about studios being the enemy. If anything, the studios are the heroes. They’re the ones taking a risk. They can get shut down or get sued. The studios are just reacting to all the moving parts. But some studios handle it better. People need to stand up for yourself. It allows you to stop bad behavior.

Eran: I agree. It’s a very difficult industry. There is a lot of pressure on owners. It’s a matter of junior people — who still can decide for themselves and identify improper behavior — it will make our industry better. Unfortunately, we don’t have a union. It puts it on the artist. Many times I’ve found myself not being nice to someone; but I can at least say that I’m trying my best. If everyone would do that, the companies would function better!

[1:17:50] Allan: I want to thank you for taking the time to chat. For anyone who wants to find out more about you?

Eran: There is my own site and you can see my work as a Sup: www.erandinur.com. There is also info about my book. That’s about it! And LinkedIn, of course!

[1:18:42] Allan: Thanks for taking the time, Eran! It was great fun.

Eran: Yeah, for me too. Thanks so much!

 

I want to thank Eran for taking the time to chat. A lot of great knowledge has been dropped. I would really appreciate if you shared this Episode!

  • Next week, I will be chatting with Gini Santos, Animation Sup at Pixar.

Until then —

Rock on!

 

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