Episode 199 — Realism in Hollywood VFX

Welcome to Episode 199! I’m covering the topic of realism in Hollywood VFX films. This Episode came to be from some comments on my YouTube Channel: Someone was asking if the buildings would explode when the dragons from Game of Thrones would hit them with fire.

This is something that we deal with a lot, as artists! I have so many stories from production! I wanted to discuss this from a production stand point and give you advice on how to deal with this, with your clients. There are some cool things we talk about here! This could benefit you a lot!

Let’s dive in!



[00:43] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[02:55] I have a new VFX Training Course available right now at www.VFXCourse.com. This is almost 20 hours of high end live action training. This is a massive Course and you can download all the assets! It won’t be up for much longer, so go get it now, for free! Grab it while you can. I will be taking it down soon!

[47:19] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!


[05:09] I thinks this is an interesting topic for many reasons. I hope this will help you as artists. I got a bunch of comments on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/user/AllanFTMcKay/?sub_confirmation=1) when I posted a video on breakdown of the latest Episode of Game of Thrones. (Just a heads-up: There will be some spoilers if you haven’t seen the show yet.) The breakdown had to do with Drogo, the dragon, flying over the city and spitting out fire and the buildings were exploding left and right. It wasn’t the fire [that was unrealistic] but the force of it, with which the fire was ripping the buildings apart. I believe it was Scanline that did a lot of that work.

[07:00] With that, a lot of questions were coming up:

  • Would that happen in reality?
  • Would the buildings explode?

We take this topic for granted. When we work in visual effects, we can aim for realism. But the realization that most clients and directors have when they see “real” effects — is that nobody wants to see real. Nobody wants to see realistic visual effects. Everyone has that intent until they realize how boring those effects are. Having a dragon fly over a city firing down everything, if it were to light things on fire — that wouldn’t be interesting. Having the city destroyed in a manner of Game of Thrones is more impactful. That’s where you have to make that decision: What’s real and what’s not?


[09:21] When you see a car fall off the cliff and explode, these days we see that happen less and less in movies. We saw that in The Dark Knight when the plane that hit the ground did not explode. It’s more realistic. One good example is Final Destination 2. There is this log sequence on a freeway where the logs kill everyone. I didn’t work on that but I was around Digital Dimension when they were working on it. On that movie, the VFX Supervisor went after realism first (instead of creating something over the top), and then going from there. I thought that was an brilliant approach and I adopted it in my career. After a while, people start saying, “That doesn’t look real.”

I worked on The Last Airbender at ILM and I remember a discussion between the VFX Sup Pablo Helman and M. Night Shyamalan about a floating rock. And Shyamalan kept saying, “It’s not real looking”; and after a while, Pablo said, “Maybe because rocks don’t float.” You have to remind them about what you’re doing. Going back to Final Destination 2, it was better to nip it in the bud from the get-go. They simulated gigantic logs falling onto the freeway, and of course, the director saids, “This doesn’t look exciting!” He wanted to have these giant logs bouncing on the freeway. So, he didn’t want reality! Having this discussion early on changes everything. That way every time the director comes back and says, “That doesn’t look real to me,” remind them what “real” looked like. That gives you more freedom without being weighted in reality. They often want something looking cool. Hollywood likes things hyper realistic.


[15:21] So when you’re working on a project, I like the idea of basing it in reality — and then going in the “cool factor” direction (instead of going back and forth between real and cool). So you need to have this discussion with other creatives to get on the same page, or you decide that for yourself. You have to realize that reality is boring. When you dial it up, it’s really different. Explosions in reality are very boring. What’s real are the clouds of debris, you don’t see all that fire. That’s the balancing act. And Hollywood has been going for hyper real since the 80s. (The car will explode the minute it drives off the cliff, or even in mid-air.) So I want you to think about how that applies to you in the work that you do. That doesn’t mean that making hyper real is your path. It’s more about figuring out the few elements that take it from real to interesting. In my Mentorship, we have gone through this extensively. It comes up a lot. It may look cool but not convincing. When I review reels to hire people, I see that as well: Instead of convincing, I see a lot of cool effects. But to make them feel the right scale and timing is very important. It’s not about the look, but about how to make it look believable.

[18:41] I had a discussion with Lucas Ridley. I’m working with him on animating Thanos turning into ash. Lucas has worked at ILM, on Avengers: Infinity War and other cool projects. He is a Character Animator and we talked about how important it is to think about the performance (instead of making something that looks cool). When it comes to creating hyper realism, it’s about making something look cool and believable. For example, when it comes to explosions, I want to create something with an instant explosion. (This is when you start sounding like an idiot in the screening room, talking with your hands and making sound effects with your mouth!) For me, explosions are about the instant impact and then secondary explosions; then the wave of debris hitting the camera. It’s about the timing and the wave. I want it to have that impact. So I will focus on the speed and the quick effect and the follow-up explosions and the elements. It’s all choreographed with the effects. There has to be a hero effect (a higher detailed piece of debris hitting the camera). The hero ones are where your eye is focused. I hope that makes sense.


[21:43] It’s so important to give your effects performance. You have to think like an animator. Every effect has its place. That is the key thing to keep in mind. We’ve established that reality is boring. We want something hyper real. So this is a chance for you to base something in reality — and then dial it up. You can improve upon the reality and think about what would be cool. This is the biggest Achilles’ Heel for VFX artists: We go through the motions and make an explosion. When someone tells you to make it 20% bigger, you do that and walk away. Instead, you could look at how that 20% increase looks like and if it’s too much, modify it. What would you need to do to make it look cool? We never take responsibility for our shots, but that means everything! You want someone to come back with solutions, but if there was a problem — you want that same person to fix it. You could present the example of what they asked for — and your version as well. They could see that you’ve taken responsibility while respecting their direction. It think that’s such a critical aspect to take responsibility for our shots! We love to be technical and complicated as VFX people. We’re still artists, so what can we do to make things look amazing? What needs to be taken out? It’s easy to be resistant. It’s so important to step back and see if it serves the project.

[26:15] The other thing about reality is it’s still important to reference reality. In the Live Reviews, we do that. For example, when we review building destructions, we talk about slowing down the velocity or the gravity, etc. If you look at the building falling down, look at that as a reference. If you were to see a piece of debris fall past you, would that feel right? If it were your POV, how quickly would you see that? That’s the best thing to do. You look at your shot for so long, it’s hard to see clearly. It’s important to look at references. When someone does an explosion, you have to look at the color in reality. For me, with effects, I start to look at Michael Bay movie and reference the Bay-ality (instead of “reality”). The difference between working with other directors vs Michael Bay (and James Cameron), they have a visual signature. So we can mimic that because that’s what makes it look like a Hollywood film. That’s something to think about.

[29:41] If something doesn’t look real, I want you to think about taking responsibility for it. Unbelievable visual effects can still look real. I posted some of my students’ work on Instagram (it was Earth eating itself into the black hole), and someone made a comment that it didn’t look “real”. My response was: When have you seen Earth being swallowed?! It’s an unrealistic premise already! So when someone says, “It doesn’t look real”, you have to translate what they mean. Which element makes them say that? It may mean that you haven’t done your job make it look acceptable. It could be the timing, the character, the scale, all these different things. One of the tricks we did back in the 90s is to play it at triple the speed. Instantly, things look right or wrong. Most people try to slow it down. But with performance, when slowing it down you get things out of context. But when you speed it up, you’ll visually be able to tell what’s wrong. It’s a critical thing to do with what we’re doing to realize why it looks right or wrong. We’re sometimes too busy thinking about how to make something.


[33:38] The reason I’m doing this talk is because I did a breakdown of Game of Thrones and people were asking if the explosions caused by the dragons were realistic. Huge congrats to Scanline VFX for creating these shots! In my free course, we go over some of the City Destruction effects (www.VFXCourse.com). It’s the same process.

[34:36] It’s really critical to reference the reality in the beginning of the shot. This is something I do. I’m always going to base it in reality but also look how to add that cool factor. Whenever I’m talking to the director, we get to a point where the director is reiterating the notes back and forth and they aren’t communicating what they want. Here is what I tend to do a lot. This is something I did on Priest. There was a scene where I animated a motorcycle rider jumping off and climbing onto the train while the motorcycle clashed and exploded. Originally we wanted to do it as a simulation. I decided to hand animate it. I took their creative direction and made it bigger; but then also made my own version and a ridiculous, over-the-top version. I would make one based in reality and another that I think is cool. Basically, I’m putting a cap at the beginning and another at the extreme. Somewhere in the middle would be where we’d land. It happens in reviews and the director would say, “Make it bigger!” By setting the most insane explosion, you expect them to say you’ve gone too far. By setting those limitations, you’re working within the specific spectrum.

[38:50] The only problem with this approach is that when I showed them the over-the-top version, the director said, “I love it!” It frustrated me. I meant to show the bad version! In a way, that says a lot about what the director expects. Two things I’ll say about communicating with a director / client. You have to have that communication first. I am notorious for interviewing clients more than they interview me. I want to train them at anticipating the problems they haven’t thought about yet. When it comes to the shot, I tend to do a lot of concepts. I would take some frames and paint in some fires, etc. It doesn’t matter if I’m supervising or working as a TD. If I work as an artist, I show these concepts to my Sup. Why do I do this? Because anything in 3D takes longer to get done. We underestimate how much time it takes. If I want to make an explosion, to make it bigger would take another day. It’s easier to go in the first day and say, “How about this?” At least, you’re having a real time discussion, even if in 2D concepts. Having a discussion in 2D is so much quicker. You’re talking with competent people and you can start having a creative conversation about this.

[32:49] One of the things we do in my Mentorship is: Before we take our shots into comp, I will get everyone to render out every element by itself. By rendering them out separately, it gives us more creative freedom. If you do it all together, it’s harder to make changes. If you want the explosion to be smaller, you can change just that element. You can see it in context and then do it all in 3D. That saves you time and you can start to photoshop your elements the way you want them. It allows you to visualize the elements. My students are starting to take on that approach.


[45:10] The key thing I wanted to talk about is that reality is boring.

  • We want hyper real, not real.
  • Make sure to use real references in the beginning.
  • 2D is quicker to have a conversation over and then you can go into 3D.
  • If something doesn’t look believable, you need to take a responsibility and re-work it.

If you find this valuable, please let me know.

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Please share this with other people. It would mean the world to me!

I will be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!


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