Episode 270 — Crafty Apes — Aldo Ruggiero and Matt Akey

 

Episode 270 — Crafty Apes — Aldo Ruggiero and Matt Akey

Crafty Apes is a full service, boutique VFX company based in Culver City, CA & Atlanta, GA. The company was launched in July of 2011 by three visual effects veterans Jason Sanford, Chris LeDoux and Tim LeDoux. Believing that strong 2D compositing is the backbone behind quality visual effects, Crafty Apes was formed to primarily offer high-end compositing services for feature films and television clients. 

Crafty Apes specializes in compositing effects and visual effects supervision. By paying extra attention to the detail and integration that 2D work requires and by working with the best technology available spread among a select group of artists, Crafty Apes can deliver a superior product to higher end clients in a shorter time period.

Their recent credits include: The Babysitter: Killer Queen, Lovecraft Country, Doctor Strange, Hidden Figures, Lalaland, Fist Fight, Pete’s Dragon, Captain America: Civil War, Killing Reagan, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Dirty Grandpa, Allegiant, Insurgent, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Mass, The 33, Foxcatcher, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, The Monkey King, White House Down, Single Mom’s Club, The Last Stand, A Madea’s Christmas and many more.

In this Podcast, Allan McKay speaks with Executive Producer Matt Akey and VFX Supervisor Aldo Ruggiero at Crafty Apes about the future of the VFX industry post the novel coronavirus, the new technological demands, artistic trends and innovations.  

 

Crafty Apes Website: https://www.craftyapes.com

Crafty Apes on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/crafty-apes-llc

Crafty Apes on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/craftyapesvfx/

Crafty Apes on IG: @CraftyApesVFX

Crafty Apes on Twitter: @CraftyApesVFX

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[03:41] Aldo Ruggiero and Matt Akey Introduce Themselves and Talk about Their Background

[16:10] Crafty Apes Team Discusses the Studio’s Procedural Adapting During Coronavirus

[31:12] Matt and Aldo Talk About Recruitment of New Talent During the Pandemic

[35:34] The Team Talks about New Productivity Levels

[48:20] Aldo and Matt Recall Beginning Work on Babysitter: The Killer Queen

[53:53] Aldo Discusses the Creative Process on Babysitter

[58:23] The Team Talks about Commercial Tools Used in the Crafty Apes Pipeline

[1:00:16] The Challenge of Having Artistic Freedom

[1:04:25] The Artists Discuss Realism in Hollywood

[1:09:05] VFX as a Service Based Industry

[1:14:51]  Matt and Aldo Discuss the New Trends in Theatrical and Streaming Content

 

EPISODE 270 — CRAFTY APES — ALDO RUGGIERO AND MATT AKEY

Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 270! I’m speaking with Aldo Ruggiero who is a VFX Supervisor for Crafty Apes and Matt Akey who is an Executive and VFX Producer. We talk about a lot of things, including about how Crafty pivoted during the pandemic, in the early stages and other particular projects. They just finished on a Netflix film The Babysitter: Killer Queen

This is going to be a good one! These guys are based in Atlanta, Georgia. We talk a lot about the future based on the climate we’re in right now. Aldo and Matt have a fast amount of knowledge. 

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[02:38] Just recently, I put out a free course on How to Build Your Brand as a Digital Artist. Please check out the free class at Branding10X.com. It will help you with building your brand and leveraging it to position yourself as an expert. It will teach on how to place yourself into a position of high demand / low supply and how to stand out. It’s a critical thing we all need to do. Please feel free to check it out: Branding10X.com.

[1:25:10] 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!

 

ROUND TABLE WITH CRAFTY APES

[03:41] Allan: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, guys! Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?

Aldo: Absolutely! I am Aldo Ruggiero. I am a VFX Sup for Crafty Apes and I’m in Atlanta.

Matt: This is Matt Akey. I’m an Executive Producer for Crafty Apes. I’m also in Atlanta and we serve most of the East Coast.

[04:06] Allan: I think there is a lot of stuff we can talk about! Can you, guys, talk about your background and how you broke into the industry?

Aldo: Absolutely! I’m the classic immigrant story. I came from Italy to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I discovered really quickly that I sucked at it. So from recording music I went into editing. I started using Shake and Maya, and from there things just exploded for me. I became a Compositor and I loved that! Then, from there, I started being a VFX Sup after working on a lot of water simulations and compositing; and jumping from one thing to another. And now, in my spare time, I’m getting into realtime rendering with Unreal. That’s become my next frontier. That’s what it is: if you keep on having fun — it is still fun! 

[06:04] Allan: You’re right! Realtime is definitely the future. I’m slow to jump onto that bandwagon. 

Aldo: Right now, you can get in and get Realtime Fluid Sims and get your caches out and let them render. If you were to tell me 15 years ago when I was listening to Allan McKay talk about FumeFX, I’d say, “No, you’re lying to me! That’s never going to happen!”

[06:44] Allan: Well, here we are! I think it’s really exciting to see where it’s all going. Later on, I’d love to touch base on your diversity, Aldo. I think it’s such a powerful thing because it gives you more knowledge but also helps you communicate more. It means you can speak other people’s language.

Aldo: Which makes it complicated because nobody expects that from me. No one expects a VFX Sup to communicate with a Houdini artist about what to do with a wrangler node. At the end of the day, it becomes like second nature to understand those things but it’s not expected. It catches people off guard but then they’re happy.

[08:10] Allan: Matt, same thing with you. What’s your background and how did you move into post-production?

Matt: My story was varied. I had a Bachelors in Motion Picture and Theatrical Directing. I worked on some off-Broadway directing. My first job was in animation. I worked for Steve Oedekerk. I did Ace Ventura 2 and Nothing to Lose. I worked as his production manager on a series of short films called The Thumbs Series where we shot people’s faces and composited them onto thumbs. The process of shooting these facial features and keeping all the details ended up being an interesting experience, and it excited me about visual effects. At the same time, I was working in 3D animation for Steve on the feature Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. That was one of the first animated features to be done on a budget under 125 million dollars. Paramount took a risk on that. Being able to do that on a DNA pipeline with less texture work ended up being profitable. It was mostly animation and VFX straight out the gate. 

Cut to 10-12 years later, I went back to producing, bought some real estate and took a 6-year break when Steve called me again. He needed a co-producer. So I worked for him again for a few years. Then I went to work for a company called Legend as their CMA, mainly training directors on stereoscopic 3D as a creative tool. I was trying to convince DP’s that it wouldn’t rip their images apart. So that was a good few years! I helped open a studio for a competitor of Crafty Apes in LA. Then I decided to get out of LA. And that’s when I met [the Founder of Crafty Apes] Chris LeDoux. I took a meeting with him and I jumped ship. Chris is amazing and the guys around the company are great guys. We have a culture of solidarity and permanency. I just hit my 3-year mark and I’m having a blast. I do a lot of traveling meetings with filmmakers. I’ve produced a few films like Amazing Stories for Amblin, Like a Boss for Paramount, Just Mercy for Warner Bros. 

Aldo: Matt Akey is one of the best producers you could ever have! He’s so freaking precise. Didn’t we just work on another Thumb Wars recently too?

Matt: Steve came back wanting to re-release Episode 9. I’m not sure where that’s going to go.

[13:12] Allan: I’m just curious with Thumb Wars, I feel like it had its place in 2000. What kind of platform was it originally made for?

Matt: Originally, it was going to be broadcast as a pre-parody. Then Steve did 4 Episodes for a Blu-Ray deal. It was all straight to DVD. The thing that was most fun about it are those high production miniature sets, great art direction. They went overboard with practical and then we had our fun with the digital faces. What was really cool about that timeframe was that not only we had Jimmy Neutron trying to make animation that was cost effective, but also had another movie I was working on for him called Kung Pow! Enter the Fist. It was done out of the same office. That feature for Fox was made for 9 million dollars. Every shot in that was a VFX shot. It was a very challenging movie to do on that budget. If you saw my car [at that time], you’d see piles of jaz drives and zip drives. You remember those days! It was a whole different language.

[16:10] Allan: I was curious: How are you holding up in terms of COVID? How are you transitioning?

Aldo: Babysitter was the first movie I’ve done during COVID. We took the bull by the horns. We were really, really proud to be doing that. We did it out of four of our facilities. It was amazing! Despite the great crisis we’re living through, we as artists put our heads down and went back to work. We found that we could communicate better. It took a couple of weeks for everyone to say, “I need you to be online between these and these hours, and I need you to be available.” But once we figured it out, everyone was really comfortable. The commute was amazing (the 20 second commute from the upstairs to the downstairs). But we didn’t feel it. The clients moved from working at the studio to working from home. For their perspective maybe it was a bit challenging because everyone is used to having the director right there. But for us, it didn’t change much. We are lonely creatures, as artists. We can be apart and still function just fine. So much so that people are now thinking, “Can I now just go to the office twice a week?”

Matt: I think you also get into that place where people are thankful to have a job during this time. They value that they’re being trusted to work from home. They aren’t in any compromising situations. I had to wire in with Teradici and our firewall system.

Aldo: Our IT Department put in the entire facility remotely in 3 days!

[18:56] Allan: Wow!

Matt: Chris’s brother David LeDeux runs our IT. He got ahead of it and bought all of the Teradici firewall that he could, for all 5 facilities. As the company was asking for more, he’d already bought 120 of those. 

Aldo: In 2 hours, I went from working in my office to working in my basement. And I was working online like nothing happened and communicating with people via chat. It worked mostly because everyone had to look at the chat. It’s the only reason that’s working. It doesn’t look good if 2 hours go by and you don’t answer. That kind of psychology works well. Babysitter was 127 shots. It gets challenging managing 20-30 people. We did a Zoom interview with the director. The director came on the Zoom to thank every single artist. That was so unique. In 15 years, I’ve never seen anyone do that!

Matt: A lot of the time, directors feel a lot of excitement [but also concern about] “How do we fix what we need to fix?” From the beginning, Aldo instilled a lot of trust in McG with 5-6 awesome ideas and temps. Once he saw how excited Aldo was, it was a bit hands off. 

Aldo: You’re being very generous but McG has a crew of really, really seasoned people that he carries over from one movie to another. We’re talking A-Class people everywhere! You’ve done this! We can fix pretty much anything. I kept asking, “Please shoot something.” Because if you don’t shoot, we don’t have anything to fix. And if you shoot something wrong, we can work with it. We were going with the flow. It was six weeks, a lot of night shoots. 

[23:04] Allan: This was in Georgia?

Matt: We shot a lot of it in LA, in Santa Clarita.

Aldo: It was just amazing. The crew was fantastic! At the end of the day, it paid off!

[23:23] Allan: That’s really cool! I want to dig right into Babysitter. I’ve been pretty fascinated [with how studios handled the transition], whether it’s Pixar or ILM, or Framestore. They didn’t have any Doomsday preppers. But Marvel and Disney are very diligent with how they protect their content. But it’s interesting how quickly that became more lenient. 

Aldo: Well, it’s relatively lenient. We had to give photographs of our locations. Outside, our windows had to be covered. 

[24:30] Allan: But you didn’t ban cellphones from your home.

Aldo: Well, you know at the end of the day, it’s better to [have these projects] be released than never at all. As Matt was saying, we’re blessed we’re working and Crafty Apes has been working straight through. We haven’t had a dip in workflow. Features stayed longer and they carried us. 

Matt: It’s very interesting to see our, or the studio’s, reactivity to people not going to theaters. We had studio clients that completely shut down. Then there are those that had a captive audience with the on-demand content. One studio put the gas on and tried to finish the project in 8 weeks. Imagine our chess board! What was great about it is that the tax credit was dependent on everybody working and where they were working. Now, it became less of a crutch. We would move a project to Vancouver, or split it with Atlanta. What would that look like? Everyone collaborated and tried to take care of each other. 

[27:03] Allan: Have you found that some studios were pivoting more to episodic and streaming, knowing that theatres weren’t going to be a hotspot right now?

Matt: We were fortunate that a lot of our stuff was features for streaming, not theatrical. A lot of the time, we see that those schedules extend a little longer. We do a lot of stuff for Netflix. They’re so good about letting creatives have their sandbox during post, not just during their shoots; to get the movie where it needs to be editorially and with sound. For us, some of these projects got extended out, Babysitter being one of them. Let’s take the time and make this great! We consistently see that when we’re about to get to the end, Netflix says, “What if we put more time and money into this — and make it even greater?” I think that creative trust is formed. And you see a lot more A-List talent jump on, from Martin Scorsese to Jamie Foxx and his company. They see there is the ability to make movies the way they want to make them because of that creative trust at the top. That’s spread into movies and episodic, and it pushed us through COVID. We didn’t have to do any layoffs. We had maybe 6 or 7 contractors [that left].

Aldo: Which is not typical. My other colleagues from other places where I’ve worked, they weren’t working for 2-3 months. I never stopped working! I was so grateful that Crafty Apes put the people in front of the dollar signs. The owners of the company just said, “No! We’re going to keep on going. We’re going to keep the family fed.” And there was this amazing discovery of humanity, while in the world of visual effects is often about profit. Crafty Apes seems more family balanced, while making sure the quality of the work is good. People will keep coming back to us because we’re consistent and happy as artists. We have that consistency because we have the same artists.

Matt: We can say we have a 97% retention rate over the last 3 years. That says something is going okay. Yes, we’re in Georgia so maybe it’s a little easier to stick around. But there are other smaller companies out there. I found that these are the people that I want to work with.

[31:12] Allan: You’re looking at the actual people. That’s so cool! For both of you, did you notice that your productivity has gone up while everyone is working remotely? And if you were to staff up, what is the recruitment process like when you’re looking for artists? When you get a new guy, you can take him out for lunch. But how do you do it now?

Aldo: You do a Zoom call. We had to hire a lot of people for Babysitter and we had to hire out of New York. We were extremely lucky to find people that just brought it on. In many years, I’ve found that everyone wants to work and they say they can work on this and that. And then you go dig around and they know a little about this and that. You have to find the right place for everyone. But this time around, they did an excellent job of finding people who fit right in. 

Matt: That team, especially during COVID, was really helpful. As you know, in New York, it’s a different style of recruiting. You’re looking at contractors and you’re doing holds. What we saw during COVID was that a lot of the best people with contracts were all of a sudden were floating and didn’t have a way to get secure systems into their homes that were subsidized by a facility. The people we wanted, we made them staff deals. The other piece was finding strong production management. We had one great producer but a lot of great producers float and they’re not motivated. There’s a certain rate they’re paid. We spent 4 months recruiting hard to find a couple of good people to run studios, and we made them staff. Once we got into COVID, our stakes in the ground were in place. It didn’t become a hunt to put a team together. If we needed extra work, we’d think beyond that. 

Aldo: Productivity wise, the truth is that everybody is scared. No one wants to lose their job. Even the people who weren’t as productive in the office all of a sudden started working their asses off. Because A. No one wants to be unemployed during this economy. It was really scary!

Matt: I wouldn’t say that it went from 60% to a 100%. I think everyone gets comfortable at times. There was a step-up, definitely. For us, looking at how our culture is, we work really hard — but we don’t ever work weekends! 

Aldo: We don’t work weekends, and we don’t do a lot of overtime.

[36:32] Allan: That’s a bold statement for visual effects!

Matt: Totally!

Aldo: It’s all about the management. I talk to my producer and I make it a point. Under my supervision, if we’re doing overtime, we’re doing something wrong. We are either not communicating with the client correctly or we don’t have the best people doing their job. There is a lot of that. There is less reactive [mode] and more trying to frontload at the beginning. On all my shows, when we get to the end, we’re decently comfortable, the client is super happy and nobody is burning out. To me, there is no other explanation when someone has to redo something at the end of a production and they have to have 150 people. That’s mismanagement of the people you have! You cannot do that, especially when you care about people. I’m an artist. I hated being mismanaged! That was the one thing I’ve been trying to not do as a manager. I know how that feels when you’re given a note and you know it’s not from the client. At the end of the day, all that matters is that the client is happy. 

Matt: It’s concierge. It’s customer service.

Aldo: If you want blood to be green, I’ll give it to you. I’m not going to argue with you. And I’m going to give it to you quickly.

[38:47] Allan: It’s such a big topic! I agree 100%. It’s about having the foresight. There is that commonality. Your company and team seems to really care about the physical and mental health. When people aren’t burnt out, they’re going to be more enthusiastic.

Aldo: I mean: On version 45, you’re kind of going to lose the enthusiasm but you still do it.

[39:32] Allan: I was telling my wife the other night that I can mention shot codes from years ago, from 2001…

Aldo: I have a shot 2710 of a submarine coming out of the water.

[40:07] Allan: I want to dig into some of the projects you’ve been doing. I’m curious to see what you see the future being in terms of handling production. What are the ways you see future shoots?

Aldo: The interaction on set is going to be tough because not having the chit chat and that connection with people is really going to take a toll on people who are working 12-hour days. It will have to change. It will have to go back to where we were. In the meantime, we have to be super careful and onguard. As far as production goes, we’re trying to do more in realtime and less in post. Visual effects will still be the same. As far as COVID goes, it’s hard to find people who want to go to set where you’re going to be quarantined for 3 weeks and you cannot go back home to LA. That’s not as enticing. 

Matt: International travel may be even more difficult because the rules are so different from country to country. We just experienced that with a Canadian Sup coming in and having to quarantine. In Boston, you have to quarantine for 2 days, then get tested and go to set. But coming back to Canada, you have to quarantine for 2 weeks apart from people that live in your home. So our Sup told us to book him for 4 weeks but lose him for 2 weeks at an AirBNB. You’re paying him per diem. So [we’re] figuring out what that new normal is going to be. I just got off a call with a Line Producer about a project we just got awarded. It’s going to shoot in Virginia. They decided to not have dayplayers because they didn’t want to deal with the back and forth and the testing. Our VFX supervision will be budgeting for a handful of 2-4 hour Zoom meetings. We won’t charge them for one-off calls. I think right now, if the second or third wave is going to be real enough, I think they’re trying to figure that out. 

[44:03] Allan: What you’re talking about kind of changes the structure. If a studio might have an on-set VFX Sup to jump from project to project, that also creates a lot of conflict. 

Matt: And with key markets, I would say I’ve never seen it where there is an unprecedented wall of water where everything stops for 4 months — and then everything is greenlit at the same time. Never in the history of cinematic arts has that happened. All the DP’s are getting booked, all the grips, all the transpo. Everything ends up being taken. There are no extra resources because it’s all shooting now-ish. (Except for New York which is a bit slower to restart.) Everything is full board again for the next few weeks. Being able to have resources even on our end, I’ve been thankful that one production in Atlanta is letting people come in and out with testing, as opposed to full quarantine. There is a more creative scheduling to deal with. It’s very interesting!

[46:02] Allan: I definitely think that as disruptive as everything is, there has been a lot of innovation. I was just talking to a DP a couple of days ago. He was remote controlling the cameras for a feature shooting in LA — from Florida. It’s obviously less fluid, but you do one process and it’s working. There is a lot of shifting and innovating going on which is exciting! There is a new blue ocean to explore.

Matt: It will be interesting in post to see what the ramification will be. 

Aldo: There will be a lot more people interacting in the same room, as opposed to crowds. I think we’ll see an increase in visual effects especially for fixing.

Matt: Which is in our wheelhouse of 2D! You never want to say that this has been a positive for the world, in any way! But in terms of our business model, there will be a certain type of work we’ll be able to take on, based on the needs of people’s safety [on set]. 

Aldo: We were blessed that we could work without any external contact which has kept our families safe. The biggest thing I fear all the time! I even took my kids out of school just to keep their old man safe and being able to provide. 

[48:20] Allan: There is so much I’d love to chat about! Do you want to talk about Babysitter, how did that project come about?

Aldo: It was about a year ago that we broke out the script. I don’t know where Matt gets these scripts. Two days before the shoot started, he said, “Do you want to do this?” With all due respect, I still feel like a guy who’s free off the boat and doing research on McG. Two days later, I was in LA still breaking down the script and doing pre-production. Maybe for Matt, there was a moment of us being overbooked. I’m still grateful to this day!

Matt: That was more of a strategic casting in my mind. We needed someone who knew how to handle technical stuff without having to be micromanaged, with a high profile director. Aldo was a no-brainer for me. I put him with Amblin. We moved quickly and we were fortunate he was willing to be away from his family for a few weeks, in LA.

Aldo: It was a really interesting project! The key on that was photogrammetry. I know the value of getting thousands of pictures. I got thousands of pictures now scanned. It becomes an incredible resource. The DP was so generous. He made a ring of fire for me where I could go in and shoot props and actors and do scans. That was invaluable. But it really did the trick. We had the faces we could morph, or a canyon we could put the water in. That’s what I wanted to do. I went there with a mission: I wanted to get as much data as I could.

[51:41] Allan: I think that’s so critical! Whether it is Lidar or photogrammetry, getting as much data as you can, it’s better to have it and not need it. Being able to capture the set means you can paint over it, you can do extensions,  you can do so much! Having that accessibility means that the director has the creative freedom to make changes later on. 

Aldo: Even for reflection, instead of getting HDR, you’re getting the entire room. You can decide where to put the object in the room to get the right reflection, and it doesn’t cost anything. I got to a point where I was able to get in, in between takes, and get photogrammetry of the actors after they were done. They indulged me on that. I didn’t  have to imagine it. I had the actor in make up and I was taking pictures from the exact position. All of a sudden, it wasn’t a guess. All of a sudden, the shots look better and it’s quicker too! It goes back to the idea of wanting to frontload everything on set. 

[53:53] Allan: For you, guys, what were the main responsibilities in terms of sequences?

Aldo: On the film, we took on the lion’s share. We did 427 shots. We were the main vendor. Someone else was doing motion graphics. We went from extending Lake Piru [in California] and making it look like Lake Powell [in Utah and Arizona]. We started with hike maps from Lake Powell and rendered that out. Once I had a good layout, I could move the cameras around. Once we did that, we went back and map painting; and we got actual photographs to put back in there. But the layout was basically done in CG. So it was the reverse of what you do. We really wanted things to look hyperreal. The other part was all the kills and being able to mix the things that practical can do well and that we can do well. We can hide a lot and practical can show a lot. They can show a lot of blood. All we have to do is to enhance or cover up. All in, we killed so many people on that show!

We had to add water to the set. The hardest thing to figure out is where the water line is. McG is a genius. He said, “Why don’t you use one of those level lasers?” We got a level laser and it shows up where the water line is. Together with the scan, all of sudden I could do 20 shots in very little time. I believe one of our artists did a full blown ocean simulation inside of Houdini or Maya. We brought that alembic into Nuke. So we have a live plate giving us real reflection. And with all the paint work, we have live alembics getting the water going. And the shot was extremely easy. Once you track it and match all the points, you have one scene with 15 cameras; one water simulation and a very smooth workflow. So when the client tells you to raise the water level, you get it done in Nuke. That was the goal for most of this thing: just to find the sweet point. It was all interactive and we could do it very quickly.

[58:23] Allan: What were the typical tools you relied on? And do you have a lot of proprietary tools in your pipeline?

Aldo: We have mostly commercially based software. The software nowadays is so good: from the Substance Designer to RealityCapture, to Nuke! We use Maya, we use Houdini. At the end of the day, these are just different handlers. 

[59:00] Allan: I still miss Shake a little bit. 

Aldo: I miss Naiad. I actually bought Naiad. It paid off for me. It generated a really hard show that paid off with an Emmy nomination. I’m so proud of it! It was able to simulate this big scene with submarines and blend them in with Bermuda. You end up being proud of being able to hack it.

[1:00:06] Allan: That’s what visual effects is, basically. 

Aldo: Every day! How do I hack this to make it look believable?

[1:00:16] Allan: And what were the biggest challenges on Babysitter?

Aldo: The fact that they asked us to be artists. McG wanted everyone to be fulfilled in their role. We call ourselves artists. But the artistry is already made in someone’s head and we’re just executing it. Or we were asked to be what we came out to do. That’s why some shots went over budget. It’s because there wasn’t a real set of rules on the show. Not everything needed to look photoreal. We killed a deer and we made it funny. We were shooting the deer and we had just the legs standing. All of a sudden, every rule was broken. We weren’t shooting for something to be photoreal. We were shooting for an effect. 

Matt: There was this nice balance of early ILM special effects versus digital where you’re able to have the realism and campiness. McG has got that sensibility of having that cinema history gross gore with realism, but being able to use the digital for the overtop scenes. In Babysitter, my favorite death is John’s where his eyes pop off at the end of the antlers that fall. It’s funny enough but you’ve never seen it done real before.

Aldo: It was amazing! But I don’t know if the artists still feel that way about it. For one of the shots, we didn’t know where we wanted to go. All of sudden, one of our guys (who’s done horror for 20 years) is taking the skin off the actress and leaves just the eyeballs. And that was such a great effect. That is the spirit! There were 3-4 eyeballs on the show and we were throwing them everywhere.

[1:04:25] Allan: I think you’ve touched on some interesting points. One: I think a lot of the time, we are doing what isn’t photoreal. My whole take on Hollywood is that real is boring. Usually, we want to dial it up to 11. Let’s just roll with it and make it look real but don’t bring it back to the sense of reality (www.allanmckay.com/199).

Matt: I think you’re making a great point. For us, it would’ve been fortunate if we started with a lot of visible effects work years ago, like set extensions and building enhancements, and anachronistic changes, seasonal fixes, wig fixes. That stuff has to look real. When you start your company and you aren’t supposed to see the work you do, then you can get into the more fantastical stuff later. We had one of the executives who asked for a blood and gore reel. And the movie was semicampy. And she wrote back saying, “I think this is too visceral. Your gore is too gorey.” She was afraid to show it to filmmakers. We can always dial it back. But the way we light comes from having movie work where you don’t see. Our first gore moment was on 12 Years a Slave. We had to do that awful whipping scene. You don’t want to show people that clip. It was layer upon layer of visual effects makeup. That technique put us apart. So the fantastic stuff has been based on maybe they need a bird animated. Now we have a 3D team that can do that. But we’re also not competing in the space of the dragon for Game of Thrones. We aren’t fighting for that work. 

[1:07:59] Allan: That reminds me of O Brother, Where Art Thou? There is the cow that gets run over. It was one of those PETA activists trying to get the team in trouble. DD had to put together a reel just to demonstrate that it was a CG cow.

Aldo: The satisfaction of not having to tell my wife when one of my shots comes up. You’ve been there, right? You work on a show and you watch it and you have to tap your wife to tell her, “This is my shot!” It lasts like 20 frames. It was fun to let it rip on this one.

[1:09:05] Allan: One thing to go back to, what do you mean “to be an artist”? We are in a service based industry. The more people realize they are there to deliver the task, the better off they’ll be. You’re there to fulfill a task you’re being assigned.

Aldo: And that’s what changed! We could do whatever we wanted. For me, it was really exciting. But finding other people who could handle that — that was a challenge. We had to hire people that took on that challenge. It’s immediately “Yay” or “Nay” from the clients. You end up having Supervisors who’ll tell you, “I hate this!” That never happened on Babysitter. We were asked to perform and contribute to the vision. For a couple of times, [the notes] didn’t make sense. There was a scene at the end where we were wrapping a girl into a spiral of smoke and embers. There was an extra shot and we didn’t know what to do to wrap it into narrative. We took it off. We were happy to not struggle and it was amazing for me. How many times, I’d rather put my energy into fewer frames but make those frames incredible. There was an actual interaction between an entire facility and the editor and DP. In the wonderland of McG’s company, they will got really far. The way they treat us and all the artists!

Matt: He’s also a constant content producer. He’s got a development slate that’s a mile long! He’s just passionate about good storytelling. Right now, he’s EP-ing on rebooting of a Disney project. We’re starting on a romantic Christmas comedy shooting up in Canada, with him. He’s got his Terminator 2 tier projects that come up and the smaller budget Christmas comedies.

Aldo: Personally, he’s a great person too!

[1:14:14] Allan: I was tied to Superman for 4 years as it transitioned from McG to Singer. He’s definitely got his hand in a lot of jars.

Aldo: Very direct, very practical! He appreciates you speaking up, which is rare.

[1:14:51] Allan: One final question I’ll throw at you, guys: What are your thoughts on feature films versus episodic. Have you noticed any trends, now with streaming being such a big thing? How are you feeling about that climate, in terms of productions and budgets?

Matt: In terms of the swing of the pendulum? I think there is an interesting paradigm shift happening. We’re working with a lot of theatrical releases right now. We work on everything. We aren’t picky. Good content is good content. It’s interesting to see that the bigger budgets and higher profiles for theatrical are now going to be streaming. And also the consolidation for theatrical value in terms of many titles are planned for as streaming content now, based on the theatres being closed. These films go up to 100 million dollars. The results of something like Red Notice with Netflix or Disney+’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier (which is what we’re working on with them) [are impressive]. These are all the Avengers characters. Or the Lovecraft Country that we’re on: These are feature quality but in an episodic structure and in 4K. We’re excited! And the results on the screen are blurring the line. What does theatrical even mean now? The timelines are spread out a bit more. We have the time to do it right but also see it in the comfort of your home. This is happening and we all like it. 

[1:18:51] Allan: Just a quick question I’m going to ask about old school tv versus now. Netflix was the first to standardize what you’re shooting on and how. I know it’s been a long time now, but did you find delivering everything in 4K to be a huge transition? I’ve known so many studios that would do comp in 4K. Now it’s more mainstream. Was there a bit of friction?

Aldo: It’s like everything. You just do it. Now, they’re talking about 12K. Somebody else is going to take the work. You end up taking it and figuring it out.

Matt: I think education is a big part of it. A lot of the time the studio partners will ask, “Are you going to exhibit in 6K?” Can we work in 4 and bring it back by upping it to 6? We have a few that we up-res. Maybe there is some extra cost. 

Aldo: The truth is the larger the format of the camera, the more the stuff is blurry. Blurry at 4K is blurry at 2K. You still have to throw things out of focus. Technically, it’s not that much harder.

Matt: Our pipeline is never hindered by it. I will say there is a breaking point: Stereoscopic Ang Lee 8K, 60 frames per second. Those are the one-offs. 

[1:22:17] Allan: I was pretty impressed Blackmagic was showing their B-roll for doing 12K plates. They’re able to play in on a Mac Book Pro. I think in the next few years it’ll start moving toward AI. You’re right: The higher res doesn’t matter if the sensor is a regular S35.

Aldo: Right now, they have a problem even in HDRI’s. I was talking to some color engineers. They cannot figure out how to add the extra motion blur. We’re entering the space of limited perception. We went from standard definition to HD — that was a big transition.

[1:23:57] Allan: I was talking to Jeff Okun. He’s been helping ILM with helping sync their greenscreen right now. There is a lot of interesting stuff in the next couple of years and the demand is getting ridiculous. I appreciate your taking your time! Where can people go find out more about you?

Matt: We’re are at www.craftyapes.com. Our latest reel is up there. We also have LinkedIn and Twitter, and Facebook accounts.

[1:25:07] Allan: Thanks a lot, guys!

Matt: Thank you for taking the time. 

 

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Matt and Aldo for taking the time to do this Podcast! This was awesome! 

I’ll be back next week with Teddy Bersgman, the CEO of Quixel. They just got acquired by Epic earlier this year. 

Please check out the free Branding Bootcamp I’ve just launched at www.Branding10X.com.  

Until next week —

Rock on!

 

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