Episode 317 — FOR ALL MANKIND — VFX Supervisors

 

Episode 317 — FOR ALL MANKIND — VFX Supervisors

Imagine the world where the global space race never ended. For All Mankind is a thrilling “what if” take on history from Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander) spotlights the high stakes lives of NASA astronauts and their families.

Jay Redd is a VFX Supervisor on For All Mankind whose extensive resume also includes titles like Contact, Men in Black 3 and Monster House. Todd Sheridan Perry is an On-Set Supervisor on the show with a diverse background in video games, film and television. He’s worked on titles like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to Final Destination 5, The Immortals, Total Recall, Resident Evil 5 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Todd has also worked as a CG Supervisor on Marvel’s Doctor Strange which was nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar.

On this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews VFX Supervisor Jay Redd and the On-Set Supervisor Todd Sheridan Perry about their work on For All Mankind, making smart decisions on set, balancing between artistry and tech skills, VFX in film versus television and the future of virtual production. 

 

For All Mankind on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7772588/

Jay Redd on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0714666/

Allan McKay’s Podcasts with Todd Sheridan Perry: https://www.allanmckay.com/247 and https://www.allanmckay.com/9

Todd Sheridan Perry’s Website: http://www.teaspoonvfx.com

Jay Redd on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/reddjay

Todd Sheridan Perry on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/toddsheridanperry/

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[03:34] Todd Perry and Jay Redd Introduce Themselves

[07:53] TV Versus Feature Films

[13:26] Making Smart Decisions on Set as a VFX Artist

[20:21] Challenging Sequences on For All Mankind

[29:01] The Ethical Side of Deepfake Technology

[34:36] The Effect of COVID-19 on Production

[41:31] Todd and Jay Give Away Some On-Set Secrets

[46:32] Virtual Production and Future of VFX

[51:23] Balancing Technical Knowledge with Artistry

 

EPISODE 317 — FOR ALL MANKIND — VFX SUPERVISORS

Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 317! In this Podcast, I interview VFX Supervisor Jay Redd and the On-Set Supervisor Todd Sheridan Perry for the Apple TV+ show For All Mankind. We talk about making smart decisions on set, balancing between artistry and tech skills, VFX in film versus television and the future of virtual production — and so much more! 

I’m really excited to sit down with both Jay Redd and Todd Sheridan Perry. This was so much fun! We nerded out because you can tell how passionate both of these artists are.

Please let others know about this Podcast. I hope you’ve made the most of your year so far. Now, let’s get into this Episode.

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

[01:16]  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! 

[1:05:11] 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!

 

INTERVIEW WITH “FOR ALL MANKIND” VFX SUPERVISORS

[03:34] Allan: Thanks, guys, for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?

Todd: My name is Todd Perry. I’m the On-Set Supervisor for For All Mankind, Season 3.

Jay: My name is Jay Redd. I’m the VFX Supervisor for For All Mankind. I’ve come on in the late Season 1.

[03:56] Allan: That’s awesome! What have been your responsibilities? What do you usually do for that production?

Todd: My responsibility is usually on set. I work with production and the DP, and the Camera Operators (and all the other departments) to make sure that we’re shooting what we need for the visual effects on the show, which have been pre-designed by Jay Redd. I make the methods to shoot happen: [for example], where the green screens are, making sure where there are no reflections where there needn’t be reflections. I make sure we have all the data we need. I have a great data wrangler who works with me who runs around and gathers it. 

Jay: My responsibilities start early on the show, even when the scripts are being developed sometimes. Once in a while, we’re taking the calls in the writer’s room, from [Creators] Ben Moore, Ben Nedivi or Matt Wolpert. We get asked, “Is this really hard to do? Is it expensive? Can we pull this off?” It’s different coming from features. This is my first tv series. It moves at a totally different pace. 

Bringing Todd on has been really instrumental. Todd is on set filming, while I’m prepping the next block. I come on 3 months before we start filming. We have 10 Episodes, or 5 blocks. (A block is 2 Episodes, each block gets one Director.) It’s my job to start planning early on. We don’t have all the scripts necessarily. It’s a lot of meetings with Heads of Departments: costumes, lighting, sets, art department, stunts. Hopefully, you’re holding hands with a lot of people. It’s also my responsibility to find good, talented people like Todd. It’s nice to be able to trust Todd on set. He brings his own expertise to the show. It’s my job to oversee all the shots to their final form. Sometimes, I get boards from the Directors; other times, I design my own boards. I just try to surround myself with people who are smarter than me. I love my job!

[07:53] Allan: To touch on the subject of tv versus features, what are your opinions about tv these days? Usually, tv was a step down. How do you see those two genres crossing over?

Jay: If I may, I can relay how I came on the show. I had finished doing a stint at Riot Games. I didn’t want to do features anymore. I came on to develop some of their IP. After the break, I was in between paths. My longtime friend Deborah Giarratana who’s a Method was a liaison at Sony. She called me up one day and said, “Hey, let’s go have ramen. I want to talk to you about a tv show.” I thought I wouldn’t be doing tv. She said I should go talk to Ron Moore. Ron Moore?! Wait a minute! The Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore?! Yeah, cool! I went over and met with him and my first question to him was, “Does this show have the budget to be photoreal and accurate?” He said, “It has to be!” So I said, “Let’s do it!” It’s nice to have the budget to do it. Do we have the money or time for features? No! I look at this as a 10-hour feature. It moves fast and you’re making decisions and you don’t have enough time for those. Someone called it “the grind of tv”.

Todd: That’s even different from animation. One of our Directors for both Season 2 and 3 is Andrew Stanton from Pixar. I was talking to him over lunch about the difference between directing an animated feature and this. He said, “I love this! Things happened serendipitously! I love that I have to make the decision right then and there. I love that I can’t kick it down the road, 6 months later.” The adrenaline that generates! You have to come up with solutions right then. 

Jay: Andrew brings all of that expertise to performance and action. He’ll send his boards with 6 lines on them — but they’re super communicative. We come from animation as well. It’s a joy to work with someone like that! And he has a great time!

Todd: As we’ve seen in our show, their bar is the same if not higher than features. You’re doing more of it but at a higher pace. Something like Game of Thrones is out of this world! It’s great!

[13:26] Allan: I feel like GOT was a different bar to every other project around. Going in, it requires a lot of visual effects. Were you aware of how VFX heavy it was going to be, including invisible effects?

Jay: When I came on in Season 1, the expectation was high. When I came in, 8 Episodes had been filmed without hardly any post. That was in the interview with my Ron: What’s the story here? They wanted it to feel authentic with an alternate timeline. They wanted to change stock photography, put characters into environments they never were [in, in real life], change history, mix CG with stock. A lot of this stuff wasn’t even figured out yet. Delivering Season 1 and doing more stuff on Season 2, the confidence built. We were building Deepfakes, comping characters into stock. The show is getting bigger and bigger, especially as we diverge from current reality. We’re going into science fiction while keeping our foot in real science. The show has always been about the “what if”. That makes you think you can do anything!

Todd: When I jumped on the show, it was a bit after Jay. I was at Method at the time. I had to step away because they were booked on another show. I had been on Doctor Strange and Black Panther. That’s a really high level feature standard. Coming into it, I never had the attitude, “This is just tv.” It was, “Does this look real?” and “Is this good enough?” Then I joined with Sony on Season 2, and from my experience on Season 1, I had insight into how to shoot it. 

Jay: That’s where I found some things that weren’t happening on set. The supervision team wasn’t pulling their weight. Todd inherited a bunch of this stuff! On Season 2, Todd has been able to think about being on the VFX side. We both grew up as artists, but we also have to think about the set costing hundreds of thousands dollars a day! Is this going to cost us $4K to roto?

Todd: Because of the visors on [the spacesuits], we have to replace those. Otherwise we see everyone.

[18:16] Allan: I was going to ask if there are actual visors on set at all. They’re always a nightmare!

Todd: Sometimes we do, and sometimes we expect to — and they aren’t there. And once you put the visor down, it gets foggy unless you have a fan in the suit (but those fans are super loud!). So then the sound is blown and actors can’t hear one another. So you’re doing the calculus for how you may be slowing down our crew. How much is it to track a visor versus doing ADR because the sound is blown?

Jay: On our Season, with the ventilation system in the backpack, that adds weight to the costume. They’re really realistic suits. On the moon without gravity, you don’t care. But on set, the actors are like, “This thing is killing me!” When you take the ventilation system down, the visor would fog up. Some actors cannot do it because it’s too hot in there. Sometimes there are surprises! We have massive flexibility now. 

[20:21] Allan: I was chatting with Ben Snow (www.allanmckay.com/101) about Ironman, and Robert Downey Jr. having his suit get tracked on. On Season 1 and 2, what have been some of the more complicated sequences you had to do?

Jay: I’d say the complexity of the environments. In Season 1, it was more contained. The show is not just about the moon. Jamestown expanded a lot more, there were more assets to build, there were more astronauts. Managing historical footage is another challenge! Todd knows it because he had to comp those. You have to design a look for every newscast and piece of stock footage. We shoot in 4K HD and it needs to cut against stock. It’s been overdeveloped. You have to make everything feel coherent.

Todd: On those kinds of shots, I would take the 4K footage and resize it down. I make sure software doesn’t try to outthink us. I’ll mash it up, then blow it back up to 4K so it’s just deteriorating it. But all those details — gate weave, exposure flutter, and grain structure when something was shot on 16mm film — it’s always different on this set! It’s not just spaceships and dragons. 

Jay: In Season 2 which takes place in the 80s, the cameras became ubiquitous. But it’s crap! Making it look good in 4K, it’s not good to work with poor quality footage in Deepfakes. It’s only 6 pixels! Deepfake world tracks the pixels. We work with a company in Poland that takes footage and sharpens it to see what 1980 San Francisco would look like. I reached out to them to see what we could do with some old Ronald Reagan footage. They’ve increased some sharpness and it was helping it a little bit. Our friends at Crafty Apes had to go the other direction: Here’s some footage from the Challenger disaster funeral. It was so damaged and duplicated! We had them match our 4K footage. They came back first without wanting to destroy our footage. I told them to 10X it! They were really great and hit it out of the park! Matching all this footage is complicated. We had a couple of voice actors who’d work as Reagan or John Lennon. The sound would be great but their mouth moving was not enough to get the Reagan footage to move the way we wanted. So we had to go through 3 stages, one of them with a mimic to match the voice actor; then take that puppet and align it with the audio. I’d have to draw mouth shapes sometimes. That was complicated. And Ron wanted to do more of these! It’s a crazy time! I gave Ron this idea: He was like, “I wish the actor would’ve said this way.” And I said, “Well, we can.”

[27:48] Allan: One of the scariest things I saw was for Phantom Menace where George Lucas was saying, “I like the performance in one cut, but this performance in another cut.” I guess with Deepfakes, we can do this now.

Todd: You can put these two actors together.

Jay: We did it for Monster House, in mo cap world. When people start to get dangerous.

[28:39] Allan: What were you doing for that show?

Jay: I was the VFX Supervisor for that show and the Lighting DP. There were lots of people on that show! One of the most creative things I’ve ever done! It was so fun, and it was really hard!

[29:01] Allan: If you go back to the 90s and think about films like Forrest Gump where the dubbing was complicated, now we have Deepfakes. What are your thoughts on that? It’s difficult when you’re fighting the source footage. But where do you think this technology could go?

Todd: You mean like of the ethical nature?

Jay: How far is okay? I just found out today from a documentary from Anthony Bourdain that there are quotes on there that are completely synthesized. It’s blowing up that he never said that. The director said they build an AI voice, but he never said this stuff. I’ve seen that people are complaining that Reagan’s footage is historically accurate.

Todd: We’re in the realm of pseudo fiction. The documentary is of different nature.

Jay: But there are people on social media who think that our show is historically accurate. There are people who say that. “I didn’t know Russians landed on the moon first.” 

Todd: We’d like to bring up a doc that used face replacement technology and Deepfakes to protect people who were coming out in Russia. It’s called Welcome to Chechnya. Getting the people out of there was potentially dangerous, so they wanted to protect their identity. They replaced their faces. In the beginning of the film, they’ve explained how they’re protecting them. They kept it in the uncanny valley so that you knew that you weren’t looking at the real person.

Jay: I think that’s a fascinating use of the tech! There are two sides to every coin. It can be used for good purposes and not so good. It’s also the more tools that get into more people’s hands. At some point, it will be all plug-ins. I mean, the TikTok filters! But I just can’t not think about the ethical side! 

Todd: But people who use it, that determines if it’s for good or bad. But it will be used for bad purposes, too.

[33:25] Allan: I was watching a video about how to edit it based on the dialogue. But what this piece of software does is that you can add the words you want.

Todd: Adobe was saying that their audio tools can analyze how much data you want to feed it and it will figure out which words you want in.

[34:36] Allan: When COVID hit, how much did that affect production?

Todd: It shut us down. We had two Episodes left to shoot. I went home to Seattle while production figured out their protocols. Now, everyone gets tested, wears masks. Group A [the Actors] gets tested once a day. Makeup and costumes wear shields. The actors are the most gregarious group on set though! We came back 4 months later to get the rest of the Episodes. It was 10-hour days. It was harder on the Director. That downtime just pushed everything into post.

Jay: We had a 3-4 week of, “Oh, my God, what is happening?” In post, we still had some deadlines. When working with our partners, they were scrambling as well. Since our company is so global now, we have built all of that into our infrastructure. But we had that 3-4 week delay while we were waiting for SAG-AFTRA and other Unions to figure it out. For me, it didn’t change much. We were really lucky to trudge ahead and stay working.

Todd: They did keep us paid for 4 weeks.

Jay: I have to praise them! I felt safer there than I did walking the streets of LA!

Todd: It’s loosened up a little bit on the lot, but on the stages we still have to follow protocols. 

[38:39] Allan: There were a few productions that were the test beds. But there is that unique pressure to take the protocols seriously! 

Jay: You have to play by the rules to make it work for everyone. 

[39:19] Allan: I’m curious about the studios involved, which shops were on the show?

Jay: On Season 2, Method had a giant chunk of the lunar work. That’s the longest history we had with Method. Todd helped advise that. We worked with Zoic quite a bit. Union in London. Ghost in Denmark. Crafty Apes, Refuge, Studio 8, it’s a wide variety. Canny AI did a lot of our Deepfake work. Todd was able to take some shots too. Lots of great people contributed to our show. It’s a pretty demanding thing. There are reflections and glow, and pixelization. These are complicated composites. I see a lot of bad stuff on tv! A LOT!

[41:31] Allan: I guess the moon is a big one. For tackling that stuff — both on set — what was it like?

Jay: It’s combo stuff. Some of it is acting. The suits would normally be pressurized if you were on the moon. You get that Michelin man look. We’re familiar with that Apollo footage. It’s longer arcs for walking. It starts with a bit of coaching. Our stunt coordinator Todd Schneider helps actors understand what it’s like. He also wires them up in cables to help them leap across. It’s 32 frames per second if there is no dialogue. It’s the secret sauce.

Todd: I put in a cigarette that fell out from behind our actor’s ear. We didn’t deal with it inside of the base. Otherwise, we’d still be shooting it. You can’t have wires on those things. But there is one shot where Tracy has a cigarette behind her ear and it fell out accidentally. I painted it out and reanimated a cigarette at 16G. 

Jay: There is also gear on set. We put people on lifts that allow them to float a bit. 

[44:43] Allan: Is there any specific technology that’s coming down the pipe that you’re excited about?

Todd: Virtual production.

Jay: And realtime visualization.

Todd: It’s not ubiquitous in that everyone is using it.

Jay: It’s not practical for every production. We tried to push that further for Season 2. Because of the schedule of the show, you need that lead time to start building. We are trying to do more of that for future Seasons. It’s currently not the structure of the show. And we have shiny visors on the set. I’m excited for all that realtime.

[46:32] Allan: It blows my mind in terms of where the budget goes because so much of it is done in pre-production. How does that play out?

Todd: You have a VAD which is the virtual asset department which should be working with the art department. They need to be in the same world. You’re frontloading the modeling and the texture teams and the shader dev to build stuff at the front end. But you have that balance of it where a high percentage of shots is replaced. You have an environment that reflects in The Mandalorian.

Jay: If you’re a studio exec, you’re looking at it and saying, “Wait, we’ve paid for this wall! And now we’re paying again for the background.” From the cost point, it’s crazy. We ask the question of does this make sense for the show, financially? Creatively — absolutely! There is some stuff we wouldn’t do. It’s so obvious! Really, you paint the picture. I feel like it’s going to come down to which stage to pick. Our job is starting to get a bit blurry. When you start getting into virtual production the roles start to blur.

Todd: And you have people who do have that broad experience. You need a lot of experience to do this. And the only way you get experience is by doing it. And there are companies that are teaching that right now.

Jay: That’s how we get experience!

Todd: Now they just need to learn the artistry. 

[51:23] Allan: How important is it for VFX artists to keep the finger on the pulse with technology coming up?

Jay: I think it’s vital. What’s hard is when you’re in the middle of the show, you have blinders on. Six months go by and you miss out on the techniques. I’m constantly trying to read up. These podcasts definitely help. We come from old school. We were coming up when digital was new. It’s a never ending excitement to learn! You get to make cool film and tv shots.

Todd: I feel the same way! Software developers always ask me to write reviews for them. I want that knowledge. What is the thing that makes that software a game changer? I also try to take the time to immerse myself in education. I’m part of FXPhD. Knowing how that side does things, it feeds my brain and I can make better informed decisions. Special effects guys know that already. 

Jay: We do dance with our VFX teams. Sometimes we need to do something digitally. In Season 2, we tried to get a lot of stuff in camera.

Todd: Last week we were shooting at a location that was like the house of mirrors. I could see the crew and secondary reflections. On the slate, there will be a V if there are visual effects involved. And people were yelling, “Is there a V on this slate?!” I’d be like, “I’m working to not have a V on this slate!” We don’t want to make more work for ourselves.

[55:45] Allan: People learning the technical side are great — but you still need the artistry. Part of that means having experience. Junior artists will think they’re working on their own movie. It’s the director’s and producer’s vision. How important is it to learn all the other areas you’re interfacing with? 

Jay: At least, try to surround yourself with as much knowledge as you can about other people’s contribution. I also think that as a VFX Sup, you have to provide context and reason for things. I’m thankful to my mentors like Rick Baker and John Dystra. These are dream come true people! It’s about being provided the context. How does this affect something down the road? When I started at Rhythm & Hues, and it taught me to think ahead a little bit about how this sits in the rest of the world. When I provide an element for an artist, how does it sit in the edit? I demand cuts from our editors. Everything you see was picked to be there for a reason. Context really matters. Looping a shot over and over would be super destructive. Talk to people, understand what their contribution is.

Todd: On top of that, from the technical side of things, it’s helpful for VFX Sup to understand the tools that are being used. You need to understand what those tools are doing. I am not going to be as good with Maya as someone doing it all day long. On Season 1, we had a reentry scene where Ed Baldwin is coming back to Earth. We needed to see reflections of the fire. We had this shiny surface and in my brain I was thinking how many bounces we’d have to do. Toward the end of the show, we didn’t have 4 weeks to work on that. I told the Houdini guys to make a 360 camera, make the fire, put the camera inside the fire. The lighting guys can use that. The FX guys said it was amazing. I’d never done that before!

[1:01:58] Allan: That’s what VFX is half the time: Problem solving. 

Jay: You have to resist being too prescriptive. But there are experiences you want to lean on. I usually ask, “How would you do this? And may I suggest something?” It’s part of the job as a Sup. Provide people guidance and rely on the artists to come with their own stuff. Ron Moore is really good about giving the note. He doesn’t tell you how to fix it. He wants something “more dynamic” or “to have more poetry”. He is really good at providing the emotional motivation behind it. I like being treated like that as an artist. “What do you want it to feel like?” You still get to figure it out yourself.

[1:03:53] Allan: This has been great, guys! Where can people go to find out more about both of you?

Jay: There is stuff online. You can search for For All Mankind.

Todd: I’m on Facebook and Twitter, on LinkedIn as well.

[1:04:56] Allan: This has been great, guys! Thanks for doing this!

Jay: Thanks, Allan, for having us! And thanks, Todd, for being friends with Allan! 

 

Thanks for listening! I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Jay and Todd for taking the time to chat. Let me know if you’d like to have them back on the show.

I’ll be back next Episode talking about how to raise your prices. It’s a critical topic we, artists, need to talk about.

Until then —

Rock on!

 

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