Episode 330 — Eran Dinur — Photorealism for VFX


Episode 330 — Eran Dinur — Photorealism for VFX

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 his latest book The Complete Guide to Photorealism and the topic of photorealism in VFX and other artforms.


Eran Dinur’s Website: https://www.erandinur.com

Eran Dinur on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0227813/

The Complete Guide to Photorealism in Visual Effects by Eran Dinur: https://www.amazon.com/Eran-Dinur/e/B06X6CB2HD

The Complete Guide to Photorealism in Visual Effects at Routledge: https://www.routledge.com/The-Complete-Guide-to-Photorealism-for-Visual-Effects-Visualization-and/Dinur/p/book/9780367199258

The Complete Guide to Photorealism in Visual Effects on Google Books: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Complete_Guide_to_Photorealism_for_V.html?id=wz1KEAAAQBAJ

Eran Dinur on Twitter: @erandinur

Eran Dinur on Allan McKay’s Podcast: www.allanmckay.com/172



[05:40] Eran Dinur Introduces Himself and His New Book

[06:33] What Inspired The Complete Guide to Photorealism in Visual Effects 

[18:00] Photorealism: Is it Art or Science? 

[30:15] Photorealism and the Uncanny Valley

[40:04] Games and Photorealism

[43:15] Common Mistakes by VFX Artists 

[54:02] Scaling Back on Visual Effects in Film

[59:46] Examples of Photorealism in Film and Games 



Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 330! I’m sitting down with VFX Supervisor at FuseFX Eran Dinur. We dive into a lot of things in this Episode, especially photorealism in VFX. I’m really excited to speak to Eran again. He’s been on my Podcast before (www.allanmckay.com/172). 

Eran has published a few books. More recently, he put out The Complete Guide to Photorealism in Visual Effects (https://www.amazon.com/Eran-Dinur/e/B06X6CB2HD). This Episode will be all about photorealism, which is often the holy grail of VFX. It was a fun Episode all around: the challenge and the fun of photorealism. Eran shares his insight that comes from supervising other artists and working with directors and clients. 

If you want to support this Podcast, please share it with others. 

Let’s dive in!



[01:09]  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!

[1:02:28] 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!



[05:40] Allan: Eran, thank you again for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Eran: My name is Eran Dinur. I’m a VFX Supervisor. I’m currently working at FuseFX as the Head of their 2D Department.

[05:56] Allan: Awesome! How long have you been at Fuse?

Eran: I joined Fuse last November, so I’ve been there exactly a year. Before that, I worked at Brainstorm Digital for about 10 years as a VFX Supervisor. The work there was mostly in features. At Fuse we do some film and lots tv. Besides that, I’m releasing my new book: The Complete Guide to Photorealism in Visual Effects (https://www.amazon.com/Eran-Dinur/e/B06X6CB2HD).

[06:33] Allan: I’d love to dive right into that! I think it’s such an important, yet an elusive subject. What inspired you to write the book right now?

Eran: There was always a fascination with imitating reality, even when I was a musician. We talked about my career path before (www.allanmckay.com/172). I was always interested in simulating orchestral instruments with electronic instruments. The same kind of challenge interested me. My interest in VFX started from digital environments, so there was a fascination with how to bring all the details that exist in nature and how to recreate them with digital means. From there on, it continued as I became a VFX Supervisor. In VFX, the idea of photorealism is really embedded in what we do because mainly what we try to achieve is the sense of whatever we’re adding into the shot — that it was there to start with. That’s the big cheat! In order for us to do that, we have to make it photorealistic. For VFX artists, the idea of something not looking real is almost painful. When we get that note from a client, we take it very personally because it’s the essence of VFX. That essence exists in other media forms like visualisation, arch vis; industrial visualisation. A lot of manufacturers now produce their catalogues totally in CG. They don’t shoot their products. There again, you want to present as much realism as you can. That even carries into games. Obviously, there are games that aren’t trying to be photoreal. But there is this genre of games that is trying to give you as much realism as they can. They are getting more and more real. I realize this subject appeals to many types of artists, to create any kind of realism and find the best ways to get there.

[10:19] Allan: How do you start writing a book? Is sitting down — Chapter 1, Page 1, Go! — the hardest part?

Eran: You don’t start with Chapter 1, Page 1. It took me some time to come up with the idea. The question was would this book be a sequel to The Filmmaker’s Guide to Visual Effects? In a way, it is because this book goes deeper into that essence. But the first book was geared toward filmmakers who are working with VFX but not doing VFX [themselves]. Eventually, it became really popular among VFX artists and students. In that sense, it’s a little different from the first book because it addresses artists. I pitched the idea and had the general shape in mind. Slowly working on it, I realized I’d split the book into four parts:

  • The general concepts that relate to photorealism and addressing those aspects.
  • The subject of reality and the world around us.
  • How do we simulate reality using 3D tools?
  • How do we simulate reality using compositing and matte painting? 

In order to be able to create photoreal content, you have to understand how elements interact in the real world; how light works and how to use the tools at your disposal to simulate that. It also goes through the idea that there is no one thing that defines photorealism. You have a modeler, lighting artist, compositor, matte painter — everyone can contribute to realism or ruin it. You won’t be able to save something in comp if the textures are not enough. You can do amazing textures but ruin it in comp because they aren’t integrated well enough. That’s why I call it “The Complete Guide”: I’m not focusing on one speciality but looking at all the aspects that relate to photorealism.   

[14:28] Allan: It’s such a big subject and you can go down the rabbit hole. If you don’t have photorealism but the animation is correct, a lot of the time you’ll forget about realism not being there. The animation is what tricks people. 

Eran: Photorealism is not the most important thing. As for animation, I decided not to cover it because it is a giant subject. If the animation is bad, you aren’t going to convince anyone. I had to put the subject aside because I wouldn’t be able to cover it in a 300-page book. So the objective was to cover how things look, not how things move. I’m also not an animator. Likewise, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include modeling. All the other aspects relate to realism because color is light and light is color. Modeling is the only part that has nothing to do with color. I decided not to talk about all aspects modeling, expect for procedural modeling. That is a subset of modeling that has to do with large amounts of details. We now have amazing tools to create terrains and erosion procedurally. But the end result is that you’re able to create a large number of small details; and that’s one of the things that make environments look believable even if we can have one percent of realism of a forest, for example.

[18:00] Allan: What do you think makes things realism: is it the artistry or the science of it? 

Eran: It’s a great question! It’s what this book is all about. Let’s talk about PBR rendering. Throughout the history of VFX or CG, we mostly used tools that allow us to fake lighting — not simulate the behavior of light. Mainly because computers weren’t strong enough. We used spotlights, point lights, fake ambient light. You look at movies like Jurassic Park. It still looks amazing even though there was no global illumination back then. At that time, computers were less strong than your average phone. Now, we’re much closer to simulating real light behavior. If everything is set up correctly, you should get a believable result. But as audiences or clients, we expect much more these days. That makes it a big challenge to reach that threshold. Besides that, when I’m in a reviews as a VFX Supervisor, there will be more than one answer to “Why is this not working?” It’s a subjective thing. One person’s idea of photorealism is different from another’s. The best thing to do for artists and supervisors is to have as much understanding of the world as possible — and then the tools will help us get there, one way or another. What I’m trying to do in Chapter 2 when I talk about science is talk about the physics of light in a way that’s understandable by us artists. I’m really bad with math. I get a headache when I see an equation. But it’s easier for me to understand light in a visual way. And that’s exactly what I try to do in that part of the book: look at light interaction, [talk about] the difference between diffuse and specular deflection, why metals only have specular reflection. But don’t give me equations! All the explanations exist in the world of physics but they’re understood by scientists. I had to work with an actual physicist, and I sent him a bunch of questions. I got answers I could understand and explain in the book for us, artists, to understand easily.

[23:25] Allan: It’s such a big subject! If we go back to the typical scanline renders we started with, we’d diffuse. In the later years, the learning curve is different because we understand that everything is spec and reflection and you need to shift your way of thinking. That’s where people have a disconnect now.

Eran: You talk about render layers: If we assume that we’re doing something physically correct, then why do we need render layers. It should give us realistic results. But we still need those layers to tweak the reality. Which proves that there is no realistic reality. We’re dealing with visuals. There are integrations with the plate. It’s interesting to look at photography or cinematography; and we realize that there is an element of randomness. It ends with our eyes and our interpretation. So the skills of creating photoreal imagery relate to knowledge, experience, and sometimes just a hunch. 

[25:38] Allan: When it comes to reviews and things being interpreted, I’ve looked at something that didn’t look right and understood that we need to fight reality sometimes. Sometimes, we need to fight reality. And which is why we need to have the conversation with the director of what they’re expecting. If you’re fighting expectations of reality — versus interpretation of Hollywood — you’ll understand what the goals are. 

Eran: That’s definitely something that I address in relation to different industries. A lot of the time, for example, an architect doesn’t want photorealism for what they’re going to build because it puts them in a bind. Among architects, some of them don’t like the CG look. If you look at games, it’s interesting that a lot of the stuff that’s being added to games lately makes them more cinematic, not photoreal. Not realistic from a person’s point of view, but from a camera’s. The definition of photorealism is complicated because we see differently. We don’t see how other people see. I cannot see how you see. We only know our own vision. And when it comes to games and film, we see from the point of view of a camera. We accept realism when it looks like it was shot through a lens. That’s an important point to make! When you go into an apartment and you see it’s interior brightly. You can also see it through the window. When you take your camera and take a shot of it, the shot may be blown up. We see through the minds and our mind does the Photoshop work. That’s why so many people are frustrated with photography but the picture doesn’t look what we see. When we study photorealism, we’re trying to simulate photography or cinematography.

[30:15] Allan: That’s such an important concept for people to wrap their heads around! Another painful question to interpret: How do you create photorealistic CG characters? That’s what we strive for. But there is the question of the uncanny valley. (Like in the Polar Express, the characters may look real but something is off.) What’s your answer to that?

Eran: I talk about this film in the book. The concept of uncanny valley started with human-like robots that were meant to look like robots. That was adapted to CG when these movies came out. There is a separate discussion when it comes to humans, in general. We know humans more than we know anything else. We are trained from birth to look at faces and read each other. And we read through our eyes. We are so sensitive. Every CG artist knows that the threshold is really high. As for the uncanny valley, I think it also applies to everything. You can look at an architectural render and realize something may not click. What is that something? In architecture, there is a tendency to keep everything super clean but there is something about that cleanliness that feels synthetic. It lacks details. That’s a challenge in this type of work. On the other hand, in games, they’ll throw in grime maps and it’s too much at times. It feels over the top. The uncanny valley is not just about humans. We can apply that to everything, to animals and objects. As for humans, now that we’ve started using Deepfakes and machine learning to recreate human faces, they aren’t creating CG faces. They recreate pixels based on photographs. And a lot of the time, that is scaringly real. That goes into why photographs feel more real and why using photography in matte painting gives you a realistic result. Face replacements are the future, for better and for worse.

[35:15] Allan: That’s definitely an interesting topic! Going back to talking about arch vis being super clean, I think about The Titanic where Digital Domain created a brand new ship and then they had to grime it up. With Beowulf or Final Fantasy, the characters look more realistic with more imperfections. If you go for the flawless look, you end up with CG models.

Eran: One of the problems with CG characters like superheroes, they’re supposed to be perfect. They aren’t regular people who are imperfect! Adding that kind of subtle detail, that kind of work goes a lot to texture artists. The best texture artists don’t just throw grime maps all over. They think about what’s happening on the surface. On a ship, there will be watermarks from how the water flows over that surface. You have to think about how rust accumulates, how dust accumulates. Yes, it goes into the smallest details but that’s the most important aspect of what I was writing about. The more you go into a thoughtful detail, the more realistic it will look overall. I took a picture from my balcony of shingles roof. One of the photos shows the details on the shingles. The other one shows it from afar. You can’t see all the detail in that second photo, but still that detail accumulates. That is hard to simulate digitally. That’s why the best textures are photo ones, rather than digital. That being said, we have great procedural tools now that allow you to create a great variety and they have the advantage of being based on noises. You have to add a lot of noses and blend them, and use some pixels from photographs.

[40:04] Allan: That was something I was always excited about with Substance Painter. When it comes to weathering, you’re actually simulating rain or wind. You’re thinking about what your object interacts with. What are some of the big strides you see in video games, in terms of photorealism? 

Eran: First of all, looking at something like The Last of Us, I’m amazed! I was never a strong gamer. I like the Myst type of video games. I think it was Myst 2 that captivated me with its environment. It was a discovery for me. And now, the games don’t stop amazing me! There are huge strides in pure computing power. The processors and the amount of memory, the graphics cards and the RTX’s. It’s all happening so fast. And there is a strong competition between Unreal and Unity. Unity just purchased Weta!

[42:46] Allan: For $1.6 billion! It’s insane!

Eran: Crazy! I see everything going on with Unreal and virtual production, I think all that competition is great! Soon everything will go realtime. It’s the future.

[43:15] Allan: It’s Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates. It forces innovation! I think it’s really interesting. Where do you see most artists getting it wrong?

Eran: That’s such a difficult question! One of the first exercises I do with my classes (with my seniors) is show them a bad VFX shot. You can find those on YouTube! Everyone has a laugh and then I ask them to identify what makes the shot look ridiculous. It’s not as easy as it seems. That [affects] the ability to produce something photoreal. There are many common mistakes. A lot of junior compositors get the defocus wrong. For people experiencing it, they want to say, “Can’t you see that it doesn’t feel right?” And that’s where the word “feel” comes in. Are we talking science to defocusing? You have to look at the plate and the shape of the bouquet. Sometimes you can’t see the depth. So you have to understand what affects the depth of field. There is a technical side to it that helps you define it, but on top of it, there is the “it feels right” side of things. And that comes with experience.

[46:55] Allan: You made a really good point about looking at everything as you would through a camera. With the depth of field, you cannot look at it with your eyes, but you can understand how the lens works. A lot of times, people overdo things. 

Eran: Depth of field is fascinating. We have it in our vision. But we cannot see our own defocus. Photography and cinematography is a double viewing process. The lens is the eye that views the environment. Now you’re looking at what the lens was seeing. That’s what makes the defocus an important part of photography. 

[48:58] Allan: Early greenscreen films had everything comped and highly defocused. Subtlety wins.

Eran: Subtlety and reference. In the last part of the book, I talk about 2D. I talk about greenscreen extraction and what helps things look real. From a compositing point of view, edges are a huge deal. We spend so much time refining them. But that’s the first thing that gives it away as being wrong. Every step of the way is important.

[50:44] Allan: With 2D, comp is so important! It’s one of those traps you can get caught in. 2D is a way to save so much but we get caught up with the workflow, as opposed to understanding the difference between science and artistry. It is a chance in 2D to bring things back to believability.

Eran: We can try and save things but at the end, I agree with you: The more the tools become sophisticated, the more lazy we become. The client doesn’t care about the science or the tools. He just wants his shot to look good. We have to remember that in the end, it is still a creative thing we do. It is a process where you have to make it look good and do that not just by one defined path. It’s looking at it, judging it and finding what needs to be done. In comp, it’s often obvious. When it comes to comp, you’re using your eyes and how things look through the lens. I find comp to be fascinating. A lot of the magic happens there. You change one color — and everything falls into place. You just need to know which color to change.

[54:02] Allan: In terms of innovation in film, what in the last 5 years do you think expanded and come into fruition with which people are able to get more realism in their work?

Eran: That’s a difficult question. There have been innovations on the technical side that happen all the time. But I think there is something we lost on film because everything is being taken for granted now. Visual effects in films were something of a celebration at some point! In Jurassic Park, it was about introducing CG: Welcome to the CG world! And it was an introduction! 

[56:22] Allan: Enjoy your 4 minutes of CG — not 4 hours of it!

Eran: Exactly! It’s so reliant on CG now and these films are becoming factories of visual effects. I’m not saying it’s bad because it’s giving us all work. But as viewers, we got a little bit spoiled. I watched Dune the other day, and I thought the VFX looked amazing. They weren’t overdone though. They were about telling a story. I think the challenge may be about scaling back because the audiences may be a little tired of seeing VFX for the sake of VFX. We’ve seen it all! It’s about having visual effects tell a story.

[56:44] Allan: I remember I worked on Transformers and once the film came out, I couldn’t find my explosion. I had Paul Lambert on the Podcast, the VFX Supervisor for Dune. He talked about how Dennis wanted to shoot everything in camera. It’s such a beautiful film. Rather than navigating around visual effects, it focuses on the story. Going back to the basics is more refreshing.

Eran: There were periods in Hollywood films where certain styles were predominant. You can take the 40s where they had the giant musicals, with hundreds of dancers. At some point, it changed. Then in the 70s, it’s all grimy and dirty. Maybe after the age of Marvel, there will be another era. But what I see from the industry right now is the proliferation of visual effects. The industry is saturated with demands and requests. VFX is a filmmaking tool and a lot of it is invisible now. It helps fix things. That is not going away!

[59:46] Allan: Are there any films or games that are such great examples of photorealism?

Eran: There are a bunch of them! The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption were stunning, I felt. There’s more coming up! That’s where I’m most in awe: the limitations of realtime rendering and Microsoft Flight Simulator. To me, it’s more exciting than movies. As far as movies go, Dennis’ films like Blade Runner 2049 and Dune have the right amount of visual effect to keep it believable and not overcrowding [the screen]. I also thought that The Foundation series had extremely well done VFX for tv. It’s really recent.

[1:01:58] Allan: Where can people go to get your book?


There are many ways to buy it!

[1:02:18] Allan: I can’t wait to buy it and get it autographed over beer! Thanks for taking the time to join the Podcast!

Eran: Thanks, Allan! My pleasure. 


What did you think? I hope you got a lot from this. I want to thank Eran for taking the time to chat! This was so insightful! Do check out his book! 

Please take a second to share this Episode with others. 

I’ll be back next week with another solo Episode around crushing success in 2022. We’re now mid-way through December so I hope this Episode resonates with you. 

Until then —

Rock on! 



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