The evolution and impact of VFX on film: If you can imagine it you can put it on screen

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Special and visual effects have been part and parcel of movie making since the dawn of cinema. From the days of Thomas Edison, to King Kong (1933), Jaws (1975) and Jungle Book (2018); today’s Hollywood blockbusters are jam packed with explosions, CG imagery, mystical make-believe and intrigue, fantasy locations, and convincing characters created from software programmes. It’s hard to imagine a cinematic world where humans don’t teleport through wormholes while battling fiery dragons and interplanetary demons. Oversized blue people, who are bigger, stronger and more advanced than humans. Anything a screenwriter can come up with is now possible to put on screen in a way that’s authentic and convincing and not surprisingly, today nearly every major release comes with a hefty VFX budget.

According to Mediatech Africa exhibition director Simon Robinson, as with all technology centric industries, VFX has evolved dramatically over time and particularly over the past 10 years.

“VFX has a bright future and we are currently in the golden age of visual effects. There have been incredible and revolutionary breakthroughs in the way technologies have been used in a range of Oscar winning movies of late and progressively more on TV too. Growth is evident in the quality and complexity of visual effects, as well as constant innovation in photorealism. What’s more – all of these techniques continue to be rapidly improved upon as technology leapfrogs forward,” adds Robinson.

Today’s market is buoyant and on any given year, about eight of the top 10 grossing movies are likely to be visual effects-oriented or computer-animated films and many of the most popular streaming shows were also VFX heavy. The fact that studios spend tens of millions of dollars on visual effects has essentially turned VFX into a commodity. There’s absolutely no doubt about it – the business of VFX is booming.

VFX Doesn’t Come Cheap

“It’s true, VFX has elevated film making to new heights but it comes with a price tag. If you want evidence of this, HBO’s hit drama Game of Thrones eighth season is reported to be the most expensive one yet with episodes estimated to cost $15-million each,” says Robinson. “Despite the digital revolution, and off-the-shelf software, it still takes hours of labour intensive work by creative technicians and artists working behind the scenes.”

Influence of VFX

Visual effects now support so much of the storytelling that its influence is creeping into other departments – camera, lighting, costumes, sets, makeup, hair, production design and stunts – so there is more work than ever before. Companies are also leveraging new technologies such as VR and LED walls. Light-field capture, previs, cloud rendering, and game engines for real time production are other trends evident in the industry. The Jungle Book ushered in the use of game engines for virtual production which has been picking up greater adoption in the VFX community. Advances in lighting that have helped visual effects include smaller LED lights, that put out more light, and are remote-controlled, are responsible for improving the speed of set ups. Being able to programme lights makes interactive lighting more accurate.

What’s next for VFX?

Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is reportedly working on using AI to de-noise the images produced by ray tracing which is expected to cut down on CPU and render time. They are also investigating techniques to recognise and replace human faces in a semi-automated way which is potentially a huge leap forward.

Of course the arrival of 5G – the fifth generation wireless system – will change everything and the industry eagerly anticipates this advancement. It’s expected to take down latency to below human perception and you will be able to move data in seemingly real time. “This will have a huge impact on production time and budgets,” says Robinson.

“10 years ago it would not have been possible to create The Jungle Book remake which was almost entirely created on computer and collected a healthy $103 million at the box office on its opening weekend,” says Robinson. “This Hollywood hit used extensive new and innovative technologies, including cloud rendering to handle the hundreds of thousands of processing hours needed to render an entire rain forest in photographic detail and so much more.”

Those in the industry expect AR will play a bigger role in the film making process and there are also big opportunities around AI technology and improved visual effects processes. Cloud computing is expected to have a massive impact on the industry with the achievement of photorealism in greatly reduced time frames.

“VFX has been responsible for iconic movie moments that have forever changed the industry and the next 10 years are likely to be even more innovative as technology continues to evolve in ways that help create movies that push VFX to new levels and improve the viewer experience. And you can take that to the bank,” concludes Robinson.

Mediatech Africa 2019 is on from 17 to 19 July at the Ticketpro Dome, Johannesburg. The show is the largest and only one of its kind on the continent attracting an extensive audience that covers six verticals including: Pro Audio (lighting and staging); Audio Visual Integration; Broadcast (TV & Radio); Studio (Recording – DJ); Digital Media (VOD – OTT); Film & Video (Production). Register before the 12 July closing date to avoid paying the R100 entrance fee and be exposed to the latest in VFX technology being used in local productions and so much more.

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