SEEING IS BELIEVING: The expanding role of VFX technologies in the context of global filmmaking

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SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Screen Africa caught up with leading South African visual effects artist Hilton Treves to discuss his role on the production of Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer, his hopes for the local film television industry and the expanding role of VFX technologies in the context of global filmmaking.

LEAN LOCAL LANDSCAPE

Hilton Treves started the first visual effects animation house in South Africa in 1988 under the name Digital Directions. Since then, he has spent time working in Canada (for Spin Productions) and for ABC/Disney (Of Kings and Prophets), before finally setting up Cinegestix, the visual effects studio responsible for Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer.

With more than 30 years’ experience in the business, Treves speaks authoritatively on the state of the South African industry. “One of the things that’s always frustrated me is that as South Africans, we typically don’t commit to our projects the same way that we service international projects,” he says.

“You can look at Australia as a counter-example: it grew into a world-class industry because they re-invested back into their own people and their own country. The South African film industry, on the other hand, is built around the servicing model – where about five main production houses will provide 90% of the employment every year.”

As he explains, this can have serious knock-effects throughout the industry:  “You end up in a situation where professionals in the leading VFX houses think they have nothing left to achieve in this country. They wait around for international jobs and eventually think to themselves, ‘I’m leaving, and I’ll go work for George Lucas or James Cameron – somewhere my skill set can actually be put to use.’”

A PRODUCTION WITH POTENTIAL

According to Treves, this is why Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer – which enjoyed its local premiere at the recent Silwerskerm Festival – presented such a compelling opportunity. “When Racheltjie came along, two things struck me about it at the outset. First, the script was so engrossing – just powerful drama built on a beautiful, captivating story. The second was seeing the passion that the director Matthys Boshoff had for the project.”

Reading the script gave Treves a sense of the important role that visual effects would need to play in the story, and his response to Boshoff was emphatic: “Let’s do this, but let’s not compromise. Let’s give this film a proper A-list finish. So every VFX shot was considered; we looked at the project holistically, as an opportunity to showcase what we can do on a South African production filled with top-level talent. With the cinematographer we had on board [Willie Nel], we knew it was going to be filmed majestically, and the passion for the project that flowed from Matthys gave the production an added spirit – a unique energy around the set.”

While originally about 120 visual effects shots were planned, Treves explains that – in the end – more than 200 were produced as his team “became visual effects partners, collaborating with filmmakers based on storytelling and creativity.”

As he says, this allowed the filmmakers to push their creativity and to include scenes that – although difficult to execute – add immensely to the richness of the story. “There was a scene with a leopard in the first version of the script, but then they dropped it because they assumed it was going to be too expensive to pull off. But I loved that first script, and my company has been building photorealistic CG animals for years – so I told Matthys that we can do it, and we will do it.”

It was a similar story for the film’s centrepiece visual effect: the apocalyptic storm that separates Racheltjie and her brother from their family.

“The storm is as much of a character to this film as Racheltjie is. These shots were considered from the beginning: we knew from the beginning that we would have to digitally create snow, and that the storm had to be as vivid and evocative a character as any other in the film.

It’s crucial to be involved early,” Treves continues, “because there are so many different ways to achieve an effect. Do you need to do a full 3D scan of the world and place cameras in the right positions to catch the light of the room? Or are you going to do it like in the past – blocking off cameras and layering up plates? The technology today basically allows us to do anything we like, but it is how we approach it that make it viable for the project or not. And the only way to properly assess that, as a VFX supervisor, is to be involved as early as possible – to be there in the conceptualisation stages to problem-shoot issues ahead of time.”

This close cooperation was carried through into the post-production process. “Everyone was integrated. We had servers set up between Joburg and Cape Town. As they were busy with the edits and grades they would drop scenes down onto the servers and tell us they were ready for us to get to work. Then we would work on our side and send back for approval – using the best of available technologies to streamline the process and create productive feedback loops.

Reflecting on what he hopes this project achieves, Treves says: “Storytellers in this country are compromised by knowing that their budget is small. But I hope that Racheltjie shows people that if you approach things differently, you can put amazing effects on screen and tell all the epic, grand South African stories that need to be told. We are in an age where VOD platforms have empowered the world to tell their stories, and technically we achieved some phenomenal stuff here – as good as anything that’s out on Hollywood screens. And I would love to see this kind of ambition permeating throughout our industry – because that’s how you create an industry that has sustainability, that’s how you keep our talented people here.”

LOOKING FORWARD

As someone who has been on the frontline of every major innovation in VFX technology over the last 30 years, Treves is perfectly positioned to give us a sense of what to anticipate in the industry in the near future.

“The next big thing on the horizon over the next three to five years is virtual filmmaking – this is going change all the rules,” he says.

He references the recent Jon Favreau adaptation of The Lion King as a sign of things to come. “As impressive as the technology on show in The Lion King is – and that’s almost five years of research that’s gone into that movie – the approach to making that film is going to change what we know about the business. You need a location in Guatemala? Send a 3D scanning team out there, do the scans, and then we’ll shoot the film studio. Things are moving so fast. India built an entire industry around rotoscoping – but the AI and machine learning technology-based software tools that will make this industry redundant are going to be launched in the next six months.”

How then do VFX artists manage to stay ahead of the curve, as technological trends shift and adapt before their very eyes?

“Staying on top is a difficult game. This is because every day viewer expectations are being heightened by what is coming out of Hollywood. Also, as the head of a VFX studio, you’re constantly managing both pure artists and mathematicians, which can be a challenge – but, at the end of the day, it comes down to a question of seeing.

“We have to become experts at seeing. That’s the best piece of advice I ever got; it was from Dennis Muren, who worked with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park and other projects. The art of visual effects boils down to whether you can look at something and really see it – if you can distinguish what it is about the object that makes it realto you. This could be a glint in an animal’s eyes, or the cavitation of a snowflake as it brushes against someone’s hand – it’s about noticing those tiny details that create the effect of lifelikeness to the viewer.”