How to Deal With VFX on an Indie Film: 12 Tips From Erin Li to Stop Worrying and Save Your Time, Money and Sanity
Attention indie filmmakers, this post holds key tips for you to make sure you will make the most out of your post-production/vfx experience -which really always start in pre-production. Indie filmmaker Erin Li did an outstanding job at keeping it simple, practical and useful, taking from her experience making her sci-fi short KEPLER X-47.
Erin and I were classmates in Los Angeles. We both followed the night classes at UCLAX for the directing program, helped each other out on our shorts and I have to say, I’ve been impressed by her steady and growing career, moving from one short to another, until her feature film very soon.
Enjoy the great tips below, and keep an eye on Erin Li!
Visual Effects for Independent Film or:
How To Stop Worrying and Save Your Time, Money and Sanity
By Erin Li
I recently directed KEPLER X-47, a sci-fi film about a woman who is forced to adjust to a new life in a human zoo exhibit on an alien planet. This was my first time working with visual effects (VFX). Yes, VFX can look slick and add considerable production value on the screen. I also found it extremely creative, fun and rewarding to work with VFX. But before you jump headfirst into a potentially costly and time-consuming endeavor, you should ask yourself these questions:
- It all comes down to story, story, story. Do you absolutely need VFX in your film? In general, great use of VFX elements should enhance, not tell, the story.
- Are you a Gareth Edwards type? Unless you can direct AND create most of the VFX in your film (i.e. MONSTERS) then I’d advise you to minimize the amount of VFX shots in your project. If an artist is doing you a favor, then keep in mind that the shot may take 10x, maybe even 100x slower to complete, and for good reason. While you may be thinking about your film 24/7, VFX artists are likely taking time away from their evenings and weekends to work on your shots, so be mindful and considerate.
If you are still convinced that you absolutely need VFX in your film, here are some pointers to get you on the right track. In addition to tips gleaned from my own experience, I asked VFX supervisors and artists for advice to give filmmakers working with VFX for the first time.
#1 You Are Not a Post-Production Supervisor
Don’t fool yourself. You may be tempted to do it, or have a producer or editor to fulfill this role, but…Do. Not. Give. In. You need an experienced, detail-oriented post-production supervisor who has great management skills; otherwise something will fall through the cracks. Make sure you have a line item in the budget to bring this person on board. If you don’t, raise the funds.
#2 The VFX Supervisor Is Your Translator & Guide
Working with VFX for the first time is like moving to a foreign country. Bring on a VFX supervisor who will guide you from pre-production through post. We got very lucky with ours, Eric McAvoy, who was also on set to supervise VFX shots. Be open-minded to suggestions; one simple adjustment to a shot might save you two months of work in post.
#3 Divide and Conquer
Bring onboard a team of VFX artists to spread out the workload at the beginning of the process instead of scrambling to hire additional artists when you’re nearing the delivery date. Also, your VFX supervisor might have relationships with junior artists who are interested in helping.
#4 Know What You Want
Be honest; the VFX supervisor can help you achieve what you want, even if you think you cannot afford it. Do your research ahead of time and provide clear references for your team. Like a look book you would show to a director of photography (DP), references for VFX can be as simple as photos from a magazine or video clips from a movie. For the exterior of the fictional Kepler X-47 planet, I gave our brilliant matte painter, Rei Sparks, reference photos of: the real Kepler-47 binary star system; Salar de Uyun, Earth’s largest salt flat; and Mont Saint Michel (this all makes more sense if you’ve seen the film). If a VFX shot isn’t working, figure out exactly why it doesn’t work for you. Be as specific as possible. You can even mark up a screenshot and write on the image.
KEPLER X-47 Making of: The Planetscape
#5 Green Screens and Matte Paintings
If you are working with green screens that will eventually be replaced with matte paintings, draft temporary looks with your matte painter before the shoot. When you’re on set, the VFX supervisor can drop in the temp matte painting, and you’ll be able to see the result on a monitor, which will help everyone. Your DP will be able to light the set more accurately and conquer the sea of neon green.
KEPLER X-47 Making of: The Human Exhibit
KEPLER X-47 Making of: The Viewing Room
#6 Don’t Procrastinate
Start working on the hardest and/or most important shot first. Give yourself and your VFX team ample time to execute. You’ll likely have to make concessions at some point, and you don’t want to make them with the hero shot.
#7 Work With Rough Drafts
The VFX team should come up with one rough draft for all VFX shots, instead of spending one month perfecting a single shot. At this early stage, beware of “pixel peeping” and don’t watch shots in isolation, in a loop. Have the editor cut draft shots into the locked cut as soon as possible so that you can see the VFX in context and how they fit into your story, tone and visuals. Then, determine what direction to go in for subsequent drafts.
#8 The Devil Is in the Details
While you don’t want to pixel peep draft VFX shots in isolation, you should watch your film from beginning to end on a large screen and not on your laptop, especially when your VFX team is further along. You’ll see mistakes that you could easily miss on a small screen, especially if you have multiple VFX elements in one shot.
#9 Not Everything Will Be Picture Perfect
As much as you’d like it to be, every shot might not be 100% “perfect” or exactly how you imagined it would look. When you collaborate with VFX artists, and artists in general, the process can be a circuitous one. Make sure you and your VFX team limit the number of iterations for each shot, especially when you’re working with an indie budget.
#10 Meet in Person
Meet in person to communicate notes to the VFX supervisor, compositor, rotoscope artist, etc.Obviously there are often budgetary and geographic constraints (one of our VFX artists was based in Indonesia), but I’ve found that ideas are communicated much more clearly and efficiently face-to-face, compared to giving feedback over email or on the phone. Because I was able to meet with my KEPLER X-47 VFX artist and title designer, William J. Meyer, in person, we were able to eliminate a few rounds of changes.
#11 Use a Courier Service or Hire a Post PA
Use a courier service or hire a post PA to shuffle around drives. I was picking up and dropping off drives to my editor and VFX supervisor at all hours of the night, every night, and started to feel like a drug dealer working for Scarface. Better to save your time and energy for reviewing shots.
#12 Build in an Extra Two Weeks
Build in an extra two weeks into the post schedule for hiccups in the process. You don’t want to be in the color timing session and see that there is a missing shot and miss a deadline because of it. Also, ask your colorist what additional items or information they might need to color time VFX shots.
And there you have it. Work hard, have fun and best of luck! May the force be with you.
Watch Kepler X-47 Trailer:
About Erin Li
Erin Li was born to immigrant parents from Taiwan and grew up in the malls of New Jersey. SHOOT named Li as an up-and-coming helmer to watch in their 2015 worldwide search for the next generation of film and commercial directors. Li’s work was also curated for SourceECreative’s The Scout, which showcases unsigned directors. Li has directed branded content for General Electric, and her work has been commissioned by Film Independent and featured on Upworthy, Huffington Post and Voto Latino. Her films have also screened at Slamdance, LACMA Young Directors Night, Los Angeles Film Festival, the Hammer Museum, American Cinematheque, the Academy for Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and been recognized as a Vimeo Staff Pick and Hammer-to-Nail Finalist.
Upcoming projects: Li will be directing a commercial for an online retailer that makes bespoke suits for men. She’s also working on feature adaptations of KEPLER X-47 and COFFIN SCHOOL. You can watch Erin’s films here and connect with her here.