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The VFX Factor: Combining Artistry and Technology with Fred Burdy


Windmill Lane's head of CG on strong director relationships, the importance of building trust and why VFX should not be an afterthought

The VFX Factor: Combining Artistry and Technology with Fred Burdy

With over 15 years of experience in the CG world, Fred has worked on feature films, short films and commercials, both animated and VFX.

He was CG supervisor on the animated special ANGELA’S CHRISTMAS WISH and the TV series CHICO BON BON for Brown Bag Films. He then worked as compositing supervisor in Boulder Media on the animated feature MY LITTLE PONY: A NEW GENERATION released in 2021. He is currently head of CG in Windmill Lane VFX, working on TV series and feature films.

Fred also wrote and directed two animated shorts films, TRÍD AN STOIRM (2012 – 4 Best Animation awards) and FOREST LIGHTS (2014). He has given talks and taught courses over the years either on specific projects or on CG as a whole.

LBB> What’s the biggest misconception people have about VFX?

Fred> Sometimes it seems that people assume that computers do most of the work. Even though we do use computers (and a lot of them!) Most of the work is done by people using software to manipulate, create and tweak every detail of a shot using various tools which have been built by someone else, too. So even though there is a lot of computing happening, there are also dozens and dozens of hours spent by artists polishing every possible aspect of a shot to make it perfect. It’s a great combination of artistry and technology.

LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?

Fred> Invisible post has the challenge of being spotless yet with quick turnarounds. The requests can be extremely varied and the challenges important - face replacements, huge paint outs, plates blending, rig removals... Things you should not notice but are artificial. Blending plates for example could require roto, grade matching, lighting adjustments, and a good bit of cheating using a bunch of different tools. A lot of things like muzzle flashes and blood hits and wounds are now very often done in VFX because it’s safer and quicker. But making those in a realistic way is always a challenge.

The big chunky VFX shots have the complexity of the amount of people and skills working together to finish the shot. From match moving, to animation, lighting, compositing (and I’m skipping a good few departments there!) you can have well over twenty people who would work on the shot. It’s a lot of moving parts that need to all be at a very high level for the shot to work - you cannot afford to have any weak part, because it will be inevitably noticeable. It is time consuming, and complex, to bring a shot like that through  to the end. The other difficulty with those VFX-heavy shots is to achieve realism. We all have an idea of what looks realistic, yet movies are all made with tricks in lighting for example, or cheats in positions between setups: nothing of what we are watching in a movie is “realistic”, quite the opposite. In a VFX heavy shot, potentially mostly CG, you have to replicate the look of the film, the lighting style of the DOP, the camera work, all in CG, and usually compositing in elements from a plate that need to blend in seamlessly with the rest. In those types of shots, prep is central: interactive lighting, temp objects for reference and shadows, are vital to get something in camera that will marry well with what you generate in CG.

LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?

Fred> VFX should not be an afterthought, but a dialogue. The earlier a VFX team is involved, ideally in preproduction, the better the outcome will be. Decisions made early will make sure that the VFX team have everything they need by the time they start working on the shot. A lot can also be done in terms of previz and testing before the shoot even starts. That’s why a good relationship with the director and the rest of the crew is very important, and as early in the project as possible.

LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?

Fred> I learned CG on my own at first at a time where tutorials didn’t exist and you only had a software manual as learning material. I was lucky to be hired on small projects while I was still in arts college, and the career slowly built from there. I became a freelancer, and worked on commercials first, then features and series, both in animation and VFX. 

LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?

Fred> Every project is slightly different but the first thing as a vendor is to start bidding, either from script or from footage provided by the client. That’s the moment when you decide on the approach to take to solve the challenges of each shot, and you estimate the time required, crew size, and budget. 

LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?

Fred> Actually it’s quite the opposite. There is always a huge time constraint on a project. End dates can shift but usually you are in a fight against time. You have several milestones for sequences or episodes to be approved, which helps in not having all the shots worked on at the same time. 

LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?

Fred> The next big evolution in tech will likely be AI-based, or rather Machine-Learning based. It is just slowly appearing as parts of toolkits now, but will only grow. I hope the artists will benefit from ways to alleviate the more tedious part of the work (roto, keying, retopology, UV unwrapping, for example), and at the same time I fear for artists losing their jobs because of that. Doing the tedious part of the job has been historically a way for juniors to start in the industry, so I wonder how that will be affected.

LBB> And as real time tech and games engines become ever faster and more sophisticated, how do you see that shaping or changing the role of VFX and its place in the production pipeline (e.g. thinking about things like virtual production)?

Fred> Realtime is definitely merging slowly in the pipelines, currently mostly in specific areas such as previz and virtual production. The idea of virtual production is great but it has its limits - for example the fact that you need to have everything ready for the shoot! One of the strengths of VFX is the ability to experiment and change things while in post, and VP doesn’t allow that. One other factor is that while real time tech is extremely powerful these days, the complexity of heavy VFX shots is also increasing as time goes - so there is still that separation between the two. What I see happening though is more interoperability between real time and rendered pipelines. The workflows are merging more and more as time goes, which is really great. It is becoming easier to design assets that can be used in both, for example, and that will only improve. It is also easier for a real time artist to move to a VFX pipeline, for example.

LBB> VFX is a craft that relies on you really looking at nature - how light works, how gravity works, the mannerisms of a kind of creature, how crowds work, skeletons, explosions… whether its animation or compositing or anything else… So how do you like to approach the research side of your job? What’s the most random or intriguing thing you’ve learned from working on a project?

Fred> The thing I found quite interesting is the following paradox: you need to learn the rules of realism in every aspect (from anatomy to motion to behaviour of light), however you will spend a huge amount of time cheating them because what matters at the end of the day is to make the shot work. And that will include cheating every single aspect of it, from lighting to position in space to things like reflections. Oftentimes you end up fighting against reality and fixing it up in order to make the shot work better.

LBB> When you’re watching a VFX-heavy ad or movie, what are the tells that you look for to figure out how well crafted it is?

Fred> We’re at the stage now where you can wonder about how a VFX is made, even if you’re a professional. The quality has increased so much with time that we’re often past the sheer illusion. There’s still lower budget projects where the VFX are more obvious, of course. For animated creatures it’s going to be about the subtlety of the animation, the weight, the muscle and hair movements - lower budget productions often cannot afford complex muscle and hair simulations due to time constraints, for example. A lot of driving moments in a film or series are shot against greenscreen, so every time I see people in cars I look at the quality of the integration, if the reflections are there, are there smudgy details on the windows, etc. If they’re missing the illusion is often broken. And for obvious VFX work, we’d look at the quality of the integration, if lighting works the same in every aspect of the shot, that kind of thing.

LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?

Fred> I got in the industry gradually, I started working for E-Learning by recreating accidents in CG (a grim but fun task). I progressively freelanced for small companies, working on small CG projects for commercials. I suppose my breakthrough happened when I came to Ireland to freelance on a short film in Windmill Lane. The biggest lesson I suppose is how important trust is. If you build trust with the people you work with, they will want to work with you again - and that’s exactly what happened. VFX is a small world, and you will see the same people over the years, in different positions and different companies. So building trust is very important.

LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?

Fred> Ah, I'm going to be a bit self-centred here. I was lucky enough to get funding from Screen Ireland to direct a short film I had written. It’s an animated short film called Tríd an Stoirm that we did in Windmill at the time, and one of the best experiences of my life. I got to interact with every department, from CG to music and editing, and it was a blast. That made me more knowledgeable about the whole process, too, a very precious knowledge that helped me in my career ever since.

LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why? 

Fred> I’m going to pass on this one as I have no TV and ad blockers everywhere!

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Windmill Lane, Wed, 15 Feb 2023 14:01:15 GMT