Visual Effects: Pt. I

Hi friends;

Of all updates we’ve shared on this project, this is the one I’m admittedly the most excited for.

I’ve made plenty of noise about all the things that I have little to no experience with on this project. But, I’ve had the privilege of working as a visual effects (“vfx”) artist on feature films for about 20 years, which makes it a field I do know a little bit about.  In our very first meeting about this book with Chef and Nick, Sarah and I asked, “how do you guys feel about the use of visual effects in this book?”

I felt sure I already knew the answer to this. The “branding” assumptions I mentioned in our Photography updates led me to assume that the images in this book should be spartan and minimalistic, focusing wholly on the drinks themselves. Surely computer-generated embellishments had no place in this project.  But I was genuinely surprised when Chef and Nick both exclaimed “Awesome! Go for it!”

I was ecstatic! The idea of finding ways to apply at least some of my vfx experience to this drastically different context was super appealing to me, but I also wanted to be sensitive about how it was done. So I found myself in the unusual and very interesting position of thinking very critically about the role visual effects might play (if any) in a book about cocktails.

A bit of context to explain how I’ve approached thinking about this:

The thing that attracted me to visual effects in my younger years was that the whole thing seemed like a magic trick: I could type some stuff on my computer, and a picture would appear on my screen. It was so cool! The more time I spent typing, the cooler I could make the image.

When I entered the vfx industry, I quickly learned that visual effects in films can be a pretty time-consuming process: I once spent about 8 months working on a single shot in a film, something that flicked by on screen in less than a few seconds. That amount of time and emotional investment tended to mean I really wanted my work to shine – I wanted what I was making to call a lot of attention to itself. And for many years as a vfx artist, that’s kind of the attitude I carried with me.

This kind of myopia, however, can cause a “can’t see the forest for the trees” kind of problem. I’d often labor on details that became very important to me, but that were largely irrelevant to the film’s director or the audience itself. When showing a director a computer-generated splash of water that I’d labored lovingly over weeks, he might say “Can we make it smaller, and make it move to the right instead of to the left?”

“But that’s not physically accurate,” I’d argue. The director often wouldn’t care, but rather than trying to understand why, I just tended to feel frustrated and pouty.

Then I had a very memorable experience that really stuck firmly in my head, and that drastically reshaped my understanding of this art form. It came during my time working as an artist at Weta Digital in New Zealand. While developing the technology needed to make Avatar, Weta worked exhaustively to develop a cutting-edge way of recording facial animation from actors, then using this animation data to drive the facial animation of our computer-generated characters. The system saved thousands of hours that would have otherwise been spent painstakingly hand-animating characters’ faces to get similarly-believable results.

This system was subsequently used on Rise of the Planet of the Apes for the animation of the completely computer-generated ape, Caesar.

There was one notable exception to the use of this system, however. A climax of the film involves a moment in which Caesar’s trust is violated. Distraught, Caesar presses his face pleadingly against a thick plane of glass behind which he’s held captive. The decision was made, for this critical moment, to forego the use of the facial motion-capture system.

This decision scuttled the efforts of the facial tracking software team, and foisted a large workload on animators. It would have been far easier at this point to just use the tools that had been developed for this purpose. So why did Weta and the filmmakers do this?

The facial mocap rig was an intrusive, bulky device that sat right in front of an actor’s face, straight in their field of view. Trying to act like it’s not there is difficult; some psychological effort on the part of the actor is required to overcome this intrusiveness in order to deliver a believable performance. This moment in the film needed to involve the actor acting frantic and terrified, while pressing his face desperately against a pane of glass – something that would have been impossible with the facial rig on.  In this case, the technology would have interfered with the authenticity needed to properly convey the story of this shot. So, rather than sacrificing this authenticity for the sake of convenience, the filmmakers chose to do things the hard way to create a more emotional moment in the film.

Understanding why this decision was made gave me an understanding of visual effects as a supportive storytelling tool, rather than something that clamors for attention in and of itself. I began developing a sensitivity to knowing when visual effects should shout, and when they should whisper. When considering how vfx might be applied in the context of a cookbook, it’s been this idea that I’ve tried to keep in mind as I explore.

The use of visual effects in a cookbook context also involves another peculiar issue. In the case of films, the objective is often to deliberately distort or fabricate reality. People tend to go see films to be entertained, and vfx allow a director to realize a vision that’s often impractical or impossible to create in the real world. But the images in a cookbook, in addition to being eye candy, also need to serve the functional purpose of illustrating how a final dish or drink should look. Falsifying reality in a cookbook threatens its credibility, and I worry it could ultimately undermine the efforts of our chefs and bartenders.

So my Golden Rule for approaching this has been “Do not mislead or distract”. It feels ethically irresponsible to manipulate images for the goal of misrepresenting the cocktails or suggesting an impossible standard for the reader. Instead, I’ve sought to leverage my experience with this stuff to enhance the book in ways that add beauty or clarity without misrepresenting anything.

We’ll see what that’s meant for the book in the next update.