Workshops and Lectures

I have written previously about some of the master classes you can find on the BAFTA Guru website, and have been watching and doing further research through this website on CGI and what digital artists feel are the advantages and disadvantages. This basic information is important as I need to have a broader understanding of procedures involved with CGI, and what it can actually achieve today in order to contrast and compare with my deeper understanding of miniatures. On the BAFTA Guru website were recordings of 3 talks that I would like to summarise here in relation to the capabilities of CGI today.

Firstly I’d like to write about the masterclass by Jonathon Faulkner of Framestore, in which he spoke about the role of VFX as a whole, and as a solution to practical problems. I found as someone who has a very limited understanding of the potential of CGI this was a useful masterclass in explaining the basics.

There are five types of shots where visual effects are used when it is broken down. Cleaning up – wires and rigging that are left on camera at the time of filming. Environment enhancement – changing from day to night, set extensions when filming everything on location has cost implications, entire digital locations. Atmospheric effects – smoke and water etc. Characters – face replacement between hero and stunt men, to a certain extent crowd replication. Props and stunts – models and miniatures, bluescreen.

It was also interesting to hear about the on-set roles of VFX technicians. One such role is to be there to explain to actors, directors, lighting and cameramen what will eventually be there once the shot has been handed over to post production so that everyone can allow for this. Someone also needs to record info on atmospheric conditions at the time of shooting, take measurements of the actual set and take continuity photographs so that the digital work can match in as closely as possible. Finally, someone needs to be on set to advise others of the cost implications of their decisions and actions at the time of filming, so that changes can be made to ease the production of the digital work later.

He talked about how everything from locations to hair, makeup and costume, could be achieved digitally if the relative cost of doing so was irrelevant, and of course the actual thing will always be more realistic on camera:

“If I am asked about how to achieve a shot, and I’m asked about the visual effects solution to it, the best solution is always to shoot it for real if you can”

In fact, I found it really interesting how Mr Faulkner made the point that the digital artist does often have to fulfill the job of the costume designer, and the hair and makeup technicians, and so the skill of working in digital VFX does involve a high level of artistry and understanding alongside the technical skills of working with the software. I have during my research questioned how many digital artists do have this level of artistry and imagination, or is the digital artist someone who understands the capabilities of the computer and the software available, so it was interesting to hear this from a VFX artist.

The second talk was led by representatives of the company Jellyfish, who are a BAFTA award winning VFX company based in Soho, London. Their masterclass was based on the idea of saving money on VFX and what should and shouldn’t be done in this respect, in their opinion. They emphasised how important the planning stage should be, and how at this stage cutting corners will eventually result in further cost. So, make sure you do hire a VFX supervisor, and use storyboarding and pre-viz to plan out your film. It is also worth getting in touch with VFX companies even at the script writing stage to get their input right from the start. This ties in with what José Granell from the Magic Camera Company emphasised when I interviewed him earlier in the year. Mr Granell believes that a lot of poor CGI shots are instigated by late or no planning on behalf of the director, and a lack of understanding of the complexities digital artists are dealing with. These artists also need to be guided and informed throughout the process in order to produce the best work.

Using miniatures requires forward planning which includes a set deadline and procedure for building and filming that ultimately results in a more convincing outcome.

The third master class was taken by the makers of the low budget film “Monsters”, Gareth Edwards and Colin Goudie. With 250 VFX shots to produce over a short period of five months, it often involved judging when they could afford to take short cuts and asking themselves how lazy could they be with each shot as opposed to how to get the best most technical shots. Their basic test was to watch each shot once instead of on a continuous reel: did it convince you? If so, move on. What is the main focus on camera? If it is not the VFX element, the audience won’t notice how poorly the effect is achieved. To save on money you have think how to make a shot easy to achieve. In “Monsters” no creature is ever closer to the camera than 10 meters, so that the camera doesn’t have to capture close up interaction with the environment which would make it much harder for the digital artist. All the digital work was done using basic programs like Adobe Photoshop and Aftereffects with a small amount of 3D work in 3D Studio Max. The main point that I took from this talk was to remember that all film making is an optical illusion, nothing is reality: the actors aren’t real characters, the illusion of movement is actually 24 still frames per second etc. Although it was a deliberate poor use of CGI elements, it’s interesting to hear about what these short cuts might be. They in turn highlight some of the disadvantages and the difficulties CGI face, which I can take forward to make comparisons with the technique of building miniatures.


Every year in February Nottingham has a “Light Night” where projections and installations relating to the theme of light take place in the city center. As a side project my classmates and myself were asked to produce  a piece using projections on the theme of Isaac Newton, to go somewhere outside the Universities’ Newton building.

The brief dictated that we had to use the outdoor space in front of the Newton building, and also that we use projections in some way. This left a wide scope for what we could achieve, since there are many surfaces to potentially project onto, as well as the space in front of the building and the wide flight of steps.

When we got back after Christmas we began designing and discussing possibilities for the project, and something which we thought had potential was the idea of splitting light and using prisms, which Newton of course researched. When we researched prisms and how easy it is to purchase them we found there is a limit to the size widely available, which in turn limits what can be achieved using them. It also meant that we didn’t need a projector to achieve the outcome, just a strong beam of white light, and the prisms and the way they were placed would achieve the outcome. Since one of the aims was to learn how to map projections, we moved away from the idea. We then thought about “faking” the way a prism splits light by aiming a beam of light into a prism shape, within which the projector was placed. In this way we could control what came out of the prism, which could then be mapped using coloured video or motion graphics content onto any surface we chose as a group.

It was interesting and involved a fast learning process to learn how to view a potential space, take measurements, build a scale model of the space and then test potential ideas within that space, also taking into account various limits from University Estates and the site itself. Below is a 1:50th scale model of a vortex of shards as a possible structure.


We thought about putting something on the roof space in order to get the right angle of light without affecting the regular trams, until we discovered there is no roof access. We thought about lighting and mapping the face of the building, until we tested the projector and found that 8000 lumens is not strong enough to achieve this. We initially wanted to map the spectrum onto a fan of panels. When we tested this idea with the projector we had at our disposal, we found the span of the projector lens wasn’t wide enough.

So we found out through limitations put forward by Estates and by the capabilities of the projector what we could and couldn’t achieve, and through this experience we settled on final designs. IMG_5473IMG_5474

At this point we had 10 days until Light Night was taking place. Within these 10 days we managed to produce technical scale drawings, and followed these through to construction of a projection stand, protective coverings, an adjustable prism stand and a complex structure to map onto.workshopIMG_5493

We were still working with the original idea of using prisms and a spectrum of light to produce an interactive installation. We still had a fan of shapes, now resembling mirror shards made from mirrored ABS, which would catch the light and bounce the video content down onto the ground. The video content, produced by a coursemate familiar with Aftereffects software, was an abstract representation of the colour spectrum, including fish swimming in rippling water (blue) and the night sky (indigo).

Alongside this, intercepting the beam of light from the projector would stand a prism. The content still passed through the prism and onto the mirror shards, but it also refracted the light. We built a stand that resembles some of Newtons scientific equipment, which allowed the prism to rotate on an axis. The idea was to allow the audience to interact with the installation by rotating the prism themselves and observing the effect on the refraction of the light. To make this structure involved using a 3D printer to make caps for the prism, which allowed to me see the capabilities and timescale involved with the technique. This gave me an insight into what I could potentially use the 3D printer for in my own masters project, in relation to building miniatures.IMG_5500

We used the mapping software Arena Resolume for our project. In the theatre space we had enough room to lay out the projector and the structure we had built to the measurements of our outside space, and within half an hour we had mapped all 7 shapes with the video content a course mate had produced on Adobe Aftereffects, and could then go on to play with sequencing.ln2

On the night of the performance we came across a few problems with how our mirrored structure performed. In our outdoor space there was significantly more ambient light from the street lamps and surrounding buildings than there had been when we tested and mapped it, and therefore the mirrors were not reflecting enough light to be seen by passers by. To try and remedy this we used the adjustable system built into the structure to alter the angles of the mirrors to reflect the light closer in the hopes this would increase the intensity of light. Although there was an improvement we felt despite this that the installation as a whole was not eye catching enough, and so the final improvised solution was to map on-site onto a piece of Arkwright building with a succession of arched windows, and combine this with the effect of the rotating prism to achieve a brighter alternative seen from further afield, and yet using the same spectrum video content produced originally.

Even though the final outcome of the project wasn’t what we were expecting or aiming for as a group, I have learnt a lot about planning and designing for an outdoor event. Firstly that the site is tantamount, and design has to come from assessing the limitations and assets of the site. We should have tested the design on site before the event, then we would have had a chance to remedy some of the problems we came across on the night. Also, if we had done this we could have taken elements and forms of the Arkwright building sitting behind where the structure was placed, and eventually where we mapped our content onto, and put this into the design. The site perhaps should have been mirrored in the shapes of the shards and other elements of our design had we considered the site to be a more central piece in our designs.

Since my last post I have been to a drawing workshop, which was great opportunity to sit quietly and make time to observe and draw the things around me. I ended up going around the table and drawing each person I could see, as well as other objects. Since I am doing a creative design course, it was important for me to get my eye back in and pick back up a skill that I haven’t used for the last year. This is what the outcome of the session was:


I will be taking another class next week so I will upload what I have achieved in the second session then.

I went to a lecture today on new and innovative materials, headed by a representative of Materio which is a company supplying a database service advocating the use and development of such materials. I think it’s important to be aware of potential new materials and how they might be useful for your own craft, like rapid prototyping which is already being used in model making. I thought some of the materials, the process of making them, and their potential applications for the future were worthy of mentioning even though they are not key to the development of my field of study.

The speaker put emphasis on the fact that nothing is “new”, it’s just that something is being used in a new way never thought of before. Our world is still made up of the same elements as it always has, but we are experimenting and finding new applications and combinations to create “new” materials. There are no good or bad materials, but how they are manipulated demonstrates a good or bad use. There is also no natural or artificial material in her opinion, it is just that some basic elements are transformed and manipulated more than others. She used the example of how even a wooden chair is not cut straight for the tree in that form. Even materials we think of as totally natural are manipulated.

A lot of the materials she spoke about were answering how to utilize by products and waste materials from agriculture and various other practices. This brings up the hot topic of renewability and sustainability and ways in which we can help save the planet. Mushrooms can mimic leather, poo can create paper, and almond shells can make a fabric. Probably the most sustainable material and one which uses no chemicals in it’s creation is wood bread, literally made by following the recipe for bread but replacing the flour with wood flour! It even looks like bread, but has similar properties to MDF once baked.

Some of the new materials have the potential to have a profound effect on current medical practices. Titanium foam is strong, durable, elastic and compatible with the human body, allowing it to be used as a bone replacement, so that bones can actually re-grow around them. This theme of bio-mimicry, or taking inspiration of nature and how it is self sustainable can teach us all a lesson. Nature has no waste and works in a continuous cycle. We should learn to use what we have available to us within our immediate surroundings. This is why Apple manufactures it’s products in China; they have the raw materials to work with, instead of shipping them to the USA for example.

In terms of other applications for the rapid prototyping technologies I’ve previously talked about, Michael Hansmeyer has utilised rapid prototyping to laser cut and stack the pieces to create his columns, which have over 6 million faces and are unbelievably ornate.

Another technology that stood out for me because I never imagined it could be possible is tactile films; the idea that you could touch a screen and your senses tell you that you are touching another material entirely. It plays on the idea of how realistic something can be without actually being real, and how technology and CGI has come so far that our eyes, and even our sense of touch, can be potentially tricked into believing something fake.

Michael Eaton is a writer across various disciplines: radio, TV, and theatre. He talked about his experiences in industry, and how his script is adapted by directors and designers. One of the points he touched on within film was the difficulty in impressing what direction he wants a narrative to take, once the script is taken forward by the director and he no longer has an influence. There is often no relationship beyond a certain point, despite the writer having a wealth of back information and history about characters and locations that come from his imagination or research he has done. I think this is a shame and a waste of a resource that could bring another level of realism and weight to a film. It was really interesting to hear a writer talk, as opposed to a designer, and I think I have a new appreciation for their craft.

On Friday (9th November) I went to a talk as part of the Aesthetica Film Festival in York, where I listened to cinematographer Danny Cohen (The Kings Speech, This is England) talk about his experiences. He talked about how he began his career, beginning with a photography background, and moving up through being a technician, to camera assistant, working on commercials and shorts, through to cinematography. He talked about learning to be resourceful and working with a small budget, and how he brings this to his work even now. The most poignant thing he talked about for me, in relation to my project and the balance of traditional simple techniques and new technologies was how he will always choose the best way to capture the essence of a film, even if this is very simple. For This Is England, the use of little equipment meant it was less intimidating or distracting for the main character, a young boy who was untrained in film acting. For Pierpoint, he simply commented that Timothy Spall has an “interesting face” and this dictated his direction to use the simplest close up shots for the film. For The Kings Speech the use of wide-angle lenses meant that things close up, e.g. Colin Firths face and expressions, were in focus, but also that the background was in focus too. This was like “two for one” in the sense that we as the audience can take in action in the background as well as the main narrative. He made a point of commenting that he thinks some of the new technologies at our disposal, like 3D, can overcomplicate the story telling: I will take away this notion that it shouldn’t matter if it is an traditional or boundary-pushing technique, as long as it achieves the desired effect successfully.

The first piece of work I’ve been given is to work as a group to create a response to the title “Journeys and Destinations”. The first task was to decide on a route around Nottingham to visit various galleries and sites. In my group we have a range of cultures to draw from, which was something we talked about on our route, and after some discussions we decided to base our presentation on the similarities and differences in our life’s journey to reach Nottingham Trent. We have worked really well as a team over both weeks, quickly locking down the idea and developing it, or simplifying it in our case, as we went along. Mary-Joy, who is studying motion graphics this year, has taught us all the basics of After Effects, which is a new software to the rest of us, and we have all individually produced a visual representation of our lives. Putting this together to create a short film, we have produced a visually dynamic piece which represents us individually and as a group which we are due to perform tomorrow morning.

So, things I have learnt about myself:

I can be assertive and get my ideas across effectively, and listen to other peoples views in order to find a happy medium. My ideas are good and I should not be afraid of voicing them!

I can apply the computer skills from my undergraduate Graphic Design degree to a completely new piece of software and very quickly pick it up.

It is satisfying to push yourself to meet self set deadlines and not have to rush! I will continue to use better timekeeping skills for the rest of the year.