Guava’s Aron Baxter and Alex Catchpoole Look to the Future of Visual Effects
We recently sat down with Aron Baxter and Alex Catchpoole, two visual effects supervisors who bring much experience to their current day gigs at New York Guava. Although they see good and bad today and in the future, both men are refreshingly optimistic about the future of vfx.
‘It a great time to be in the effects business,’ says Baxter matter-of-factly. ‘For one thing, what we do is gaining a higher and higher profile, particularly on television. Prime time television shows have been relying on visual effects for quite a while now, of course, but they are now starting to help drive the stories being told. The effects are generally more subtle, more dextrous; they’sre not just cool decorations anymore. That maturation of effects is more challenging for us, but it more fun as well.’
That maturation, according to both Baxter and Catchpoole, has manifested itself in effects that, though fantastic, are largely invisible to the viewer eye. Ironically, the latest ‘look’ is no look at all.
‘More than ever, visual effects have moved into a realist phase,’ says Catchpoole. ‘The best ?‚àö√ë‚àö‚â§effects’s are now largely invisible; they drive the story, and are not there just for impact. You can have something totally unreal happening, but the look now is realism.’
A case in point is Guava recent work for Suncom Wireless, an AT&T affiliate that serves the Southeastern United States (www.guavanyc.com/rw.php?p=2#). As a woman flippantly contravenes her cellular provider long distance regulations, a giant bird swoops down and carries her off. The strikingly realistic scenario is eased by the friendly form of spokesman Harry Connick Jr., who explains that while the scenario is not realistic, service would be less restrictive with Suncom.
‘The scenario could hardly be more unbelievable, but its execution makes it seem very realistic,’ says Baxter. ‘It an utterly bizarre idea, but it is captured on film as if it just happened. That is what today visual effects are like: very much of-the-moment, getting viewers involved so that they actually will suspend their disbelief for a moment. The effects are part of the story now, and it just fantastic for us.’
In another spot, this time for Women Health magazine, Guava used the same seamless effects style to strike a chord with all the women out there who are not fashion models. ‘Mean Magazines’ has fashion and lifestyle magazine covers continually berating a woman as she goes through a typical day. Thanks to painstakingly particular lighting and penetratingly precise eyelines, the looks and comments of the airbrushed are disturbingly scathing.
‘It a surreal spot, but it is accomplished in a very ?‚àö√ë‚àö‚â§un-effects-y’s manner,’ says Catchpoole. ‘The magazine just happens to be talking. The eyelines match up, and the reflections are all there, and everything works. It all seems very natural, and people don’st see it as an effects spot, but it required a monumental amount of work to get that level of invisibility.’
SO MUCH TO DO, SO MUCH MORE TIME
They say that time flies when you’sre having fun, so it a good thing that Baxter and Catchpoole now see effects professionals with more time on projects. This reporter remembers thinking that, if God really did create the world in six days, he was probably thinking somebody would fix it in post on the seventh.
‘These days, God ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® or the director ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® tends to call us in at the storyboard stage,’ says Catchpoole with a smile. ‘We’sre definitely considered to be in more of an advisory role than in the past. We’sre very happy that effects have become such a vital part of production. We’sre an integral part of the process now, and directors and crews all understand that fact so much better than they used to. So we’sre in on the production from the beginning, and we’sre available for shooting and production advice straight through the project. It really is the best of both worlds.’
In two recent spots for tire maker Goodyear, two pilots chat and champion Goodyear tires while sitting in a Goodyear blimp. While a simple concept, there were a number of design and effects challenges for the Guava team.
The scenes were filmed in a studio and a recreation of the blimp outer shell was built. The Guava artists went on to create an extension to the shell and fashioned parts of the vent system and spinning rotor blades to add to the believability of the blimp flight.
There was also a multi location shoot and Guava had to create digital snow when the footage showed minimal snow. Guava was on board and advising the process the whole time. This ability to wear many hats was an advantage for all involved parties, and an important indicator of how ingrained visual effects has become in the production and postproduction process.
Indeed, directors aside, the crews who once viewed the presence of virtual imaginations amidst the tangibility of live action sets with bemusement, if not contempt, are now revealing an understanding of the new processes of production.
‘Crews are getting used to us,’ confirms Baxter. ‘Every project, people who are used to dealing with live actors and elements are learning more about what we do and what we need. We’sre better at dealing with them and they’sre better at dealing with us and, at the end of the day, everything is much more efficient, not to mention friendlier.’
The new altruism is definitely the reciprocal sort. Visual effects technology and the talented people who run it have greatly extended the capabilities of directors in ways that weren’st possible a few short years ago.
‘With our help, today directors feel far less restricted creatively,’ says Baxter. ‘They can really push the envelope and be much more experimental. The technology now exists to tackle shots of all kinds, no matter how impossible. Directors can begin their shot in live action and then, with the help of 3D tracking and camera matching, they can literally take the camera wherever they want. Directors used to think we just fixed things that didn’st work; now they take us along for the full creative ride. We’sre all able to do a lot more work in less time, which opens things up for more creativity, experimentation, and just plain play.’
And it isn’st just directors who have woken up to the possibilities. Baxter and Catchpoole see a much more enlightened and discerning general audience out there; one that is growing more demanding by the day:
‘Part of the reason that we’sre into visual effects in the first place is that we like to think freely about imagery,’ says Catchpoole. ‘We tend to think beyond budgets and technical capabilities, and focus on coming up with the most creative look and feel for a particular shot. These days, we’sre seeing a better and much more sophisticated response to the work we do. There is a greater embracing of abstract imagery in commercials these days. Audiences are very design-savvy, and that has changed the way everybody thinks about visual communication. People won’st put up with hokey, badly assembled effects anymore. Bad sequences are noticed by 12 year olds now, and posted to YouTube as something to be laughed at. That sort of attention has raised the bar significantly.’
And speaking of YouTube, the increasingly democratic nature of technology is leading many people to speculations that they might be able to do it better themselves. Of course, there have always been those grandiose souls who believed they could do things better, but now, with upgrades in processing power and downgrades in price, they have the chance to prove it. That, say Catchpoole and Baxter, is something of a double-edged sword.
‘Just the number of desktop compositing systems has had an incredible ripple effect across the culture,’ says Baxter thoughtfully. ‘Not so long ago, you needed very deep pockets to have a Flame or Henry, let alone the supercomputers they ran on, and that was the only way you could do broadcast quality work. There been a massive increase in speed and interactivity, and that changed the way work is approached and completed. Like anything, there good and bad aspects to that.’
Asked to expand on his sense of the good, the bad, and the ugly in today creative work climate, Baxter is good-natured, but philosophical.
‘It great that more people have access to the technology,’ he says. ‘Young people can learn a lot using AfterEffects in their bedrooms. We’sve found graduates who are already greatly experienced in the kind of thinking that lets us do what we do. Of course, that also means that the market gets diluted. A lot of people are thinking it enough to have the compositing software to do great work. At Guava, we have an entire staff to ensure that our work gets on to tape and distributed looking as great as humanly possible. Increasingly now, though, you’sll see commercials on air where the composite looks good, but the rest of the scene is totally out of whack. With more and more people doing this kind of work, some are bound to get sloppy.’
By nature and by training, artists like Baxter and Catchpoole are perfectionists when it comes to imagery, and too many cooks in the digital kitchen can definitely spoil the comp. With increased speed have come increased client expectations, but not always in terms of quality. According to Catchpoole, even in this age of HD, more and more work is being delivered as low-resolution Quicktime files,
‘The biggest problem with online deliverables is that all the positive things we’sve been talking about are accorded less importance,’ he says. ‘Things like high detail, precise compositing, and photorealistic CG imagery don’st matter much because everything is being viewed on a low resolution screen and significantly compressed. The quality is lower than in the cinema or even the average television. Budgets get cut as a result, and as serious artists, it a bit demoralizing to create imagery that is simply ?‚àö√ë‚àö‚â§good enough’s for Quicktime. Our eyes and brains have been trained to do things at the highest possible quality. Online media and podcasts are all low rez, which is a bad thing from an effects point of view. It just less important to do great work.’
Catchpoole allows that increased bandwidth and new HD versions of Quicktime will definitely help stem the downward creative flow, but he unsure how quickly the popular application will be able to handle the massive amount of data required for uncompressed broadcast quality. At best, the delay will be frustrating.
Equally frustrating for the Guava artists is what they see as a slow client acceptance of HD in general.
‘Some clients are still not embracing HD,’ admits Baxter. ‘We think that is shame. So much so, in fact, that we’sre doing HD seminars at ad agencies, both here in New York and in places like Miami and Boston. We also point out to everyone that we don’st charge any extra fees for HD transfers, and we’sve added Autodesk Burn render farms to cut down on the render time and keep things fluid and economical. We can always keep working, so there isn’st the downtime that there used to be with HD. I used to smoke, mainly for something to do during render times. I don’st have to do that anymore, so it improved my health as well.’
So far, the duo sees the widespread acceptance and lower price of HD television sets as a potential silver lining:
‘We love it when one of the agency directors buys a nice new high definition television,’ says Catchpoole. ‘The way things are now, TV shows are being done in HD, but not so many commercials. So the directors will be watching something in HD, and then see commercials in standard definition. The next thing you know, they’sre saying: why aren’st we doing this?’
Drawing animators, producers, designers, 3D and vfx artists from a global pool, New York-based visual effects company Guava is dedicated to making imagery for commercials and other media, such as music videos, film, and art installations, including work in the permanent collection of MOMA .
To supplement its experimental thinking, exploration, and open collaboration, Guava continues to invest in powerful, cutting-edge technology to make sure the results are not only stunning to look at but are delivered on time.