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5 essential VFX tools

Whether you're on set for a VFX shoot or collaborating with teams across the globe, you will need the right VFX tools for the job. Superhero action flicks are currently taking the world by storm, but these projects come with an immense shot tally that can rarely be handled by a single studio, and that means you need to both efficient on set and in pre and post. 

3D assets and VFX-heavy shots are usually allocated across several different teams, countries and time zones. From Hollywood to New York, and from London to Vancouver – these major cities are commonly considered to be the nexus of modern blockbuster film and television production (you can read more about these hubs for 3D artists here).

Modern technology is also capable of uniting post-production at the global level. Here we look at some of the essential tools that a professional artist might use while on set, as well as to trade ideas, maintain consistency and quality on large-scale projects. If you want to get into the industry, you'd be wise to investigate these further.

01. HDRI camera

kitbag for VFX supervisor

 Stephan Fleet’s typical VFX kit for working on set

HDRI photography – which helps with re-creating the correct lighting in any CG elements added later – has become a lot faster and easier, according to pro VFX supervisor Stephan Fleet. “I use a Ricoh Theta V with a colour chip chart. It’s a fast solution to grabbing a pretty good HDRI. I also take a ton of photos. Now, organising thousands of photos is time-consuming, so I try and hone in on textures, environments and layouts that I need photos of and get just what I need.”

Fleet tends to rely on a Panasonic GH5 camera, or a Panasonic GH5S for better low light, for on-set reference capture and HDRIs. “A smaller, lighter, digital shutter means you can shoot photos while rolling,” he says.  

02. Image apps

A screenshot from Photomatix Pro

Fleet uses Photomatix Pro to stitch together HDRs from on set

For working with images, Fleet's tools include the The Simple HDR  app. This controls the Ricoh Theta S to shoot bracketed photos. The app does not yet support the newer Ricoh Theta V, but the maker is planning an update.

He also likes Photomatix Pro. "I use this for stitching HDRs. It’s better than Photoshop because it can batch folders. The built-in Photoshop Merge to HDR feature works just fine, too," he says. 

03. CineSync

cinesync screenshot

The in-built Shotgun Review in cinesync enables users to browse for previous versions of a shot without leaving the session

As the recipient of both an Academy Award for technical achievement and an Engineering Emmy for its impact on the television industry cineSync is one of the most widely adopted applications in visual effects and animation today; it's been used in shows such as Game of Thrones and many Netflix films and series.

cineSync is a remote review and collaboration toolset that enables users to view and collaborate on high-resolution, high-frame-rate video in sync with others in any physical location, regardless of available bandwidth. Whether separated by a few towns or thousands of kilometres, users can collaborate on imagery as if they in the same room, utilising interactive functionality such as annotation, drawing and note-making tools in complete real-time synchronisation.

The speed and reliability of cineSync used in this capacity has altered the concept of ‘post’ as a strictly final element of a show. With cineSync, consideration and collaboration around VFX and other visual elements can take place from the pre-production stage onwards. 

In fact, communication via cineSync was indirectly responsible for the very first character crossover in what later became the Marvel Cinematic Universe. During post-production for the very first Iron Man film, an ILM artist added Captain America’s shield into a scene – a little joke for Jon Favreau in their next cineSync session – but Favreau ended up leaving it in to see if fans noticed. Of course, everybody saw it – and the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded from there.

04. Shotgun

Shotgun VFX tools screenshot

Every step of production is represented visually in Shotgun, so you can see the life of shots and assets throughout the pipeline

Shotgun is a production tracking system for VFX artists, cinematic directors, producers, and everyone else involved in the creative process. Every step of production is represented visually in Shotgun, so you can see the life of shots and assets as they move through the pipeline. Artists can be allocated key deadlines and milestones, enabling studios to prioritise certain shots, reactively scale up production and handle unexpected changes with ease.

Shotgun supports a range of digital content creation applications, allowing VFX facilities to customise their pipeline and maximise efficiencies for a number of processes – from previz to compositing. Another huge benefit of the Shotgun toolset is its integration capabilities. For instance, any playlist in Shotgun can be opened in cineSync. Once a cineSync review session is complete, all of the notes and drawings can be exported back to Shotgun with a single click. Shotgun’s user interface allows easy access for artists to create notes and annotations quickly and simply.

For all of the artists out there who emphasise visual artistic direction, drawings are listed in the notes section in Shotgun as thumbnails rather than full-size frames. The frames can still be accessed by clicking on the thumbnails. If you’re taking notes in Shotgun but are annotating in cineSync, those same annotations will be automatically linked to the relevant notes.

Many successful studios, such as Important Looking Pirates, consider the cineSync/Shotgun integration a key part of their pipeline – and manage quite a bit of throughput for a 100-strong team of artists. "cineSync is part of our daily routine," confirms co-founder Niklas Jacobson.

05. FTrack

ftrack VFX tools

ftrack provides a bird’s-eye view of everything happening at a studio across different projects, productions and departments

A cloud-based toolset that is especially useful for smaller studios and independent artists, ftrack provides a bird’s-eye view of everything happening at your studio across different projects and departments. Flexible folder structures, custom entities, approval steps and much more can be tailored to suit a particular industry, team size or geographic location. ftrack is an extremely scalable communication tool, and again features integration with a vast selection of industry-standard software – including Nuke, 3ds Max, Maya, Cinema 4D, and of course, cineSync.

Luma Pictures, for instance, has combined cineSync with ftrack to create a customised in-house review queue. “ftrack is now nicely integrated into cineSync, making the coordinators’ lives easier, and we have a whole roadmap ahead of us on how to get even more clever by driving further automation, editorial and client delivery efforts,” says Michael Perdew, VFX producer at Luma.

This article originally appeared in issue 243 of 3D World, the world's leading magazine for 3D artists. Buy issue 243 or subscribe here.

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3D World is the best-selling international magazine for 3D artists, covering the fields of animation, VFX, games, illustration and architecture.