To the uninitiated, one visual effects artist is much like the next.
But soon you begin to hear the same Flame names bandied around like a top-ten chart. It's a competitive field. The only way to stand out and gain a first-class reputation is by delivering over and above expectation.
Advertising arguably sets some of the highest standards in perfectionism; and post-production is no exception. Most digital artists - even the average Joes - will finish your commercial with finesse. But a great Flame operator has to go beyond the brief. So how should you choose your person?
Your visual effects artist needs to be a creative, organised and experienced technician with good communication skills. But that sounds like a generic CV, so let me provide some context.
Top of the list has to be creativity. It's as important as - if not, more important than - technical wizardry. Anyone can read a manual and learn how to operate a machine, which is essentially what a Flame is (albeit an extremely expensive machine).
Technological know-how won't get a visual effects operator anywhere without aesthetic vision. Contrary to popular belief, the technical and the creative are not always mutually exclusive - and a high-class Flamer isn't a geek.
It is important for your operator (or "op") to recognise that the Flame is a creative weapon. Some ops get bogged down in the technology, turning a simple operation into the theory of relativity. New programs evolve every month and your op should have enough insight to use the software that is right for the job. Big is not always best and sometimes the smaller applications can produce superior results.
Next up is management. A complex visual effects project will require a team of operators. A producer will keep everyone in line, but the process is neater if the lead op has a handle on the situation. And part of this remit is quality control: the lead must set high standards. They must ensure nothing sub-standard slips through the net.
As with most disciplines, experience goes a long way in post-production.
Flame artists should understand the entire production process, from pre-production through to final clock, because each area informs another.
For instance, a superior Flamer needs to understand the intricacies of Telecine because the way a shot is graded will affect the way it is composited, and vice versa.
We recently finished a major O2 job for VCCP in which we really felt the benefits of cross-discipline experience. This job was graphically demanding and had a tight schedule.
Plus, VCCP was breaking away from the established O2 team by experimenting with a new director and post- house. It was crucial to gain their trust.
The advantage of having been around the block a few times is that I've done my time as a colourist and an editor. So, when supervising the shoot, I put a rough edit together on set using video playback footage and Avid DVX Pro on my laptop, which was also furnished with Combustion (a poor man's Flame). This meant I could show the client some rough composites.
On this occasion, for the sake of continuity and speed, we even edited the whole campaign. Demonstrating work in progress on set was a fantastic way of making them feel secure and ensured the job went smoothly.
So a decent op is more than a mere technician. A top-of-the-range visual effects artist can influence your post-production experience as well as the end result. But don't take my word for it. Here's the director's opinion.
"I love a good Flame op - you can just let them get on with it. But an extra-special op should excite you with their enthusiasm," Vaughan Arnell says. "Rather than just making things work for the budget, they'll say: 'It would look great if we tried this.'
"Recently, Dave and I had been up for three days solid on a music promo. It was 9.30am on the day of transmission and Dave was still coming up with ways to add that bit extra. In fact, he supervised that job on location in Cape Town. We were doing a Top Gun rip-off for Will Young, with loads of fighter jets. The main cameraman had to stay on the ground to shoot the two jets dog-fighting. It was getting dark and we didn't have any shots from inside the planes. So Dave offered to go up and act as second unit. Despite pulling 5G and nearly blacking out, he got great footage."
Arnell's take on the subject highlights the benefits of building a relationship between op and client. A good Flame op does all you ask of them; but a great Flame artist doesn't need to be asked. When a Flamer is given the opportunity to get to know you, they can be intuitive about your requirements, resulting in faster post-production. Although an op has to be sensitive to the visions of the creative and the director, there is always scope to project their own style.
The best ops have the confidence to invest time in executing their personal ideas without confusing the client. Chances are, if the op is in tune with the client, the enhancement will sail through approvals. Your commercial really can be improved by developing a relationship with your visual effects artist. This goes some way to explaining the increase - in popularity and presence - of the smaller, "boutique" post-houses. They tend to be more personal, offering intimate environments that help to strengthen the bond between client and supplier.
It is important to debunk the myth of the Flamer as a personality-free operator, but it is equally as important not to let a Flame artist's ego overshadow their role in the process.
As with all things production, you are only as good as the team you work with.
- David Smith is a visual effects artist and the owner of Absolute Post.