If Shade VFX does their job right, you often can’t tell they’ve done any work at all. Their supporting effects have been an integral part of “True Detective,” “Olive Kittredge” and “Daredevil,” for which they were nominated for an Emmy award for their supporting effects. Their other credits include the upcoming “Batman vs Superman,” “Jessica Jones” and “Selma,” to name a few.
Indiewire recently spoke to Shade VFX’s CEO Bryan Godwin about how supporting effects are becoming just as important to the storytelling process as big action effects.
What is the difference — if there is one — between creating visual effects for films vs. TV?
The difference is getting less and less every year. Our entry into television is kind of motivated by the fact that the opportunity to do good work on good quality shows has gone up exponentially, recently. I think TV is kind of one of the more exciting entertainment mediums these days.
People always say, “Oh what’s the last movie you saw?” And I’m often kind of at a loss, but if you ask me what’s the last TV show I watched, I’ll give you ten different things I’ve been watching. I think that’s a credit to the networks putting money into the production value and the writing and to the visual effects.
There are some differences though — mainly, schedule and budget isn’t quite the same. The schedule on television shows tend to be a little bit more demanding and tend to be a little bit tighter, but you know there’s a wide range amongst television shows in terms of schedules and budgets and we like to say that we do exceptional television. There are a lot of competitors to us that do a lot of network work and they do it exceptionally well. And they deal with even more demanding schedules and budgets in ways that we’re just not built for, so what we found is by working on premium series, they actually give us enough time and enough money to be able to do a decent job and work on it the same way we would work on a film.
You’ve worked on some of the top film and TV projects over the last couple years. You must be incredibly selective – or just have really good taste!
We honestly are a bit selective. We do occasionally pass on jobs if they aren’t going to make sense as far as the schedule and the budget. You know, we really want to make sure that we can deliver high quality product and you know sometimes that isn’t possible. We’re fairly small still and we intend to stay that way. By being small we don’t have the scale and scope and overhead that larger places have. And that allows us to be choosy. We’re not just constantly shoveling coal into the fire to keep the machine running.
Of course, the best visual effects are the ones that you don’t notice. Can you give me an example of one of your favorite effects that I may not have noticed?
Yeah, our brand is roped around the idea of creating invisible effects for a story. There’s a lot of buzz lately and even memes and YouTube videos about bad CG and how CGI is ruining movies and a filmmaker’s vision because they can do anything they want. They maybe shouldn’t. But there’s so much good work out there that nobody knows about. And we try really hard to make sure people don’t realize we’ve worked on a shot or a movie or a show.
And I think, like you said, some of the best stuff is the invisible stuff where you have no idea. On “Daredevil,” which is just a great project, and we were nominated for an Emmy for that, people asked us, “Well what did you do? I thought it was a non-VFX superhero show. I didn’t seen any VFX.” And it’s like, “Oh we did over 1000 shots of visual effects in that entire series. You know there’s a ton of it in there.”
One section in particular is in episode 9 where there’s a big brawl between Daredevil and a character called The Red Ninja or Nobu. And his signature weapon is this thing called a Kyoketsu-shoge which is a chain weapon. A big blade on one end, and a ring on the other. It’s probably about eight feet of chain between the two. We worked really closely with the stunt coordinators to make sure that the way the weapon is wielded is very physical and realistic. Throughout the entire sequence, 95 percent of the shots of the weapon are completely digital and I don’t think anyone noticed that or even thought about it. They were just thinking about how crazy the action is. I think that, that’s what really got us nominated for the Emmy, was that section of that show. And it’s cool because it doesn’t pull you out of the story. You realize there’s this crazy visceral violence happening between the two performers. And you’re worried about Daredevil getting his butt kicked and you don’t really think about, “Hey. Wow. Half the shots are CGI.” It doesn’t come to mind.
What are some of the specific technical challenges that you face, with constantly new proprietary software out there. How quickly is the industry changing and how involved are you in doing research into new software and trying to keep up on the latest trends?
We stay on top of that stuff. But you’re right. It does change somewhat frequently and you have to be… some people get religious about software in any industry and sometimes you have to be open and get away from software dogma and just use the right tools for the job, whatever that tool may be. And being small allows us to pivot pretty quickly.
That being said a lot of the software is commoditized these days. The needs for proprietary custom-built stuff has been reduced tremendously in the last decade. We do have software developers on the staff and we do write some of our own software, but we don’t really need to do as much as we would have in the late ’90s or early 2000s to stay competitive, because there are so many good tools available that are somewhat affordable.
How involved have you been in “Jessica Jones”? And what have been some of the biggest challenges?
I can’t say much because Marvel is really, really tight on that. They’ve been pretty public about it being a very different type of show and it’s more of a hardboiled, detective thriller and psychological drama which is a really cool change of pace for Marvel. I mean “Daredevil” is a change of pace for them to — to get down into the street and get gritty and violent. And they’ve just never done that with their brand.
But “Jessica Jones” is a little bit different pace, and the visual effects are equally as invisible if not more so than the stuff we did on “Daredevil.”
We’re always very involved with these projects from the beginning. With the Marvel stuff, in particular, we get the early scripts, we work with the showrunners, we work with the directors for each episode, we plan the visual effects, and then we’re on set when they shoot it and we’re always working side-by-side with them to make sure that whatever visual effects they decide to use are the best approach to tell that story.
Can you give me an example of a recent technical or creative challenge that you’ve faced in a recent project and how you went about tackling it?
Every single day there are a lot of technical challenges. So, it’s sort of our job, especially as a boutique, to be a Swiss Army Knife that can come in and solve whatever little difficult thing that they have to throw at us. We’ve been doing a whole lot of interesting stuff in the realm of crowd duplication and CGI crowds. We did a lot of crowd work for “Selma.” It’s a great example of people having no idea: “Selma”? Visual effects? What? That doesn’t add up.” But when they’re in that iconic scene crossing the bridge, most of those people are actually digital duplications or digital actors that we put in there to flesh out the scene. And it had to be seamless because it was such a serious story that needed to be told. Crowds were a big part of that story.
I’m guessing the benefit to creating the crowd digitally is that it’s less expensive and you don’t have to cast for all the actors and then make sure their makeup and hair are right.
That’s exactly right. It’s both a convenience and a cost savings. You know, we can duplicate tens of thousands of people, which would just cost a fortune to do. On “22 Jump Street,” we did all these crowd duplication stuff for the football scenes. And you know the stands are empty. And there’s this huge section of the film that takes place at a football game and it would cost a fortune to fill the stands.
What would say are some of your favorite types of projects? And what sort of process do you enjoy the most?
I mean I like it all. I like doing the bigger projects where you tend to be a smaller part of a larger show. So we just wrapped up on “Batman vs. Superman” and there’s some fun sequences on that. But I really like when we get to work with the filmmakers. We did a small movie called “Chef” that Jon Favreau directed and it was a very small movie but there was actually a bunch of visual effects in it. You know Jon would come over and we’d hang out in the screening room and we’d talk about food and barbecue and visual effects and hang out and we had a really good time. You know? The movie is such a sweet story. And having that opportunity to work with great filmmakers on a really close basis like that is probably my favorite thing to do.
And give me some examples. What were some of the visual effects that you provided in “Chef”? Because again we don’t think of that as a VFX film.
Some of it was very invisible. There’s a lot of driving sequences where they couldn’t afford aerial photography and we had CG taco trucks driving through, really the iconic truck from the show. And then a lot of the story is told through social media which is a a little bit of a departure from the type of work we do, but we did a lot of motion graphics and tried to help tell the story through Twitter and Facebook and Vine and all these different mediums being used throughout the film in a tasteful way that hasn’t been done before, where we kind of integrated the text into the scene in a way that’s also sort of physical and photographic. We’re trying to find novel ways to tell a story that utilizes that type of story telling.
So for the layperson who is maybe reading Indiewire as a fan, but isn’t a filmmaker and doesn’t understand what you do, how would you describe it? Say, you’re at a cocktail party and someone says “what’s visual effects? What do you do?” Does that ever happen?
[laughs] It happens all the time. I say, “Do you ever watch the behind-the-scenes on your DVDs?” We’re those guys, who when there’s a whole bunch of green stuff that needs to go away they call us. And we fill in those green screens with stuff that you don’t notice. I mean really we make the invisible, visible. We allow filmmakers to paint pictures that they couldn’t always do by practical means. We are the artists that fulfill that vision.
And what would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions about what you do? Tricky questions, huh?
That’s a tricky question. It’s a good question. It kind of goes back to the idea that CGI is corrupting filmmaking and that it’s all bad. I just would say that, that is a terrible misconception. You only see it when it’s bad. The rest of the time you just don’t know.