Makers of the Future | Visual Effects with Mill Creative Director Gavin Wellsman

Creative Director Gavin Wellsman shares his perspective on the technologies that will shape VFX in 2021
Thought January 27, 2021

What technological advances will we see for VFX in 2021?

Real-time solutions using game engine technology to create original content and also to assist in pre-visualization before and during a film production. We will also see more and more real-time advancements in sporting and music events for advertising. Many of these advancements were already on the cards, with Covid restrictions many of these ideas have been fast tracked and will continue to play a part even when the crowds return. The really interesting examples of the real-time events include Travis Scott’s virtual concert and HBO’s Lovecraft Country Social VR event. I could see marketers sponsoring similar events in the future.

Creating original content through a game engine is also exciting. We worked on a cinematic trailer back in the summer and we had access to the entire game within Unreal. This gave us the opportunity to search for shots and locations within the game like a tradition director scout. This was a fun way to set up the project before we created a single frame of the storyboard. Many of our previs artists have completed the Unreal Fellowship and are also experimenting with using Unreal for their previs. The speed and modular way of working within Unreal can produce really impressive results that are more client friendly than a basic grayscale render with limited background movement.

There has also been a lot of interest in AI machine learning from digital humans to image quality enhancements. Digital humans have always been the holy grail of VFX and we are getting closer everyday with some of these enhancements. With huge amounts of data and super-fast machine processing the results are getting closer everyday with all of the intricate details that you expect in a human performance.


What adaptations did the VFX community make during the pandemic that will carry through into the new year?

Connectivity has become so important to replicate the same working speed as if we were all under one roof at The Mill to achieve the same quality and interactive experience for our staff and clients. Connecting into machines remotely that are all connected to the same infrastructure is essential for security and the sharing of data between artists on a job.

After the initial transition from office to home we had to re-establish protocols for project management. With the reduction of in person human connection and interaction you can miss some of the subtle communication cues back and forth between the team that are important in a creative environment. It is more important than ever before to be clear about what is expected and to check in on people to stay connected through the process especially for learning and development within the team. Sharing screens in Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other software like CineSync are important to be able to make precise comments and notes while looking at the same image especially when you get towards the end of a project and you are racing to the finishing line.

With recent connectivity from home this has also allowed us to feel more connected with our other offices around the globe with the boundaries of physical walls being removed. The benefit of being able to tailor fit a crack team of artists based on skill sets from any part of the group is quite amazing. With some of the time zone differences actually working in our favor when we need to make quick revisions over night for a morning presentation.


How will the rise of Virtual Production methods affect the post-production process?

In many cases it will turn the post schedule on its head. It won’t necessarily always be more work if you are comparing this to a typical green screen shoot on a stage. A typical post schedule normally means you spend 90% of your time and effort after the shoot in post. In some cases with virtual production, you could argue that you need to flip that schedule on its head. Taking the time scheduled from post to pre-production with the aim to capture more in camera on the day of the shoot.

Some of the results from VP shoots are really impressive especially when coupled with in camera set builds and practical effects. Many of us now are familiar with how the Mandalorian series was captured using tracking software coupled with Realtime game engine technology to create the impressive environments. Even if you go full Mandalorian or opt for a more of a static backdrop from a live action plate the LED panels can still make for an impressive setup. In many cases there are often a level of enhancements to be done in post to make the shots feel 100% real, it’s quite common to have to adjust the depth and contrast levels on a shot to shot basis. Even if you do replace a background from the LED wall the overall results will typically look better than a traditional greenscreen setup. As the scene will have the correct lighting and reflections from the images in the scene.

Once the prep and organization are complete for the screens the speed as of which you can manipulate and change the content is very powerful with many of the tech ops coming from the world of live stage shows. With various size screens you can build in a level of flexibility into the shoot to quickly set up shots from tight to wide angles. For VFX supervisors, who generally require extra plates for post, that can be time consuming on a shoot. The power of being able to switch a screen colour or isolate a smaller section for a keyable plate is fantastic and very fast.

This technology is the next logical step after rear projection and Translight production techniques that we have been around for many years. Like any new way of working or piece of tech it takes time to find smart ways of working to get the most out of the LED wall as there are pitfalls to watch out for. For some shoots the greenscreen approach will still make the most sense if there are no reflective surfaces in the scene and the flexibility of changing the background at a later date. Once VP becomes more popular and cost effective, we will start to see LED technology pop up more and more from complete 360 degree volumes to small sections of wall for tight pick up shots.

What creative trends do you think we’ll see in 2021?

After a socially and politically tumultuous 2020, advertisers are going to have to tread carefully to make sure that they find the right balance within their messaging. People still want to be entertained but there is a lot of pressure on brands to be morally reasonable and do the right thing across the board. The brands that will cut through will be able to carefully and genuinely touch upon these current issues, whilst not falling into the void of repetitive messaging. Take Wieden & Kennedy’s Nike spot “You Can’t Stop Us” – brilliant on all levels.

Mill Creative Director | Gavin Wellsman

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