May 21, 2007

Guava Artists Optimistic about Future of VFX

New York - Aron Baxter and Alex Catchpoole, two visual effects supervisors at New York’s Guava, are optimistic about the future of VFX.
“It’s a great time to be in the effects business,” says Baxter. “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’re not just cool decorations anymore. That maturation of effects is more challenging for us, but it’s 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’s 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 ‘effects’ 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’s recent work for Suncom Wireless, an AT&T affiliate that serves the Southeastern United States. As a woman flippantly contravenes her cellular provider’s 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’s an utterly bizarre idea, but it is captured on film as if it just happened. That is what today’s 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’s just fantastic for us.”  
In another spot, this time for Women’s 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 particular lighting and precise eyelines, the looks and comments of the airbrushed are disturbingly scathing.  
“It’s a surreal spot, but it is accomplished in a very ‘un-effects-y’ 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’t see it as an effects spot, but it required a monumental amount of work to get that level of invisibility.”   
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’s 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’s flight.     
“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’re better at dealing with them and they’re better at dealing with us and, at the end of the day, everything is much more efficient, not to mention friendlier.”  
“With our help, today’s 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’t work; now they take us along for the full creative ride. We’re all able to do a lot more work in less time, which opens things up for more creativity, experimentation, and just plain play.”  
“Part of the reason that we’re 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’re 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’t 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.”  
“Just the number of desktop compositing systems has had an incredible ripple effect across the culture,” says Baxter. “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’s been a massive increase in speed and interactivity, and that’s changed the way work is approached and completed. Like anything, there’s good and bad aspects to that.”
Asked to expand on his sense of the good, the bad, and the ugly in today’s creative work climate, Baxter says,  “It’s great that more people have access to the technology. Young people can learn a lot using AfterEffects in their bedrooms. We’ve 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’s 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’ll 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.
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’re 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’t charge any extra fees for HD transfers, and we’ve 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’t the downtime that there used to be with HD. I used to smoke, mainly for something to do during render times. I don’t have to do that anymore, so it’s 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’re saying: why aren’t we doing this?”