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From “Avatar” To “Alice” – The World Of Lighting And Compositing

When more light is needed on a visual effect, there’s no light kit or scrim that can easily be assembled.  That’s when a professional like Brian Blasiak jumps in.  This lighting and compositing technical director has worked on such films as “G-Force,” “Legend of the Guardians; The Owls of Ga’Hoole” and most recently “The Green Hornet.”  He also worked on last year’s Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects “Avatar” and this year’s VFX Oscar hopeful, “Alice in Wonderland.”


411 Publishing recently spoke with Blasiak about the specifics of being a Lighting and Compositing Technical Director.


411: Publishing:  You must be feeling excited about “Alice in Wonderland’s”  Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects?

Brian Blasiak:  Yes, everyone is pretty happy around the studio about that.  It’s definitely pretty exciting!


411: I’m glad to be highlighting you as one of the members of Alice’s VFX team!  Let’s start off with this question: what do you do as a lighting and compositing technical director, or a lighting technical director?

BB:  Well, it depends on the show.  Some shows are live action such as “Alice in Wonderland”, and some shows are all computer animated.  We’re pretty much doing similar things in each.  Our main job is lighting and rendering computer graphic elements that weren’t shot with principle photography inside the plate.  We’re integrating computer graphic elements either in the live action environment and then putting it all together so that it integrates seamlessly.  If it’s animation then we’re lighting the environment and the characters and putting everything together.  Usually we take our direction from the art director in terms of how we are going to light the scene.


411:  Do you also work with the cinematographer regarding how he would have lit the scene or what he would have used?  I guess this would be more applicable in live action.

BB:  Yes, in the live action environment, it’s very important that we use that information.  On set, they are recording all the data from the camera, and they usually record reflection information.  We can incorporate those environments that are picked up on location to light the object.  We don’t actually work with the cinematographer, but in order to make the computer graphic elements look like they blend in with the live action environment we have to try to match the original lighting from the live action environment as closely as possible inside the computer.


411:  Is this a newer type of job inside the post production world?

BB:  It’s been around for quite some time.  Computer graphics really started a really long time ago at the University of Utah.  They didn’t really become popular in movies until the early 90s, “Terminator 2” and “The Abyss” were some of the turning points in the industry were people saw they could actually integrate computer elements into shot and movies and it worked great.  The roles are much more specific and focused on one area now, but back then they were probably doing the modeling and the animation and the lighting and they would do everything.


411:  Does the 3D element add a different level of complication to you in regards to the lighting and the lighting structures that you work with?

BB:  It doesn’t in terms of lighting.  For an animated film it’s much easier to do 3D.  We have a camera in the 3D environment from which we render out the computer graphic elements.   If we are going to do a stereographic film, we have another camera positioned depending on how much you want the image to come out off the screen or behind the screen.  So in animation you pretty much have to render the image twice.  Where it gets complicated is when we are doing stereo with live action. The technology is changing now; in terms of “Avatar,” it was actually shot in stereo, so it made it easier in conversion, but in a lot of movies the stereo is being done in post.  It is almost like taking a 3D cutout of the characters in the scene, and all this has to be created by scratch.  Then we paste it on 3D geometric characters and we move them over a little bit.  It’s a lot of roto work where we are drawing lines around and move them frame by frame to follow the animation of the live action characters.  Then we have to separate everything in the scene.   Say you have a scene with mountains in the background, trees in the foreground and the characters, all those elements have to be separated.  If they are inside a live action plate, there’s a lot of rotos that have to be done – frame by frame, taking the information, cropping it, and actually repositioning it.  It’s actually a lot of work.


411:  I’m thinking of “Avatar” and “Alice”: they both involved lots of nature scenes and light.  Dealing with scenes like that must be a large amount of work.

BB:  Yes, for sure, and “Alice” had been done in post.  The cost to convert a movie into stereo is very high, I don’t think people realize why.  I think that’s why some movies that have come out didn’t have good stereo conversions, they thought ‘Oh, we’ll just put it in stereo.’ They didn’t properly budget for the conversion, and the stereo really suffered from it.


411:  What kind of programs do you use to do all this work?

BB: Every studio has a program called Autodesk MAA that we use and that’s been standard.  Every company has their own proprietary software so that’s something you learn at the studio and utilize.  All the studios that I’ve worked at use Maya (for lighting). In terms of compositing, we either use proprietary software, or we’ll use programs called Nuke and Shake.


411:  Does texture add another layer of complication for you speaking of lighting? I’m thinking specifically of “Guardians” with sequences involving water and details in the feathers.

BB:  Well, that was one of the reasons that drove me to work on that.  Speaking back to specialized jobs, there was an entire team that just focuses on feathers.  Then there are motion designs that take care of the look of certain objects to see if something is going to be more shiny or reflective or diffused.  They define that look before it gets to us as lighters. We have effects technical directors too, who might work on things such as water or wind or fire or anything pretty much in nature.  It’s very nice, especially as a compositor when you get all these elements from the other departments and you start to see some bits and pieces that don’t look good right out of the box, but you definitely have tools to work with to make it look better.


411:  And how do you incorporate color into the work that you do, thinking of a person working on a set with lighting: gels, tungsten, and daylight?  Do you have to be concerned with such things yourself?

BB:  Yes, more so.  We’re always matching to something.  If it‘s a live action film we have to make sure the colors and the color temperatures are matching the plate.  In animation we have a little more freedom.  There is usually something drawn that you go by.  Knowing what point the story is at, such as a certain time of the day or night, you incorporate that as well.  When we get the elements the basic texture and color are there.  All we are doing is adding different colored lights on top of that to accentuate the effect.  If there’s a person watching TV, We might have a blue light to simulate the color coming off the TV, that type of thing.


411:  Of the movies that you worked on, do you have a favorite sequence, or maybe a creative aspect that you really got to put a bit of your own signature on?

BB:  Oh yes, definitely.  Working with James Cameron was pretty fun.  He’s very intelligent, I think he has a background in physics and an engineering degree, and he also has a very artistic eye.  Going into reviews with him, he points stuff out right away because he knows exactly what he wants.  We ran into an issue near the end of the sequence in the film by the “Tree of Souls’”  Jake’s giving a speech and it’s a very emotional sequence, and at the time we didn’t have the look for the lighting.  I came onto the project at that time and I thought, ‘(Cameron) loves dark colors, he used them a lot in his other films,’ so I used a bit of that, and I used more intense light – a ring light in the back.  I thought that would be justified for a more emotional scene.  Eventually our visual effects supervisor really liked it and he showed him the look that I came up with.  That was really nice because it gave us the chance as artists to really have an impact and refine something that wasn’t already set in stone. Then having it incorporated through a bunch of shots and have a bunch of different lighters pick up on it was pretty rewarding.  And then having him say of course how much he liked it was definitely pretty severe.


411:  Tim Burton is another director who has a very distinct visual eye and taste.  What attracted you to working with him?

BB:  I always wanted to work on a Tim Burton movie.  I was trying to get on the show for a while.  Some of the sequences that I dealt with were near the end of the battle with the jabberwocky.  It had this black mist or smoke coming off of it, and Tim wasn’t sure if he wanted the smoke to be heavy so it was a creative decision making process.  You kind of know what he would like if you are familiar with the rest of his work so in terms of lighting direction; it helps in knowing that.  It was exciting to see him get excited over the film, and the feedback that we received.


411:  Regarding “G-Force”: all the other movies you’ve worked on had a lot of darkness.” G-Force“ had a lot of daylight.  Does that add another level of challenges for you?

BB:  No, it wouldn’t make anything more complex.  Darker details might, actually, because you want to make the darker details a little brighter to make sure you can read them in the dark sets.

411:  What were some of the sequences you were involved with in G-Force?

BB:  One that sticks out was an end sequence with a disco ball.  That was pretty challenging because the plate photography didn’t have the characters in it, so we had to put the little guinea pigs in and we had to have the disco lights all over the characters.  Another sequence was during a fight with a coffee maker machine.  After they destroyed the coffee maker they are taking it home on the skateboard, which was a lot of fun, integrating Hurly on top of the skateboard and Darwin pushing it.  When you are putting a CG character on top of a skateboard, you have to make sure his hands look like they are grabbing the skateboard; you had all these wires coming out of the coffee maker so you had to go frame by frame at times to make sure you composited correctly.  You had to make sure Darwin’s foot connects with the ground and that the shadows are being cast correctly and ensuring the color, the temperature of the sun match the characters the same way it is matching on the skateboard.   It was a lot of fun to work on!