Visual Effects in Germany From the Grill to the Screen

“Wrapped” by Roman Kälin, Falko Paeper and Florian Wittmann
“Wrapped” by Roman Kälin, Falko Paeper and Florian Wittmann | Photo (detail): © Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg

Flying dragons, living trees or fearsome aliens: to bring such creatures to the screen, you need a visual effects designer. But what exactly does a specialist for visual effects do, and what skills does he need for his job?

When a shaft of light strikes the skin of a vampire, things become disgusting. The skin roasts and slowly disintegrates; the light eats from pore to pore; millimetre for millimetre the skin bursts and the camera is already zooming in with relish on the perfectly illuminated horror. Before this scene comes to the cinema nearest you, visual effects designers (also called visual effects artists) have plenty to do. Visual effects are those effects in films or commercials that are generated on the computer

Every digital image needs a real reference

Digitally generated images, also of vampire skin, always need a real reference. The effect specialists form Pixomondo in Hamburg, who did the visual effects for Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, therefore first set up the office grill in the courtyard and looked to see how the surface of a pig’s caul reacted to heat. “The scene didn’t make it in the end into the film, but it’s a nice example of how reality and digital image can be interrelated”, says Malte Sarnes, who took part not only in the grill experiment but also in the digital realisation of the film.

A VFX supervisor, Sarnes, born in 1980, is creative project manager and artistic director at Pixomondo: he sees to it that the produced images look good in the end. VFX stands for visual effects. There are many quite different methods: in compositing, for example, actually shot images are processed on the PC. Using this method, Pixomondo transformed shots of the Croatian city of Dubrovnik into King’s Landing, the capital city in the fantasy series Game of Thrones.

Digital spaceships and other computer worlds

When images are generated entirely on the monitor, the method is called Full CGI (Computer Generated Images). It was in this way that the houses of 1920’s Paris arose for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret, completely on computer screens in Hamburg. In general, both areas work hand in hand. The 3D team creates, for instance, a digital spaceship, which is then mounted in the scene by the compositing team.

On his monitor Sarnes opens the programme Maya, which makes it possible to create 3D visualisations and animations. With a few clicks, the basic grid grows into a cylinder. On the monitor, the operator can mould the forms, like clay figures, only much faster. There are different ways of construction: “Either you actually form something out of a basic shape, like the cylinder, or you are given specifications and construction data by the customer”, says Sarnes.

Digital skeletons and dynamic data

For a visual effects designer, there is no way around English technical terms: “texturing” determines the nature of the surface of a digital figure, and “shading” defines its material properties. “Rigging” gives figures their digital skeleton, which determines the motion sequences of the animation. “Motion capture“ in turn refers to a method for transferring the dynamic data of people or animals to a figure.

Work at the computer occupies a substantial part of the visual effects designer’s time, but not everyone in the team must be able to write a programme. “I was always incredibly bad at maths”, says Sarnes, and grins. After taking a diploma in the field of design, he studied graphic design, with a focus on product design, at the Hamburg-Wandsbek Art School. He also worked on the 3D visualisation of products, but then felt drawn to advertising and to film because they promised more creative freedom.

By the way, before you can hold an Oscar in your hands, as Pixomondo did in 2012 for the visual effects it created for Hugo Cabret, many helping hands are needed and even more storage space. For the opening sequence of the film alone, with its digital replica of Old Paris, the amount of data was so large that it could not be opened on a single computer.

Imagination and creative flair

Essential qualifications for the job are fantasy and imagination. “These are basic requirements that are hard to learn”, says Söhnke Christiansen, who heads the German agency of the British post-production company The Mill. Also important are creativity and creative flair. But there are of course very different fields of work. “Those who like to draw and work with colours will probably not be happy working in 3D programming”, says Christiansen. Best to try out a few things for yourself – for example, using the free software Blender, or doing an internship – to see what you are good at.

Job prospects are good: the demand for VFX Made in Germany is increasing. Nevertheless, many jobs depend on the success of Hollywood films: if films flop, the big film companies economize and cut orders. In 2012 Pixomondo felt this effect and had to shut several branch offices. But most VFX companies take this into account and bank on a healthy mix of prestigious film productions and reliable clients from the advertising industry and other fields of business. A common training opportunity is university study – for instance, at the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Post-Production at the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy, the Babelsberg Konrad Wolf Film University in Potsdam or the Media Design University. “But there have also been many talented lateral entrants who have made their way”, says Christiansen. Above all, the aspiring visual effects designer should work well in teams and be resilient. “The lone wolf doesn’t get very far”, says Malte Sarnes. The images look really good in the end only if everyone in the team pulls together.