Note: In this new user profile series, we are reaching out to artists working in various aspects of the industry to learn more about their personal history and how they use our tools. Recently, Imagineer’s Ross Shain talked with Jack Grundy, a VFX artist at Image Engine who has worked on “Game of Thrones”, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and more.
RS: Hi Jack, thanks for participating. Lets start with you telling us us a little bit about yourself…How long have you been in working in visual effects? Where did you go to school and how did you get started in this industry
JG: My name is Jack, I’m 26 years old and I’m currently a senior prep artist at Image Engine in Vancouver, Canada. I moved from England to Canada in 2012 and have been working in visual effects for around 7 years at this point. I actually started out doing practical effects – prosthetics, make-up, and model making; which I studied at the University Of Bolton in North West England. It was in the second year of my degree that I had to use the Adobe Production Premium Suite and, ironically, hated every minute of it! We had to do a project were we combined visual effects and practical effects into a short video, so naturally I did a Star Wars light saber fight. In the fight one of the actors had his arm severed so with VFX I had to add the light saber effects and remove his arm digitally. I presented the project to my lecturers, they had no idea how I did it but loved it and it just clicked that this is what I wanted to do.
I came across Andrew Kramer’s Video Copilot, taught myself all I could and started making my own films and doing freelance work. From there I went onto teach post-production at a college in Manchester for two years before the move to Canada.
RS: We see a lot of young artists delving into motion tracking for similar reasons, light sabers and bullet hits! So, how long has mocha been a part of your workflow? How did you find the learning process?
JG: mocha has been something I’ve used pretty much since I began doing visual effects. The bundled mocha for AE was where I started and probably used on 95% of my projects for either tracking or rotoscoping. Working in freelance, particularly around the time DLSR filmmaking became the norm; most of the footage I worked with wasn’t always shot in the greatest light or the highest quality – so trying to track simple things were a nightmare with just the basic 2D point tracker due to noise, compression and a number of other factors. Using a planar tracker was a godsend for these tasks. I could actually get a decent result fast, allowing me to use my time making the shot look great rather than burn it on trying to force a good result from a point tracker, or worse…do it manually. The fact that I could combine the mocha tracker to drive rotoscoping is just an added bonus and was one of main reasons I did a vast majority of my rotoscoping exclusively in mocha.
The learning process was very simple and straightforward. The interface is very simplistic and clean so you’re not bogged down in menus or shortcuts…you can just load in a shot and go, which is great for those just starting out or who don’t really need much more than a quick track. However, if you want, you can dig in a bit further and do some much more advanced work with mocha… often more than you think it’s capable of.
“I’ve introduced a lot of artists I’ve worked with to mocha and within a couple minutes they’re getting the hang of it and using it no problem.”
RS: From your reel, you have obviously worked on some very well known and impressive films. Any thing that you’d like to share about some of the projects on the reel or how you are using mocha?
JG: For Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles we worked on a big action sequence that took place in a dense snow environment and a large portion of the time when you see a “turtle on screen” there’s an actor in a grey suit interacting with the environment, vehicles or people – which we had to remove. For almost every shot I was provided a camera from the match move department; that is not always the most practical thing for what we need. While great for projections of inanimate objects (like removing a door on a wall), but not so much for a 6ft 2 actor running around swinging a bo staff! mocha really helped us in the situations where we had long shots of moving objects and people that we had to completely remove or provide mattes for so that we could change and modify the environment around them. We mainly used mocha for the tracking data to bring into NUKE. It saved us hours, if not days, when we were in crunch to deliver the project.
For Game Of Thrones I worked on season 3 at Spin VFX in Toronto, where we delivered several hundred shots to HBO. Certainly the biggest sequence we did was episode 6 “The Climb” where Jon Snow scales the ice wall with the wildlings. All of the climbing shots were shot on a green screen set with a practical prop wall for the actors to scale. We created the set extensions, removed the actor’s safety harnesses and add a CG “icy sheen” to its surface. These shots were particularly challenging as they required fully articulated roto mattes for each character to add the CG ice onto the wall, and they all had long hair and wore full body fur clothing – with wind blowing at them.
Using mocha saved us so much time to complete these shots. Being able to track large sections of each actors’ body despite the continuing movement of the fur, and to then link our splines to the track cut out a huge chunk of work and allowed the team to focus on very complex paint work.
RS: It sounds like you are also using a lot of NUKE from The Foundry. How does mocha integrate into the NUKE workflow?
JG: For me mocha Pro is an absolute necessity to have access to. Despite NUKE X having its own planar tracker, it’s just not as dynamic or flexible as what I can achieve with mocha Pro. I’ve yet to try the mochaImport plugin for Nuke, but I imagine it will make the workflow even simpler, but copying the tracking data over into NUKE as a corner pin is simple and instantaneous… without the need to render, bake, export any data. Being able to save out the data to a external text file is also fantastic for allowing me to just open a document and quickly to grab the data I need (rather than reopen the software). We are also using Silhouette for rotoscoping and the fact that we can bring the same mocha track into both Nuke and Silhouette makes the process seamless and keeps the results consistent across the shots.
RS: I am wondering how often you use mocha on a typical project. Sometimes we hear that customers are only using mocha for very tricky shots. It sounds like you are using it even more?
JG: The amount we use mocha is definitely increasing with each project we do, depending on the nature of the shots we have. For roto it’s becoming our first port of call to try and get what we can tracked and brought into Silhouette and NUKE. For TMNT we used it on maybe 30-40 shots – mostly for helping when we had to remove the grey motion capture suits interactting with people and affecting their clothing. Or there would be a lot of changes in light, or a lack of detail, or a vehicle riding over a bumpy surface with a lot of micro-vibrations that you just can’t pick up with a point tracker.
We’re currently in production on a few projects were we’ve had to use mocha Pro on almost every single shot to integrate our digital work with the practical elements on set and the handheld movements of the camera that would otherwise prove a lot more challenging, if not impossible to do in the time we have. Given that prep work generally takes place at the start of the pipeline, (sometimes before match move and layout even see the shots), we can’t afford the time to hold on to work until we receive the assets from them – so we’ve come to rely on mocha Pro to fill that gap. We’re able to do more than we might usually do on the 2D side of things and because we have control over it, we can adapt and change how we use the data to suit our needs. Our work is mostly dealing with moving objects within the frame so allowing us to control and refine the results of this process is fantastic.
RS: Are there any particular aspects to the interface that you use more than others? Sometimes people like to learn how other artists use the same tool.
JG: I’m a big fan of keeping software simple and accessible so my favourite tools in mocha are very basic but extremely useful. The surface and grid alignment tools are a big factor in why I was drawn to mocha in the first place. Being able to insert an image directly into mocha to check my track works is very simple but makes checking my work a thousand times more accurate than looking at a wireframe overlay, or just taking the track over to NUKE and hoping it works. Similarly, the ability to copy the tracking data to the clipboard and just paste into NUKE is such a time saver and cuts that back and forth process down significantly. Saving out this data to text files for backup is a must for production and sharing files between multiple artists who may be working on the same shot, or even in different software packages…being able to save to different formats becomes so handy.
RS: We’ve also seen your freelance reel… can you talk about your work as a freelance filmmaker and on-set vfx supervisor? I wonder if knowing a lot about tracking or compositing software helps influence how you shoot or plan a production?
JG: With freelance work, budget and time is always the big limiting factor – squeezing the most out of what you have and the time you have to do it. The films I make vary greatly in their style – with some that are VFX heavy (using green screen for every shot), or very simple character stories where the VFX are invisible and used to enhance the final product. The client projects I’ve worked on are usually indie and very low budget, so we have to be strategic in what we can achieve in the time we have available. I did a music video a few years ago where the premise took place around the Manchester riots and seeing the events as they unfold on the streets. At the end of the music video he flies and “rises above” all the anger and hate, so to achieve this required a lot of planning and design on how we make a man fly in the middle of the street. We tried to keep as much as we could practical, but there’s only so much you can do on a public street. We couldn’t afford to bring in cranes and wire rigs, or have real fires burning, or have access to police cars and vans; so we relied on digital effects to do this.
Having a good understanding of VFX is important for these projects because you need to know how to approach the shots. You can’t just shoot and hope that it’ll work because you’ll miss things, or you’ll be there at 3am tearing your hair out trying to do impossible things. Similarly, planning the effects feeds your ideas on set – so you can shoot for the effect, or make the director feel more comfortable to try things because we can do what they want in post.
Having mocha doesn’t necessarily help me in the planning stages for previz, but the fact I knew what it could do and where to use it meant I could relax on set. I didn’t have to worry that a van could drive past in the background and I could add police vinyls to the side, or have atmospherics like smoke on set in the shot and still be able to track the shot confidently. I used Adobe After Effects for the majority of the VFX, and edited in Final Cut Pro where I cut together pre-viz shots for the director and cameraman to look at so they knew exactly how to shoot certain shots and why. I had about three weeks to edit the video and do all the VFX, which contained about 60-70 VFX shots and I was doing everything on a dual core 13-inch MacBook Pro with no graphics card – so efficiency was my priority and these tools all made that possible.
RS: Curious what particular mocha Pro features do you take advantage of to hit your deadlines?
JG: I think mocha’s planar tracker is by far the best tool on the market. The things we’ve been able to achieve because of it are astounding – whether it was a time issue or complexity. Since I’m such a big advocate of simple and efficient workflows, it always comes down to being able to use the tracking data in every piece of software we work in and share that with every artist. We often have multiple people on the same shot, tackling different sections to then combine and export as a unified matte or plate. You just can’t get this to work if you have, say, three people using three different tracking elements. If we’re all working with the same information then we’re working effectively as a team and optimizing our workflow. Knowing we can track pretty much anything in almost any situation with mocha with minimal tweaking is such a relief in a world were we’re moving away from things like green screens, (using more handheld documentary style filmmaking) and it’s our job to provide the mattes or paint work in seemingly impossible situations. The skill level of the artists is improving year upon year and the tools we have at our disposal allow us to achieve these results faster and better.
RS: Any other shots that you’d like to mention? Would these shots have been more difficult to achieve in another set of tools?
JG: For the snow sequence we did on TMNT, a large portion of the exterior driving shots of Humvees and SUV were on location but instead of on snow it was on a runway. Our job was to roto and extract the real cars from the plate so we could place them onto the digital snow environment. The challenges we faced were that the camera was moving and bouncing due to the rough surface of the road and the the cars were kicking up dirt and dust as they drove away from the camera. The truck in front of them was crashing into piles of snow, which swept back and shrouded the vehicles. Not only was it tricky to track, but trying to just manually roto these shots would be painstaking if done frame by frame and just not feasible for 200+ frames and multiple vehicles within the time we had.
mocha stepped in and just breezed through these shots. Despite the lack of detail and continuous changing of lighting, dust, and dirt on each frame; we got about 80% of the way there right off the bat. With a little bit of refinement we were able to get the shots out and into comp within a few days. We actually tried to get what we needed with other techniques and tools, but we were constantly fighting the track, (or trying to force it to work), where as with mocha, we had everything we needed in a couple hours. We were able to focus on getting everything isolated and painted to a much higher standard than we could have achieved with any other approach.
RS: Thanks so much for your time. Do you have any other comments or suggestions that I could bring back to my collegaues at Imagineer? We are also ways looking for feedback and ways to improve.
JG: It might sounds wrong, but the fact that I’ve never had to call or email Imagineer about support issues is great. It means that the software just works and does what it’s supposed to do. I’ve used mocha on every kind of footage from DV footage, to DSLR footage, to film (and even recently RED Dragon 6k footage) and it handles everything I’ve thrown at it perfectly. I think the biggest strength of mocha is not that it can chew through any type of footage or complex shot, but that it works on pretty much any system you have from a “4 year-old” 13-inch dual core Macbook to a “top of the line” professional studio workstation. The fact that you make a version that comes with Adobe After Effects for free is nuts, and the tools aren’t that much different from the Pro version – it’s the same tracker and the same techniques, we can simply utilize the extra features more precisely for high end feature films. It’s great that, as someone who came from freelance indie projects, we can access the same tools as professional studios and enhance our productivity. Now being able to paste in masks directly to Adobe Premiere Pro makes life a lot easier when working on my own projects.
I would love to have mocha built-in into Nuke as an OFX plugin like you have in AE and Silhouette just to keep it all integrated, but that’s more a wish than a necessity. The interface of the standalone is very user friendly, so it’s never an issue when I know I’m going to be using mocha.
For more information on Image Engine, visit: http://image-engine.com