Many global media corporations aspire towards a 24-hour production line for animated content. As the US West Coast sleeps, media files can be sent to another low-cost territory in a preceding time zone to continue the work, maybe multiple times, chasing the sun. Technicolor-owned MPC (originally the Moving Picture Company) is one of the world’s major visual effects (VFX) companies with around 4,000 employees. Headquartered in London with facilities in Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York, Montreal, Amsterdam, Paris, and Bangalore, MPC is responsible for the VFX in movies such as the Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011), The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016), Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017), Dumbo (Tim Burton, 2019), and The Lion King (Jon Favreau, 2019). From London, digital files of images are coordinated across the globe. Bangalore, India, is a relatively new centre for MPC’s business. In this global pipeline, the team based in India work on basic VFX preparatory tasks for single shots, during which work they are not required to grasp the narrative arc behind their files, and need only a minimal awareness of the eventual destination of the atomized images they are manipulating.
As VFX practitioners and educators, this article represents our notes, observations, and reflections around the curious dissonance between the Western demand for “photorealistic” imagery and Bangalorean cultural sensibilities and filmic practices. In the strange cultural bubble of Technicolor’s Indian Technology Park outpost with its 300-400 employees – sometimes swelling to 1000, depending on work – training for the local workforce in Hollywood VFX processes is provided from London, and supplemented with a strategy of training employees to conform their image construction to the photoreal imperative that we outline. This article is also an investigation into the frontiers of UK-based distance learning and continuing professional development (CPD) across national borders, focusing on the signal-to-noise ratio in such communications, particularly between teachers and learners.
MPC are world leaders in “virtual film making”: from The Jungle Book, which was made with only one green-screen actor but also a cast of hundreds of synthetic characters, to The Lion King where everything from the landscape, to waterfalls, and creatures are entirely computer-generated. MPC are offering Disney a chance to revisit its animated feature back catalogue, this time making all the animals and characters synthetic yet photoreal. In addition, MPC is involved in bringing Marvel’s superheroes to life for Disney.
The photoreal, perceptual realism and VFX fixes
VFX is not about making the fantastic look real but rather photoreal. This notion differs from often debated terms relating to realism and VFX. Stephen Prince uses the term “perceptual realism” to explain how the fantastical can feel real – with Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) being the most celebrated emblem of “images which have no basis in any photographable reality but which nevertheless seemed realistic” (1996, p.28). Many books that look at applying film theory to VFX particularly focus on Jurassic Park, especially as a means to tease out notions of “realism” with respect to VFX (North 2008, pp.134-35; Prince 1996, pp.25-37). They note that VFX artists use observable references – learning from the movement of existing reptiles for instance. As Dan North says: “by aligning the animation with scientific study and real-life observation, it is able to gain credibility as perceptually realistic, even without an indexical relationship between the image and its referent” (2008, p.22).
Since these early moments of computer-generated animation work, photorealism has become one of the key concepts within the VFX industry. As evidence of this, the Visual Effects Society (VES) – a global professional honorary society representing the full breadth of visual effects practitioners including artists, technologists, model makers, educators, studio executives, supervisors, PR/marketing specialists, and producers – organizes annual awards including “Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature” along with several other awards featuring the epithet “photoreal.”
Within the VFX industry, at its most basic level then, the photoreal refers to the need to mimic not just perceptual realism in characterization, but also the characteristics of film cameras and lens. This includes complex processes wherein ‘mistakes’ and stylistic flourishes captured in camera have to first be removed, so that they can later be put back into shots as part of complex digital compositing processes. For example, filmmaking artifacts often previously judged as imperfections like lens flare, chromatic aberration, motion blur, video noise or film grain, halation, vignetting and lens distortion are often invisible to the audience but can be noticeable by their absence. These are the kinds of flaws that often need to be removed from a photographed shot in post-production, before the insertion of animated characters, digital extensions, or digital repair work like wire removal in superhero films or sky replacements, and removal of reflections in exterior drama. After the VFX modifications are completed, these lens characteristics need to be re-introduced convincingly into what VFX artists call “the final plate” – a term that echoes photographic history – before being delivered to the client. Such work can often be laborious and repetitive, and thus it is often sent to low-cost global centres like India.
One of the core industry manuals for this practice is Steve Wright’s Digital Compositing for Film and Video (2017), which has specific sections on grain and lens management, managing motion blur, and replicating optical lens effects. As Prince notes, this kind of work remains the most ubiquitous and least-discussed in the VFX artist’s toolkit (2004). Gabriel F. Giralt, for example, mentions that The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) – which MPC shared with companies Industrial Light & Magic, Cinesite, and Gradient FX – featured “hidden VFXs such as particle effects simulation, lighting, stitching, cleaning, and compositing that make up 122 minutes of the 156 minutes of the entire film” (2017, p.3). He also notes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has bestowed the Academy Award for Best Cinematography on recent green screen (and therefore VFX-heavy) films such as Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), and Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). We know these are VFX-filled films, but these effects are now posing a blurring of categories between production and post-production work. Giralt, for instance, claims that “The VFX artist challenges the role and place of the cinematographer in the production line” (Giralt 2017, p.7). As Rama Venkatasawmy write: “Rather than being considered something ‘special’, digital VFX now routinely make up more than one-third of the production costs of most major film studio projects and are perceived as an ordinary component of the post-production pipeline, like Automatic Dialogue replacement or editing” (2016, p.7). In this article we seek to explore how work on these “invisible” or at least under-discussed types of ancillary VFX work are undertaken, and how globalizing companies are attempting to train and maintain consistency along geographically dispersed and highly transnational production lines.
VFX seeks new territories
Much has been written about VFX making the fantastic look real. Scott Bukatman writes: “What is evoked by special effects sequences is often a hallucinatory excess as narrative yields to kinetic spectatorial experience” (2003, p.113). Whilst this excess is still evident, photoreal techniques combined with cheaper access to digital VFX production mean even smaller-scale UK television and film, including period dramas such as Poldark (BBC 2015-2018), Downton Abbey (ITV 2010-2015), and The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018) feature unobtrusive and invisible VFX, assumed by the viewer to be lens-based cinematography. Invisible VFX – whether in The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) or The Favourite – entails a new approach to thinking about how VFX and narrative interact without recourse to notions of spectacle. Viva Paci states that “these films rely on the foregrounding of visual pleasures”. However, if VFX are invisible, where is the “shooting star effect that grabs their attention” that Paci describes (2012, p.121)?
This is where the craft of VFX comes in, and the reason artificial intelligence (AI) cannot yet do these jobs. A computer-generated image (CGI) model of a seaborne galleon in Poldark cannot just be inserted. It needs to be embedded with the characteristics of the lens that shot the original scene as well as given dramatic effect as required by the director. It might be possible to take scientific readings for Rayleigh Scattering – the quotient of water droplets in the air – on the day, but a VFX artists can more easily approximate the level of mist, decrease saturation and contrast in the air, create shadows and reflections, all in service of convincing the audience the CGI model was always a part of the scene. Because of the iterative nature of such work – with a chain of command between the artist, lead artist, line manager, and VFX supervisor and further hierarchies of management – it is a craft that relies on armies of people, often in low cost territories, cleaning up and preparing images for later more complex VFX work. That is where our story begins.
Like the proverbial iceberg, much of VFX is invisible and is only successful if it is not noticed. For instance, placing imagery behind people and things in filmed footage is called digital rotoscoping, the technique of isolating imagery by hand-drawn shapes per frame. Technicolor’s Global Head of Roto and Prep at MPC estimated there are about 1,300 person-days of rotoscoping in the average blockbuster film, with many possible interventions needed for each frame. With so many hours required, Hollywood tends to reach beyond the USA for labor. Michael Curtin and John Vanderhoef offer the Life of Pi film (Ang Lee, 2013) as an example of an international collaboration “which involved multiple firms (Rhythm and Hues Studios, Buf, Crazy Horse, Look Effects, Lola VFX, Legacy Effects, and others) and more than 500 workers, with 53 percent of the artists working in Los Angeles, 20 percent in Hyderabad, 17 percent in Mumbai, 7 percent in Kuala Lumpur, and 3 percent in Vancouver” (2015, p.229). This work is how Bangalore got started supplementing the business of Hollywood’s VFX.
The Tech Park contact zone
MPC’s base in Bangalore is in the city’s International Tech Park in a district called Whitefields. For some visiting creatives, an industrial estate can seem a soul-destroying place, and trainers and VFX supervisors from the UK can end up living for weeks on end in this strange fiefdom, at once very Indian and yet culturally anonymous. You could be on the outskirts of any major city. Mary Louise Pratt uses the term “contact zone” to describe this kind of space, foregrounding the interactive and improvisational dimensions of the colonial encounters that might be played out in such commercial yet creative sites. She writes: “A ‘contact’ perspective emphasises how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travellers and ‘travelees,’ not in terms of separateness, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understanding and practices, and often within asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt 1992, p.8). Such contact zones as MPC’s base in the International Tech Park can therefore have the potential to reveal the power relations between Hollywood and ancillary animation production companies.
The standardized office floors with identical workstation layouts give little sense of locality. A rough calculation estimates there are over three thousand workers across the Whitefield International Technology Park. In India, VFX outsourcing developed out of the practices of the Information Technology (IT) industry, and it is viewed as IT rather than as a “creative industry” by the Indian Government. It is pertinent to compare this industrial estate’s isolation to its counterpart in London. With the blossoming of the UK VFX industry, a cluster of culture and services sprouted in the square mile of London’s Soho and Wardour Street. Although this space is currently disappearing, at its height – around the time of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005) – there were almost 5,000 people working in VFX within the area. In recent years, large companies like DNEG – at around 1,000 workers – have moved out to nearby Fitzrovia. Framestore has moved to Chancery Lane, taking around the same number with them. Although California’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) had opened up a London office in 2014, they are also on the periphery of Soho. The village atmosphere of drinking at the Dog and Duck and bumping into former colleagues in order to socialize has declined, but the bulk of the UK industry is still in the three-mile center of the bustling city.
In the Whitefield district of Bangalore there is no equivalent “cultural quarter,” no social vibe. In the Tech Park giant tower blocks are festooned with names to emphasize the new frontiers of business – “Explorer,” “Innovator,” “Navigator,” “Inventor,” and “Pioneer” – all bewilderingly similar and featureless. Another factor commented on by visiting VFX trainers and supervisors is a prevalent security presence. To get in and out you may be searched. As the Park has a “bonded” tax exemption status regarding equipment, no technology is allowed to leave. Cars are searched by private security firms looking for an errant printer or workstation being sneaked home. A third common observation is the lack of female faces. Whilst in the UK the VFX workforce gender balance favours men by 74% (“2015 Employment Survey: Creative Media Industries” 2016), the disparity is even more acute in the Bangalore VFX industry. Out of 350 workers in a main department at Technicolor in 2017, there were only seven women. As this suggests, there is a cultural milieu at the Whitefields International Technical Park, but it does not always mirror the VFX cultures of other parts of the world.
“We can do jungles, not sci-fi”:
While at the Bangalore Technicolor offices to assess the local workforce’s capabilities, Ian Murphy spoke with one of the local staff members. He was told: “We can do jungles, not sci-fi.” It was said with slight resignation, and it is a useful starting point for unpicking some the industrial distinctions and cultural communications issues relating to Hollywood’s demands of Indian sub-contracting companies.
Two of the biggest recent box office successes to be composited in Bangalore were The Jungle Book and Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Villeneuve, 2017). For example, the entire Bangalore site was devoted to contributing 1,200 shots to The Jungle Book over the course of almost two years. Quality control training and transnational supervision became a key way in which foreign companies interacted with their Indian counterparts during that time. Supervisors in MPC Montreal and London provided imagery and instructions to the Bangalore-based Technicolor staff, and if needed they would fly in to help ensure quality control was maintained. Cognizant of the ground-breaking nature of The Jungle Book film, UK software manufacturer The Foundry – whose VFX compositing software has become the industry standard – even went as far as to organize a roadshow tour in 2016, visiting VFX companies in Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Chennai in order to train staff and explain the nuances of their software. The event was hosted by MPC’s Suzanne Jandu, who was also one of the lead compositing artists on The Jungle Book. Part of Jandu’s presentation involved explaining that the film was shot in a green-screen studio in Los Angeles, as many assumed it was an Indian production. Jandu also led the compositing workloads of the Bangalore site from her base in MPC London, in essence making her both supervisor and trainer.
As the need for such explanatory training may suggest, the Indian VFX teams are often not kept very informed about the projects they work on. Furthermore, MPC Bangalore is not just an extension of MPC London. However, from the perspective of the fleet of trainers and coordinators who might communicate with it daily over the transnational fiber optic cables that might be an understandable assumption. In both the VFX and film industries, we often assume that we share a collective cinematic grammar. It is why we can plan films within teams. This mindset can fall down when communicating about constructed imagery across cultures. VFX Supervisors and trainers may fly in to the Bangalore Technicolor site to communicate what needs to be done, but the working culture at the Indian VFX companies is such that they are more used to carrying out services based on functional instructions rather than interpreting an incomer’s seemingly elliptical and circumlocutory creative briefs. The “creative” itself, therefore, becomes a potential barrier.
The reciprocal transnational reach of India and Hollywood’s animation and VFX film industries
India is no stranger to film or animation production. The animation and VFX industries across the Indian had a market size of around 73.9 billion Indian rupees in the financial year 2018 (KPMG/FICCI 2018, p.2), up from about 46.5 billion Indian rupees in the financial year 2015. The market size of the industry was projected to be around 151.8 billion rupees in financial year 2023 (“Market Size of Animation and VFX Industry in India 2011-2023” 2019). Indeed, the relationship is varied. In 2014 Indian company Prime Focus “merged” with the UK company DNEG, then-called Double Negative. It was reported that Prime Focus will hold 80% to 85% of shares following merger. Prime Focus CEO Namit Malhotra is quoted stating: “We have ceded control to them. They’ve embarked on a strategy to take Double Negative global. That means: They’ve got to have Canada, they’ve got to have China, they’ve got to have India, and they will make sure the Double Negative gold standard of service is inducted into those locations” (Cohen 2014). As this suggests, the Indian industry has its own transnational ambitions, beyond ancillary production work for Hollywood, and is an important sector in the globalization of animation production.
It is easy to underestimate the pulling power of not only Bollywood but also of Tollywood, Telugu-language Indian cinema. Dating back to 1932, Tollywood is a portmanteau of Tollygunge, centered in West Bengal, and Hollywood. With 7.2% of the Indian population, and 2,809 screens in Andhra Pradesh alone, Telugu is the third-most-spoken language in the Indian subcontinent after Hindi and Bengali. Last year’s Tollywood smash Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017) was a VFX epic and grossed $140 million at the box office. The production was transnational and drew in creative workers from around the world, including Pete Draper from the UK, now Division Head and Chief Technical Director at Makuta VFX in Hyderabad, who worked on digital extensions for large sets and on crowd shots for Baahubali 2. Dominic Alderson from MPC was also a VFX supervisor for this production. With its sweep and ambition, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is one of the most ambitious productions in Tollywood history, but it is possibly a bellwether. At the heart of Tollywood and Bollywood is the musical and the love story.
Whilst Hollywood films are available in India and people may have seen Star Wars: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977), Murphy’s experiences with the Indian team at Technicolor suggest that the emotional and imaginative relationship to such films seems indifferent. In his experiences, there is a deep undercurrent of Western references that go adrift, and the Indian consumption of these films lacks an awareness of historical precedents that often have to do with fetishizing technology, as seen in Star Wars and Marvel films. Whilst the Indian audience who watched and maybe even contributed their labor to Technicolor’s digital effects work on Blade Runner 2049 may be aware of its imaginary diegesis, they might not have appreciated how the featured technology refers to cyberpunk, Soviet architectural tropes, and film noir progenitors.
Transcultural communication can break down because of assumed collective imaginaries. Western VFX artists call on a shared library of cultural memes and iconography. For instance, here in the UK, we assume that a dragon has scales and breathes fire. However, in Bangalore, this might not be the case. In one instance, we observed a visiting VFX Supervisor becoming exasperated with Indian crews because of their lack of common cultural references. He wanted a ghost to be “more Caspar than Ghostbusters,” which resulted in blank stares. Indian cinema does feature ghosts, but they are cadaverous and ancestral, warded off with burnt turmeric, completely unlike Caspar or Slimer. There are, therefore, still stumbling blocks and barriers to the smooth transnational production of films, and a need for better forms of transcultural communication.
Can you hear me at the back?: Colour regimes, industrial inequalities and training the Indian workforce
VFX production is all about the pipeline and efficiency, a sort of self-imposed Taylorism. Decoration and embellishment are eschewed – as it only messes up the spreadsheets. “You should be on shot 012 by now!” Shots are given out with a template from Montreal or London as these time zones allow for conference calls and Skype-based tuition. By contrast, the VFX artists in Bangalore work to internal notes that can be open to interpretation, such as “make this bigger,” “make this softer,” “put in a deeper shadow,” “make these shots the same warmth,” and in one case, “make it more invisible.” When it comes to VFX work, this potential ambiguity can produce potent issues. There are internal contrasts in local Indian cultures of design and decoration, for one: which achieves its apotheosis in Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colours, compared to the decorative flat colours of traditional Mughal art or Kalighat paintings. These regional colour regimes are measured locally against a Western VFX workflow that demands “universal” understanding of colour (centred in Hollywood’s colour regimes) and photoreal invisibility that eliminates artifice and decoration, meaning the streamlining of inserted computer-generated components.
The Western concept of photorealism becomes, through practice, globalized by constant iteration, as VFX staff around the world work on version after version until their ancillary effects become invisible, a curious by-product of Hollywood’s blockbuster spectacle. Upwards of 50 iterations might be needed for simple green-screen shots, each one representing a ping between Bangalore and London or Montreal. These honed shots of background foliage or savannah might well go unnoticed by the audience as a VFX. The workforce is undoubtedly driven by the ambition and status of having their names on the credits of a Hollywood film as well as by working for a “multinational” like Technicolor in an international technology park. Additionally, in Murphy’s experience, wages at these companies can be three or four times that in the local economy. There is also a growing awareness of career structure and incipient status. The workers want to progress to be Lead Artists, and they want to earn more than the colleague sitting next to them. Part of this clamour for status means that the outsourcers are now employing outsourcing teams themselves. The work originally sent to MPC is itself these days forwarded to another company in Mumbai, meaning Bangalore itself has moved up the creative chain, dealing with more sophisticated and high-value VFX processes.
So how does the demand for photorealism from Hollywood and its visual subtleties get disseminated? In our study, corporate training of the workforce in India was initiated by a series of month-long visits from MPC London staff and then through distance learning follow-ups. Distance learning and training interventions mostly happen via video-conferencing on the Technicolor corporate private network. Somewhere at Technicolor, there is a secret map of the fiber optic cables that snake their way across oceans making Bangalore the pivot between London and Montreal time zones. By the time the instructor has got to the MPC London office in the morning, Bangalore has already undertaken at least six hours of compositing labor.
The pedagogical dark arts of assessing the skills deficits in the room on a different continent and gauging the pace of student learning can become extremely difficult as none of the 30 faces in front of you wants to be the one to admit they do not understand the point you are making. The usual panoptic tactic of prowling around the classroom to see what is on their screens is not an option. This juxtaposition of physical and social distance is exacerbated by the audience’s conviction that you are the guru and that they only work to your direction.
Christopher Cram observed: “VFX Supervisors find themselves in the difficult position of overseeing the integration of work from many artists into a seamless homogeneous look” (2012, p.182). VFX has its own version of the Hippocratic Oath, supposedly first expounded by VFX Supervisor Paddy Eason: “Do no damage.” In layperson’s language this means you never reduce or destroy the colour range and values in your image. You only manipulate them in a non-destructive and redeemable way, as someone in management will always later change their mind, and you need to be prepared to unravel the work.
The Hindu festival of Holi, with coloured powders flung over smiling running faces, has populated the West’s imagination through brand campaigns like that for Sony’s Bravia television (“Sony Bravia Creates Celebration of Colour” 2015), Cadbury’s Fuse bar campaign (2018) and British Airways (2017) as well as appearing in a Coldplay music video (“Hymn for the Weekend” 2016). This celebration of the energy and impermanence of colour seems the antithesis of Technicolor’s raison d’être, which is about controlling and standardizing colour. One of Technicolor’s great commercial assets is contained in its integrated Color Management system, allowing an image to go through a myriad of processes without quality loss or approximation. In the floating-point math world of Technicolor there are exactly 16,777,216 colours to choose from. A particular shade of colour can be standardized across the world. In Technicolor’s case, all the digital ingesting of imagery is done in the West and then digitally shipped to India, demonstrating the impulse towards standardization.
Colour symbolism is different in India. Red is a bridal colour, representing purity as opposed to passion. White, on the other hand, symbolizes death, and is worn by widows. Blue is associated with the god Krishna and therefore virtue rather than sadness. Yellow relates to honour, power, and commerce. It has been suggested that these meanings are have been codified into Bollywood productions. “So if it’s hues of red and gold for weddings, then it’s bright yellows and magentas that signify the courtship period. Blacks and edgy reds for fight scenes and danger, greens and luscious purples for lust and seduction” states the “President and Chief Color Maven” of the Sensational Color company Kate Smith (2014). When an American director in Pinewood Studios or Culver City invests an emotional charge into a scene through on-set light and colour, can such nuance and symbolism be maintained through the colour grading on another continent? Technicolor’s colour systems enact rigid fidelity, with calibrated monitors and fiber optic channels. The system means there is little need for poetic colourists in Bangalore, only operatives willing to maintain the original pixel values through iterations like a holy scripture.
From Hollywood’s corporate creative industry perspective, colour management systems and standardization are lacking in the developing world. Whilst global flows need to ensure that in Birmingham – whether Alabama or the English Midlands – Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) is seen in the same shade of black, it seems it has never been imperative to the cultural industry clusters in India that the particular tone on a monitor in Bangalore will look the same in an editing suite in Chennai. There is only the localized and immediate satisfaction of “does it look good here, now, on the screen where I am?” in India, according to Murphy’s discussions with MPI Technicolor’s Indian staff. This localization and latitude is now in opposition to the enveloping global digital system of floating-point accurate quality assurance offered by Technicolor.
The quality of light is an important factor to artists who often gravitate towards coasts or north light locations. To use technical CGI lighting definitions, the light in Bangalore is rarely diffuse like in the UK, but is mainly direct and relatively cloudless, illuminating the world differently than in an overcast Europe. Bollywood films therefore express a vivid airiness, and the Bollywood and Tollywood defectors coming to Technicolor have to de-program after years of creating decorative colour ranges and bright light vistas. They need to understand the tonal ranges of a different continent, like accommodating the heptatonic scale in a pentatonic world.
Ian Murphy was lead trainer in feature film compositing at MPC (www.moving-picture.com/), a company with around four thousand employees globally. He worked on global online and F2F training programmes that enable continued professional development across the company. He now works freelance for the VFX industry under the moniker Compositing Coach.
Saint John Walker is Course Leader in VFX at Norwich University of the Arts. After creating a VFX Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) for the Open University’s FutureLearn arm he became interested in how learning can be achieved effectively across different international time zones.
In 2011 Murphy and Walker co-authored the Core Skills of VFX Handbook which took industry advice and methodologies and published them online for free, allowing Universities and Colleges around the world to replicate industry techniques.
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© Ian Murphy and Saint John Walker
Edited by Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison, University of East Anglia