Matthew Lynn and Matthew Noren, on-set VFX supervisors at Legion, share their on set experiences. Often found working together, Lynn takes the lead, talking the big picture with the directors and DPs, while Noren carries out the essential VFX groundwork, including collecting on-set data and taking reference photos for artists.
Our job starts way before we hit the set. Our involvement in a project can start as early as the script development. At Legion, we pride ourselves on maximising our involvement in table reads and budget talks, so that from the very first step in the journey everyone is on the same page as to what’s expected.
Pre-production allows us to play a hand in weighing up what’s the best bang for your buck. We work out a methodology that will ensure we get the best work possible, with considerations of budget, time constraints or any other nuances that arise.
Another part of this pre-production process is also going off to create mock-ups, concepts, head on tech or location scouts and do some low-level previs, which helps everyone on the production team understand those techy VFX terms. This whole process can take anywhere from a couple of months to as little as a few days, depending on the medium. Episodic television, like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, we’re usually booked for two weeks of pre-production and are generally in the conversation about a week into the process. With feature films, like the work we did on The Purge: Election Year and Hardcore Henry, can vary hugely film to film.
Probably the most important part of the pre-production process for us is to not be afraid to say what we really think. The worst thing a VFX team can do is fail to prepare a director for a surprise later in the project, so when it starts heading down that road it’s our responsibility to steer them in a direction that might work better, that allows the director to get what they want, within the budget, and to a timetable that everyone understands and is happy with.
The whole process is a collaborative discovery – we piece together what the producers are saying, what the Post team needs and the director’s vision, and ultimately find a solution that pleases everyone. We often offer plans A, B and C as suggested methodologies, so we have a backup incase something doesn’t go right first time, or under the understanding that plan C is more expensive but could prevent problem x.
So! After we’ve concluded that preparatory part of the project, we get to the actual set. At this point we’ve reviewed the latest version of the script and our pre-production bid, so we know exactly what we’re working towards. Preparation is everything at this stage. You need to be there seeing everything from a 30,000 foot view, but you also need to know how many blades of grass are in each square mile.
We’ll bring with us backup gear ready to go for plan B if necessary, as well as a lightweight on-set kit that we always take, so we can get some reference shots, some video and lay tracking markers down.
If there are things on the day that don’t work out as expected, the most important thing to not do is express that it’s a problem. The problem must be voiced to the relevant people, but always followed with the reassurance that we’re rolling straight into plan B and that we even have a plan C if all else fails. Having a confident, quick response, rather than a slow, calculated dodge is absolutely vital.
Two of my pet peeves that are often present on sets are the ideas that you can ‘fix it in Post’ or that you can ‘Hollywood’ something. The former is a mentality by a director or a crew that can snowball really quickly, even though it might allow them to move on with the shoot faster, we sometimes have to step in to let them know that leaving a significant amount of work for the Post team could come back to bite them.
The idea of ‘Hollywood-ing’ something stems from some directors thinking logic doesn’t apply when making a movie. Directors are free to Hollywood a story as much as they like, but you can’t Hollywood an object in VFX – sometimes, it will simply never look right if it disobeys the basic laws of physics. So, there are times where we step in and let directors know when it’s good to take creative liberties and when it’s best to rethink the timing or pacing of a specific shot.
The atmosphere on set as we’re all on this journey from conception to final product is one of the best parts of the job. Working in Post, it’s easy to feel a disconnect between your facility and the client, but on-set you get to see a different side to them – you were in the trenches together and that camaraderie is truly rewarding.