Many people know him as one of the creators of SHAKE, and author of The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, but Ron Brinkman is also a writer and director of a new short film “Hope”.
FXGuide caught up with Ron via Damian Allen, himself an experienced Shake compositor, Damian asked him about Hope, Shake and what he’s researching into next.
Ron Brinkmann has just completed the short film ‘Hope’, his debut as a writer/director in the live-action realm. Brinkmann, a noted visual effects designer who has supervised work on such movies as ‘Speed’, ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘Contact’, is also the author of the seminal visual effects book ‘The Art and Science of Digital Compositing’. Brinkman is also one of the original people behind SHAKE, and Nothing Real. Now at Apple, Ron is both a respected artist and technical guru.
FXG: Tell us about “Hope”
RB: The 20-minute short is a dark contemporary fantasy that features the journey of Mr. Roth as he makesa reluctant return journey to the hellish world he’d left behind years before.
The film was shot on 35mm, features visual effects from a number of Hollywood production companies, and was finished via Technicolor’s new digital intermediate process.
FXG: How did your time at Sony prepare you for Shake and now directing “Hope”?
RB: I think that one of the things that made Shake unique was that just about
everybody at the company had dealt with production. It’s just a different
mind-set from a traditional development environment. Not only in terms of
understanding production work-flow from a technical perspective, but also in
terms of developing a healthy paranoia about schedules and deadlines.
FXG: What was the original motivation for writing “The Art and Science of Digital Compositing”?
RB: Hmm, a combination of things. I’d spent many years in production hiring
people that didn’t have a completely well-rounded understanding of how
digital image processing and compositing worked. They were talented artists
and often very technical but I found that I was constantly explaining the
exact same concepts over and over again with each new group that came to the
facility. The first step was doing a class for Siggraph ’96 (Jerome Chen
and Gary Jackemuk were my co-presenters on that) which was very
And later, after finishing up the work on Zemeckis’ ‘Contact’ I decided that it was time to take a break from production and try something a little different. Since there wasn’t a book out there yet on the subject of Digital Compositing, it seemed like the time was right to produce one.
In the last couple of years there have been a few other books on the subject that have come out (Steve Wright’s is another good one) but at the time it was a unique opportunity to force my opinions on a larger segment of the effects community.
FXG: Why the name Shake ? Who’s idea was that ?
RB: If I remember correctly there were a number of attempts to find a name. ‘IT’ (Image Tool) was a favorite of mine and I think it was also called ‘Look’ for a while but there’s a lot of trademarked names out there! ‘Shake’ ended up being one that was available.
FXG: What was the first film Shake was used on ?
RB: An early early version of Shake (possibly before it was named that, and possibly still in a prototype shape) was actually used on the opening shot from Titanic. A deep underwater shot where everything was a similar shade of ocean-blue. The shot had originally been started at 8 bits/channel of color information but the subtle tonal gradiations brought out tremendous
banding problems. Shake was brought in and its higher bit-depth capabilities were crucial to getting a clean, artifact-free shot out the door.
FXG: There are a lot of people moving into compositing work from purely digital, rather than production environments. How does this affect their ability to produce believable composites?
RB: People coming from a completely digital realm often need to finish rounding out their way of thinking and/or even ‘unlearn’ a few things. In particular I’ve seen a lot of people having to learn (the hard way) that even though they’re dealing with numerical values, they’ve got to think about how the real world environment would react to the changes they’re making in an image.
FXG: What are the essential qualities of a good compositor?
RB: A good eye, first and foremost. Learning what looks ‘right’ (even if sometimes it may not be technically as accurate). Having a sense for the math behind an operation will allow you to be more creative with problem solving.
FXG: Do you see the art of compositing as principally an analytical or inspirational process?
RB: Hmm – it depends. If you’re doing something fairly straightforward like integrating a character on bluescreen into a scene then there’s a lot more analytical work going on. But there are plenty of situations where inspiration is called for – particularly if you’re developing some kind of specialized treatment or effect. Not to mention the fact that problem-solving on a complex effect shot will often require a great deal of inspiration to get past the roadblocks.
FXG: What emerging technologies/software algorithms most interest you right now?
RB:I think there’s still a huge amount of stuff that’s going to come out of optical flow technologies.
(editor note: Optical flow technologies cover things such as automatic matte and removal of objects from moving footage etc ).
FXG: : How does HD change the compositing process – is it easier or harder than with film?
RB: Still probably depends more on the specifics of the material in question. Compressed HD footage will have problems with keying, but film imagery that was shot on a very grainy stock will have problems too.
FXG: Watching current feature films, what compositing errors make you cringe the most?
RB: Bad edges are almost inexcusable these days so when you see them it’s rather painful.
FXG: Given the budgets of some of these films, what causes these mistakes to make it to the final print ?
BR: Big budgets on the film don’t always translate to big budgets for the FX house, but the bigger issue is the short deadlines that facilities are constantly facing.
FXG: Do you believe compositing will become a standard part of all productions or stay in the realm of visual effects and fantasy fare?
RB: You’ll see it more and more, certainly. All depends on cost and circumstances. If a big-name actor doesn’t want to fly to Antarctica to shoot their scenes then eventually they’re going to be able to convince a production to shoot them on bluescreen instead. Silly, but I’m sure it’s already happening.
FXG: As a compositor, you get to become good friends with the superstars as you roto out their bald patches, right?
RB: I had to slim down an actress digitally once, but I think it was a decision that a producer or studio person made and they didn’t even TELL the actress that it had been done. But I’m waiting for the day when actors hire their own personal FX artist as a part of their entourage. I guarantee it’s going to happen!
Printed in association with Digital Media World Magazine, Sydney.