For Example: The Mill LA’s Tim Davies and Flame

In the first of our For Example series – which look at how key visual effects artists work with their tools of choice – we talk to lead 2D artist Tim Davies about Autodesk’s Flame and what tools in Flame he uses, for example, in his work. Davies recently joined The Mill LA.

Tim Davies.

fxg: You’ve been on a Flame how long now?

Davies: I think the first time I jumped on a Flame was around 1996/97, so that’s about 14 years now. I came from the Quantel background. I was at Digital Pictures in Sydney and I was running the HAL over there, and Alex Catchpoole was on the Flame. He was being given these incredible opportunities and I thought that’s the future and I need to get into that. Then they brought in the Fire, and I thought that was a good stepping stone – I can’t knock Alex off his perch, so I’ll go over there and learn all the tools.

So back in the day, with its poor reputation, we managed to get a lot out of that machine by pulling out shots and using the Fire as if it you’d use it like a Flame. Just doing good compositing using all the common software like the trackers and the keys and the sparks which were very much a wow thing in their day. And I never looked back.

fxg: You were at Asylum and were working on commercials, but now you’re working at The Mill LA – is that also on commercials?

Davies: At Asylum I actually got a good run of features as well. My background was graphic design and I often got brought into some features at Asylum as far as look development was concerned. I did a big section of Terminator: Salvation – we were brought on to create what Skynet would look like if you could get inside Skynet’s brain. It was basically an ever-expanding network of computers that were all connected, metaphorically.

fxg: You also did some titles work on features?

Davies: Yeah, I did National Treasure 2. The thing I loved about the Flame was that – well, they’d say, ‘You’ve got four weeks – you’ve got to come up a two-and-a-half minute title sequence to tell the story of National Treasure‘. They’d done one a few years previously where they’d basically just moved the Flame camera through 2D dimensional cards within a 3D environment. They came up with a whole new one and I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to get that much duration done in a month?’ with all the approvals. So I thought the best way to approach this is to imagine the entire piece as a move through a studio with a camera and get them to buy off on the camera move, and then position things in 3D space that they wanted in that environment, so that at any point in time if they didn’t like a piece, I’d just swap that out for something else and I wouldn’t have to start again.

The Skynet displays from Terminator: Salvation.

Fortunately, what I love about the Flame is the ability to be self-sufficient. When it comes down to it, whether it’s for budgetary or scheduling reasons, you can actually take a piece from beginning to end, and you don’t have to rely on anyone else for anything. There’s always a way around it – and you can actually punch something out with it.

fxg: Do you find compositing in three-dimensional space pivotal to your work?

Davies: Yeah, absolutely. We do a lot of commercials with environment replacements. As powerful as our 3D tracking software can be on the Flame, we often a bid a job to get three weeks of CG tracking, and they just give us an FBX camera for every single shot, with locators inserted in areas of the scene, so that you can basically re-dress the scene. I’ve done quite a few spots like that – you get some matte paintings or snow or bits and pieces – once you’ve got rid of that techy work you can actually go to town on Photoshopping a frame and it moves automatically for you. So you can put pieces here and there and move things. It’s phenomenal. Just being able to work in 3D space. That’s a really cool way to show off, in a way. Anything that has dimension and lets you move through it is a very pleasing thing to experience.

fxg: So you would normally get those things tracked externally, because obviously Flame does have a 3D tracker?

Davies: Yeah, it’s a scheduling thing. It allows us to get all those nuts and bolts out really quickly. Typically in LA you get some big jobs with hard deadlines, and now with technology and the expectation of creatives – you can conform it and start farming out the shots – and you can get your 2D team to be doing all their work while the tracking guys are punching out stuff really quickly. Even to the next level of doing 3D stuff, they give you an FBX file that has basic models that you can project textures onto. It’s silly to think that you can do it all yourself, time-wise. It’s really good to mix things.

Flame screenshot of the color corrector tool used for a Bud Light 'Dog Sitter' spot (vfx by The Mill LA). Davies was shoot supervisor and lead 2D artist on the TVC.

fxg: For your commercials work, do you do the conform in the Flame?

Davies: Yes.

fxg: Do you normally have a DI  finish on a job or are you doing the final grade on a TVC on flame?

Davies: The directors are mostly very tight with the colorists here – so 99% of the time it will all be graded and ready to go. Compositing – I think half of the time is grading it to look right. There’s only so much you can do in a telecine suite when half the frame’s missing. They’ll get a look – most of the shots can be left alone, but there’s a lot of time where you’re creating imagery from scratch and that all has to sit in color-wise. I think being a good compositor is being a good colorist as well.

fxg: Walking around the Flame, which parts do you preference? For example, color grading – are you in the color warper or the color corrector module?

Davies: I’ve always used the color corrector. I basically start with the RGB nodes and pull color out – I grade by pulling red out or the channel out often in the gain or the gamma, depending on how you’re dealing with the offsets. But very much in the basic, old-school way. But with the color warper, I use it often as a final link in my batch where there’s a little bit of fringing or stuff that I don’t want to go and pull mattes for and I can just go and lock onto a certain section of the frame and use the color warper with a selection and work on it that way.

fxg: What sort of keyers do you use?

Davies: My first choice is master keyer – I find that does a good job. Often when you need to break up your key, I’ll jump into the modular keyer. I think the suppression tool in the basic keyer is really powerful. Sometimes even the color warper can pull some good keys.

fxg: Are you mainly working off the desktop into action, or taking everything into batch. For example, to paint some frames, are you taking the paint module into batch or using it out on the desktop?

Davies: In batch. I think the Flame’s got a lot more powerful as the years have gone by. I used to, in the early days, do a lot of keying and then edges that didn’t look good enough I’d get back on the desktop and do a restore. But I’m always using it now within batch to help me along and get rid of those problem areas.

With my background with Paintbox and Quantel, I’ve always had to paint frames. Sometimes I know that, yes, there might be 60 frames to paint, but I know that at the end of those 60 frames I’m going to get a result. A lot of the younger guys these days try to do everything in a tool, and they can sometimes get lost. They’re pulling and pushing and pulling, and sometimes it’s easier just to get your hands dirty and use it that way.

Flame keyer screenshot featuring the Bud Light spot.

fxg: Also, in the paint in batch it’s easy to do a paint stroke that is then applied to every frame left in that clip, which is kind of nice addition that you don’t have on the desktop.

Davies: Yes, being able to record what you’ve done – you can update your comp or a clip and your work is still there. That’s phenomenally powerful.

fxg: Do you have sparks on your machine and which ones do you like to use?

Davies: We’ve got all the main ones – Tinder and Sapphire. Furnace de-noise was God’s gift to keying as far as I’m concerned. The first thing I’ll do on any key is run it through Furnace de-noise, which helps incredibly. Even when you’re repairing a frame, which you need to paint so obviously you need to de-noise it first, and then use it as a still and track it in, and re-grain it afterwards.

The most powerful thing that Discreet / Autodesk has done in ten years is the multiple outputs in action – it’s phenomenal. To be able to divide up your comp either in different versions of the comp or in mattes that you can pull – you might do a key or a tiny little edge blur on the key. You can basically drop the alpha of that element out to a separate node and you can do a matte edge. You can do a slight soften or a re-grain. It’s all there, and that’s very cool these days.

fxg: In terms of commercials workflow in LA, I presume you’re a 1920×1080 in a Rec. 709?

Davies: Some stuff does come in 2K, 2K square. Which gives us a lot of freedom to finish in 2K. Sometimes we’re still doing NTSC, standard def releases. I’ll often finish a commercial full 2K, and then do a straight downsize still 4:3 to give me a 4:3 output. But I would say it’s about 70/30. 70% of the work comes straight from 1920×1080, and sometimes when you’ve got anamorphic and stuff like that it becomes a bit trickier. It’s nice when it’s 1920×1080 because then all the decisions are made. You don’t have to say, ‘What do you think? What do you think?’

fxg: Back in the day at Digital Pictures we used to run stuff through film and absolutely the best stuff was shot on film, but of course these days that’s no longer the case. I’m wondering do you get to access the ARRI RAW or RED RAW files or is everything transcoded before you get it. Are you having to worry about colorspace coming in, or is getting pre-processed stuff?

Davies: It’s mainly pre-processed. When we do more film work, we get it more that way. Personally, if you don’t technically need it unprocessed, then give it to me processed. Again it’s another thing you don’t have to take on board. As the Flame supervisor on a job, you’ve got so many hands on the stove and getting rid of as many decisions as you have to is important.

Flame paint screenshot from 'The HBO Voyeur Project', an online, on-demand and wall projection piece Davies worked on while at Asylum.
'The HBO Voyeur Project' in action on a wall projection.

fxg: So, if I came to you with say an EPIC job, how are you asking for that to be prepared – is your preference 10 bit 4:4:4 or a 12 bit – what are you asking for?

Davies: Honestly, I don’t get too involved in that stuff – a lot of the edit houses have colorists and they give it to us in the form they decide. It needs to be translated in a certain way for the editors to get it and for them to have an edit approved.

fxg: And other stuff, Photoshop files, and other bits and pieces?

Davies: We actually have an art support department here at The Mill – and everything goes through them. They’re very disciplined. Back at Asylum, I used to do a lot more. I had a good iMac next to me, and take it on myself and get the PSDs and pull them apart where necessary. You can pull the PSDs straight in in layers or straight into action – it all gets laid out for you. I do a fair bit of design work as well for end tags – so long as I can get the basic artwork in a good color and good enough resolution, it’s pretty straightforward.

fxg: You’re also acting as a supervisor at Mill LA, does that mean you get to go on set on TVCs – is that common?

Davies: Yes, it’s pretty cool. Being able to go there makes such a difference for the guy putting it together to be on set. These days with the Canon 5Ds we have – the amount of reference we have – I’m almost like a second unit on elements that will hold up on the 5D, and I’ll shoot it that way. Then bring those in.

You’re involved in everything. There’s a lot of stuff that can go through your head watching it and thinking as they shoot stuff – ‘I can fix this, I can do that’ – so when you get back to the studio you can hit the ground running and you know exactly what needs doing and what elements go where.

I’ve done a fair bit of shoots for Mill NY in San Francisco, and did a job in New Zealand. I would bundle up a whole batch of stills and movies from the camera and basically give them a log, saying these stills relate to this shot – you should use this for this and this for that. Basically give them a toolkit of additional media they can use to put stuff together. So obviously if you’re putting this together yourself it just stays in your head and off you go. It can save so much time to be there and say, ‘If only you could shoot it this way for me’. I think there’s a trick to being always present but never in the way. You have to be confident in your decisions and say to everyone this is what we need and why, and it works well.

Final shot from the Bud Light spot.

fxg: In terms of continuity between on set and in post, it used to be the case that American directors were involved in shooting stuff but would not stay around for post – is that still the case?

Davies: There’s still very much a difference between Sydney and the States, although the director is still very much interested in the job all the way through. Ten years ago we’d be sending VHS’ around and they’d say, ‘I can’t see anything on this,’ but these days they would see our works in progress two or three times a week and they’re good quality and you can jog through frame by frame and you can get a tremendous amount of feedback from your directors. But the agencies really hold their jobs tight. At the end of the day I’ve been involved in many things and the director says,’You know what, I’m done fighting.’ The agency will get what they want and hopefully we can come to a compromise. I find that agencies in the US hold their jobs a lot tighter than they do in Australia.

fxg: So in commercials versus film, do they tend to have the ‘VIP or cool’ suites?

Davies: In a commercial environment, I think you still need some slick suites. I worked in New York over the whole of January and it was a gorgeous space with beautiful suites – it’s one of the things that attracted me to The Mill is the incredible environment and pride in their work. In their new space in LA, there’s seven suites. There’s a beautiful big table at the front of the room, and there’s two workstations on every table. They’ll run a Flame and Flare. There’s a senior person and a middle or junior person. They can route any Flame to any workstation, which is really cool. Physically I’ll sit on the same computer but it could be a different room.

fxg: What do you like to have as your God monitor?

Davies: They’ve got some really nice 50 inch plasmas which are calibrated. There’s no real surprises. I used to have a BVM, but they basically became extinct and you couldn’t get hold of them. So the set up they have here is that they don’t have them anymore in the bays. We’re using Eizo monitors on each of the workstations and a calibrated plasma, and there’s no surprises. So long as you match what you have within your scene and within the commercial, then the color is set by a colorist in an amazingly expensive monitor in a telecine suite. Then you just bring it on and finish it off.

fxg: Thanks so much Tim, and great chatting to you as always.

Davies: Thanks Mike.


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