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An Interview with Visual Effects Creator Mark Christiansen

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Visual effects creator Mark Christiansen talks about magic, cotton balls, and animating splatting brains in 3D.
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Mark Christiansen has created visual effects and animations for feature films, television, computer games, and an array of companies. Recent feature film effects credits at The Orphanage include "The Day After Tomorrow" and the upcoming "The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D." His studio, Christiansen Creative, produces effects, motion graphics, and written content, such as his new book Adobe After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques.

We caught Mark in between projects and asked him about his new book, his new movie, and the bread and butter effects that every visual artist needs to know.

Q. What do you do for work when you're not writing books? I'm guessing magician. Am I wrong?

A. I picked up the magic metaphor and ran with it in the intro to this latest book, but no, I couldn't palm a coin to save my life. Magic and the arts of deception just seemed a good metaphor for what I and others actually do when we create visual effects for movies or video.

What I really like to do these days (and this may make readers grimace) is sing. I'm in this fantastic a cappella group right now—16 of us—we're working on a repertoire of all vocal tango music with an Argentinian director, and recording it at Skywalker Sound in June. I was never a choir lover until I found this group—Creative Voices. I'm a baritone and the son of a professional singer. It's great to be singing again, and at such a challenging level, surrounded by talented folks.

Q. In the intro to your book, you come off as sounding a little obsessed with magic. Why?

Um—obsessed? I don't think I brought it up again after the introduction. I'm not an obsessive person. I'm not an obsessive person. I'm not.

No, seriously, I just wanted to make a simple point. Nobody had done a book like this, where visual effects are actually laid out and tricks of the trade are shared in very direct terms, using specific software. For a while I thought that the reason was that it was just too hard.

And it would be hard to write a book showing someone how to create the most elaborate effect he's ever seen in a movie from scratch, on his own. Just as with magic, the really good stuff isn't just a "trick," it takes real skill, practice, and a combination of fundamental techniques.

But those fundamental techniques are what I decided you could put in a book. They don't belong to anyone, and every effects artist needs to understand them—how to replace a sky, how to relight a shot, how to add smoke and fire. They're the equivalent of palming a coin, hiding a card, or misdirecting the audience—the building blocks that will open the door to doing the really eye-popping stuff.

I think a lot of us who do this stuff forget how much of it does fall into familiar techniques. Every shot brings something unique, but even the most complex shot is made up 90% of these basic building blocks (albeit probably hundreds of instances of them).

Q. In your new book, Adobe After Effects 6.5 Studio Techniques, you break your industry's code of silence by revealing how to create realistic visual effects that some in the business might consider trade secrets. Aren't you a little afraid of getting whacked for saying too much? What has been the industry response to this tell-all? And why take the risk in the first place?

A. (laughing) You have a vivid imagination. Do you write for The Sopranos when you're not doing these interviews?

Really, it was the realization that I could write a book filled with specific techniques without giving away secrets that belonged to any individual that made it seem possible to do this book in the first place.

Most visual effects companies do have a bit of a code of silence, and all facilities and artists have their proprietary tricks and techniques. Some guard them jealously. I don't really see the point in guarding the "secrets" that any good visual magician (continuing with that metaphor) should know. It's kind of comical what passes for proprietary info sometimes. The stuff that's truly proprietary is often too complicated and specific to go into a book, anyhow.

Where I had heard a technique from a specific individual, I credited that person. For example, it was Yusei Uesegi, a very talented matte painter whom I met at ILM, who was credited by the other digital matte painters there as having come up with the concept of scanning or photographing cottonballs—from the drugstore—to make the raw element for billowing smoke, which you can then animate in After Effects. So I mentioned him. That was a decade ago, and it no longer seemed to be particularly a trade secret—it's just a cool thing you can do with an item from your local drugstore and a digital camera.

The thing is, knowing that will undoubtedly help some artists create better looking plumes of smoke. They will still have to put effort into their shots, and the best shots won't just be a simple matter of "Hey, I photographed some cotton and now I'm considered more of a genius than Dennis Muren." They're just the basis for what comes next—crafting the whole shot using a bunch of overlapping techniques, and a lot of hard work.

Q. You describe your book as explaining how to create "bread and butter" effects using After Effects. What are the bread and butter effects that every effects artist needs to know?

A. The one that people most automatically associate with effects compositing is pulling a matte—typically, taking footage that was shot against a monochrome blue or green background and eliminating the background, such that there are no discernable edges or matte lines, the bane of the compositor's existence.

There are books that touch on this process, or go deeply into the theory of it, but what seems to have been lacking was thorough advice for using the excellent keyer that comes with After Effects, Keylight. So rather than giving this topic the page or two it gets in other After Effects books, I gave it a chapter.

Pulling mattes is in some ways comparatively easy because it's a craft with particular technical criteria. The art of compositing is much more about color and light, and understanding how they work, the way a painter would. The meat of the book points out situations in which a certain phenomenon occurs—say, light wrapping around a backlit subject—and how to recreate it.

The book is organized into three sections, which progress from technology to craft to art. In other words, the first section is mostly about how to make the best use of After Effects; the second section is about broad-based techniques that a compositor must know such as color matching, keying, rotoscoping, and camera matching; and the third and final section is about specific visuals you might want to recreate, like smoke, or fire, or relighting a shot.

Q. What was the last film you saw where you looked at the effects and said to yourself, "This looks fake"? On the flip side, what film do you hold on a pedestal for its killer special effects?

A. The movie I just worked on, "The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D," is full of stuff that looks fake—but it's supposed to look that way, because it's a stylized kids' movie going for laughs and fun. I composited a shot where a kid catches a human brain and throws it—kerplop—against the screen. That's right, the imaginary fourth wall was not only broken, but in fact, splatted. Not only that, this is all in 3D. Now who's not going to say that looks fake?

Still, we took a lot of care to make sure the world was internally consistent, and nice looking, and that the brain splatted in a really funny way. Brains might bounce all over the surface of this planet like foam rubber balls, and the planet might look like it's about a mile in diameter, but nothing breaks those rules, and the elements all live together in the same world. So hopefully you look at that shot, and say, "That looks hilarious," rather than, "That looks fake."

I worked on another film that I thought looked amazing—"The Day After Tomorrow." I was really proud of how incredible our shots, and those of all of the houses that worked on it, came out—really gorgeous work.

The films I hold in the highest esteem effects-wise are the ones in which the effects and the story are most densely interwoven—"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and the original "The Matrix." There are so many incredible visuals in each of those films that came from the story that the director wanted to tell. In the case of "The Matrix," they invented a whole visual language to do it, while "The Lord of the Rings" used every effects trick in the book, all to make this fantasy world look more natural. I'm not your typical effects nerd—as a viewer I don't have much patience for the "Armageddon" or "Pearl Harbor" type movies. I don't typically go to see a film just for the visuals.

Q. What are the keys to creating realistic special effects that you cover in your book?

A. There are many keys to becoming a visual effects artist—some of them involve understanding concepts and tools, others rely on specific techniques. Those are in the book. For example, I discuss how to faithfully match colors of elements even if you consider yourself color blind. Color (and light, which on a computer screen is a synonym for color) comes up a lot—how it operates in video and film (in very specific detail with charts and so on) as well as the tools you use to manipulate it.

The greatest key to creating realistic visual effects is what is commonly known as "having a good eye," as well as working hard to satisfy that eye. This is something you wouldn't think could be taught, but actually, a "good eye" is a skill that comes with learning how to look at the world. Ask any visual effects supervisor and he'll tell you how much better he's become at spotting stuff since he started this work (or he's not telling you the truth). Some people become frighteningly good at it—they can dissect an entire seven-second shot after seeing it once or twice. That's a skill you learn by putting the building-block techniques to work on shot after shot, and not being easily satisfied.

Q. In your book, you say that "understanding is preferable to knowledge." I must admit, I don't understand. What does that mean and what does that have to do with creating visual effects?

A. There are too many books out there that give step-by-steps. They teach you tricks, essentially, so I'm going to go back to my magic metaphor again here. You don't become Harry Houdini or David Blaine by learning step-by-step tricks.

You succeed by really taking in what's going on with light, physics, film and video, so that when a situation comes up that seems new, you can adapt to it using what you understand about them.

You might know that your matte edges should be crisp, and you might know exactly how to make them that way. But if you don't understand that edges in the real world are always a little bit soft, because of the way light bends around solid objects, you risk making them look too crisp. There are lots of examples like this.

Q. You said you recently did effects work for the upcoming film "The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D." What was that like and how much of the effects work was actually done in After Effects?

A. Yes, I jumped onto that film (right after completing the book) for the last few weeks of post-production at The Orphanage, which has historically made heavy use of After Effects for compositing.

It's not really about the tools. You would never look at a film and say, "Well, that shot was done with After Effects, and that one was done with Shake (or Nuke, or Digital Fusion, or Combustion)." It's all about the artist. After Effects has this reputation of being more for motion graphics than for effects, but it and Combustion are probably the only two which are equally viable for either type of work. Furthermore, The Orphanage has added some very cool customizations to After Effects— none cooler than eLin, which allows After Effects to operate in true linear color with overbright data (and which is available to the public free of charge, and is covered in the book).

By the way, if I have readers out there who are actually going to see "Shark Boy" (probably artists with 10-year-old kids) and look for my name in the credits—it's not there. I had to come on late and leave early, and the credits went to the folks who put in more time than I did. This isn't the first time it's happened, and it doesn't make much difference to me, but it does sometimes confuse people who don't realize how often it happens to freelancers in this business. My relatives were really discouraged when they all went out to see "Spy Kids 3D" with their kids the weekend it came out, and sat through the credits, only to find—no Mark. For me it's these Robert Rodriguez films, evidently—c'mon Robert, where's the love? (He did personally send us lots of Mrs. Fields cookies, happy with the work we were doing.)

Q. Your book is packed with great tips. What's one of your best?

A. I hit a few things that almost nobody gets right with After Effects. For example, using Keylight effectively comes down to working with the first four or five controls. Here's a tool that has something like 50 sliders, and confuses the heck out of people even after they read the documentation, but your whole key has its "make or break" work done with those top few controls. Most people don't even know what they're for—I didn't really until I had to write this book and grilled the guys at The Foundry who knew the answers to my questions.

My favorite tips are about how to recognize the need for a technique, and how to then create it on your own, without relying on a third-party plug-in (which is something that After Effects users famously do). It's fun to make your own light wrap, or edge matte, or glow, or heat haze, or fog, or rain—well, as you can see, I have a lot of favorites. I'm proud to say that there are literally dozens of these in the book, particularly in the latter half of the book.

Q. What projects are you walking on now that your book is finished?

A. I'm doing my usual mix of features, commercials/industrials, and smaller writing projects. I'm hoping to take a break soon—I haven't slowed down since I really started the book in earnest, and my family has seen too little of me lately.

And I have those tangos to sing.

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