Powerful tech creating VFX in movies dabbles with VR experiences too
Things that get blown up or burst into flames in movies are often not destroyed in reality. When James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 goes up in flames, it doesn’t mean that an actual, expensive Aston Martin DB5 was blown up. The very real-looking experience is mostly achieved by a mix of special effects and visual effects. You’d probably remember these better as SFX and VFX. They aren’t interchangeable terms since both processes do different things, despite some overlap. Akhauri P Sinha, the managing director at Framestore says the misunderstanding of these functions is quite widespread.
“To differentiate between the two at the most basic level, SFX refers to effects shot on the camera on set. VFX refers to digitally generated imagery and effects that are added after the shoot is over, during the post-production phase,” Sinha tells Hindustan Times. Framestore, a British company founded in 1986, is a three-time Oscar winner for the Best Visual Effects category for Blade Runner 2049 in 2018, Gravity in 2014 and Golden Compass in 2008. You may have seen these films in cinema halls recently; and Framestore has played a significant part in creating James Bond’s No Time To Die and Venom 2: Let There Be Carnage.
The scope is expanding, and the scale is becoming wider. Research firm Verified Market Research in the latest “Visual Effects (VFX) Market” report released earlier this month, said that the global Visual Effects (VFX) Market size was valued at $6.794 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $9.777 billion by the year 2028.
“Over the last couple of years, Framestore has contributed VFX to projects like Christopher Robin, Avengers: Endgame, Guardians of the Galaxy, Tomorrow War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Mulan, Avengers: Infinity War among others,” says Sinha.
That’s not all, Framestore is currently busy with movies that’ll likely land in a cinema hall near you or will soon be streamed on your OTT platforms. These include Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Fantastic Beasts 3, The Little Mermaid, Spider-Man – No Way Home, Matrix: Resurrections, His Dark Materials 3 and Red Notice, to name a few.
But what really is the tech backbone for creating VFX and SFX? The basic specs for computing devices that are needed for the software to work are astonishing powerful. “It varies and multiple specifications and combinations thereof exist. Something with 128 GB RAM, minimum 6-core, or 8-core processor with a base clock of 3.5 GHz and a powerful graphics card to go with it will be one example,” says Sinha. Compare this with even the most powerful gaming PC configurations available as standard and the ones you can order online or buy off store shelves, which usually top out at 64GB RAM.
Due to the pace of development of special effects processing software and hardware, critical computing devices need to be upgraded every 2 years or so. That is before specific hardware or component upgrade requirements are catered to. “The tech stack at most VFX companies is quite complex – using a combination of third-party products, with and without customizations, as well as proprietary tools and software,” Sinha explains why the VFX processes need such powerful machines to get the job done.
If you are already placing your bets on whether the VFX editors prefer a Microsoft Windows based computing device or the Apple macOS platform, you’d all be losing. “Most VFX and animation studios are on Linux because, among other reasons, it is very customizable,” says Sinha. The more open nature of Linux compared with the comparatively more restrictive Windows and macOS ecosystems, allow studios to have specific plug-ins and software customizations done for the base editing and artistic software they use.
And it is not just technology that sits on workstation desks at VFX studios, including Framestore. Sinha talks about the first of its kind project called Field Trip to Mars. This is a unique headset-free group virtual reality vehicle experience, for which they worked with aerospace company Lockheed Martin and advertising firm McCann. Children boarded a school bus and probably thought they were going for a picnic. Instead, the windows of the bus were enveloped in a virtual reality, or VR experience that brought them to the rocky surface of the red planet, Mars. Sinha believes VFX and AR will continue to come together to create new experiences, particularly as technology leaps forward.
Turning the entire bus into a VR headset of sorts, was something that hadn’t been tried successfully on this scale before. The experience drew from data from GPS and accelerometers to enable a sense of realism as the bus moved on the route. The common consumer applications of VR involve a headset that you wear and look directly into, and connected with this is your smartphone or PC, to provide the immersive content. With headsets, you move around, and it uses accelerometers and various sensors to detect those movements which reflects on how you see the VR content—such as hiking up a virtual hill or fighting virtual monsters.
Framestore remains bullish about its plans for India despite the delay caused by the pandemic. The focus is on expansion of processes and doubling the workforce in India. The company’s India office is in Mumbai, with global presence in London, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Numbers by research firm Statista forecast India’s animation and VFX industry will be worth ₹129 billion by the year 2023, up from ₹53 billion last year.
“A good amount of VFX work is being done in India, and while in the initial years it focused only on a couple of aspects, in more recent times, that pretty much spans most aspects,” says Sinha. “More and more high-end work is being done here and Framestore India plans to be a full-service studio completely integrated with our other global studios across the world,” he adds. Globally, Framestore acquired post-production giant Company3 last year to further the push into VFX for movies, television, gaming and other media such as advertisements.