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Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are only part of the ongoing evolution of VFX work for spots and brand videos, says ZERO VFX brain trust.
With Star Wars mania still upon us, the Super Bowl just around the corner, and Oculus Rift set to release its consumer virtual reality headset any day now, the craft and execution of visual effects imagery has never been more relevant. Effects shots are now the norm in almost all categories of film and video production, whether it’s simple clean up or jaw-dropping visuals.
With all of the hype surrounding the art form, the content creation community is looking to effects artists and designers to help create a new world of digital tools, techniques and styles.
For insight into this explosive field we’ve turned to the leaders of the fast-growing Boston and Venice, CA based effects, animation, design and CG studio, ZERO VFX. Founded in 2010 by Sean Devereaux and Brian Drewes respectively, a veteran VFX Supervisor and Creative Director, and an experienced Executive Producer, ZERO VFX has helped put Boston on the map as an effects hub, providing effects, CG, animation and post for a range of ad assignments and feature films.
Joining Devereaux and Drewes in this Q&A on the state of the effects industry is Executive Producer and Director of Business Development Sarah Spitz, a former agency producer who moved over from Arnold in 2013. Since her arrival, ZERO has worked for such brands as Jack Daniel’s, Scion, New Balance, Dunkin' Donuts and many others. On the feature side, ZERO VFX has played a supporting role in such recent films as Black Mass, American Hustle, and Southpaw.
ZERO’s ability to easily shift back and forth between advertising and entertainment projects – often working with the same teams of artists and producers – gives the company a uniquely broad perspective on the effects industry.
With its star-studded cast and sprawling narrative, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass heads back to the seventies to tell the the story of Whitey Bulger – the brother of a state senator and one of South Boston’s most infamous criminals.
It was fitting, then, that ZERO VFX – with one of its two offices in Boston – was called upon to recreate the bygone era of the city it calls home.
From augmenting crowd shots to swapping one season for another, ZERO’s work on the project was far- and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, despite its contribution, ZERO lived up to its name, leaving no trace of its fingerprints across the production.
“We managed to implement a diverse range of invisible effects across Black Mass, working directly with the plate photography,” begins Sean Devereaux, VFX supervisor for ZERO on the project, and more than willing to spill the family secrets.
“It was challenging, but I think 99.9% of the people who see it will never know we touched a single frame of it.”
The ZERO team worked on 375 shots in total, straddling period enhancements, shot corrections and violence augmentation. The name of the game was realism, which, while adding to the drama of the film, was a challenging task.
“The director, Scott Cooper, wanted the film to be totally true, in every way possible, to the time it took place,” explains Devereaux. “That meant shooting on location in Boston, and sometimes in front of buildings that wouldn’t have existed in the time period. It was up to ZERO to remove those buildings from the plates.”
Another factor to consider was that Black Mass was shot in late spring, whereas most of the scenes in Black Mass take place in a much colder late winter. ZERO’s team of seasoned supervisors, producers and artists took on the monumental task of swapping seasons.
Utilizing a diverse array of tools – including Maya, NUKE, and Photoshop, Devereaux and his team went about transforming mild spring to a stark winter. This involved creating CG snow (“Any time you see snow in the film, it was added by us,” says Devereaux) and removing the thick foliage from the trees visible during footage.
“There’s really no way to just take off leaves from a tree – you have to replace the entire background,” explains Devereaux. “A lot of our shots became over 80% digital in order to accomplish that, with entire backdrops of green foliage changed to snow-tipped branches.”
All of these changes were impressively created without the aid of any green screens. For Devereaux, this wasn’t necessarily an issue, as it gave the director much more creative freedom in how he approached each shot for the film.
“I want to give the director as much time as possible to figure out how he want his shot to look, and as soon as you put that green screen up you’re instantly limiting his ability to have more time with the cut,” explains Devereaux. “In avoiding that, yes, it meant we had to focus on rotoscoping, but it allowed the director more freedom in the editorial process. At ZERO, we want to engender that creativity, not distract from it.”
Devereaux states that the most VFX-intensive shots faced during the production were those set within a moving vehicle. “They did take the most resources,” remember Devereaux. ”We had to replace absolutely everything outside of the windows, including the reflections, which required a lot of careful, meticulous work from our artists.
“Thankfully, VFX supervisor Paul Linden was one set,” he continues. “He did a great job on set, ensuring that the transition between on-set shooting and post-production was as smooth as it could possibly be.”
From drawing a crowd to drawing blood
In addition to the CG snow, crowd extension – achieved by duplicating extras – became another important element in the Black Mass VFX process.
“There were no CG people involved in Black Mass’s crowd extensions,” explains Devereaux. “It was a case of simply duplicating extras from multiple takes. We achieved the effect in 2D using assets captured from other takes and angles. The result was totally seamless.”
ZERO didn’t just need to draw a crowd, but also draw blood. Black Mass is, after all, a violent film, and that meant a great deal of arterial spray being used to enhance the special effects occurring in the original plates.
ZERO’s work didn’t just include enhancing the violence, but also toning it down: “If you’re a sucker for authenticity you know bullet holes don’t have smoke come out of them when you shoot somebody, but squibs sometimes cause that,” says Devereaux. “As such a lot of our work involved squib clean up. It was about making things look more real while also enhancing the impact of the violence.”
Throughout the Black Mass project, reality was the name of the game. Yes, entire buildings were removed, and an epic reversal of Mother Nature was achieved, but despite these impressive feats ZERO’s involvement needed to remain as low key as possible.
“We did a lot of work, but what I’m really proud of is that, of all the work we’ve done at ZERO, Black Mass truly is one where you’ll never know we were there,” concludes Devereaux. “We’re truly invisible – it’s a true illusion in every sense of the word.
“At ZERO, we take a lot of pride in that.”
Watch it here!
Read about it here!
Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw doesn’t pull its punches. From the get-go viewers are thrust into a vision of the boxing high-life that’s as gritty as it is glamorous, the mansions and luxury cars juxtaposed with violence, loss, and inner turmoil.
For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy ‘The Great’ Hope, boxing is more than just a sport – it’s a release for the inner demons that he must overcome to win back custody of his estranged daughter. The fights he engages in are unflinchingly authentic, each punch powered by a lifetime’s worth of pain.
As such, Fuqua wanted nothing less than absolute reality – a boxing flick that transcended the usual underdog-overcomes-adversity-to-become-champion tale, and one that presented the sport as a real, raw release, causing the audience to feel every jab and hook as if they were right there in the ring.
Of course, no matter how much of a method actor he might be, you can’t have Jake Gyllenhaal take each and every blow throughout the film’s numerous fights. Instead, carefully crafted, absolutely invisible visual effects were needed to bring Fuqua’s vision to life.
It was ZERO VFX that stepped into the ring to deliver its one-two of invisible visual effects expertise.
With reality the name of the game in Southpaw, the boxing choreography wasn’t set up shot-by-shot, but rather round-by-round.
“The production shot three rounds at a time, using 15 different cameras,” begins Sean Devereaux, Southpaw’s VFX Supervisor, and one of the people responsible for ensuring the VFX was properly prepared for on-set. “The actors would do a round, go and sit in their corners, do the lines they had to do, then get back up and keep boxing, all while the cameras continued to roll. We weren’t working with specifically designed shots, where we stop the action to cut to inserts or cutaways for cool punches. It was all in real-time.”
The benefit of filming each of Southpaw’s bouts in this style was that it allowed Fuqua to communicate the visceral nature of the fights and the emotional arc of the characters: the actors didn’t need to pretend they were tired, they were tired, and this became the foundation of their performances.
“We knew the production was going to shoot three rounds at a time, so it was up us to work with the filmmakers to determine how to design the most flexible system we could,” remembers Devereaux. “It made things more challenging, for sure, but we never want to limit the director in their ability to shoot the way they want to.”
As such, not a single blue or green screen was put up for Southpaw due to the nature of this shoot, meaning Fuqua was not limited to any specific angle. However, ZERO did use highly detailed LiDAR scans and set survey data to compensate for the lack of tracking markers and shaky, hand-held camera movement.
“We did everything in those big takes,” states Devereaux. “It made putting the crowds into the background – although quite typical in VFX these days – more challenging, because we couldn’t control any of that structure on set. That meant a lot more work needed to be done on the extensions than anticipated.
“Nevertheless, this approach to visual effects meant that Fuqua could shoot the film exactly the way he wanted to, while still delivering all of the final impact. The VFX supported the concept of the film, rather than defining it.”
It wasn’t just the real-time rounds that gave Southpaw its intensity. ZERO’s visual effects help bring another element of realism to the fore: “Every single punch in Southpaw is connected,” reveals Devereaux of the film’s intense boxing.
“There’s not a single near miss where the sound effects do the work,” he continues. “Every punch thrown that is supposed to connect with the other fighter makes contact with their face, warps it, and spit and blood are ejected. That’s every single punch – there’s not one that misses unintentionally over the film’s 35 minutes of boxing.”
This impactful result was achieved using a variety of different techniques, from 2D paint work and warping – using which ZERO would extend a boxer’s arm, bend their glove upon impact, and warp the recipient's jaw – all the way up to full CG replacements of gloves and arms.
“We would sometimes completely move a boxer, taking them out of the frame, or move them closer to their opponent because they were too far away,” explains Devereaux.
“We also had to do a lot of head adjustments – if you get hit by a jab in professional boxing, the head barely moves, but sometimes the actor in question would react slightly too much. We had to limit the movement so it looked a little more realistic.”
It wasn’t just the bouts that had to look real, but the environments in which they occurred. That meant taking a small, simple arena surrounded by shadow, and turning it into two of the most captivating and prestigious sporting arenas in the world – Madison Square Garden and Caesar’s Palace.
“The fights in Southpaw were originally filmed in a very small arena; we had to then create the stadiums in CG and fill them with crowds,” says ZERO’s visual effects producer Brian Drewes. “The stadiums were full CG builds, right up into the rafters and the luxury boxes. We also created the crowds, the lighting – everything that you see outside of that central ring.”
These hand-built stadiums were created using the aforementioned LiDAR scans and photography reference of the actual locations, allowing the ZERO team to map their extensions with absolute precision. It was then a case of combining 2D and 3D systems to meticulously add crowds into each level of the stadium.
“That’s prevalent for many, many minutes of the film,” says Drewes. “We didn’t attempt to escape from any of that – we built it all by hand.”
The knockout punch
Despite the challenges inherent in working in such an authentic, realistic manner, the final results are there to see on screen. Southpaw’s intense bouts of boxing feel intensely real, and few would suggest that they weren’t filmed either on location within the world-famous stadiums, or if not that, then a physical facsimile built on a sound stage.
“That was really the goal, and what the director wanted,” says Devereaux. “It was all about making it genuine, making it real. We weren’t trying to make Southpaw more violent by adding big movement to the punches – it had to feel like a real boxing match.
“Yes, that’s a challenge, because we couldn’t get away with the usual VFX band aids that you have, like cutting to spectators, or a slow motion shot – it was all there in the moment,” he concludes. “Nevertheless, the final film is all the more believable and impactful – and the director’s vision was maintained – all because of that extra work that we poured in during post.
“That’s the core to invisible VFX at ZERO.”
Watch the before and after reel here!
Leading visual effects and creative studio ZERO VFX has opened a new 5,000-square-foot office in Venice Beach, California, expanding on ZERO’s long-term Boston headquarters.
This new bi-coastal approach to operations will enable ZERO to continue delivering high-end visual effects to feature films such as Southpaw and Black Mass, while also continuing to develop in the commercials sector.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – 2016 – Leading visual effects and creative studio, ZERO VFX, has opened a bran new West-Coast operation.
The new 5,000-square-foot office in Venice Beach, California, expands on ZERO's long-term Boston headquarters and marks a substantial bi-coastal scaling of operations in both the feature film and commercial markets. The move and additional staffing in the Boston office effectively doubles the company size from 40 to 80+ employees.
Feature film and commercials success
ZERO has achieved great success in the feature film, television, and commercial markets, having recently executed three projects with Netflix Originals in less than a year and delivered work on high-profile feature projects including The Equalizer, Southpaw, and Black Mass. Several more high-profile projects are currently in the works.
ZERO's commercial credits include work for leading brands including Toyota, Jack Daniel's, New Balance and more. The Venice Beach office was partly chosen due to its prime location for the support of further high-end commercial work.
The company is renowned for its deep creative and technical problem solving and close involvement in projects. ZERO is lead by its two co-founders, industry veterans Brian Drewes (Head of Production) and Sean Devereaux (Creative Director).
Brian Drewes comments: "This is a really exciting time for us, and we are looking forward to offering our clients even greater service with the opening of our second location in LA.
By: Vincent Frei
In 2012, Lara Lom talked to us about the MPC work on SKYFALL. After that she worked on films such as 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE and then on ROBOCOP and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY at Framestore. She then joinedZero VFX in Boston.
How did you get involved on this show?
I came to Zero to work on SOUTHPAW. I was drawn by the substantial use of visual effects in what first struck me as a movie that would require minimal use of it. I think most people are surprised to learn that we delivered over 500 visual effects shots for this film. Not only did we create 3D stadium environments, but we also substantially re-animated and re-timed actor performances for the majority of the boxing matches to enhance the realism and violence of the fighting.
How was the collaboration with director Antoine Fuqua?
SOUTHPAW is the second project directed by Antoine Fuqua on which Zero has worked.
The company also completed the visual effects on Antoine’s previous film, THE EQUALIZER.
Working with Antoine Fuqua was a very positive experience. What I appreciated the most was his genuine respect for the work of each and every visual effects artist. As a boxer himself, he was also extremely knowledgeable about the sport and provided invaluable insight into the boxing world, a passion that definitely resonated with the artists.
What was his approach about the visual effects?
Having worked with us before, Antoine shared a strong working relationship with Visual Effects Supervisor and co-owner of Zero, Sean Devereaux. Where Antoine had a clear vision of what he wanted, Sean knew how to create it digitally.
By: Margaret Lenker
Since premiering last month on Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six” hasn’t exactly been riding stellar buzz. In his review, Variety‘s Justin Chang wrote the Adam Sandler comedy was “so lazy and aimless, it barely qualifies as parody.”
But according to Netflix, the slapstick Western is hardly a joke.
During their CES keynote on Wednesday, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos offered some insight into the company’s movie business as well as the eye-popping performance of Sandler’s new film.
Since debuting exclusively on Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six” has been seen more times in 30 days than any other movie in Netflix history. “It’s also enjoyed a spot at #1 in every territory we operate in, and in many of them it’s still #1,” Sarandos added.
Some outlets erroneously reported on Wednesday that “Ridiculous Six” was the most-watched Netflix title in history. A source later clarified:
By: Daisy Griffin
(BOSTON) – ZERO VFX announced today that it delivered over 600 visual effects shots on the production of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster film, The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington. As the Visual Effects Supervisor throughout the production of the film, ZERO VFX co-founder Sean Devereaux played a significant role influencing the design and scope of the visual effects for the film.
By working closely with the director and producers from early stage pre-production and planning, to on set VFX supervision, ZERO VFX and its creative team were able to successfully anticipate challenges and influence the work while on set, and also help drive the story forward. Enhancing lead actor’s Denzel Washington’s presence throughout the film, the team at ZERO also created mind-blowing sequences that created an elevated sense of tension and excitement.
During 2014, ZERO VFX also acted as VFX supervisor on such major film releases Sex Tape, starting Cameron Diaz, and American Hustle starring Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.
“Working so closely with director, Antoine Fuqua, was an amazing experience because we had first-hand insights into his vision for the film – and that insight helped us identify some significant VFX challenges and how to solve them,” said Sean Devereaux, creative director and co-founder of ZERO VFX. “The Equalizer was not what you’d call a typical VFX film. The challenge for us as artists was to realize Antoine’s vision and drive the story forward without getting in the way of that vision.
By: Juan Martinez
Cloud-based special effects file management
Google has acquired Zync, a start-up focused on special effects and design. The acquisition provides Google with a tool that allows movie studios, designers and producers to store and share large-format rendered files within traditional band-widths.
Until now, Zync has operated on Amazon's EC2 cloud, but Google will move Zync to its own Cloud Platform, the company said. The Wall Street Journal says it believes the move will force Zync's clients to switch from Amazon to Google's Cloud Platform.
Zync has fewer than 10 employees, according to its LinkedIn profile.
How it helps businesses Google sees the acquisition as an opportunity to provide Hollywood studios that don't have the resources to build their own render farms with a service that offers cloud-based rendering and capacity at cost. Google will offer its clients per-minute billing in order to relieve clients of having to pay for unused capacity that would exist under traditional hourly agreements.
Zync has been used on hundreds of commercials and more than twenty movies, including American Hustle and Transformers. The Boston-based company was founded in 2011 after having been part of visual effects company Zero VFX.
By: Scott Kirsner
Boston-based Zero VFX’s digital transformation of contemporary footage such as this street scene in Worcester (at top, before, and at bottom, after) to a bygone era helped it land work on the film “American Hustle.”
Last March, Sean Devereaux drove out to Worcester, to audition for a part in the movie “American Hustle.”
He landed the role, but you won’t see him on screen. He also won’t be sashaying down the red carpet at next month’s Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, where the film is up for 10 Oscars.
Devereaux led the Boston-based special effects crew at Zero VFX that back-dated footage shot in present-day Worcester, Boston, and Manhattan to make all three locations look like New York in late 1970s. They added buildings, removed Apple Stores, and inserted period taxis and low-slung sedans. They also did something to the actors’ outlandish 1970s hairstyles that they are contractually forbidden from discussing.
Even though Devereaux and cofounder Brian Drewes don’t show up in “American Hustle” until the closing credits, their role in the movie could be a career-maker for their 43-person firm, which is just four-years old. (The film is about a fictitious bribery scheme loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation.) Even though it’s small, Zero VFX is already the biggest special effects studio in town.
The “zero” in the company’s name references the kind of subtle special effects they specialize in. Did you notice their work in “The Way, Way Back,” a coming-of-age story that featured Concord native Steve Carell? That’s exactly the idea.
But they can also crank out the kind of explosions, fantastic vistas, fake crowds, and realistic-looking creatures that big-budget blockbusters require.
Sarah is an Ad Industry veteran, bringing over 15 years of producing experience to Zero VFX from the Agency side. Most recently, Sarah was a Vice President, Executive Producer at Arnold Worldwide, Boston. Before moving to Boston, Sarah worked at BBDO and McCann NY, where she logged enough frequent flier miles to travel first class to Hawaii on her honeymoon. She has traveled from Australia to Argentina for production and has received numerous industry awards, including an Emmy nomination.
Brian brings 15 years of experience producing visual effects for commercials, feature films, and digital mediums. Both an entrepreneur and storyteller at heart, Brian’s combined passions are the key elements to having built a flexible, team-based company that values efficiency and excellence in equal balance. Outside of Zero, Brian continues to lead and develop software startups and finds the excitement of growing new opportunities and seeing them flourish to be ‘pretty awesome’.