The Oscars are this coming Sunday and Universal Pictures’ Get Out (produced by Blum House Productions) is already making history.
It’s the first film written, directed and produced by an African-American to garner nods for all three of those categories (writing, directing and best picture for Jordan Peele, made famous as the other half of the comedy duo sensation “Key and Peele”. Jordan Peele would go on to win the Oscar for best screenplay). And it’s the first February-release since 1992’s “Silence of the Lambs” to earn a best picture nod.
This satirical horror film includes digital VFX shots that look as convincing as practical effects. In this post we’ll take you behind the scenes of the VFX workflow using the industry’s leading tools (e.g. Maya, Nuke, Houdini, etc.) and how the creators also used Frame.io to get the job done. We’re proud to introduce a new BTS blog series nearly a year in the making—Made in Frame.
The VFX on Get Out was handled by LA and NY-based Ingenuity Studios, a post-production and VFX house with formidable credits in high-end commercials, film, and television.
We had the honor to chat with this award-winning studio (and Frame.io customer) to learn about their work on the Oscar-nominated film.
[SPOILER WARNING: going behind some of the effects they worked on requires revealing partial spoilers for the film. Consider yourself forewarned.]
Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty
Most of the effects that Ingenuity does on a film like Get Out are designed to be invisible. Ingenuity’s effects allow the production to save time, save money, and achieve shots that would otherwise be extremely tricky or impossible.
“There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film where they’re driving to the girlfriend’s parents’ house, and they hit a deer. Well, there’s no way to really hit a deer while driving, so we created a CG deer. Everything else was doing things which were impossible to film.”
How exactly did the CG team create the deer? What is the workflow like from concept to delivery? Who works on it, with which tools?
“Every cross-departmental shot in the studio starts with a kickoff involving our Producers, VFX Supervisors, Department Heads, Supervising Artists, Artists, and anyone else in the studio who might have real-life experience that lends itself to the work. It turned out that only a few months before our receptionist had been involved in an accident with a deer. Great for us, not so great for the deer.
“Workflow-wise, our CG department got a rigged base model out as quick as possible so everyone could get started on animation, hair, interactive effects, and start piecing the comp together. We try to push out frequent updates to the model so that everyone is working with the most recent material, which helps ensure that there aren’t any surprises later down the road. The toughest aspect of this scene was creating something that was true to life, startling for the viewer, yet still readable to support the story. Because this was such a fine balance, we found it best to review the animation on fully rendered and composited CG. The more integrated the deer, the less it registered, so we’d adjust animation accordingly.
“The deer was modeled and animated in Maya, textured in Foundry’s Mari, the fur was done in Houdini, and rendered in V-Ray. Houdini was also used for the tree interaction. The compositing took place in Nuke.”
What was the most challenging obstacle to overcome on this project?
“The most difficult scene from a technical perspective was a scene where a character gets stabbed by a deer antler. Half that antler ends up becoming a CG piece that we have to then push into the actor’s neck, and then we’re creating that blood rushing out of his neck. The scene was filmed using a head with sawed-off stubs for antlers. When we match-moved the full set of CG antlers to the head, the tips didn’t necessarily line up with where they needed to be, either not lined up properly with the victim’s neck, not deep enough, or too deep. We had to spend a lot of time reconciling the antler model to be placed where it needed to be for the scene, then pushing around the practical deer head and the attacker’s hands to get everything to line up just right. All of the blood from the neck were composited elements, some from our library and some filmed in-studio. This was the same combo of Maya, Mari, V-Ray, Nuke for comp.”
So a lot of the work was just bridging the gap between something that should look real that isn’t overly fantastical—it’s not a troll or an ogre or a dragon.”
Why wouldn’t you use a practical effect for that? That seems like the kind of thing you could do a practical effect for?
“I think a lot of it comes down to the time and cost of doing a build. I think it’s one thing to have a knife with a retractable blade that you push into somebody, then lets the blood out. But in the way the shot was covered, it was cost-prohibitive to build some sort of collapsible, retractable antler. It’s also a thing where years ago, before they could do it digitally, they would cut to a close-up insert of an antler stabbing into a prosthetic. But I think in order to make things more scary and real, the director wanted to have the whole scene play out in a wide shot, so that you’re much more connected to that character getting killed.
“The Sunken Place scenes, where one character is hypnotized, were the most difficult in the film. The rig removal on an action scene is one thing, but long takes of over-cranked slow motion on loose clothing proved to be very tedious. The particles in the air required a lot of back and forth to find the right mix of size, quantity, how they moved or didn’t move in the scene, how they gave scale to the depth of the Sunken Place.
How does your team work together to build a shot?
“We first have a kickoff where everyone discusses what elements a shot needs and where those pieces might come from; CG, FX, stock, etc. We have our CG and FX departments render frequently so that everyone sees how elements are progressing and how everyone is working in concert. Before we render finals, our pipeline mandates preview renders, so everyone can sign off prior to committing serious render time on our farm.”
Although Ingenuity Studios has plenty of experience with “in-your-face” fantastical VFX, they’ve done more and more invisible effects as demand has grown from genres that haven’t traditionally needed effects.
“Seventy-five percent of our work is in television. A large percentage of that television is in half-hour, single-cam comedies. Mostly network: Modern Family, Blackish, [and] Fresh Off the Boat. Some cable shows; Netflix; we do some hour-longs for USA [Network].
“There’s not a big robot transforming and then kicking down a house, but there is a surprising amount of VFX. In season 7 of Modern Family, the writers had written an entire episode that takes place on a train; and after talking with AmTrak, and scouting the trains, and working out the logistics of putting an entire film crew on a train, the decision was made to put green screen out the windows and build the train on the set. And so the entire episode became a visual effect.
“So, it’s usually nothing fantastical that we’re doing, we’re just trying to help them achieve their story in an easier way. Could they have figured out a way to really get on a train and film it driving up and down the coast? Sure. But the cost and the time and the headache involved didn’t make sense for them. So that’s where we came in.”
Other VFX examples they do on shows like Modern Family include things like:
- Creating character fantasies for Blackish that require some animation
- On Brooklyn Nine Nine, having Terry Crews pick people up to emphasize his strength
- Keying in the ocean and sky every episode for Netflix’s original show Grace and Frankie (which takes place on a beach house but is shot on a soundstage).
- Creating digital fires in a Thanksgiving episode when a roaster catches fire
- And even creating digital raw eggs being thrown at a house during a Halloween episode.
The remaining 25% of Ingenuity’s business is feature films, commercials, and high budget music videos.
Below is the VFX reel Ingenuity Studios did for acclaimed music video director Joseph Kahn (one of the music video directors today who can command budgets larger enough to be worth Ingenuity’s time and expertise). They did all the VFX work on Kahn’s Power/Rangers “fan film” that went viral a few years back (raising the ire of Power Rangers copyright owner Saban Entertainment.) The visual effects on that short played a huge role in it going viral.
Getting the Job Done in Frame.io
Like most companies that wind up on Frame.io, Ingenuity was unsatisfied with their previous review systems. They were either too unreliable, or just didn’t meet their specific needs. What immediately drew them to Frame.io was the simplicity and ease.
“Every show is its own project in Frame.io and every episode its own folder. And then as things are ready to share with clients, we share the presentation page. The ability to just share one page with all the videos is tremendous.”
The simplicity combined with excellent image quality was a big factor for Ingenuity.
“The compression is a lot better than everything else we’ve used. Early on, we were using Dropbox to share videos and files, but the navigation was clunky and ugly, and there was no way to see and play a number of files easily. The compression was also terrible. We’d get clients calling or emailing with feedback saying ‘There was this weird thing on the video’, or ‘It’s too dark’ or something, and we’d respond, ‘Oh no. That’s just the sh***y player in Dropbox. You have to download it then play the video.’ Frame.io puts it all in one place.”
“How was Frame.io used in your work for Get Out?”
“We used Frame.io in two ways on Get Out. The first was the sharing of Review Links for internal purposes, sharing work with our VFX Supervisors and producers if/when they were offsite. This allowed the team to get the feedback they needed in a timely manner. The second was that we’d share concepts, wedges, and shots with the director via Presentation Links. It’s great because it’s such a clean and simple way to share a variety of different items and formats.”
I ask Matthew “You said you use the presentation page vs. the review page [where clients can make comments and annotate on the video]. Why is that?”
“We found that in those review sessions, while it’s a real handy tool and great for communicating, clients could get carried away. They’d realize that they could draw frame by frame and what may have only been one note would escalate to be 10 or 15 “things” that they could circle or draw.
Sometimes you want to give the reviewer the ability to give extremely detailed feedback, but sometimes you just want the stamp of approval. Frame.io gave Ingenuity both options.
Getting Get Out
It was the VFX work Ingenuity did on another film that led to them landing the Get Out job.
“On Get Out we were referred by a production designer who had worked with us on another indie film where we handled the fire VFX. Jordan [Peele] commented he wanted the same practical fire techs who handled the fire wrangling in that film. He thought it was real fire. When the production designer told him the fire was all digital, he was so impressed, he brought us in to do the same for his film.”
Getting Their Other Gigs
The story behind their referral of Get Out is a great one. But we wanted to know if they get most of their feature film work that way, or do they go out and pitch for it.
“We don’t pitch for any work. All our work comes from referrals. All of our growth and business has been completely natural. Which is awesome, because that’s more time we’re spending on the work and on the team here.”
Is that something you would say is common in the post world?
“What’s interesting about that is, as we started to grow, say up to eight people, at times we’d have to collaborate with other VFX houses and they’d ask, ‘Where’d you guys come from? Are you new? I’ve never heard of you.’ Our response was always, “Um … College?’ And they would respond, ‘No. What other facilities did you come from?’ They’d ask because every visual effects company is born from the ex-pats of other visual effects companies, due to ambition, mismanagement, lack of fulfillment, etc. So I think we’re unique in that way. So I don’t have anything to compare it to.
“But I do know that a lot of the other VFX houses, especially in television, usually have sales departments of 2-3 people whose sole jobs is new business and maintaining relationships. They’re not producers. They’re really just there to call around and see what work people have. But I think it’s unheard of for a company our size, not having a sales department.” (Ingenuity has 30-40 full-timers, regardless of workload, then bring in additional people as needed. By the fall they may have up to 85 people on staff.)
What advice would you give aspiring VFX artists and houses out there?
“I think it was Conan O’Brien who said in a commencement speech, ‘Do good work and be nice.’ Or something like that. All of our business has been because we’ve done good work. We’ve hustled and worked for clients. We’ve put their projects and needs first. To the detriment of our own lives. I spent my 20s doing 14-16 hour days, six or seven days a week. It’s a lot of work. So that’s what I’d say. The work and effort we’ve put into it, has reaped these rewards.
“And a lot of it is based on relationships. There’s a quote I remember from film school where a professor said that everybody knows everybody in this town, and really, in this world, so you don’t want to talk bad about anybody. So a guy who seems like a dufus and has a terrible project today, may have a great project in a couple of years, that you never would’ve expected.
“As we were forming the company, we had some great mentor/clients too. At the time, we were just a couple of kids trying to figure it out. We’d work to 4am, then roll into the office around 11:30. And one of our mentors called and explained that, ‘Hey guys, I don’t want to tell you how to do your business, because it’s obviously your business, but you can’t run a business and only show up and start answering the phone at noon. That’s not going to fly. You have to be there when people need you. At a minimum 10 am!”
“And we’ve also had the good fortune to work with good, fair people in the industry. Like when working with one visual effects supervisor who told us, ‘You know that bid you put in for this, it’s too low.’ And obviously, it’s mutually beneficial. Us having the tools we need to thrive and succeed allows them to leverage the work and leverage us to do their project. And not to get too ‘hippy-dippy’ about it, but maybe it’s because we’re putting out positivity and good energy, and then getting that in return a little bit.”
Their work on music videos was actually a huge reason they got to where they are today. Their business started when co-founder David Lebensfeld was doing VFX in high school in the late 90s on a desktop computer using After Effects. He’d go on to film school (along with Matt) where a fellow student film school colleague hired him to make a music video in the early 2000s when multi-million dollar music video budgets were evaporating because Napster eviscerated the music industry. Using VFX, David was able to get the look of a million dollar music video with a fraction of the budget.
“Pretty soon, you couldn’t go into a restaurant and listen on the radio and not hear a song we did the video for. MTV TRL [Total Request Live] was still a thing back then, and we’d always have six or eight videos out of the ten videos on MTV; to the point when MTV actually called us once and said, ‘Hey, we keep seeing your name on all of these tapes that we’re getting. Could we interview you?’
The rest, as they say… well, you know.
[Photography by Irina Logra.]