Chicken Bone VFX work for "Lend a Hand for Love"

Invisible digital worlds – interview with John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame of Chicken Bone VFX

October 2nd, 2020
Chicken Bone VFX work for "Lend a Hand for Love"

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame of Chicken Bone VFX. In this first of the three parts, they talk about where visual effects fit in the ever-evolving world of art and technology of feature films and episodic TV productions, the increasing expectations from and sophistication of modern visual effects, and finding the balance between the technical and artistic sides of what they do.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

John: I came into this field at a very young age. I’ve always wanted to be behind the camera, and to be an actor that did his own stunts, like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future”. After I did my first commercial, I realized that I loved green and blue screens and all the things that are meant to look realistic, but aren’t.

When I was in college, that led me into post-production and editorial, and towards the end of my degree, I was deeply into VFX. That’s how I trended into the VFX community. Visual arts have always been interesting to me. I was always curious about how to get everything to be cohesive on the screen with the unified creative vision. I’ve always been interested in that process, and I’m always learning more about it. It continues to be very interesting to me to this day.

Arissa: I am quite the opposite. I didn’t know much about the industry at all when I was growing up in Florida. It was not really on my radar. After college, I moved out to Los Angeles and took an entry level job at the post facility, Nomad Editing. A few years in they started developing a VFX branch and I became intrigued by the creative process. Around the same time Johnny was looking for a producer at Chicken Bone, we connected, and the rest is history.

Kirill: How do you talk about what you do for a living? Perhaps some people consider VFX to be futuristic spaceships and robots shooting lasers, but on “Westworld” it’s about augmenting what was done in camera – for practical or budgetary considerations, and not necessarily something that is “out of this world”. Do people ask you why things at this level need to be done digitally in VFX?

John: Some people do, and sometimes it’s a function of collaborating with the creators. Budget included; you want to get a sense of what’s the right solution for this. We solve not only how it ultimately looks like in the end, but also how do we do the effects creatively. We talk about the evolution of that creative process. Before we talk about the creative visuals, we start with the creative strategy. This deep collaboration with the people that are offering the show is the heart and the soul of this company. It might be a big show or a small show, an indie project or a studio project.

Our heart and soul is geared toward high-level collaboration. That is what we do when we’re trying to figure out how we put the pixels on the screen. Every situation calls for something a little bit different, whether it’s a 2D or a 3D thing. We try to find out the straightest or the most obvious path, and if there isn’t an obvious path, we talk about how we can bite it off in chunks to make it a little bit easier in our own workflow.

Chicken Bone VFX work, progression from building models to the final layered frame.

Kirill: Do you feel that as the time passes, the evolution of technology at your disposal allows you to do more? Is there a limit to what needs to be done? Is there going to be a point in the near future where you will have exhausted the realms of what productions need, and there’s nothing to explore beyond that?

John: The technology is always pushing us and driving us forward. It allows things to be simple; it allows us to explore avenues or thought processes that we never would have explored before because the traditional tools would not allow our brains to think that way. If you take artificial intelligence or machine learning and you apply them to VFX, it’s a different mental path than something more traditional like getting rid of the green and replacing it with something that looks photorealistic.

In a way, the technology is always making things easier. But in no way I’m going to say that we’re going to hit our ceiling anytime soon. If anything, it will allow us to be creative more dynamically. It will allow us to get closer to the ultimate creator’s vision of a project, because we can get there much quicker, iterate more often, and create in a way that is a bit more dynamic in almost real-time. That is a level of integration that we haven’t really seen in the industry until very recently.

Arissa: It allows us to get to the final product a little bit quicker. It is streamlining certain pieces of that final product where we can focus more attention on something that’s less developed in a technology sense. Everything is getting better and better, but there’s always something that needs a little bit of a human touch or a little extra love to make it look life-like. It frees up an artist’s capacity in one way, because there’s an automation to then focus in on something else that needs a little bit more of that human touch.

Chicken Bone VFX work, digital extensions to remove blue screens (left) and extend the warehouse (right).

Kirill: There’s a lot of productions that are competing for almost the same eyeballs, if you will, and everybody is trying to step up their game, not just in terms of storytelling, but also in terms of the visual quality. Do you see that propagating to your side of things, where you are being asked to do more and more at that higher quality level?

Arissa: Definitely. I’ve been in the VFX field for about five years now, and the quality level keeps progressing upwards. All the streaming networks are looking for film quality, going away from the traditional, broadcast episodic where things could slide a little bit here and there. Now everything is moving more towards feature level.

John: The quality level always goes up, and the expectations are going up with it. It hits us in a variety of ways. There’s a budgetary hit, but we’re not focused as much on that. More importantly, it hits us in a creative way and a “how are we going to get it done in this amount of time” way.

If I go back to the tools that we develop internally in our process and the tools that are generally available to everybody in the market, those are the things that allow us to start planning. What kind of a crew do we need? What kind of pipeline tools do we need? What type of creative ingenuity do we need to arrive at this product? It does hit us, but if anything, it helps continue to drive creative. To some degree, the people that are writing and developing the stories are going to always be at the top of that process, and we’re along for the ride with them. We like it. We’re collaborative, and we want to help them solve their creative problems.

Chicken Bone VFX work, progression from the original plate (top left) to creating skid marks (top right) to adding the police car (bottom left) to the final atmospheric effects (bottom right).

Kirill: You mentioned that you don’t see that ceiling being reached any time soon. As the consumer electronics industry is pushing itself to ever more resolution, from 4K to 6K and now to 8K, with bigger screens and deeper colors. There’s this scene in “Westworld” where the camera is looking downwards onto a beach, and there’s a bunch of floating dead bodies in the water. Do you find yourself worrying about this one viewer zooming in on their 8K screen and finding that a pinky finger is “missing” on one of those CGI bodies? How detailed do you go in these scenes?

John: To answer the question very simply, we’re not really concerned about that, because the level of detail required by the final delivery medium dictates what the budget is and how much detail we put into it. Believe me, we’re looking at all the pixels and even if the pixels get blown up, there’s very little that anyone can do about increasing the quality without there being a lot of algorithms involved for scaling those images. As good as they are these days, there’s still a fair amount of softening there.

And here we are talking about an HD project. Season one and season two of “Westworld” were in HD delivery format. It wasn’t the 4K, so a 6K display is going to display that HD medium. The display can only go with what it’s given [laughs], so we’re not worried about that.

When it comes to 4K, which has been the standard for several years now, that’s what our native platform is. We make every effort to optimize those 4K pixels and make that the best that it can be. We are working with the photography and recognizing the amount of detail it takes to get something to that level. I think there may be a ceiling to what the average viewer at home may perceive or may care about. It’s probably 4K or 6K. I don’t think anything beyond that – for the average person – is going to make a significant difference. In terms of the final display technology, we’ll probably hit a ceiling there.

Then it becomes less about resolution and more about true color streaming and high quality 32-bit color. That will probably be the next trend. As to what comes after that, we’ll just have to see.

Arissa: And beyond the resolution side of it, you also have the quality control side. We recently worked on a period piece show, and there was a lot of research that went into de-modernizing cities to make sure every detail was time-period appropriate. We had a number of conversations between our VFX team and the post-production team to determine accuracy. If somebody zooms in and they look at that sign in Las Vegas, is there going to be a thread on Reddit about it?

Looking at where the streaming platforms are today, it’s opening us up to a critique that wasn’t always there. Like Johnny said, we don’t worry about it so much on every frame of every shot, but when you’re developing a story and working on a show at a creative level, it’s something that we definitely need to be conscious of. It might be doing practical set extensions or building out a new universe but either way it needs to be as accurate as possible. We don’t want people to pick it apart.

Chicken Bone VFX work, digital extensions to replace the bottom part of the frame to create the “illusion” of being on the roof.

Kirill: When you look to hire a new person, do you look for the strength in the technical areas or do you also want to have a certain mix of artistic sensibilities as well?

John: It depends on what it is we’re trying to accomplish. Some of the things we do are highly technical and require a more technical brain to accomplish them in a certain period of time. They may use highly developed technical strategies that can move something along quickly, and it doesn’t need as much of a creative touch. We hire artists like that for that specific thing, or that trend of things because usually there’s more than one of them.

There’s sort of a middle ground where we have people that have a nice blend of somebody that is creative but also has a high degree of technical skill, so they can give input into the creative and to have their own visual sensibility, but also be able to work with the tool sets that they have without being like overly engineering oriented to be able to accomplish what it is they’re trying to do.

And then some people are purely creative, that have little interest in the toolsets, but rather help develop concepts and visual styles. They use whatever tools that they want. We want those artists to be the most comfortable with the things that they’ve already learned how to do, rather than forcing them into a pipeline that does things in a very specific way. So it really depends on what we’re trying to do.

More often than not, especially coming from the background of film-quality integration, we tend to hire people that are more in the middle. There’s a lot of senior talent in our pools, people that have a high degree of familiarity with a broad variety of toolsets, but also able to be in a creative conversation where they can give input and suggestions to help making a frame as photorealistic as it can be.

Arissa: We need a wide array, and that depends on the size of a project. Sometimes when we work on a smaller project, we might know the exact skill set that we need. But often we don’t know exactly what’s going to be thrown our way, but we can reach into that arsenal of artists that would be perfect for those tasks, be they generalists or deep specialists.

There’s somewhere for everyone within our company. It depends on what shows we have in house.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as a computer fast enough or a hard disk big enough, or is there always need for more?

John: There’s always room for improvement there.

Arissa: Just when we think we’ve gotten it to be big enough, something happens and we need more [laughs].

Chicken Bone VFX work on “Westworld”.

And here I’d like to thank John Renzulli and Arissa Blasingame for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of visual effects, and Stephanie Pfingsten for making this interview happen. You can see more of Chicken Bone VFX work on their website and Vimeo. Stay tuned for the second part of this interview series that dives deeper into their work on “Westworld”. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.