jelly reports: the uncanny secrets of vfx

Tue 28 Oct 2014

Shots and The Foundry joined forces at The Hospital Club in an effort to answer the single most asked question about visual effects: How the devil did they do that?

Hosted by Shots editor Danny Edwards, a panel of experts set themselves the task of unravelling the mysteries behind visual effects, but not before Realise Studio’s Paul Simpson caused a multitude of ooohs and aaahs as he revealed how their Simon the Ogre (made for travel company Thomson) was created.


Simpson put a lot of emphasis on the art of storytelling during his exposé: ‘Story is King,’ he stated with enthusiasm. By that he means that visual effects are a means to an end, not the ultimate goal.

Beside the power of stories, true craft is another element of VFX that all too often comes last. The Ogre was designed around James’ face, the actor who plays the Ogre, by a classical sculptor. This authentic approach was chosen because the actor is the performer who tells the story, not the effects added in later. The sculpture was crafted into a prosthetic suit, which was hot, uncomfortable and unfortunate for James, but notably rewarding.

Simpson further explained that human skin has long been the hardest thing to create in CGI due to the high risk of ending up in the ‘uncanny valley’ – where artificial looks almost too real, yet frightening or even revolting to us because something distinctly human is missing.

Besides having done an impressive job at creating very canny artificial skin in prosthetics as well as CGI, Simpson said they had another trick up their sleeve to champion humanity in their Ogre: they kept James’ real eyes at all times, because, as Simpson explains, micro-expressions give real character.

To make the Ogre less human on the other hand, they did make him 20% bigger throughout the ad.

Highlights of the panel discussion:

The panel: Grant Miller, Ludo Fealy, Paul Simpson and Shervin Shoghian

Having VFX supervisors on set saves money

VFX people don’t want to be on set to meddle with a director’s work. They want to help, so the panel agrees. The simple truth is that they’re the only ones who know whether it’s easier to move a broom, or spirit it away in post-production. VFX supervisors can save a lot of money by making well-considered decisions.

The hardest things to crack with CGI

Water is mighty tricky, especially if it needs to interact with air. So is fire. In fact, all natural elements risk plummeting into the uncanny valley. That’s because we all subconsciously know what they really look like.

Dodging the downfall of the uncanny valley

This is a perpetual struggle, but not a hopeless one. The uncanny valley exists because reading faces is the very first thing human beings learn; we’re very good at it so we’re hard to trick. But technology is catching up. It used to be technology’s fault is you got it wrong, but these days it isn’t: it’s your fault. That’s progress.