Looking Back at VFX Advances with Fernando Desouza

The work behind movie magic

If we’re talking big-budget movies, it’s pretty much a slamdunk sure thing that the effects are going to look great.

Compare this to just 10 years ago, when impressive CG was far less likely. Tim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is a great example of how far we’ve come.

Alice was released back in 2010. While CG modeling was quite advanced, incorporating those models in a way that felt grounded and believable was still very difficult to pull off. In this instance, the result was a movie that looks great and unsettling at the same time.

Talented visual artists created a world that was both beautiful and also stunning in its ugliness.

Just a few years later, the Marvel Avengers movies set a brand new standard for seamless VFX that only enhance audience immersion.

Other major studios soon followed suit, taking their effects to an impressive new level.

But this incredible progress is not magic, far from it. It’s the result of a very special combination: impressive technical prowess/advancement and creativity.

Coders and programmers have continued to develop the powerhouse software that makes modern-day visual effects possible, and VFX artists have found new and interesting ways to use the tools at their disposal.

Vents Magazine talked to one of these talented VFX artists recently, Fernando ‘Fefo’ Desouza.

Desouza has some astounding credits to his name, including movies like ‘The Avengers’, ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’, and the Oscar-winning ‘Life of Pi’, not to mention music videos for Selena Gomez, Lorde, and Janet Jackson.

To put it another way, Desouza has been at the forefront of VFX for years now, and he was kind enough to talk to us about his influences as an artist and his experiences with de-aging and other aspects of contemporary VFX.

With Desouza’s help, we’ll be taking a closer look at the last 10 or so years in VFX and just how much things have changed.

Early influences

When we have the chance to chat with entertainment industry professionals, it’s always fun to ask them about some of the earliest movies they remember seeing and some of their favorite movies from their formative years.

For better or worse, these are the movies that go on to have a huge impact on their personal taste and often influence their choice of career as well.

First and foremost, Desouza has always been a fan of movies, period. But as you’ll see, his influences are also closely connected with some of the most groundbreaking special effects movies of the 21st century.

“I’ve always been a movie lover since I was very little. If I had to mention one of my favorite movies as a child, it would be Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. But the movies that really inspired me to pursue the art of visual effects are ‘Blade Runner’ and Star Wars’.”

Although ‘Fantasia’ is itself a fully animated movie, this isn’t the first time the flick made an impression on a VFX artist. Many VFX artists have drawn inspiration from animated films, ‘Fantasia’ in particular, thanks in no small part to the fact that CG effects require a great deal of animation as well.

But ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Star Wars’ are especially interesting from the perspective of visual effects.

Both of these movies, despite their differences in tone and execution, actually have quite a lot in common.

The most obvious commonality, of course, is that both are watershed moments for visual effects, showing the whole world how incredible those effects could be when executed with great skill and care.

At their most basic level, the effects tool these movies use were nothing all that new, even at the time of release. Both movies use a great deal of miniatures, for ships, buildings, and whole cities. Similarly, the composite photography used to combine miniatures with life size actors had been done many times before.

But it’s the way in which the effects were used that continues to set these films apart, and it’s no doubt a lesson that Desouza has carried with him since seeing the movies for the first time.

A chisel, in the hands of an amateur, is just a chisel. But in the hands of an artist, it can be used to create incredible works.

At the forefront of de-aging

When it comes to the absolute forefront of VFX tech, de-aging stands as one of the most important areas and certainly one of the most prominent.

There was substantial hype surrounding the gobs of de-aging used in the Scorsese film ‘The Irishman’, but de-aging is nothing new in Hollywood. When we asked Desouza about de-aging tech, he had plenty to share.

Desouza communicated that one of the most exciting and also challenging de-aging projects he ever worked on was ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2’, which was released way back in 2012.

After speaking with multiple VFX studios, director Bill Condon chose to work with Lola Visual Effects, of which Desouza was a team member.

But from there, it was up to Desouza and his teammates to find a way to achieve de-aging without significantly delaying the production schedule.

“We came up with a photo-real technique for face replacement and de-aging. We would shoot her in a rig with three different cameras, projecting those images onto different CG models and then replacing the faces of the young doubles with the younger Mackenzie transformation.”

This story is a great example of just how important creativity is for VFX artists. Just because an effect has been achieved a certain way in the past doesn’t mean that it’s the best way.

Desouza and his counterparts thought way outside the box and came up with a new technique that worked best for the situation.

This is what it’s all about: not stopping at the first solution, but looking further and further until the right solution comes along.

The superhero legacy

This may sound a bit strange, but superhero movies have played a large role in the advancement of VFX over the last 10 years.

Back in the 70s and 80s, science fiction movies filled this role, but as moviegoer preferences have changed, and as Marvel slowly but steadily established itself as one of the most significant IPs of the 2010s, superhero movies from multiple studios have taken up the reins.

Desouza was there at the ground floor, working on ‘The Avengers’, the first installment in what would soon become one of the most profitable media franchises of all time.

We had a simple question for Desouza: what does it feel like to have been a part of such an important movie?

“It feels great! When I started work on the project at Hydraulx, we all knew the movie would be a success. We were able to pull off some amazing compositing and CG integration, and I’m still very, very proud of the work I did on that project.”

Of course, Desouza’s superhero credits don’t stop there. He also worked on ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’.

Whether you’re a huge superhero movie fan or a skeptic who only comes out for the big ones, there’s no denying that VFX technology and artistry has risen to the challenge of meeting these movies’ needs.

Now, those techniques can be applied to any number of different genres as time goes on. For better or worse, we have Iron Man to thank for that.

The future of VFX

Now that we’ve had a look to the recent past and all that’s changed in the world of VFX, let’s talk briefly about the future of visuals.

Yes, CG will remain a major aspect of VFX, as will de-aging, but VFX tech is only getting more intelligent as we continue to improve it.

Desouza believes that artificial intelligence and automation are destined to become more and more important for VFX artists and movie studios.

“Machine learning is a reality and it’s already helping us to create some wonderful things. This tech is still very young, but it’s only going to become more useful in the very near future.”

No, this doesn’t mean that impressive visual effects are going to start creating themselves; this isn’t a vision of a grim dystopia.

What it really means is that our effects will continue to become more and more complex. This is especially important in the area of CG facial technology.

Ever wonder why the de-aged face of Jeff Bridges in the opening to ‘Tron: Legacy’ makes you feel uncomfortable?

‘Uncanny Valley’ is a term that references the human brain’s ability to tell when a face isn’t 100% real, and unfortunately, it’s a term that often applies to photo-realistic CG faces in movies.

But AI and machine learning are starting to change that, among many other things. In essence, we can teach our effects to behave more realistically, to mimic real-life objects and materials.

Obviously AI has many more applications in VFX, but in the coming years, expect this tech to help make existing effects that much more believable, and far from being the end of human artistry in effects, artists will continue to find creative ways to make it all seem natural, contributing to the overall story. In the end, isn’t that the real goal?

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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