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How a Hollywood VFX master makes movie magic

Framestore’s Michael Ralla says fast and powerful computers are essential, though turning imagination into reality is more about how you use the tools. (And please don’t get him started on “man-years” of rendering time.)

How a Hollywood VFX master makes movie magic
VFX artists at Framestore used Lenovo workstations to create a virtual avalanche for a Toyota 4Runner commercial. (Image courtesy of Framestore, Toyota, and Saatchi & Saatchi.)

People looking at the creative process from afar see it as an individual’s singular vision—for instance, a director conjuring a fantastical scene in his or her head. The reality, of course, is that it’s a much more collaborative process. When that same director wants to transform imagination into movie magic—or any form of screen sorcery (television, commercials, gaming, VR and AR…)—he or she turns to a visual-effects wizard. And Michael Ralla, VFX supervisor at the Bafta- and Academy Award–winning creative studio Framestore, is one of the best in the business. His credits include some of the most dazzling effects spectacles of the past 15 years, including The Avengers; Thor 2: Dark World; Iron Man 3; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1; and a pair of Transformers films. He was also part of the team that won a Best Visual Effects Oscar for Avatar.

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More recently, Ralla has turned much of his attention to advertising. If you’ve seen the Toyota Supra spot “Wizard,” which aired during the Super Bowl this past February, or “Welcome Home,” the short film-cum-ad for Apple’s HomePod directed by Spike Jonze (for which Ralla won a slew of advertising and VFX honors), you’re familiar with his work. Ralla sees commercials as a way to get more intimately involved with his projects. “From the perspective of a VFX artist, you’re a lot closer to the actual filmmaking process,” he says. “In feature films, it was always about the final product. Now, it is more about how you get there and the actual collaboration with the director and the DP [director of photography]. On commercials, you have to figure out everything more holistically.”

Ralla likens his role of supervising effects artists and digital compositors to that of a band leader. (Growing up in Achern, West Germany, he dreamed of making it as a drummer in a heavy metal band.) “I’m kind of the drummer of the team,” he says. “I’ve got to make sure everything’s moving and be the motor on those creative projects. Very often, it’s having a vision and then giving feedback on how to get to it. Notes and ideas are the motor.”

Ralla describes his team as a “rebel unit” with the room to continually test itself creatively. And even though the Framestore operation in Los Angeles—the company also has studios in New York City, Chicago and London—has grown from 15 to 150 people, Ralla has been adamant about keeping his operation lean, even in the face of massive workloads. “One time, there was a huge project coming up, and it was really scary what we were facing,” Ralla recalls. “One of my colleagues said, ‘We need an army to do all this. We need to start hiring 100 people now.’ I remember saying, ‘No, I’d rather have ten people—like a Seal Team—instead of 100 regular foot soldiers.’ With my approach, smaller teams of highly trained people are often a lot more efficient for what we do—you’re a lot more agile and nimble.”

“EFFICIENT TECHNOLOGY”

As a result, Ralla places a tremendous amount of faith in—and pressure on—his team, making it essential they have both state-of-the-industry skills and technology. “We want them to have the best possible training and the best possible equipment,” Ralla says. “Budgets are getting smaller and smaller, and schedules are getting tighter and tighter, but the quality level that clients expect never gets lower—when they hire Framestore they expect top-end, feature-film quality,” he says. “And that’s where hardware comes into play, because we have a lot of computationally heavy stuff that needs to be processed, and we’re regularly hitting the limits.”

The beauty of Lenovo mobile workstations? As Michael Ralla demonstrates, he can get work done anywhere. (Image courtesy of Framestore.)

Ralla’s teams juggle things like real-time rendering with game engines, augmented reality, complex fluid simulations, as well as experimenting with taxing visual effects, such as leading-edge aging and de-aging. “All those workflows need a lot of computational power,” he says. To bring this visual data to life, Ralla’s teams lean heavily on VR-ready Lenovo ThinkPad P53 mobile workstations, with Intel i9 processors, Quadro RTX4000 8GB graphics cards, a whopping 128 GB of RAM, and 2 TB hard drive disks—all readily available professional gear anyone can buy, mostly loaded with off-the-shelf software. As Ralla puts it, it’s the knowledge, skills, ideas, and creativity of the humans behind the machine that create the mind-blowing output.

Yet despite the muscular equipment he and his team rely on, Ralla doesn’t consider himself a machinehead. “I normally don’t rave about crazy-high data volume, insane render times, and technical specs,” he says. “When you go to a conference, you sometimes hear people saying, ‘This took 50 man-years to compute!’ I don’t find that impressive, because to me, it means that you didn’t manage your resources very well.” Ralla would rather brag about using technology economically: “It’s a lot cooler if you produce a stunning result and you say, ‘Yeah, it was actually simple because we found a really efficient and effective way to do all of this.'”

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Which is why it comes as no surprise when Ralla reveals the film that made him want to pursue a career in VFX: a three-minute short called “405” that went viral in 2000. The mini-movie is essentially an extended effects sequence showing an airliner making an emergency landing on Los Angeles’ 405 freeway. “It was not the dinos; it was not the spaceships; it was this silly little movie on the internet,” he says. The visual spectacle, impressive as it was, was secondary. To Ralla, the amazing aspect was how it was created by two guys in their spare time, wanting to tell an incredible story, using tools available to everyone. “I loved that it was made with off-the-shelf hardware and software. That blew my mind,” he says. “All that was needed was an idea, skills, and knowledge. That’s my ultimate inspiration.”

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