The VFX Factor: Michael Porterfield on Why the Pre-Production Phase Is So Critical to Success
Michael Porterfield is an Emmy-nominated VFX veteran, serving as head of 2D at global entertainment company Alkemy X. With a career spanning over 30 years in visual effects, he will apply his accumulated leadership skills in cultivating creativity and maximizing efficiency. His background includes feature film, episodic and commercial projects, with credits on advanced effects-driven films franchises such as Apple TV's Lisey's Story; Netflix’s Don't Look Up; Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Roland Emmerich's Midway; and HBO’s hit drama Game of Thrones.
LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of those?
Michael> Often the 'invisible' VFX shots are the most difficult to achieve - planning and execution on-set determine so much of the range of effort needed to complete the task. Because the 'invisible' shots are hopefully ones that are never noticed, they can fall into the trap of being underestimated and taken for granted. Part and parcel of VFX means we offer multiple solutions to creative challenges and these are always available in order to achieve the final look, but with limited time and budgets, we try to organize our way out of those situations before we have to divert resources to fix instead of improve.
For the big, glossy shots, the pre-production phase is so critical to success - pre-visualization is now so commonly available and done at such a high level, coupled with a strong art direction contribution, that before the first green screen is hung, a VFX heavy shot can be planned out for success. Alkemy X boasts a very deep and experienced cadre of VFX professionals with multiple decades of experience on all varieties of projects. Inviting VFX to the table early to talk through the challenges of a glossy VFX sequence is the chance to tap into all that history and knowledge we've accumulated for the benefit of our clients and in building our culture.
LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?
Michael> The aforementioned pre-production planning that involves discussions with our VFX team, I believe, is critical. At the minimum, previsualisation of the VFX shots, depending on complexity, would be recommended, and in general a previz of your entire spot/episode/feature, in conjunction with an experienced on-set VFX Supervisor to help implement the vision and cover technical requirements. Tapping into our knowledge base is something we encourage as one of our strengths we offer to every client.
LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?
Michael> As a Flame/Inferno artist in Minneapolis in the '90s working with the agencies and creatives taught me how to work under pressure, prioritise on the fly, propose creative alternatives and engage in collaborative discussions to achieve client goals while staying on budget. I've always felt a part of me was a producer, and I feel that part of me blossomed through the crucible experience in client-supervised commercial sessions.
After moving to Vancouver in the late '90s, I returned to work with VFX supervisors like Bryan Grill of Scanline, Jelmer Boskma and Mohsen Mousavi of DNEG and had the opportunity to watch how they engage, pick up their habits, follow their creative leads, try to anticipate their moves and learn to provide alternative looks before they asked. All those experiences sharpened skills I will continue to utilize with every interaction I have, whether it be with artists I am helping with shots to the clients I am working with to design the next hot look.
LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?
Michael> Back to a previous question, it comes down to imagination - bringing the 'VFX Description' of a bid or a script to life, and then molding it to meet the needs of the budget, the desires of the art direction, and the reality of the timeframe. Being a visual thinker, storyboarding is always the start of every project, and previsualization helps to quickly define the creative parameters and sets a language for further discussions of timing, pacing, camera angles, tempo, color palette, scope, readability, and overall messaging.
LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?
Michael> The reality of visual effects is that you can continue to work on the complex shots for weeks and weeks beyond the delivery date. Shots are increasingly complex, and the desire for photo realistic representations continue to be demanding so that yes, presenting a 'finished' shot can at times be a negotiation. This will date me - in the past, directors used to print VFX shots to film and loop them on a film projector - watch a shot 3x in motion. If no tech issues jumped off the screen at them, the shot was finaled. In the digital age, frame by frame examinations mean the threshold has tightened for what could be considered 'final' - 'it may play well in motion, but if you jump between frame x1127 and x1128, you can see how... etcetera etcetera etcetera' - as the story goes. No client wants a 'gotcha' moment, so it becomes our responsibility to take the creative aspect of a project to the highest level, and then go beyond that with the technical work.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting you in VFX? Why?
Michael> AI and machine learning will push creativity into so many new directions - already AI is being used and is creating its own look in commercial applications, and is now demanding a rate hike. From a VFX perspective, having true interactive lighting from an LED stage is such an amazing advancement to aid in marrying plate photography to a CG background - that's exciting for making those 'invisible' VFX shots we spoke of earlier fall into place with greater ease.
LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.
Michael> I recall a student at a small college one block away from the office had been exposed to someone who had contracted this Corona Virus, which appeared to be highly contagious, and was alarmingly close to my workplace. I experienced some apprehension walking past the college, wondering how it might spread, if the crowd around me was breathing it into me at that moment, and by the next week I had a box in my arms with my keyboard, monitor and PCOIP box inside - heading home to set up a remote workstation - and haven't been back in an office since. Fortunately, the tools already existed through ShotGrid to apply annotations, enter notes, create playlists, and keep the workflow moving while communication systems were improved and brought into play. We're still exploring the thresholds of communication and efficiency within this new remote workflow - there are certainly advantages and drawbacks to remote work, but overall, VFX teaches resiliency (as there seems to be a new challenge with every shot) and this is one industry that can overcome adversity.
LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during Covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?
Michael> Communication is still central and key. Being able to translate thoughts, observations and notes about a shot into concrete tasks to be achieved is more essential now than ever before. Working on better ways to express shot notes in clear, efficient terminology is something I will continue to develop, but it's been critical to augment, and to replace, to an extent, the in-person communication that happens when working face-to-face.
LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?
Michael> I had grand plans coming out of college, but the most important lessons I learned came from working my way up. There are so many lessons from hours of Flame/Inferno client-supervised sessions that I bring to my work - efficiency, time management, prioritization, creative alternatives as mentioned before. However, that all began with learning humility and taking the path that was offered, though that meant night shifts, machine room work, assisting instead of being the main artist. All that built an appreciation for the challenges that many artists I now lead have had to overcome.
LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?
Michael> For the commercial world, it was working on Target campaigns in Minneapolis in the '90s. The work was iconic, the agency clients were fantastic - and it had the feeling of being something unique. For a young artist to be handed shots for the Target Christmas campaign - I knew enough to be nervous, and also by then knew how to deliver in spite of the nerves, the worry, the pressure. I'll always be fond of those times - what I learned and achieved.
For the feature world it was Peter Weir's Master and Commander - Far Side of the World. Living in Los Angeles, it represented the kind of film I had hoped would still be made in Hollywood; real ships on the open sea, awesome sets with a replica ship on a giant gimbal at Baja Studios in Mexico, and old school VFX. Before the excellent simulation software was widely available, it was scaling, retiming, layering wave upon wave, mist element over rain element, such an organic, creative way of working. I don't know if we'll have that same experience ever again, and I'm so proud of the work I put in and the film as a whole. Still haven't finished reading the book series. Stalled out around volume 18 out of 20. It's on my bucket list.
LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why?
Michael> I don't have a specific VFX ad that stands out currently, but one spot that hits me hard is Nike's 'We Run' 2022 out of Wieden+Kennedy. Having trained and run four marathons, the wear and tear (granted much of it self-inflicted through the arrogance of youth and too much concrete) has taken a toll. I've recently started training again, though only for a 10k, and pushing through the pain I guess has left me open to the images presented in that spot - others choosing to run, to achieve, no matter body shape or condition. I appreciate the deft manner in which the spot connects to a passion I have, even though I haven't yet found a Nike shoe that works with my foot needs. Hearkening back to Covid - that sense of community that was displaced or for some lost with the lockdowns - this spot brings to me a sense of community I didn't know I was missing, and so every time it plays, I watch with a feeling of connection. That's damn fine advertising.