New Deal Studios is a 21st Century Media Studio that invents, prototypes, designs and creates projects for film and TV. They use The Foundry's workflow solutions in various, innovative ways that have allowed them to take on some amazing projects. And Digital FX Supervisor & Technical Lead Jeff Jasper is heavily involved in the majority of those projects.
Jeff is a hands-on supervisor involved with everything from previs, techviz, digital FX, look development, production and post production pipelines. We talked to him about some of the work that he's done at New Deal Studios as well as how The Foundry's tools have impacted their workflow.
ProVideo Coalition: You mention that your company can handle everything from pre-production all the way through post. What kind of advantages does this give you?
Jeff Jasper: In general it is rare for a company to tackle everything we do. Usually pre-production, production, and post are handled by different companies and groups and while they are communicating with each other there is still a disconnect that happens versus having all the resources under one roof. It has been something New Deal has been growing into over the almost 20 years we have been in business. Along the way we have been focusing on trying to streamline the process and also get the most value per dollar. We want the money spent on a project to go into what you are seeing on the screen instead of waste and overhead. It doesn’t matter if we are doing an independent film, in-house project or a 300 million dollar blockbuster, we focus on quality and efficiency throughout the process. Also since we are involved from beginning to end we are empathetic to the struggles of the entire pipeline. Pre-production processes are designed to make production’s job easier and so on. There is no “fix it in post” attitude here. Also since we have such a wide range of skills and experience we can help our clients find the best and most efficient process for their projects and not just force everything into one workflow.
Where have we seen your model miniatures, and what is it like to put these sort of projects together?
New Deal Studios has worked on well over 100 films and countless commercials. We've worked on most Martin Scorsese films dating back to Aviator as well as Christopher Nolan films going back to The Dark Knight. We also do a lot of contract work with Digital FX companies since they often recognize the benefits of miniatures, sets, and practical elements.
Some of my favorites were the train smashing out of a window of a station and crashing into the ground in Paris in the movie Hugo, the Lower Wacker Drive sequence in The Dark Knight and the snow fortress destruction sequence in Inception. Something I think Scorsese and Nolan share is their attention to detail and realism, even in a stylized film like Hugo. All three models were huge and very complicated from an engineering and detail standpoint. Hugo was interesting in that it is was based off an actual historic event from 1895 where a steam locomotive overran the stop in the Gare Montparnasse station. Even better was that there were historic photographs of the crashed train. Production came to us and wanted to recreate the crash so that the end result would match the historic photographs. We had to engineer the 1:4 scale train to do the same action and land in exactly the same way as the historical train. We also had to build a set with details that matched the original station and set dressing, such as bikes and suitcases, on the street onto which the train crashes. To pull this off we used MODO along with Solidworks and Rhino for the design and engineering phase. Hugo was a 3D film so we shot with ARRI Alexa cameras in a stereo rig configuration. The beauty of the shot is how real it looked because it was real. The breaking glass was real glass breaking and the destruction was real destruction. There were no cheats. It was the real world.
The same goes for the Christopher Nolan projects which were also massive in scale. The snow fortress was 1:6th scale and to get high enough to film one of the camera angles we had to hang a camera basket with a technocrane from a construction crane. Once again the destruction, explosions, fire and smoke look so amazing because they were real in-camera elements. Months of design and engineering go into pulling these shots off but the results are always amazing. What a lot of people don’t know is we do the same shot more than once so if the first one looks great we can always go bigger and more fantastic with the second take.
What's the most difficult project you've ever worked on? Any takeaways from the experience?
One of the most exciting things about our work is that every project is a new challenge. We try and triage every project to think we can do better on the next project. We get excited by difficult projects because those are the greatest challenge and usually have the biggest impact on the look of shots.
How have The Foundry tools impacted your workflow?
The Foundry’s products have had a huge impact on our workflow. We made the move over to NUKE shortly after The Foundry took it over from Digital Domain. We were blown away by how fast it was, especially for 3D compositing. The Foundry also really gets the color pipeline so there is less worry about messing up the color on a project. We had already been using Furnace with Apple’s Shake and so we continued to use it with NUKE. I have been a huge proponent of MODO but it had been a hard sell in an industry so dominated by Autodesk with Maya. We used it for smaller bits of projects here and there, but when Luxology added Alembic support in 601 that was the start of something special and we moved over from Mental Ray rendering in Maya to MODO rendering as part of our render pipeline.
The real benefit came on a commercial we were doing for Vizio in which we did digital set extensions for our practical model sets. We were rendering hundreds of thousands of buildings using brute force global illumination, HDRI lighting, and high resolution photo textures. Some scenes were rendering as fast as 2 minutes a frame at 3840×2160. This would have been impossible in our previous pipeline. When The Foundry partnered with Luxology I was thrilled and I think we are just seeing the tip of great things to come from that relationship. More recently we added HIERO. HIERO is a post pipeline in a box. We use it for conform and transcode and also to build out shot trees, NUKE scripts, and digital FX workflow straight from the editorial. As the digital supervisor it allows me to have the latest edit and shot list. This way Editorial always has the latest versions of finished shots. It sped up our workflow significantly from traditional shot tracking systems. Even more recently we added MARI to our workflow. Mari is a truly transformative product. It allows artists the freedom to put a similar amount of detail into textures that we do in our practical paint department. This was always a huge challenge before as digital paint and texture work always paled in comparison to what we could do physically with a model. Mari finally brings that freedom we enjoyed in practical paint to our digital assets.
You mention that you use NUKE for compositing…what has your experience been with other compositing softwares? What's different about NUKE?
New Deal started with Shake and I used After Effects and Combustion before that. I have also done testing with most everything else at one point. Each of them has their benefits, but when it comes to complicated compositing for film and TV nothing really compares to NUKE for me. Nodal workflow, I feel, is a must. Once again NUKE has always had a fantastic color pipeline that I feel is the best in the industry. NUKE is very stable, very fast, and highly flexible.
The KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach is one that can save you all sorts of headaches. How have you seen workflows affected when things get a bit too complicated?
Troubleshooting is one area where keeping things as simple as possible really helps. The more complexity and customization you add into something, the more areas for failure you end up with. Simple elegant solutions still give you a great result but do so without as many areas to maintain and troubleshoot. Sometimes problems are very complex and require complex solutions. We just try and find the most efficient and simple version of a solution. My thinking on troubleshooting comes from my background in IT. I saw how complex systems always took the most support to keep them running and always took the most resources plus they cost the most. When something was designed to be simple and efficient, it was almost always more reliable and support costs went way down. We are taking that same thinking to the process of making movies and serving our clients.
What would you say to someone who isn't sure where to start with MODO, MARI or any of the other tools you use on a frequent basis?
I always point everyone to The Foundry’s Youtube and Vimeo channels. The Foundry has fantastic how-to videos for all their products. I also tell people to just dive in and not to be afraid to ask questions in the forums. The Foundry’s products have great user communities who are always willing to help each other out. I also feel the best way to really learn a tool is under the pressure of a deadline so volunteer on a project or student film and give it your all. Not only do you learn the software but you start building relationships.