Mike Kelt, ceo and co founder of physical FX specialist Artem, says reports of the death of SFX have been greatly exaggerated

The question often asked is whether VFX is sounding the death knell for physical SFX? My short answer is emphatically NO. 

By VFX I am including general post effects and compositing, as well as computer-generated imagery (CGI). Probably every film now has some VFX, and certainly a good deal of ‘post’ whether cleaning up shots, removing modern elements, or pasting in historical backdrops.  It makes storytelling much more possible where budgets allow a director to imagine and realise anything.  But when viewed from the perspective of a performance it is almost always better to have the physical elements round an actor rather than a sterile process screen.

CG can be great, but often it comes at an equally impressive cost.  We did a project recently – which had better remain nameless – where the CG was budgeted at approx. £350k while the SFX equivalent cost £40k. You can guess which option the production went with. 

SFX is best used where there is interaction, with the cast or physical objects, or where there is a ‘chaotic’ element to the action.  For instance, we built a miniature house that had to be torn apart by a tornado for the film ‘Hurricane Heist’.  This was relatively easy, if highly technical, to do, but the unpredictable nature of the action made a CG option almost impossible.   A CG artist must have a good idea what the outcome should be before starting to build something on the computer, which is after all a 2D image.  A modelmaker or sculptor thinks in 3D, and constructs in 3D, so the outcome is always going to look right.  Some CG can look rather flat and unconvincing if not done well.

Of course, if it is shot with physical SFX you know immediately if it has worked or not and can relax a bit.  I am finding that more directors are turning to the real thing in front of the camera, so they can see what they are getting, instead of waiting and hoping that it will all come together in post.

But the most successful projects are where the physical and digital effects are discussed openly to find what will get the best action on screen, rather than inflate either’s profit margin.  And often it is by working together that great things are achieved.  Paddington 2 is a case in point. Here we worked with visual effects studio Framestore and collaboration made the job easier for both parties and I believe the results speak for themselves.

More recently physical SFX have been embracing CGI as a tool themselves.  At Artem the majority of projects are visualised on the computer, sometimes having scanned in a physical sculpt which is then tweaked and output to 3D printers, a robot or CNC machines.  That’s just the nature of today’s SFX.  And of course, the market place has expanded way beyond the film and TV areas into events, museums, experiences, etc where VFX is not appropriate.

I am confident the physical SFX world is safe and will continue to thrive.

Mike Kelt, is the CEO and co-founder Artem . He cut his teeth in theatre as a designer and production manager.  Before Artem he worked at the BBC on iconic shows such as Dr Who and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  In 2012 Mike oversaw the creation of over 20 major physical special effects in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics.  More recent projects include Danny Boyle’s ‘T2 Trainspotting’, ‘Paddington 2’, ‘The Foreigner’ starring Jackie Chan and ‘Bodyguard’ with Keeley Hawes and Richard Madden. Mike sits on the UK Screen Alliance Facilities Council and is a council member of BSAC (British Screen Advisory Council).  Mike was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Hertfordshire for “outstanding achievement in Special Effects at home and abroad”.

Mike Kelt

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