I was seduced by the chrome ball.
My first job in Visual Effects was at Industrial Light and Magic. I struggled to learn the technical aspects of the job, but my first success at the company was artistic—Dennis Muren liked my lighting.
Dennis Muren was, of course, a hero to me, and so this meant a lot. Every morning, sitting in Casper dailies with him, was surreal to me. Here I was, having my work critiqued by someone I’d idolized since I was old enough to read about how my favorite movies were made.
In the years since, I’ve often accused some in the visual effects industry of resorting to a ton of science to avoid using a pinch of art.
But even I have been guilty of this. I went through a phase of being slavish to the process of HDR lighting. That’s the thing where you photograph multiple exposures of a chrome ball (there are other ways, but the chrome ball was the most common for a long time), combine them into an HDR image, and then unwrap it into a spherical texture map. The result is a record of the actual light intensities falling on the location of the ball, in 360 degrees. And you can use it to automatically light an object.
The problem with doing this on a movie set is that the lighting you are slavishly capturing isn’t worth anything. It’s an an invisible accident hovering in the air somewhere near (if you’re lucky) someone’s artistic lighting work. As I wrote in my foreword to Mark Christiansen’s After Effects compositing book:
“Make it look real.” That would seem to be the mandate of the visual effects artist. Spielberg called, and he wants the world to believe, if only for 90 minutes, that dinosaurs are alive and breathing on an island off the coast of South America. Your job: Make them look real. Right?
Remember how terrific the T-rex looked when she stepped out of the paddock? Man, she looked good.
She looked good.
[...]The realism of that moment certainly did come in part from the hard work of Industrial Light and Magic’s fledgling computer graphics department, which developed groundbreaking technologies to bring that T-rex to life. But mostly, that T-rex felt real because she looked good. She was wet. It was dark. She had a big old Dean Cundey blue rim light on her coming from nowhere. In truth, you could barely see her.
Our clients pigeonhole us into the role of the prop maker: Build me a T-rex, and it’d better look real. But when it comes time to put that T-rex on screen, we are also the cinematographer (with our CG lights), the makeup artist (with our “wet look” shader), and the practical effects crew (with our rain). And although he may forget to speak with us in the same flowery terms that he used with Dean on set, Steven wants us to make sure that T-rex looks like a T-rex should in a movie. Not just good—impossibly good. Unrealistically, blue-rim-light-outa-nowhere good. Sexy good.
I wrote that without knowing how Dennis Muren felt about the chrome ball. So imagine my delight when I discovered this video of the man himself (courtesy of fxphd):
Note that this clip is from an fxphd course, and came to my attention because it had been uploaded to YouTube without permission or attribution. Fxphd is a paid online training service (awesome, and worth every penny), and it's not cool to re-post their material without permission. My deep thanks to fxphd for supplying this legit version of this clip for this post. If you want to learn about any aspect of filmmaking, from directing to shooting to high-end VFX, they are simply the best resource available.