Quality Control For FX: Fix it before your Supervisor Sees It

I have a great HOD that gets in our face a lot about this, like he should. Quality control is important in a studio. Without it, the entire studio suffers. As well as the quality of work the studio can output, the overall reputation of the studio, and how the clients view the studio as a vendor.

Sometimes studios are judged as places that can get the work done in time, but have average quality. Others are judged as studios that take their time, but deliver quality content. Preferably, you’d like to work at a studio that does the latter.

- QC(Quality control) starts at the most basic level. So let’s talk about it.

- This article is dedicated to the aforementioned HOD. I’m so sorry I’ve wasted your time on so many dust shots.

- Special thanks to the top secret sources: Oscar the Grouch, not two teddy bears, “The immortal one.”, a Jeff, and the countless others who know more pipeline stuff than me.

Intro:

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly QC: What Does it Look Like?

Let’s start with the bad.

You could say there is no such thing as bad QC, because any feedback is good feedback. However, sometimes quality control can be rushed. That’s never a good thing.

Working in VFX is stressful because everything seems like it needs to be delivered right away. That stress can often feed into how artists approach their shots, or submit dalies. From an artist perspective; if you know that your shot is a high priority, and the supervisor wants to see something the day of, you might quickly submit something. Without checking it over. You might suddenly look at the time, and panic knowing you only have an hour of the day left to complete your task. If this is the case: slow down. Quality control starts at the artist level. You need to train yourself what a good take on an effect looks like.

- Start thinking like your supervisor. What type of note would they leave on a shot? What movement in regards to pyro, particles, or animation do they like? Are your emitters visible? Does your effect have proper timing and energy in accordance with the scene? Things like that. If you can plan for what your supervisor is going to say, then you can predict the mistakes that will get flagged in your work.

You also need input. The best thing you can do before you submit something is to have someone else review it. By having another set of eyes take a look, you can flag any issues before you submit your work. Or revise it once again. Some studios have buddy systems for this, others have the HOD(Head of Department). Sometimes HODs take a look at everyone's work before it gets submitted for review, and flag anything that needs to be sent back. Leads can also do this as well. But you can always ask a coworker to take a look.

- QC doesn’t end at the artist level. From a technical and pipeline perspective, quality control procedures are extremely needed. Checks need to be put in place to make sure effects and assets are published correctly, and that they make it to the compositing stage in one piece. You can’t fix everything in comp, and relying on that is completely unfair to everyone involved.

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In a perfect world a studio’s quality control system would look something like this, depending on the pipeline:

Every department should have their own QC process. For example, animation will have witness cameras, pre-post roll checks, ground and interaction checks. The FX department might have QC passes to check motion blur. (Don’t count on it) Finally, the rigging and technical animation department might have something to check rig intersections, skin and tissue layers, and animation tests with the rigs.

Most of these processes would be set up by TDs.

For example, animation TDs might set up a system that checks an animator’s shot to make sure it has pre and post roll for the character movements. Or maybe even create setups for double checking cloth intersections.

Usually, whenever an artist publishes an asset there should be an additional system that is triggered. This system should create a render to preview how the object looks in motion. This QC system can then verify all the necessary elements are there, and that motion blur is working.

Another important system TDs might make is to create a system that will double check models before they are passed off to FX. This system might make sure that the assets are functional, can be exploded and fractured without any issues, or show how it works in test simulations.

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In an even more perfect world, production and supervisors might have a post mortem after a production has wrapped, and talk about what did, and didn’t work. Then use that feedback to improve quality going forward. However, if this does happen in a studio, quite often the feedback is forgotten. Which isn’t very helpful. Realistically, in your career, they might not even happen.

Supervisors can have their own level of quality control as well. Sometimes they have meetings to find which assets can be “locked for lighting.” This can be a meeting where all the department supervisors. HODs, production managers can meet and talk about which assets are going into the final stage of their development. This is a great way for all the higher ups to decide what assets could be better, if they have time to fix something, what cannot change, or if the production just needs to move forward.

Some studios even have QC specialists. These jobs are focused around making sure the company protocols are followed, auditing departments, overseeing procedures, making sure every department has QC procedures, and much more. They can also work with HODs to solve asset problems.

Some studios, if they rely solely on their artists to grade their quality control, make them do occasional questionnaires so they take feedback correctly. Which never helps because no one pays attention to a questionnaire. So I don’t recommend encouraging those methods. Even if you make them watch a series of 15, 15 minute long videos about how to understand feedback. They more than likely will be watching Netflix in another tab, or talking to their other coworkers about how much watching videos like this is wasting their time. It’s alright to have HR resources and training, it's another thing to make them watch generic videos that are not job specific. It’s better to have your artists have hands-on quality control training, than leave them to their own devices.

A Quick Rant on Motion Blur: Why Your Lighting Department Has Trust Issues

I’d figure now is as good a time as any to talk about motion blur.

Quite often when you publish something, it might be sent back because the motion blur is wrong. Here are some tips and tricks to stop those errors from happening.

Motion blur is important because it makes something look natural. Learning how cameras handle sampling is very important as well. If you can’t understand how a motion object is seen through a lens, you are going to have a hard time. Motion blur in film and video is a result of shutter angle or shutter speed.

A shutter angle measures the amount of time a piece of film is exposed to light per frame. The higher the shutter angle, the longer the film will be exposed to light. As well as how long the film will see the motion of the object.

Shutter speed is the measurement of how long the shutter of the camera is open per second. For example 1/48 means the shutter is open for one forty eighth of a second.

These two things might sound like the same thing, but they are different. Shutter angle measures the overall time the shutter stays open. Shutter speed is how fast the shutter itself opens and closes per second.

It’s common knowledge that VFX artists don’t check motion blur. And we should. There is a simple test from what some experts tell me to double check it.

First, time shift your sim back by one frame. While also visualizing your original frame.
Enable the vector fields.
Then if the velocity fields don’t touch, your motion blur will be wrong.

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It’s also helpful to understand the difference between deformation, transformation, acceleration blur. These are not the same thing.

Deformation Blur: Deformation Blur tracks the motion of individual vertices. It’s memory intensive, and doesn’t have fast render times.

Velocity Blur: Blurs an image by using pixel velocity to produce a motion blur effect.

Acceleration Blur: This uses the change in velocity to more accurately blur objects turning at high speed.

How To Dig Yourself Out Of Bad Quality Control

We’re all guilty when it comes to submitting something before we should. Hell, I do it from time to time. Or when I’m getting overwhelmed at work. So here are some coping mechanisms on how to prevent yourself from submitting the same mistakes over and over.

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#1: Recognize when you are bored. Ask for something new.

Sometimes as FX artists we spend 6 months doing the same effect over and over. This can make us assume we know what we are doing, and we don’t need to think about the effect anymore. This isn’t true. Every shot is different, and in turn you will have to make small tweaks to setups . Think about the wing direction of the scene, character movement, and what type of material makes up the ground.

If you are just copying and pasting a setup over and over, you are going to make mistakes. Remember to recheck your build everytime you work on a new shot, and make sure it has the parameters that match the chosen end result.

Now, let’s say you are bored. Ask for something new. It doesn;t hurt to explain your situation to production, and ask for something more challenging.

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#2: Review, review, and more review.

Always triple check something before you submit it. Always. Even if you are embarrassed by the end result, or already think you did a bad job. You need to look at it. If you aren’t happy with the result, neither will your supervisor. You will have to work on it again if there is something wrong.
The fastest way to never work on a shot again, is to play back the simulation enough until you have a good idea of how it moves. Or how it should move. Then you can submit something for everyone to take a look at.

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#3: Tutorials can help.

Often when I can recognize the theme I’ll be working in for a production, I’ll start looking for my own resources to help me out along the way. This is great for supporting yourself through projects, and having to go to places that can answer your questions.

By doing similar tutorials to what you are working on in the studio at the same time, you can keep your skill level up. As well as be open to new ideas of what you could add to your work, or other build methods. This can also increase your problem solving abilities, and look for new ways of completing tasks on time.

The more often you do something, the more likely it will become second hand nature to you.

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#4: Figure out what you suck at.

All of us are bad at something. I personally hate working with water, and sometimes destruction. As of the past two years, that has been most of my job. I enjoy it, but other times it's a real pain in the butt.

When we don’t like working on a particular task, our attention span drops, and we become pretty lazy when it comes to QC. We just want the task gone. This mentality creates a never ending circle of hell.

You’re going to have to learn to suck it up. No one ever said life was fair. But just because it isn’t fair, doesn’t mean you have a free pass not to try. Sometimes trying to complete a task you don’t like and succeeding can be the most rewarding thing ever. So I do recommend working on activities you don’t like.

Learning how not to hate a particular task is important. The less angry you are about a task, the more than likely your whole overall mood and result will improve. After that you will more than likely be considered a better team member.