Meet Aaron Estrada - VFX Supervisor at Craftey Apes
Meet Aaron Estrada - VFX Supervisor at Craftey Apes

NMFO: First and foremost, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?

AE: I'm a visual FX supervisor. I'm the department head for visual FX on set. I follow the shots from the production side on-set and help with the planning on set through their completion in post-production.

I get the extra pieces I need for visual FX work. Then I follow the shots all the way through the life cycle until we deliver them back to the editorial department, then cut them back into the film.

NMFO: What is a VFX artist?

AE: Visual FX are shots that are created in post-production. So, many times, people conflate special FX and visual FX, and part of that has to do with their name.

They're called special visual FX. They used to be called special FX sometimes, and sometimes there's a lot of overlap. Special FX are FX that are created on-set for the camera. For example, flipping a car, blowing up a car, lighting things on fire, making smoke. Those are things that they do in real life on set. But then, some FX are too dangerous or just physically impossible to do on set. For example, creating dinosaurs or making digital doubles, doing stunts that are too dangerous for humans, or making large environments that are possibly too expensive to build.

We would do those visual FX in post-production. These days, that means mostly computer graphics, but we also use a lot of photographically sourced material. We might be mixing miniatures. We might be mixing other photographically sourced images, or painting them from scratch, not just generating them with 3D computer graphics. We might do Photoshop-like old-style matte paintings and then composite those into the shots.

So that's visual FX versus special effects.

NMFO: I was watching a movie the other day, and now, in movies, everybody has their phone screen or computer screen. How do those end up getting composed into the film?

AE: Screens are another case that often comes up because people are often talking in video chats, especially now. Sometimes the other side of the conversation hasn't been shot yet. They have nothing. So, they'll shoot with a blank screen or with a green stand-in, and then once the scene has been recorded, we'll composite the screen in later.

In the past, they would even do that optically because it was, depending on the situation, sometimes impossible to photograph the screen because of mismatched frame rates or because the quality wouldn't have been good enough. So, they would use film techniques to composite stuff onto screens. Putting screens in on post-production has been a longstanding tradition in this industry.

Also, for continuity's sake, sometimes it's impossible to have the screen coincide with what's supposed to happen in the scene.

NMFO: What made you want to get into video and visual FX?

AE: I wanted to do computer graphics from a young age. When I was about 10, I knew I wanted to do computer graphics. Tron was an influential film for me in terms of being exposed to the concept of computer graphics. I saw Tron and thought, “Boy, that's really cool.” In all the making of videos, they talked about how computer graphics were the recognizers, and the light cycles that were flying around were achieved with computer graphics.

As a child, it seemed inaccessible at the time because you needed a supercomputer of that era to do the work. But, if you fast forward to where I was in my late teens and early twenties, you could suddenly start to do the work on personal computers at home.

I could start experimenting with computer graphics and complete the dream of making graphics from an idea, using a computer to make it. That was when the entire industry shifted towards nonlinear editing, using digital workstations for manipulating sound. Photoshop was still relatively new at the time. So, I realized that this would become the universal media manipulation tool for pretty much every format of media you could imagine. My interest in computer graphics made me realize it was a power tool, like a Swiss Army knife for making images. That made me twice as excited about mastering those tools.

That evolved into my career in visual effects because I kept asking myself, “What are you going to use all these computer graphics for?”

Then, I started learning more about classic visual FX techniques, process photography, optical printing, shooting miniatures, the classic glass mats, and all the classic ways of doing visual FX and post-production that keyed into the computer graphics.

Those techniques are all still relevant because we still do the digital versions of the classic techniques. Then we have new versions that would never have been possible using the classic techniques, like the way that we can essentially hand off or take over the entire frame using computer graphics in 3D. That type of thing was impossible until computer graphics became one of the tools.

NMFO: So, it has been an organic progression of learning more, seeing how the technology progresses, and fine-tuning your skills. And obviously, you're passionate about it.

AE: Oh yeah, there's always something new to learn. That's one of the fun things about visual FX. If you do not enjoy constantly upgrading your skill set, then it probably wouldn't be a career for you.

NMFO: It's not a place to stay stagnant.

AE: No. Especially now, AI has brought a new set of tools. I think a lot of people are concerned about the capabilities that AI brings. In a lot of ways, it removes more of the scut work. It allows us to focus more on the high-level work rather than the busy work. We can use a computer, like a bot, to take care of a lot of stuff that used to be tedious manual labor. Now, we can have the AI do it and get results that we normally have to toil for hours to produce. Like rotoscoping, which is cutting mats manually, literally by tracing them. The AIs will be able to do that more efficiently. Then we can focus on the creative work, making it look great, and creating the exciting images everybody's used to seeing. Not focusing on all this minutia that takes a lot of time.

NMFO: Work smarter, not harder.

AE: Yeah.

NMFO: Because you've been in the industry for so long, how do you see the trajectory going as technology advances? You've touched on it a lot here with AI and how it can be beneficial. Everybody talks about how it is going to replace jobs. But it could allow us to sharpen our skill set and do more advanced things than spending time on time-consuming things.

AE: We've had very high-level capabilities. I remember when 3D computer graphic techniques started to mature, and we were doing things like face replacements, de-aging people, and digital doubles. You may have heard this phrase: the uncanny valley.

It has to do with human faces, characters, and photorealism. The more you approach reality in terms of a simulation or try to create something that looks like reality, use the 80-20 rule. The closer you get to 100%, the further away you get. That last 1% or 5% or 10%, it gets more difficult to achieve because the tiny inaccuracies of the human eye are very sensitive, especially to human faces.

Anything wrong with the motion, such as how the face animates or deforms, subtle things like eye gaze, and lighting. If anything looks the slightest bit wrong, it's rejected as looking fake. We're very sensitive to that. That's the uncanny valley. You must go down into the valley before climbing back up to the other side of realism. That's been a place where we've been stuck in many ways, especially when replicating perfect humans.

People have been stressing about digital characters or replacing humans for maybe 15 years. We're barely getting to the point where we're starting to nip at the heels of the uncanny valley effect.

Fifteen years ago, the most elite studios spent huge amounts of effort on individual shots to achieve creepy and imperfect things. We're finally getting to the point where we can create a higher volume of shots at that same not-perfect level.

We still haven't even achieved the perfection part. That's one of the places where AI might help a little because it has some tools to help with fine-tuning. It will never completely replace human performance because that drives AI. 

Take an example like "Avatar, Way of Water." Everything is done as performance capture before the CG. It's driven by the actors. The part that many people leave out, even those who do this, because sometimes it benefits them to omit the gory details of how it's all done. Hundreds and hundreds of man-hours go into massaging that mocap performance into something that can be successfully applied to the CG characters. The CG characters that need to be produced must be fine-tuned so that it doesn't enter that creepy uncanny valley and lose all its appeal. Then the audience rejects it because of the creep factor. So, if anything, in some ways, the demand for this level of work has increased, at least for the time being, the amount of human effort necessary to complete the shots.

Especially if you look at a film's budget like "Avatar," they're not just burning through money. They're spending it on humans to complete these shots. I think, in some ways, those concerns are overblown. 

There are some things I worry about in terms of the junior-level folks who would, oftentimes, pay your dues by doing a lot of the more labor-intensive stuff. If there isn't a pipeline in it, how will they learn?

NMFO: How will they learn the fundamentals of getting the job done if there's an AI already doing it for them?

AE: Yeah, I worry about that. But it also means they're all starting from a higher launch platform. They'll have access to all the tools. They'll be able to produce very high-level stuff more easily. It's going to be more constrained by their imagination than it is by their skill set.

Also, the amount of labor they could put into the work. They can get through a lot of that same scut work themselves and produce cool stuff. Even now, if a student is very creative in terms of how they apply their efforts and the projects they approach, they can produce stuff at a level that, even two years ago, they couldn't have imagined because of the quality of the tools, the level of automation that's available, and the speed in general. Increasing the amount of capacity that they have with their computer.

The software has become much more sophisticated. The last juniors I hired that were doing CG, the stuff they were doing was very high-level given the size of the team. It was a very small team. They created a whole CG animated short with just two people. It was very impressive.

That's part of the reason they got a job, too. It's because they created very impressive work.

NMFO: You've worked on huge projects, some Marvel films, including Iron Man 3 and the Amazing Spider-Man, and local New Mexico productions, including The Cleaning Lady and Vengeance. What are some of your favorite projects that you've worked on?

AE: Let's see, I've been very fortunate in my career to work in the animation part of the business. I never worked at Pixar, but I worked at DreamWorks. I've also been able to work in the visual FX part of the industry. I have the experience of making a film from scratch. That’s where the process is live-action, especially in TV, where they have the writer’s room. They workshop a lot and keep working on it until they're happy with the story. That's very much the animation process.

I've been able to watch many films come to life through that process, seeing the early screenings that were often no animation. Just storyboards. They cut them together into a reel. You see a moving storyboard version of the film. Then you see it slowly come to life sequence by sequence as they decide, “Okay, we're going to lock this sequence, and we're going to put this in production,” and start animating it.

Then, it gets replaced with the fully animated and rendered stuff. It's hard to say what was my favorite part of the industry. I really liked how animation is structured because it's so thoughtfully approached and so carefully executed. You could say the planning level is nothing like how live action is.

Live action's a lot more like a scattershot where they have a script, but you shoot all this coverage of stuff that is at least 75% of it, 80% of it's never going to make it into the edit because of how you're doing the coverage. It's just going to get thrown away. If you have a higher budget, probably 90% of it, if you're shooting high ratios.

So, it's interesting to compare it to animation, where you know your shot before you make it. This is in contrast to live-action, where you know the scene you're making but don't know if it will make it into the cut until it gets edited.

My favorite animated project that I worked on was Kung Fu Panda. My favorite visual FX shot was a film I worked on called G-Force, mostly because it was a fun project. They had these talking guinea pigs, and the show was good. A former visual tech supervisor directed it. So they knew which shots they wanted. The shots seemed to be well-planned, and the characters were fun. They were fun to work on.

You can see there's a theme there. They're both cartoony characters. I like that character-driven stuff. Regarding visual FX, many projects I work on have this in common: I like doing set extensions and matte painting-type stuff. Things that are more classic visual FX approaches. Most projects I've worked on have had some level of that. There's always a little bit of something in every single one for me.

NMFO: I want to return to the beginning of our conversation, where we discussed the life cycle and the pipeline of everything you do. Can we go back to that and touch on what the structure of your role does throughout the entire production?

AE: Let's talk about visual FX. There's always a script, and the first thing I'll do, even before I go to set, I will break that script down with a producer. That means we go through everything. We read the entire script. Every single scene. We try to imagine what the shots might be, and it is difficult to translate a script into actual individual visual effect shots. That's the first stage of beating it, breaking it down, and it starts the conversation with filmmakers.

Typically, we've made a shot list for them. Sometimes, we do it in that first pass. Sometimes, they have a shot list that they give us, and then we create our breakdown based on that. That starts the conversation and lets us start hashing out the details of what will go in and what will fill the screen for each moment we break down from the script. It also helps us determine the necessary resources to complete that shot.

We create that bid, and we deliver it to production. Sometimes, there's a bit of back and forth over which shots will be in there, what they want, and what they don't want. That creates the framework of the shots we know we need to get on the day we show up on set.

After that happens, it's about the same time they're doing their prep or in the early stage of the pre-production process. Once they're ready to go into prep and pre-production, I'll attend those prep meetings and sit down as we do a full read-through of the script. Sometimes, we'll do it scene by scene. For episodes we'll do that per episode. We'll do the whole thing on features at once, but there are multiple meetings. Oftentimes, we'll get pulled into meetings, especially if there's an overlap with other departments where visual FX will be part of the process. We'll have meetings with almost every other department head because if it comes to things like, let's take an example of just the set design. There could be partially visual FX and partially physically built sets. We might be following the design of the set designer, and the only reason they didn't build it physically is because of the space that they had. We extend their design into a visual FX version of it. We don't want to mess up their design concept. So, there's a lot of back and forth between the set designers and visual FX. Those are great collaborations. I love those.

We might also work with wardrobe because we might have characters with digital prosthetics for various reasons. They might have parts of their wardrobe that are physically impossible to do. A good example might be Furiosa's little claw in Fury Road. It was partially physical, but they had to remove parts of her body to complete the gag. So, we'll have those conversations with the department heads so they know what we need from them, and we're all on the same page about the expectations of who will do what. That ensures that the visual FX can be executed most efficiently and that there's no disconnect between what we're acquiring on set and what we will be doing later in post-production.

We collaborate a lot with special effects. There are always combo platters with special effects where they'll flip stuff, blow stuff up, or even stunts. Sometimes we'll have a lot of wires we'll have to remove, and the way that we can weigh in on the way those rigs work.

Once everyone is on the same page and we know what to do on the day, we go into shooting. Depending on the work that needs to be done in post and visual FX, I might need additional stuff from the set on the day the main camera crew is not. Examples would be if we need to do 3D stuff involving the set or even just a 3D creature. We typically need an enhanced reference level from a set that normal cameras can't record. That would be things like physical surveys of the set itself. We must survey the sets as built to have the precise scale of the environment. Sometimes, we'll do actual scans.

There are other pieces of reference that we might need to capture, like photographic reference of props and people in wardrobe and set pieces. Then, we get a specialized reference, which we can use later for image-based lighting. Especially if there is a CG character in a shot, we'll always want to get that because that will help us model the lighting in the environment as it was on the day when that scene was shot. There must be a visual FX representative, or two or three, depending on how big the set is and how many cameras are running.

Then, we log all the additional camera data from the main cameras. Having a visual FX representative on set is helpful in post-production because things almost always change. It's a very fast-paced environment. Suddenly, they're zigging instead of zagging, even though we had a plan. The visual FX person on set can ensure that the plan is updated correctly, considering visual effects concerns down the line.

Now that we have finished all the acquisitions, we've got all the footage and additional references. Then, it all goes to editorial. We stand by for a bit while they figure out what shots from the coverage are in the film.

Once the editorial is done, we know which shots and takes will be in the film. They then provide us with a list and the footage, and we know what to work on. Visual FX is labor intensive, so there's no reason to execute visual FX that will get cut. That would be pointless.

We work exactly to the cut length. Plus, we add some frames to the head and the tail just in case they decide to slip the edit in post-production. It’s just enough to create safety without increasing our effort to deliver the shot. Otherwise, we deliver exactly the cut length, which would reduce the flexibility if they needed to slip the cut just a little bit.

They turn over all that footage, and then we get to work. We bring all the references that we got on set. For example, a 3D set extension is a medium complexity case; we have that set survey that measures the set exactly. We know where the actual physical camera was when it was shooting it. Now, we need to extend it to have more stuff behind it. We would produce all the assets necessary to do that. We're flying over it if it was a large 3D environment, like a futuristic city on a hill. We must create all that in 3D. Then we must match what's called match move the camera. You are creating a virtual version of the camera in a virtual space, in the same place as the real camera was relative to the real set.

NMFO: What is the timeframe from pre-production to when you're done with it back to editors? What does that time frame look like for features versus TV? And what does that time frame look like when you don't have somebody on set helping with all the in-time changes?

AE: You could run into a situation where I wouldn't say the shots wouldn't be possible to execute at all if you didn't have a visual FX representative on set, but you might not be able to execute them optimally. Because in post-production you'd be guessing at a lot of things. For example, as I worked through the ranks, I was lighting, rendering, and compositing. I started my career as a CG generalist. I specialized for the middle of my career in lighting rendering and compositing, computer graphics, and CG. It’s possible to light something just by eye. I can reverse engineer by looking at an image and the lighting in the scene and make a CG thing look mostly like that. But it's not quite the same as knowing with a high level of certainty where the lights were on the day on set. There are some things that you couldn't figure out if you didn't have on-set camera notes.

A typical Pixar movie takes about three years to make. Some of that is the story part of the process, so separating isn't easy. In visual FX, part of the reason there are these mega visual FX studios that have a couple of thousand people is that they're working on big tent pole films that only have about five months, four months to do a huge number of shots once the stuff gets turned over. You can load it up on many people and do much of it in parallel. I think it's always a good idea.

There’s probably no director who wouldn’t love to have another pass on their edit. No writer wouldn't like to have the opportunity to tighten up the script, especially during shooting. This happens a lot more in TV. If we have more time to do it, having a smaller crew on staff tends to be better because the information is easier for people to get on the same page.

They're quick cycles, episodic stuff. It happens fast. We frequently need to get episodes done. We're lucky when we have a month and a half. Oftentimes, it's more like three weeks.

NMFO: Why don't you tell us more about Crafty Apes, the company you work for? We know what you do within there. Tell us a little bit more about the company.

AE: Crafty Apes is a full-service visual FX studio. We have branch offices in multiple production hubs, including New Mexico. We have California, Vancouver, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Montreal, and New York. And then we have a London office that's also starting now.

Overall, the company has around 500 people. We're a midsize visual FX studio if you want to do the overall headcount.

NMFO: And why Albuquerque?

AE: Because it's one of the big production hubs. Now that we have Netflix and NBC, it made sense to have a branch here. We mostly cater to the New Mexico-based shows, but we also help some of the other branches with their shows. That's part of our strategy to be able to cater to shows in their local market so they can keep their claims process simple when using the state film incentives.

We are full-service, which means we do both CGE and comp and help with the planning, bids, breakdowns, and prep.

NMFO: You have tons of experience, knowledge, and training. How would you explain to somebody wanting to get into visual FX? What are ways to get involved in the industry?

AE: I like mentoring people, and I teach at UNM. As my responsibilities have increased lately, it's been harder for me. My class is still offered from time to time. So, if you're at UNM, I teach comp, but there are multiple specialties that you could do.

If you want to do visual FX, you don't need certifications. You need to be able to produce awesome output. Having said that, the tools are somewhat complicated, and there are a lot of possible distractions. So, that's one of the tricks of being able to focus on the skills you need to develop. The first stage is figuring out which specialty you want to focus on to minimize the distractions of the other things you could be studying because there's almost an unlimited number of things you could learn in this business.

Then, start focusing on the specialties within visual FX that you want to practice and build a very high skill level around those. If you're interested in visual FX, I would say to learn some of the high-level, old-school techniques to understand how they relate to modern techniques. That might help inform your decision of which specialty you want to do. Right now, we have a lot of shiny object syndrome. Filmmakers always want the coolest, neatest, shiniest toy to make their movies with. You don't need a techno crane to make a movie. You don't need a 70-millimeter Panavision to make a movie. You need a camera and maybe some lights, but if you're smart about it, you could shoot your whole movie using available light and a couple of flags, and it won't look ugly. It may not look as beautiful as something carefully handcrafted with many lights and instruments.

If you boil it down to what you need, you can do all the techniques on your run-of-the-mill computer that you could buy at Best Buy or Costco. If you had a run-of-the-mill computer, it's not the hottest, fastest workstation you could possibly have, but you could start working on it.

The barrier to entry is not high for getting started. Many software companies give away free or demo versions of their software. Usually, there are restrictions on how you can use it. You can't use it for commercial work. But for learning, it's perfectly fine. There's also open-source software, like Blender, where the license is essentially free.

Phase one is figuring out what you want to specialize in. Then, once you've decided, you could start thinking about whether you want to pay for trade school. Some great trade schools have certificate programs. If you're going to get a degree, get a degree in something more general like filmmaking. Or, if you want to be doing visual FX, you might want to consider something more technical, like a STEM degree. It sounds crazy, but understanding computer science wouldn't hurt.

Then, do training using non-certificate or certificate programs where you can. All while practicing visual FX and film all through your training journey. Even while you're still in high school, if you look at some successful filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, he was making movies in Super Eight when he was a child.

There's no barrier to entry. Even a child today has more access to filmmaking than Steven Spielberg did with 8mm. 8mm film is expensive. You can get a hand-me-down smartphone with a better camera than a Super 8 camera and start making films. You can even use the free or inexpensive editing app on your phone. You don't need additional support.

You can start learning the fundamentals of filmmaking before you even go to school. All that stuff is foundational and important to be a good visual FX person. You have to understand the filmmaking process on a slightly deeper level because if you can mess up the tone of a scene by how you complete a shot, you could make something that was supposed to be scary and create a sense of peril, you could make it into something that feels comedic, or not scary, just by the way you executed the visual FX shot.

You must understand that none of the general education regarding film theory will hurt your journey toward doing visual FX. It will help you understand the context of the visual FX and why they're going into the film. Maybe you're motivated as a filmmaker to learn visual FX simply as an optimization exercise for improving your movies. It is a powerful tool if you can execute these things yourselves as an independent filmmaker or as a student, to be able to do little visual FX in your own projects. So, at the end of the day, your goal is, as a student, to be able to create a demo reel that can get you work.

That's your certification. Can you produce the output necessary to get a job? Where’s the bar for that? It's simple. What do you see on TV? What do you see in movies? Now, you're not going to be making Avatar in your bedroom. You must pick your battles and decide, “Okay, what do we want to do here?”

Experiment, experiment basically,

NMFO: Figure out what brings you the most passion because, again, that's what you'll want to continue to pursue, learn more, and expand on.

AE: And don't allow what you perceive to be limitations. Don't assume that those limitations exist. Try to figure out how to circumvent those perceived limitations. As I said, you can use an off-the-shelf, relatively modern commodity computer these days. It doesn't have to be a super workstation. There are tons of good print books that document the old traditional techniques and many new modern techniques. Once you've got an idea of the direction you want to go, start with a general book, and then start getting the more focused books, and then as you start to learn, you'll realize quickly, “Okay, I'm working in a vacuum now. I need to be around more people. I need more input from other peers and mentors.” Then you'll realize, “Okay, maybe I need to go to a trade school.” Or at least they need to find more local collaborators interested in the same stuff or online collaborators. There are many forums where you can find moral support and get feedback. Just be careful because sometimes it can be the blind leading the blind.

NMFO: How can people get to know you, or Crafty Apes, more? Or learn about your mentorship programs or your class?

AE: If you want to see more about Crafty Apes, you can visit our website, You can check out our most recent demo reel.

I have a YouTube channel called LearnVFX. I have three free compositing videos right now. At UNM, I also teach in a program called FDM, Film and Digital Animation.