Artist Spotlight: Bruce Branit

Visual Effects Artist Bruce Branit uses LightWave 3D to create extremely credible imaginary scenes and events for film, television and the Web

Posted: Sun 09 Aug 2015

By Claudia Kienzle

Bruce Branit on IMDB.

In his romantic sci-fi short film World Builder, Writer/Director and Visual Effects Artist Bruce Branit takes viewers on an immersive and emotional journey as a man uses a computer touchpad on his arm to generate the buildings, streets and objects of a richly detailed holographic world that he himself enters.

He then uses his hands to interactively sculpt, texture and light these virtual objects—such as archways, a fountain spraying water, a flower in a stone flower bed and sunshine—so they’re just right. His intention is to help his comatose wife recover special memories of their life together when she mentally experiences this holographic world in a neurotherapy session. Since she can only see it for a brief time, he must work quickly to design and build it, and then savor her visit before she leaves and it all fades away.

While World Builder is a metaphor for many life experiences, it’s also the creative process that Branit himself is engaged in. Whether it’s his work contributing visual effects sequences to such TV shows as Breaking Bad, Fringe and Revolution, or as a Writer/Director and Visual Effects Artist on his own passion projects, he’s using advanced imaging tools—in LightWave 3D—to build virtual worlds as quickly as he can imagine them.

For World Builder, Branit developed the storyline, cast professionals actors and shot their performances on a greenscreen stage. Over the course of a year, he spent his free time using LightWave 3D to model and animate the virtual world, and then used compositing software to integrate his actors into it.

World Builder is just one of the many projects that Branit has crafted, not only to demonstrate his talents and LightWave’s capabilities, but more importantly, to attract funding to further develop them into full-length feature films.

“I’m a visual effects artist but I’m also a visual storyteller,” Branit said. “I’m trying to use everything I’ve learned while working on television shows, understanding the story points of the visual effects I’m asked to do to help others tell their stories. But I’ve always wanted to tell my own stories. That’s why I’m endeavoring to develop my own projects and to raise the money to tell these stories myself. And LightWave is a great tool for this because it’s limitless in the imaginative and credible virtual imagery you can create.”

“When I’m writing a script, I know in my head what I need to shoot in order to use LightWave to create it effectively,” Branit. “LightWave lets me produce films and Web serials that use visual effects in a way that’s unexpected for a micro-budget project. That’s why I’m basing the future growth of my company on this platform.”

Branit’s been using LightWave since it first appeared on the Commodore Amiga platform. He even co-wrote the technical manual for LightWave 3.0, the software’s first PC version, with his colleague John Gross. And he’s been using it professionally all these years, both while working in the Los Angeles visual effects community for a decade and now as Branit FX in Kansas City, MO.

His enterprise is multifaceted: As a Writer/Director he works as Bruce Branit, he does visual effects work for hire as BranitFX, and Lucamax is his independent production company. He has a stable of four or five visual effects artists, some of whom work on-site and some work remotely thanks to the power of today’s broadband networking.

The combination of LightWave 3D and ready access to powerful IP networks enabled Branit to become a World Builder in his own personal life. Rather than continue living in Los Angeles—where he moved to work on visual effects for Star Trek Voyager and Deep Space Nine, among other shows—he was able to move his young family to Kansas City, MO where the cost of living is substantially lower. This meant he could work fewer hours—still delivering effects shots and sequences virtually instantly to Hollywood clients—and devote his extra free time to the development of his own independent projects, such as viral videos and test beds for effects movies.

Attesting to the realism he’s able to achieve, when he posted a few of his recent visual effects fabrications online, they went viral because many viewers mistook them for real news stories or events.

One somewhat disturbing visual prank—called Is There Something in My Ear? —features a close-up of a man’s ear. We hear his breathing and get the sense he’s momentarily revolted as a small spider emerges from his ear canal and crawls out.

When Branit uploaded this video to YouTube on May 30, 2015, it was viewed two million times within four days. “It was also covered as a legitimate news story by over 100 news sources and publications around the world,” Branit said. “No one seemed to notice that it had been posted by a visual effects company. I soon had to let the cat out of the bag and fess up to the digital trickery.”

Branit also uploaded another hoax video of a drone colliding with the wing of a jet plane and clipping a piece of it off shortly after takeoff.

While Branit’s intention was “to tell a visually interesting story,” he was inundated with phone calls and emails from angry drone hobbyists and enthusiasts who feared that the public’s perception of this fictitious event might actually precipitate new rules and regulations to prevent an actual event.

“My goal is to make videos that people are moved to share with each other,” Branit said. “People like to share things that give them an emotional response, such as laughter, shock or amazement.”

Much of Branit’s work relies upon solid 3D tracking to match visual effects elements with live action back plates. In fact, the whole premise of the black comedy short film Gotcher depends upon seamless 3D tracking and compositing.

Spoiler alert! The following text gives this unique story away so watch the clip before you read on.

The movie, which was screened at film festivals in 2015, begins with a support group of people sharing their traumatic experiences when, as young children, an unsavory character stole the nose right from their faces. One scene re-enacts one woman’s story of how she opened the door to a stranger, who stole her nose in a gotcha fashion. We later see a bag containing the perpetrator’s trophy noses and watch as he skips merrily away.

“You don’t ever really see the nose coming away from the face,” Branit said. “It always happens off-camera and then we cut to the victim’s reaction. To create the effect, we just put a couple of little mascara marks around the nose and on the cheek bones and inside the corner of the eyebrows, which gives you a good triangulated area to track. Later, when you’re finished, you’ve got to paint these lines out painstakingly.”

Using the mascara dots as a guide, he tracked the 3D effect of the missing nose against each actor’s face. He modeled this element in LightWave based upon reference images he found online showing people who are missing a nose, leaving only open sinuses. “It’s surprising what gory images you can find if you search but you have to look at real examples to get an idea of what you’re trying to create,” he said. “Just don’t do it right before lunch.”

Each character has his or her own missing nose variations. These were all rendered in OpenEXR layers of RGB, Specular, etc., with a sub-surface, fast-skin pass as well.

To integrate a 3D effect into a composite, Branit says, “It’s important to simplify all the axes of movement as much as possible. Once you’ve isolated and stabilized enough of that movement, you can concentrate on adding your 3D elements into that live action plate.”

This is often the case in visual effects work for such TV shows as Breaking Bad, where gore, decrepit flesh or Zombie qualities must track perfectly with an actor’s face as he moves throughout the scene.

In many cases, Branit is stabilizing imagery in the plate using third party programs, such as Fusion or Syntheyes. He then brings that stabilized plate into LightWave where he virtually hand-tracks the 3D elements onto the CGI head and then brings that tracking data back into the composite software to marry the effect with the moving object.

“Every job we get in involves some sort of problem solving,” Branit said. “Our clients ask us if we’ve done something similar, and oftentimes we have. But there’s always a new wrinkle on how something needs to be done or some new technique that needs to be figured out, and luckily to date we’ve always been able to do that. If you’re expecting to be able to push a button and have a computer do everything for you, you’re in the wrong business.”

At the start of a project, one of the biggest challenges is determining how much imagery to shoot as live action and how much to generate as CGI. While Branit feels it’s always best to get as many visual elements in camera as possible, he contends that it comes down to budget and how practical it is to find certain elements as physical props.

A case in point is 405, a classic short film that Branit wrote and directed with his colleague Jeremy Hunt, in which a jet plane lands on the 405-freeway in Los Angeles. At first, the driver sees the plane landing right behind him in his side view mirror, and then watches in his rear view mirror as it gets dangerously close. As the plane overtakes his car, its nose ends up resting on top of his vehicle, which remains wedged there as they travel along at excessive speeds.

Produced in 1999, five years before the advent of YouTube, 405 was viewed by over 10 million people who shared it online in just a few short months and it’s still taught in film schools as an example of effective storytelling in a short film.

“Because you obviously can’t land a plane on the 405, it made sense to use visual effects. But sometimes, the answer to whether to use CGI or practical elements is a judgment call based upon many logistical and budgetary considerations,” Branit said.

Branit says that a lot of artists get bogged down thinking that there’s a right or wrong technique to getting an effect done. What they really need to do is just dive in and start creating.

“Yes, there are wrong answers. But spending half the time you have allotted for the job in order to figure out the best way to conceptualize and execute your desired result is more dangerous than just jumping in and trying to be wrong as fast as possible,” Branit said.

“If you stay on the artistic side of the process, you find yourself creating things that you can react to and modify. LightWave has many productivity tools that let you refine your 3D elements and then evaluate them to see if you’re on the right or wrong track,” Branit said.

"LightWave's interactive render view VPR has become irreplaceable in my workflow,” Branit said. “You are literally working in your final render."

Also, he adds that, if you’re modeling an object that will only be seen from the front, don’t spend any time working on the side that will never be seen by the camera or viewers. That’s a common mistake a novice might make.

“When there are different ways to do something,” he said, “find the best solution you can and move boldly forward.”