Ben Louden & Yvette Yang: Viridian FX

Viridian FX, a team of 15 based in Swinegate, York have recently completed work on around 250 shots for eight episodes of HBO’s House of the Dragon. We caught up with Ben Louden and Yvette Yang – two of the six York alumni who founded and work for Viridian FX.

Which college were you in and what did you study?

BL: I was in James College. I did an undergrad in Electronic Engineering with Media Technology and graduated in 2010. Following that, I did a Masters at the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media in Post Production Visual Effects. 

YY:  I was in Goodricke College. I did a Masters in Post Production Visual Effects and graduated in January 2013.

After leaving University, what did the early stages of your career look like?

BL: We started Viridian FX straight from the Masters. We were actually born out of an idea that some local producers had to go to the university to make an Indie feature film. It was all filmed using a green screen – that was the only way they could do that on the budget they had. We were just graduating and thrown into the deep end. We spent two years making the film – which meant I started work four weeks before I’d even actually finished my Masters.

We had two years in what was called the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP is a 3-way collaboration between a business, a skilled graduate and a university to deliver a strategic, transformational innovation project) and then we moved to the Ron Cooke Hub. We hired office space from there, again under the KTP, so we could use the space and equipment to help make this film.

From there, we grew out of that space and we moved into town, where we are now, and became Viridian FX – that was six years ago now.  It’s just been growing and growing since then; getting more and more film experience – culminating in where we are now 

YY: It was quite a different story for me as I felt quite confused after leaving University as I didn’t know where my future was. Personally, I wanted to go to London, as that’s where the industry is largely based, but I was also trying to apply for a PhD degree as per my family’s expectation. Eventually, I met Ben and the team on set for Macbeth (while they were working at the Ron Cooke Hub on York University Campus) and started my journey with Viridian FX.  

Viridian FX showreel

How did your degree prepare you for your career in visual effects?

BL: Certainly – the coding we learnt is very relevant and there’s quite a lot of engineering in visual effects. It’s quite a technical thing. I think, actually the skills we learnt by being thrown into making a film at the end of my Masters, from zero, and having to figure out how to make a very experimental film prepared me very well for the world of work. The Masters helped in what we were essentially doing, which was starting a company from scratch. Whereas, if the course had been more specialist, then perhaps we would have been better at doing the visual effects but we wouldn’t have been prepared to do the business side of it, which is so much more than just visual effects. We were trying to do the whole thing from scratch so in that respect I would say there’s a wider range of skills that we learnt from university. 

YY: Yes absolutely. My favourite part of the course was when we were provided with rushes (raw unedited footage from the shoot) and had to edit a few scenes from a film based on the script. I enjoyed it, not only because we were able to get really creative – making a puppet-looking-thing seem like a scary beast – and portray a sense of horror through editing and grading, but also the rushes needed a lot of synchronisation work. I remember our tutor said something like, ‘this is real life, it’s not easy’. Somehow this mentally prepared me to know the industry is not spoon fed – we need to work around problems and obstacles in order to solve the difficult situations.

How did working on House of the Dragon (the Game of Thrones prequel)  come about?

BL: We were lucky to receive the right break at the right time. In this industry you need to have that foot through the door and that door is so hard to open – you need somebody else to help you get your foot in. It was a stroke of luck really. The Visual Effects Supervisor went to film school with one of our directors, they met again after 20 years at an event and it came about. The Visual Effects Supervisor had seen our work on Dark Encounter and was impressed by the standard of work for the size of the team we were – we are only a small team in the grand scheme of things. He was looking to hire companies for House of the Dragon at that time and decided to give us a chance. We tested on a small scene and once they were happy with that the flood gates were open. It was a nice vindication that we were good enough. Since then, their confidence has grown in us. We felt like we were ready for it and the focus has been completely absorbed by that for the past few months. It’s been an amazing springboard and we’re just coming up for air now. 

Can you give us any examples of how a scene  is changed by Viridian FX?

BL: We digitally extend sets, for example the views you see out of windows or outside the castle grounds. It’s a lot of, what we call, invisible effects so it’s stuff that you shouldn’t know about. If the characters are in an interior set and there’s a window and you’re seeing out of the window to far off lands then that’s usually our visual effects. Or if you’re seeing over the wall out of the gardens, for example that was literally a car park in London but we’re changing that to Westeros.

How have visual effects changed or developed in recent years?

BL: There’s quite a few things going on at the moment. One of the major ones is Virtual Production: the art of doing visual effects before you shoot, rather than afterwards. What they do generally, and there’s some of this in House of the Dragon that we’ve been working on, is the visual effects first and then you render them on gigantic LED screens within a set and put your actors in front of the LED screen.Prior to this, in the absence of virtual production,  you would have literally put actors in front of a green screen and then it would have all been done in visual effects added afterwards. Now, they’re replacing the green screen with an actual image or a moving image (as if it’s a giant TV) that represents where they are supposed to be. It’s rendered in good enough quality that you can just point the camera at that and film it for real.

It’s weirdly, a little bit of a hark back to the original filmmaking of the 1920s, where they would put a painting behind somebody and pretend that they were really there, or project images. For example, in the classic early car scenes, they’re driving along after filming some footage and they project that on a big screen behind them and put the car in front of the screen. Essentially it’s the same thing – now it’s just way better and more believable.

Visual effects is quite a new industry (It’s probably only 30 years old really in terms of digital visual effects). Obviously everyone’s aware of how much technology moves on and we’re essentially using computers that just get way more powerful and capable every year. 

How The Mandalorian series used Virtual Production

You’ve always got to stay on the cutting edge otherwise you quickly fall behind. Due to the nature of it being technology, it moves very fast. Virtual production didn’t exist two years ago and now pretty much every new show is now doing something with virtual production.
The Mandalorian series on Disney were the first to do it. It’s very clever still in its infancy and but it’s pretty cool – it’s just mad, magic technology.

What other productions have you worked on that we might have heard of? 

BL: We’ve spent the last 10 years doing Indie films. We’ve been doing another film with Guy Pearce that comes out on Paramount Plus that came out on 23rd of September, called ‘Infernal Machine’. That was a really big one for us again. You can find our other projects here.

Describe a typical day of work for us?

BL: There’s never really a typical day. I suppose there are two different types of days. 

The average office day would be I come into the office and start dealing with client emails whilst running the studio; supervising the guys in the studio who are actually doing the visual effects and translating the client brief into language that makes sense to the Viridian FX guys who make it technically happen. 

And then the other type of day I have is being out on set when the film’s actually shooting. That means making sure that, if there are some visual effects, they’re shooting it in a way that works because the effects can be really complicated if you don’t consider it at the beginning of the process. I’m essentially making sure I can collect as much information as possible about what’s being filmed so that when we’re trying to recreate that later, we have as much as we possibly can so the overall quality is equal and consistent.

YY: Most of the time my role is concerned with shots and asset management, making sure our artists have all the description and materials they need to complete a shot. A large part of the role is spent delivering shots to the clients and relaying feedback to our artists. Physically, I work alone, but a key part of my job is to relay information to corresponding individuals or groups.

What excites you most about your job?

BL: No single day is the same and the fact that there is a certain level of reward in having a thing to show for it at the end of every project. Even if the film is questionable quality, it’s not really the point. The point is if we’ve done our bit well, there’s a tangible thing that you can say, ‘We did that and our names are on it’. That’s a really cool thing.

What do you find the hardest part of your job?

BL: Managing creative expectations. One of the curses of visual effects is it’s the very last thing that usually happens in filmmaking and given that it’s all done digitally – it doesn’t require hiring very expensive actors or cameras –  there’s a tendency for creative decision making to go on a little bit too long because people think it’s very easy to change things on a computer quickly and easily until it goes onto version 17. It’s both a blessing and a curse because it allows you to play creatively but you have a budget to deal with and certain time limits. The hardest part is asking yourself how much time you should spend working on something. When does it become diminishing returns? How do you manage the clients expectations in that respect? It’s a balancing act.

YY: I manage the visual effects timelines so I get to know all the shots and witness the whole visual effects part of the project, from zero to 100. The hardest part for me is also a balancing act; trying to deliver the best work we can provide whilst keeping it under budget and delivering it on time.

What do you wish you would have known about your job before starting?

BL: That I would get so engrossed in it that I tend to forget real life exists. As it’s project based you have intense periods then you have periods of down time. It’s an ebb and flow. You get the adrenaline of a project but then you’re not doing it permanently. If you asked my wife, she’d probably say it’s, ‘all consuming’. 

YY: That you would have to be a master of time management to have time for dating or a family. 

 If you could give one piece of that career advice to someone starting out in the Visual Effects Industry, what would it be?

BL: Understand that the industry is about working to somebody else’s brief and the reality of that is you need to enjoy the process of creatively problem solving to reach a brief. It’s not the same as what you might call traditional art – you’re not working to your own schedule or your own taste in pictures. It’s artistry and craftsmanship but absolutely working to someone else’s brief. You have to learn to be ok with that. People get defensive over their own work when they are asked to change it. It’s nothing personal if it has to be a certain way; the clients are the ones directing it and they know what’s best for them. 

YY: I would advise people to partake in internships and talk to people working in the industry to get more insight.

What’s next for you?

BL: We’re very much hoping to be working on Season 2 of House of the Dragon. Beyond that we are just coming up for air and hoping this will unlock other doors. I hope we continue to expand in a way where we stick to the roots of who we are and don’t become a machine – that’s the last thing we want to become. Our small company with a personable nature and attention to detail are what we don’t want to lose as we grow and expand or become like everyone else. That’s boring.

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