BranchVFX: Making Visual Effects Pop

hen Shade VFX, the Emmy award-winning Los Angeles visual effects firm behind some of the hottest shows on HBO and Netflix, wanted to expand its operations, it didn’t look to nearby Santa Monica, up the coast to the Silicon Valley, or even overseas. Instead, it set up shop in an emerging Hollywood on the Hudson: Albany, NY.

The result was the creation of Branch VFX, a sister company that spun off from Shade VFX two years ago. Now it’s where a small cadre of talented visual-effects artists work on some of the industry’s hottest projects. And when their workday is done, the Branch VFX team return to a more affordable home, through much more manageable traffic and breathable air than their LA industry peers.

“Here, you can have a better life,” says Branch VFX Executive Producer Sam Margolius, a New York native and veteran of the media and entertainment industries.

As many a Hollywood Uber driver can confirm, getting started in the visual effects industry is often challenging: It’s a demanding career and more affordable cities are an attractive option. “When I was starting out in the content industry, I had to work 80 to 100 hours a week in the city at three jobs to make ends meet,” says Margolius. “In Albany, you don’t have to get a second job to make rent.”

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Albany, too, has both historic charm and the modern infrastructure required of its capital-city role: high-speed internet, transportation options, and plenty of culture and outdoor opportunities. It’s not hard convincing people to set up shop there, he notes. The greater Capital Region also boasts an expanding creative community, with places like the scenic design firm Adirondack Studios, film stage Lumberyard in Catskill, and the art and performance venue Basilica Hudson nearby. Margolius is also quick to note that giving new talent a leg up in this competitive industry is personally fulfilling.

The 14-person Branch VFX studio focuses on the foundational aspects of visual effects: rotoscoping and tracking. These create the superstructure upon which the entire visual effects shot is built.

Rotoscoping, a legacy term from the days of hand-drawn film animation, is the process of separating actors and other important parts of a scene from their original background. This work creates a frame-by-frame, pixel-by-pixel guide of where to remove or insert elements into each frame. It’s painstaking but necessary work that allows filmmakers to shoot a scene with live components, and then place them in any world they wish to create. When done well, the rotoscoped characters and objects look completely natural and don’t take away from the story that’s meant to be viewed and enjoyed by the audience. As the experts at Branch VFX like to say: Never being seen is our reward.

“There’s a lot of foundation work that needs to be done for any visual effects shot,” says Shade VFX founder Bryan Godwin. “It’s a little bit more routine, and a little bit easier to do. It’s also perfect for someone to learn the ropes of this industry.”

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