The legendary Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor discusses what it was like working on The Lion King, where he sees the VFX industry going, and more.
Why I 🖤 SynthEyes: Matt Merkovich, VFX Supervisor
6 minute read
The power user discusses what makes the 3D tracking and matchmoving tools stand out and why he's been hooked on it since Minority Report.
Matthew Merkovich made his first film in 1978 when he was nine years old. It was a stop-motion dinosaur movie inspired by the Ray Harryhausen films that he loved as a child. After he grew up, he went on to 3D animation, flying spaceships around for Babylon 5, Space: Above and Beyond, Star Trek: Voyager, and Deep Space Nine. Later Matthew moved on to compositing for many other films, but he fell in love with 3D tracking on the movie Minority Report and has never looked back.
Find out why he turns to Boris FX SynthEyes to tackle his 3D tracking and matchmove needs.
What type of VFX tasks do you typically tackle?
These days? It’s all 3D tracking and matchmoving all the time. I love it because, with 3D tracking, I never get creative notes. (LOL, as the kids say.) 3D tracks are either good or they are bad. No one is ever going to tell me, “This track feels like it wants to be more ephemeral,” or, “I don’t know, this track seems too contrived,” or, “This track needs to be more mythic!” All notes I’ve gotten on shots where I was doing general VFX. (LOL, again.) And 3D tracking is often the foundation upon which the greatest and most challenging VFX shots are made. I just love it.
Can you break down your process as to how you approach a shot?
I’ve used SynthEyes since the very beginning, in its first beta, in its early alpha, in fact. I’ve also done 3D tracking with just about every other app out there. SynthEyes has always been the very best at this task. Because of this, my workflow has evolved into the process my company uses for every shot.
And because we are a 3D tracking and matchmoving company, you have to start with bidding. That’s a bit of an art, but the two most important factors are: how long is the shot, and how difficult is it? We do that on a shot-by-shot basis. Once the bid is approved, we ingest the shot into the pipeline. Denoised proxies are made and a version zero gets made in SynthEyes using in-house scripted tools. Then the shots go through the steps of supervised 2D tracking, 3D solving, building and aligning 3D geometry like LIDAR, then finally, review. Then, there are more QC steps.
We have only had a handful of kickbacks in the last ten years, and it’s because of our QC process, which is constantly being refined. It all has to do with putting the track through the same steps it will undergo when shipped to the VFX company that hired us. Then, it’s just packaging up the deliverables, which typically is a sequence of undistorted JPEG images and the 2D and 3D application exports, like Maya, Houdini, Flame, Nuke, etc. And then it’s on to the next job.
How did you first discover SynthEyes? How long have you been using it?
This is a fun story for me. I went to a trade show many, many years ago and met Russ Andersson, the original author of SynthEyes. But back then, there was no SynthEyes. He had created a plugin for 3DS Max that could do inverse solving for nearly anything. It was like IK on steroids. After talking for a bit over the upcoming weeks, I mentioned that if there was a front end for this plugin, it could probably be used to do 3D camera tracking. Shortly after that conversation, Russ sent me a beta version of exactly that. I used this tool to do all the 3D tracking for all the shots in the analysis room in the movie Minority Report. Later, Russ moved on to start his own company, and I got another call where he said he had an app to check out if I was interested. That app was SynthEyes, and I’ve used it ever since.
Matt Merkovich gives you an introductory look at 3D matchmoving and tracking with SynthEyes
How has having access to SynthEyes changed the way you work?
The thing about SynthEyes is that it’s been around for nearly twenty years and has just kept getting better and better, deeper and deeper. I still find things it can do that I didn’t know. So, with things constantly improving, the way I work using it is always evolving. But on a more basic level, just take the supervised 2D tracking workflow. It’s the fastest and best 2D tracker out there, and I’ll often just do 2D tracks with it and export those tracks to Nuke, Flame, or Blackmagic Design Fusion. Or look at roto. I’ve used 3D tracks from SynthEyes to build out geometry and then render out mattes for comp. I remember doing this for the movie Master and Commander. Or when I was doing a lot of on-set VFX supervision, I’d shoot set surveys to rebuild those sets with SynthEyes. So SynthEyes goes way beyond just 3D tracking.
You've tried a lot of matchmoving applications. What keeps you coming back to SynthEyes?
In the words of another friend who works for a big multi-national VFX company, “To make SynthEyes as good as 3D Equalizer, you’d have to cripple SynthEyes.” For me, no other 3D tracking app I’ve used comes close to its power.”
What recent SynthEyes features have you found the most useful — and why?
The new lens distortion tools were the last thing I was holding out for. Until recently, this was SynthEyes’s biggest weakness. On some anamorphic shots, SynthEyes would just fail. But as I said earlier, SynthEyes is always improving, and the new lens distortion tools now make it the very best 3D tracking app for dealing with anamorphic footage. It even does some things that are so advanced, like anamorphic distance, that they aren’t even supported within the 3D animation apps on the market.
What is the most difficult shot you’ve ever tracked with SynthEyes?
There have been a few. I remember one shot that was minutes long for the show Mr. Robot. That was pretty tricky. There were also a couple of shots for a show called Into the Badlands that took place at night, in the rain, with lightning, where I was tracking heads for face replacements. Those were challenging. But all the really hardest shots are handheld cameras with jerky camera motion and a ton of motion blur. I’ve done scores of those for various TV shows, movies, and commercials.
Dodge commercial with SynthEyes 3D tracking
What are your top 3 reasons why matchmove artists like yourself should incorporate SynthEyes into their pipeline?
It’s the best 3D tracking and matchmoving app available. It’s really that simple.
What’s your best pro tip for artists new to SynthEyes?
Don’t be afraid of the UI. It’s actually really very simple. It just may look unfamiliar, but what brand-new app doesn’t look unfamiliar when you first start using it?
What’s your favorite project you’ve ever worked on — and why?
Easily, Minority Report. It’s a beloved movie that has stood the test of time, and I got to work with some of the most talented VFX people in the business.