Get ready to get excited about…contact sheets!

Why one VFX supe is obsessive about them, and why you should be too.

Janelle Croshaw Ralla likes contact sheets. A lot. The visual effects supervisor, who was the Marvel-side additional VFX supervisor on Captain Marvel, is a major proponent of using contact sheets to help maintain consistency across multiple VFX shots and sequences.

Croshaw Ralla shared that love for contact sheets in a talk recently at FMX, so I decided to ask her for befores & afters a bit more about why contact sheets have formed such a key part of her process. The feature image above is an exclusive contact sheet from the train fight in Captain Marvel – Croshaw Ralla oversaw Luma Pictures’ VFX for the sequence.

Falling in love with contact sheets: I started really getting into contact sheets when I was at Digital Domain [here, Croshaw Ralla worked on projects such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the digital Tupac concert performance at Coachella, and Spike Jonze’s Her]. I’ve always been obsessed with continuity. I was doing a lot of 3D when I started, and at the time would pass all my elements off to the comp artists. This was often in commercials and I would sometimes not be happy with how they looked or I would watch the edit and I would be like, ‘Hey, it’s popping all over the place.’ It was contact sheets, which I could do later when I started using NUKE, that let me see how the shots looked compared to one another.

Janelle Croshaw Ralla at FMX this year.

Work with Janelle, you’ll work with contact sheets: For the comp supes who are working on my shows, it’s a mandate that they have contact sheets for all of the shots that they’re supervising. You need to be able to see that you’re not altering from the original plate too much. Maybe an extra grade is being added, for instance, so you need to be able to AB the contact sheet with the original plates.

How to make them: In NUKE, I just use the ContactSheet node. Within NUKE you can say how big you want them. Mine are usually four by three or three by three. Contact sheets are now a huge part of my process and anyone who’s worked with me knows that. I am actually quite obsessed with them to the point where on certain films I’ve had TDs make specific contact sheet ‘makers’ that make it easy for me to automatically make contact sheets of the effects comp, the anim comp, the original plates, so that I can easily AB between all of them.

Picking frames to show: We’ll pick specific frames to make up the contact sheet. I’ll even have contact sheets that are a frame that’s really important to the shot. Like one that exudes Sam Jackson’s character, which I did for Captain Marvel. For me it’s really the foundation of how I keep the continuity straight over the whole film. For Captain Marvel I actually literally had them plastered all over my entire office.

The NUKE GUI while making a contact sheet. Image source: NUKE user guide.

Reviewing frames: Sometimes, in addition to having contact sheets on the screen, I’ll print them and put them up on the wall or put them in binders. I will actually cut them up sometimes and put them into baseball card holders, so then I can write on them with an erasable pen and go over them with the co-ordinators. Usually the co-ordinators will have their Filemaker database on their laptop, but it’s just a really easy way to communicate, flipping through the pages.

Helping you keep things consistent: This is perhaps something we’d be doing more on the vendor’s side, but these days there tends to be balance grades once the edit’s done, and the dailies grade might be popping all over the place. And so, by doing a contact sheet, obviously it’s really easy to see if your grades are lining up and where the shots are popping.

‘For the comp supes who are working on my shows, it’s a mandate that they have contact sheets for all of the shots they’re supervising.’

Putting shots to bed (and waking them up): It can be really easy to get into the minutiae on visual effects shots – you can have a shot that’s been going for a long time, months and months. Having spent so much time on the vendor side, as well, I know that that shot is taking up multiple artists. What can happen is that you can forget about the big picture, and that there’s still so my shots that we’ve never even seen yet.

And so, doing these contact sheets can help decide things like, does that artist maybe need a break from that particular shot? I’m a big fan of putting a shot to bed, as in, giving it a nap and waking it up later, so that an artist can have fresh eyes when they go back to it. Some supervisors aren’t always fans of that, because they want to end something and have it be done with. But what often happens is, we final a shot, and then it gets opened up at the end anyway, because you get these other shots up to a certain level and then that one shot you finalled could probably be looked at again.

Get exclusive content, join the befores & afters Patreon community