Academy Award-Winning Visual Effects Artist Shapes the Future of VR

Johannes Saam’s early love of movies sparked his journey from computer generated imagery artist to frontiersman of real-time VR experiences.

When most people enter their teenage years, they’re just vaguely starting to consider college majors. Johannes Saam, on the other hand, already knew exactly what he wanted to do and was well on his way to making it happen.

“When I was 14, I fell in love with visual effects and special effects. Movie magic, basically,” said Saam. “I wanted to know how special effects were made, how you could fool people’s eyes.”

He plunged into the wealth of information available online to find out how 3D effects worked and began learning how to execute the “magic tricks” that mesmerized him on the silver screen.

In the decades since he was first inspired by cinema, he’s gone on to craft the dusty, post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max: Fury Road and bring the wonder of deep space to Earth in Prometheus.

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Academy Award-winning Johannes Saam has loved movie magic since he was a teen. Photo courtesy of Framestore.

His handiwork made the escapades of super-spy Ethan Hunt looked thrilling in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. The super powers of Thor and Captain America effectively straddled the line between incredible and convincing on the big screen thanks to Saam’s expert touch.

In fact, Saam’s work has pushed the boundaries of what the film industry could do with visual effects to such an extent that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences honored him with a Technical Achievement Award in 2014.

Saam is one of the premier developers and visual effects artist in the industry, according to Raj Puran, Intel’s manager of commercial virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences. Puran got a firsthand look at Saam’s talent when he seamlessly blended photorealistic and augmented elements to completely recreate an entire floor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for SAAM VR, a collaboration with Intel.

“Johannes isn’t just an artist. He’s someone who is always trying to progress the technology used by his art form,” said Puran.

Saam applies existing visual effects to new mediums, such as VR, as well as crafts entirely new tools, giving artists the ability to create wholly unique experiences.

“It’s kind of like saying, ‘OK, I’m a painter, but I need my paint brush to do this.’ And instead of hoping someone else will create that paint brush, Johannes figures out how to make it himself.”

Saam and his collaborators won the Oscar for inventing a technique known as deep image compositing, which allows effects artists to assign 3D information to flat images, which can then be layered within one another.

“Imagine you have character that’s inside a cloud,” Saam explained. “With classic compositing operations, you can either put the character in front or behind the cloud. With deep image compositing, because we know the depth of the character and the multiple depths of the cloud layer, we can put the character inside the cloud.”

Not only does this technique produce a visually impressive result, it also saves time and money by allowing an animator and an effects artist to work on the same shot simultaneously.

Saam’s ability to innovate isn’t limited to software, though. He also helped develop best practices and workflows in tandem with a 24-camera array that allows users to record immersive video with six degrees of freedom. Using the Surround 360 camera system, filmmakers can shoot video moving forward and back, up and down, left and right, and across three other perpendicular axes.

Relentless Youthful Persistence

Saam’s journey from 3D wunderkind to a pioneer in VR has taken him across the globe, but it all started when he landed a position at Scanline VFX, a film effects company in his home country of Germany.

“It was a matter of being at the right conference, talking to the right people and being very annoying,” said Saam. “I landed almost all of my jobs because of my unrelenting passion. That was how I got started.”

With a foot in the door of the moviemaking industry, he knew that establishing a solid educational foundation was critical for him to excel. After a few years with Scanline, he left Germany to attend Bournemouth University in the U.K.

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Saam likes working with more interactive technologies like VR. Photo courtesy of Framestore.

“I needed to go back to teach myself properly,” said Saam. “I wanted to deepen my knowledge of programming, actually get a proper understanding of physics and math.”

With his master’s in computer animation in hand, Saam accepted a technical director job nearly 10,000 miles away in Australia at Rising Sun Pictures. He expected to only spend a season down under before returning to Europe, but ended up staying much longer.

“I just wanted to go there for the summer, and seven years later, I was still there.”

Moving to the Virtual World

During those seven years, Saam worked at nearly every visual effects studio in Australia, but the continent would prove to be just a pit stop along his journey. Next, he would travel to the city that was perhaps predetermined as his ultimate destination way back when he was just 14: Los Angeles.

According to Saam, “L.A. is where all the movie magic happens,” so once again, he traveled halfway around the world, where he found his new passion.

“I’d done film work for long enough and achieved something with that, so I decided to focus more on real-time content and virtual reality as a new challenge,” said Saam.

“I fell in love with it straightaway, so that is what led me to the more interactive technologies.”

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Saam believes VR needs good storytelling to be compelling. Photo courtesy of Framestore.

Two years ago, that love landed him a position at Framestore, a creative studio which also houses the most awarded VR studio in the world, where he has been able to immerse himself in the cutting-edge medium as a senior creative developer.

Throughout his transition from film to VR, Saam never lost sight of how to reproduce that movie magic that first enticed him so many years ago.

“Just because you’re doing VR doesn’t mean you’re making something amazing and new,” said Saam. “You need a combination of the right story and the right technologies to make an immersive and compelling experience.”

Clearly, this ability to balance the creative and the technical has served Saam well throughout his career, and Puran doubts the uber-talented artist will ever relinquish his position at the cutting edge of virtual effects.

“Johannes is just one of those guys that pushes boundaries. It’s not just about, ‘Hey, check out this cool content I made.’ It’s about pushing the limits of the cameras, of the computing platforms, of everything,” said Puran.

“He knows there’s so much more out there and is on a quest to dig deep.”

 

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