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El Ranchito's studio head on the past, present, and future of VFX in movies and TV series

Despite the event being called Gamelab (and ourselves being called Gamereactor), we're both also close to graphics technology and the wider world of audiovisual entertainment such as cinema and television, and as El Ranchito's Manuel Ramírez took part in a panel at the conference in Barcelona about all this, we took the chance to chat with the visual effects experts to discuss how they're done now and how they will be done in the near future...

Audio transcription

"We're at Gamelab 2023 in Barcelona and this interview is going to be slightly different and very exciting to me because we're gonna learn a bit more about how VFX are done in the entertainment wider industry not just in video games. So thank you so much for joining us Manuel. I've been hearing about El Ranchito for 20 years I think. What can you tell us about the studio and its story in VFX? Well in Spain I think is we are one of the biggest one if not the biggest one. We are right now like 200 people more or less something like that and we have offices here in Barcelona and in Madrid and I mean after the lockdown and the pandemic we have freelance like over the world. So you agree we have 20 years old or 18 years old something like that. We are an all the school VFX facility. I mean we are really good at composition, we are really good at set extension and since eight or nine years we create a bigger effects department, bigger crowd department. So we are like aiming to get better and bigger production and we are achieving it. And you guys work with studios all over the world in Hollywood as well. So what can you tell us about the latest projects that sort of that put you in the map as of late or the biggest releases as of late that have your signature? The project that put us in the map back then was Lo Imposible from Bayona which was like we won a VES which is a one of the biggest recognitions you can have. It's a VFX Society Award and after that we're starting to work more and more with Hollywood companies and when the streamers hit the market we started with Netflix, with Amazon Prime, Apple. I mean nowadays we are working with all the biggest companies in the world. And as of late which titles would you highlight? Well of course Game of Thrones is my favorite. In fact we did the We Kill the Night King at the Ranchito which was great. It's gonna be the headline. We Kill the Night King."

"We Kill the Night King, that's true. In fact I do think it's that shows. It's like the ceiling of my career. I'm very happy of the work we did there and I don't know. Which more? Game of Thrones. Let me think. We did so many productions. Now we are working in a Netflix production. It's a new Bayona's movie. It's a remake. Well it's not exactly a remake. It's like a different view of the movie Beaven which was shot like in the 90s and it's the history of the Rwandan football team that crashed in the Andes and it's it's a great movie. I have seen some part and it's going to be really tough to see and I encourage everybody to see that movie because it's gonna be good. And during your panel earlier today you guys were talking about graphics and how you sort of different perspectives, different studios, how you deal with graphics and how do you use them in both video games and entertainment in general. So what sort of message did you convey to the audience during that panel?
Well I think there is a, well it's not only a thought, it's a reality that the games, the quality, the visual quality of the games is every year is higher and higher and it's getting really close to the quality we assume enough to go to a film. Perhaps in the VFX part, in the hardcore part of the VFX, I mean the water simulations, rigid body simulation or very huge stuff is not real-time technologies are not dead yet but I'm sure that they will get there somewhere. But for environment some kind of characters and I think you are really, in fact they are using final pixels that came directly from Unreal in Matrix and Mandalorian and a lot, not only in the virtual production part, I mean not only using the volume and the LED screen and and all of this but yeah it's unstoppable. It's something that is going to happen."

"Exactly, now that you mentioned that you shared the panel with Juan Cañada from Epic Games, right? And of course with Epic they are using the technology you just mentioned with the DOM and sort of how in real time they are changing environment with the actors at the place, right? So how do you think this is going to sort of transform what you guys do in terms of composition because what you are given is different than the green screen and what you got before."

"Yeah, you are right. It's completely different not only because you are given the ability to the DOP and the director to change the scene on set but also because you need to change all your workflows. I mean your work is not going to happen after the shooting, it's going to happen before the shooting. So it's something you need to change the mind not only into the studio but also in the production companies, in the old chain of the production of a movie or a TV series. It's like putting it upside down basically. And another thing is that we have made some visual production stuff, not too much but a little bit, and there is a thought also that anything can be done. In the term that if you arrive to the set with a scene made in Unreal, Unity or whatever, you are going to change everything when you want and everything is going to be real time and it's not exactly in that way. I mean it also needs pre-production, you need to think a lot about the things that you are going to make."

"How is the studio structure? You told us that you have two teams, one here in Barcelona, another one in Madrid. What sort of profile is the main, perhaps for young artists, VFX artists that want to join Rancidoro, that are interested in VFX in general. What sort of profiles are you looking for in the past year?
Well, I mean, we are sharing a lot of profiles with the games industry in the terms of 3D. I mean, people who make models, textures, animators, all of those profiles are perfectly interchangeable between both industries."

"Something that I think we always need are compositors, 2D compositors.
It's something that VFX, I think, always are going to need. And people from effects, but with a very technical profile. It's something it's really hard to find here in Spain."

"And what do you use in terms of technology yourself? Do you have your own tools? Do you use Nuke or...?
No, we have, I mean, we have our own pipeline, of course, to communicate everything. But we are using regular tools. We use Nuke for comp, we use Maya for rigging and animation and scene layout sometimes, and Houdini for rendering effects and the rest of the pipeline. I mean, we are trying to move everything to Houdini, but the..."

"It's not there yet.
No, it's not there yet, but we are going fast.
What do you think about AI? We've had a slide before, we were talking about how to, you know, how to generate 3D assets via AI. You give context, you have the artists, you have this sort of conversation between artists and programmers to get assets from AI. Is that something that you think will help VFX and composition in the future?
Yeah, definitely. I think I'm not... I know people think that it's going to kill, like, the work of every artist. I think we are not going to get there, but it's going to be a really good tool to have very fast iterations of something and then help you to aim the direction you have to go. But I think the manual work and the artist work is always going to be there."

"And final question, and we've been talking about how the Epic technology sort of changed, and it's kind of a new thing, right? You've mentioned the Matrix demo, we've mentioned Mandalorian, and that changed how you have to pre-compose instead of compose afterwards. So what do you think will be the next big thing, in terms of visual effects, that you sort of see that is coming in the horizon that we will say, wow, in the next five years, when we see this movie and we are like, how the hell is this done?
Volumetric capture is going to change a lot of things in how the DigiDoubles are operated in VFX, not in game industry. I mean, volumetric capture is like the things you usually do with a camera that you try to photograph everything and then you obtain a 3D representation with a texture supply."

"It's the same but with video, basically. So you can record someone with video and then you have a 3D mesh with the texture apply as a sequence of images, and you can use that instead of building your entire character from the ground up.
It's a really good technique. Nowadays, it's not fully complete because you don't have access to every part of the body. I mean, you can't control how the skin is reflecting or the rope. It's like a complete texture, like a video of the texture."

"And I think that's one technology that is going to be very important in the upcoming years. And of course, I think real-time technology in the moment that I think we need a standard to communicate real-time technology and offline technology. USD could be like the Rosetta Stone for the visual arts, but let's see. Because there is a lot of people trying to standardize USD and I don't know which standard of the five right now will finally win."

"Yeah, to sort of translate your VFX language, right?
Not only to translate, but also to make the work similar. Because nowadays, if you want to implement a real-time workflow in a VFX studio, it's like creating a little games company inside a VFX studio. Because in the rest of the company, every department works with a version of the files. But in the game industry, it doesn't work in that way. You need something to version the complete project. And that's not the same as we used to work in VFX. So we need something like in between, not to have it like completely separated."

"So we'll see in a couple of years time, I guess.
Alright, anything else you would like to share about the studio, about El Rancito?
You know, it's huge in Spain and everyone who's into VFX and visual arts know about El Rancito. But I think some people outside of Spain really don't know that those effects that we mentioned in Game of Thrones, for example, have been made by you guys. So anything else that you would like to share on your track record?
Yeah, I would like to share that it is possible to work in really high-end features here in Spain. I mean, you don't need to go to Montreal or wherever, I don't know, to Huerta, to work in... We do a lot of stuff really cool and we are here. So if you don't want to move your life to another part of the world, you can be in Spain working in the things you want."

"And the winter is not coming anymore thanks to these guys and that's why it's so warm here in Barcelona. Thank you so much for your time, Manuel.
Thank you."

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