Visual effects are inexpensive (relative to other options)
Ang Lee and everyone in Hollywood say visual effects are too expensive. We’ve created the worlds and characters that make their movies possible and the large profits usually associated with them. Yet their thanks to us is to tell us we’re too expensive. They would have loved to get even more profits squeezed out of their latest impossible film that we made possible.
Can you shoot Avatar in 5 days with 5 people total (crew and cast)? Can you shoot any of this years Oscar nominated films in 5 days with 5 people? No. Obviously you cannot. It takes time and people to make these things. Yet they have a huge disconnect when they view visual effects. Doing visual effects is like making a film. It takes time and it takes skilled and talented people. It’s no different. People * time = money. More complexity means more time and people and therefore more money. Sometimes the studios think they can make it cheaper by reducing the time. But this is not a clean and simple formula. As the time goes down for the same level of complexity simply means more overtime (at a higher cost) and more mistakes (more costs).
If you asked the art department to build a city block from scratch and build everything, including the interiors of the buildings, would you be surprised by the cost? Would you blame the art department for being too expensive? No, of course not. That’s a lot of work that involves a lot of materials and workers taking a long time. Now simply change the term ‘art department’ to visual effects. Amazing how that changes their perspective.
And just like an epic spanning several countries and thousands of extras with large sets will take more shooting days and require a larger crew, so too does a more complex visual effects project, yet that simple fact seems to be mystifying to many in the business.
Here’s the secret for why visual effects cost what they do: It takes what it takes. For a visual effects blockbuster it takes hundreds and hundreds of people working months at a time, typically with overtime because the correct amount of time was never budgeted. There are no magic ways to lower that number just like there is no way to lower the number of shooting days and size of a live action crew and still achieve the same results. And for the 1000th time there is no huge mark-up with the visual effects company laughing to the bank. Producers and studios are more than welcome to start and run their own visual effects companies if they see big potential for profits.
Maybe there is a cheaper option than visual effects. Let’s take a look at the options and see how they compare in terms of costs:
Visual effects option: Have a very large team of skilled artists and craftspeople working for months. Very expensive. (or is it?)
Non-visual effects option:
-The art department will have to construct large special buildings. That will cost a fair bit and take more time than to shoot the movie.
-The art department would have to make all new signs and cover existing signs. Not cheap.
-Everything would have to be perfect on camera to avoid visual effects. No fix-its in post. That will require more shooting time.
-Any stunts would have to be done without visible wires. Any car jumps would have to be done without seeing the ramps. Not a budget item but that’ll put a crimp in the framing of the shots.
-Build a flying aircraft carrier. Not yet doable and so you’d have to wait a long time to make the movies and even then, it’s probably not cheap.
-Destroy a large part of New York. I know real estate has gone down but probably not cheap.
-Creating a storm in the sky with lighting and all kinds of stuff. Nope, no app for that yet so that’s probably expensive to do.
-Have flying people. Wow, will people even be watching movies by the time this happens? Gotta figure that’s not cheap and the money borrowed for pre-development now will have accumulated quite a bit of interest when finally paid back.
-Creatures coming out of the sky. Government programs have to be advanced and declassified before they can start on bio-creature hybrids. And those flying sled rigs they’re on are so expensive they’re not even listed in Skymall.
-Hulk. See above.
-Same with many of the other characters. Gods, super power heroes, same old problem.
There are plenty more things to add to the list when doing it using the non-visual effects options. But I suspect that it’s already exceeded the visual effects costs a bit.
Gross for Avengers (a film only possible with the help of visual effects): $623,357,910
Hmm, seems like visual effects costs didn’t really make a huge dent in that thank goodness. But still, it wouldn’t have hurt to squeeze out another few million from the visual effects crew, am I right?
In the end visual effects enables the filmmakers to make films that they couldn’t have. Which in turn allows them to make profits that they wouldn’t have without visual effects. In many cases visual effects may not only be the cheapest option they have, it may be the only option they have. They don't look that expensive when considering the options or non-options as it may be.
Visual effects take time and a large number of skilled artists working very hard.
It’s just arithmetic.
The Miracle of Visual Effects, will it continue?
Value of Visual Effects
Why do visual effects cost so much
There are plenty of other articles on this blog. Look to the right column for more or check out some of the ones below.
- Visual Effects Tax Incentives
- Bad Visual Effects Business Practices
- Oh, what a mess we're in!
- Risk and Subsidies