Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bidding and Preproduction

Visual Effects Bidding and Preproduction are covered in this podcast.
Storyboards and animatics are included in this discussion.

Today I'll be discussing the start of the process, which includes bidding and preproduction.

A studio or producer will contact a visual effects company, which is also referred to as a visual effects house. If a producer or studio has a relationship with an effects company they may provide the script only to that company but more likely they will have at least 3 or 4 effects companies review the script. Studios often have a postproduction supervisor or even a visual effects head who is involved in making sure the postproduction process flows smoothing. If a production company is contacting the effects company directly they may have hired a visual effects producer for the film itself. This is common if the film is very large and will the work will be split out to a few effects companies.

Most of the time the producer will have a script for a film that's been greenlit or is close to being greenlit. Greenlit means that the money has been approved to make the film. Sometimes the producer just needs a ballpark estimate before it precedes any further in development.

At the effects company the visual effects supervisor and effects producer review the script. The visual effects supervisor and effects producer mimic the director and producer but specifically to visual effects. The supervisor's job is to oversee the work from both a creative and technical standpoint and make sure it accomplishes what the director needs. The visual effects producer is in charge of the budget and schedule of the work.

The script is reviewed and the supervisor and producer make notes on what they think the effects work will be. Typically I tag anything that might be effects work and create a list. Details about what the client wants may be minimal at this time. The supervisor and producer sit down and create a ballpark budget based on a rough idea of techniques and their experience. The next step is a meeting with the director and film's producer to clarify exactly what the vision is and what they think they can accomplish with stunts and practical effects work. Based on this conversation the list of effects shots is revised and a new ballpark estimate is created. It's important to provide these estimates in written form so there's no miscommunication.

Before more detailed bids can be created and the job awarded the work has to be very well defined. Scripts usually don't have a lot of detailed descriptions and even when they do the director may have other ideas.

This is the start of the preproduction phase. For a large film this can be 6 to 9 months before shooting even begins. Once filming starts there can easily be a crew of 200 or more people at a minimum cost of $100,000 or more per day. Anything that can be done in preproduction to speed up the actual shoot and make it as smooth as possible is worth it. An ounce of prevention as they say.

The concept phase
In many cases you're being asked to create something that doesn't exist so it's critical to get the design down on paper to allow communication with all involved. The production may start a concept phase where they hire an effects company or their own artists to create artwork. The visual effects art director plays a key role here. The director may not have a clear idea of what the creature or gadget or vehicles is supposed to look like so numerous sketches are done by the artists. The first step usually covers a wide range of possible looks and the artists may also work closely with the production designer to make sure they're on the same page. If there are elaborate makeup or costume designs these are proceeding as well and in many cases the teams work together. Hopefully the director will be clear about which parts of which designs he likes and the designs are refined further. In end color concepts are usually created and in some cases a model sculpture is created. This is sometimes called a Marquette.

Directors vary a lot in terms of being able to visualize and communicate their ideas. It some cases the director may not know what he wants until he sees it. This means you could spend a lot of times doing concept art and in some case this may continue on well into production which can cause further complications.

Sometimes during this concept phase I may shoot some video and do some moving mockups to try to clarify what the effect might look like in motion.

The next step is to storyboard all the visual effects sequences. There needs to be one storyboard or sketch of every shot that will have effects work. If it's a complex shot with a lot of movement or action then multiple panels will be done similar to a comic book except the format for all shots is the format of the film frame. The production may hire an artist to work directly with the artist or they may have the visual effects company artist work with the director. It's important for the visual effects team to be involved in the storyboarding since they have the most experience in what works and doesn't work in this area. I always suggest to a director he storyboard the shots as if it all existed. This avoids the effect shots being approached differently than the live action and avoids dwelling on a single effect.

Storyboard may seem to suppress the creatively of the scene but they're very important for a few reasons.

A single shot may require a number of departments to work together and prepare for the filming of the shots. With storyboards and concept art the director is able to easily communicate to everyone. A picture as they say is worth a thousand words. Without the boards each person would envision the shots differently.

For the visual effects crew we can't budget a shot until we see what the director sees. It's one thing in the script to set the action as a dogfight in space but it's critical to know the exact number of shots. The effects supervisor has to analyze every board and determine the technical process to create the final image. If an actor is framed one way that might require a bluescreen but if the shot is framed another way it may require rotoscoping or may be a simple split. A single shot may require a dozen different images or as we call the elements. There may need to be a section of a matte painting, a shot of the main actors on location, a shot of some extras against a blue screen, a model shot with motion control and a computer graphic creature all in one shot. Some of these elements may be shot or created over a span of a year so planning is critical. In a film such as star wars there about 2000 shots. Most shots average 5-8 seconds in length for budgeting purposes. In the old days. And I use the term old days to reference pre-digital effects; a large show was 200 shots.

If a sequence is very complex, production may want to do animatics. These are essentially moving storyboards. They may be as simple as editing the storyboards together to check the flow and timings of the shots or may involve elaborate 3D models with animation. The storyboards do a good job of conveying the composition and basic action of the scene but moving images provide timing information and camera motion. At times we may videotape models by hand or do other types of mockups using clips from other references.

Both storyboards and animatics are used as a guide and starting point with the understanding that some of the shots will need to change when shooting based on the locations and the actors. It's important not to get too hung up on animatics. Because of their simple texturing they usually don't do a good job of conveying the sense of speed compared to a live action image projected onto a movie screen. It also becomes very easy to create shots you can't actually shoot due to the camera speed or other real world limitations. Some directors try to finesse the animatics in great detail which can make it that much more frustrating to them. They should be used just enough to convey the concept of the shot.

Once the boards are created then it's possible to create an accurate budget for the visual effects work. Budgeting is one of the most difficult tasks in effects work since there are still quite a few unknowns I usually gather the heads of the different departments and review the storyboards. Each department head provides their estimate for the amount of time they expect a shot to take for their discipline. Animation, matte painting, compositing, technical director, etc. Ideally they will bid it based on the performance of their average worker. It's easy to become optimistic when bidding about how quickly the work should be done and how the shots will all flow as planned. Reality and experience quickly temper this urge. Likewise if someone has had a bad experience they may pad their estimates. In either case these deviations from the target add up since there may be several hundred shots budgeted this way.

When reviewing the techniques to use it usually isn't a question of how to do an effect but which way is best for this particular film. Each technique has certain limits associated with it. I'll cover the details to this in another podcast.

As mentioned before it's also common for the studio to bid out the project to multiple effects houses so budget is always an issue. On larger shows the studio may end up dividing up the work among a few effects houses. When this is the case the film usually has an effects producer or coordinator assigned to it to oversee the project to make sure budgets and schedules from multiple effects houses are on target.

Most productions are done on a fixed bid that means that any overages are out of the effects company pocket unless the director requests changes or additions to the from the original planned shots. Part of the budgeting process is determining how much coverage is included for changes. Some places bid a bare minimum, which requires them to request, a change order from the production for additional charges even when a minor change has taken place. Most of the larger effects houses try to include enough funds to cover typical adjustment requests by the director.

The time is also a consideration when budgeting. If there isn't sufficient pre-production or postproduction time the crew may have to work overtime. In this business a 50-hour week is usually a minimum. Days are usually 10 to 12 hours long and a workweek can stretch to be 6 or even 7 days, especially toward the final completion of the project. At the end of Star Trek the motion Picture I worked 90, 12-hour days straight. Since the movie release date is locked at the moment it is greenlit it becomes an unchanging deadline. Obviously this will affect the budget.

You may have to do a fair bit of research and development to create the look the director is after and since this is an artistic endeavor with a different director on each project the amount of time it takes will sometimes be an unknown. One director may like the look of the shots very easily and another may dwell on some detail in a single shot at the expense of other shots.

During the pre-production phase the film departments are busy creating the sets, costumes and other items required for the shoot. On the visual effects side the R&D, research and development, is in process and tests are being shot if new techniques are required. Some of the models (both CG and physical models) can be constructed. Just a note here that CG refers to computer graphics. Visual effects artists usually use CG instead of CGI since it's shorter and not redundant.

We also use this time to work with the director of photography to make sure we're in sync with them. The film stock and shooting process will discussed since this could affect some of the approaches taken in post production.

As the date for shooting nears the visual effects supervisor goes on the tech scout with the other department heads. This may be reviewing the sets or flying to the locations where the film will be shot. The effects supervisor works closely with the director of photography, the practical effects supervisor and the stunt supervisor. Some revisions to budget and storyboards may need to be done once the tech scout is done.

Preproduction on your own
Even if you're doing the visual effects for your own miniDV movie it's important to take advantage of preproduction. It's best if you do a simple sketch or storyboard of your shots. This doesn't have to be anything fancy, it's just to help you review what you're planning to do. When you've sketched it out it's easy to spot some potential problems you might not have thought about.

You'll have to figure out what techniques will be required for each shot. If you haven't done much of this before it's best to keep it simple because a simple shot well done is better than a complex shot poorly done. In most cases a locked off camera will make the shot easier to do. This means use the camera on a tripod and don't move it.

Also consider doing what the professionals do during pre-production. Test. If you have a video camera then try to shoot a simple version of your shot with people filling in for the actors. Step through the process of the shot with this test footage so you're clear about how the technique works. You don't need to finish the shot but this can help figure out how to best shoot the images and how much work will be required in post production. It may not cost you in money but it's important to understand the amount of time required. By doing a test you'll also gain a bit more experience so that your skills will be better for the actual shots.

Well that wraps up today's podcast. Shooting the visual effects will be our next topic. Thank you.

Related post
Budgeting VFX


  1. Fantastic concept for a podcast, and (to judge by this first substantive installment) well executed. I really appreciate your taking the time and lending your expertise to illuminating the work of visual effects design, budgeting, and manufacture. Good luck with this, and thanks!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. It's always useful to know if it's making a connection and if I'm covering the topics people want.

  3. Hi Peter, You've got some nice work on your site.

  4. Hi Scott, great idea for podcasts and you're certainly qualified to discuss it.

    I look forward to visiting here often. I'm hoping this will also be an interactive area for good discussions. Our industry keeps us busy and I appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences.

    Keep it up!

  5. AnonymousJuly 17, 2006

    hey thanx again Scott,
    So good to get quality information from a real working professional. You have got me coming back for more, thanx heaps

  6. Hi Woww..

    Thank you for your information. All is very interesting and useful for me. I'm interested in digital compositing; very beginner though. Sometimes I don't know where to start first, trying to get myself some knowledge of film compositing.

    I'll definitely visit your blog again and again and again.


  7. first time i am visiting your blog, its informative and useful, thanks a lot.

  8. Thank you so much for running such great blog. I learned a lot from here.
    I have a question here after reading this post. If you could spend some time answer me that'll be wonderful. You said "A studio or producer will contact a visual effects company, which is also referred to as a visual effects house....but more likely they will have at least 3 or 4 effects companies..." My question is how do I let the studio or producer know about my company and contact me for biding the project? Do I need to hire a producer or sales that have relationship with the studio? How this work?
    Thank you again for having this wonderful place.

  9. A VFX company has to contact the various studios or production companies that might require vfx. Most studios have a gatekeeper for vfx. This is usually a Vice President in charge of VFX or VFX Producer. The problem is they would much rather go with an established company they've already worked with in the past than to try a new company.

    It's possible you could have a sales agent or producer contact them but I suspect in most cases the influence would be minimal. All depends on the agent, the vfx company and the studio person.

    Go ahead and track down the name of the person in charge (shouldn't be difficult with the internet) and send in a great demo dvd and a cover letter. Be aware though that most of these people probably get demo disks daily so you're dvd could collect dust in a large pile of other dvds.

    A supervisor or vfx producer (or film producer) that has worked with your company in the past could relay your dvd to the correct person if they're involved currently with a project at that studio.

    The main thing is to gain a good reputation and start making headway anyway you can with credits and a great reel.

  10. Its 2015 and this article is still helpful! Thanks Scott!


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