Thursday, January 17, 2008

VFX management

Here are a few reader questions. As I’ve said before each company and each production is a bit different. There are no standards of operation so there will exceptions to everything below.

How much management is needed for a small, medium and big sized operation?

In a small shop, management also works hands on. We had 6 people when we started Dream Quest in a garage, all of us co-owners. The amount of management of course varied per person. I was the president and would make sales calls as well and vfx supervise. We had over 60 employees when I left Dream Quest. ILM had about 120 at that time. (1985) Later ILM had more than 1200 people working at one time.

As a company gets larger you start getting more support people and employees. It also becomes more difficult to balance managing and working hands on shots. Legal paperwork, payroll, computer support, coordinators, etc. start requiring a management structure in place.

Small companies are more likely to have people who are multi-purpose. The individuals may do everything on the shot from start to finish. As a company gets larger you’re more likely to go to specialists for each craft. Typically you’ll have multiple departments or groups of people as you get larger ( Technical directors, compositors, roto artists, animators, etc.)
If the size of the company is only working on one project at a time then you may have a lead per department that balances working hands on as well as managing the people within his group. As the company gets larger and works on multiple projects at a time (a large company may be working on as many as 6 to 8 projects at once) then a department head will be assigned to each department. This person may also be a lead on a specific project or may strictly be a manager with no hands on activity.

Note that most companies consider supervisors and producers managers in addition to department heads. An added benefit for the company is they don’t have to pay overtime to any ‘managers’.

The greater the size of management the more overhead the company has to add to the budget. It’s easy for companies to become too top heavy with management (in some cases several levels deep from the company headto the artists). Since management controls employment they’re much more likely to layoff the actual artists than management. Most of vfx management is made up of people who were once vfx artists or vfx producers themselves. Not everyone who’s a good vfx artist makes the transition to manager since it’s a different skill set. Unfortunately some people are promoted to a job they’re unable to do well. This can be a real problem.

How many leads?

Number of leads is dependent on size of the show. If it’s a large show with big sequences you may have a sequence lead for each sequence. You may also have a lead for each discipline. An animation lead for each sequence or for each main character, a compositing lead, a TD lead, etc. A lead may be assigned a different sequence after they complete their first one assuming they’re not concurrent.

How do you balance between creativity and the budget?

A few key things to note here:
Creativity isn’t directly proportional to budget. We’ve all seen very expensive movies with little creativity and visa versa.
Budget does provide: More R&D for new vfx, more concept work, more shots and/or more complex shots, more time and effort to finesse the shots.

The director controls the creativity and the visual effects team serves the director. Some critics and internet users think the vfx team does it’s own thing and just delivers it at the end as if the director has no involvement. The director is very much involved in all designs, all the shooting and all the post. The only time this doesn’t happen is if the project is over-schedule and/or over-budget (or if it’s with a specific, nameless studio where the studio executives control all the vfx) The other case is when the director turns over all the action design and execution to his 2nd Unit Director. Since the 2nd unit director usually isn’t involved in post production this can be a problem.

In commercials and television work the director usually isn’t involved in post production. It’s in the hands of the creatives at the advertising agency for commercials and with the producers/writers for television.

From a VFX standpoint we work with director in pre-production to create concept art for what the final shots will look like and what the creatures/objects look like. We also try to be heavily involved in the storyboards and previs work. Many directors are very eager to get the most out their vfx and vfx team and this works very well. They’re open to new ideas and the vfx team is more than hapy to help. In other cases you can provide a totally new concept or idea that would be a perfect fit with the movie but it’s ignored.

My suggestion is to initially design as if the budget didn’t matter. Brainstorm working with the director and come up with the most powerful shots for the movie. If the budget doesn’t support that then the director will have to reduce the number of shots, ask the studio for more money (which the concept art may allow them to do) or be willing to simplify the shots.

Who is responsible for what?

Each vfx artist is responsible for the specific work he’s been assigned on a shot or model.

What are their roles specifically?

There’s an endless list of jobs and job descriptions. Here are some of the common ones: Technical director (lighting and rendering of 3D), Compositing (combining multiple images), animator (animation of a character or object), roto (someone who traces to creates mattes), painter (painting out unwanted items in frame, fixing frames), 3D modeler (builds the model), texture painter (someone who paints the 3D models), model maker (builds physical models), rigger (builds the 3D skeleton for the characters), skinner/enveloper (works on the skin of the characters (flexibility)), dirt removal (paints out scanned dirt on images), layout/matchmove (creates 3D representation of the live action), particle animator (works specifically with partical systems), previs artist (creates simplified animation before production), motion capture actor (creates moves the animators can use for a character), motion cature artists (work with the data from motion capture), set surveyor (record information when shooting), coordinator (gathers and disperse information, help with schedules), Production assistants (anything)

Does the vfx supervisor worry about the creative only?

No. We worry about everything. Supervisors are always very involved technically and at the end of the day they have to be worried about the budget and schedule even if these are directly overseen by the VFX producer. If you run out of time or money because of previous choices then you won’t be able to complete the project.

Is the supervisor responsible for managing his crew directly?

The Supervisor reviews the dailies of all the TD’s and Compositors and provides both creative and technical feedback. An Animation Supervisor reviews the animation dailies. These artists consult with their leads to discuss details or solutions. The supervisor provides the creative guidelines for the artists (based on the directors vision) and deal with the large issues. The supervisor may only be able to interact with a specific artist once or twice a day (such as dailies). This is because there are a lot of artists and there may be many meetings. The leads have less people under them so are more likely to check in on all their artists more frequently.

Does the supervisor have a say about workflow and how things should be done technically - or he/she responsible solely for the creative side of effect?

It’s all a question of details. Normally the supervisor oversees the basic technical aspects of the shots but the specific settings and details are guided by the CG supervisor or leads. The supervisor is usually the one to define the basic approach to a sequence or the shots. (i.e. matte painting or model, greenscreen or CG, etc) Whether to use a specific plugin or version of software is up to the department, lead or the artist.

In solving problems and making decisions, how does the crew structure help?

When bidding the supervisor meets with his leads or department heads and discusses his proposals. If there’s a better solution or alternatives those are discussed. During post production the artist works out the details of a solution themselves. They decide to use another mist element to blend on top to give some depth to a shot. If there’s a problem with a roto then the compositor or TD talks to the roto artist. If they’re having difficulty getting the look correct then they’ll check with their lead or a fellow artist. If that’s unable to resolve the issue then it’s brought to the supervisor.

What are the limits for the crew members themselves, their responsibilities?

The crew member is responsible for taking the elements provided and completing their aspect of the shot. They will make adjustments themselves based on what looks correct as well as feedback from dailies. If there’s a serious subjective or creative decision they’ll call on the lead or the vfx supervisor to make a decision. They can also opt to do it the way they think is right and review in dailies. If there is technical problem they may check in with the lead first.

Can you talk more about production vs. creative process?

Part of the issue is when is a shot is done? From a creative standpoint you could tweak a shot for months to make slight improvements. From a production side you want it to be complete and approved by the director as quickly as possible. What if there’s a better idea halfway through completing a sequence? Is there time to do it? Is there money to do? Filmmaking at some level is always a compromise.

What about chain of command?

Top level: VFX Supervisor (creative and technical), Animation Supervisor (animation), VFX Producer (schedule and budget)

CG Supervisor (big picture view of the computer resources required and how to achieve the different looks on the computer)
Leads (specific to a sequence or task, oversees the people working in that area and helps to mentor the artists)
Artists (These are the people doing the actual hands on work)

Related links:
VFX Producer
VFX Supervisor
Visual Effects Positions
Bad Visual Effects Business Practices

1 comment:

  1. Hey Scott,
    I liked your post about VFX Management. There was a lot of insight which is obvious comes from years of experience.

    I recently launched a VFX management tool that i would love to get your opinion on (if you have a moment)

    It was built specifically to manage VFX projects/houses of all sizes.

    Anyway, feel free to take a demo.




Messages are moderated so will be checked before posting. This can take a day or two.