Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rhythm & Hues Studios is announcing Apprenticeship Programs

(I received this and am posting it here.  I know nothing more than what's listed. - Scott)

Rhythm & Hues Studios is announcing Apprenticeship Programs as follows:

Animation Apprentice Program: 
Deadline for submission  - postmarked by May 21, 2010
June 14, 2010  to  July 9, 2010
In addition to this 
Apprentice Program, there may be a second Animation Apprentice Program - TBD
see website for detailed information and application

Lighting Apprentice Program:
Dead for submission - postmarked by June 14th, 2010
July 12, 2010  to  July 30, 2010
see website for detailed information and application

Compositing Apprentice Program:
Deadline for submission - postmarked by June 30 , 2010
August  2 , 2010 to August 20, 2010
see website for detailed information and application

The R&H Apprentice Programs are designed to give participants the opportunity to gain valuable experience and a chance to work with a talented group of dedicated professionals in a collaborative, energetic environment. This program is designed to identify candidates who may be suitable for entry-level positions in our studio. Ideal participants will be recently graduated artists and technical people with superior skills and potential.

While some participants may be extended as long-term freelance artists after evaluation, employment is not guaranteed.

The current Apprentice Programs will be three to four weeks in duration training and simulated production, and will end with an evaluation.Participants will work with our best artists and supervisors to learn how we create images through a combination of formal classroom instruction and informal collaboration.

Submission requirements for all programs are as follows
  • Cover letter and resume
  • Resume including 3D software experience & indication of level of Unix experience
  • Demo reel (DVD or Websites only)* - Demonstration of attention to visual details
  • Shot breakdown sheet
  • Completed Apprentice Program Application Form.
    Applications can be downloaded from the websites noted above for each discipline.  Once completed, they can be sent with other required material as email attachments.
    Hard copies of completed Application Package can be mailed to:
    Rhythm & Hues Studios
    Attn:  Recruitment – Apprentice Program
    5404 Jandy Place
    Los Angeles, CA 90066

    Email submissions should be sent to recruitment@rhythm.com with the specific apprentice program in the subject line:
    Animation, Compositing, or Lighting Apprentice Program.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010

    VES Handbook of Visual Effects

    We're still finishing the VES Handbook but it's already listed on Amazon.

    My understanding is it's supposed to be out this summer (July?).
    I don't know if the VES has special rates or other options for VES members.

    Co-editors included myself, Toni Pace-Carstensen and Kevin Rafferty

    For full details on the handbook and it's release, please follow link below.

    Latest Info: Handbook has been released posting.

    Monday, April 12, 2010

    Notes To Store 1.2 for the iPad

    My iPad app, Notes To Store has been updated to version 1.2
    Faster paint, more background images (darker grids, full lined spiral and legal pads), and photos added in the app can now be full size of the iPad (useful for marking up photos).
    Good reviews from users.

    App Store

    Tuesday, April 06, 2010

    3D Stereoscopic Visual Effects - web event

    Free webinar on 3D Stereoscopic Visual Effects
    Limited 'seating' but there will be a recording. 10am this Friday.

    Put on by Lee Stranahan with speakers Jason Goodman and Daniel Smith

    He's also involved in a VFX & Stereoscopic Bootcamp and Horror Film Bootcamp

    Saturday, April 03, 2010


    There have been some good comments regarding some of my posts.

    As Steve Molin commented: “I think the heart of your post is that the relationships between artist, VFX company and studio are fundamentally flawed. I don't think we'll have a healthy industry until we find better ways to work together.”

    And that’s exactly it. We can try to patch here or there but what we really need to do is revamp the basic structure and balance.

    The VFX industry is like a tire that has gotten out of alignment and is getting more out of balance all the time. Toward the end of the optical era and the beginning of the digital age most projects ran reasonably smoothly, at least at ILM. There was still the sprint at the very end but it wasn’t super crazy. ILM was powerful enough to let the studios know how much time was involved.

    With film you had to make sure you finished your shot in time to make the lab run. Once you made the lab run at 7pm or 8pm that was it. That was the end of the day for most vfx artists. Working after that cut off time was only worth it if there was a late lab run, which was only arranged in the final sprint. The next morning you’d see the dailies and would reshoot. Even if it was a small change you’d still have to wait until the next morning unless you sent the film as a daylight run (more expense). When digital came in, the render took the place of the lab run. Sometimes it took longer time to render than to process the film. You’d get your render prepped for 7pm or so and the CG supe would allocate procs in the render farm. And you still have dailies in the mornings. However now it was possible to actually see composites and other things during the day so turn around time for some tasks was much less. As computers became faster the internal deadlines became more flexible.

    Certainly in the early days of digital the studios would at least discuss how much time would be required to do the vfx for a large film. The studios would use that information to determine the release date. As more projects were being done digitally the studios realized how much flexibility was available. Both studios and directors started pushing the limits not just creatively but technically and time wise. And we, the eager and hard working vfx artists, jumped to meet those goals. While we were wiping our brows afterwards, amazed at what we had accomplished, the studios and directors now used this as the new standard. Directors on their next show would say, “You guys say you need clean plates and markers. But remember that last film where we had one shot that we didn’t do any of that and you still made it work? Well that’s what we’ll do for all these shots. That was much faster and easier to shoot”. The studios were now saying “You did the last project in 6 months and we made changes two weeks before the release and you still did it. This time you’ll have 4 months and we’ll be making changes 1 week from release.” Some of them like to brag about this type of thing.

    From the studio standpoint they want to get a film out as quickly as possible. They take out loans to make the film so their interest payments accumulate the longer it takes to make the film. They also know there is overhead at any vfx company so the longer the project is in post-production, the more that costs them. What they don’t reliably calculate is the compressed time schedules mean there will be large amounts of overtime that is likely a bigger loss than the gains from the short schedule. The studios also have specific target release dates they like and yet they at times may drag their feet waiting to make a decision to greenlight the picture. Now with this new reduced schedule (1 year? 9 months?) to make the film they review the project schedule with the director, producer and 1st asst director. And of course the shooting time will remain the same as it always does. X number of shoot days. So where do they make up for all the lost time? In the post–production phase. Their goal is to complete it in less time than the last show. Multiple vfx companies working a lot of overtime is now normal in their thinking. It’s now standard practice. With the various tax breaks and globalization the typical vfx company doesn’t have a lot of leverage. The studio has the money and may have several projects looming. The vfx company needs to keep some type of cash flow going if they are to remain open. Since there are now a number of worldwide companies for vfx, most of which are willing to charge less just to keep afloat, it’s a downward spiral. The squeeze on the vfx company in turn causes a squeeze on the artists.

    The ironic thing is the studio, who originally pleaded poverty when bids were coming in, is more than willing to throw money at the problem to make it finish on time. It bears repeating they would have gotten better quality shots for less money if a reasonable schedule had been used. But the studios sometimes tend to take away a different lesson. “VFX are expensive and we should do anything we can to find the lowest price company that will do it good enough on the next one. And let’s reduce the post time even more. That overhead was killing us.”

    With all the extras shots being tossed into the vfx mix along the way of the production, the number of changes and even more processes such as 3D post work, there comes a time when it will be impossible to shove any more into that time. At some point there will be a major project that misses it’s theatrical release date due to vfx not having enough time. And that will not be pretty.

    The flexibility of the digital process also causes some directors and studios to delay making decisions as long as possible. “We’re shooting it this way. I’m sure you guys will figure out how to make it work later. “ And we do. You try to setup target dates that decisions have to be made by working the schedule backwards. We need the design for this model approved by date x so we have the time to build it and render it. We need the turnovers for sequence y to be locked and delivered by date x for us to complete the sequence. But unless these dates are built into a contract and have consequences they may likely be ignored.

    As discussed in the Special Effects Service posting there is now a disconnect with regard to the studios and the vfx artists. The vfx company is a black box they push stuff in and out it comes when demanded. There’s very little connection to the actual people doing the work. This can hurt both the creative process and the budget process. The current incentives the studios typically have in place for producers and asst directors can be problematic. Their main target is to complete the shooting on schedule, even if it means pushing more work on the vfx list. This can cost the studio more money but there is a disconnect between the production process and the entire budget of the film.

    I don’t have any solutions but I do know the studios and the vfx companies are going to have to start taking this seriously and to start looking further than the current film. With the amount of money being spent in vfx, the amount of money being made by vfx films and the sheer volume of vfx in many films, it’s madness not to review the situation.

    If the studios go to a vfx company they may find it’s gone out of business. There’s little incentive to develop talent and techniques if there’s no money in it. If the studios focus all of their efforts on places where tax incentives allow them to get work cheap, what will they do when those incentives go away? What will the vfx companies that are located there do? All companies have to realize they’re in the same field and whatever happens elsewhere is likely to happen to their location at some point in the future. Your country may be the least expensive today but as we’ve seen things can change rapidly in a global economy. What happens if you’re not the lowest priced country or company? Are the studios going to jump from place to place trying save a dollar? Does the quality of work and working relationships enter in to these equations?

    The studios should start taking a look at their schedules and the decision process. Preplanning and some discipline would result in better work for less money. The same can be said of the vfx companies.

    Question responses

    Q: I'm of the camp that creating a vfx union would just drive the nail in the coffin of the US vfx market, or at least that within the circle of union influence, namely, Los Angeles.

    A: I think it’s a myth that a union will cause all expenses at a vfx company to go up. Most vfx artists in the US, at least at the larger shops, are reasonably paid. And likewise many are already receiving some type of benefits. It’s not like everyone is being paid minimum wage and want several times that amount. I think what most people want is for there to be a little more balance in terms of hours and other issues. Part of what might come into play is limits on crazy over time or at least paying people higher wages in overtime. Many vfx companies have managers at different levels. Most of those in management came up through the ranks, which is good since they understand the process. The bad news is some of those people get moved into positions that are beyond their real skill set. Leading people, managing people, dealing with business decisions, etc is not easy and not everyone can do it. A vfx company may always be doing crisis management. This project is running over schedule or budget so we’re going to steal people from this other project. This usually causes a ripple to each following project and the problem doesn’t stop until there’s a dry spell. Management may under-staff to keep costs down but with the low number of artist means they have to work them very long hours to make up for the fact they don’t have enough people to begin with. And this is where one of the many false economies comes into play for the companies. In trying to save money it can easily cost them much more. A higher cost to work people overtime would compel them and the studios to rethink that approach.

    Q: I'm not even sure how that would work internationally, or interstate, as many states are 'right to work' states.

    A: That’s why we’re discussing this and that’s why we should think out of the box. That’s why I made my suggestions regarding universal rates.

    Q: It would be nice to have some form of group that at least made sure companies complied with safe and respectable working conditions, but not be involved in setting rates.

    A; That was the first suggestion on my list. A Code of Standards, Seal of Approval, whatever it may be called. Wasn’t there a standard put in place for companies that outsourced shoes and clothing to other countries? We’re not at that level (hopefully) but that’s the idea.

    Q: We only have to look as far as the auto industry to see how that ultimately pans out.

    A; The auto industry created their own problems by not making the cars people wanted or needed. They also made too wide of selection of vehicles. Once again, it will be up to the vfx companies to rethink where they are and where they’re going and to work with their customer, the studios, to make sure they’re in sync.

    Q: Very interesting stuff, although in my opinion kind of depicts unions in a too idyllic light.

    A; I would agree. I’m sure I’ve painted the union as being too good. However I get the impression most people have a lack of knowledge about unions. In an ideal world the company you work for would take the well being of their employees into consideration and try to establish a balance of profit with a balance of the people who work for them. In that case unions would not be needed. The problems are that many companies are so focused on profits for their shareholders or management is so removed from their employees that decisions are made because they seemed right on paper. As a result they pull in one direction. The unions typically pull in the other direction to try to establish some type of balance. For those who aren’t unions you should realize one of the reasons why you’re likely paid the wages you are is because the unions made some headway decades ago. Believe me, any company would love to pay everyone minimum wage. In the film industry studios could charge people to work for them (and they might if it were legal)

    The union is another group of management that you may not agree with. Look at the WGA. Not all of their members agreed to what management there was doing. With a union you still have to put in so many hours every 6 months in order to qualify for health care. =The camera union has restrictions on who can operate the camera and they may require an operator to be employed even if the DP will do most of the operating.

    Q: The only serious observation with the article is the recommendation at the end for Michael Moore. The guys is the most unreliable "documentary" film maker I've seen, totally subjective and set from the start to prove his agenda. I don't think someone can make an *informed* opinion by watching a Michael Moore film.

    A: I would be the first to say none of Michael Moore’s films are non-biased. And he does as well. But it does provide some glimmer in several areas that are documented by others. It certainly seems strange to have a college educated jet pilot flying hundreds of people full time and still having to apply for food stamps to make ends meet. And I think that’s part of the issue is the imbalance valuation of people.

    Friday, April 02, 2010


    (I’m not a lawyer or a representative for a union so take this with the grain of virtual salt. As always I’m trying to provide a point of reference and possible ideas to discuss.)

    There’s been a lot of talk recently regarding having a visual effects union.

    I’m in the International Photographers Guild as Director of Photography. There is no VFX Supervisor category. When I started on Close Encounters all the vfx jobs were union. All cameras in the facility were operated by someone in the camera union. This included the motion control cameras, optical printer, animation stand, matte painting camera, and included the line up people. (The line up crew prepped the film for the optical printer along with work forms for the work). Animators and roto people were in the animation union. (There wasn’t a lot of roto in those days since it was such a time consuming task to trace, paint and shoot) The modelers were covered by the props/models union. And even the matte paintings were covered by an art union.

    When we started Dream Quest all co-owners, including myself, were union but we didn’t initially set it up to be union. For a small shop it was difficult to deal with the paperwork and requirements of the union. However most of the studios were unable to source out large work to non-union companies since they themselves were signatories to the unions. So we setup Dream Quest Images as a union shop and hired all union people.

    When I went to ILM it was all union as well. Local 16 in that area handled everything. Stagehands working in the opera in San Francisco or model builders at ILM were all covered. With the introduction of computer graphics the positions and union requirements became a gray area. Those CG people who were new to the business didn’t see much point in joining a union. Why did they need to pay the union a few hundred dollars a year in dues? They were working and the sky was the limit. Besides the company was making very attractive offers to not be a union employee and other CG companies weren’t union either. And thus began the backslide.

    In the early days of computer graphics there were a limited number of animated and others so they tended to be offer great packages. Those days are over.

    What a Union Offers
    A union represents a number of skilled artists or crafts people working in a particular field or industry. It has strength in numbers that single artists do not have. Look at the writers strike from a couple of years ago. The majority of writers voted for the strike and most new film and television work shut down. Many shows on TV went into re-runs. The writer’s union negotiated with the studios to try to get better wages.

    During the vfx work for Journey to the Center of the Earth the main company stopped paying people at a certain point toward the end with the promise that the payroll checks would be coming soon. They never did. Many artists took great losses and the Canadian government stepped in as I recall and the artists received a percentage of their back wages (but far from what they were owed). Had that been a union shop the union shop steward or anyone of the employees could have called the union and informed them a payroll had not been met. The union would then contact the company and tell them they were in violation and would need to pay the employees within a day or the union would request all union workers to stop. That’s how you get a businesses attention. I’m sure there were artists who went to management and complained but unless you can say that the entire company will be shut down, a lone voice is usually ignored by company management. The union has leverage.

    VFX companies can try many tactics to avoid paying people, reduce their taxes or to avoid local restrictions. A supervisor and vfx producer are usually deemed as management along with any leads or dept heads. This avoids these people qualifying as standard employees under the state law. This allows the companies to consider their pay to be a salary and to not pay overtime when working late or on weekends. The theory being that we controlled how much we worked. The reality is the vfx company determined the amount of overtime required, many time out of the hands of the vfx supervisor or producer. The studio may have major changes or another show in the vfx company caused a delay, which now requires overtime to make up on this show. A company may request you sign on as an independent contractor. This avoids them having to deal with many tax and employee issues required by the law.

    A union allows a freelance employee (as are most film people) to work at different companies and know that he or she will receive the same working conditions and wages. Look at camera assistants. They may be on a commercial shoot for a day on Thursday and the following week be on a different spot or a feature film.

    When you work at a company you may have a health care package and a 401k. The problem is if you’re freelancing (i.e. when they lay you off) and you move to another company now you have to start all over again with a different health care company and 401k package (assuming the company offers any of that). With the union that’s all taken care of. The companies pay into the union funds so the union members have health care and pension.

    The union spells out the different job types and levels along with the wages for those. In the camera union there’s film loader, 2nd assistant, 1st assistant, etc. Remember these are the minimum wages that a union signatory can pay. A skilled union artist can receive more than union scale. In the vfx industry there is no minimum and no standard of wages. The person who just started next to you with no experience may be making twice as much as you just because they were a better negotiator and the company was in a pinch. Certainly those just out of school are more than happy to make any type of money in a field of interest to them. Some companies hire less experienced and less expensive people just to cut corners. They lay off people who may have been working for years simply because they could hire three new comers for the price of a skilled person. The quality of work will suffer but they make the department leads take up any slack and try to get the new employees up as quickly as possible. These new employees will be fine with working the coming weekend, possibly without pay. Hey it’s new, it’s fun and they’re single so no real issues. Just a few years later they’re making better money and starting a family. Whoops, you’ve been laid off because the company just hired some cheaper people. There tend to be minimal lays about these types of tactics. Once again the union tries to keep this more consistent.

    The union calls out working conditions and wage increases. (I haven’t confirmed these numbers so use as a guide only) After 8 hours it’s 1 ½ times. After 12 hours it may be double time. At a certain point it becomes double golden time. This cost increase prevents companies from making a habit of working people long hours for little money.

    Companies need to provide meals and ½ hour mealtime or need to provide sufficient time to get a meal elsewhere (1 hr). This is to happen every 6 hours.

    Workings conditions, safety conditions and turn around time (time you get off to sleep and rest before you have to work again) are covered in the union agreement.

    The union worker agrees not to work for a non-union company. After all, why would union company A pay you a certain amount if you’re fine going across the street and working for a non-union company for less money?

    I know some people are concerned a union will cause studios to leave the area and go elsewhere. Hey, it’s already happening without being a union and if you’re working under poor conditions or getting substandard pay it does it really matter if they leave?

    One thing unions can’t do, which I know is a concern, is to deal with runaway production. Many films and tv series that would have shot here in Los Angeles in the past are now going to Canada or other places. Some of the key spots such as the Director, DP, and VFX Supervisor may travel to where ever that work is but the average film worker is left behind here in LA with no work even though they’re union.

    Unions tend to have limited jurisdiction so how does this work in the now global scheme of things?

    A few ideas to help level the field and provide better working conditions-

    Have a Code of Practices or some sort of seal of approval. This would spell out the working conditions, but not the wages. If there were 4 vfx companies in town and 3 were officially in the program, then artists would know which company to avoid. Even better is if the studios were convinced to support the program. If a company knew they couldn’t get a piece of a studio project unless they agreed to be part of the program, they would join and clean up their act. This would also help put the companies and more level ground as apposed to cutting corners on working conditions in an effort to underbid the competition.

    Establish pay rates that use universal numbers. If you go to a different city to shoot, the US Tax group has different figures calculated for working per diem per day in major cities throughout the world. You might get $150 in London and $75 dollars in Atlanta. If you sell an iPhone app you don’t set the price, you set the price tier level. A price level 1 may mean 99 cents in the US, .69 pounds in England, etc. A universal price listing could then be used no matter where you worked and actual rate would be based on standard of living, exchange rates, etc. (I’m no economist but after the last couple years I don’t think anyone else is either)

    A co-op or employee owned company. I’m not sure how useful this is (having done it) but thought it should be noted. Most vfx companies started as being employee owned. And the fluctuation of workload and temp workers doesn’t tend to make this as feasible as a normal company with a more even workload and employees.

    Some vfx artists, such as matte painters, are already working independently. They’re in some other part of the country or world and simply logon to pass images back and forth and to get feedback. This will likely happen more and more in the future although the speed of transferring large data and working truly with others would be a loss. This needs to accounted for in any future plans and the hope would be there would be some types of minimums so you there’s not a rush to the bottom. See all the 99 cent iPhone apps as an example when a large number of people are fighting strictly on a price basis.

    The vfx companies could work with the studios in such a way the studio leases part of the company and pays the people directly. Now they have a stake in successfully getting the work done and helping to balance the changes.

    None of these provide a secure future but they may help the discussion.

    I also urge everyone to see Capitalism: A Love Story by Michael Moore.
    Very scary look at some union and company issues but includes a few things such as co-ops.

    Visual effects service - The Big Picture

    (Note: I’m on the board of the VES but all posting to this blog are mine own and do not represent the VES) (As always, I could be wrong about anything)

    If we’re re-examining the current VFX situation we need to take a step back and look at the whole process.

    I think most of us think of visual effects as a service. But is it?

    Years ago the studios had their own visual effects department with people on staff and basic optical and animation equipment. When the studios closed those departments, labs and small optical companies took their place. I can remember looking over lab and vfx company price lists in the mid-70’s. A dissolve was so much per foot. A matte was so much per foot with minimum cost of X dollars. Some of the places had small insert stages they would rent for so much per day. If you needed something special they could give you a quote but the majority of the work was on a time and materials basis.

    For larger vfx projects the productions themselves would set up a full department somewhere. This was the case with 2001, Logan’s Run, Close Encounters, Star Wars and other films. The production would lease a building and set it up from scratch with the people needed to run and operate it. For Close Encounters we were in an industrial building in Marina del Rey. They had to custom make the matte painting stands and other equipment as need be. They purchased or leased optical printers and an animation camera. Everyone working there was paid by the production. This is in fact how productions usually run. They become their own company that has a group of people that round up or build whatever is required for the film. In live action this would be the construction of the sets, special rigs, etc. Once those shows were done the one off facility they setup would usually be closed down and the crew laid off. In the case of ILM, since George Lucas had such success with Star Wars and thought he might like to do more things for himself and his friends he re-created it in Northern California. Apogee was formed by John Dykstra and others using the original ILM building and some of the same gear(?) used on Star Wars. Many of the Close Encounters people went to Universal Hartland where Universal setup up a facility to handle Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica.

    When we formed Dream Quest most of the initial projects we did on a time and materials basis, especially if it was large. If someone wanted us to shoot motion control we charged for the stages and the crew for so much per week. This saved us in a number of cases where the director or the vfx supervisor they had hired made changes or threw out work because of a change.

    Today if you’re working on a commercial the cost of a telecine is so much per hour and so much for tape, etc. The work on the Flame system or equivalent is on a per hour basis. They may provide a rough estimate but it’s always up to the client how much time is used. If the agency wants to tweak something all day that’s fine. They get billed for it and the video house doesn’t have to worry about making a budget.

    Fixed Bids
    Somewhere along the way the studios wanted a fixed bid on vfx work for feature films. Estimates were no longer good enough and the vfx companies would now have to stick to the budget. This changes a number of dynamics. In the eyes of some studios and directors the vfx people were no longer working directly for the production, they were working for the vfx company. The vfx crew became another step further from the film crew. Outsiders. Now there’s always the ping-pong of trying to please the director but not going over budget. Filing change orders and having discussions with the studios regarding the costs now became standard process. At times the vfx company can be pushed into a corner. The vfx supervisor was now that guy from the vfx company. The name of the vfx company became the main selling point. The vfx supervisor, not so much. If the client doesn’t like the first proposed company supe then another one at the company will be swapped out on a whim. The crew having to work overtime was now the vfx company’s problem. We still had crazy hours at times in the ‘old days’. On Star Trek: The Motion Picture I worked several weeks straight, 12 hrs a day, 7 days a week. (and a few 24hr days) But the studio knew it and actually visited the facility. Today, they’re now removed from those details.

    So are there any other areas of film production that are completely farmed out to a 3rd party company besides VFX? All the other main leads tend to be hired directly. DP, Production Designer, Wardrobe, etc. Even though most Special Effects people have companies I believe most are hired as a team of people or at least paid on a time basis. Sound mixing or the DI? I assume these are on a time and material basis as well. The previs team is frequently brought in to work in the same office down the hall from the director. They typically bill by the man days or hours. Most of the set construction I see is done by a team of people working for production with special projects (cars, etc) farmed out.

    When I think of a service I think of a dentist, a car shop where they work on your car or a plumber that comes to your house. In these cases they do work but don’t tend to produce anything. The costs are based on time and materials.

    Custom manufacturing?
    Should vfx be considered as custom manufacturing? We actually create something when we finish our work, whether it’s from scratch or a montage of material provided. That’s what the studios want, not the actual service part.

    Here is where things get crazier. Each shot is unique like a snowflake. It’s own little world of issues, handwork and tweaks. You try like anything to make shots as consistent as possible and to be able to run them through the exact same process but it’s never full automated. For all the talk about computers in our business it’s still a very labor-intensive process. The number of people and the time required to do a shot from start to finish would astound most outsiders.

    If you go to most manufactures and request custom work you will be required to make specific requirements in writing. (I.e. you want cabinet style 32 but in this specific color of blue. You want a custom cake that says Happy Birthday. It will be yellow cake with vanilla ice cream and chocolate frosting.) And that is what you will get. They seldom show you the work in progress or have your input at every single stage. The other thing is a custom manufacture will tell you when it will be done. They dictate the schedule. In the film business it’s the opposite of all of this. The studio specifies when the delivery will be. It’s almost always less than the time that would have been arrived at by a normal scheduling process for the facility.

    On a VFX project you start with the script, which provides a wide-open interpretation of what the final visuals will look like. In pre-production the director hopefully approves concept art, does storyboards and ideally previs. While most previs lays a good foundation the number of nuances and changes required for the final shots can be enormous. The director usually wants something never seen before that will require a lot of R&D. Not just custom but a totally unknown look or process that needs to be invented. Just how much time and money will that take? The vfx companies have to provide a bid for all of this before the film is even shot. During shooting things will change. During post-production things will continue to change.

    This is a creative process so there will be changes but think of it this way: The vfx company is making a 1000 custom oil paintings that technically have to be delivered on a hard date for a fixed price (at least initially). This process could costs in the 10’s of millions of dollars, make up half of the film budget and fill up half of the screen time. There are some rough thumbnails but not enough information to simply deliver the finished paintings. The director is involved at every step of the process for every single painting. In some cases, for every brush stroke. Some directors only want to see the final pieces. In these cases you can end up with ‘no, now that I see it I don’t’ want apples in the painting, I want pears’. So much for the time and effort to create the initial painting. If a director changes one painting that may change two dozen that are almost finished. Remember, the due date will not move, regardless of the changes. And of course shots are not paintings but moving images so time and motion presents another infinite number of possibilities.

    How many other areas does the director really work in this much minutia? Normally when they’re working with Directors of Photography, Production Designers, etc they discuss and try to get in sync regarding the general look and style they want. The director may be asked about the color of the pillows on a set but at some point they pass on the taking care of the details to their key creatives. The director is unlikely to ask to change the 3rd brick from the right on the set or ask the DP to reduce a specific light by ½ stop. And yet at times it can be that way when working with visual effects.

    With visual effects the director has unlimited control. Every pixel of every frame can be changed. If production has an on set stunt or action the director shoots what takes they feel are appropriate and will select one. The fact that the stuntman’s hand is raised a little doesn’t cause problems. The best take will be selected and production moves on. With the advent of digital visual effects that’s not the end of the story. What would have been fine previously in any movie is now something to be scrutinized and analyzed by the director, editor and studio. Now it may be an added shot for the vfx crew to fix that hand position. And while they’re working on the shot can they change that thing back there and that other thing over there? A shot with a jet may get a request to roll the jet another 3 degrees. Will the audience notice 3 degrees? Will it make it a better shot? Obviously if production paid and shot a real jet they would be unlikely to schedule another shoot day simply to get the jet to roll 3 degrees more.

    On the set the director knows it will take a certain amount of time to make a change so they always have to balance that because time is their gold standard. They have so many days to shoot the show and have only 2 days scheduled for this set and need to shoot 20 setups a day. With vfx that time balance is thrown out the window. Most of the work is done after filming. The amount of time and effort to make the change is all hidden. It’s happening elsewhere by unseen people. It’s no longer the director or producers responsibility to complete this phase of production on time; it’s up to the vfx company. To add to this difficulty is the fact that the live action shoot can and does go over schedule. Problems during shooting may now require additional, unplanned work to be done by the vfx company. But the vfx company cannot go over schedule. They are the end of the road so every delay during shooting, every added fix, shot or change needs to happen by the deadline. That’s the finals date that was set before the vfx company even started bidding on the show. Not only does the vfx company have to do all the work they initially agreed to do in that time, they have to absorb most production issues that have accumulated and rippled down the pipeline since the pre-production began. Add into that mix the requirement by the studio to make last minute changes, possibly based on test screenings, possibly based on an idea of an executive.

    Are there other non-film businesses setup like vfx companies in terms of the requirements and client involvement? That would be useful to look at and learn from. Unfortunately I can’t really think of anything on the scale or dealing with the same types of issues. Many construction projects are of course custom and involve a lot of money and people. However they have blueprints that have been signed off on. They have colors that were selected to paint the walls and the client has approved the carpet and the tiles. Sure there will be some changes but the majority of the work is usually very well specified. Any major changes will involve a change of completion date or will require client to pay a large fees to have it accelerated.

    Visual effects is a very labor-intensive business. The labor is made up of dedicated and highly skilled and trained people. There’s the requirement to complete hundreds of works of unique, never before seen, art (shots), based on rudimentary starting points, that are constantly being scrutinized and changed. And this all has to be done for as much adherence to a fixed bid as possible and above all has to be finished on the deadline, - no ifs, ands or buts.

    I do want to go on record that I support all the directors I work for and that I’m all for anything that can make a film better. All vfx artists want the best possible film. What I hope this posting will illustrate is just how complex this issue is. We have art, technology and commerce all colliding. The vfx companies are put in a tough situation and the vfx artists are put in a tough situation to try to balance this all out. The end result is any process or structure that will help balance this issue to create the best creative and to make it reasonable for the vfx artists will be a welcome relief.

    Related posts:
    Pass me a nail
    Risk and subsidies
    Oh, the mess we're in!

    Thursday, April 01, 2010

    VFX TownHall Meeting thoughts

    Here are some random thoughts and ideas regarding some of the issues brought up in the vfx townhall meetings. I heard the original townhall broadcast live and caught the tail end of the next one. I missed the one last night on unions and haven’t kept up on all the twitter/forums so what I’m posting may be redundant or may be 180 from any of those. These are just ideas so don’t hold me to them 5 years from now. (This is turning into a much longer document so I’ll be breaking it up for the postings)

    Scott Ross discussed the fact that VFX companies don’t make much profit. I ran Dream Quest for 5 years and can vouch for that. It seems to many outsiders (producers, some studio executives) and some employees that it must be a cash cow because look at the costs being charged. Think of the number working on the project at a company. The number of people there may exceed the number of crewmembers on the live action shoot. And they’re not just working for 45-100 shooting days. So delete all the costs of the employees, including any health care and 401k expenses. Delete the costs of the lease (very expensive in LA, London, etc) Delete the costs of the utilities (special internet, phones, power). Delete all the costs of the workstations and all the software licenses. Once you’ve whittled it away there’s not a lot left. Now the VFX company will build in a profit when possible but at most it would be 35% (much less than 100% markup for many products or other services). And it never stays this way no matter what the company puts in since it’s always squeezed down. End result is more likely 10-20%.

    This assumes that you’re making a profit. This business tends to be feast or famine. Look at the last couple of years between the writer’s strike and the actor’s pseudo strike. Some large projects were made but many mid to small projects were stopped. Many times as was discussed by Scott companies will try to get work even if it doesn’t make a profit; even if it doesn’t cover the expenses. When you have a large overhead it’s better to have most of it covered than none of it covered. And that’s just it. Any profit you make at a company has to cover the times when you don’t have any projects. It’s difficult to maintain a consistent volume of work through a company. Even with layoffs there are a number of base expenses that still need to be covered. At Dream Quest it wasn’t unusual for the co-owners to skip salary ourselves so we could continue to pay for the basic staff. Training people and getting them up to speed on a particular company approach takes time and money. When a company lets someone go they will re-incur that cost when they rehire someone when there is work.

    That’s why I recommend freelancers or those starting VFX companies have at least enough money to cover 6 months with no income (same advice for most business startups) and to not underestimate the cost of overhead, healthcare, etc when on their own.

    Competition for work is high. VFX companies have been sprouting up all over. In addition the cost of doing business and trying to bid completely, Chris deFaria points out if some location (such as England) has a 20% discount there’s little likelihood the companies can compete on price alone.

    It was suggest that 30 years ago was the same thing but there were a number of differences. 30 years ago there was ILM, Boss Films, Apogee and Dream Quest as the likely competitors for feature film work. The number of VFX films and the number of shots on a film was much smaller. 200 shots was considered huge. These days many films start at 600 shots and go to over 2000. To enter into the VFX work required you either purchase or build specialty equipment (optical printer, motion control, animation stand, etc) these could run from $10,000 to 80,000 each. The upside is once purchased, that was it. No upgrades or replacement. You also needed a place to put that equipment. Dream Quest started in a 2-car garage. These days a company can start with one guy and a computer at a desk in his/her apartment. Depending on software you might be able to start for as low as $5000. But the other critical factor was there were no subsidies, or at least ones that affected the VFX market. If a studio needed VFX work done at that time it was almost always done here in California. That meant at least there was a level playing field.

    As I recall Lee and Jeff suggested people not work at places that didn’t provide very good working environments or that didn’t treat their employees well. That sounds great but the reality is people are likely working at places like that precisely because they don’t have a choice. If there are jobs available at a place down the street you can change jobs. If there are no openings elsewhere or they’re half a world away then it may not be possible to quit or to not take a job, especially if you have a family and house. As individuals I would urge you to discuss the issue with the head of the company. Unfortunately this could get you labeled a troublemaker and increase the likely hood you’ll be laid off sooner and not rehired in the future. You could discuss with fellow employees but unless most of the employees opt to threaten to quit, your quitting a company will not change that companies practices. This is where a union would come in and I would urge those truly interested to take a real part in discussions and whatever is necessary to try to make it better for yourself and other artists. (I.e. sitting on the side complaining is the easiest thing but it’s also the least productive)

    Chris suggested that some of the people could work for the art department. Designers, modelers, CG supervisors, etc. One question is are these positions that are available in the art directors guild? And of course this only covers a small number of people in the whole scheme of things. Even if the thought is to make it call it Digital Production does not mean the camera crew will be hiring CG lighters.

    Notes To Store for the iPad

    Just completed an iPad app that was accepted by Apple. It's called Notes To Store and allows treating the iPad like a spiral notebook (actually multiple notebooks). You can type in notes (virtual keyboard, bluetooth keyboard or dock keyboard) and draw sketches and images. You can also import photos and draw on top of those. I have stacks of spiral notebooks and end up sketching a lot of ideas and notes so wanted something similar for the iPad. I'm sure after I actually get a real iPad (this was all on the limited simulator) to try it out I'll be making changes and improvements. If you have suggestions for it please send me an email.

    I'm gathering various ideas for real VFX support apps for the iPhone and iPad so send me an email if there's something you'd like to see.

    I'm hoping to post soon regarding the Townhalls and related issues.