Friday, April 02, 2010

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!


  1. Right on, Scott. I wonder when they will figure out that giving artists less time means they're not getting the best shots they could.

  2. Outstanding post, Scott. A very accurate and detailed account of the issues. Thank you for putting the time and thought into publishing it. This is exactly the kind of information we all need to consider (artists, facilities, etc.)

  3. Hear, hear! 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. As you said, we all want to make the best films possible.

  4. This is a really thoughtful post that helps clarify why producing VFX profitably is so darn difficult. I've often noted that we're always trying to do something new, which is hard enough, but it hadn't occurred to me that VFX is more like custom manufacturing than a service provider and that, for movies, the business structure of VFX is really different from other parts of the production. I don't know exactly where those observations lead next, but they are enormously useful.

    I hope other parties in the larger discussion will take note.

  5. Hi Scott, You're spot on with your assessment. I'd like to add another couple of pathological developments I've noticed recently.

    1. If the VFX Company is a boutique, their cashflow can't support the rate of changes a director will throw at them. Say the shot count doubles, they will be asked by the studio to bid the extra shots, so the vfx company will enquire about available artists, space and other resources. But the studio may take so long to mull over the new bid, which they may even want to renegotiate, that the ideal artists find work elsewhere by the time the bid is agreed. It takes time to expand. Artists that have been holding on in hope are let down time and again and the vfx company gets a reputation for being full of hot air. As you say the deadline doesn't change, so the process all but guarantees failure.

    2. As a cost cutting exercise, there is a tendency to have one VFX company produce assets that another company will animate. Even worse, it may be decided that the shot work is split horizontally between facilities. For example one facility will create character animation and another will be responsible for FX animation and rendering, then yet another will comp. This is like intercontinental color-by-numbers and I've seen it cause gridlock at one facility very recently.

    In working towards a better state of affairs I think it would benefit the studios and vfx companies to look at how the software development industry has handled similar problems. Big feature bloated software applications, where every detail was planned and costed up front, were found to be useless to customers or simply too complex to complete. As a result, new methodologies, frameworks and philosophies were designed with the explicit goal of making software projects successful and fun. Agile methodologies have been a big win for software firms and I'd love to see how an agile vfx facility would do. Instead of studios insisting on meticulously prepared VFX bids, they would instead engage the facility and sprint for a week, for a weeks money, and then assess the situation with the client. A product of the assessment would be to plan the next sprint (and no more). The idea is: Fix time and budget - Adjust scope. It goes much further than that, but the point is that software development is a very creative and collaborative process and not so different from vfx production in respect of the kind of disasters it attracts. The guys at "37 Signals" recently wrote a new book REWORK and I think it would be a great starting point on the road to recovery for the vfx industry.

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Small vfx companies- one of the factors the studios look at is how much load flexibility a company has. As you say many small companies are unable to deal with much rapid growth in terms of workstations, artists and management.

    I touch on some the multiple company issues in the VES handbook. Splitting it in a logical way that ideally keeps the work of each company somewhat separate makes things much easier.

    As covered in one of blog posts there are certainly some advantages to doing a time and materials style approach. I'm not so sure the studios would be open to testing out on a weekly basis but you never know. The problem is they have multimillion dollars invested and have a deadline. As the deadline get's closer they start panicking.

    As the saying goes "When you are up to your a** in alligators it is difficult to remind yourself your initial objective was to drain the swamp." Logical thinking on the part of the studio and vfx company can be at a premium at that point. It's all hands on deck.

  7. Hi Scott,

    This a great article. I work for a mid size VFX studio in Montreal Canada. Canada is beginning to see some of the same problems that the United States has seen for awhile; with regards to the way the industry is being treated. I think that you have summed it up perfectly here. The VFX being independent of the production is changing the way producers view the entire process. At Boogie Studio we are trying keeping our boutique style studio small; we have no real need or want to expand at this time.

    We charge for our change orders and try not to under bid our projects with our competitors. It’s very difficult in this competitive market but if all the small and mid size studios underbid one another, there will no one left making a profit. I am really not sure what the answer is to this problem that continues to grow.

    At Boogie Studio we are focused on creating high-end effects for the television/ online advertising industry for now. The movie business is over saturated at the moment and producers have some ridiculous expectations that seems to cause burn out amongst some of the best VFX professionals in the industry. I would love to hear what some of your readers think the solution will be to prevent VFX from becoming a cookie cutter operation and keep it as an artistic effort that has integrity and commands respect from producers and directors. Please check out some of the work as well as my blog about the VFX industry at


    Dale Bernier


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