Monday, April 30, 2012

Melies quote of artists and businessmen

This is a story from Georges Méliès, early film director and visual effects artist. The film HUGO covered part of his life and the VES (Visual Effects Society) uses his image of a Rocket in the face of the moon as it's icon.

Big cinema producer said to Melies one day "Your mistake is to see everything from an artist point of view. That's why you'll always just be an artist and not a businessman."

I replied quite calmly "Sir, this is the highest praise. If you businessmen didn't have us artists to create and perform I wonder what you could sell?"

For those interested be sure to check out the DVD - Melies the Magician. It's on Netflix and likely other sources as well.  Amazing amount of work and accomplishment in film.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Beyond 24fps

Peter Jackson has been shooting The Hobbit in 3D at 48fps*. Jim Cameron is looking at doing Avatar sequels at 60fps. The preview of some of The Hobbit footage this last  week caused some concern and confusion. I didn't see the footage but will describe some of the reasoning and history of why frame rates are being explored.

Doug Trumbull developed the Showscan process (60fps) years ago and I worked on some projects in it as well as projected the demos for awhile. It was actually 72fps when I started but we conducted tests with people wired up and there was a definite response to the higher frame rates. Most dramatic was 24 to 48 and then it started tapering down by 60 fps. Dogs and most animals see at a higher frame rate than people. Dogs would go crazy in the showscan theater in a way they don't in a regular theater.

Keep in mind when you're seeing something projected at 24fps the projector is showing the same image 2 or 3 times (48 or 72fps) to avoid you seeing flicker because the human eye can easily see 24fps changes. On film projectors they had multi-blade shutters to accomplish this. Also note that before sound fps was 16-18 and 24fps was determined as the slowest frame rate they could use with sound. It wasn't based on research for the best quality but the least expensive to make do. Just like the layout of the qwerty keyboard (standard keyboard used around the world) was simply base on the limits of the mechanics of the day (avoiding jammed keys) and not on best usage.

Doug showed a Showscan demo that had a roller coaster ride (like the This is Cinemarama demo decades before) and a log ride. The demo would start in 35mm 24fps and then would switch to 70mm 72fps. At that point the entire audience would feel the movement of the coaster and the sloshing of the log. It was in fact a very real and visceral experience. You were there. In the log ride there was a shot of a waterfall and of a duck flying up with water drops flipping off it's wings. At 24fps that scene has a blurred waterfall and very blurred wings which we expect for film because we're used to it.  A similar scene at 72fps you could see the full waterfall effect as if it were live and could see the wings of the bird just like you can in real life.

This is NOT the Saving Private Ryan look. This doesn't strobe and this isn't artificial. 

One of the demos he later showed was a projectionist behind the screen leaning on the screen and talking to the audience. Most people thought it was real.

This works great for simulator rides where you have action going on. I directed the Space Race simulator ride at ILM. We shot it on VistaVision but it was created for 60fps Showscan. If you saw the results converted to 24fps compared to true 60fps there was no comparison. In one you're watching a movie and in the other you're experiencing the movie. This is why most special venue films and simulator rides run at higher frame rates since they're not locked into a standard and since they want to provide a real experience.

For film it produced a grain free experience and with 70mm it showed everything so makeup and closeups could be problematic. Just as 4k resolution, higher frame rates give more of a sense of details for flaws on set are more readily apparent. As with 3D stereo, some of the old filmmaking cheats are less tolerated.

With 3D stereo you're relying on eye disparity. And with 24fps you actually get a lot of strobing for any image that moves sideways or during a pan. And that's one of the problems Cameron and Jackson are trying to solve by going to a higher frame rate.

So with 48 or 60fps you have a much more real and visceral experience. You tend to move or jump in your seat more during action sequences or POV shots because you're mind is no longer looking at an illusion projected up on the screen. Your subconscious mind is responding because it now believes much of what it's seeing is real. The difference of going 2k to 4k is much less than going from 24fps to 48 or 60fps. You can see the difference on any device, any size. Those with newer TV sets can get a pseudo feeling for this by switching on the 120fps or 240fps cinema mode. But realize this is a simulation, not real original images, and realize it's on a small screen compared to being 40 feet or more across.

Part of the problem is video was developed to run at higher frame rates. For years of course it was inferior in terms of quality and live events have a certain look. This includes soap operas. One of the main reasons for that look was the 60 fields per second. And that's why 24fps video, when it finally came, was overwhelming chosen by filmmakers because it had a look like 'film'. It wasn't because of lack of depth of field or film grain that caused the obvious difference of video to film. It was primarily the frame rate.

Had video been at 24fps it's much more likely audiences would be more welcoming to higher frame rates. As it is anything starting to resemble live video has a stigma attached. 

Because 24fps has a bit of an illusion to it and because we've been so ingrained by seeing so much of it all our lives, it provides a slightly dream like quality to this form of story telling. At higher frame rates action sequences will seem more real but likewise so will the people, acting and sets.  Will this make them appear more as soap operas for standard dialog scenes?  I suspect young people use to video games will have no difficulty adjusting but for most of the audience it may be a bigger jump.  

24fps may be like the qwerty keyboard that continues years beyond it was required simply because it formed a standard that everyone learned and is comfortable with, despite not being the most efficient.

Doug Trumbull is doing on going tests including up to 120 fps and hopes to show comparisons likely in the fall of 2012. The VES and other groups are working with Doug when he is ready for presentations. His new method also includes a much more effective means to convert down to other frame rates. His website provides more details on the history and reasoning of frame rates and the other issues he's been pushing (brighter projection, etc)

Here's a recent video interview with Doug,

As far as visual effects is concerned all of these newer processes (4k resolution, 3D stereo, higher frame rate) add more work and require more time. That's why the compression of post-production schedules combined with the desire from  the studios for more advanced effects work and the additional workload of these new technologies results in massive overtime and frustration of the visual effects crews.

3D stereo requires twice as much rendering and requires some tasks to be done twice. Some things that visual effects relied on, such as standard 2D matte paintings, can no longer be done in the same way.
Moving from 2k to 4k resolution results in 4 times the size of image data. That takes more time to render, composite, move files, etc and takes 4 times the amount of disk space.
Higher frame rates increase many of these tasks in proportion to the increase in frames. Many frame by frame hand work (and yes, believe or not people work by hand on individual movie frames) such as rotoscoping will obviously require more care. Hopefully splining and other other systems will minimize the additional frame specific work but there will always be some.

*FPS stands for Frames Per Second. These are the number of still images displayed in sequence in a second of time to create the illusion of motion.

[Update 12/2/2012  Just saw THE HOBBIT at 48fps. It  definitely reduced the stereo horizontal strobing that's common in stereo films and smoothed some of the fast action. There were a few odd shots in regard to motion. Some seemed to have been sped up in post.  A little sense of video in some of the earlier scenes but once the movie gets going it doesn't draw attention to itself but certainly added a bit more realism with the 3D and higher frame rate. I hope to see it again soon to review more fully at a close position to the screen. ]

[Update 12/13/2012  I do recommend people try to see it at 48fps with an open mind so you can decide yourself. This could be one of the only times you get the opportunity to see a full feature film at 48fps (if the results don't sit well with the studio they will not do it again)  
As I've covered elsewhere this of course is the first attempt to do a full film at this rate so there are bound to be issues that will have to be sorted out.  

Also in the future we may see variable fps films.  24fps for 'normal' scenes and then a shift to higher fps for action scenes,POV scenes or as a creative choice to different viewpoints or sequences just as directors choose at times with color grading or other manipulation.  Doug's film BRAINSTORM was supposed to show the brainstorm experiences at 60fps so they were different. Wizard of Oz has black and white until the Oz sequence. ]

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Visual Effects Union, take 2

(Update 4/23/2012 fixed missing BECTU link)

Yesterday there was an IA Union meeting with a number of visual effects artists. Most were from Sony Imageworks but there were others attending to get information firsthand regarding a possible visual effects union. The visual effects community received a fair bit of press regarding this including the Los Angeles Times articles here and here (retweeted by Roger Ebert), Hollywood Reporter, Deadline Hollywood, Cartoon Brew and VFXSoldier here and here.  The Animation Guild has posts related to this here, here and here.

Well now that the Visual Effects union is ramping up again, what’s next?

It looks like the IA is taking this more seriously now. (And don’t count IBEW out).  Evidently the IA has a website in progress but they will likely setup a temp site/blog regarding the visual effects union in the meantime.  [ IATSE Visual Effect Union website is now up ] They seem to realize the need to get with the new millennium and provide information on a website. They’ll even have a twitter account [ @vfxunion ] and likely do a visual effects podcast interview. [ podcast is here ]  They’ve asked the Animation Guild to help out in this process since they’re the closest specific union to visual effects and understand some of the issues better. The Animation Guild already covers animators at Disney and Dreamworks along with compositors and other artists.

I’ll cover a few things here but none of this is official, which is why a union website straight from the organizers would be a good thing. I had listed suggestions for the union here which they have reviewed along with a number of other blogs and input from artists directly.

A few artists from Sony Imageworks got the ball rolling and created their own website, SpiUnion. They actually have a number of questions and answers there which everyone should read. Sony Imageworks is somewhat unique in they are owned by a studio so indirectly at least they are connected to the decision makers and profit makers. Sony Pictures and Sony Animation are both union based but Imageworks (visual effects) is not. The IA will continue to have meetings with those interested from Imageworks. The notion is to be able to provide information and to help educate visual effects workers regarding what a union is, how it works and what the potential benefits are. This would be Union 101 because most visual effects workers have no direct knowledge or experience with unions.

The IA will likely have meetings around Los Angeles for visual effects workers who want information and have questions. These would cover many of the same issues as above.

I’ve covered much of this already in other posts but suspect I should repeat a few things here. I’m not a union rep so take these with a grain of salt. I urge those in the US to talk to a union rep to get clear answers about these and other questions you might have.

Visual effects was in fact covered by unions once upon a time. 
This simple statement still draws puzzling looks from workers and management. Suffice to say that until digital there was a fair bit of union coverage. Close Encounters and others shows were union. Union camera for models, optical printers, motion control, etc. Matte painters, model builders, animators, etc were all union. ILM was union. The transition of digital effects and the proliferation of companies resulted in non-union as the new normal.

‘This will be the nail in the coffin’ of the US visual effects industry. 
This old chestnut still lingers and is often repeated without considering what’s actually going on. The union knows there’s no point in going through this and burdening the visual effects companies with huge union costs. If added costs were to cause a company to close then it would be of no benefit to the union or workers. The union expects to work with each company and negotiate an arrangement that makes sense. It’s like SAG (actor’s union) which has different actor minimums depending on the type of project. Small, low budget short films have different rates than large studio productions.

There are a number of factors that go into deciding where the work goes including quality, availability, price, artists, and communication among others.

What does a union mean to a US visual effects worker?
The union should be able to provide reasonable health care coverage that is continuous when you move from one union company to another as you work on projects.  You still have to put in so many hours to qualify for health care but you don’t have to start from scratch with each company. In addition you get a pension, vacation and a few other benefits.

The union would enforce some basics such as working conditions and minimum wages for given categories. Misclassifications, payroll scams that charge workers, unpaid interns, uncompensated overtime, missing payroll and other problems would be dealt with.

As a union member you would vote on who represents you just like other unions. This means visual effects people would be involved in overseeing the union.

As an individual you have very little power. If you don’t like something or aren’t paid (such as some in Montreal experienced) there’s not much you can do by yourself. You can talk to management or quit. As a union member you would have collective bargaining. If you’re part of a union there’s strength in numbers to ask for reasonable things. If a shop misses payments then the threat of the entire crew leaving gives the company an incentive to correct their problems.

Standardization of titles would also be likely to happen.  People would be less likely to be given fictional titles (higher or lower than their true involvement).

Visual effects workers would at least achieve some parity with the rest of those working in movies and television. Which may help to gain some respect.

How can the union deal with all the different jobs involved in visual effects?
The current notion is this would be a visual effects union which would cover the entire range of work and which would allow flexibility. Since the guidelines and contracts will be written up with visual effects people, these are areas that would be fleshed out.

How much does it cost to be in the union? 
The IA has stated that if you’re with a company that becomes union then they will wave the initiation fees. Most dues are a few hundred dollars a year. Check the SPiUnion site for some of the specifics. In any case the dues are a very tiny fraction of your pay and the benefit obtained by being in the union vastly outweigh the costs. Compare the cost of individual health care with the cost of union dues and that will become very clear.

What about profit sharing?
The IA already shares some of the profits from the studios. The studios have to put in a percentage of profits into the health and welfare fund. It’s the basis for much of the Hollywood unions health coverage.  And visual effects is one of the few groups working on films and television that get no profit sharing currently.

What about outsourcing?
The union can’t stop outsourcing. Most outsourcing is based on tax incentives of different countries and areas. One of the best things that could happen to the visual effects industry is for all tax incentives to go away so all companies are competing based on quality, efficiencies, cost and other factors they control, not a politician. The union can lobby the US or state government to provide tax incentives or they can lobby the WTO to stop tax incentives but those are difficult battles.  In the end as long as politicians can convince the right people and those being taxed don't complain, incentives will continue.

What about a small company with no benefits and no overtime compensation?
Well there would obviously be some costs involved for the company. Right now you as a worker at this type of company are absorbing all of those costs directly. Anytime you’re misclassified, working free overtime or having to pay all your own health insurance you’re absorbing more than many people are in other jobs. Why should you bear the brunt of poor management? Is there a reason you wish to fund the company by personally paying for what most jobs pay for? It may simply be a matter of balancing the company pay rates and what they contribute.

What does a visual effects union mean to those in other countries?
There’s been some suggestion for a worldwide union for visual effects workers but the complexities and differences in laws and regulation across multiple countries makes a true international union unworkable. The IA does have a presence in Canada and there is a visual effects union there as well. (IA891)  In this case there may be some type of mutual agreements for those who move between areas that some of the coverage might be able to continue. In the UK there is an entertainment union called BECTU. I don’t know anything about it but those interested could investigate.

One impact on even those in another country is a visual effects union here in the US would provide at least a frame of reference in terms of working conditions and other factors. You can always ask for some of these same types of things in your deal memos or at least know where you stand.

What does it mean for the companies?
If a company already has health care for employees this may prove to be less expensive since it’s funded in part by studio profits and the union has thousands of members so the insurance rates are likely less than a medium shop with 100 people. As noted previously the union will want to avoid being a financial burden on companies.

The union would also likely provide some reassurance regarding the ability of the people in the union. The International Cinematographers Guild has classes and certifications as new equipment and positions start up. A visual effects union could do something along the same lines.

Given a choice between working on similar projects at a union company (with continuous benefits and known working conditions) and a nonunion company, most workers would prefer to work at the union company. That’s an incentive to get and keep good people.

What does it mean for the studios?
The majority of people working on movies and television are already union based. From directors and writers to the grips and wardrobe department. So this shouldn’t be out of the ordinary for them. Again if the union adds an unreasonably cost of doing business to the companies or studios then it will be unlikely to be successful. But the studios are used to negotiating and certainly aware of all the various unions and what’s required.

What about a visual effects trade association?
A trade organization is meant for companies, not workers.
The union does nothing to prevent a trade association from forming. In some ways it may encourage the companies to form an association so they can negotiate as a group with the union. Rather than continuing to wait for a visual effects associate to form, visual effects workers can take control over their situation and proceed if they wish to support a union.

What about the VES?
The VES is an honorary society to help educate and honor visual effects. Part of what it’s been attempting to do the last year or so is to make up for the fact there is no union or trade association. If either of these existed then the VES would focus on it’s origin mandate and help as necessary in other areas.

[ More info: IATSE Visual Effect Union website ]

[Update 12/3/2012  There was a VES sponsored event regarding VFX Union with a panel of people both pro/con union, including a representitive from the union.  fxGuide has a write up of the meeting. Video should be available at some time in future at the VES website for members. And yes, the auto industry was mentioned.]

[Update: Film Unions info ]

Related post with more details:
Visual Effects Guilds

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Digital Domain plans to have paying students make up 30% of workforce

[Update: 9/15/2012 DD has now closed their Florida facility. Some of the classes have been put on hold and certainly students won't be working at the DD facility as planned. But the post is still useful read since it clarifies some of the attempts to take advantage of workers, students and the visual effects industry]

In case you haven’t already been made aware of this Digital Domain (DD) is starting up a school in Florida which is funded by the Florida State government. I won't do a detailed recap here since that's already more than well covered on other sites. And thanks to VXFSoldier from bringing this up.

For more info and to see an extraordinary video: (I urge you to read the comments as well since most commentors make valid points. Check out Dave Rand’s comments as well.)

DD "Free labor is much better than cheap labor"  - VFXSoldier
"Paying to work for free" business model  - VFXSoldier
Questions and Reactions  - VFXSoldier
LA Times on DD Institute  - VFXSoldier
Paying to work for free - Motionographer
CEO brags about exploiting animation students - CartoonBrew
Free labor! - TAG, Animation Guild
Working = money, right? - Canadian Animation Resources

DD will be making money off of the students ($105k tuition) in a for profit school (as other most for profits- turning out more visual effects graduates than there are openings). But the additional kicker is they setup a studio in Florida where 30% of the workforce will be made up of students.

For those who might think that would be good for the students and don’t see the harm:
1. it is against Federal law to have interns and others working for free doing work that is productive (i.e actually paying positions).

2. The reason this is a law because any business could simply staff up with non-paying positions (interns, students, experienced… doesn’t matter). There are enough people hungry for certain types of jobs that would be happy doing them for nothing. Businesses would be more than happy having free labor, even if it meant more poverty. That’s why there are also minimum wage laws. (unfortunately they’re still below the poverty line). In a perfect world businesses would be a balance of making great products or services, making money and treating people fairly. In the real world today the name is greed. In days past a mom and pop store tried to be responsible and to consider the consequences. Today most companies are owned by stock holders and investors who’s one and only focus is squeezing more of a return out of company. The CEOs and others in management fall in line so they can get their slice of the pie too. They take no responsibility for these types of actions and simply blame it on the shareholders.

3. These students are paying a lot of money to work there. So they’re not just working for free, they’re paying to work. Double bonus for Digital Domain to get paid by clients and workers.

4. Once it becomes possible for a visual effects company to staff up to 30% of their labor with students paying to do so, it’s possible for not only other visual effects companies to do so, but any other company to do so.

5. If 30% of the work force are students paying to work, why would companies hire people? Why should they hire you, an experienced visual effects worker, when they can get someone better than free?

6. This leads to the question of where all these graduates will be working. They’ve paid$105,000 to do this and likely taken out loans to do so. They expect to be hired since they’ve be taught specifically in visual effects. DD in Florida will already be staffed up. They have a steady stream of students paying every year so there will be little need for them to hire these graduates.

7. DD can now offer a 30% discount on any work done in Florida. Actually more than a 30% discount since they’re getting money from the students. How will other visual effects companies compete? Why starting their own students paying workforce of course!

In the end this means more imbalanced competion for both companies and workers.
This means lower of rates for all companies and all visual effects workers and actually creates less opportunities for new graduates. The only one to profit from this is DD and only in the short term. Florida will gain little and spent a great deal of tax money that could have been used productively.

To potential students:
There are much cheaper ways to become educated in visual effects if that’s what you want. There are online classes, books, DVD’s, etc. There’s no need to go 10’s of thousands of dollars in debt if all you want is visual effects education. If you want to get a college diploma that’s fine and serves it’s purpose but beware of those offering it.

Getting into visual effects is hard. The visual effects industry is going through some rough transitions currently. Be ready to move elsewhere. No school can guarantee employment.

All that stuff about getting credit on films, etc. - Forget it. These days politicians, CEOs and Hollywood produce far more BS than the world needs. Those of us who have been working for a while have seen far too many examples of unkept promises and sugar coating. Don’t be suckered for these.

The CEO is surprised that more visual effects workers aren’t jumping at the chance to pickup and move to Florida. They’re not jumping because most of us know the drill. The lure of working in another place with an unknown future. Sure, we’ll be more than happy to sell our homes, uproot our family, say goodbye to friends and move. And at the end of that project when they don’t have much work you’re laid off. And without many other visual effects companies in the area you’re forced to return to where you moved from. No thanks.
[Update: 9/10/2012 Unfortunately this came true. The DD studio in Florida has closed down and the workers there were laid off without warning and without severance pay. From what I gather most had moved there from other locations, many selling their homes. These unfortunate workers are now in a location without other similar jobs so they will likely have to move back to where they were or to another location. Moving is not cheap, especially if you have a house of furniture and possessions. And trying to find a new job in this industry is not easy. ]

The CEO actually talks about VFX being a dying industry and is expecting you to work on military or medical projects after graduating. This comes after they’ve sold you on the dream of working on Hollywood movies. Most of us got into visual effects because we wanted to create content and work on films and tv projects. While I applaud the use of visual effects technology to help with medical causes, you should be aware of the distinction. For an animator who wants to bring characters to life it’s a much different job if you’re animating a heart or military aircraft. The CEO makes the mistake that labor is simply a commodity. If you went to school to be a painter of fine art, would you be happy when the school says at the end: “Sorry, there’s not much call for fine artists but there is a large need for house painters. Enjoy it.”

Those who live in other countries may think this has nothing to do with them. As I’ve said before, we’re all connected at this stage. If there’s a major change in pay or working conditions somewhere in the world regarding visual effects, then it will likely affect you sooner than you think. That 30% discount that DD can now offer is on par with many tax incentives. That alone could shift the balance. 30% of labor that pays to work will cause a downward spiral in pay. And the company you work for and the studios will point that out and say that you will have to follow suit. “After all, we have to remain competitive”. And around it goes.

I urge all visual effects workers to step away from their workstations for a moment and check in with the rest of the world. There’s a lot going on. I know it’s great focusing on what you’re doing but there are large changes in progress throughout the world that will affect you and your future. You can’t simply ignore it all and hope it never affects you.

You should also educate yourself on unions and trade associations. Please don’t fall prey to the stereotypes or the paid for misinformation. There are pros and cons of each of these and you should be aware each has different goals.

Some of the things that are happening to the industry you work in, hopefully doing what you love, should make you angry. It should make you sit up and take notice. If that’s the case, make yourself heard. If you have thoughts, opinions, solutions, make yourself heard. If you know of problems let yourself be heard. The internet and social media has opened up and connected us in ways not possible before.

For those you would like to speak out about what DD is doing in Florida, contact and tell them what you think.

Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education:
Wage & Hour division of the Department Of Labor:

Bonus: Should I work for free chart

Other sites of interest:
ImageWorks artists in support of a better VFX Industry - SPiUnion - info about unions and other things

Game of Aeron Chairs: A song of beer and pixels - tk1099 on vfx unions and movement

Supermodel sets up an Alliance with Bill of Rights and push for health care and better working conditions.
Initial story
Alliance site

In the last few months car washes, sandwich places and now supermodels are either unionizing or creating a group to at least represent them and help improve their situation.
What about us?