Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why do visual effects costs so much?

Why do visual effects costs so much?

This question comes up constantly even from those who should know better. Many simply wish to ignore the reasons. If you haven’t done so yet please read The Value of Visual Effects post to put this perspective. Discussing costs doesn’t mean anything unless you place a value on it.

Here is a typical response in Hollywood:

Peter Berg, Director of BATTLESHIP, was interviewed on a podcast recently.

Berg: But the money is all going to… the business to be in is ILM. That’s whose making all the money..

Masters: The effects houses.

Berg: Yeah in particular ILM. I mean and they do great work but its what these films cost because you’ve got these giant visual effects components and they dictate the prices on them.

There a number of flaws in this thinking.

Myth 1: Visual effects are the majority of the costs. This may or may not be true depending on the specific project. Normally visual effects are less than 1/2 of the project even for 'visual effects films'. 1/5 to 1/3 is a more likely scenario. But if a movie is made almost entirely with visual effects in every shot and they’re complex visual effects it will be a correspondently larger portion of the budget.

Myth 2: High costs means high profits. Just because a line item is expensive doesn’t mean that there is a corresponding profit. Amount of costs and profit are independent issues. Just as a movie itself may be expensive but that doesn’t guarantee a huge profit.

Myth 3: ILM or any other visual effects company dictate the prices. Obviously they have to quote a price but they can hardly charge whatever they wish or make huge mark-ups. The market doesn’t allow it.  If that price is too high the studios simply go elsewhere.

Myth 4: All visual effects have huge mark-ups and profits. Even in the days before digital effects producers were all convinced that visual effects companies were raking them over the coals because they had what the producers wanted. Producers were (and still are) convinced visual effects companies were simply adding huge markups because they could. These people are convinced if they only knew some of the mystic technobabble they could get the work done for a fraction of the price.

Short version: Visual Effects is incredibly time consuming and labor intensive work done for very little profit. In some cases it may actually cost less for the studio than the real costs incurred. Changes and compressed schedules  increase the costs further.

Related posts:
Visual Effects are inexpensive
The Miracle of Visual Effects

Full version:
Visual effects is a very competitive market worldwide. There are a lot of visual effects companies and all of them eager to get work so competition alone does not allow any company to have huge mark-ups.

The visual effects industry suffers from tax incentives in other states and countries. Some as much as 40% off. Note that these figures are not reduction of taxes but actually funds applied directly or indirectly to a movie. That means it’s not a level completive field and any visual effects company in California has to drop their prices if they wish to compete with other companies on the basis of price. Many visual effects companies actually underbid the work when required to try to keep money coming in. This means in some cases it’s costing the studio less than it actually costs. Same thing with the tax incentives. In those cases the local tax payers are in fact helping to fund the movie and thereby lower the studios expense for the visual effects.

The amount of work for visual effects companies fluctuates widely so when it’s all said and done on a yearly basis most visual effects companies make razor thin profits or may be further in debt. Many visual effects companies have gone out of business. Some of the ones still operating do so because they have the backing of a large corporation or individual with deep pockets. Some companies are able to stay afloat because they are in a country or area with tax incentives. There’s good work done all around the world and price is not the only factor studios look at but the visual effects industry would be much different if there were no tax incentives.

If visual effects were really such a profit center the studios and investors would be breaking down the door to buy or create their own visual effects companies. Some studios have had their own visual effects departments in the past. Disney had Secret Lab and Image Movers at different times. They closed both. The only major studio currently with a visual effects component is Sony with their Sony Imageworks. Sony had moved a number of jobs to Albuquerque, New Mexico a few years ago in an attempt to get in on the New Mexico tax incentives. They’ve now closed that and are moving many jobs to Vancouver for the tax incentives there. There may be a future where all visual effects for Hollywood based movies are all done out of this country simply due to tax incentives. This is the outsourcing that isn’t talked about.

See the Digital Domain IPO documents showing one of the more successful California companies. They’re trying to make animated films, getting involved in for profit schools and getting money from Florida in an attempt to make money since visual effects is not cutting it for them.

[Update: 7/21/2012  New Digital Domain news item
Textor said investors are punishing Digital Domain because of the low-margin nature of its visual effects business.
In the first quarter of 2012, Digital Domain reported a loss of $14.8 million on revenue of $31.1 million.  

Digital Domain is one of the largest and more successful visual effects businesses in the U.S. And it lost $14.8 million in a single quarter. Hardly the idea of a big profit center. What if they had billed the full out of pocket costs? ]

[Update: 9/11/2012 Digital Domain has closed it's Florida facility and has spun off their visual effects group for a much smaller amount and filed for chapter 11 for the main holding company. This after going with a full IPO less than a year ago. No, visual effects is not a big profit center. ]

Most of the larger animation companies create their own content and receive the profits from how well the films do. Visual effects companies at times have a small percent of a film but most of the time the companies are doing work for hire.

Live Action Movies:
The blame for high priced movies seems to be placed directly on visual effects by some people but lets look at non-visual effects films.
Why are movies so expensive to make even without visual effects?

That’s a common question for laypeople. Why should it costs millions to make a movie let alone $100 million or more? How long can it possibly take to shoot a 2 hour movie? And isn’t it all done by a handful of movie people?

A movie typically takes a year to make from green light (approved funding) to theaters. That’s after possibly spending years in development. There’s a pre-production stage (building sets, casting, working on the script, finding locations, etc) that can be a few months, production (filming) can take 40 to 100+ shooting days. A 100 shooting day schedule is 20 weeks. The shoot days are the most expensive days of the film because there’s a large crew working so the more shoot days the more expensive the film, all things being equal. And time is the gold standard for shooting such that production is guiding the director to do it as quickly as possible and to remain on schedule. Once shooting is finished the film goes into post-production. This is when editing happens along with sound mixing, composing, recording of the music and this is when most of the visual effects work is done. This is also the most likely compressed stage since the movie has already been booked into theaters and that date cannot be changed. So studios tend to provide shorter post-production schedules than in the past. sometimes this requires the director to edit and lock sequences even before the filming is finished just so there is enough time to do the visual effects.

Even non-visual effects films can be very expensive. Ignore high actor salaries and marketing costs. Even looking at just below the line costs (crew) on a large production. Camera crew, grips, electrics, wardrobe, makeup,  audio crew, etc. And consider all the people not on the set that are required to make a movie - art dept. with carpenters, painters and others making sets, orchestra, sound mixers, sound effects, etc. Watch the credits of a large non visual effects film and see how many people are listed. Those are skilled, experienced, talented people being paid a reasonable rate for the services they provide in this freelance world. That’s hundreds of people. It’s as if you started a company, staffed it up and ran it for a year before any revenues appear. That’s expensive.

Few people actually sit down and consider the enormous cost of labor.  I’ll be making up some numbers so don’t take these as actuals or even averages. Let’s suppose we had 300 people working on a project at an average rate of $80,000 a year. The average income in the US in theory is around $30,000-$55,000 a year but most in the film industry don’t work full time over the year and this also has to take into account overtime which most jobs don’t have so don’t assume even someone making $80,000 rate ends up with $80,000 at the end of the year.  That’s 300 people at $320 a day = $96,000 a day in expenses just for labor. Now you can adjust the number of people or the income either way but the fact is labor is more expensive than most people realize. Even in this example that’s $480,000 a week (almost 1/2 million dollars) A 6 month project with these people will rack up $12 million just in labor costs. It would be $15 million if the average rate was $100,000. Add all the extras costs (building, supplies, support, rentals, etc) and adjust for overtime and work required. In the case of a movie add in the high priced talent, directors and other above the line costs along with transportation, locations, equipment and other costs as well as marketing.

Take a look at the company you work for. How many people work there and what’s their average pay? This will help you calculate how much money needs to be coming in just to break even on labor alone. Don’t forget most workers get benefits so the cost to the company per person is above and beyond just their rates.

The visual effects work:
Each visual effects shot (5-8 seconds typically) is unique. It's the same as having to do a complete new setup in live action which requires changing the camera position and the lighting. In many cases even shots can be equivalent to the doing a full 'company' move where the live action crew has to travel and setup at a new location. a time consuming and expensive process.

In a previous article I noted that shots are like snowflakes since no two are identical.  I compared them to oil paintings. Another analogy is to consider the visual effects crew is constructing a building based on nothing but a sketch on the back of a napkin and the specifics of where walls go and what carpet is selected for each different room is in constant flux. Creativity combined with technically challenging work, fixed bids, changes and deadlines does not make the process easy. I don't think there is another industry like visual effects that has this same type of business model.

Visual Effects expenses:
Beyond what most businesses have as basic expenses (buildings, desks, basic services, etc) visual effects companies have to provide at least one high end computer per worker. These tend to be top of the line fast computers with a lot of memory, large hard disks and advanced graphics cards and graphics tablets. Each needs  to be loaded with high end graphics software. In addition there’s typically at least one large room with racks and racks of computers for rendering the images you see. These are the render farms and usually have special power and air conditioning needs that make them very expensive. All of these computer systems require advanced and costly wiring along with an IT department to support it all. Hundreds or thousands of shots at 24 high resolution images a second times dozens of elements equates to a lot of storage space that needs to be maintained and archived to avoid losing critical work.

Visual effects companies have screening rooms and editors with editing systems so they can be synced to the production. They have special security systems as mandated by the MPAA to keep all studio materials under safeguards. Many companies have at least a small insert stage to shoot elements and odds and ends as required. A visual effects company may also have a motion capture stage, 3D scanners and model shop or have to sub-contract this type of work when required.

Hidden crew:
But even with these expenses the labor is the largest cost for doing visual effects. This labor is the hidden crew. Most directors and producers seldom see much of the visual effects crew because these crews work away from the studio. Even for those directors that visit the  companies they likely only see part of the crew and since most visual effects these days are spread out over multiple companies (shorter time schedules) the work is being done all over the world (thanks in part to tax incentives).

On a live action set most of the crew is standing there, ready to work. It’s obvious that decisions need to be made to keep these people productive and there is a schedule for what needs to be accomplished everyday. Since most of the visual effects crew is out of sight, they’re out of mind. There’s a disconnect to making decisions and changes and what that relates to in terms of costs and time. On a set if the director turns the other way and wants an elaborate set built the cost and crew time is evident to all. In many cases the notion may be dismissed as not being worth it. A director is constantly making decisions and makes a number of compromises at all steps of production. Should the director shoot another 10 takes of the actor to try to get a better take? Should they try a totally different angle or camera move? Make adjustments to the set? At some point the director has to move on if they want to make their day and complete the film in the number of shooting days budgeted.

But none of that is evident when working with visual effects. Adding a 100 shots or doing 100 takes of an animation only takes a request. What impact it has on the schedule and costs is seldom considered. Because of the competitive nature of visual effects and the fact that the number of potential clients (the studios) is less than a dozen, companies forego many change orders, thereby lowering the price of doing the actual visual effects work even more.

And this is another disconnect. Just about everyone else working on a production is  employed by the production company directly. Should they be required to work more days or hours they tend to be paid. And crew members are union members except for visual effects workers. Visual effects people are primarily employed by a visual effects companies and not the production companies. Most are freelance and have to switch projects to keep working. Artists may or may not be paid overtime. They also may or may not get benefits. All depends on the company and location.

Color correcting, making film prints and other services are done at a lab. Sound mixing is done at a sound company. These types of companies typically work on a time and material basis. If the director wishes to spend another day making adjustments then that cost is obvious and billed accordingly. A visual effects company bids on a fixed bid even with partial information. Even with accepted change orders this tends to whittle down any planned profits.

Visual effects crew size:
The number of people working on visual effects varies with the scope of the work. It's not unusual for a major visual effects film to require hundreds or more people. On larger projects the size of the visual effects can easily eclipse the size of the rest of the crew. Next time you're at a large visual effects film sit through the entire credit list. There are a lot of people listed under visual effects. And usually there will be quite a few companies listed. Note that you won't actually see the full list of all visual effects people who worked on a film. The end credits is usually a partial list since the studios only allow so many credits to each company depending on the contracts. There may be people from visual effects not listed that worked for a year but it's likely someone who was an assistant to an assistant getting coffee for a week on the set is in the credits.

What do all of these people do:
(I'll have a post in the future listing the various positions. The Visual Effects Society lists over 200 job titles) [Update: Here's that post that sits many, but not all, key positions. In some cases there may be a few dozen people in the same position, working on different shots. ]

A visual effects company is like a mini-studio with a wide range of artists and craftspeople.  In pre-production artists are drawing and designing, modelers are sculpting every set, actor, prop and location required to be rendered. Everything is built from scratch. Every computer graphics actor or creature needs a skeleton and skin that moves correctly. Texture painters are painting everything down to the finger nail or leaf. Specialists are focused on how the clothing moves.

If the project was shot on film a small team will be going through every frame and painting out the dirt. Yes, there are a number of jobs in visual effects that require working on every frame. By hand. Others are hand tracing actors in specific scenes so new backgrounds can be replaced. Anywhere something had to be removed (stunt rig, etc) needs someone to hand paint it out. Remember that film is running at 24 images a second. Visual effects on a 2 hour movie could be  a lot of frames (172,800 frames). Most movies probably around 2000 shots - visual effects films likely have at least 500 or more shots. In some cases every shot in the film is worked on.

Match movers have to create a computer camera that exactly matches what the real camera did. Animators have to animate any computer graphics actors or creatures. Lighters and others will have to light scenes just like a cinematographer. All of these images have to be calculated and rendered. And then compositors work to combine all of these images into the final shot to be used in the movie. In addition visual effects requires a supervisor, producer, editor and numerous other support people.

Visual effects time:
Visual effects is one of the first departments involved on a project in pre-production  (or should be ) and continues until the end of post-production. This can be a year or more on large projects. Remember that a large animation film probably averages 3 years. Post-production time is frequently being squeezed into 4 to 9 months. Because post-production time is less than it used to be most of the crews start working overtime from the start. The films release date is locked so it's not unusual for the last few weeks or even months require working 80+ hour work weeks. 24 hour work days are not unheard of.

The question of computers comes up as well. Don't computers do all the work anyway? NO. A camera doesn't film a scene by itself and a word processor doesn't write a script. The computer is simply a tool. And no, there is no magic button on the keyboard to do the work.

Computers are getting faster so why aren't visual effects a lot cheaper and faster to make? Just as a faster computer doesn't allow a writer to now create a novel in a day it doesn't allow a visual artist to do a shot in a shorter time. Much of the time is spent thinking, planning and working. Any speed ups or reduction in costs due to improvements of techniques and people is eclipsed by the next project since it requires more shots that are even more complex in a shorter period of time. Many movies are about taking it up to the next notch for the audience. That next notch absorbs any gains. Newer requirements also demand extra time and labor - 3D, 4k resolution, and/or higher frame rates.

Base cost:
All of this totals up to a  large price to have a very large crew of very talented, skilled and experienced people working long hours over this length of time. Consider  that the companies had to provide a fixed bid based on how many people and how much time was required, simply based on storyboards and some previs. (rough animations) They also have to estimate how much a new and never before seen effect for the film will cost. Calculated in these budgets is the assumption of how many takes will be required by the director.

The reality:
If the company estimated 4 takes per shot it's just as likely the director will require 12 takes for every shot. And that's just the start of things that happen to the 'profits' of visual effects. On a location in a forest clearing the director may decide to replace the sky for the entire sequence. Seems a simple enough task given all the other work the companies are doing but now people have to try to separate the existing sky in every shot. Some of that may be possible using semi-automated techniques but more than likely it will require a team of rotoscopers (artists who trace to create mattes). Every leaf and branch needs to be traced and any actor (and their hair) have to be separated. Maybe a prop doesn't work. That's added to the list as well to be added or replaced later in visual effects. If a stunt or special effects action doesn't quite work or isn't as big as the director wanted, that's added to the visual effects shot list.

When projecting the dailies in a theater after the shoot is finished, the studio may notice they don't care for the makeup or may spot wig netting or other flaws in the footage. That's added to the list of visual effects shots. Boom mics and crew members in shots are also added to the list. Some shots that were originally planned to have no visual effects now require them based on the edit. Based on test screenings there may be a need for reshoots or new scenes to be shot. Since the sets may have been struck or the actors may not have time to go back the location, these are shot as greenscreens with the visual effects company responsible to add the backgrounds and match all the other footage.

There are times when visual effects are held to a different standard than live action. On a location if a stunt car rolls over for a couple of takes the director may accept it and move on. The shot works fine in the movie. It may not be exactly what the director had in mind but it tells the story. Since visual effects can control everything down to the pixel with precise adjustment the director and studio may wish to tweak and adjust down to the last minutia. If the stunt car was done as a visual effects shot it may be requested to make it roll 6 frames earlier and to roll 5 degrees more. On the 20th take it may be decided to hit a specific parking meter which needs to bend at a specific angle.

Most of this feedback and the changes requested are sent to the hidden visual effects crews. Since these people are seldom seen (with the exception of some people in Skype conferences) it's easy to lose sight of the labor costs being incurred daily. Also unseen is the amount of work and overtime being put in to making the visual effects.

The need to get all of the shots done by the finals deadline drives the pacing. It's easy to spend months on a small number of shots and tweak them and then end up rushing the last batch of shots. The quality of visual effects shots in most cases is directly proportional to the time allowed to finish and polish them. Rushed shots will have flaws and that's why companies sometimes push for a CBB (Could Be Better) shot status. It's not perfect but it can work in the movie. If time permits some or all of these will revisited but that's better than the alternative of tweaking shots the first batch of shots and having a week to finish half the movie.

Remember this all started with a fixed bid for a specific number of shots in a specific time frame. The deadline never changes so the companies now find themselves having to do many more visual effects shots with increased complexity all in the same time frame. In some cases there may be clear changes that enable submitting change orders. But in many cases such as increased noodling and takes, it's a gray area. That tends to erode much of the profits the company was able to build into the original bid.

The amount of work flowing into a visual effects company can also fluctuate a lot. They may finish a very large project and then have a few months with no or little work. Many of the crew are laid off but there's still a need to keep a core team along with paying for all the overhead costs. Any profits made on projects will have to pay for these lulls in production.

Extra costs:
But that's not the end of the story. Many decisions may be delayed. There's usually no one keeping the post-production moving in the manner that the live action was. Sequences aren't turned over while edits and re-edits are done. The studio and director may have conflicting ideas. Test screenings popup with little notice. Results of test screenings require more changes. Sequences are added. Shots and sequences that had been approved 2 months earlier need to be redone with major changes. In some cases the majority of the visual effects happen in the last month or two of the film. What had been scheduled for 6 months must now be done in a fraction of that time and it must be done well. The deadline remains fixed since it must be in theaters as scheduled. And it's not like they can just hire another 1000 people to help out at that stage and make up for the added work. No, the original team will have to put even more hours a day and work 7 days a week. The more hours worked the lower the productivity of the workers. Some work may be farmed out to other companies when possible as 911 emergency calls are made. But that comes with a price of time and money as those companies get up to speed.

To put this in perspective think how much it would cost a live action production to scrap a month of shooting and be required to build new sets and reshoot on new sets, all in the period of a week.

If the artists are compensated for the overtime then prices really start to skyrocket. And more than likely after this big push most of these artists will be laid off until the next rushed project comes through the door.

And that is why visual effects cost so much.

Related posts:
Visual Effects are inexpensive
The Miracle of Visual Effects
Visual Effects - The Big Picture
VFX Business Models
How VFX is perceived by at least one DP
People, not computers, create visual effects
Getting the most out of your VFX Budget

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Value of Visual Effects

The Value of Visual Effects

There’s often discussions about the costs of visual effects. But for now let’s take a look at something seldom discussed and that’s the value of visual effects.

What are the benefits of visual effects? - Story telling freedom.
Freedom for filmmakers, writers and directors to tell any story they like.  Humans have been telling stories since communication made it possible. Verbal and written story telling can and does cover everything imaginable. A writer has full freedom to do anything including having their main character turn into a giant cockroach. Myths from around the world describe actions and creatures that don't exist in real life. Even the Bible has a number of stories that would be difficult to realize beyond the written word and paintings.

The various mediums of story telling all have their place and good stories are tailor made for each medium. Converting a novel to a film script takes specific writing skills to boil the essence down to 2 hours. It also means that writer descriptions that would form images in the readers mind now need to be generated in photographic reality for the movie viewer.

Visual effects
Visual effects have been used in films almost from the beginning of movies. Méliès used visual effects extensively in the early 1900's. (More info on Méliès) Since that time visual effects have been used frequently and not just for special purposes. Some movies used matte paintings to add ceilings that were non-existent on the sets. Visual effects continued to evolve and provide sights not viable to actually film. Their style tended to be in keeping with the film styles of the day (shooting outdoor scenes on sets, rear projection, etc). But visual effects were not without their limits. Camera moves and other restrictions were simply due to the limits of the technology at that time.

With the advent of digital and computer graphics as tools for visual effects, artists are now able to have full control over their images in a way not possible before. These are in addition to their toolbox of previous techniques including models and miniatures when desired.

Almost all films coming out of Hollywood use visual effects to some extent and even many independent films have visual effects. Keep in mind that visual effects is not just for science fiction and fantasy films. They can be used extensively in period films and even in present day comedies. FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT used visual effects. WAR HORSE used visual effects extensively including some of the field shots, leaping horse, etc. FOREST GUMP showed an actor missing a leg.

Visual effects cover such things as:

Creating entirely virtual shots
Changing the background
Creating the background
Adding actors, characters or creatures
Changing actors
Adding objects or props
Removing objects
Obscuring objects
Specialized speed changes
Fixing problems on the set, adding eye effects, removing wig netting, etc.

The visual effects team works closely not only with the director but also the cinematographer. Working with the production designer we can expand the sets that are built or build sets that would be impossible to build for real. Working with the stunt team we can remove their rigs (car ramps, wires), help to provide the visuals needed while trying to maintain reasonable safety and can extend or create a stunt if it’s not possible. Working with the special effects* team we can hide their rigs if required and expand and enhance what they’re able to provide. Working with the wardrobe department we can expand the capabilities of their costumes when required (IRON MAN, BLACK SWAN, etc) Each of these departments are very helpful in providing visual effects with what we require to get the best material.

Visual effects is normally focused on the augmentation or modification of live action but visual effects artists and tools are also used for:

Computer graphics animated films (Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony Animation, etc)
Video games
2D to 3D conversion
Special venues and multimedia (in addition of course to films, television and commercials)

Now to those of you who may hate visual effects or computer graphics keep in mind you’ve already seen an incredible number of visual effects shots and never even noticed. Much of the work done is not over the top theatrics. In many cases it’s to allow productions the option of shooting something elsewhere or to fix problems on the set (boom mics, makeup, etc). Even television shows like Ugly Betty did a couple of years with green screen to place the characters in New York. Unlikely that most viewers even noticed.

Next time you watch a period film consider that many of the buildings you see may not exist or may be currently covered in tv satellite dishes. The bay you see in the background filled with ships was likely added.

Visual effects artists and craftspeople have been developing and refining their tools for decades. Digital Intermediates (DI) is used for color correcting films. These and many of the digital tools that film productions use daily were pioneered by visual effect artists.

So we are now at a point where just about anything that can be imagined can be created on the screen and look good. Realistic when required or fantastical when required depending on the production.

When visual effects don’t look good these days it’s likely:

Too little time (changes or additions to visual effects from the director or studio can happen up to the final week of work). This means there’s no final polish or in many cases not even a chance to do a good take. And these days many productions start with too little time to begin with.
Selecting a visual effects company or people that may not be up to the task or lack experience with specific aspects.
Poor shot design
Poor creature design
Not being able to shoot the required elements as planned
Not enough time on set to gather necessary images and data

In the end studios no longer have to leave scripts on the shelf for years because they’re not doable (DRAGONHEART, WATCHMEN, BENJAMIN BUTTON, LORD OF THE RINGS, etc). Directors and writers have complete freedom to bring their imagination to the screen and to tell just about any story in the manor they wish to. At least as far as visual effects is concerned.

The amount of control and freedom for a director is almost unlimited. That along with the fact many movies are concerned with pushing the envelope creates some sequences where the believability is pushed too far. Where the onslaught of in your face imagery causes audience overload or eye rolling. This happens with stunts and special effects when they are pushed too far as well and the audience says ’oh come on’.


In addition to allowing filmmakers freedom of story and flexibility to change or modify scenes, visual effects certainly help the studio’s bottom line. Film is a visual medium that can be shown and appreciated all over the world. Visual effects can provide unique worlds, views and characters that ignite the imagination of those that see them. They can provide the spectacle that goes with specific types of stories.

If you look at the top box-office list of 25 or 50 films you’ll notice almost all of them required visual effects and in many cases they are full of visual effects.

Here's US top films
Here's the Worlds top films

Hard to find non-visual effects films, especially in the world list.

Studios choose to visual effects heavy films as tent pole films because they’re profitable. With some of the top films earning over a billion dollars the sum total of successful films in which visual effects played a significant role is staggering.

[Note that I’m not saying all films need visual effects or that the film world revolves around visual effects. I’m a fan of well told stories of all types. I’m simply documenting the current state of visual effects and what the potential is. Visual effects do not make a story better or worse, just that they allow bringing certain types of stories to the movies.]

A world without visual effects
Try to imagine many of the top films without visual effects. STAR WARS without space, spaceships, lasers. TRANSFORMERS without the Transformers. The MATRIX without bullet time and impossible physics. AVATAR without it’s world, without it’s plants, creatures and Na ‘vi. TITANIC without the water and the entire ship. ALICE IN WONDERLAND without the world and characters. HARRY POTTER without the magic. JURASSIC PARK without the dinosaurs.

Look at this year so far - AVENGERS, SPIDERMAN, MEN IN BLACK 3, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, BRAVE, PROMETHEUS and a number of other films with 5 months still to go.

It’s hard to begin to imagine these films without visual effects. Needless to say these films would have not done nearly as well without visual effects. It’s likely they wouldn’t have been attempted without visual effects. Showing an actor saying ‘You should see what I’m seeing right now, it’s fantastic’, seeing actors jumping around in front of a green screen or painted cyc or adding a Prologue at the start of a film to ignore certain aspects (such as tv dishes in a period film) would not tend to make for a great movie going experience. A play, musical or opera tend to be confined to a live stage and as such the audience accepts the limits as they’re presented. These days however most film audiences are looking for a sense of reality in the movies (even if the movie is a fantasy).

As we can see visual effects provide both monetary and creative advantages to the studios and filmmakers. They play a very important role, especially today, in not only the movie industry but in television, commercials and other content.

Visual effects and the shooting process
Many directors in Hollywood not only accept visual effects but embrace them for being able to provide the vision they need for their film projects. These directors usually get the most out of their visual effects budget. However not everyone agrees. Some directors would prefer to consider effects a necessary evil and put them lower on the priority list, even when working on a super hero or talking goat movie. In this case the super hero powers or the talking goat are likely the key things in the trailer and one of the main reasons the audience is interested to see the movie. But some choose not to acknowledge the value that visual effects can bring to their project.

In some cases the directors don’t interview potential visual effects supervisors but simply let the studios or someone else make that selection for them. Do they approach hiring of the cinematographer and other key creatives in the same way? Unlikely.

The attitude of the director, producer and 1st assistant director has much to do with how successful the shooting process is to the visual effects crew. One of the aspects of creating great visual effects is to shoot the footage correctly for visual effects to begin with. This means typically having the visual effects supervisor and a small group of people to take references. Because we have to create and very precisely combine multiple images together we want to make sure we know exactly where we can place the objects and make sure to light them to match. Shooting references involves holding up a gray and silver sphere in front of camera or shooting with a special camera setup.

When shooting, a large amount of time is spent setting up to get the shots. A 2 hour movie may have a shooting schedule from 40 to 100+ days. Each day can cost $100,000-$300,000 or more depending on the size of the project. Each setup takes time. The grips may lay down dolly tracks or a ‘dance floor’ to shot. The cinematographer spends time lighting the set and the other departments prepare. The audio department records 30 seconds of silence at each location to make sure they have the raw materials they need in doing the final sound mix and edit later. The entire crew is silent during these takes. When an airplane flies overhead it’s likely the crew holds until it passes so they can record good audio. Yet when the visual effects team needs to spend a minute shooting a reference it’s not unusual to get eye rolling and gnashing of teeth. “You’re slowing us down. We’re trying to make a movie here.” are common phrases heard at that time. They easily forget that most of the movie is being completed later in visual effects and visual effects are critical to the success of the movie. As pointed out visual effects may have enabled the project even to be made but some crews look at visual effects as the lower department. On the better projects it’s all part of the process from the beginning and not a problem.

There may be times during shooting that the visual effects crew is not scheduled or have been released for the day. But that doesn’t stop production from sometimes attempting to shoot visual effects on their own. They don’t try to shoot shots if the camera crew isn’t there. They don’t try to do a stunt or start a fire without their respective departments being there.

On shows with a lot of visual effects there’s the notion that anything can be done and that it’s all in the budget. Rather than removing something from set or location (8 x 8 ft silk, compressor, truck, etc) the crew will sometimes ask if visual effects can simply remove it. They suggest they can cover it green as if that provides us the magic fix. If production is running behind schedule, something isn’t working (such as a prop), or hasn’t arrived (contact lenses, etc) then production has a tendency to push that onto the ever growing visual effects list. We barely have enough time and money to do the planned work let alone this ‘extra’ work but since the studios typically have visual effects and live action as different budgets that is not of concern except to those who see the big picture.

And of course the cost of visual effects is brought up frequently.
So why use visual effects (in addition to the reasons provide at the start):
1. It’s cheaper than the alternative. Consider how much it would cost to destroy a city or a planet. Visual effects don’t look as expensive in that context.

2. It offers more precise control. Since time is money on set and the director may want exact control or the option to precisely change it later, visual effects may be the correct option.

3. Not enough time. Maybe you have the money to build an entire castle but do you have enough time to do so before shooting starts?

4. It’s not possible any other way. Floating space ships, talking dragons, people flying and shooting lasers are not exactly easy things to obtain. How long would it take and how much money would it require to build the Transformers? How long would it take to genetically produce a dragon?

Keep in mind visual effects models and environments have to be created from scratch. We can't rent a house to shoot in or props to fill it. We can't rent a field to shoot on. We have to build and paint everything from scratch. When we move our characters or creatures we have to make sure their feet touch the ground without going into the ground or floating above it. Many of the things taken for granted in live action has to be worked out in great detail in visual effects.

Visual effects allows filmmakers an incredible freedom to bring any story they wish to the screen from a creative and technical standpoint.

Visual effects  are used in just about all films, above and beyond just science fiction and fantasy films.

Visual effects film do very well all over the world. The top box-office films of all time use visual effects and most use visual effects extensively.

Visual effects artists are the only group involved in Hollywood filmmaking that don’t have a union. Most are freelance project to project just like other film jobs. Visual effects craftsmen work long hours like other film people and at times are likely to be putting in 80 or 90+ hours a week for weeks or months at a time due to compressed schedules and last minute changes. Much of visual effects is outsourced around the world due to film tax incentives just like some of the jobs in Hollywood. Some artists have to uproot their families and move to other countries in an attempt to remain employed. I believe to get the best out of people you should respect them.  Given all that visual effects brings to films, the people who make them and the people who watch them, I think visual effects artists deserve the same respect as the other departments and workers in the film industry.

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*Special effects are explosions, breakaways, wire rigs and other on set work as opposed to visual effects which is about images and primarily done in post-production.