Monday, March 04, 2013

The Miracle of Visual Effects, will it continue?

The Miracle of Visual Effects, will it continue?

If you had told people years ago that you could create a fake tiger with a key role as a real tiger in a film seen around the world, they would have thought you were crazy. Of course they’d say “I’d certainly be able to tell the difference of a fake tiger compared to a real tiger”. And not just look like a real tiger but act like a real tiger. Yet that is what happened. Millions of people viewed Life of Pi and had no idea almost all tiger and animal shots were hand done. I say hand done because people animated those. People painted the tiger texture. People set the fur. Not computers. The computer is a useful tool but it’s the people behind the computers that do the real work. Buy a room of computers and see how many shots they produce on their own. You don’t credit your computer for writing your report for you.

And not just the tiger, the entire ocean was added. The entire sky was added. We see miracles all the time on the screen these days but most people take it for granted. 

First image is what the visual effects crew start with
Second image is the finished image with CG tiger, ocean, sky added

First image is what the visual effects crew start with
Second image is the finished image with computer graphic tiger

Photo illustration by Todd Vaziri 

Visual effects are everywhere
Many films you see couldn’t have been made if it weren’t for visual effects. Would the worldwide audience pay $10 to see a rowboat in a pool with a man in a tiger suite? Could the filmmakers have shot it on a real rowboat on the real ocean with a real tiger? Any attempt to do so would have been tragic. We gave the opportunities to the filmmakers to make whatever they can imagine, whatever the story calls for and they make hundreds of millions of dollars, yet they complain about the cost.
Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

All films up for this year for the Best Picture Oscar had visual effects. Everyone of them. Agro was able to show Iran. They were able to show trucks and a jet on a runway. They were able to create and manipulate a burning flag. Zero Dark Thirty used visual effects to create Afghanistan, flying special copters and other shots. Most of the visual effects you never noticed, that’s why you’re wondering where they were in Silver Lining playback or Amour. And most slip by visual effects artists as unnoticed as well. That’s how good we have become as artists and how far we have pushed our tools and skills.

And it’s not just these films. Almost all films out of Hollywood have visual effects. Most independent films use visual effects. Whether it’s a period film or a buddy comedy it uses visual effects somewhere. The work of visual effects professionals and our art form is everywhere. It permeates most moving media today to a far greater extent than people realize. 
(paraphrased comment)
The Proposal
Down with Love

Most images provided via beforevfx tumbler 
Many more examples there

Those CG animated films viewed around the world use animators, compositors, lighters and other visual effects workers. 

Once, Game of Thrones and any fantasy and science fiction television show uses them of course. And many regular shows use them.  Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Bones etc all have used visual effects.  Many backgrounds are put into scenes you had no idea were done. 
Stargate Studios Virtual Backlot Reel 2012 from Stargate Studios on Vimeo.

You know how much airbrushing there is in the world of magazines? Now think of movies and television in that light. How many commercials do you see that have visual effects? How many music videos have visual effects?
And it’s not just today. Quite a few films in the past used visual effects extensively. Gone with the Wind, King Kong, WWII films, Charlie Chaplin used visual effects in his film Gold Rush. 

Clip of VFX artist, Craig Barron from Criterion Gold Rush release  for more info

Those videos games from your iPhone to your Xbox use modelers, texture artists and animators.

To all the visual effects haters out there: you've already seen thousands of shots that simply passed you by and you had no idea.

The studios and filmmakers have become addicted to the work we do. It’s impossible for them not to use them. Even if it’s just to go in to a film image and change something. The audience has gotten addicted to them as well. They expect to see the spectacular in a tent pole movie. They expect no holds barred in showing them what they need to see to tell the story.

How much money has been saved on productions by using visual effects? A lot!  Even the ability to shoot on a stage or different location for television saves an amazing amount of money.

Now imagine what would happen if there were no more visual effects. What if all visual effects artists stopped tomorrow, put down their computer pens and said, enough is enough. Workers on films, television, commercials, animation, video games, etc. 



Entertainment content companies, studios and filmmakers would be in deep trouble if that were to happen. They’d have very little content that wasn’t touched by visual effects artists. 

How much international business would My Dinner with Andre make on the Imax screen? How many variations on Honey Boo Boo would people around the world be willing to drive to the movie theaters and pay $10 to see? How many people would want to see 2 hours of the 'before' footage shown above? How many people would be willing to play Pong and not the latest and greatest graphic game?

So why are we in this mess?
Because studios push and push and push the visual effects companies. They try so hard to squeeze every penny out of the visual effects companies and workers that they try everything they can. They lobby and get huge subsidies from states and countries to pay them, the studios, to make movies there. It’s not to the taxpayers benefit in those locations. And it's decimating the visual effects industry and that short sightedness is going to bite them.

They pit visual effects companies against each other. They let change requests pile up without stop. They squeeze the amount of time to do the work. All of this pushing has resulted in a number of visual effects companies going out of business and forced visual effects artists to be unemployed or migrant workers moving from one country to the next, all so that a penny can be saved. Workers are overworked. Many with no overtime or benefits.

And now they have pushed so hard that they have left the visual effects industry in a very fragile state. The very thing that is used in all of their content. The thing that allows them to make their impossible movies. The thing that saves them money. The thing that is used in all of their profitable tent pole movies. And if they push much more they may find it starts to collapse much faster and harder than they expect. They may find that the level of visual effects they’ve been experiencing the last decade will be gone.

How will they do their films if the companies collapse and the experienced artists bail out of the industry? How long will they have to delay their films while waiting for an opening at the remaining visual effects company?

There’s a need to make this industry sustainable but the studios act like a paper company clearing huge forests without realizing they themselves will soon be left without the substance of their existence. This has the makings of killing the Golden Goose upon which they rely so heavily.

Visual Effects Worker
All this pushing has finally woken a sleeping giant. The visual effects workers. Year after year of dealing with this type of situation and the workers are getting tired of it. They work and work and produce fantastic results, which in turn makes the studios hundreds of millions of dollars. These artists make the impossible possible and allow for profits on things that couldn’t have been done without their talent and hard work. They’re tired of having no respect and for being treated as they have been. And they have begun to unite with a passion that is growing. Even visual effects workers in India are getting weary. I don't think studios want to have headlines like Apple did with Foxconn but that's where it's being pushed to. If studios and companies don’t change the artists will start making the changes for them.

What can be done?

1. Studios and filmmakers should realize what a gift visual effects has provided them. Visual effects has allowed impossible stories to be told. Visual effects have helped draw worldwide audiences to every media platform. Visual effects provide a power and finesse that has not been seen before. This has a huge impact on the creative freedom at the same time providing huge returns in the box office.

2. Studios and filmmakers should start thinking about the sustainability of the visual effects industry for which they rely on. Squeezing it more will produce nothing but dust. Constantly moving it around the world will not gain them what they desire. They're already exceeded the limits and are now seeing diminishing returns.

3. The studios and filmmakers need to embrace visual effects as part of the process. As a necessary part of the process and acknowledge it may be the reason the film can be made.

4. The studios and filmmakers can start treating visual effects as another department with key creative’s. It’s not a black box to be ignored. Visual effects is not a commodity.

5. Studios and filmmakers can work with the visual effects supervisors and producers to design the most bang for their buck. Visual effects can be designed for budget limits from the start. Visual effects artists can push the films beyond imagination.

6. Studios need to put in an effort to control post expenses from their side. They need someone to oversee post-production like they do during production. Decisions need to be made in a timely manner and endless tweaks and changes need to be controlled. Live action doesn't do infinite takes, why should it be necessary with visual effects? Studios might be surprised just how much that step alone could save them on visual effects.

7. Studios and visual effects companies need to work together to shore up the visual effects industry. They need to work together to find a new business model that works for both. They need to start thinking long term, not just this project.

8. Studios and visual effects companies need to acknowledge that ultimately they have people working for them. Those numbers on your spreadsheet are people. It’s their talents and hard work that makes any of this possible. We’re not technicians. We’re artists and craftspeople.

9. Visual effects companies need to act professional and stop underbidding and chasing the work. That's costing them and the industry. That's one of the reasons we are where we are. They need to operate as real businesses. They need to be able to say No at times.

10. Visual effects companies need to adhere to the actual labor laws. If they can’t do the work without breaking the law or treating their workers badly, then they need to re-evaluate what they're doing.

Visual Effects are inexpensive
The Value of Visual Effects

Variety article by David Cohen: Is the vfx biz in India tricking artists into working for free?
Shows some of what we as visual effects workers are up against. This will be getting worse as studios continue their assault.


  1. Excellently put as always. That said...

    ...imagine what would happen if there were no more visual effects. What if all visual effects artists stopped tomorrow, put down their computer pens and said, enough is enough. Workers on films, television, commercials, animation, video games, etc.



    If Hollywood continues to tear apart VFX crews and infrastructure, everything could eventually come to a screeching halt whether or not the artists choose to stop on their own.

  2. This article makes no criticism toward the management of VFX vendors, many of which are extremely even fraudulently managed.

  3. An industry I love, enjoy and strive to get better at is slowly disappearing. I turned down two positions as I did not think I was ready for them, they have both since closed.

    VFX was unceremoniously dumped by the studios in the early seventies, matte departments, proprietary in house VFX departments shut.

    Independent film makers especially in LA had a glut of talent, l enfant terrible of directors created there own companies creating work for themselves.

    That business model has lasted for some, ILM and Pixar are the first that spring to mind, with some exceptions such as Stan Winston Studios (artisan led).

    Most of the independent VfX companies that came out of the seventies have not lasted or gone onto other industries such as Trumball.

    There is a pattern of small VFX firms growing, utilising talent from small productions and people who have left the likes of ILM. These have unfortunately added to the diaspora of discontent as the studios will suck this talent dry and not push the financial benefits back.

    Why cannot studios reset there VFX departments giving them a proper footing in the industry, treat them as assets rather than a garage sale. Shots can be sent to this department, outsourcing should better handled with locked off shots only with financial guarantee attached.

    A better working practice and structure is needed, the VFX supervisor/director should sit at the studio and be independent of the department providing that work. The studio must as part of the contract provide security to that production at pre, prod and post, also with security for 12 month period.

    In-house MO Cap, design, fabrication, can be handled, VFX should adopt pipeline strategies so that ALL VFX facilities utilise the same proprietary software, pipeline file system, ( I hear people shouting no).

    Outsourcing should be only things like Roto, Render, and photogammetry, everything else handled in-studio.

    Limit the amount of VFX tentpole booked per year at each studio, with a limit, and generous 12 month turnaround, it used to be in the eighties a yearly turnaround on movies with directors, not three or four.

    Also Mr Jackson has a lot to answer for including Mr Lucas, and Mr Bruckheimer, have a ban on triple filming, with a minimum 3 month rest period between productions, its enough time to rest, for talent and artists without the work going stale. The public will have to wait for a film, if they can wait 15 years for a star wars film they can wait a bit longer.

    Another thing is needed, accreditation within the industry, a non graduate (so that self taught artists me included) vocational grading system. It will give artists a recognition of skills and an opportunity for them to rise up the ranks of responsibility. It should be set up that a Supe on one production company doesn't re employ at another firm and be swamped by more experienced junior artists.

    All this needs to be studio led, and the only way the studios are going to learn is the hard way.

    I summarise,

    Studios to reopen there VFX departments that they laid off in the seventies,

    Studios to have financial aid and guarantor contracts to outsourced talent

    Studios to have a vocational qualifying structure

    Studios to prevent migration, journeyman work and encourage career longevity.

    Studios to have a limit on Tentpole VFX films per year, (this will generate greater revenue)

    Studios to ban triple stacking of VFX films,

    Finally healthcare and benefits and lost at sea benevolent schemes for VFX artists.

    I might sound crazy but if I can see the faults from the bottom rung of the ladder, there is no excuse for the studios who are holding the ladder not to see it as well.

  4. Management is covered in Bad Visual Effects Business Practices

    However the while process starts from the beginning and the subsidies and the studio practices in turn encourage management to do what they do.

  5. That's right. It flows from the top and the studios and their subsidies and shady accounting throws the whole thing off downstream.
    fx studios are then forced into an unenviable position.

  6. Richard,

    The studios don't have their own vfx departments because they can get it done cheaper at 3rd party companies and without the hassle or risk. Because of the subsidies (gift from governments) that pay up to 50% of costs and the companies underbidding the jobs and doing it for less than it actually costs, it's a big win for the studios.

    The studios know if they took on the work there would be no more subsidies for them. And they would have to pay what it actually costs and reign in on changes.

    Since they may not be able to keep all workers busy they would not guarantee 12 month employment. They would employ just like the rest of the film crew, as needed basis.

  7. Thanks for answering Scott and setting me straight, I appreciate that, nice to go on a blog and learn something. As for myself, Game, Independent Films, TV and surprisingly the Theatre are getting my full attention. Film work its a nice to have and honestly its my dream will have to wait. I have to eat and live.

  8. Bravo, Scott!

    But... "We’re not technicians. We’re artists and craftspeople."

    What's with the hostility toward "technicians," whatever that means? If we are thought to be technicians, or even if we truly are technicians, why should that change our importance to the process or what we deserve?

    I'm worried that if we draw a distinction between the "artists" who deserve so much, and the "technicians" who by all accounts do not, we may find ourselves uncomfortably on the wrong side of that division some day.

  9. My term of 'artists' covers all those creating visual effects. I could have substituted the word vfx workers or vfx professionals. Our profession represents a wide mix of artists, craftspeople and technicians, most who deal with some amount of creativity and some amount of technical knowledge. We have programmers, we have engineers, we have IT, and the full range of people to ultimately generate the shots. The entire crew is required to make our final product.

    When a director, studio or the press says 'technician' they mean it as a derogatory term. And that's a huge problem for those of us in the industry. It simply allows them to say it's all done by computers. "These technicians just have to hit the right button. They are not bringing any creativity to the process itself."

    So when a director meets with their key creatives (cinematographer, production designer, wardrobe designer, composer, etc) to discuss the film and have everyone contribute to the film in a creative way, that may not include the visual effects supervisor. Because they're deemed to be just a technician who manages other technicians. The truth is the visual effects supervisor has developed their own eye and is able to be tremendously creative in terms of both the visual and the visual effects of a film. Especially when they leverage their crew. The experience and knowledge brought to the table is great but some directors are not interested because in their view the entire field of visual effects is not creative.

    In their view and view of studios we're merely there to push the button to match their production designs. We're doing paint by number work if you were to ask some studio executives. And because they view us as technicians they view the entire process of visual effects as a commodity. If it simply takes people hitting the right buttons they could hire any visual effects company throughout the world to achieve identical results. They can outsource all the jobs to Timbuktu because, after all, it's just a technical process and they can send someone there for a month to train anyone and they will get the same results. (in their mind)

    The studios look at directors, writers, cinematographers, production designers, and others as creative. They are irreplaceable and each will provide a different look. They bring different levels of quality and style to a film. All of those 'creative people have leverage and are being taken seriously by the studios (writers may challenge that to some extent). They do not outsource that work. They may hire someone from another country but it's based much more on quality and what they bring and much less on cost.

    In the end the view that we're technicians automatically reduces our leverage. It diminishes who we are and what we do. We're brushed aside with the notion that it can all be outsourced with no loss in quality. And we lose any sense of respect. And that loss of respect is everywhere in Hollywood and helped to create the situation we're in. That's' why our names are last in the credits. It's why award shows and press junkets typically do not include us.

    So yes, we are artists in my eyes and we as an industry have to keep fighting to make it known that we are in fact doing creative work on projects. What we do ultimately is a creative endeavor built with our skill sets and our talents using technology. If it we weren't creative films would look much worse. And if they allow us to participate as the creatives we are, we can make things even better.

  10. Scott, I'd like to comment on the VFX subsidies.

    Most subsidies are tax refunds, which means the sales taxes/other taxes on money spend is refunded to the studio.

    These refunds are given against receipts, so the studios actually have to spend the money at the location giving the refund.

    Not too unlike how airports operate "tax free shops".

    The local people on these subsidy deals lose nothing and gain everything, because otherwise they would not see one cent of the money spent by studios'.

    They only return (via their government) the tax part of the sales.

    And because the studio's are outside operations that don't use local government services offering the subsidies, it makes sense that they don't have to pay the local taxes to upkeep those services.

    So while you may have other arguments for ending (tax refund) subsidies, arguing that they are a bad deal for the locations offering them should not be one of them.

  11. Actually tax incentives are not refunds. Sorry to break it to you. Please see
    VFX incentives

    Check the related links as well.

    Studios msy spend money in an area but that doesn't mean the locals get all of that money or that much returns to the actual government. It's no different than the government simply giving money (from taxpayers) to a select group of people. Much better to spend that money in infrstrucure to aid the local citizens and stimulate the condo my with a sustainable process. Imply giving it to a for profit corporation doesn't make sense.

  12. AnonymousMay 05, 2013

    Scott, you remember, because you were there, that the Hollywood feature film was virtually resurrected by the visual effects motion pictures of the late 1970s. When I was a film student at USC in the mid-1970s, Hollywood was making fewer than 80 theatrical features a year. The success of Star Wars and Close Encounters made Hollywood jump on the VFX bandwagon in the hopes of reaping even part of the incredible profits of those films. Contract Services added a special training program to the Camera Assistant Training Program in 1978--I was one of the five selected--because the studios had closed their VFX departments in the 1960s and early 1970s, and aside from survivors such as L.B. Abbott and the Effects Department at Disney, and the members of Kubrick's 2001 team, the studios were not equipped to handle all the VFX film slated.

    A major difference between those times and today is the combination of globalization (fueled by incentives) and technology. When a movie such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture required lots of expensive motion-control rigs, 65MM cameras and optical printers, as well as skilled artists to use them, they found them in Hollywood (well, Marina del Rey). Today, there are inexpensive computers and inexpensive technicians around the US and around the globe. The producers are playing them off against each other, driving down the prices and then having the deal sweetened with incentives for which the taxpayers in those locations foot the bill.

    If there can be a Fair Trade Association for coffee growers, why not for VFX?

  13. That's why I've provided links in other posts to fair trade assoc.


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