Killer Schedules: Behind that Variety Story

“Blockbusters Take Toll on f/x Shops” was the headline of a Variety article that has stirred much conversation in the visual effects world. In this week’s fxpodcast we talk to the author of that article, David Cohen from Variety, about the role of vfx and death of post schedules.

07Jul/variety/workerThroughout manufacturing history there have been ‘golden ages’, such as the industrial revolution, when an amazing revolution in process has expanded an area of production such as steel or textiles and even automotive production. But look beneath the surface and there is a massive social cost, especially on the workers in these industrial factories.

This duality of vastly increased production being combined with worker exploitation and dangerous work practices might seem like a thing of school days history classes. George Santayana, in Reason in Common Sense wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Welcome to the golden, digital revolution of film.

Today the vast changes in digital film production have opened the door to huge problems beneath the surface for post-production visual effects. Ever shrinking deadlines have lead to backbreaking, arduous and sometimes distressing working conditions for digital artists. So much so, that some are considering leaving the industry according to David Cohen, the author of a feature article from Variety May 28, 2007 called Blockbusters take toll on f/x shops.

In our fxpodcast this week, speak with David about his insightful story for Industry bible Variety and discover some of the grave insights he has gained that did not make it into the original story. Cohen’s story is remarkable as he managed to get key visual effects houses such as ILM and Sony Pictures Imageworks to talk publicly for the first time. ILM and Sony Pictures Imageworks are two of the most respected companies in the field, both have excellent employee relations and have worked very hard to gain their positions in the industry. It is significant that both felt justified in speaking to Variety on the record about this problem.

David Cohen - Variety Features Editor

Cohen’s article has sparked considerable conversation in the visual effects community. For many years the shrinking schedules, increased shot count and thus insane hours and fatiguing pace of vfx is something that no one wanted to talk about, for fear of upsetting the very studios these companies rely on. But the problem has become so severe that companies such as Giant Killer Robots are exiting visual effects for animated features, the quality of the work is suffering and people are starting to question working in high end visual effects.

It started as almost a joke, before it became the current nightmare. Artists are expected to work insane hours and have no time off or weekends, all to produce incredibly cool work. Lack of sleep and loss of weekends were proudly joked about – even held up like some badge of honor that their project was so important and so cool that the team did not sleep to get it done. There was more than a hint of indestructible youth showing off, that one was fueled on caffeine, red bull and never seeing daylight. It was cool to be in post and this was a rite of passage. However, a rite of passage is a ritual that marks a change , a coming of age, a transition to having earned the next level of respect.

A decade or so later and still no respect has been forthcoming. The hours are long, the pay seems to be going down, not up, and there appears to be less respect for the heroic efforts required to meet these post schedules. As Cohen explains to fxguide’s Jeff Heusser, artists that started with the advent of digital effects are now entering their late 30s and 40s and they want a normal life. There are no longer content to have no private life and nomadically move from continent to continent for 6 month at a time of grueling work. Especially as the reason people got into the business was to produce exceptional work, and increasingly the concern is that these unrelenting schedules are adversely effecting the quality of the actual shots.

John Montgomery, Ken Ralston and Dennis Muren on the set of the new <b>fxguidetv </b> show at the VES festival

Of course the problem is very complex to solve. In an interview for our next fxguidetv episode, Dennis Muren spoke to fxguide’s John Montgomery and pointed out that “there are just too many ways to make a film”. It is impossible to show the film that ‘could’ have been made had there been more time. If the film makes money who is to say that it would have made more or just been a better film had the visual effects crews being given a chance to spend time on the shots and sequences .

Who is to blame? Certainly one gains the impression that the visual effects houses would like nothing more than to have fairer working conditions and longer schedules. While they are at the mercy of the studios, says Cohen, it is not as simple as “blaming the Studios”. Cohen points out that the issue is: “iI this in the studio’s financial interest?” Is it as simple as the economics of once the film is shot — and a large amount of money has been spent – the film needs to be finished as fast as possible to see the money coming back in?

Bankrolling films is expensive. Spider-Man 3 and Pirates 3 represent “a quarter of a BILLION dollar enterprises” says Cohen. “It may be as simple as when you finance $200 million dollars that everyday you’re carrying that loan … it actually pays to pay the overtime , to compress that schedule, and make the visual effects artist sort of absorb that, as it is just not worth it to spread that out any longer”. Cohen did not say that the studios like the current situation or promote it, but he did point out that directors and creatives can hate the situation.

07Jul/variety/ewCohen sites the Entertainment Weekly article where Pirates Director Gore Verbinski says “The plan was audacious”, “to film the second and much of the third film simultaneously, at a cost that would reportedly soar upward of half a billion dollars” and they dove into the shoot with many creative decisions still to be made.” “We had release dates and blank pages,” says Verbinski, “it’s like ‘How Not to Make a Film 101′”

Certainly tight schedules and production schedules are effecting all parts of the film making process from the writers and actors down. Pirates had enormous issues not only from the studio but also hurricanes, construction delays, and countless logistical nightmares. In the same Entertainment Weekly story, Pirates star Johnny Depp is says that “at times, even the actors were hard-pressed to keep it all straight. You had to leave a trail of bread crumbs to know where you’d been. You’d walk out of a door in scene 191 and then you’d shoot scene 192 a year and a half later, where you’ve just arrived outside that door.” Co-star Bloom comments that “Someone asked me, ‘So tell us about your character’s arc in the third movie.’ I said, ‘Dude, the writers can’t even explain the third movie.'” But at least Stars and writers have enormous clout. A clout, Cohen points out, the visual effects community just does not have.

07Jul/variety/SpiderChartDuring the interview Cohen quoted some statistics on the Spider-Man franchise comparing number of shots and total number of minutes of visual effects in each movie. We have illustrated this data showing the real extent of that issue. While the number of shots have increased, the length of those shots has also grown greatly. Compare the modest increase between the rise in shots between Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, compared to the percentage increase in screen time. The net effect is that the teams are producing many more minutes of visual effects.

Long shots also tend to also create their own issues, sometimes one long shot can be more difficult than an equal duration of small shots, as problems cannot be hidden, editing can not solve problems and the audience gets time to really see everything that is going on. No one is suggesting that Spider-Man 3 was not well made or that the visual effects were not insanely cool. But the movie is not an isolated case, it’s merely an example of what is happening across the industry. Sony Pictures ImageWorks is a highly respected visual effects house that treats its staff well. But the trend is what caused Sony Pictures Imageworks itself to speak out.

The Net result for the industry is more work, in less time with vast commercial and creative pressures to ‘top’ what has been seen before. Is it any wonder some people see this as a lose lose game.

History has shown that industrial or digital revolutions will find their own solutions. In years to come people will find balance again, and look back agreeing that the revolution did improve things. The revolution did make the process much better – but maybe next time we can manage it better so less lives are adversely affected, less families hurt and fewer projects suffered. For now we may need to band together to show more respect to each other by not under bidding and “buying the job”, and demanding as a group that we have more time for our own sakes and the sake of the projects we work on.

In the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

A thread has started in the forums if you’d like to discuss this issue.