VES Summit and a bit of perspective

This past Saturday the Visual Effects Society convened it’s first Production Summit. Panels were structured to include guests from all areas of production including editors, directors, studio people, DOP’s, Production Designers. It is hard to boil down a long day of fast paced sessions into an article and capture the spirit of the day, but that is what Jeff Heusser has tried to do, in this personal account of the VES Production Summit and its implications.

When the VES Production Summit was first announced I was concerned that the crisis the Visual Effects industry is facing was not reflected in the agenda. It was explained to me that was not the purpose of the Summit, it was designed to bring the many disciplines that make up a film together and engage them in a conversation about the issues we all face. I think you will see that both things happened and showed the need for more of this type of dialogue as well as some more directly addressing issues facing artists.

Summit Co-Chair Bob Coleman with the Pre-Production Panel

The morning session was divided into three parts to cover: pre-production, production and post production. They were moderated by Grant Curtis (Producer) and Jeffery A. Okun (VES Chairman).


Feature films used to have a pretty linear workflow – sets were designed, built and the movie was shot. At that point the production designer and director of photography were generally released and post production began. Today, we are moving more and more decisions to later and later in the process. It is becoming important for crafts that traditionally have not been involved in post to remain involved. This has a large impact on schedules and budget. The obvious example is DP’s being involved with the DI process, we have written previously about the amount to time that this requires and the trouble some have had getting paid for this. Taking it further – maybe a set is being designed digitally long after production wraps to solve an editorial problem.

Marc Weigert (Producer, Visual Effects Supervisor) raised the issue that perhaps some job descriptions need to change or at least the understanding that some jobs will be required for longer than in the past. The suggestion of a new role of Visual Effects Art Director was discussed as was the merits of more and more decisions being able to be delayed. Art Repola (Executive VP, VFX & Production – Walt Disney Studios) warned that expansion of choice is great, but also dangerous. He’d like to see us make smart creative decisions and film those, wishing we could return to a time when we couldn’t fix everything in post.

James Bissel (Production Designer) mentioned that the design process begins now in 3D with previz. This led Victoria Alonso (Executive VP of Visual Effects & Post Production – Marvel Studios) to ask why we end up building things up to four times, that in order to be faster and more efficient we must improve software communication and streamline the usefulness of things developed in previz to not have to be reinvented at multiple points in the production.


Catherine Hardwicke (Director) brought some real world examples as she related a story about how a studio was only willing to invest $10,000 to do some design work that they were then going to invest millions in. She later said that on Twilight the Visual Effects budget was slashed from $4 million to $1 million a month before starting the film. She responded to the shifting of decisions discussion from the previous session to a desire to make the product better and now having the tools to do so.

The subject of digital cinematography kept coming up and led Thad Beier (Head of CG – Digital Domain) to say that to date we have watched as digital has tried to emulate film, or equal film, but that the next steps will be to exceed film. Two cameras on set will be a minimum and having more data and witness points will reduce impact on production. Also in five years computational resources will drive better previz with more realistic lighting allowing for better and earlier decision-making.

Paul Martin Smith (Editor) said previz is being overused, films are being greenlit on previz and then people are shooting the previz. Many mentioned the importance of that magic unplanned spark that happens on set and making sure we leave room for happy accidents and deviation from the plan when needed. Smith also expressed the importance of the creative storytelling process needing time. Cutting on set is not creative, it’s checking to see if basics work. The editor needs time to mentally process the footage.

Post Production

Jeff Okun started this session with the statement that in the future Post will take place in Pre-Production. Steven Poster (ASC, Director of Photography, President International Cinematographers Guild) had what I considered the quote of the day: “I see a very exciting future, if we can all stay in the business”. Eric Barba (Visual Effects Supervisor – Digital Domain) summed up a lot of the changing roles by saying “there is no Post Production, it’s all just Production”. Alan Silvers (New Business Development – Lowry Digital) said that new tools are blurring the lines between Pre, Production and Post and warned that more choice never facilitates things going faster.

When we talked with Jeff Okun a while back on an fxpodcast he mentioned that we are often our own worst enemy in visual effects by making everything sound easy and fun. Poster reiterated this and said that we need to change attitudes; we are not using toys, we are using tools. Rick Pearson (Editor) stated that technology changes but human beings do not. He mentioned as an illustration a favorite cartoon that showed a flying car with a coffee cup sitting on top of it’s roof.

Poster said they have been doing training on working with digital assets for their members. He and Jeff Okun mentioned how more and more things moving to the “Cloud” in the future will allow for more collaboration from wherever the participants are.

Victoria Alonso suggested that visual effects needs to be on board as a co-producer, not just as a department. This raises the importance of requests from that area.

Jeff Okun raised the premise a couple of times that we are heading into new territory and offered this scenario: Your movie opens and the first day numbers are bad, audience testing tells them the audience hates the ending and the studio has a new edit in theaters the next day – or worse, your movie is immediately replaced with a Marley & Me rerun.

Featured Speaker

Dr. Eric Haseltine

The feature speaker was Dr. Eric Haseltine, a Technology Futurist, former head of Walt Disney Imagineering and former CTO of the U.S intelligence community. He has 15 patents in optics, special effects and electronic media, and more than 100 publications in science and technical journals, the Web and Discover Magazine.

His talk was fast paced, funny and informative and he challenged us to think about things that make us uncomfortable. He started by pointing out human blind spots, that we don’t see things that we don’t expect to be there, that desire can cloud our ability to see things and that we have a built in ability to not see things we don’t want to be true. He talked about human beings having an amazing ability to focus and ignore other things, an example he gave was parents think their kids are really good at multi-tasking but they are really just moving quickly between tasks serially. In terms of technology he said that the future we are all trying to figure out already exists today but it’s behind a fence, with heavy security (implying a government research project).

He talked about his time in Imagineering and said they had a phrase: “fear minus death, equals fun”. Storytelling is a word we throw about but what we really care about is a “story to what end?”, we really want to elicit an emotional response and often that means making people feel more alive.

He talked Pheromones, showed a couple of examples of perceptive tricks you can try yourself from YouTube like the McGurk Effect: and 528 Hz Alpha Binaural Beat:

Getting to our business, he showed a diagram of film declining to zero and digital growing to 100% and offered that distribution and projection will go away. He suggested looking to audio for what changes are coming to video – that audio, because of it’s lower bandwidth tends to be used in new ways first. His example was a song that can be customized for local play to mention local sports teams. We are familiar with the green box on sporting events where ads are inserted digitally, take that to the next level and the technology will be there for live inserts with fresh, local, live content inserted into your project.

He noticed that we are “all looking at 3D again, taking another run up that hill” he predicts we won’t get anywhere – “why do I need it if I can tell the story without it?”

It is hard to do this talk justice in a short article. I thought he was an excellent choice and I was especially impressed that he frequently referenced material from the panels that preceded him.

Decoding and Thriving in the 21st Century Post-Production Pipeline

Moderator Richard Hollander (Producer – Pixar Animation Studios) started by asking panelists about their challenges. Ben Grossmann (Visual Effects Supervisor – CafeFX) said “color space”. Steve Beres (Director of Engineering – NextLAB, division of FotoKem) said “pace of development”.
Steve Scott (Vice President, Creative Director/Colorist, E-Film) responded to the ensuing discussion of those topics by saying “There is no substitute for film”, “maybe someday, but not today”. He lamented that with some digital acquisition even getting flesh tones correct has been a struggle, a pretty basic goal. He also echoed a common thread of wanting to be involved as early as possible in project and that “it’s a crime when the DP is not intimately involved in the DI”, “We are after that perfect image on the screen and all the tech is getting in the way”.

A good summary of the technical and political challenges came from Ben Grossmann “Digital poses so many technical challenges that far exceed the understanding of the decision makers”. Also that Visual Effects lacks the equivalent of the Cinematographers Guide… it’s “all in our heads” he joked adding that they probably need to do monthly updates these days to which someone pointed out the ASC is working on an iPhone version.

Once again returning to a theme we have heard at other conferences and meetings, every show is reinventing workflow. LUTS are not common between houses, software platforms, some are considered proprietary… there are no standards. Steve Beres said labs used to tell you to pick up your film at 5pm but now they act as your Sherpa to guide you through the digital process. Fred Chandler (Senior Vice President Post Production – Fox) said he’s been in the business 28 years and the color pipeline for every movie is like starting over.

Asked about the view looking ahead 10 years Ben Grossmann said we are on the dawn of a format war in terms of distribution, that people can own high quality cameras and the means to create content. Steve Scott could forsee being able to adjust all elements of a comp in the DI.

Hot, Flat and (getting) Crowded: The Business of Production and the new Global Economy

This final session was moderated by David S. Cohen from Variety. Chris DeFaria (Executive Vice President, Digital Production, Animation and VFX – Warner Bros. Pictures) started by reading the dictionary definition of commoditization. Lee Berger (President, Film Division – Rhythm & Hues Studios) said 90% of cost is labor, when they opened in India in 2000 labor there was 12 cents on the dollar to the US. They now have two locations in India and one in Malaysia, in addition to the US operation. Chris DeFaria said that work like roto and comps out car windows are absolutely commodity work. He said that the film Green Lantern changed from shooting in Australia to Louisiana because currency fluctuations made the tax break there much more attractive. Randy Lake (Executive Vice President, General Manager – Sony Imageworks) joked that the weakening dollar could save the industry in the US.

The UK got it’s kick start with the Harry Potter Films and New Zealand with the Lord of the Rings films. The panel discussed if there were other potential break out areas around the corner based on a franchise. Colin Brown (British Film Commissioner, UK Film Council) was told by a producer that it would be fiscally irresponsible to do a movie somewhere without aggressive tax incentives.

Chris Defaria said chasing the work that is being outsourced may not be the smartest play. Also that there has been a shift in the paradigm between studios and vendors, the studios can’t deliver work to houses is a reliable and predictable way. He said every other part of the business is a band of gypsies who come together for a job and then disband, and they do it wherever it needs to be done. Jeff Barnes (CEO & Founder – CafeFX) said they just bid a job and lost it because they could not compete with a 40% discount from a tax credit, “it feels like a race to the bottom” and that “margins are shrinking and the #1 cost is labor”.

Defaria suggested companies could elevate themselves through some singular unique talent, like an extraordinary VFX Supervisor or through some innovation. He also said studios need to know that when things veer off course at the end of a project that last minute bandwidth is there.

The “Q&A” for this session was really just a “Q”, because there were no answers. It was, as expected, the most heated. My favorite question was from Shannon Gans (New Deal Studios) who wanted to know, in response to Defaria’s suggestion that vendors may have to take unusual partnership arrangements to share in the risk the studios take, “if we share in the risk, do we get a seat at the creative table”?

Visual Effects Crisis

In trying to report on this event it is one thing to cover the panels, quite another to try and give you the flavor or mood of the event. Every session had a short Q&A period afterwards and my take was that every one got progressively better and more to the nitty gritty of problems facing the Visual Effects business. I am a visual effects artist who tries to act as reporter for you here, in this case I feel I must break that reporter role and give you a bit of my personal opinion to try and share with you the feelings I had as I left the event. In no way are the comments below intended to color the event, quite the opposite, I feel the event was fantastic and exceeded every goal I heard set forth for it. The passion for this event we got when we talked to Bob Coleman, Jill Smolin (co-chairs) and Eric Roth months before the event was infectious and I am thrilled it was well attended by an attentive and equally passionate audience. The panelists were also fantastic and it is great to have a community that cares enough about the business to put themselves in front of a group of their peers to have such frank discussions.

Barriers to Entry

In the shadow of this Summit visual effects artists are experiencing an industry in crisis. One artist recently told me “I just started my first job since May”, another said “my utilization in 2009 is around 35%”. Just last week The Syndicate (commercials arm of the Computer Cafe Group and CafeFX) ceased operation, which proved awkward in some introductions as the bios of people from CafeFX mentioned The Syndicate. Almost daily we hear of new cuts from all over, stuff that’s hard to report on because we don’t get press releases and people don’t generally want to talk to press at times like that, but it all adds up to an industry in crisis.

A recent article at The Wrap talked about a study titled “Economics of Motion Pictures,” conducted by the research firm SNL Kagan. This study found that films that cost more than $90 million to make generally produce the greatest profit. Of course that means that all of those films were visual effects movies, with animated and sci-fi/fantasy leading the list.

We hear the phrase “Content is King” often when conversations turn to business issues. In a recent article in the New York Times (about Comcast looking to buy a majority stake in NBC) Media Analyst Craig Moffett is quoted: “People can talk all they want about content being king, but distribution has historically been a much better business because of the huge barriers to entry.”

Barrier to entry is pretty much the reason the video post production business exists. Look at commercial post and I’ll give you an example from personal experience. I left Chicago for Los Angeles in 1995, at that time a flame cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were roughly twelve companies I can recall who at that time would be considered large, offering post, telecine, etc. in Chicago. Today there are far less than a handful, surrounding them are many boutiques with smaller infrastructure and overhead, made possible by more economical and powerful hardware and software. Look at the shift digital cinematography options like the RED camera mean to lowering the barrier. The studios are struggling with this topic as well. There is no question the entire entertainment field is trying to find it’s footing amongst rapid and massive change.

No Barriers to Exit

The Visual Effects Society brought us a great start to this conversation thanks to some hard work by many and a variety of sponsors. This conversation needs to continue and ramp up fast. Artists are being faced with shrinking opportunities, ridiculous contract terms, drawn out payment problems on top of more and more forced to move from staff to freelance, with the responsibility for health care costs, etc.

Visual Effects is responsible for all the top grossing films, we are one of the only departments that is on a film from beginning to end, we create digital leading characters… yet we have zero clout. This is big business with multinational conglomerates as our clients and to play you have to have clout. Clout = Respect, no clout means we have not yet begun to see the depth of how bad it can get. If we don’t find a way to have clout, we will be replaced with someone who does or is even weaker. Visual Effects need to stop analyzing and hand wringing about things being done to it and take charge of it’s own fate. Obviously this is difficult with companies competing and facing different pressures, but companies need to work together globally to stop the “race to bottom”.