If you are bored with the VFX industry, may I suggest changing jobs?
• he was bored with visual effects
• the public was bored with visual effects films
• there was nothing new
So in the spirit of healthy debate, I would like to respond, as both a writer (here since 1999), a VFX artist – mainly as a compositor and VFX sup – and as a filmgoer. But I would also like to say I like reading Cohen’s articles and Variety is a great trade publication.
Bored with vfx
Firstly, let’s address the issue that he is bored with covering visual effects, and that when he started covering the VFX business in 2005 it was about huge strides, and “compared to 2005, (today) it is boring and sad.”
The reason for this, according to Cohen, is in part that the “innovation in visual effects is focused on ‘pipelines’ and ‘workflows’ and ‘efficiency,; which is really all just code for cost-containment.”
I will assume for this reply that Cohen is focused on just the feature film end of the business and that all the other amazing innovations such as remarkable real-time rendering of human faces, with dials to change things in real time, increased skin moisture until sweat beads on the brow of a photo real / sub-surface scattered human face, or the ability to film live action and produce from one camera complete 3D surface maps based on the natural way light polarizes as it reflects off any surface, or the introduction of remote editing via brilliant server software innovations by Adobe Anywhere – are all outside Cohen’s Variety beat. Those three innovations alone were all either published at SIGGRAPH or at IBC in the last month. Personally I find these monthly advances stunningly interesting and completely exciting…but maybe that’s just me.
But let’s limit ourselves to just major feature films. It is true that there is an expansion of innovations in pipelines and workflows, and I am happy to accept an entertainment writer from Variety may not find that interesting. I remember the technical Oscars from 2005 well, as four fellow Australians received Scientific and Technical Awards for their pioneering work in film effects. Lindsey Arnold, Guy Griffiths, David Mann and David Hodson were awarded for their work in creating the world’s first film-quality 2D digital compositing system. But in that year there were also a lot of technical Oscars for improvements in cranes. Now you may find innovation in cranes. I love Technocranes and Louma cranes, but I would not have written how dull the technical side of the industry was in 2005 because there is so much about cranes – which is code for ‘lifting cameras’.
My point is this: if you find innovations in complex process management dull, that does not represent the whole industry. Report on other stuff, go beyond the press releases – you’re a good reporter, you can do it. Why is there a lot about workflow? It is because it is a real problem and it is workflow’s turn. We as an industry go through cycles of problem solving. For example, digital cameras were a big innovation in the gap between 2005 and 2012. Once most of the industry has gone through the issues and changed approaches and solved the initial problems, then the next thing comes along.
Is workflow ‘code for cost-containment’? No. The complexity of producing a major film is daunting. You need to bring a team together, have them work on a vast amount of data, solve often very complex if not previously unsolved problems, meet deadlines and do it creatively. The process is the IP of many companies. It is the genius of being able to breakdown a spaceship coming out of the water and looking like it is huge, with water dripping off it, on the open seas, with actors interacting off the coast of Hawaii and deliver 1200 shots by the summer release deadline on razor thin margins with a temporary workforce of highly technical and creative people (- and often at locations all over the world).
Public vs. visual effects films
The next issue is the question of whether moviegoers are ‘getting bored too’?
Cohen says: “But as innovation has shifted from the screen to the pipeline, vfx have become less startling…No wonder movie attendance is flat or falling. There aren’t enough films being made to build and sustain auds’ relationships with stars, and vfx are losing their novelty value.”
Firstly, there is clearly some truth in here. The idea that movies moved to being less about the stars and VFX began playing a bigger role has occurred. To put this in perspective, I don’t think Cohen blames the artists involved for being so successful in the past that more and more films ended up having visual effects. I will say he avoided recalling that back in these glory days of 2005, the top grossing films were Star Wars: Ep III, Narnia, Harry Potter (Goblet of Fire), War of the Worlds and King Kong – all VFX films. But there was also a reaction going on to huge star salaries. Hollywood A-list stars were commanding vast salaries and yet film such as Bewitched, Cinderella Man and Miss Congeniality 2 were not delivering star power box office results on those star power names.
The top grossing films of 2012, according to Box Office Mojo, are The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, The Amazing Spider-Man and Brave. All contain VFX if not 100% computer graphics. All are also good films that found an audience, clearly. So the question comes do audiences not go and see “Battleship and…you know, that other bloated thing, what was the name of it?” (to quote Mr Cohen) due to VFX or because those films were badly marketed or poorly written.
I would say that while Battleship had good VFX, the problem was that when the film was first discussed – when it was green lit – people were already laughing about the idea of a feature film from a simple board game. I don’t think Battleship had a lot of momentum in the market at the start, forget good VFX or bad. Now I grant you that Pirates of the Caribbean was huge and that was based on an old Disney theme park ride – so who am I to point, but it is also true that Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were all stars going into Pirates and the success of the film was that much more directly due to their talents.
But I also say this whole argument is flawed.
Visual effects is not meant to be the reason you see a film. Visual effects are not meant to replace stars. Visual effects are meant to help tell the story. It is fine to love period costume dramas, but the textile industry moving to China is not the fault of Merchant Ivory films not working these days! It is not enough to have great costumes, in a film, you need an engaging story – see Marie Antoinette (2006).
Finally I would like to address the issue of Cohen’s further comment: “they haven’t made me think ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before’ even when I haven’t.” Notwithstanding my last comment regarding the role of VFX is to serve the story, not make you wonder about the filmmaking process, I leave you with these recent examples of wonder, no actually I won’t … Mr Cohen you say nothing makes you go wow…here is an example from every year since 2005 that I personally felt humble to be involved any way in visual effects, times when I said something out loud like “Wow, how the heck did they pull that off?”
2006: In X-Men: The Last Stand, when the camera pulls back and we see Magneto and Charles Xavier sitting – but it isn’t them, it is the younger them, but it is the actors.
2007: The first time you saw the gears and sheer complexity of a Transformer – transforming, did you not look at the sheer intricacy of the model and say, “how the heck did they even plan that?”
2008: As Benjamin Button sits under a table in the still of night talking to a young Daisy, the depth of the performance and, even thinking you’re an ‘expert’, being stunned to learn that for the first 52 minutes of this epic motion picture – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – the head of Brad Pitt’s character is a CGI creation.
2009: Having Jim Cameron’s effects team make me care about a tree being destroyed in Avatar.
2010: Watching Paris fold back on itself in Inception, or watching a weightless escape – both stunning, but the death of a small house elf on a beach cant not pass without special note either.
2011: Staring – I mean staring – at the screen for minutes in disbelief at the character Steve Rogers as a wimp in Captain America, trying to work out if it was actually Chris Evans or an unknown wimpy brother, unable to believe scene after scene of interaction, dialogue and brilliant visual effects (although I would say Hugo’s mega Steadicam shot came close to matching it).
2012: And this year alone, stunned at the realism of an alien map room in Prometheus, or a fight in a school hall in Amazing Spider-Man with not only digital characters but an entire digital ‘live action world’ or a (finally) believable and successful Hulk “puny God” attack on Loki in The Avengers in the middle of a universe of stunning fights and characters. Really, you didnt once think how did they do that? Really?
This year alone has seen magnificent advances in sub-surface scattering, jumping two generations of technology by Weta and Sony. Sure it may not work as a single picture in Cinefex, but the genius, inventiveness and sheer complexity of getting this right. Sure it is in computers these days – we don’t use rotary dial phones, we don’t use typewriters, most of our lives are computerized, but I for one could pick a miniature sub on water “back in the day” almost every time versus the water realism coming off the Avengers heli-carrier which was flawless – just beautiful.
Please excuse me – I have to buy some tickets online for The Hobbit, Cloud Atlas, Looper – is it too early to buy tickets to Pacific Rim or Gravity? Oh wait that’s next year…can’t wait.
– Mike Seymour