If you are bored with the VFX industry, may I suggest changing jobs?

David Cohen, a respected and talented writer published a piece in Variety and then tweeted about it and another piece which, among other things, seemed to claim:

• 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

co-founder fxguide

21 thoughts on “Open letter response to David Cohen, Variety”

  1. Great article Mike.
    I would also say that the level of realism in vfx now is so stunning and we see so many vfx that it is very unlikely someone will have the same impression than when Jurassic Park came out. So this is a kind of spoiled child reaction.
    200 or 300 years ago people almost never saw an image. So when they went to church and saw drawings on the windows they were amazed. Nowadays people see so many images a day that the amazement can’t be the same (especially for someone who has covered the early days of vfx).

    “Visual effects is not meant to be the reason you see a film.”
    This can be an issue in many movies whot replaced a good story with good vfx.

  2. Cohen uses “auds” as a substitute for “audiences”. After that is there any point in considering his opinion?

    However, i do feel his pain. Seven years of VFX companies telling you about their of Maya and Nuke must be massively dull.

  3. Considering the state of big budget storytelling, which has been in a free fall for years as studios produce fewer and fewer movies and rely more and more on formulaic tentpole films (almost all of which are either sequels or adaptations of popular books, comics and video games) to be profitable every time out, from this view the ONLY exciting thing about most blockbuster films is the VFX. This is at least an area where new things – be they boring software toolsets, boring pipelines, or boring production equipment – are in active development. If anything, studio storytelling has evolved backwards, becoming less diverse, more homogenous, and completely predictable with very few exceptions. I’d wager that the amount of time, effort, expertise, passion and research that went into a single complex shot in Battleship is several orders of magnitude greater than the expense of those same qualities exerted by the development team into the entire screenplay. I’m sure Mr. Cohen would find the technology behind the Variety website and internal servers crushingly dull as well. I, for one, would be all for any efforts on his part to do away them entirely in favor of the very exciting distribution process of hiring rickshaws and trained hawks to deliver his hand-written articles to the masses.

  4. Isn’t it the directors or the writers vision, that he finds boring?

    VFX houses do not create something, that was not in the script.

    I think he confuses here something. Too sad.

  5. I had written a semi-lengthy response that I had me terribly impressed with myself but due to a DNS failure (on my end) it is lost and I just can’t be bothered to attempt to recapture the “magic”. So, less eloquently, more bluntly, here is the gist of it.

    The author of the piece and audiences in general are now jaded. How many people really appreciated the work that went into Capt. America body substitution? Or Green Lantern? Or the fact that TinTin took off his coat? They neither care how much work went into an effect nor how much it cost. They are oblivious to subtle effects and as such have zero appreciation for the art and finess of a well executed effect but are quick to point out the failures of a poorly executed one.

    And to be fair this is true of everyone in society to a degree. In our society you develope certain expectations of certain situations. If those expectations are met do you appreciate what went into it? Do you get irked if your expectations are not met? Ask yourself this, if you spent more than five minutes in a fast food drive through, would you be wondering “It’s normally much faster than this. I wonder if someone is hurt?” What if someone was hurt? What if the person working the grill found out their signifcant other had left them that morning? What if the person working the deep frier found out their grandmothe had passed away? Truth is, none of that matters to you as a customer. Your expectation is complete a transaction in a speedy manner and if your exepecation is not met anger is quick to ensue.

    I don’t think any of us will ever recapture the wonder and amazement of the first time we ever saw fireworks. We grow accustomed to them to a degree and audiences are the same with CGI.

    1. Except CGI can’t be compared to fireworks any more than wood can be compared to a table or a chair.
      CGI is just a medium, it can be used for literally anything, just like a sculptor uses stone and a painter uses paint, a CG artist uses a computer.
      Crap and boredom comes out of anywhere, as well as brilliance.

      1. I have idea what a comparison of wood to table or chair is about.

        But the comparison of fireworks as spectacle to CGI as spectacle is a very reasonable.

        spec·ta·cle   /ˈspɛktəkəl/ Show Spelled[spek-tuh-kuhl] Show IPA
        1. anything presented to the sight or view, especially something of a striking or impressive kind: The stars make a fine spectacle tonight.
        2. a public show or display, especially on a large scale: The coronation was a lavish spectacle.

        What people find impressive grows more scarce as they become increasingly overstimulated (or even just moderately stimulated on a near non-stop basis.) I maintain they are numb to big effect and blind to the subtle ones (in this the CG team knows how the sound guys feel.)

        In my lost post, (I wasn’t going to go through this again), I brought up that some people think of CGI as the icing on the cake. I rather think of it as more like hot sauce.
        It adds a “kick” to the presentation.
        It must be used in the proper amount so as have the desired effect.
        Some things require alot.
        Some things need just a touch.
        Too much can overpower something.
        No amount can save a bad effort.
        It should never be a substition for the base on which it is served.

        1. If the VFX does not enhance/contribute to the story, I don’t care if it was the most subtle of things the artist took care of, I don’t care if he/she spend a week meditating high up in the mountains and another one in front of the computer and how costly it was.

          Especially costly, how knowing how costly it was is going to make me appreciate certain effect more?

          //I’m sorry, this was written in a flash in ‘rage mode’, tone it down in your mind and don’t take it personally, it wasn’t meant to be offensive.


  6. Spot on!. ditto ‘the level of realism in vfx now is so stunning ‘ . Just saw 2 films at TIFF this year in which the fx work was totally invisible(which it should be) and just supported the story. The Impossible and Kon-Tiki. We’ve come a long way!

  7. The Pitch..
    Aliens vs Predator vs Spiderman vs Thor vs Transformers vs The Hulk vs Batman vs Superman vs Jason Bourne vs Resident Evil vs Harry Potter vs the Hobit …..the breakfast cereal, …..THE GAME !

  8. I love the industry echo chamber where gross generalizations get repeated until they become accepted facts.

    I keep trying to find this “box office slump trend” that industry watchers claim exists and yet year-over-year box office (with the exception of a few single-year blips) has been steadily increasing since 2001 from $8+ billion to $10+ billion in domestic revenue alone. We had two vfx films gross over a billion dollars each this year!

    Currently we sit at over $7 billion domestic with the holiday season yet to go. The will likely be a down year, but still over $9 billion in gross domestic revenue; temporarily down but still part of an overall upward trend.

    Traditionally strong weekends are down and individual big budget films may fail but the “slump” and “jaded audiences” are a manufactured tall-tale by industry watchers that the numbers just don’t back up. Hell, increases in international box office more than compensate for the slight domestic downturn this year. Foreign revenue is insane and they LOVE vfx films.

  9. Great article Mike!
    And lets not forget that some stories couldn’t have been told (screened) without visual effects.
    Cheers Mike.

  10. As VFX get better…. the scripts get worse. As Hollywood spends more and more on VFX, the box office grows… internationally as well. The box office goes up, intelligence goes down. Pretty soon, VFX movies will be so dumbed down they’ll be called video games.

  11. I’ve read both articles and I think you guys are talking about different things.

    Mike, you are on about technology, which is great, but problem solving or not..it’s just not interesting anymore.
    How do I care if the sweat beads in real-time or not? Or that textures are captured in some freaky way.
    Creativity was never about the tech itself, it’s what you do with it.

    I did not enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean (along with many other films) because of some moving tentacles (yes, they were quite nice) but because of the great acting of Nightly, Depp and Bloom!
    Benjamin Button? It was an interesting story, and it would have been even if they didn’t invent half of the tech
    to do it but instead cheated in a much cheaper way!

    I’ll have to agree with David, however it could be just a quiet period, we had many of those before.

    Smooth Criminal

  12. However, don’t you think it’s more interesting to watch the “making-of” documentary of films made before, say, 2000?

    Before CGI became the standard solution to just about everything, effects were so much more diverse. Miniatures, cloud tanks, mirrors, stop-moton, animatronics, optical printers, etc. – every solution had an unique, clever design trying to break the rules of the real world to which it was bound. Learing “how’d they do that” was so much more exciting before the ubiquitous answer became “computers”.

    Of course, there are plenty of unique, clever things going on at the bleeding edge of VFX, but I’m afraid they’re only interesting to us fxguide readers.

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