The largest cost in visual effects is not labor it is waste due to lack of live pure direction.
Wasted time, wasted money, and even worse, wasted creativity. On the traditional movie set the meter is always on. Each second costs money. The director is compelled to be present at all costs.
In February 2010 Lee Stranahan wrote an open letter for the Huffington Post titled “Open Letter to James Cameron: Fairness For Visual Effects Artists”. This letter had a tremendous impact and helped launch the conversation we are still having today about the state of the industry. We spoke with Stranahan on the fxpodcast: An Open Letter to James Cameron.
Since that time others have followed the idea of using the open letter including the Visual Effects Society, releasing a “VES Open Letter – Call to Action”.
Today Dave Rand has taken to the Open Letter in an appeal to the Directors Guild of America. We have spoken with Rand several times starting in 2008 – unpaid artists and most recently in February following the VFX Townhall. In this open letter he asks directors to become more engaged in the visual effects process, talks about the bidding process, the history of mistreatment of artists and much more.
The letter is very long and covers a lot of topics but at the core it is an attempt to identify one issue in the discussion of why visual effects films sometime fail and how costs can run out of control. Rand has been at five visual effects companies that have closed or left artists unpaid and most recently was at Rhythm and Hues during the bankruptcy. He will be part of a panel at SIGGRAPH 2013: The State of the Visual Effects Industry, Thursday July 25, 2:00pm – 3:30pm – Anaheim Convention Center Ballroom AB.
You should read the entire letter but we want to highlight this paragraph:
“In this world, the lonely visual effects artists will make what they think is the right image based on a paragraph, an email, someone whirling their hands about in a circular motion on a fuzzy video chat, or worse with a little red laser dot or a transmitted and childlike mouse drawn overlay. After this guess work, their lead will suggest changes, the sequence supervisor will suggest changes, the shops vfx supervisor will suggest changes. The artist finds themselves on version fifty and the vfx supervisor on the client side has not even seen a thing yet…never mind the director, or the studio executive holding the strings and stirring the pot. Supervisors add their colors to the mix until the palette is a bland brown. Wash, rinse, repeat this waste. Wasted time, wasted energy, wasted creativity and eventually the most valuable software you have, the mind of the artist, gets the virus of apathy, and valuable creativity is stunted and lost. The system that is in place becomes a creative tomb, the movie gets a cryptic version of what it could have contained and this all slips past us and is unmeasurable… until it fails.”
UPDATE: The link to the full letter is having trouble keeping up with demand, with permission we include the full text here:
An Open Letter to the Directors Guild of America
This letter reflects upon twenty years of roaming under the glass in the visual effects world. I’ve traveled through some very successful digital endeavors during that time, sadly though, I’ve traveled through far more failed ones. I’ve worked on every type of product: feature films, feature animation, games, commercials, music videos, educational videos.. you name it.
I began formal art training when I was very young but maintained “side jobs” along the way. Prior to my visual effects career I was in finance with a top Wall St. firm, Oppenheimer. Prior to that I owned a successful construction company in New England, and prior to that I worked with emotionally disturbed adults… I’m drawing on all of these experiences as I relay these observations.
Please forgive some of my descriptions as this letter is also written for our audiences and the executives that govern us. Some of its parts will seem obvious to you as a director, but I’ve expanded upon some ideas for the sake of others.
This is the the dark meat that the white pages left out. I’ve no allegiance to anyone but my fellow artists. My message is positive and direct.
I’ll begin with the words of one of our greatest authors:
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”
– John Steinbeck
I’ll hold here for a bit while some of you yell at Steinbeck. Go ahead. How dare he! There are great collaborations, what about the Stones? What about NASA? What does he mean?
I’ve been on some terribly bad direction-less shows, and some magnificent ones with great focus. One great success went against part of Steinbeck’s premise ….it had two directors and a subtle yet effective creative hierarchy. Why did it work? They respected us and our ideas as if we were human mirrors reflecting the essence of the story back to the directors. All of us breathing the same air, and breathing it every day in the same creative space. The group built and extended their miracle of creation, and we felt creatively alive and a vibrant part to a pure story. We created something that was truly amazing and amazingly profitable.
Our long history of authors, painters, and song writers telling us their tales directly has sold millions of books, paintings, and songs. Whatever the reason it’s how we humans relate, how we recognize the human face. It’s how we’ve done it for a very long time.
Read the quote on creativity again after this letter, and maybe your objections will have diminished a bit, at least you may find that the exceptions are far fewer than his rule, and that maybe there’s a great clue for us all in there.
I know there is for visual effects.
Stories told by a crowd of people speaking over each other are just noise. How many times have we witnessed this only to request that one person tell us what happened while the rest “quiet down please”. Imagery created by a crowd can suffer the same fate. It introduces an area of transmission that is easily warped and diluted when too many brushes are on the same glass. There are no masterpieces from a mob of painters.
Great direction purifies the vital visual stream making it alive and real with the singularity of vision much like that of a novel. Words describe everything as the reader quietly assembles the lonely fragile experience. Stephen King, a man who’s sold a few books, describes this as a delicate form of telepathy, one mind to another, author to reader, human to human, with simple paper and ink between them. I believe the answer to success in visual effects lies in the simplicity of human interaction. Taking advantage of every seen and unforeseen aspect of it and sharing in living space. If I could sum it up my observations in one sentence, it would be this:
The largest cost in visual effects is not labor it is waste due to lack of live pure direction.
Wasted time, wasted money, and even worse, wasted creativity. On the traditional movie set the meter is always on. Each second costs money. The director is compelled to be present at all costs. Like author to reader. For a century directors have been in the same human space as the talent on the set, and the focus is paramount and sharp. Waste is minimized. The pace is lively. Creativity is nurtured. The story is pure. It feels human. If feels this way by instinct, it’s perceptible yet elusive to instruments. It is only really measurable by one beautiful indication: People flocking to its purity with mind, purse, and wallet open.
Communication in visual effects is no longer live, it’s gone in vitro. It’s long been known that a baby can recognize a human face at birth. No one knows why. This very first human communication is one clue of many to the depths of our innate ability to communicate. You could raise your children by video conference, but you’d pay a price. Speaking to your mother on the phone is light years away from speaking to her in person. This easily goes undisputed. We can sense these differences as easily as we sense the sun, but the mystery as to why they exist is far from solved. We know so little about human communication but are blessed with the instinct to feel certain truths about it. Lack of understanding of these principles is no reason to dismiss them, especially when a product that so deeply depends on absolute communication, focus, and direction involves substantial investment risk. Sums of one hundred, two hundred, even four hundred million are being invested in the telling of these stories …some seeing over a billion or more come back, some do not. Could it be because we are gambling on ignoring heart felt principles simply because we have yet to devise an immediate way to measure them?
The arrival of digital visual effects has made story telling limitless. It can be deceiving. The only limitations are the ones imposed by us. “We can” does not always mean “we should”. We can now send imagery over a wire, under the ocean, through glass, and bounce it off birds in space but we’ve distanced ourselves from the human element in creativity, and we’ve cut off the director from the human artists that are often creating most of the screen space. Creative hierarchies have evolved instead of creative circles. All are meaning well, but each one can be a lens of distortion. That impurity that a child can sense, leaks out all over the place. Lost under the ocean, lost in space, lost in the translation. Our Imagery is trickery and it has tricked us.
The temptation to outsource to cheap labor locations or to chase political bribes for votes around the globe has become fire control by gasoline, and it’s money that’s burning rather than being saved as intended. The purity Steinbeck describes is now a murky blend of ideas under a web of wires and broken connections flung around the globe completely removing the human vitamin from the creativity meant to be consumed by humans, void of nutrition, becoming processed junk food, an eye candy piñata, dumb and short lived.
The nature of the screen and its transmission of story by light and sound is already placing one layer of glass between the audience and the humanness of the creation. Compounding the problem by introducing an endless series of lenses removes the audience further with each step. Rows of fun house mirrors. The picture becomes more warped with each reflection. Sometimes there’s just a bubble, a nick, sometimes a deep scar on top of what could have been. If we default to one clean looking glass between story teller and audience, the movie screen, we default to the most profitable target and our best shot. I don’t believe we should abandon the internet, it is a great tool for distribution of ideas assembled live, but has serious limitations when it comes to human creativity and human communication. It’s missing vast parts of the spectrum we have yet to identify but we know exist.
We are raising our “children”, our stories by video conference and we are paying a price. You may have quickly considered this an exaggeration when first introduced to it above. You may even have leapt to the convenient conclusion that film making has nothing to do with that kind of family attention, focus, love, and care.
I’d suggest that you don’t tell those that are giving you the helm of hundreds of millions of dollars that you feel that way.
…and definitely don’t tell them that over the phone.
This just makes everyone lazy and the murky mess above, worse.
Face it, no one is bidding anything on this planet the way visual effects vendors have been as they all fail miserably. Rhythm was grasping its Oscar in one hand while its feet where standing in bankruptcy court. Shameful really for industry to allow that to happen, we were all bankrupt that day. No other component of the production comes anywhere near the fatality we are seeing in visual effects. Visual effects vendors build skyscrapers based on a napkin drawings and then are told to tear them down and rebuild them on their own dime. They say they’d need to examine our books if we worked on billable hours? Lawyers and plumbers and construction contractors don’t have to…why should we? Talent and branding is proof enough. No one else in production or in post production are bidding themselves into bankruptcy.
Who’s masterminded this stuff?
Hollywood is wearing its fear on its sleeve? What are they so afraid of? That visual effects artists and vendors will organize if not kept in a weakened state ? Prize race horses don’t ever get beaten or purposely run into walls. We try to make sense of this.
Doing visual effects on fixed prices seem advantageous to an oligopoly, but contains vast undercurrents of deep disadvantages to the story, promoting dilution, waste, lack of direction, and the resulting and immeasurable financial loss. I think we’ve seen enough proof of that. No need to repeat the experiment. Math classes won’t help the masters of subtraction.
The director is no longer required to be involved with the visual effects talent. They are spoon fed their monthlies from the black box by a creative hierarchy. They are just an occasional spectator. Direction has been subcontracted and lost. Stories are manufactured assembly line style based on last years best selling model, and all out of fear instead of creativity. The eye candy piñata will hang tight for one more round. The meter is off.
In this world, the lonely visual effects artists will make what they think is the right image based on a paragraph, an email, someone whirling their hands about in a circular motion on a fuzzy video chat, or worse with a little red laser dot or a transmitted and childlike mouse drawn overlay. After this guess work, their lead will suggest changes, the sequence supervisor will suggest changes, the shops vfx supervisor will suggest changes. The artist finds themselves on version fifty and the vfx supervisor on the client side has not even seen a thing yet…never mind the director, or the studio executive holding the strings and stirring the pot. Supervisors add their colors to the mix until the palette is a bland brown. Wash, rinse, repeat this waste. Wasted time, wasted energy, wasted creativity and eventually the most valuable software you have, the mind of the artist, gets the virus of apathy, and valuable creativity is stunted and lost. The system that is in place becomes a creative tomb, the movie gets a cryptic version of what it could have contained and this all slips past us and is unmeasurable… until it fails.
ARTISTS ARE STARVING
Abuse of artists is a 500 year old story dating back to the first renaissance. Mistreatment of artists by those empowering them. If Pope Julius was aware of how he’d be remembered I wonder if he’d have treated Michelangelo better. Paid him on time, allowed him solace and stability, and not threatened him with blindness and damnation. After all Michelangelo’s works went on to be priceless and lasting bringing revenue to Rome and the world’s museums into eternity.
People write their own history. This is more pronounced today than in any other time in history.
The Popes of the first renaissance have been replaced by suits in this second one, that’s all.
The rest literally is history repeating itself under the microscope of social media.
How do you want to be remembered?
Maslow pointed it out so well. It’s that psych 101 stuff they made us read right along with that Steinbeck stuff in high school. A foundation. Basic needs first, then safety and security, then social and family needs, then self esteem. Only after these needs are met can you reach the level of self actualization and be CREATIVE. Without them we are building our billion dollar skyscrapers on foundations of muck. We forget that the most valuable software we have in the visual effects industry is not the new way to make everything splashing in hundreds of thousands of gallons of digital water…. it’s the minds of the visual effects artists. Those prize race horses, them golden gooses. So why are you allowing them to be beaten to death? What? because they’ll form a union, self heal, and give you more than you ever dreamed?
We are production on virtually all the most profitable movies. The practical set has become pre-production. Visual effects are telling so much of the story, filling up most of the screen, yet the artists are treated like an after thought of by so many, or simply forgotten completely because no one really interacts with them. The artists feel like the child in the fable that screams “The emperor is not wearing any clothes!” Sadly, we, the visual effects artists, are actually the invisible ones. You would know this if you could make a habit of speaking with them.
Is Avatar vs Aliens a go picture? Have we gone over the edge? Do we really have to jump the shark to get it? Can Morgan Freeman have just one day off? Just one?
The illusion of profits can hide you from profits lost and impending collapse. The fable of the old timer panning for gold in a river lush with the shiny stuff repeatedly stumbles and spills most of his catch then breaks the back of his horse by over burdening it. Hailed as the greatest miner of all time for a bit in town, but quickly replaced by more efficient younger men who saw what he was actually doing.
Studios used to hire and manage their own visual effects artists. Some still do, the feature animation studios, focus is often great, bidding is replaced by budgets. Outsourcing and chasing subsidies is being attempted but not depended on, not yet anyway. All the large feature production studios, however, abandoned the in-house team completely for an outsourcing model, they may have given the appearance of managing risk, but they’ve abandoned so much of what was working. Maybe it’s time to take a look at what has evolved and how it has effected this great resource that they all still depend on. Was it worth the trade off to protect your small farm while turning the entire town into a creative dust bowl? One that will eventually swallow the very crops you sought to protect?
It would make more sense to open up “…WOODS” around the globe than to scatter creativity over wires and glass and take advantage of local direction and visual effects talent. Or at least move one person, the director, instead of one thousand artists, like numb cattle from place to place.
Tap into local stories and culture. Try new stuff on for size made by real humans working in real space, sharing real creativity with daily direction from a real person. Get the politicians off the take and out of our religion. Allow our sister nations to build their own foundations again rather than disguising subsidies as something other than what it really is….a tool to keep the fences up and the new comers out. Maybe a few of us will even settle down, buy a home, raise a family, and hit that coveted top notch in the hierarchy of basic human needs. That one that invokes maximum creativity. Giving you all we’ve got creatively in return.
We could spend time expanding our knowledge base rather than learning a new one every time a visual effects vendor goes bankrupt, because some politician pushed a button, or some careless executive felt he was not doing his job unless he put at least one VFX shop out of business while making his picture. Carelessly wiping years of collective work off the table like a sand painting.
It would be better if we can all live enriched lives. It’s a far better model for all of our futures. The studios that have given us such great adventures can continue doing so. No one should be afraid and implode over fear. All of us need to support the home team, and the world team, and their home teams.
I’ve been on teams and organized teams where the director is present on a daily basis as some of our directors really get this, and the ones that do are the most successful. The difference is ASTOUNDING. It does not take much effort. I’ve organized the visual effects crews for successful shows with one of your great directors that came in at one half of the lowest bidder from subsidized areas while working without subsidies on billable hours, director present, not all day, but every day walking amongst the artists, even sitting besides them working on shots, just for the sheer fun of it.
You do not have to sit there “watching paint dry” but if you do not personally witness the creation on a daily basis with the actual artists making it, you will be witness to money, value, creativity, and profits burning. The visual effects industry does not need on-line math lessons to heal…addition maybe….but they’ve got subtraction down to a sad science in your absence. We need you the director, present in body and mind, and we need that meter running again ..live and in real time, creative humans face to face, eye to eye, mind to mind.
This is how I’m trying to give back. Submitting my observations for review. My two cents. I want to write my little part of history in this second Renaissance. All I really have is my experience. I hope some of these thoughts ring true.
Most of the visual effects artists and vendors seldom speak out because we live in fear rather than creativity. If you agree with these insights, even some of them, we need you, the director, to tell the studios you currently work for that there’s a better way to work. They’ll listen to you. Shooting green screens from dumb scripts is easy and safe, hanging that eye candy piñata…. safe. We can do so much better. We all desperately need your help and direction.
July 23, 2013
You can read the entire open letter here in it’s original formatting: