In this months Digital Eye, Scott Dougherty, the co-founder/head of production at Furious FX, discusses the rise and resilience of smaller facilities in the visual effects community.
With the Halloween season upon us, thoughts turn to images of a mad (or sanity-challenged) scientist lurking through the shadows, searching for materials he will stitch together to create his masterwork.
Building something new from what has existed before is a familiar pursuit, and has been since before Mary Shelley first wrote of Dr. Frankenstein and his desire to breathe life into the lifeless. Fast forward to 2003, and the closing of a 10-year old visual effects company, and this tale assumes true form.
When the news of Cinesite Hollywoods closing first hit, there was too much going on to think beyond the immediate needs: finishing work for projects in-house, determining exit plans for 200-plus employees, taking inventory, shipping equipment to the London office, and wrapping up all outstanding issues before the mass exodus would make such tasks nearly impossible.
Weeks quickly passed, as talented artists and production personnel were welcomed by the large studios a tremendous relief for me, the executive producer. While various departments finished their work and were released to new jobs, the questions most often uttered through the desolate hallways were whats next? or how can we keep a sense of this place alive?
Perhaps it was the hectic and emotional nature of that time, or our what have we got to lose attitude about trying something new, but my co-founding partner David Lingenfelser and I thought the time was right to open a facility of our own, bringing along the best elements of that previous experience. Though the company that had introduced us both to visual effects no longer represented the long-term business model, we could take the pieces that worked and hope to figure out the rest of the puzzle along the way. Thus began our tinkering in the lab.
While getting any start-up off the ground is no easy task, the timing may have been ideal. There was that same feeling from back when the first digital facilities ushered in a whole new method by which visual effects were created. During the decade since the early 90s, developments in technology had allowed a desk-side computer tower to render the same images once processed by rows of refrigerator-sized machines.
The emergence of cost-effective hardware and software made starting ones own digital business possible, and our initial resources were those that we could unplug at home, load into the back seats of our cars, and bring to the office. In fact, our first shots were output on machines we already owned, and it wasnt until a few projects booked that we took the plunge and bought Mac G5s solely for the company.
At the same time technology was becoming accessible, however, financial incentives from abroad seemed to be drawing film production and related visual effects work away from L.A. more than ever before. Oddly enough, the struggle to keep work in town may have contributed to the success of many fledgling companies opening at this time. To help explain that theory, it would be good to have some background on these newcomers.
Several smaller houses such as Furious FX, often miscategorized as boutiques, began to emerge as mid-sized companies found it difficult to balance the resources needed to compete for higher end work. To avoid draining funds during downtime, these facilities never grew or retained an ample staff needed for the award of entire large-scale projects, and the ramp-up for complex shows was steep. Thus, the strategy meant to protect them was also impeding their ultimate success.
Smaller businesses face the same issue to a degree. Namely, how does one maintain a low-overhead structure while still being a valued, multifaceted player in the vfx game? There is always the niche market (or true boutique), where one can provide a particular skill at a reasonable rate that makes the handing off of these services a worthwhile consideration for larger companies, or filmmakers with limited effects needs. Becoming a full-service shop, albeit a compact one, can entail a more careful balancing act.
The good news for facilities like FFX is that we sometimes get the opportunity to demonstrate our abilities on a grander scale than we may initially be perceived. Many studios, producers and supervisors will look toward smaller houses as a resource for work that exceeds the capacity of a larger vendor focused on difficult CG shots. When it comes to initial impressions, size often matters, and convincing potential clients that we have the same types of artists, talent, hardware and software packages as other businesses in town can be an uphill battle. While it may not always be feasible to take on an entire project given its (and our) size, we can easily deliver a substantial number of shots, and even a handful of the most complex sequences.
What we have found works in our favor is that a smaller facility can prove itself through a combination of creativity and throughput to win over long-term supporters. With the pressure to keep work based in L.A. while maintaining a budget, studios are anxious to find secret weapons in the form of reliable, low-overhead vendors. Having already worked with so many visual effects supervisors and producers while with our former employer, we at Furious FX benefit from colleagues already familiar with our staffs capabilities, and that comfort level goes a long way.
This same building of trust has also nurtured relationships between visual effects companies. The struggle to feed the Hollywood film community has created a peaceful coexistence for small and large facilities alike. Budget-conscious productions now have the option of awarding their medium-sized projects to a single company, or dividing more substantial ones between several cost-effective outlets. Larger players can still take on entire effects-heavy shows, though they can also work with smaller farm-out vendors to keep their own personnel costs down, thus allowing them to manage more than one such project at any given time.
Even Furious FX has used this approach over the past few years. We originally staffed up with seasoned generalists who could handle multiple tasks, though when the number of shots awarded per project went from 20 to more than100, a more streamlined process was required. That is where the specialty company and independent contractor have come into play. These options allow for the luxury of full to part-time paint, rotoscope or tracking experts, while further developing relationships between the smaller one-stop shop and those that have opted to tailor their businesses to fit a particular skillset.
For all practical purposes, there is enough work for all of us in the digital food chain. The tricky part is balancing everything out at the end of the day. As we vfx studios find ourselves working alongside each other, or able to help one another through the workflow highs and lows, the better this balance will become.
As far as what makes the smaller facility work, I can only speak from our experience. First is the support of fellow professionals who have given us the chance to provide the same quality service as when we were backed by a corporation. That is the initial step to overcome, as those who want to offer support may not yet have the blessing of a studio that requires a proven track record. Once projects begin to award, and all expectations are consistently met, the focus shifts to developing that visual effects utopia we all strive to become.
Our approach has been to populate the office with exceptionally talented artists and production personnel who share the same sense of responsibility and a desire to produce high quality images. The FFX staff is primarily made up of people with whom we have collaborated for nearly a decade. That factor alone provides a sense of security while making for an extremely efficient workplace. Everyone can focus on what they need to do, knowing that the rest of the team is equally as dedicated and capable of completing their tasks. Not to mention, the opportunity to work among friendly, familiar faces provides a tremendous boost to morale, and makes us appreciate coming into work every day.
Assembling this dream team took some time, since a once tightly knit community was spread out all over town as soon as the one facility closed, and we were still drawing up blueprints for our own digital creation. Eventually gaps in production schedules coincided, and we can now say our crew has never been stronger.
Maintaining an ace staff has enabled us to surpass the 1,000 shot mark in two-and-a-half years, with an average of only 12 employees split between artists and production. Clients often marvel at the work created by this small but elite group. Our size, which has grown to a maximum of 18 during the heaviest times, allows for a balance between creating many diverse visual effects while avoiding the inevitable distractions brought on by managing a much larger crew.
As for client interaction, our philosophy is that things run more smoothly when everyone plays from the same deck of cards. Full disclosure has been the rule since this approach tends to be more streamlined. Topics for open discussion might include our hard costs, client budgets, coinciding projects in-house, the difficulty of shot revisions and honesty when a requested change is really no biggie. A bit of give and take has enabled us to cut to the chase more often and avoid extraneous memos when a friendly handshake will do.
Perhaps this model for a successful, smaller-scale visual effects facility can be applied to other areas of production. Keep things manageable, attract key talent, and work alongside clients and fellow companies to create a larger team with similar goals. Surely the desire for combined success from all parties has helped us achieve a notable position in the visual effects market, while rekindling a spark from the past that may have otherwise been extinguished.
This theme of breathing life back into something that deserves a second chance has references beyond Shelleys gothic prose of the 1800s. In what could be comic book poetic justice, I sometimes find it interesting that the last shot on which David and I collaborated before opening our own business featured X-Mens Jean Grey escaping death through rebirth as the fiery Phoenix. Now theres a coincidence right out of a movie.
Scott Dougherty founded Furious FX with visual effects supervisor David Lingenfelser in early 2004, following a decade with Cinesite Hollywood that began as a one-week temp assignment. Prior to this experience, he was a production manager/coordinator and art department assistant for several feature films after graduating from Northwestern University and moving to Los Angeles sight unseen.
Furious FX is currently in production on
Spider-Man 3, Eragon and The Heartbreak Kid, having recently completed this years releases Invincible, The Guardian, The Covenant, Flicka and upcoming Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.