Jeff Barnes Talks VFX & VES

Bill Desowitz chats with Jeff Barnes, co-founder of The ComputerCafe Group and the new chairman of the VES, about the state of VFX and the Society's new direction.

Jeff Barnes' plate is full these days. His ComputerCafe Group encompasses The Syndicate, CafeFX and Sententia Ent., plus he's the new chairman of the VES. Here he speaks at the last VES awards. © Spelling Communications.

With Jeff Barnes recently becoming the new chair of the VES, and the flurry of projects at The ComputerCafe Group (which encompasses feature film visual effects company CafeFX, commercial visual effects and design division, The Syndicate, and feature film production division, Sententia Entertainment.), we thought it was a good opportunity to discuss his increasingly important role in the industry.

Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with an update on The ComputerCafe Group and the launch of your character animation division.

Jeff Barnes: We kicked that off at CafeFX with Pan's Labyrinth, really, and then we moved onto The Mist. After that we did Nim's Island and now we're working on a project they won't let me talk about.

BD: Is it for this year or next year?

JB: It's probably going to come out next year.

BD: Is there a lot of character work?

JB: There are a couple of big characters in it. It's substantial work.

BD: How would you characterize the division at this point?

JB: Our animation supervisor, James Straus is brilliant. He's obviously very experienced and the crew really likes him. He's a forward thinker, a creative thinker. The thing that impresses me the most is that he's so impassioned about the craft. He's so, so into it, which is great. That's something you can't pay for. It's good for overall morale.

BD: How large is the division now?

JB: We recently delivered a several shows and at our peak so I think we were up to 15 or so. We're currently at around 12.

BD: So character animation is definitely becoming a specialty of yours.

JB: You know, the industry right now is going through a lot of changes, with the globalization happening. Rates have gone down and incentives have affected all of us in some way, shape or form. So a lot of people are trying to figure out what's the best way to be positioned as a company in order to capture the most amount of work or have the possibility to capture the most amount of work and still be efficient with the quality and be effective with the end product. So this is kind of an experiment for us.

CafeFX kicked off its animation work with Pan's Labyrinth in 2006. © Warner Bros. Pictures. Courtesy of CafeFX.

BD: So where are you headed?

JB: That's interesting. Right now, I'd say it's a little slower than normal. A lot of the studios are holding off on pushing projects through because of the potential SAG strike in June. We're lucky to have good board flow in bidding, and we just delivered Speed Racer last week.

BD: What can you tell us about that?

JB: We're not allowed to say anything, other than we did a sequence of about 80-100 shots. And we recently wrapped up work on The Happening, which is the M. Night [Shyamalan] movie.

BD: How was that?

JB: That turned out cool.

BD: Can you talk about that at all?

JB: Not yet. It was mostly a lot of compositing job.

BD: Let's talk about John Adams and Shine a Light.

JB: John Adams was a big project for us. We worked with [Visual Effects Supervisor] Erik Henry on that. We've worked with Erik on six or seven projects over the years, so he's like family. We did about 400 shots. It was all types of work -- a lot of matte painting, set extensions. HBO was very happy with the work and the show itself has been very successful. The Shine a Light project was done mostly out of our south office in Santa Monica. We built some CG Manhattan that a virtual camera flies over at the close of the film. Mr. Scorsese was happy, so we're happy. We're working on another film with him, but I'm not allowed to discuss that.

BD: Any new projects coming out your in-house feature production division, Sententia Entertainment.

JB: We have a few scripts that we're developing. One's a non-mainstream CG feature. Not Toy Story -- it's a little darker. And we have a comedy project and a low-budget sci-fi project that we're developing that are all live action. We've optioned a book as well with another production company, but we haven't started on the script.

BD: Can you tell us more about the CG project?

JB: It's a futuristic project that has to do with nanotechnology taking over the world.

BD: Sounds like the potential for a lot of ambitious CG.

JB: Yeah, we like it that way.

The ComputerCafe Group just delivered a sequence of about 80-100 shots for Speed Racer. © Warner Bros. Pictures

BD: It will keep your character team busy, I'm sure.

JB: There's actually a lot of environment work as well.

BD: Sounds like you're becoming more diverse.

JB: We still don't know what we want to be when we grow up.

BD: Let's switch gears and talk about your new role as chairman of the VES.

JB: I was very honored to be chosen for that position. I didn't totally expect it.

BD: How much campaigning goes on?

JB: Basically what they do is every year positions get voted on, and some people term out, and this last year we had a big term out for board members. I'm told it was one of the biggest influxes of new board people that they've had for a while. I hadn't considered running because I'd only been on the board a year before that -- actually a board alternate. Somebody mentioned to me that I should consider it. I said it was very flattering but no thank you. Then a couple of other people mentioned the same thing, so it started getting me thinking about it. And I talked to some past board chairs to see if I could contribute in some effective ways to the society. I went back and forth on it for a while and thought I would do it if I could make a difference in some constructive way. So now they have me doing that and it's great because it gets everybody in a room that have a diverse background in visual effects. It's very interesting because you get exposed to a lot of challenges and concepts that you normally wouldn't get exposed to if you're in a specific sector of the business. With visual effects, like anything else, there are a lot of specialties, as you know. So sitting with that group -- and there are some very experienced people that I have a high regard for -- so, quite frankly, the first meeting was a little intimidating. I'm starting to settle in now.

John Adams was a big project for Barnes and his team. They created about 400 shots comprised of matte paintings and set extensions. © HBO.

BD: Let's talk about some of the challenges.

JB: Well, I can talk to you about things we're trying to do. We're trying to basically set a new direction for the Society. In the past, there's been some controversy over what the Society provides to its members. We are a Society, not a guild or a union, so I think sometimes people confuse us with one of those. And we are global too. People may want answers to concerns that are happening in the States, but we have to be mindful of our global commitment to the community.

BD: Speaking of which, the VES is partnered with fmx for the first time this year in Stuttgart. And you will be speaking about globalization.

JB: Yes, I look forward to attending next month. So it's very important that when we consider various aspects of an issue that it's something that benefits the Society globally. So we're very excited about a new direction, where we're trying to form relationships with other guilds and groups like the ASC and the Art Directors Guild. We're talking with them about doing some events in the future.

BD: In fact, I had the pleasure of moderating a previs panel for the Art Directors Guild in December.

JB: I really wanted to go to that and heard it turned out great.

BD: Yes, it introduced an important dialog between various groups.

JB: Basically, a lot of our members are very technically savvy and act as a kind of glue to the other practioners in terms of art direction and cinematography. But the whole landscape is changing because of the digital workflow.

BD: Yes, there's a whole new paradigm.

JB: Yes, there is and some people are embracing it and some are intimidated by it. We feel to some degree that it's a little bit our responsibility because we are considered by many to be the experts in that area to help forge pipelines and understandings between the other organizations, so we can all be more productive together. So that's really what the new direction is all about, and educating the key decision makers on the studio level about the importance of visual effects.

Character animation has become a specialty for CafeFX. Above is recent work the studio did for Nim's Island. © Fox Walden. Courtesy of CafeFX.

BD: I understand that there won't be a festival this year.

JB: Yes, that's true. We're in the process of planning a new event that I can't talk about yet that we're shooting for in October. This will be more of a business conference dealing with many of the challenges and questions that have been ongoing. We also want to deal with some of the more business-type topics related to visual effects and standardizations… things like color and more discussions about stereo and those kinds of digital workflows. And finding ways for more consistencies and standards and practices. We'd like to get a lot of big minds together in a relaxed environment for a few days to try and work through some of that stuff.

BD: And you're launching a white papers program.

JB: Yes, that's correct. The first one's going to be the state of visual effects. We'll be looking at key issues like the eroding lines of the production phases; some of the demands and new roles of the new production process; some roles may go away and some new roles may form out of this.

BD: Again, the new non-linear digital paradigm, which means new collaborative roles.

JB: Yes. And we're trying to get the industry -- studios, producers and so forth -- to really understand visual effects: that it's not fast, easy and cheap to do. There's a lot of work involved in doing it correctly.

BD: You'd think they'd understand that by now.

JB: Well, you and I understand that but some of our clients may not. So the studios keep pushing and pushing for faster and cheaper, and the concern by many of us is that at some point it's going to backfire on somebody in a pretty big way. We're just trying to educate the [VES] membership and the industry as a whole as to ways that we can still achieve cost savings and some of those speed efficiencies, and also, how to be a little better and more organized in certain ways. That's going to be part of the paper. And we're working fast and furiously to get the first one done very soon.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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