Last week's VES Summit offered a snapshot of new opportunities and challenges facing VFX.
While last Saturday's annual VES Summit (held once again at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey) focused on the intersection between creative content and the business bottom line, Digital Domain dominated the discussion. Co-founder and former CEO Scott Ross implored the industry to get behind a trade association and stand up to the studios, while new CEO Ed Ulbrich discussed the reboot of DD 3.0, which he said was more like 1.0 so far.
"The business is much too warm and cuddly," Ross protested. He said the studios need to take on directors when movies get out of control and the VFX companies need to wield their power to negotiate better compensation with the studios. He's all for unionization but declared that it's a question of timing and now is not the time. Better to first form a trade association to begin banding together in solidarity.
Ulbrich said the recent $30.2 million bankruptcy sale to Beijing Galloping Horse and India's Reliance has been a wild ride. The federal court ruling got rushed through in a record nine days because DD demonstrated how much VFX business hung in the balance (albeit anonymously because of non-disclosure agreements with various studios). In addition to buying DD studios in Venice and Vancouver, the new owners also get DD's co-production stake in next year's Ender's Game sci-fi adventure.
They paired up like Survivor and now DD has the capitalization to continue as a thriving VFX studio. What went wrong? He said their various initiatives just didn't come together as smoothly as they planned. They intend on focusing on the VFX business, but they'd still like to dabble in the content game whenever possible and they plan on developing their side holographic initiative. Eventually they may open a VFX studio in China as well. "We need to send people over there to help close the [talent] gap. Going to India allows us to mature in LA by scaling up with larger projects. India is part of the future of the VFX business."
Ulbrich emphasized that we're operating in "a culture of frugality" and operating cash flow. It's best to focus on what you do well and being opportunistic. "From one day to the next, I didn't know if I was saving the company. It was like Indiana Jones with the ball running at me."
Speaking of VFX business, a discussion about tax incentives was led by two Walt Disney Co. vets: Mary Ann Hughes, VP, Film and Television Production Planning, and Ruth Hauer, VFX Executive. The troubling news is that out of the 39 states that offer incentives, only seven offer standalone VFX credits, and of those seven only four can tackle the most VFX intensive work. Indeed, the problem in California with getting standalone VFX incentives is that legislators insist on proof that production would stay locally even with those incentives.
Two of the more interesting breakfast roundtables centered on virtual production and production design. Autodesk consultant David Morin, who currently chairs the virtual production committee (in conjunction with the ASC, ADG, VES, The Previsualization Society, among others), moderated a discussion about how it is rapidly becoming a greater part of the production process. One VFX supervisor said virtual production not only helps make work downstream more accessible but also aids directors both large and small in prestige. The promise is that real time tracking will take it out of the stage and make it transparent to filmmakers.
ADG president Tom Walsh moderated a discussion about "Intelligent Design." VFX vet Richard Edlund suggested that it is vital to reeducate, keep the core team together and reinvent concepts. He was joined by production designer Rick Heinrichs (Frankenweenie, Captain America: First Avenger), who requested the need for more VFX art directors and less territorial in-fighting and divide and conquer on the part of the studios. Yet all the high-tech prep and cool production design couldn't save the recent Total Recall, which Heinrichs admitted lacked a compelling story.
In fact, Heinrichs was part of the abandoned BioShock feature with director Gore Verbinski. After extensive bifurcation with a 10-member previs team, Universal just didn't want to make a $200 million, R-rated video game-adapted actioner.
Meanwhile, I moderated a panel discussion titled "Is Television VFX the Future of Feature Film VFX?" Andrew Orloff, founder of Zoic Studios, discussed the prevalence of generalists in TV as a necessity of constraints on budgets and scheduling. "There are artists that are what I would call Swiss Army Knives: people who can cross multiple disciplines, and it's not so regimented by pipeline or specific-depended tasks," he suggested. "These are people who can handle entire scenes, often doing the CG work and the compositing and sometimes the modeling, texturing and rigging, utilizing multiple skill sets for a variety of shots. What's gained is a lot more creative focus and you can make creative decisions a lot faster. But there is definitely a push away from specialization. This makes it difficult for water and fur."
Sam Nicholson, CEO of Stargate Studios, added, "It's a swat team approach with an incredibly fast pipeline. It's all about communication. So you do get the best results with people who specialize, but it's divide and conquer among a bunch of artists that sit down and collaborate."
Steve Pugh, exec producer at Pixomondo, said, "Having people in those departments [in features] come from generalist backgrounds helps them because they're informed about what's coming next."
Mat Beck, president of Entity FX, said, "The limiting factor more than anything else on the TV side is time, and yet the irony is that if you have an episodic locked into a facility for [several years], while you're delivering episodes quickly, there's also time for a look and a pipeline to evolve. You not only have to keep your clients happy but you have to keep your artists engaged."
Orloff also explained how virtual production has already become commonplace in TV, pointing to Once Upon a Time, which is shot predominantly on a green screen stage and has risen from 200 shots and approaching 500. Aided by their own iPad app for tech scouting of virtual sets, he said there will come a time very soon when this is no longer part of post but just production. That truly is part of the paradigm shift going on in features as well.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.