Marvel's Exec-VP of visual effects and post production talks about the pressures of co-producing massive vfx-driven films like Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor and The Avengers.
The journey that brought Victoria Alonso, the young political activist studying psychology and drama in Argentina, to the sound stages of The Avengers as Co-Producer and Executive Vice President of Visual Effects and Post-Production at Marvel Studios, was long, difficult and quite circuitous. There’s always luck involved in such a career trajectory, but mostly, you get there through the incredibly hard work needed to take advantage of any lucky breaks that come your way.
Like many execs in “the biz,” she started as a PA, moving from one job to the next. As she explained, “I picked up a lot of garbage and fetched a lot of lunches and a ton of coffee. That was before Starbucks even existed! And we didn’t even have cell phones when I started.” Soon she found herself working for Tony and Ridley Scott’s RSA commercial house, moving from there to Digital Domain as an assistant to an executive who had broken her leg and needed someone to fetch things – faxes, coffee, whatever. She stayed for 4 years. At DD, her timing couldn’t have been better. CG was relatively new and few wanted the hassle of producing it besides her. “Give it to the kid, she’ll do it” lead to getting every CG/3D project that came in. She devoted herself to learning all she could from the CG artists and technologists handling the work.
After a number of studios and films later, including stops at Rhythm & Hues, DreamWorks and Sony working on projects like Shrek, Big Fish and Hancock, she found herself on a collision course with Marvel. Her colleague, Hancock’s producer, told her about an opportunity to work on a new film called Iron Man. She was intrigued but knew nothing of the comics. 7 years later, as they say, the rest is history. Her latest film, The Avengers, is about to be released and is expected to be one of the biggest films of 2012, if not ever.
Recently, Victoria and I had a chance to talk about her career, the pressures of filmmaking and the challenges of producing massive vfx-driven films like Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor and The Avengers.
Dan Sarto: This has been a tremendously busy time for Marvel and a busy few years for you. Most recently, three big films, three different directors, three different productions. Can you tell us about your approach to producing visual effects?
Victoria Alonso: You know, we’re getting better and better at multitasking. Right now, this is our sixth movie. We have Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. We’re finding our groove, although it hasn’t been very many years. It’s been pretty hectic in the volume of information and data that we move around. I didn’t work on Hulk, so I couldn’t take any credit for that, but all the other films I have. It’s like juggling octuplets. Everything is important, everything has to be done now, but sometimes you can let one kid cry a little longer because you've got to get to the one that is choking. So it’s a constant juggling of people and resources.
If you look at Iron Man, it’s very much grounded in today’s Los Angeles. Iron Man 2, partly in New York, Thor in New Mexico only for the time that he comes to Midgard, which is Earth. The first time we ventured out in creating a world of one of the realms, when we created Asgard, that was a huge undertaking and also a big risk for us. We took a lot of time and care in making sure that’s exactly as we hoped the fans wanted to see it. Because it’s one thing to see it in the written page and another thing is to see it in moving form.
Captain America, a period piece, if you would, a retro sci-fi film. And again, a completely different palate than Thor, or Iron Man or Hulk. And yet the same amount of care and same amount of detail. The mother of all mothers, which is The Avengers, is just the collection of all of them in our world.
DS: Has your creative process changed considerably over the course of these different productions?
VA: You know, our creative process really hasn’t changed, it has solidified. Before, we were finding our groove on how each and every one of us work in our team. Then from there you bring 9 to 13 companies to come and help you. So, you've got to find your groove with each and every guest that comes to the table. I think that I can say internally, we really know how we operate. Then it’s just trying to get the other facilities to play our way of playing. The amount of time [to make a film] has lessened so that makes it a little more difficult to still get the same quality of work that we’ve always wanted to have, and deliver it on the release date that everyone said it should be delivered.
On top of that, not only do we take time off for the post period but we add stereo [stereoscopic 3-D], which is like that big lump of weight you carry up the hill. You have the same amount of time and you have to cover the same amount of distance but now you’re just heavier. It’s remarkable how much it can add. But if stereo is needed in order to make sure that the fans get what they want, then we will start early. So, on both Thor and Captain America, as on The Avengers, we didn’t shoot in stereo 3-D, we used a conversion house and we did very, very early delivery.
We started delivering minutes in October prior to the May or the July release. So they get a chance to figure out their pipelines and figure out where our lighting is taking them. You know light plays a huge part into how you dimensionalize and find the depth of the scene.
Sometimes there is a little bit of waste because scenes change, but by and large I think it’s allowed us to release the film and protect the quality of the imagery.
DS: Better, faster, less expensive, you get to pick two. There is tremendous pressure involved in making films of this scale. How does this affect multiple projects, multiple vendors on each film, potentially the same vendors working on pieces on different films? Everything is really in flux all the time. How is this changing the way you guys are making films?
VA: If you start looking at the volume that we do, how big these movies are and how many we’re doing, it’s a little overwhelming. So, we just look at the task that we have to cover today for the task that needs to be done tomorrow for that release date. It’s like you eat an elephant the same way that you eat a rabbit. One chew at a time. You just take one bite and then you go at it, and go at it, and go at it, and go at it.
It’s really about making sure that we hit the important marks. Even though we have less time - which I’m not a proponent of by the way - I don’t go into these meetings and say, “Sure, take this time off!” You look at the variables and the reasons why you are reducing the post schedule. Sometimes there are actor conflicts - all of our actors work in movies all the time. So, if a movie goes long and we need to get that person at this time, but their movie has gone long, then we have to start pushing things. Then the location may not be ready or we can’t get that permit or it can’t be built in time.
You consistently are juggling in all of these productions. The script may not be ready. We don’t want to get started if we don’t have something that is pseudo-solid. The script is hardly 100% ready on any of these films when you go [start]. So it’s the juggle dance, you know sometimes it just means there are more 20 hour days. I wish that would change but I’m not sure it will.
DS: You’re working with VFX studios all over the world. Do you ever wonder if the deal you’ve cut with a studio, or the specifics of what and when they have to deliver, has put so much pressure on them that is jeopardizes the quality of the work?
VA: You rely on the honesty and trust that you build with these facilities, and if they don’t have it because they haven’t worked with you before, hopefully they’ve done their homework on who they’re working with and they realize that that’s the only way to get through on very tight and important deadlines. If you don’t have that trust and if you don’t have that honesty, then you will fail. I have found that the best way is to open the communication to those folks. They don’t know or they don’t think that I want to hear what the reasons are or why or when. But I do. My responsibility is to be in the know of why and when, if these facilities are having any issues.
I can say up to today we’ve been able to keep the communication open. When people do encounter issues, sometimes they want to fix it before they tell you. I'd rather hear it and then be in the process of fixing it, so then we can anticipate. If you don’t know, then you go into that black hole of, “What happened,” and that’s a very scary place to be as a producer. You have no control. Or, you are flying high and all of a sudden you’re coming down and you’re like, “What? Nobody told me the engines are coming down!” It’s really hard to anticipate, but we’ve been so far very lucky.
DS: How do you see technology helping you make better films, whether it’s just to enable more creativity or whether it’s to do it quicker? How do you see technology playing a key role in what you do?
VA: Well, technology is our key. Without the technology we couldn’t move the data and we couldn’t create the imagery. So, without it we would be dead in the water. I think the most important thing in the last five years that we’ve had to do is to adjust to this global way of working, because our films have very tight security. Fans are very happy to get their hands on our information before it comes out. And although we appreciate how happy they are to get their hands on our stuff early, there is a time and a place for everyone to know because we don’t want you to see something that is not ready to be seen.
Part of the global way of working makes people at our company a little uneasy because it is very difficult to keep that security tight. So we go to great lengths to make sure that they [companies we work with] pass our audit. And even at that point you know stuff gets out on the Internet. You can’t help it, but we try in every which way that we can.
Technology is that phenomenon that changes every other hour. Just when you think you have it down there are three other plugins or tools that you can use on something else that could make it faster, quicker and more photorealistic. So, it’s a race to consistently try to keep up with what’s the latest. I mean, I’ve seen it where from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, the software goes two notches up within the same platform. And the idea is that no, no, you can’t change now. You don’t want to go to the new version or the version after that because then, what if it doesn’t work out? That’s one thing we always battle.
These movies take a long time to get done. They’re not done in 3 months, they’re done usually in 18 months. So, within 18 months, technically speaking, everything changes and a lot of it, I would say 70% of it, has had an upgrade. It’s a challenge trying to balance how to utilize that technology to get you to the best that you can get, and how to protect the imagery to make sure it doesn’t get hurt before we release it.
DS: You mentioned one of the cons of a global pipeline is security. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the pros and cons of using a global pipeline?
VA: I think the disadvantages could be that you trust different companies in different parts of the world have the same way of working as you do. Because every culture is different.
The biggest challenge for all of us as we go global is to make sure that we protect the way we work in order to make sure that the processes that are put in place from production to facilities stay consistent. If you’re working in Asia, or you’re working in Europe, or you’re working in Africa, they don’t work the same way that we work in the United States. We have to make sure that we find a bridge to understand how they work and how we need to accommodate the needs of the show. Or, they try to work the way we work, so we know when we ask what is needed that we’re going to get it. That’s one of the biggest hurdles. The talent is out there, it’s wonderful that it’s out there and I think we should utilize it as much as possible. I’ve been a huge proponent of keeping the work in the United States and I try really hard. There are times I’m not able to, and that’s hard.
DS: It seems like it’s getting harder.
VA: It’s harder every day because not only do you get better prices but you also get tax incentives. So, the companies in the United States, they don’t have a prayer sometimes. It’s just, you can’t compete with this number. It’s unfortunate but that’s where we’re going. If I hear one more time that visual effects companies don’t make any money I’m going to lose my – like, “If you don’t make any money don’t do it.”
DS: Yeah that’s…
VA: I mean, how long can you work for free?
DS: You can’t.
VA: I can’t, can you?
DS: No. It’s gotten very tough for vfx companies in the U.S. to compete. Obviously it’s a big issue within the visual effects business community. Where do you see opportunities for them? How should they position themselves to be competitive?
VA: I think the days of the high margins are gone, as a United States company. I’m not sure [about your future] if you are a big company like ILM and Digital Domain and you don’t go global, which is something they’ve all done. They all have a Vancouver office, they’ll have a Singapore office, they have a London office. Wherever you can get the work done you go do it. You have to restructure and you have to adjust. So, if you are rigid in your thinking, you’re not going to make it. It’s really as simple as that. You know the rest of the world has done it. We need to do it.
I’m making it [sound] very simple and it’s not that simple. But it’s happening everywhere.
The one thing that I would love to do if I could, if the governor of California would listen to us, is [to institute] the same kind of tax break in California as you get in Vancouver, as you get in the Carolinas, as you get in New Mexico, as you get in New York. Some have 20%, some have 25%, some have more. The reason why productions continue to leave [California] is because at the end of the journey, it’s a big check that is waiting for you. If you get the same quality out of any country or any state that you go to, then if I’m the studio I go, “Well, hold on, if I send it here, or I send it there, and I still get the same imagery, why wouldn’t I go to a place that gives me $30 million at the end of the day.” It’s a lot of money!
Hurdles are always put in front of us. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what tax incentive they give you. That place doesn’t have the locations that we need, the story cannot be re-written to fit the location or the imagery that we’re trying to create. That particular scene cannot be done in Asia, because we haven’t seen anything come out of there like we have seen in this other place. So, let’s bite the bullet on this one and go to the company that has done it before beautifully, because it’s a huge component of our film and let’s try to lessen the amount of money [spent] on other things. So, it’s that constant balance. You’re trying to get a little of this, take a little of that, and put it over there. It’s a struggle.
DS: What’s your philosophy on stereoscopic 3-D? You talked a little bit about how that’s the additional 40 pounds in your backpack on every hike you’re taking. What do you see in the next two, three, five years with regards to stereo?
VA: I don’t know. I wish I could tell you stereo is here to stay or stereo is going to go away. I don’t think it’s that black and white. I think the audience will decide where we’re going with it, which is the beauty of this market. I think that for certain films, especially for our films, it's another way of viewing our stories and our imagery, and I think that it does work for what we do.
We don’t parcel that out, we haven’t yet. I know other movies go 30 minutes here, 20 minutes there, and 30 minutes there. We take the entire film to one facility and that, to me, creates a sense of balance and depth that doesn’t give you any eye fatigue. That is the most important thing for us, because the movie is not designed for stereo. We’re just having stereo be one additional way that you can view our story. So, it’s very different than Avatar or any other movie that was designed [for stereoscopic 3-D]. Transformers was. He [Michael Bay] shot in 3-D. We haven’t yet.
It’s a challenge of time, and it’s a challenge of lighting. If you want to have it lit the way that you want to have it lit, sometimes in the DI for stereo, you have to bump it up or you can’t see the depth. When it’s dark it makes your eye work harder. Then people will say, “I liked the movie but it was dark.” Two things. It’s the palate that you color your movie in, and how the distributors show your movie. You make the DI for the most pristine, balanced way and then they [distributors] show it the way they show it. They don’t want to pay for the lamberts. So, they show it with three foot-lamberts and anything is going to look a little dark. So, when you don’t have the glasses you sort of survive the moment. You have the glasses and you’re squinting a little bit, you’re working a little hard. That’s why people constantly take their glasses on and off. “Why am I working this hard, is it something that I need to do?”
Listen, we welcomed it. We welcomed the format, we welcomed the outcome. We’re happy to hear that our fans go to see these movies more than once and if you want to see it more than once in another format we should be able to prepare that for you. The day that they don’t show up anymore, the day that the numbers no longer reflect that there is an appetite for it, that’s the day that we’re going to stop doing it.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.