Tony Cristiano looks at the lightning speed advances in the visual effects industry and how it affects the big studios vs. the smaller ones.
There is an overarching sentiment in the visual effects community that the industry has changed very quickly in the last few years. CG production is undergoing a rapid metamorphosis based on technological advances and market demands. Todays shift to commercial production pipelines and the use of digital assets are examples that twist the playing field. In the next few years, well witness the continuing evolution of the way people, process and technology are combined and optimized in production. These changes are enabling innovation and improving the predictability of production variables. During rapid change, large and small boutique facilities are the most adept at change, leaving some mid-size facilities behind. Furthermore, the large and small adapt differently, thus creating a great divide.
CG effects have become an essential element of movie making. The trailer for Columbias Stealth (opening July 29) offers a good example of recent innovation. Many of the challenging airplane sequences were pre-visualized in CG well in advance, which would have been very time-consuming to choreograph otherwise. Yet the realism was kept high. By anticipating and narrowing the production variables, Digital Domain took advantage of all the precious time on set. Finding repeatable methods and re-usable tools to foster such innovation will be key to staying competitive in the future.
The current euphoria in our community is that the sky is the limit when it comes to producing cutting-edge effects. The multi-million-dollar question has changed from can we do it, to how should we do it efficiently and within budget. However, as both large and small facilities grow, there are two key factors that will determine success. First, the facility needs to highlight its artistic strength. Second, CG production needs to be far more efficient.
Thus, artistic control and efficiency are going to widen the great divide between large and small facilities. Always knowing the reality of ones business model and staying focused is whats key in defining the positioning on either side of the divide. At the same time, the materialization of disposable pipelines, where the production focus will be on re-usable digital assets, is propelling many boutiques to jump the chasm. Its a large, dangerous step through the middle zone. However, todays commercial software lays a foundation for pipelines, making the leap much faster and less treacherous provided you anticipate the jump!
Large Facilities Innovate and Mass Produce
Large facilities obviously have the financial capacity to experiment and quickly bring together people, process and technology. At the same time, they have staffing depth with a diversified set of expertise and an aggregated wisdom they can apply to repeatable production methods. Clearly, those additional resources and competencies afford bigger shops more time to fine tune the production pipeline, while ensuring their work can be scaled up with volume. They all have an existing infrastructure to handle a large number of shots from start to finish, thereby reducing the risks associated with completing complex productions. Those bigger budgets also afford them the opportunity to think longer term about the selection of digital assets and associated cataloging.
An excellent example of innovation is the work Sony Pictures Imageworks mastered on The Polar Express, where character animation was de-coupled from the rest of the effects. Today, directors want to choreograph animation and previs effects without the pressure of wasting time and money while on set. Directors can now have few actors on stage and focus on the emotional side of the story for the entire movie. This process inspires us to improve storytelling without getting bogged down with the complexities of how to do it. De-coupling the art from the technical complexities is now possible in many areas throughout the pipeline. Such techniques have the potential to provide large advantages over time.
As one of those large facilities, Sony Pictures Imageworks can plan over a longer period of time and oftentimes develop pipelines and digital assets to be used over many productions. They are successful partly because they can push multiple projects through the same pipeline and achieve economies of scale. As a result, they can step back and innovate while building re-usable methods to capitalize on large volumes of work.
The Boutiques Have a Secret Weapon
Boutiques are effectively finding a place for themselves in this industry by building relationship bonds with their customers through smaller, custom projects. Hanging out at the right pub and film festivals wouldnt hurt either. Smaller facilities must be flexible enough to meet the special needs of their customer, while not compromising efficiency. Boutiques are most profitable and successful when they have clearly chosen their area of strength or specialty. Once that area is chosen, it is important for them to build a custom result that is reasonably predictable. Successful repetition quickly breeds a positive reputation.
As small facilities build on niche specialties, they focus on a subset of the art or one part of a pipeline. They must do so without the luxury of large budgets. For the purpose of this discussion, lets define a boutique as a facility that usually has a core staff of less than a hundred, yet can ramp up to handle a large number of shots from a couple of projects. For example, soho vfx in Toronto grew to about 32 people to handle shots of Mr. Fantastic in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, and New Deal Studios in Los Angeles ramps up to more than a 100 staff, when they take on projects such as The Aviator. However, due to their smaller size, boutiques can often implement much faster. Their pipelines can be optimized for the current project and they can implement re-usable digital asset with a narrower scope and recoup benefits sooner.
Small shops must be even better at managing time and money. They are very fortunate if projects overlap to provide cash flow continuity. If an individual production is profitable, it is common for profits to erode in between projects. The biggest challenge for small shops is ramping up and ramping down staff, especially without an HR department. However, the way the pipeline and digital assets are designed can become a key advantage.
Often boutiques must have a large relative number of senior-level staff, who are each a jack of all trades. To leverage lower cost talent, it is now becoming more popular to mechanize common and repeated production tasks. Digital assets are prepared in order to build confidence in the ramp down and ramp up ritual. The advantages of having catalogued digital assets include reduced total salary costs, better specialization of tasks and senior staff spending less time training and assisting others. Such an undertaking requires focus and commitment, and its not for the flaky.
Shift or Sink
Its important not to become complacent with yesterdays approach and technology. Both large and small facilities should carefully revisit old pipeline choices and inherited legacies with a fresh outlook. Facility leaders must visualize a world when todays CG production will be done in a 10th the time. They must do their homework and make some changes, while stepping out of the familiar comfort zone.
The commercial implementation of digital assets several years ago allows us to see pipelines differently. Today, a pipeline is more about choices regarding which digital assets to catalogue and where to attempt to gain efficiency. That set of digital assets creates a new level of speed for the next project and liberates the team to innovate and do the fun stuff. The underlying technology has become so well designed in commercial packages (albeit with widely varying design points, approaches and reliability), that for the equivalent cost of a couple of staff, all boutiques have access to the same efficiency levels of the most prestigious facilities.
As the visual effects industry continues to evolve, this year will bring even more change, making the great divide between large and small facilities seem deeper and wider. Those in the middle need to make a decision. Simultaneously, many are seeing production pipelines differently today and use modern methods and disruptive commercial software to make changes successfully. In order to survive, facilities large and small alike, must adapt to a new reality and do it fast!
Tony Cristiano is coo and vp of U.S. operations of Side Effects Software, a 3D animation technology company dedicated to advanced digital content creation software (Houdini). Cristiano joined the firm in 1996. The companys prestigious clients include content creators such as Digital Domain, Disney Feature Animation, DreamWorks SKG, Rhythm & Hues, Sony Pictures Imageworks and WETA Digital Ltd. Its software supports such high-profile films as Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and X-Men. A graduate of the University of Waterloo (Toronto Canada) in math and computer science, Cristiano spent 11 years at IBM, where he became the national manager of marketing and sales for IBM Canada. While Canadian-born, he currently resides with his wife and two children in Pacific Palisades, California.