Bruce Shutan explores the workload and trends that are driving several prominent vfx studios around the world.
With new technology and swelling bandwidth connecting an increasingly global economy, the world of vfx is suddenly is much smaller. Boutique shops on every continent have unfurled shingles with the help of cheap labor, favorable exchange rates and growing acceptance of a virtual workplace.
Key trends include the convergence of Hollywood and Silicon Valley in the U.S. as reflected in videogame development, which has been exported to far-flung corners of the globe, such as Bangalore, India, where Paprikaas Animation Studios Inc. started a game division. Similarly, Framestore NY in New York has redeployed talent from its London-based parent studio across the pond so that feature-film production values shape more commercial campaigns with vfx artists helming the crossroad of where Vine Street meets Madison Ave.
Efforts also are under way to supercharge workflow, with a new corporate culture emerging at R!OT and tweaks to the Zoic Studios infrastructure aimed at elevating creativity and productivity moves that are largely driven by changing technology. Indeed, consider how Guava is ramping up for more work in the hi-def format or Sony Pictures Imageworks has augmented pipelines to accommodate the digitalization of filmmaking. Quiet Man also is making noise about a huge increase in rendering due to the spike in CG and 3D, while Mr. Wonderful has set its sights on data management.
What sort of work are vfx houses doing these days? Enough common denominators can be found in both the U.S. and abroad to offer a clear snapshot of where the industry appears to be headed.
One leading player on American soil, L.A.-based Rhythm + Hues, has produced vfx and animation on more than 100 feature films in all genres (accounting for about 80% of annual revenues) and hundreds of commercial campaigns. Recent movie credits include The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which proved to be the companys largest and most challenging movie project to date, with Superman Returns, Charlottes Web and Garfield 2 currently in production. Commercial campaigns have been designed for corporate mainstays such as Target, Jack in the Box and Mercedes-Benz, as well as videogame makers EA Games and Activision.
Sony Pictures Imageworks in nearby Culver City, operates in four principal areas: vfx and digital character animation for live-action films that include Narnia, Superman Returns and the Spider-Man franchise; full-CG animation for Open Season and Surfs Up; hybrid Imagemotion that enables live-action moviemaking techniques to be applied in the production of all-CG movies, such as The Polar Express, Monster House and Beowulf; and 3D stereoscopic conversion for The Polar Express: An IMAX 3D Experience and Monster House.
R!OT, a vfx, animation and post-production studio with locations in Santa Monica, California, New York and Atlanta, handles commercials, music videos, television and feature films. On the commercial side, the company provides mostly CG, compositing and visual effects production, as well as a mix of traditional post services and full HD capabilities. Feature film credits include Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D, Empire, Peter Pan, T3 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a reputation built around matte painting.
Quiet Man in New York specializes in commercials with sidelines in film and music video. The focus is on character animation and related facets involving high-level 3D compositing, which accounts for about 80% of the workload. Recent commercial projects include GEs Singin in the Rain and Statue, MLB and the Partnership for a Drug Free America, while music videos were done for Ray Charles and The Beatles on Free As a Bird. The upcoming animated Barnyard rounds out work on the feature side.
Headquartered in San Francisco, the Orphanage Inc. specializes in digital motion picture and broadcast production, high-end vfx and animation services, digital filmmaking technology development and licensing. More than 150 artists, production and support staff provide a host of services that include concept design, on-set supervision, 3D digital environments, matte painting and compositing. Key tools include a wide range of 3D software (3ds Max, Maya and Houdini) and 2D applications (After Effects, Photoshop and Digital Fusion). Recent film projects include Superman Returns, Sin City and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, while commercial clients include Xbox and Dr. Pepper.
Zoic Studios in Culver City is a digital production company that covers all the usual media as well as the emerging cinematic game niche. One corporate directive is to grow knowledge of interactive environments on the Internet. Typical tools of the trade include Flame, Shake, Combustion, After Effects, Maya, mental ray and LightWave, with a focus on realtime 3D and incorporating game engine-like programs into animation, vfx and lighting. Recent projects include a mix of popular TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, Battlestar Galactica and Over There, game work for Electronic Arts (CCX) and Midway (Spyhunter) and commercials for HP, Sav-on, PlayStation and UPS. Zoic also recently made the transition from TV to features with Serenity (adapted from the Firefly series).
Mindful that moviemaking and other forms of entertainment are now being produced and distributed across the world, a growing number of service providers have set up shop in Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and other regions.
The aforementioned Paprikaas specializes in computer animation (75% of its workload) as well as game development and visual effects for movies, TV, commercials and games that combine animation services and cutting-edge imaging technologies. Vfx services include design and production, camera match moves, previs, matte painting and background, digital cleanup, color correction and compositing and wire/rig removal.
Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) in Sydney, Australia, does vfx for feature films, nearly all of it for U.S. studios. Work ranges from character animation to complex effects-based challenges through the prism of XSI, Maya, Shake and RenderMan, as well as a plethora of custom tools. RSPs Rising Sun Research unit develops software solutions for the motion picture industry in hopes of staying ahead of the development curve.
Worldwide FX, was created five years ago as the vfx division of NuImage films in Sofia, Bulgaria, which accounts for roughly half its workload. Vfx work includes anything from wire removal and compositing to complex character animation. The company is eyeing expansion into long-form animation, having created internal training programs and established relationships with various educational facilities to bring this vision to fruition.
Videa Visual Effects, with operations in Rome and Pescara, Italy, focuses on vfx for motion pictures, TV and commercials. Services include on-stage supervising, 3D animation, digital compositing, online editing and finishing and a bluescreen stage for small second-unit shots. A small team on the R&D side also is developing 3D applications for scripting.
Hybride in Quebec, Canada, employs more than 60 artistic whose talents encompass non-linear editing, digital compositing, 3D animation, as well as color correction and color timing. An R&D team experiment with the latest technological advancements to develop their own custom-made software tools. The lions share of work during the past decade has been on the feature film side, with TV rounding out the mix. Recent projects include Sin City, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Maurice Richard and Snakes on a Plane, as well as the TV series 10.5:Apocalypse and Napoleon mini-series.
Digital Dimension, with operations in Montreal as well as Burbank, California, primarily does vfx work and full CG animation for feature films ranging from greenscreen and set extensions to complex particles systems and CG characters blended within live-action plates. An even split between vfx and CG animation work can be seen in work such as Racing Stripes, Exorcist: The Beginning, The Fountain and Zathura. Also recently wrapped was a 12-minute piece of CG stereoscopic animation for the Atlanta Aquarium.
Adapting to Mega-Trends
Whether in the U.S. or abroad, all vfx houses are adapting to mega-trends in the marketplace. To accommodate the digitalization of filmmaking, I/O pipelines at Sony Pictures Imageworks have been augmented by inputting plate photography from digital cameras such as the Sony/Panavision Genesis (on Superman Returns) and delivering finished shots in digital format to be dropped into digital intermediates, as well as accepting and delivering 35mm film. We continually improve our pipeline to reflect the latest and most beneficial refinements for our business, reports president Tim Sarnoff, noting an ability to leverage resources across the company.
Since the advertising and broadcasting market is constantly changing, Framestore NY exec producer Jon Collins says each project presents a new opportunity for creativity and innovation. On long-term projects such as the nine-spot Geico campaign, he notes a cross-pollinating with talent from the other Framestore disciplines notably producer Sarah Downing from the firms London office, where she worked on high-profile projects such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the Matrix movies. The idea is to share the skills you honed in the movie world and then translate those skills over to the commercial world to create very sophisticated spots, he says.
A similar story unfolded at Spy Post in San Francisco whose workload has involved mostly compositing, finishing and vfx for commercials since 1998. But by last year, partner/ceo Eric Hanson says, It was time to accelerate the growth of our business. The firm hired additional talent, including a colorist, and acquired equipment necessary to offer final color and transfer services using technologies such as the Spirit HD, daVinci 2K plus and HD infrastructure. The return on investment from these activities so far has exceeded our expectations and will get close to doubling our revenues from 2004 to 2005, he anticipates.
After starting with a traditional mix of TVC, film and music video, 10-year-old RSP made a conscious decision in 2002 to specialize and have never looked back, suggests James Whitlam, a vfx producer who heads up production and reports that his firm tripled to 90 staffers during the past three years. RSP prides itself on a generalist model, with Whitlam intrigued to see many large U.S. studios re-engineering their pipelines to take advantage of cross-skilled artists. Its something weve been dedicated to fostering for years, he says.
Rhythm + Hues has made several adjustments through the years. In the late 80s and early 90s, for instance, motion graphics for commercials and ride simulator films were a mainstay of the business. Work on the milestone film Babe later heralded CGI into the mainstream. We are one of the few animation companies that services 500-plus shot films and multiple-shot commercials, so we have to keep a flexible pipeline, explains company spokesman Scot Byrd. Weve added significant motion capture animation/editing and character simulation vis-à-vis Massive software.
With more technical tools and economies of scale, vfx houses are revamping the way they work. Zoic, for example, has built a technical infrastructure to elevate creativity and productivity. We recently floated our workspaces so an artist can sit down anywhere in the building and work, reports Loni Peristere, a vfx supervisor and partner. Our main goal over the next 24 months is to make Zoic a better place to work, help artists focus on their art and ease the production process.
With a staff of more than 100, Worldwide FX is able to handle about three to seven large-scale projects at any given time. The turnaround time for commercials and music videos has been a hard nut to crack, yet we have managed to complete effects on more than 50 films, so there is plenty to keep us busy, notes vfx producer Scott Coulter, who says the European location is conducive for feature-film work.
Luma Pictures of Santa Monica (Underworld: Evolution is also able to manage and deliver finished work with the efficiency of a studio two or three times its size. To speed work through the pipeline, our programmers wrote plug-ins to enhance yet simplify file referencing, render submissions and similar tasks, explains vfx supervisor Payam Shohadai, referencing the challenge in using Macs for film work. We also created a common GUI to make it easier for artists to use in-house tools and developed a great project management and tracking application.
The emergence of a radical new workflow and a corporate culture is expected to transform R!OT. One standout project that put this new identity to the test involved a commercial campaign for Net Zero, which resulted in significant time and cost savings as well as creative advantages.
We were able to design every camera move and know that it was within the boundaries of what the motion control rig could do, explains Tim Conway, who served as director and vfx supervisor. On the set, we were able to export all of the moves into the motion control rig and work with great efficiency. We shot 14 motion control moves in two 10 hour days, which is unheard of.
Srini R. Raghavan, Paprikaas co-founder and president, anticipates a change to his firms workload in the coming years. To have more focus and address the visual effects business more effectively, he says, we recently launched a vfx and game division called Paprikaas Ent. Labs. One recent project involving a French documentary featured wildlife live action and CGI.
Tools of the Trade
Workflow issues invariably are tied to changing technology, and with eye-popping vfx continuing to drive entertainment, the possibilities for higher quality are seemingly endless. Videa vfx supervisor Gianluca Dentici says hes always on the lookout for advanced technology, noting a new interactive database that will provide a special check on renderfarms and manage rendering queues, crash alarms, operator tasks and dailies.
For a recent TV movie we were asked to create a digital set extension of a building crashed down for structural problems, he recalls. We ended up with a nice 3D model rendered with Image base lighting techniques using lightprobe recovered data and rendering in passes approach, which allowed us to work better in compositing.
L.A.-based KromA uses two Avid DS Nitris systems for vfx, editing and compositing, while a small CG team uses SOFTIMAGE|XSI as its main tool. Vfx supervisor Bert Yukich says the two products work seamlessly: When the programs talk well, you can set up key frames and send tracking data back and forth. We really like the Nitris find that it is the fastest and most efficient tool for compositing available. Its considered a perfect fit for the type of high-resolution work thats becoming an increasing part of music video and commercial work, although KromA will need to seek additional storage capacity for compositing and increase the rendering capacity of its 3D department as it becomes more involved in films.
Mark Littman, a partner at New York-based boutique house Mr. Wonderful, suggests more creative design work has been brought in house and desktop solutions now complement higher-end hardware. The steps are part of an effort to accommodate client interest in multiple services under one roof for broadcast design, commercial and theatrical vfx. Data management also is an emerging issue. As scanning rates rise and machines are capable of more resolution, he observes, we need to be able to access, use and archive all this information in a way that is efficient, cost-effective and meaningful.
Ryan Tudhope, a vfx supervisor at Orphanage, says the CG pipeline evolves with new tools that shore up artistic control or filter out inefficiencies. In-house development has allowed cross talk between applications supporting the facilitys strategy to use the best tool for the job at every level of the process, he says. For example, modeling, rigging and animation are often developed within Maya and then exported to 3ds Max for lighting and rendering using Splutterfishs Brazil Rendering System.
Quiet Man co-founder Amy Taylor, who also serves as exec producer of visual effects and animation, noticed a huge increase in rendering due to the spike in CG and 3D in the past few years. Weve purchased many nodes for this purpose, she says, noting how these high costs can serve as a barrier to entering the industry.
Jason Wattsm, a vfx supervisor and flame artist for London-based Finish, notes that while more commercial directors are opting to finish in HD (spots for British Airways and Saab are recent examples), the company primarily works in PAL. We have also recently completed a number of digital media projects for Internet viral use and moving posters, reports Wattsm, whose firm does commercials, music video and digital media work that includes shoot supervision and all aspects of compositing using Flame, Flint, Combustion and Boujou Bullet software.
With HD becoming stronger, we are doing more of our projects in this format, reports Jim Riche, a vfx supervisor and head of production at New York-based Guava, who anticipates that it will account for 90% of all work. He adds that the company is getting more render farms for both 3D and Flame, with Burn technology for Flame. This is due in large part to education of clients who see the poor quality of NTSC on HDTV transmissions, which, as you know, will be mandatory by 2008, he says.
Michel Heroux, technical producer and vp of production services at Digital Dimension, reports that short-term plans include full-length CG features, content creation and a producing division. He adds that the Montreal studio, which will move into a larger facility before year end, switched to XSI as a CG backbone and soon will upgrade to a full 64-bit rendering pipeline.
Dante Piacenza, head of production and exec producer at Version2 VFX/Design in New York, has noticed an increasing number of non-traditional or content-based projects such as a recently completed environmentally immersive display for the GMC Auto Show to announce its new Yukon truck model. The project was both a graphic and dimensional presentation, explains Piacenza, whose firm is a design-driven studio whose work is evenly split between the commercial and broadcast realms. The visuals were displayed on multiple screens 16 across and two down laid end-to-end with the actual truck in the foreground creating an environmental installation.
Bruce Shutan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, has written for several entertainment publications and Websites, including Daily Variety, Weekly Variety, emmy, the 55th Annual Emmy Awards program, Below the Line News, Film Score Monthly, DRUM! and OnlineRock.com. Shutan also specializes in writing for the human resources and employee benefits trade press.