Tuesday, May 10, 2011

VFX: the experts speak

The latest entertainment industry conference was held in Stuttgart, Germany last week. FMX, which started as a local biennial gathering for students, has grown into an annual "must-attend" meeting for anyone interested in animation, visual effects, games and interactive media.

Two notable speakers at this year's conference were visual effects supervisor and recently re-elected chairman of the Visual Effects Society Jeffrey Okun, and former LucasFilm executive, Digital Domain founder and latest visual effects industry blogger Scott Ross.

Jeff Okun's presentation was titled VFX Politics. Reading a description from an attendee, Mr. Okun describes the rampant nepotism and personal agendas within the vfx and film industry as well as the general insanity that takes place on set during the making of a feature film. In keeping with his direct manner of speaking, Mr. Okun ends his presentation with the following warning:

“What only matters is what ends up on the screen. Nobody will ask you whether everybody had a great time or you barely made it out alive.” ... "[A]lways be aware of the agendas and politics of the people around you."

Scott Ross' contribution to the conference was a report on his views of the current state of the visual effects industry and where he foresees its future. He restated his views on the non-viability of visual effects studios due to unattainable profits, high cost of vfx artist salaries, overseas tax incentives and outsourcing. His solutions center around studios following the example of Pixar and Dreamworks in capitalizing on full ownership of content.

The article points out:

“The VFX community are the people driving the box office, and the film studios know it.”

[Mr. Ross] then points out that on a list of the 20 biggest box-office movies, one is CG animation and 19 are blockbuster visual effects films – and there’s only one really bankable ‘film star’: Johnny Depp. The next 20 entries feature two CG animated movies and 17 VFX movies.

After digesting the two points of view offered from these industry veterans, the option of collective representation for visual effects artists becomes abundantly important. Mr. Okun points out the Industry Is Crazy and doesn't much care about you. Mr. Ross points out VFX Drives Sales and vfx studios need to be desperate in their strategies to stay viable.

The contract achieved through collectively bargaining with visual effects artists through the IATSE would help protect against the insanity that is prevalent in the visual effects world. By delineating workplace standards and providing portable health and pension benefits, visual effects artists would construct a shield for some of the Crazy Mr. Okun describes.

We have argued that signing an IATSE contract could be a cost savings measure to a visual effects studio. Having recently been shown that studios will find necessary funds to complete visual effects when necessary, a union contract with contributions for portable health and pension benefits may now also be a line item cost that vfx studios can add to help shore up profits, thus addressing Mr. Ross' viability concerns.

The IATSE will not be the golden key to solving the problems highlighted by the two presenters or that are prevalent in the industry today. We will be a large factor in providing a stable, healthy and long-term industry to the artists who strive to succeed within its ranks. We feel this is an important factor in remaking the industry and invite all artists to take part.

Sign a Representation Card

Contact Jim Goodman, VFX Organizer for IATSE


Anonymous said...

"he VFX community are the people driving the box office,:

No. This is baloney. If more visual effects companies created content this might be so, but they're primarily service companies that do the bidding of the creatives, with little creative input beyond what's already been decided by the director, producer, and writer.

There are many talented people in visual effects. But very, VERY few of them are storytellers. They ought to right now understand how incredibly arrogant (not to mention WRONG) that they're more important than they really are.

Steven Kaplan said...

Baloney? Are you saying that vfx doesn't drive sales?


Conversely, I'd argue that your delineated "creatives" use vfx without forethought of of expense to the artists. Its a commodity to them like candles are to a house of worship.

VFX makes people want to see the stories. That is impossible to argue.

Anonymous said...

No. vfx does not drive sales. Great stories do. vfx does NOT make people want to see stories. That is just a fact.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. It's the movies people go to see--not the fx. No one really cares about those unless they're invested on the story and characters. But to say CDC "drives" box office is ludicrous and laughable.

Jay said...

Both comments are accurate, it is not black and white. Some movies are nothing more than VFX showcases where the story is just a flimsy excuse to get to the next effects scene (2012, Skyline,etc) and people see these to be mindlessly entertained. Other films are great stories which are improved with outstanding effects (Avatar, District 9, Inception, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc) in which the audience comes to see the story and are impressed by the effects.

Then you have the hybrids, which are more common now. These are films where some people see them to be mindlessly entertained by the effects, while others see them because they have a nostalgic connection with the story (most comic book films, remakes, and property-based movies). Some of these films have good stories and offer more than the former group expected (Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, etc). Others have terrible stories and let down the latter group yet leave the former group entertained (Transformers 2, Jurassic Park 3, etc). And some fail on all counts.

And again, it is not as black and white as this either. Everyone sees movies for different reasons, it is the rare film that satisfies all those reasons.

Anonymous said...

people went to see avatar for the story?
pirates of the caribbean?
spiderman? transformers ffs?

spectacle over story i think.

and that's a fact! or opinion, one of those.

notthePope said...

Production quality has to keep up. Everytime a film comes out that raises the level, and every other film after that gets compared to that one. "Avatar" raised the level of visuals. It's the current tentpole. I'm afraid Mr. Ross will have to continue paying those big salaries if he wants to stay competitive. I've recently heard that Michelangelo abandoned one or two of is project because his patron didnt pay. Seems like nothing has changed since the Renaissance....

Anonymous said...

For VFX to fight for their union rights is fine. But it's silly to think they "drive" the industry. Good slogan...just not true.

Anonymous said...

Michael Bay's frikkin career is proof that its visuals over story...

Anonymous said...

- There are many talented people in visual effects.
- But very, VERY few of them are storytellers.

Excellent point, as borne out by the complete lack of any original story ever coming out of ILM. They are masters at responding to someone else's directions and vision, and absolute non-masters at developing original content.

Some of you will remember ILM's try at Frankenstein.
That blew-up so quickly, went through so many iterations, writhed and wriggled a slow death, and then the bits and pieces ended up as a laughable short "Work In Progess" (seen at SIGGRAPH's Electronic Theater).

Nothing else has EVER come close to being made "in-house" at ILM, ... or ever will.

And don't blame Uncle George, he was hungry for content and gave a greenlight long ago for original work. It just isn't in any of them to deliver it.

Anonymous said...

"Excellent point, as borne out by the complete lack of any original story ever coming out of ILM."

Even when they achieve escape velocity and break from ILMs gravity they bomb in spectacular fashion: Stefen Fangmeier when he directed (and was almost canned from) Eragon.

Now he's back to "consulting" in VFX.

Anonymous said...

If more vfx means more ugly and hard to read movies, good riddance. What a crock for anyone to suggest that's what drives the movies. And quotes from a rag like the Hollywood reporter don't really matter because they're usually industry plants from self promoting lobbying groups.

Anonymous said...

The only possible answer to the question "Is it the visuals or is it the story?" is yes.

filmbuff said...

People seem to forget that film is a visual medium. If story was all there is to it, then why is it that the book industry isnt more relevant than it is? Other than the Harry Potter books, what other titles can be thought of mega sellers that people line up around the block for, on its debut? I'm not saying books don't sell well, some do, but, the film industry is a more significant social phenomena than popular books are.

That said, many films balance visuals and narrative diferently. "Avatar" was most definetly heavier on visuals, while the story was secondary to it. In other films, narrative is king.

The people vote with their wallets, while we're left with arguments like these in perpetuity!

Anonymous said...

>>Some of you will remember ILM's try at Frankenstein. That blew-up so quickly, went through so many iterations, writhed and wriggled a slow death, and then the bits and pieces ended up as a laughable short "Work In Progess" (seen at SIGGRAPH's Electronic Theater).<<

You are a dope. "Work In Progress" and their Frankenstein project are not related.

Marcus said...

No or bad VFX = no summer tentpole revenue-drivers
Bad story ~= box office bomb

Creatives need technicians and artists to carry out their vision.

The two are separate factors and are not in competition with each other.

Stop Trolling...

Anonymous said...

I know it's been said, but I must reiterate, Transformers 2 is proof positive that VFX drives sales.

hey! said...

Mr. Ross gives the impresion that vfx artists go around driving Ferraris and drinking $400 bottles of wine...I personnally havent met any, but I've heard the flaneled one does....

Anonymous said...

No Ferraris or expensive wine... but with a little shake... we can look like we do!

Anonymous said...

Pity the fool who comes to the TAG blog expecting a reasoned and well thought out discussion. This is a place for hyperbole, bile spitting and bashing poor Floyd for speaking his mind without the cover of an anonymous posting.

For me this blog is a spectator sport - but then again, I am in studio management and according to everyone on here I have no heart, wish only to beat the talent out of artists with my blunt sword and vote Republicans into office and light my $100.00 Cuban cigars with Frank and Ollie pencils tests.

I saw once that someone posted a bastardized quote from T.E. Lawrence stating, "As long as the animators fight studio against studio, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel"

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it only took one moron at the top of the thread to completely miss the point, and derail the actual subject matter.

Steve Kaplan's post had NOTHING TO DO with any stupid "story vs. vfx" debate. If you thought it did, you're an idiot.

The post dealt with the observation that most of the top boxoffice hits heavily involve vfx. Studios know that vfx greatly enhances blockbuster-style movies, and at the end of the day, they are reliant on the vfx artists to entice throbs of teenagers to their tentpole summer films.

Hence, vfx artists/studios have more financial leverage than they realize. And vfx artists would be wise to consider unionizing.

Steven Kaplan said...

Thanks for the clarity, Anon 4:35. I've found that when the trolls show, its best to walk away and let them feed.

Anonymous said...

- You are a dope. "Work In Progress" and their
- Frankenstein project are not related.

"Work In Progress" was created from all of the salvaged assets (models, textures, sets, etc.) that were created for the various versions and iterations of Frankenstein, such that ILM could show something, ANYTHING, from all of that effort which was put into generating those assets.


VfxArtist said...

Scott Ross blames artist getting paid too much. He forgets who are the people who actually get the work done. Who actually delivers on all of the promises made from storyboard, through principle photograph, and in post. It's the artist who executes both the creative and the technical challenge.

If you read Mr. Ross's new blog, you will see how out of touch he is. He puts on a pedestal the frat boy behavior that in the long run, hurts business. His first entry is a classic self-proclaimed-libertarian wet dream: shun authority because you are a special counter culture unique little snowflake and play by your own rules, especially if it breaks someone else's. You too can open your own Vfx shop that's banned from the ranch in you never-never land of not wanting to grow up; because you are better than everyone else.

Well, when the buzz wears off, you are left with a hangover... and the facts: Banned from the ranch is gone, as us the orphanage. ILM is still around. Maybe Mr Rogers had a point. (read the blog to get that joke). Fact is, when ILM won it's first Academy in 7 years for Pirates 2, George Lucas thanked the team for the award, but he also said "above all else, thanks for keeping it in the black". (that's the moment I forgave Mr. Lucas for Jar Jar....) Point is: Banned from the Ranch, the Orphanage, and even Scott Ross are gone from VFX because the way they did business was unsustainable. Meanwhile what ILM did was to create something sustainable.

I want to hear from those people.

I take offense to the notion that artist are paid too much. Wages have flat lined for 7 years. "what about all of those fancy cars", well there's rich and there's wealthy... If you want to live paycheck to paycheck, paying a $800 and up lease and $1800 rent for a place you share with two other dudes, be my guest. You won't be the first one driving a hot car in LA while still living with Mom. Point is artist can work for minimum wage in Vfx and it will STILL go out of business because of HOW IT DOES business. Until that changes, minimum wage will still seem like too much to pay a Vfx artist.

Anonymous said...

It would be so nice to blame the studios but the truth is vfx is not represented because, well, sad to say but VFX artists are kind of stupid. We sit in dark rooms for days modeling, animating, shading and lighting a shot while addressing notes until every last pixel is perfect but we fail so miserably to communicate and keep an open discussion with the union. Most artists are grossly misinformed or just plain don't care. They think the union is a joke or "weak" yet they have no time to get involved. Yes the union is weak because only 23% actually bothered to return wage surveys just recently, that is just EPIC LOW!!! Well, guess what? You decide your own level of success. Stop blaming the studios, stop blaming the union , and start with yourself. I think we have weak leadership because we simply are not active enough as a community. If more artists took the issue seriously and actually DO something about it, things will never change. Everyone expects someone else to speak for us, someone else to represent us while we continue working in the dark and our jobs get outsourced.

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