What Purpose Do VFX Facilities Serve?

VFX Law has a new post that proposes ideas for a new business model:

1. Have the studio pay the artists directly, weekly, like all other union employees on the film.
2. Don’t allow our work to be shot based, but rather cost based (see #1)
3. Give us residuals to pay for benefits
4. Lease us machines and space during production instead of paying facility overhead.
5. Replace facilities with studio hired producers, VFX and CG Sups who build a portable infrastructure that can roam project to project.

That’s right, VFX Law goes there: Eliminate the facilities and I agree with a lot of this. In fact I’ve rhetorically asked this question often:

What purpose do VFX facilities serve?

They don’t create or engineer vfx. The artists and technical directors do.

They don’t fund vfx. The studio producers do.

What they do is facilitate the purchase of vfx between a group that can produce the work and a group that needs the work done.

VFX Facilities = Real Estate Agents?

The relationship is a bit similar to real estate:

Developers build houses to sell, while people who need to live in homes purchase them. The purchase is facilitated through a realtor who collects a commission on the sale.

With the cost of equipment going down, essentially VFX facilities are forced into becoming middlemen just collecting a commission on the sale.

Obviously the real estate analogy has problems:

There is no blueprint and the product needs constant updating and changes from the client. However this relationship is disjointed because we both facilitate the process through the vfx facility.

What If VFX Facilities Didn’t Exist?

What if one day we woke up and all vfx facilities went out of business?

Well before you freak out, consider that the studios would still have a need for a huge capacity of vfx work. There still exists a talent pool that can do the work.

Doomsayers say all vfx work would just go overseas but the fallacy in this is that vfx isn’t very scalable. For example, many facilities in the UK are booked up 2 years in advance by subisidy-hungry studios.

If vfx facilities didn’t exist tomorrow, the production would probably have to hire the talent directly.

Why Do We Work For VFX Facilities?

I sometimes wonder why vfx artists work for vfx facilities. Obviously it’s the only option but much of that stems from back in the 90’s when many facilities started.

They had funding to purchase very expensive equipment and software, and could provide stable work with benefits because of a steady stream of work that comes in.

Naturally everyone wanted to work at the facilities.

This is no longer the case. The price of equipment has fallen and most off the shelf software is capable of doing very high-end work.

This has commoditized the facilities making them very competitive with very small profits. Job security is gone as many of us work project-to-project. Fringe benefits have been almost useless as they are whittled away at larger facilities while smaller facilities offer none.

VFX facilities are trying to become producers but with vfx facility produced films like Yogi Bear and Skyline is this really feasible?

Why Not Work Directly For The Production Companies?

Given the current state of things, a few of us have realized that we have essentially become freelance workers working for unprofitable middlemen. Why not work directly for the production companies?

We would still work project to project but like cinematographers and editors, we would work directly with the producing client. It would be easier to unionize at the big 5 studios and get portable fringe benefits that cover us even when we are not working.

VFX artists might preferably be able to work directly on the lots of studios like Warner Bros. instead of some dark unsuspecting office spaces.

The production studios would save money in redundant costs with the elimination of executive management, human resources, accounting, recruiting, and other overhead.

They would have direct access to production management and coordinators who help organize the artists work and monitor what gets done. They would also have iterative control with the work artists do.

The unions would provide access to fringe benefits and a framework for labor practices that provide for a floor. Agents can be hired by artists to represent them in negotiations with the studio to provide the best deal possible. I’ll provide more details on this later.

It’s Already Happening

If you think this model is unfeasible then think again. As VFX Law mentioned, he is working directly for a production company. A similar model has been used for films like 2012 and The Golden Compass. Former Sony Pictures Imageworks VP Jenny Fulle proposed a similar idea back in 2009.

Soldier On.

30 Responses to What Purpose Do VFX Facilities Serve?

  1. n says:

    I think you’re discounting the cost of infrastructure a little bit. If you’re going to do work of any real scale, somebody has to be capable of building out the kind of file storage, rendering capacity, and data I/O that a large-scale project requires.

    Having said that, it may be possible to piece together those resources: rent rendering capacity from computing farms, store all the production data in the cloud, etc. But you’ll pay a heavy price the first time figuring out how to get all that stuff working at the pace you expect.

    Still, worth a shot, particularly when work is lean.

  2. Chris says:

    only an organization with a long-term strategy and a good infrastructure budget can build and maintain the technical infrastructure needed for an _efficient_ workflow.
    Overhead cost is not an extra, but the base if you dont want to start re-inventing the wheel over and over again with every new project. Without overhead, you will loose knowledge, know-how, tools and organizational structures after a project and have to rebuild it with e ery new project. Depending on the scale of your average project, this can be much more expensive – and stressfull.

    So, full disageree from my point of view. You can not lease everything and you can not buy everything you need for highend VFX off the shelf at Wallmart’s electronics corner.

  3. chris says:

    i could maybe agree with all of this. but what the new proposed model can’t provide is the type of environment current vfx-facilities provide. a pipeline, tools, relationship between (lead) artists etc all have to grow over a long period of time.
    for me, that’s one reason to work for the big houses. you get there and you can rely on their proven track record, development, structure that simply lets you do your work without worrying about building stuff from the ground up EVERYTIME you start a new project. the latter would happen in my opinion if you cut out the so-called middleman vfx studio.
    or, if you let the production studios handle development properly, you can most probably forget about open-source releases, papers etc that are so important for the industry. because the beancounters at the top know ZERO about how we work and they would rather keep talent+tools for themselves than sharing it with somebody else.

  4. A says:

    What If VFX Facilities Didn’t Exist?
    – Then the life of most people in the industry would get more stressfull and the job more risky (i.e. worse contracts, responsibilty to provide and pay for the equipment to do your job, etc).

  5. VFX Soldier says:

    I’m not saying that we VFX artists should purchase our own equipment. I’m saying the production studios should setup the infrastructure on their production lots and crew vfx artists to work directly with them.

    Pertaining to pipelines and wheels getting re-invented, guess what, it happens at facilities all the time. Two different shows at the same facility will develop their own pipeline that do almost the same thing because of studio or supervisor demands. This is compounded when various facilities have to work together using very different pipelines.

    • chris says:

      well, it certainly doesn’t happen at the facilities i worked at so far…pipelines are built and looked after for the long haul. of course there’s new tools being written constantly for new shows and demands. but the basic pipeline HAS to be there to allow a show to function, where hundreds of artists and departments have to work together like clockwork.
      so it can’t just be a project-to-project workflow. you HAVE to keep key-people around for several years and over multiple projects to make this work

    • n says:

      That’s one of the dumbest ways to waste money I’ve been witness to in this industry. Not that pipelines don’t need refreshing — but sometimes it’s just because the folks in charge won’t sit down together and agree on standards. Heck, I’ve heard of some shows that had different pipeline standards for each of their lighting teams. Nightmares!

      But hey, if you’ve got some technical chops, you can make a good living reinventing the wheel over and over again!

  6. Tom says:

    I always am up for change. Even drastic change.

    I know some companies have already started building a portable model. Artists are starting to work at home and its a matter of time before much of the work is done at home rather than an office.

    I would not mind working at home. But I would still want a weekly interaction with my peers. Say an 80/20, 80% of my time is work at home. And 20% is spent at the studio. Meaning maybe 1 or 2 days out of the week are in a studio. Maybe even a shared studio.

    Think about it, you have a schedule setup to run 100 artists on a project. Instead of 100 desks, now you only need 20 desks and a server room to house the 100 computers for at home computer work. You greatly reduce the amount of space you need to house your projects and reduce your overhead dramatically.

    • Guest says:

      How would we be able to work at home and get anything done? There are other artist to interact with and sometimes you have to be there in person. Sound like you just want to work from home. Also you have to be able to access the network for elements.

  7. Dave says:

    I was thinking pipeline too…we need facilities for pipelines… Then I thought it through a second time. This sort of situation might give birth to a new branch of software development, “Pipelines” these small pipeline design teams could create custom pipeline solutions and tool sets, then sell or lease these to teams. It would bring the art of pipeline design into the open forcing these companies to push their tool and pipeline tech to gain the lead in competition. Just an idea….

  8. Martin Weber says:

    I think this is a bit short sighted. What would be different cutting out VFX facilities? They catch the fire from both sides right now. Studios are pressing them into unrealistic deadlines and budgets and expect them to deliver even more. I bet some studios would be glad to be just “the agent”. 10% on the commissioned work and no overhead – sounds fine to me.

    In regard to your bullet list:

    1. Have the studio pay the artists directly, weekly, like all other union employees on the film.

    What’s different to being paid by a VFX facility in this regard? Maybe they should switch to this model and hire artists as contract workers paid weekly.

    2. Don’t allow our work to be shot based, but rather cost based (see #1)

    What VFX facility does pay shot based? That’s not something I would think is commonplace.

    3. Give us residuals to pay for benefits

    Studios don’t pay residuals to VFX facilities, why should they pay them to the same artists directly? In your model the artists would work as freelancers / contracted workers. So where is the benefit there? Other artists on films get residuals because they unionized and fought hard for those benefits. Cutting out VFX facilities won’t make the situation better. The problem to be solved is much higher up in the chain.

    4. Lease us machines and space during production instead of paying facility overhead.

    Who would build those production facilities? Do you rally think studios will build them? They don’t even own cameras. In the same regard they “rent” those facilities from VFX studios. That’s how they make their profits, leaving the overhead to those they commission work to.

    5. Replace facilities with studio hired producers, VFX and CG Sups who build a portable infrastructure that can roam project to project.

    Sound nice though Sups rarely “build” infrastructure. Those are those “other guys”, IT staff, developers etc. How to pay them as your business model wants to cut the overhead that VFX facilites represent?

  9. Donald says:

    Having just come off of an exact experience of this earlier this year, I agree as well. I was lucky to be part of a small team of Post-vis artists that the director liked enough to final shots. And when we did, he loved what happened.
    They had leased the same equip that Uncharted used when they were there for 2012, and set up a decent farm.
    That, and working with the show’s vfx sup rather than an inbetween sup, not to mention without 5 levels of inbetween sups and coords, it was so much faster work. We ended up finaling a lot more shots than some of the vendors that cost 5-10x as much, and there were only 9 of us. It showed me the power of portable studios, and I hated going back to the regular system after that.

    • chris says:

      for some vfx-jobs this can definitely work fine, as you described…stuff like pre/post-viz, concept, mattepainting. i made the same experience in a few cases where show-vfx-supes talk to us instead of the inhouse-supes translating client notes. it pays to cut out some middlemen.

      but forget about getting 100-200 random artists together in a studio-backlot with off-the-shelf software+hardware and expect the same quality in the same timeframe as current vfx-facilities push out! there has to be a proper solution in place – which might not change much in the end – instead of just getting rid of the vfx-facilities.

      • nick says:

        I agree with Chris – having worked on a set up with 100-200 people it was just a mess and one of the hardest jobs I’ve done. Plus you lose all the technology. I think if it only went this way you would never have an avatar or a pirates. These film only happen when you have a large team with a lot of time to play between films and gather and grow knowlege and skills together.

  10. methe says:

    have you ever been to the on-set previz department at a movie shoot?
    Yes exactly, organized by (non-VFX) coordinators and PAs who’s main job is to write call sheets or organize transportation. And in between, they organize some space in a backlot, rent some cheap computers, hire an IT freelancer for two days (1 day to set everything up and 1 day for the wrap in the end).
    And if you ask them to organize a $500 Maya plugin, they have no understanding whatsoever why it is needed or how to get it.

    Is this how you want to do your day-to-day highend work?!

    It might work for previz – but even there, it can be difficult and disappointing.

  11. […] both VFX Law’s proposed new business model for visual effects as well as VFX Soldier’s take on it this […]

  12. vfxinsider says:

    Right or wrong this is a great thought experiment.

    We get to imagine what life without studios would be.
    It really makes you wonder why studios aren’t
    -Shot based billing.
    -A lease basis VFX shop,pipeline and computers directly by the production. (this would be profitable for them because they are not bidding on shots.)
    – artists hired directly.

    It’s fun to think about. Remember though. The industry looks like it does because Fox and Warner modeled it that way. as a failing business model.

    Ask Dave Rand.

  13. vfxguy says:

    “Doomsayers say all vfx work would just go overseas but the fallacy in this is that vfx isn’t very scalable. For example, many facilities in the UK are booked up 2 years in advance by subisidy-hungry studios.”

    Well Soho’s not really a great example. They’re massively limited by office space and a relatively small talent pool (i.e. Europe and the travelling yanks and antipodeans).

    By contrast, the sites in the far east have an enormous amount of both space and artists. You can argue that the experience to do high-end work isn’t there yet–and you’d be right–but give them a few years and they’ll be churning out tens of thousands of shots every year at a fraction of the cost of US studios.

    Many of the biggest shops in the world have (growing) facilities in the far east now. They’re not there for the weather.

  14. […] group that is “rented” out to groups on an as-needed basis.What do you think?via What Purpose Do VFX Facilities Serve? « VFX Soldier. This story written by Randall Hand Randall Hand is a visualization scientist working for a federal […]

  15. Erik van der Tier says:

    I think this thought experiment goes wrong at the premiss. Facilities aren’t like real estate agents. They are just service companies, like you find in every other industry. The reason they’re here is to bundle infrastructure, knowledge, build efficient teams, specialize. They also reduce communication overhead as they have people between the client and the employees of the company.
    I think there’s definitely a development where those employees become more flexible in terms of where they work from, but I don’t think service companies in any industry will easily be replaced by people working directly for the clients. This would basically mean that the production companies would setup a daughter company to do the effects work, which means you end up with just another facility.
    At the same time i’m self employed, so I’d much welcome being able to work directly on shows more easily as this would mean it would be much easier to do cool projects. However, I find both the production companies and the facilities are not yet very open to this notion.


  16. Anon says:

    Who needs studios? Just get a wealthy friend to buy the rights to a book and put your indy film on itunes…

  17. […] If VFX artists worked directly for the studio productions they would have iterative control and would be able to give better directions to get things done. I’ve talked about this with former blogger VFX Law. What purpose do VFX facilities serve? […]

  18. anon says:

    Q: Why not have your VFX facility completely in the cloud? If you can teach VFX in the cloud surely you can do the work as well.
    A: IP protection
    If Bradley Manning can get away with it, what chance does a hollywood studio have to protect it’s latest ‘block buster’?

    • anon says:

      Virtual VFX Hub services both TV/Film Productions and VFX Facility overflow.
      From a client’s perspective, Virtual VFX Hub provides the exact same services as any other VFX studio. The difference isn’t in what we do, the difference is in the WAY that we do it. Without compromising quality, without compromising speed, without compromising value and without compromising security.
      This different approach to doing business allows Virtual VFX Hub to offer its clients a true 24/7 on demand service. Not only can we do VFX anytime and anywhere, we can do it with significantly less overhead than anyone else in the business.
      Whether it’s large sequences of VFX shots spanning several months or simple cleanup work completed overnight, no project is too big or small and no deadline is too short.
      Because our artists work all over the world, we can taylor custom teams to work with a variety of Tax Credits for Film Production/VFX offered by various states, provinces, and countries.
      Recognizing the need for a high level of security when dealing with confidential TV/Film productions, we have worked to address all concerns and taken steps to ensure that your secrets remain secret. For all file transfers and artist/client correspondence we use our own private FTP server with 256bit encrypted file transfers. Combined with heavily restricted network access, artists involved have access limited to only what they require.
      It is also our policy that artists sign a mandatory non-disclosure agreement before commencing work on a specific project, consistent with standard industry practices.
      We take the security of your intellectual property very seriously and make it a priority when conducting our business.

    • VFXproletrait says:

      Do VFX facility owners deserve to profit from fostering an environment in which VFX artists and researchers can collaborate and to negotiate on their behalf for a studio employment deal?

  19. […] caused me to write about something I always ponder: What Purpose Do VFX Facilities Serve? I also have written about the approval process and how going through so many different vendors and […]

  20. […] reminded of a post I wrote 2 years ago which was mostly a thought experiment: Why don’t VFX facilities work directly for the production studios? Two years later, you have almost all the big VFX Californian facilities owned by production […]

  21. […] The current VFX biz model doesn’t work, so why would we try to replicate it on the lot.  Maybe a new approach is a good one?  So much has changed technically in how we create animation and VFX with computers today, that […]

  22. […] The current VFX biz model doesn’t work, so why would we try to replicate it on the lot.  Maybe a new approach is a good one?  So much has changed technically in how we create animation and VFX with computers today, that […]

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