The Price Of Getting It Done

Variety’s David S. Cohen reports that the VFX crunch for studios on films like Green Lantern are having a costly effect:

Whispers about problems on the production grew louder after schedule concerns early in the new year triggered high-level meetings to get the project back on track. The cost of its roughly 1,400 visual effects is more than $9 million over the $45 million original f/x budget.

I’ve posted at length about similar issues like this. In the quest by studios to make VFX faster, cheaper, and better the exact opposite occurs: Deadlines get missed, the costs go up, and the quality goes down.

But as TAG organizer Steve Kaplan and many of us have realized time and time again:

When push comes to shove, the studios pay to get the films done.

I alluded to this recently on how convoluted quality control measures and mistaken attempts to go the cheap route have led to vfx that looks like an in game cut scene.

The stress at times has hit a level that I’ve rarely seen. On one occasion I witnessed a VFX Supervisor choke up in tears at how frustratingly close they’ve come to a deadline’s razor thin edge.

Variety had a similar article almost 4 years ago where that famous quote was seared into our minds:

One producer, according to a story making the rounds of vfx shops, is reported to have said, “If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job.”

And so we subscribed to the fear that was a part of a larger narrative presented by some in the industry that went kinda like this: VFX labor in California is too expensive. VFX labor is cheaper elsewhere and other countries. VFX facilities don’t make money. Therefore, if you unionized, it will drive up the costs and the studios will take their work elsewhere.

Yet I make little discoveries that are quite the contrary:

Union benefits could actually be cheaper for facilities that pay for fringe benefits. Some facility owners have been bold enough to say that the VFX industry is a “terrific business to be in” and that the bad years were just “paper losses“. While states that offer subsidies are cutting them, other countries that offer them are at full capacity and turning work away. The profitable companies get caught engaging in collusion to keep wages down even though it’s cheaper elsewhere. Yet the studios keep coming here to get work done, even if the costs go over budget by 20%.

Now consider the situation for Sony artists 4 years ago. You had India and New Mexico. Artists were being told that work would leave Culver City altogether and only a small production crew would remain. If you were WB Producer Chris Defaria, you thought VFX would mimic the gypsy-like model of physical production and all the work could be done in New Mexico.

Fast forward today and you had a huge need in So Cal for vfx artists to finish Green Lantern. The vfx went over-budget by 20% but you got it done and it will look good. Unfortunately, for the New Mexico artists that are potentially facing 4 months of no work where do they go? For the artists in Culver City many of them will also be let go but at least you are situated in a dynamic market that has other vfx work going on.

For example many small and mid-sized facilities are hiring. Disney Animation is ramping up. Hell, you don’t even need to mail them your resume and reel. They’ll come to Culver City to pick it up. Of course it would have been advantageous to you if Sony was unionized as your benefits would have just transfered over when you are at Disney.

For the studios the game will start all over again, but the Variety article has a warning for them.

Should a tentpole be forced to change dates, the ripple effects on a studio, its rivals, exhibitors and tie-ins will be widespread and injurious to bottom lines.

“I think the day (the system) breaks is the day everyone will revise their thinking,” said Marvel exec VP of visual effects Victoria Alonso. “Until that day comes, filmmakers are going to push it to the limit. I think it’s sad that we will have to watch one of us fail to learn our lesson.”

Perhaps it’s time for VFX artists to start making some waves.

Soldier On.

10 Responses to The Price Of Getting It Done

  1. Happens all the time on the commercial side as well. Decisions are made, revised, tweaked, reversed and then back to square one – start all over again. Then the agency pays for the overage so they can finish the spot before the air date. Dave Rand’s idea that the decision-makers be “in the room” might change some of this production mess.

  2. occlude says:

    Pretty interesting piece from Mr. Cohen. I think the studio mantra of tweaking a movie up to the very last moment has always been risky. They continue to do it though, and until it really fucks a release date, probably nothing will happen. Even then, most likely you’d see some exec shuffling. It would take several incidents to see some very real effect. The thing is, that could happen…it is possible…

    If it did, that would be a ripe opportunity to change the business model and organize at the same time. You can organize now, but I just don’t think it makes sense to go with IATSE or IBEW. I feel strongly that if we did anything we should form our own guild, but I am very much on the fence about that since I don’t like the principle of unions as a whole.

    Either way, things are heating up for sure!

  3. Dave Rand says:

    This is my response to that article:

    I can only comment based on my experience.

    It’s my observation that post production is now really production and needs to be treated that way if it is to be profitable. The single greatest money making force in the history of film is the stunning digital imagery we create, yet fx houses are falling like dominoes. This should not be happening when the films being made go on to reap hundreds of millions of dollars. Since production help, folks on the set, are getting paid by the hour, the decision maker (usually the director) has to be present. They have to be on that set in person and with a megaphone. If productions were bidding on most of the work the director could stay poolside waiting for the footage he ordered to be brought to him so he could laugh at and yell at people, and order re-shoots until it was done to his liking. Of course this would never happen today, but it is pretty much what happens in the VFX world every day! In my mind organization of labor may force this practice out of VFX work to the benefit of everyone, not just the artists. Yes, the decision maker will be forced to watch his paint dry sometimes but the directors I’ve worked with have enjoyed it and saved money. lots of money. The bidding process is killing the artists, the shops, and the studios.. Lately, what is making this even worse is the new trend to combat the narrow or non existent margins. I’m speaking about the NEW bidding model that includes massive expansion and contraction of labor. Training and retraining migratory workers to work on multiple branded pipelines. This is not a solution either, and costs even more. All of this makes so many of us vfx artists feel like the child in the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” It’s the bidding process that needs to be pointed at, not the artists, and this illusion can be lifted. If the choice of letting the weight of this bad planning is removed from the back of the artists and the shops, a better plan can be woven into place. Something that brings reality and clarity to all.

  4. vfxinsider says:

    The problem isn’t the desire to make films or vfx better near the end of production, the problem is that studios and producers operate under the misconception that “this time” we’ll be able to plan it out and keep it under control. Then vfx houses labor under the same misconceptions, underbid, fear pissing off their clients, and lose money. Then in an attempt to keep that from happening, they use an agricultural model, bringing in migrant labor to pick the crops only when they’re needed, and out of financial necessity begin to rely on foreign (overseas) labor.

    Organizing might gain certain benefits like mobility of healthcare, etc., but will do little for job security, which is really what many of us seek. The only way out of that pickle is to affect change at the top and have vfx production seen as a part of the creative uniqueness of a film, sharing in the proceeds from the film’s success, thus enabling the longevity of vfx companies and the maintenance of human capital.

    We are talent, not equipment to be rented on an as needed basis.

    • Dave Rand says:

      I’ve been with five shops that closed. The 4 non union shops all closed owing me money and with no warning. The one union shop closed with almost a year’s notice, and handed me 30K on the way out the door along with 1.5 yrs of paid health care. Along the way they hosted job fairs and the entire HR staff shifted over to helping us find new gigs. This is for a company who’s partner evolved with the union over time, I believe when that happens the company becomes more employee centric.

      Also of note here…residuals are paid to the Animation Guild, SAG, and others to help fund heath are and retirement plans.

      • skaplan839 says:

        Just a note of clarification:

        The residuals that the IATSE receives through its contracts with the AMPTP go to *help* fund the pension and health plans. The way that money is dispersed inside the plans is outlined quite well in this TAG Blog post by Jeff Massie in a section called Funding the Plans

        Eligibility into the is Health Plans is established through employer contributions. The cost of those contributions is “bought down” by the IATSE’s residual component.

        Steve Kaplan

  5. anon says:

    “The stress at times has hit a level that I’ve rarely seen. On one occasion I witnessed a VFX Supervisor choke up in tears at how frustratingly close they’ve come to a deadline’s razor thin edge.”
    So if they don’t meet some deadline that a studio exec came up with after signing some lucrative distributor/marketing deal, their reputation will be ruined and they’ll have to give up their leased Lamborghini? There’ll always be another supervisor ready to sacrifice their reputation (for the right price) on some impossible brief dreamed up by conspiring studio and VFX facility managers – particularly within hungry international studios (Greed is good)

  6. […] all due respect I disagree. Didn’t Warner Bros. pay 20% over budget for vfx done in Los Angeles? When they brought on Pixomondo to do the extra work where did that go? […]

  7. […] Now eyes are on the UK to see if there will not only be an extension, but a competitive raise in the film subsidy for vfx work in that region next March. All this is happening while California, which offers no subsidy for big productions, witnesses WB pay 20% extra to complete the vfx for Green Lantern in Los Angeles. […]

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