Why CG budgets seldom compute

With the explosion in computer graphics making all aspects of filmmaking easier and quicker, the growing perception is that CG imaging has become an integral tool, not only to make the traditional special-effects-driven big hardware pictures, but also smaller-scale romances, dramas and comedies that wouldn’t seem to require effects.

CG use to remove technical flubs or to erase stunt wires and unwanted scratches in post-production has become commonplace, filmmakers say, but to what point does it enter into the conceptual and budgetary processes?

“We try to get it into the process as early on as possible,” says John Swallow, vice president of production technology for Universal Studios Hollywood. “When the scripts come in through the creative department and over to the physical production area, I do an effects breakdown and estimate how much it will cost.”

Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of the forthcoming “Con Air” starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich, says he tries to involve post-production supervisors and all the creative forces on a picture as early as possible. “Certainly in the budgetary stage you have to decide which methods you’re going to use,” Bruckheimer says. “In the creative arena, you want to maximize the impact, and computer graphics allow you to do so many more things than in the past.”

But as with the protean nature of the development of most studio movies, projects move in fits and starts and the application of CG analysis in the realization process varies with each picture, studio and situation.

“Like everything else in life, the application of CG has its own evolution on each picture,” says Clint Goldman, producer of New Line’s late-summer release “Spawn,” which contains a vision of Hell and is about 25% effects. “In the budgetary and planning stages, the application of CG effects is not as refined as other aspects of filmmaking.

“CG is still relatively new as a standard tool and is still totally the rage,” says Goldman, who previously was a visual-effects supervisor at the venerable Industrial Light & Magic. “CG was considered, up to only recently, as a high-end item. The idea that you can plan everything and schedule it and budget it as a patented process is for the most part untrue.”

Swallow explains that his job might enter the process before a director is even assigned, as happened on the volcano picture “Dante’s Peak.”

“The studio decided they were going to make that before Roger Donaldson was attached,” he says. “I read the script and had already decided what would be miniature, what would be bluescreen effects and greenscreen. Then you work with the director and producers to sound them out on their needs and re-budget accordingly.”

The nature of a studio’s approach to CG also affects when computer work is decided upon and done. Not all studios have their own special-effects departments. The Sony and Universal effects departments are well-known, while Warner Bros. farms out its f/x work to the multiplying CG post houses in Hollywood. Effects supervisors estimate as many as 10,000 CG specialists work in Hollywood, up from several hundred a decade ago.

The nature of the movie itself often allows CG technicians latitude for creative shifts.

“In ‘Con Air’ there’s a seven-second sequence that was not in the script that we put in simply because someone doing CG work got an idea, and we found it was feasible and put it in the movie,” Bruckheimer says. “We’re going to see a lot more of that. Computers in moviemaking are going to evolve even more and eventually drive the price of using them down.”

The time constraints of post-production, which Hollywood unions have complained about often in the 1990s as marketing departments and announced release dates for “event” movies have proved to be important to the box office receipts, also affect when CG work is conceived and completed.

“Many studios are not leaving enough time to do it well,” Goldman says. “People think that if they throw money at technology, it’ll be OK. But we all need time to do it right. There’s only so much one person can do at one terminal on a specific task, no matter how much overtime is paid. CG work is time-consuming.”

Booking time at post houses is another factor. “Everybody’s booked to the rafters this year,” says Ken Ralston, the five-time Oscar-winning visual-effects artist and supervisor who’s currently working on director Bob Zemeckis’ “Contact.” “We’re all plugged into this world to accomplish as much as we can and speed up the process in digital.”

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