Hollywood puts pressure on techies

If the visual effects industry had its way, the Disney tentpole that sailed into theaters May 25 might have been named “Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wits’ End.”

Industrial Light & Magic topper Chrissie England, who’s seen many blockbusters come through her shop, calls the editing/post-production race to the pic’s delivery deadline “about the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” The film’s vfx supervisor, John Knoll, calls it “a freakin’ miracle” that the film was done on time.

“Pirates 3,” warn England and Knoll, is just one tip of an iceberg that’s sending a chill through the visual effects industry. Visual effects houses are worried about the increasing demand for more product, at higher quality, in less time. Some effects houses have been losing key workers, and a few are threatening to shutter, because of the shifting economics.

Studios are worried about the outcome. With increasingly frantic post-production schedules, there is less time to edit, test and recut a film, and a megamillion-dollar investment is in jeopardy if the tentpole is overlong or confusing.

Sony Pictures Imageworks’ prexy Tim Sarnoff says, “This whole business — not just visual effects, the whole film business — is about managing risk. It’s an area where you don’t recognize the importance of good planning until you have a problem.”

But, adds Sarnoff, “The looming issue isn’t whether a facility is in trouble or not. The looming issue is whether a film is in trouble. We’re all about creating an experience for the audience. If we don’t present a compelling image, they won’t have a compelling experience.

“The disaster (would be if) we didn’t plan well enough to make an effect or a character sell a movie, and that’s a disaster because you’ve spent a lot of money everywhere else to make that movie successful.”

Call this increased pressure on effects houses the “War of the Worlds” effect.

Two years ago, ILM delivered eye-popping visual effects for Paramount’s “War of the Worlds” only three months after the end of principal photography. That set the bar impossibly high, so that producers now routinely demand “the ‘War of the Worlds’ schedule.”

In fact, that schedule was only possible because of unique circumstances, including the involvement of two men who are extraordinarily technically proficient: helmer Steven Spielberg and vfx mastermind Dennis Muren.

That movie, and the carefully planned, $60 million “300,” which was almost all effects, have created increasingly high demands from studios.

The beleaguered f/x houses also find their pay eroding as rival shops open up around the world. Effects budgets may be soaring, but they’re being spread over many more houses and many more shots. Effects houses are still paid by the shot, and per-shot fees have fallen 30%-40%.

The studios complain that the visual f/x shops always go over budget. Shops complain that they’re asked to absorb costs of poor studio and producer planning.

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.”

The shops also complain that short schedules and last-second changes drive costs up unnecessarily, and that studios end up paying more for less.

Chris de Faria, Warner Bros.’ exec VP of digital production, animation and visual effects, says his studio deliberately avoids awarding whole shows to one f/x company, preferring a network of vendors across the globe.

“Any company would be taxed to do (1,200 shots),” he says. “We don’t think it’s good business to put that much work through a narrow pipeline.”

Piecemealing a big f/x job is possible because the barrier of entry for small players in the field has fallen, and there is good work coming from houses around the world. Such basic work as wire removal and simple compositing can now be done cheaply by a two-man shop in a Van Nuys garage — or a facility in India or the Philippines.The big shops are also looking overseas to cut costs. Rhythm & Hues has sent some of its work on “Evan Almighty” out to its India branch, which also includes among its credits “Superman Returns” and Disney’s first “Narnia” film.

The facility that is now Imageworks India, in Chennai, contributed to “Spider-Man 3″ and has long partnered with Sony’s Imageworks.

But only a few shops in the world — ILM, Sony’s Imageworks and Weta Digital among them — have the technology and experience to develop the never-before-seen jaw-droppers studios have come to rely on.

Visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun, who worked on last year’s “Blood Diamond,” explains: “If you go back to 1997, a big show had 300-400 shots. The standard today for a show that has no visible visual effects shots is 400 shots. For a show with visible visual effects shots, it’s 800-1,200. A visual effects extravaganza is 1,800-2,000.”

“Pirates 3,” for example, has around 2,000 vfx shots, according to Knoll (many done by shops other than ILM). There are 3,000 cuts in the entire film.

And the shots are getting longer. Sony’s “Spider-Man 3″ had only 930 vfx shots, but the birth-of-the-Sandman sequence alone is about three minutes long. On “Pirates,” there are significant sections of the film, notably the “edge of the world” sequence and the climactic ship battle in the maelstrom, where everything on the screen is computer-generated.

“The final instructions are arriving later and the work is being delivered sooner,” says Sarnoff, “not just for the movie itself but for trailers, for teasers, for marketing, for campaigns, for overseas, for international vs. domestic, for different versions. Literally, the pressure is on all sides of this cooker.”

One common complaint is that while studios ask for the “War of the Worlds” schedule, they also reserve the right to demand last-minute changes (something they wouldn’t dare do on a Spielberg film without the director’s say-so). That can turn a tight-but-attainable schedule into a crisis — or, in the parlance of the vfx industry, a “911,” where additional shops have to be hired for last-minute work.

To be sure, pressure is nothing new for effects pros. As the last link in the production chain, vfx shops traditionally have worked punishing hours in the run-up to release dates.

Now, though, there’s evidence that things are reaching a breaking point. Experienced vfx artists are changing careers, and at least one highly regarded shop is getting out of the vfx biz. Even industry leaders like ILM and Sony’s Imageworks are feeling the pain, worrying not only about their artists’ quality of life, but about the quality of the films they are working on.

Says “Pirates” effects maven Knoll, “Often if a picture is in trouble one way or another, there are ways to salvage it, through reshoots or whatever.” But he notes that it takes some time to edit, test and recut the film, even rewrite and reshoot if necessary, whether the problem is with the effects or with something else.

“When you go through these very, very short schedules you eliminate all those options,” he says. “The chances are higher you will have a big flop.”

“Pirates” helmer Gore Verbinski was working nearly around the clock to cut the film and had to lock some reels before other reels were even edited. This has become common practice on action-adventure films.

“He never had the chance to run the movie for a test audience, reflect on it and make adjustments,” Knoll says.

That’s aside from the more immediate danger that a film will simply miss a release date. It has happened before, but with soaring costs, greater competition for dates and ever more tie-ins, that would be a disaster for everyone involved, especially with some budgets now running above a quarter-billion dollars.

Sarnoff is careful to say that this is not yet an “on-fire” problem. “This is more like a grill getting hotter,” he says.

Stu Maschwitz, co-founder of the Orphanage, recalls a movie where the bond company insisted on auditing his shop’s books, having been burned by another vfx shop
that went bankrupt in midproduction.

“They were going over our financials with a fine-tooth comb while at the same time the production was beating us up on price and delaying payments. It never occurred to them that there was a connection between the two.”

Worse, says de Faria, producers aren’t just asking for the “War of the Worlds” sked.

“What I’m hearing now is ‘Can you do the ‘300’ budget?” he says, referring to the modestly budgeted all-greenscreen sword-and-sandals pic.

Giant Killer Robots, a decade-old San Francisco-based vfx shop that employed around 50 people, worked on the first “Fantastic Four” and several other tentpole releases, and earned a good reputation, even among its competitors.

Co-founder John Vegher says that in recent years, post schedules shrank from 8-12 months to 3-5 months. “Every now and then, very infrequently, we get what we call a ‘real schedule,’ ” he says. “At the same time, the studios have slashed the rate they’re willing to pay for vfx work.” Vegher doesn’t blame the studios for taking advantage of the hyper competitive marketplace that’s evolved as vfx shops have sprung up in Canada, in Asia and in California garages.

“It’s such a sexy industry,” he says. “Everybody knows there’s a hundred people behind you just dying to get your job.”

But the vfx industry is maturing. Digital artists have followed their work from London to New Zealand to California, but as the more experienced artists move into their 30s and 40s, get married and start families, they are less able to relocate and less willing to work 70-hour-plus weeks for months at a time.

“We haven’t worked our staff harder,” Vegher says. “If anything, we may have worked them less, because we’ve become more efficient.”

But the handwriting was on the wall. “We saw we weren’t going to be able to regulate that time anymore. It’s not good for the company, and it’s not good for our staff.”

So six months ago, GKR closed its doors while its founders pondered their future. They have decided to reopen, but to get out of the visual effects business, turning instead to CG animation and developing their own projects.

In the meantime, many GKR artists wound up at ILM, where they were caught in the same kind of crunch.

After four or five months of punishing hours on “Pirates,” there was still “Transformers” to finish. “The best artists,” says Knoll, “the ones who are most in demand, who can do the most to help a show make its final push, go from one show to another.”

Since they are also less likely to be recent college grads happy to subsist on ramen noodles, they are also more prone to family strains, divorces and even career changes.

Ironically, the man who may have done more than anyone else to put the industry under this pressure is something of a contrarian about it.

Muren may lament the “Monday-morning quarterbacking” from suits who aren’t happy with some of the visual effects, and he acknowledges that Spielberg’s decisive style was essential for getting “War of the Worlds” done so fast, but Muren generally likes working on a short schedule.

“Everybody is still in the emotional and mental zone of making the movie if you can do it in a shorter period of time. I think there are big creative wins with that,” he says.

On the other hand, he’s been writing a book and hasn’t been on a film for the last couple of years.

The only time he’s had to work on the “War of the Worlds” schedule — was on “War of the Worlds.”

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