George Lucas isn’t known for doing anything on the cheap. Neither are his companies Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound.
They’ve long been at the top of every filmmaker’s wish list as the best in the biz for visual and sound f/x, breaking new ground to create roaring computer-generated dinosaurs, space battles and swash-buckling pirates.
But that’s where they’ve mostly stayed: Hiring Lucas’ shops have required tentpole-sized budgets, forcing most productions to go elsewhere.
So it’s been surprising to see lower-budgeted pics like “Lions for Lambs,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Into the Wild,” “The Kite Runner,” “We Own the Night,” “Miracle at St. Anna” and documentaries like “Trembling Before G-d,” “A Jihad for Love” and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” handling their post needs there.
It’s all part of Lucas’ recent digital change of heart: He’s opening the doors to his post houses in an attempt to create a digital arts center at the Presidio complex in San Francisco, where his companies are all now based.
The strategy is about allowing its stable of artists to work directly with filmmakers on smaller projects — something they may not have been able to do on a film like “Transformers,” which employed as many as 350 ILM staffers.
The idea is also to bring in new helmers who may not have traditionally been able to work with the shops and talent before, and build a relationship with them, so that they, of course, may return with potentially bigger-budgeted projects later on.
“It’s not that the revenue is there, but a lot of our artists didn’t get into the business to just work on tentpoles,” says Miles Perkins, director of marketing and communications for ILM. “They’re film buffs. They want to work with fantastic filmmakers. They want something they can sink their teeth into.”
But the facilities also found themselves at the breaking point: There are only so many tentpoles they can work on at one time. And of the 12-18 films they take on each year, needed smaller pics were to keep the mixing rooms and workstations busy.
“As much as we have struggled with the preconceived notion of only working on big films, it’s part of the legacy of Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound,” says Glenn Kiser, VP and general manager of Skywalker Sound. “Over the last several years, we’ve gotten a lot more aggressive in figuring out how to become more cost effective.”
Of course, “low-budget” means different things to different people.
For ILM, that turns out to be pics in the $35 million to $40 million range so far — still a healthy pricetag. Yet that’s a far cry from the traditional f/x-heavy pics like “Transformers” or for franchises like “Star Wars” or “Pirates of the Caribbean,” each with pricetags of more than $150 million and requiring thousands of f/x shots.
In comparison, it completed nearly 60 shots for “Lions for Lambs” and 11 shots for “There Will Be Blood.”
ILM isn’t disclosing just how big of a discount it’s giving productions, but the CG-work it’s creating isn’t as visually intensive on these types of pics.
The sound budget for pics Skywalker typically works on runs in the $400,000 range. But indies traditionally have $200,000 to work with, if they’re lucky. And sound facilities housed on studio lots usually book much of that work.
Nearly two years ago, Lucas built a wing at Skywalker to reduce costs of audio post-production, specifically aimed at the indie film market.
“We figured out we had to play in that budget perspective,” Kiser says. “We discovered that it was the only real growth potential for us.”
Skywalker is attributing much of its new bookings not only to reduced fees but also to improved technology.
The company found itself in a rare position of not offering such services as digital intermediates, or the ability to digitally color correct films.
Company has since been making investments in those and other areas over the past several years, Kiser says, and recently opened a facility run by Efilm to offer digital intermediate work, working first on “Eragon” and more recently on “Iron Man.”
“That just wasn’t being offered,” Kiser says. “It wasn’t in our business model to offer that. We started to lose independent films because of that.”