Guarded optimism for future at industry confab

About 200 vfx pros gathered at the Visual Effects Society’s Production Summit at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey on Saturday to peer into their future. The outlook: guarded optimism.

The main theme at the VES confab was the blurring of lines between production and post as the growing use of digital cameras has pushed some work formerly done in post, such as color timing, onto shooting sets to ensure consistency of images throughout the chain.

With post creeping closer to the director and the d.p., on-set technicians now control and calibrate the captured digital images at the source rather than down the line — reducing the risk that incompatible versions will be sent out.

“If pieces of the work go to various vfx houses and they all come back different, then I have to fix everything, so it’s critical that color timing be done on set as much as possible,” said d.p. Steve Poster, head of the Cinematographers Guild.

“We’re working on eight features right now, and seven of them use on-set technology,” said Vince Pace, founder of Pace, a maker of stereoscopic 3D camera systems used by James Cameron, among others. “A lot of the answers have to be closer to the capture process. If they say, ‘Let’s fix it down the pipeline,’ nobody knows whether that means a simple keystroke or 30 days of work.”

Another confab theme was the survival of vfx houses amid tech turmoil and financial squeezes. “Big companies are taking work that used to go to smaller companies, putting some of them out of business,” said John Kilkenny, exec veep and head of vfx at Fox.

Kilkenny acknowledged the competitive pressure on vfx houses to lower rates. “If you ask around, you will always find somebody to say yes,” he said, “but it’s not good for us if a company’s profit margins are so small that they have to close their doors. It reduces my choices.”

Some vfx companies are surviving by expanding their business beyond image manipulation and going into ownership of the material. “We’ve moved to create our own content and are becoming partners with our clients by adding creative value,” said Warren Franklin, CEO at Rainmaker Entertainment.

Keynote speaker Bill Mechanic criticized the film biz as being “in a period of technical virtuosity and creative mediocrity. Movies are getting bigger and worse.” He noted that so far, of 2010’s top 10 grossers, only one, “Inception,” was not a remake, sequel or toon.

In a conversation moderated by Variety exec editor Steven Gaydos, former Fox topper Mechanic, now head of Pandemonium Films, attributed studios’ obsession with tentpoles to spiraling P&A costs: “Marketing costs $80 million or more. You can’t spend that much on something that’s not going to gross at least $200 million.”

Mechanic played to the crowd by concluding, “Nobody who runs a studio today really understands how a movie is made.”

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