3D among many pressures squeezing f/x quality

Talk to anyone who makes visual-effects movies and they’ll tell you that shortened schedules and budget pressures are squeezing the quality of vfx in unprecedented ways.

The impact is being felt in the shifting landscape for jobs, with fewer vfx vendors within U.S. borders and the shops growing in territories offering rebates. At the same time, fans are watching these movies on Blu-ray at near 2K resolution, so vfx shots are receiving heightened scrutiny.

On the one hand, artists and vfx supervisors are capable of delivering images of unprecedented detail and complexity — images that movie fans eat up. But on the other, studios are pushing vfx vendors to deliver more work in less time, often for less money and now often in 3D, which eats up resources.

The conflict between good and good enough isn’t new; Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” But current stresses on budget combined with worries about making content that will still be valuable in a future of Imax theaters and 4K/3D/giantsized home screens is ratcheting up the tension and driving down the quality.

Some complaints about quality are linked to worries about the future of the American vfx business. American vfx companies like to link quality concerns to globalization, but the vfx industry outside the U.S. has matured, and “Made in USA” is no longer a necessary quality mark.

“There was a time when their (overseas shops’) quality wasn’t up what you’d get the U.S.,” said Marvel Entertainment’s executive VP of visual effects, Victoria Alonso. “Those were hard choices to make because you were inclined to go for the rebates. But we’re lucky now that talent has grown exponentially around the world.”

If an overseas vendor can meet Marvel’s security requirements, she says, “We do take chances with them — particularly for something automated like rotoscoping or tracking.”

Fudges and kludges

However, Ray Feeney of RFX, one of Hollywood’s leading technologists, said, “I believe the quality of what has been delivered to the motion picture screen has gone down over the last few years, but not because of globalization.”

Feeney added: “It’s because of hugely foreshortened schedules and the requirements for day and date releases worldwide. Because that pressure is so strong, studios want as good a quality as they can get, but only as good as they can get and still meet these practicalities.”

Feeney and those who argue for more attention to quality note that movies today receive unprecedented scrutiny. With Blu-ray and HDTV, fans can pick apart a sequence frame by frame, and they can spot fudges, kludges and cheats.

At the same time, though, “The movies get bigger but the budgets seem to get smaller,” Alonso says. “Because every department seems to cut down before we shoot or as we shoot, the fix-it-in-post department — which is us — keeps growing. You have weather issues, or an actor has to leave and you end up with a greenscreen shoot that you didn’t think you would have.”

Vfx supervisor Jeff Okun, who also serves as chair of thee Visual Effects Society chairman, said “I had one director say, ‘I don’t like my sets, but I know you can replace them.’ We could, but not in 10 days, when the film was opening.”

Mike Fink, head of North American production for Prime Focus, agreed. “The old triangle of ‘money-time-quality: pick two’ doesn’t apply anymore. Studios are confident that visual effects people will figure out how to deliver what a director wants for less money, in less time.”

Rush jobs

This mindset can foster sloppy shooting, said Bill Taylor, governor of the Academy’s VFX branch. “There’s no digital fix for a camera that was placed in the wrong position,” he said. “The pressure to get lots of setups done in a day is greater than ever, so the results coming out of production and into the visual effects labs are sometimes very bad. The quality standards of photography have declined, perhaps because of lack of time on set.”

Taylor also noted, “There’s a whole generation of digital artists who’ve never picked up a paintbrush or been on a set. Their lack of experience shows in the final result. There are shots in big movies that are unacceptable by any standard.”

Quality control is even more complicated by the compressed schedules of today’s movies. To get the work done in less time, studios and producers use a “wide pipeline” — splitting up the shots to many visual effects studios. Gone are the days when a single studio, like Digital Domain or Industrial Light & Magic, would do an entire movie. Those big shops do the high-profile, research intensive work that can drive a marketing campaign. However on “Iron Man 2,” ILM was one of 11 visual effects vendors, and that number isn’t unusual.

For “Tron: Legacy,” VFX supervisor Eric Barba of Digital Domain wrangled work done in Thailand, India, Mexico and Canada. DD had to develop proprietary networking technology so that Barba could monitor high-def images online.

“It’s a new model for the visual effects community. Traditionally, we don’t share anything. So keeping the quality level consistent was a concern,” Barba said. “You don’t want sequences looking like different companies did them.”

Floor to ceiling

The move toward 3D is also putting downward pressure on vfx quality. 3D visual effects are much more complicated than 2D visual effects, but budgets don’t always make up the difference. Feeney noted that 3D also exposed some limits of today’s d-cinema projection systems.

“The projectors couldn’t do full quality stereo, and studios have scrambled to bring the quality of stereoscopic movies back to a minimal 2K level. That level — which was supposed to be the floor — became the ceiling! Because what actually gets delivered to theaters might be considered compromised, that may allow lower-end visual effects to fly through without being apparent.

“This situation established a ‘good enough’ mindset. Theaters have to show higher quality imagery to drive studios to deliver better quality masters.”

Given all these pressures, it’s not surprising that several vfx suppliers have folded. But Okun said: “Some companies are doing well because they’ve specialized in particular things. Scanline (which did the Oscar-nominated tsunami sequence for “Hereafter”) specializes in water effects. It’s like the general practice doctors who are struggling, while the brain surgeons are doing fine.”

That’s led to an evolution, where producers and studio vfx departments talk about “casting” the visual-effects vendors. It lets a shop such as Scanline, that has a specialty, do what it’s good at without having to carry the entire show. John Swallow, who oversaw vfx at Universal for 14 years, said: “Lots of people can get images 80% done. It comes down to having enough time to do that last 20%. And if shots are added, quality tends to suffer.”

So what happens when the shots aren’t of sufficient quality and the release date is looming? Emergency 911 calls go out to the big shops, who have massive resources and very experienced people — and charge a healthy markup for the rescue work. But smaller shops can’t survive on 911 calls. Feeney said, “All it takes is one project from hell to put them out of business.”

Taylor expects we’ll see more circumstances like the last “Harry Potter” film, where the studio abandoned 3-D conversion efforts that weren’t working. “Sooner or later that will happen to the VFX on movies with cast-iron release dates. Those movies will come out with whole sections missing!”

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