Growing Volume, Shifting Schedules of Peak TV Challenge VFX Houses

Zolc Studios Imiginary Mary VFX
Courtesy of Zolc Studios/ABC

Many have christened this a new golden age of television, and many critics agree that today’s small-screen programs exhibit a quality seen in the medium at few other times.

But unlike the early 1950s, another highly regarded era for TV content, the present day features quantity as well as quality. With digital players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu supplementing the output of cable suppliers such as HBO, FX and AMC — in addition to lineups from the broadcast networks that limit reruns — the number of shows is at an all-time high. Plus, programs are now launched throughout the year, a departure from the seasonal TV production cycles that were in force not too long ago.

Today’s shows also feature higher production values. Coupled with the  record output, there’s far greater demand for visual effects — demand that’s spread throughout the year. The result is a change in the way TV-centric visual effects companies operate.

For Andrew Orloff, a co-founder of VFX house Zoic Studios, this means fewer seasonal layoffs of employees. The company needs to ensure it has a consistent workforce to handle jobs — and may even turn down work if it’s already committed to a slate that will use all of its available resources.

Zoic pairs specialists to each job, so that, for example, clients who require a furry animal in their story — such as the puppet Zoic created for ABC comedy “Imaginary Mary” — get time with the in-house specialist in that area. The production model allows experts for each kind of special effect to go from show to show, eliminating the need to set up a separate team every time.

Orloff believes the VFX industry has matured to the point where it can handle any big changes that might be needed in the middle of a production. But he adds that an effects house must be able to negotiate additional pay for the extra work.

“We only survive if we make enough money to go into another year,” Orloff says. “We need to put millions of dollars into infrastructure to operate and to have a chance of doing what our clients need us to do.”

Joseph Bell, a visual effects producer with CoSA, which has worked on HBO’s “Westworld,” among other shows, sees a changing dynamic in TV work. He notes that effects houses used to fear letting projects go to a competitor under any circumstance. That’s no longer the case, though, as production schedules spread out work.

“There are projects you should say no to, even if they’re exciting, because the timing’s not right or because the budget and schedule are too aggressive to deliver what the filmmakers really want,” Bell says. “Taking on those projects is a no-win situation; you’ll either disappoint the client and risk damaging the VFX company’s reputation or you’ll put yourself out of business trying to make the client happy when the time and money don’t support the work.”

FuseFX, which does 85% of its work for such episodic TV shows as Starz’s “Black Sails,” has experienced a boom as a result of new networks and expanding production schedules.

One of the ways FuseFX has managed this growth is by carefully monitoring its numbers to ensure that what the company is spending on paid hours for employees and on equipment doesn’t exceed what it’s earning on a given job.

“Planning makes for great visual effects,” says Tim Jacobsen, a FuseFX co-founder. “That means you’re getting in there with previs and talking about exactly what the client wants, so you know what you’ll need to do to make that happen on the timeline and budget [that are given].”

Companies note that, given the volume of work, producers are placing greater value on what VFX houses bring to a project.

“This is a low-margin business, so we’ll always be looking very carefully to make sure the numbers add up,” Orloff says. “Our clients realize that, and they’re not trying to put visual effects companies out of business because then, next season, they won’t have a partner to go to for their effects.”

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