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F/x gridlock seizes studios

Pix stall as effects shots are late and loopy

It’s down-to-the-wire time again.

That’s the reality being faced by studio execs as they launch their effects-laden tentpole pictures.

Filmmakers and studio execs were always confident that special-effects wizards could make the post-production chaos go away. They were wrong.

Hours before its June 28 premiere, f/x artists were still busy tweaking Disney’s “The Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Other recent releases found studio execs similarly waiting impatiently to see a final print, while techies worked around the clock.

Technology changes things, but not always without a hitch.

Effects budgets have soared. Studio execs are unable to assess their final products. Press junkets are screening unfinished films.

Exactly 10 years ago this summer, “Jurassic Park” proved that anything is possible on film, thanks to CGI. Filmmakers and studio execs have gotten more ambitious, so that even romantic comedies or intimate dramas now require on average 400 computer-generated shots per film.

Filmmakers have achieved their goal: They can do anything on screen. Off-screen is a different matter: They’re still having problems speaking the same language as f/x companies.

But there’s one group reaping the benefits from the chaotic f/x surge.

Soaring visual-effects budgets have created a boom in business for f/x houses from the largest to the smallest — especially small shops that have long tried to emerge from the looming shadow cast by powerhouses like Industrial Light & Magic.

At a time when other branches of showbiz are cutting back and laying off employees, the f/x sector is seeing unprecedented growth, to the occasional frustration of the studios.

“There’s a lot of work out there,” says Rod Park, an exec producer at small Los Angeles f/x shop Digiscope, which employs 20 staffers. “I’ve never seen it like this. There’s more work than there are visual f/x houses.”

F/x facilities are booked for the rest of 2003 and well into next year, with many saying that they can’t take on any more films until June 2004.

Availability has become so tight, studios that wanted to add f/x sequences at the last minute, including “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” couldn’t find f/x shops to take on the work.

Facilities are so busy that they’re actually turning away shots — a move unthinkable even a year ago, when companies were begging for work.

Some f/x execs say this level of activity hasn’t been seen in eight years, back when there were fewer shops.

And it doesn’t look like the upswing in business will be leveling off any time soon.

On the horizon are “Superman,” “Jurassic Park 4,” “Star Wars: Episode III,” “Indiana Jones 4,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Mission: Impossible 3,” among others.

“The art has always been to stay booked at the right level,” says Jim Morris, prexy of Lucas Digital, which oversees ILM.

“But it’s really quite busy out there. Everyone’s busy. The studios are increasing the number of large tentpole projects they’re making and that’s benefiting everyone. All in all, the industry is pretty healthy.”

Big houses like ILM, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Rhythm & Hues as well as medium-sized Cinesite, Digital Domain and Tippett are booked to capacity, busy with the next “Star Wars,” “Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter” and “Scooby-Doo” installments, among other $100 million productions.

Meanwhile indie operations like WETA Digital and ESC are operating on all cylinders wrapping up “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “The Matrix: Revolutions.”

All this has forced studio production heads to turn to smaller shops — facilities with staffs of five to 50 people rather than hundreds, and companies that have built their reputations on musicvideos and commercials or indie films and TV shows.

Smaller companies like Hammerhead, Frantic Films, Illusion Arts, Creo, CIS, PLF, Double Negative, Blur, Flash Film Works, Riot, The Orphanage, Digiscope, and Gray Matter FX, recently served as the lead shops on pics like “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Bruce Almighty” at Universal; Paramount’s “The Core”; MGM’s “Agent Cody Banks,” “Bulletproof Monk” and “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde”; and Fox’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Daredevil.”

They were also brought in to complete a considerable number of shots for Fox’s “X2: X-Men United,” Disney’s “Pirates,” “Terminator 3” and Columbia’s “Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle.”

After creating a couple hundred f/x shots for Fox’s “Minority Report” and “Planet of the Apes,” Santa Monica-based Asylum landed the job as the lead f/x house on the studio’s $135 million-budgeted seafaring actioner “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

The film was expected to require 400 f/x sequences, already a tough number for a company with eight computer workstations. The final count has now more than doubled.(By comparison, ILM alone tackles 4,000 f/x shots per year.)

Asylum’s been feeling the pressure, working overtime to finish the f/x sequences for the pic’s November release date.

The workload has been so heavy that a last-minute call for help was made to ILM to help complete hundreds of extra shots.

“If you don’t understand the sheer size of the work or if the type of work isn’t what you’re accustomed to, it can hit you like a wave,” Park says.

While there may be too much work to go around, competition is still fierce, forcing companies to take unusual steps to land big pics.

Some smaller shops are underbidding, offering deals too good to be true or are agreeing to more work than they can realistically handle. Others lack the proper technological pipelines and resources or personnel with enough experience of having worked on big f/x projects before.

That can easily backfire on a company, and won’t help eager f/x players make friends at the studios looking for cheap visuals and a quick turnaround (post-production now takes on average 20-24 weeks).

“You have to be real careful,” says Jamie Dixon, prexy of Hammerhead Prods. (“2 Fast 2 Furious”). “You get into trouble quickly if you over-promise. The first time you stumble, a studio may choose to go somewhere else and not take the next show to you.”

Studio production heads are blaming post houses for pics going overbudget due to missed deadlines and costlier shots than had been initially agreed upon.

But studios and filmmakers are not entirely blameless, since they often run into trouble when demanding last-minute tweaks or the creation of hundreds of unexpected f/x sequences.

Morris states, “A director making a film is always going to try to make the best film that they can. But directors need to be aware of how much time it’s going to take to get shots done. The expectations have to be carefully managed.”

Many execs say they’ve encountered few problems with smaller vendors, feeling no qualms to turn to them as repeat customers.

“I’ve had very good luck with them,” says John Swallow, senior VP of production technology, who had small shops turn around 800 f/x shots for “Bruce Almighty” and “2 Fast 2 Furious” in a very quick 17 weeks.

“It’s all about what you know going in. You’re basically casting shows with companies to work on them. I try not to take too many risks. There’s a confidence level I get with shops.”

As f/x companies flirt with expansion, they risk becoming victims of runaway overhead costs, a killer for a biz with profit margins in the low single digits.

Disney’s Secret Lab, Centropolis and Cinesite Hollywood recently called it quits, and London’s Mill Film ankled the feature f/x biz.

F/x studios say that Hollywood is showing signs of understanding how to deal with the post world.

“Hollywood is slow to change,” Morris says, “but the major studios are doing more thoughtful planning. There’s a heightened consciousness at the studios about effects. They’re doing more sober evaluations of how much work is going to be needed, how much it will take to do it and how much it will cost. They are much more focused about what it will take to pull these shows off.”

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