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Digital reshapes prod’n budgeting, billing

Pixomondo adapted f/x process for 'Hugo'

Holdouts and traditionalists may be sticking with 35mm film, but the digital revolution has triumphed.

You probably knew that, even if you don’t like it. What you may not have fully grasped yet, though, is that this revolution means more than doing the same things you’ve always done but now with digital gear. It means changing the way you think about your work, the way you do your work, and, in many cases, the way your work is billed and paid for.

Consider Martin Scorsese’s 3D pic “Hugo” and visual effects company Pixomondo.

In the analog world, f/x were “post.” The editor and director locked their cut and handed it over to visual effects, hoping they’d have no regrets when they saw the result. Changes late in the game were difficult and expensive. Most visual effects studios still charge on a flat-bid model left over from those days, based on cost per shot.

Digital editing is more fluid, though. It starts earlier — on some pics rough cutting starts before a scene is done shooting — and continues later. That shift thrown the vfx business model for a loop. Since the cut isn’t locked early, vfx studios are coping with continuous adds and changes that weren’t in their flat bid.

Scorsese and longtime film editor Thelma Schoonmaker like to experiment with their cut almost up to the pic’s delivery date. On “Hugo,” they had a short post-production period by their standards — about 38 weeks instead of the 58-68 weeks they prefer — and a vast number of 3D visual effects to be completed. Adds and changes were inevitable.

So Pixomondo came up with a three-part solution, according to Ben Grossmann, the company’s vfx supervisor on the pic. An on-set previs system let Scorsese and his camera team know what would replace the greenscreen, so they could frame accordingly and avoid “fix it in post” moments. Then Pixomondo provided temporary vfx for the edit, so Scorsese and Schoonmaker could see what would be in the frame as they did their editing.

The third part and most counterintuitive part, says Grossmann, was “save all your bullets until they’re really useful.”

In other words, wait as long as possible to turn temp vfx into finals.

“If you’re used to the idea that the visual effects are turned over to the visual effects company after editorial, then your instinct is, as soon as you have something, get working on it. But when visual effects is before or simultaneous with editorial, you have to flip your mindset. You don’t want to get working on something until you’re certain it’s in the movie.” On “Hugo,” the team knew there was a good chance that any vfx shot — even a simple wire removal — would move, or start and end in a different place, or be replaced altogether with a different take. To do such work early would waste money and resources. So they only finished vfx shots when the team around Scorsese and Schoonmaker, especially assistant editors, signaled that something seemed locked.

“It scared the shit out of a lot of people on ‘Hugo,’?” says Grossmann. There were screenings with temp effects before the official delivery date. But in the end it worked.

Moreover, Pixomondo didn’t use flat-bid pricing. Instead, the shop broke out costs for construction of digital sets, as in physical production. Then, once those digital sets were built and lit, the cost of “shooting” on them, even with adds and changes, could be relatively modest: a few days of labor and commodities like computer time.

Said Grossmann: “A flat bid is based on the premise you know what you want and I know what I have to do it with, so I can give you a total cost estimate on what it’s going to take. In the new model I have to start to adapt that to a time-and-materials model just like everything else in filmmaking.”

Though this model has been used in TV, Grossmann said movie producers tend to be skeptical of it. By experience, they understand how to negotiate down a flat bid. But now they need to either learn more about vfx or trust their vfx producers more.

Studios and production companies, on the other hand, love the non-flat-bid approach, said Grossmann, “because the filmmaker gets what he wants, which is more control and interactivity and, somehow — they don’t quite understand how — they get cheaper costs.”

For visual effects firms, which have been searching for a new business model as the old one creaks under the strain of short posts and late changes, it’s a mixed bag.

“The thing that (the vfx business) is nervous about is, ‘Well the one good thing was the edit would be locked and we would stop dicking around with it.’?” said Grossmann. “But you have to buy the whole thing part and parcel. You can’t say, ‘We want to be involved, and we want you to have all this control and interactivity, but we want you to lock the cut blind and hand it over to visual effects.”


The Mill has announced its vfx supervisors for several of its upcoming projects. Nicolas Hernandez is vfx supe on “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Paul O’Shea is vfx supervisor on “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” Sara Bennett is The Mill’s vfx supe on “Dredd”; Jeremy Hattingh was on-set vfx supe. Sensio has appointed Diana Cantu as VP, business development, live 3D. … Society of Cable Television Engineers (SCTE) has tapped Mike LaJoie, executive VP and CTO for Time Warner Cable, as a member of is board for the 2011-2012 term. … The Entertainment Technology Center at USC is seeking a new executive director. Former executive director David Wertheimer is now president, digital, at Fox Broadcasting. … International visual effects studio Pixomondo has hired Simon Mowbray as creative director for commercials. Mowbray will be based out of Los Angeles.

Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” will be shown with D-Box motion seats in select theaters worldwide. Previous Holmes pic was also shown with D-Box. … The Audio Engineering Society has set up a new technical committee to review audio reproduction for digital cinema and TV. Committee will meet in L.A. in early 2012. Committee contact Brian McCarty observed there is no standard for digital cinema sound performance: “In simple terms, what is recorded digitally in the studio does NOT sound the same at the theatrical end,” he said. The AES has not traditionally addressed theater sound.

Harkins Theaters, the largest privately held cinema chain in North America, has pacted with Christie for more than 400 Christie Soliaria Series 2 projectors and has subscribed to Christie’s Virtual Print Fee program. Harkins has 420 screens … New Orleans-based Southern Theaters, which operates the AmStar and Grand Theaters chains, has announced plans to go all-digital with Christie as well, using Solaria projectors. Plan calls for Southern to buy 140 Christie projection systems and for all their theaters to be 100% digital by year’s end … Quebec’s Cinemas Guzzo is also going all-digital with Christie, buying digital 4K projectors for 27 screens. Switch to digital is to be completed by April 2012. … Christie’s CP4220 and CP4230 d-cinema projectors have been certified DCI compliant. … Cigital Cinema Ltd. has installed Cinedigm digital cinema software and named Cinedigm their preferred supplier to manage deployment throughout Ireland.

Mei Ah Entertainment Group of Hong Kong has chosen RealD 3D for 100 screens on its circuit in China. MAEG plans to expand with 50 new cinemas and 500 new screens in China over the next five years. … RealD was selected for the Nov. 28 Royal Film Performance U.K. preem of Martin Scorsese 3D pic “Hugo.” … Legend3D was the primary 3D conversion vendor on “Hugo.” Vintage 2D material was converted to stereocopic 3D for the pic. Original footage was shot with 3D cameras. … Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Nebraska has selected RealD 3D for its giant-screen digital theater. … The Wildlife Experience’s Extreme Screen Theater in Colorado has also selected RealD 3D … Religious broadcaster Trinity Broadcasting Network has launched a VOD portal providing programming across TV, Internet and mobile devices. the “iTBN” platform uses technology from Key Code Media … Technicolor produced the most recent Barbie DVD feature: “Barbie: A Perfect Christmas.” Technicolor provided services including pre-production, CG animation, and DVD menus. It’s not the first Barbie pic produced by Technicolor; they also produced a five-minute laffer about Barbie going camping with her sisters.

Dolby has been honored with a Hollywood Post Alliance Engineering Excellence award for its PRM-4200 Professional Reference Monitor. Deluxe has announced it has agreed to buy “mutliple units” of that monitor. … Cinedeck and Sony have teamed to offer a rebate on Sony XDCAM EX and F3 cameras when purchased with a Cinedeck EX recorder. Rebate is good in the U.S. only and runs through the end of 2011.

Post facility Cineworks has opened a satellite office at Millennium Studios in Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana. New facility has digital dailies and ability to upload digital footage to the Cineworks HQ in New Orleans. … Hollywood-based post facility Cinelicious has added visual effects creative and finishing services to its offerings.

Film Factory used Image Systems Nucoda grading and mastering gear to finish “Immortals” for Relativity. … CBS News has purchased a second Nucoda for their New York facility. … Nvidia has bowed its Maximus technology, which lets workstations simultaneously perform complex analysis and visualization. Workstation manufacturers including HP, Dell, Lenovo and Fujitsu are already incorporating the new tech… Look FX used Nvidia GPUs to power their digital vfx work on “The Muppets.”

NewTek has unveiled version 11 of LightWave. … Luxion has released KeyShot3. …