Biz battles crunch on tentpole vfx

Blockbusters blow budgets, deadlines

The visual effects budget for Warner Bros.’ “Green Lantern” has risen by $9 million, with new vfx houses recruited to bolster the team that’s been working overtime to meet the film’s June 17 launch.

The Warner Bros. pic will no doubt meet its date, but other effects-heavy films continue to scramble. In fact, the kind of sturm and drang that’s swirled around “Green Lantern” is actually par for the course on most visual effects-heavy tentpoles these days — and the problem’s growing.

Such pics now routinely fit the description of a “troubled” project, with “troubled” the new normal. And key players in the f/x biz say that with crunches mounting, it’s only a matter of time before some f/x-heavy tentpole can’t meet its delivery date — a nightmare no studio has faced since “Titanic.” Should a tentpole be forced to change dates, the ripple effects on a studio, its rivals, exhibitors and tie-ins will be widespread and injurious to bottom lines.

“I think the day (the system) breaks is the day everyone will revise their thinking,” said Marvel exec VP of visual effects Victoria Alonso. “Until that day comes, filmmakers are going to push it to the limit. I think it’s sad that we will have to watch one of us fail to learn our lesson.”

The stresses that studio tentpoles are creating for the vfx industry are not new, as Variety reported in its May 28, 2007, issue. But they have worsened across the board.

Warners isn’t the only studio grappling with these issues. Alonso said Paramount’s “Captain America” is on a shorter schedule than Marvel prefers, and “We are feeling the heat for it.” On Par’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” at least one vfx studio has gone to seven-day weeks, 12 hours a day, and canceled the Easter Sunday holiday for its vfx artists.

“Green Lantern” fell under heightened scrutiny after an early trailer showed little in the way of vfx. Fans grumbled, but that was a calculated risk by WB: Rather than rush some shots for marketing (a common practice), the studio held back the vfx for the second trailer. That gamble seems to have paid off, as footage shown at WonderCon and Cinemacon was well received, and buzz is building.

Chris de Faria, Warner’s exec VP of digital production, animation and visual effects, defended “Green Lantern” and Warner’s process on the pic. “There is no problem on ‘Green Lantern,’?” he said. “We try to add things to make the movie better until the 11th hour. That doesn’t mean we’re risking the movie up to the 11th hour.”

Whispers about problems on the production grew louder after schedule concerns early in the new year triggered high-level meetings to get the project back on track. The cost of its roughly 1,400 visual effects is more than $9 million over the $45 million original f/x budget. That budget is on the low side for a vfx-heavy tentpole, but 3D hadn’t been taken into account in the original budget.

Sony Imageworks and Rising Sun Pictures are the primary vfx studios on “Green Lantern,” and both say they’re delivering on schedule or according to contract. De Faria said one all-CG pre-credit sequence had been cut in development, then added back once the studio saw an early cut, so Pixomondo was brought on late to complete it.

Even de Faria said management practices are still catching up to the reality of tentpole production, where effects have to be built before the picture is tested, then vfx have to be added and/or changed as the picture comes together and in response to audience testing, all while marketing demands shots for the campaign.

All of Hollywood seems to be still figuring this out, and as a result, the tentpole pattern is now well established:

• A movie demands you’ve-never-seen-this-before visual effects both for marketing and story;

•Ambitious plans and a short schedule leave little margin for error;

•Inevitable schedule problems trigger urgent meetings among studio execs, vendors and filmmakers to get the project back on track;

•”911″ emergency calls go out to almost any vfx shop in the world that can take on some last-minute work;

•Everyone runs a harrowing race to deadline despite all the extra help.

Collapse, rest, repeat.

With summer and holiday release skeds already crowded and so many tie-ins for these pics, it’s unlikely a studio would let a movie actually miss its date. But the alternative may well be a picture coming to release with far less spectacle than the filmmakers and studio had planned upon simply because there wasn’t time or resources to finish it. That is essentially what happened with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1” when it couldn’t be converted to 3D in time for its theatrical bow.

There are several explanations for why the studios persist in an approach that regularly leads to cost overruns and inspires dire warnings from their f/x vendors.

De Faria said that in order to remain competitive, studios must be very responsive to the audience, and that means condensing the time from the inception and development of a project to its release.

“Movies this year, like the movies last year, are more spectacular, the vfx are more ambitious than ever before,” de Faria said. “The stresses that it places on production management are very real. I feel them every day, but our job is to develop new tools and new systems for dealing with that.”

He said post skeds that used to be 21-26 weeks are now 36-40 weeks to accommodate visual effects, but in order to keep that responsiveness, they can’t get longer.

Alonso said Marvel tries to do its movies in a 32-36 week post. The short post schedules, he said, are dictated by release dates announced before there’s even a shooting script. “So you are always chasing your tail. You work backwards from that release date, then you add production not being ready to shoot or location complications and you shave the weeks you push from post.”

Paradoxically, these pressures arise in part out of an attempt to save money. Studios and producers don’t want to pay for vfx that will end up on the cutting-room floor. So they prefer to have a cut before handing over shots to vfx. If the editor and director spend a long time cutting, vfx work piles up, which forces the artists to work overtime and drives up the costs per shot.

A less generous explanation, from the anonymous vfx expert, is “visual effects is just another way to not make your mind up.” The can-do attitude of vfx companies and vfx artists have brought these projects in on time — somehow — and that has given studios and filmmakers the sense that they can delay or backtrack on decisions almost indefinitely.

Alonso’s advice for anyone seeking to avoid these crushes is “have a shooting script before you announce the release dates. If you push the shoot due to any reason, do not compress the post schedule. Don’t take the time from post, because chances are the post needs will double, not shrink.”

De Faria regards that notion as somewhat utopian. He said the challenge is “to continue to deliver mind-boggling high-level visual effects in an environment where scripts are constantly changing, stars’ availability is constantly changing and release dates are changing.”

Even pushing a release date, he notes, wouldn’t necessarily ease the crunch or cut costs, since that time will inevitably be used to improve the film, adding extra work to the schedule.

Over the next year, films that will be angling to avoid a last-minute crunch will include Warner’s “Superman: Man of Steel,” Disney-Marvel’s “The Avengers,” Warner’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Beyond that, Weta Digital will certainly have its hands full with Warner-New Line’s “The Hobbit,” in 3D at 48 fps.

All of these movies aim to give audiences something they’ve never seen before, and as de Faria said, “When the bar is raised, we can’t refuse to jump over it.” So the movies are bound to get more complex, especially with higher frame rates and 3D, and this pressurized process isn’t likely to change.

“Nor should it,” said de Faria. “This isn’t applicable to a Mike Nichols film, but this is the business of the tentpole film.”