Deadly dull vfx undermining the biz

Innovation in visual effects focused on 'pipelines,' 'workflows'

It was about 2 a.m. on Tuesday when I hopped out of bed, woke my laptop and settled in to cover the Digital Domain bankruptcy along with my colleague Jill Goldsmith in New York.

Since that long night I’ve realized that DD’s bankruptcy was the most exciting thing that’s happened in the vfx beat in a long time. That’s kind of a drag for me, but it’s a bigger drag for the movie business, because the only thing more dangerous for studio movies than an unhealthy vfx business is a boring one.

At the risk of sounding like a “back in my day” coot, when I started covering the vfx business, it was about huge strides in what could be put on the screen. The new vfx were unleashing filmmakers’ imaginations and creating amazing new images for audiences.

Nowadays, though, the innovation in visual effects is focused on “pipelines” and “workflows” and “efficiency,” which is really all just code for cost-containment.

These days most vfx news is about incremental beneath-the-hood improvements (Standardized software! Cloud rendering!) and global economics (Offshoring! Outsourcing! Tax incentives!). And oh yeah, lots of obituaries (Another American vfx company shuts down!).

Compared to 2005, it’s boring and sad.

Boring the press is one thing. Boring the pros is another. One respected vfx veteran told me he’s thinking of getting out of the business for exactly these reasons.

I think moviegoers are getting bored too. When I started covering this space, studios felt a tentpole had to have a star as well as effects, because vfx alone couldn’t be counted on to open the picture. Several years ago, the calculation shifted. Vfx spectacle won out over star power, so “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Avatar” and many of the big Superhero movies did without A-list stars. The vfx became the real stars and auds ate them up.

But as innovation has shifted from the screen to the pipeline, vfx have become less startling. This year’s vfx movies have ranged from fun (“Avengers,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) to forgettable (“Battleship” and… you know, that other bloated thing, what was the name of it?) but they haven’t made me think “Wow, I’ve never seen that before” — even when I haven’t. No wonder movie attendance is flat or falling. There aren’t enough films being made to build and sustain auds’ relationships with stars, and vfx are losing their novelty value.

So here’s my question for Hollywood: If vfx lose their box office allure, what’s next?

A couple of other things about the Digital Domain bankruptcy are also bugging me.

First, whatever you think of DD’s former CEO John Textor, his analysis of the vfx business was spot on: There’s no money in it. His answer was to take DD where the money is, to government subsidies, military contracts and oil. DD got millions from the state of Florida to expand, tried to get into military simulation and training, and announced a plan to build in Abu Dhabi.

It’s ironic that Textor, whose politics and political donations lean conservative and Republican, decided to suckle his company at the government teat, but at least there was a logic behind that strategy.

Now DD is split in two, and all the Florida/Abu Dhabi initiatives are split off from vfx. So the new Digital Domain Prods. is proudly, excitedly, back where it started, in a low-margin business that is fleeing the U.S.

And finally, who’s ruined by this bankruptcy? Remember “ruined?” Such a quaint idea. No one in DD management seems to be ruined. 280 DD employees in Florida people lost their jobs. Some are ruined, or close to it. But Textor made millions as CEO of a money-losing company. He’ll be just fine.

That’s everything that’s wrong with U.S. business in a nutshell. Executives and managers commit their companies to huge risks while protecting themselves from personal consequences. Meanwhile employees feel the pain when things go bad. I think we’d be better off in the long run if we heard more howls of “I’m ruined!” from executive offices.

Bits & Bytes:

Athena Studios, a new company providing production services for TV, film, advertising and multimedia, has opened in Emeryville, Calif. Jon Peters is founder/CEO of Athena. New venture is the production arm of AthenaOnline, which produces corporate educational videos. Athena Studios has already hosted High Noon Entertainment for their pilot of “Collection Intervention” for SyFy.

5D Institute and USC School of Cinematic Arts will present “The City & The Book,” a two-evening design summit, Sept. 20-21 from 7-10 p.m., with a reception following on both nights.

Deluxe’s vfx subsidiary Encore is creating vfx for CBS’s hourling skein “Vegas.”

Yabazam has upgraded its 3D VOD service app for LG smart TVs. ..

Band Pro will offer a Canon EOS Hands On Workflow Q&A Sept. 24 at Loyal Studios in Burbank. … Createasphere will present its Post-Production Master Class in New York on Sept. 27 and in Los Angeles on Nov. 8. …

Barco is using Auro 11.1 sound for the Canadian debut of Royal Opera House’s presentation of “Madam Butterfly 3D.” Auro is one of several emerging sound technologies, and is an alternative to object-oriented systems like Dolby Atmos. … Barco LiveDots has launched a line of LED displays for branding, advertisement and sports. …

Cinegy has announced version 9.2 of Cinegy Multiviewer…Fox International Channels Turkey has deployed a Cinegy Archive and MAM solution. … Grass Valley has launched version 3.5 its EDIUS Neo nonlinear editing software. New version works natively with images from Canon DSLR cameras. … Cinedeck is shipping Cinedeck MX, its newest multi-channel recorder. NBC Universal and All Mobile Video are among the first customers for the Cinedeck MX. …

At the GSCA conference next week, Qube Cinema will demonstrate its XP-I server, which can stream 4K 3D through Qube Xi 4K integrated media blocks in Barco projectors. The system is already in place in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Giant Screen theater, which switched from 70mm film to the Qube system in March.

Autodesk has demonstrated its 20th Anniversary Edition of Flame software for visual effects and real-time grading…. At IBC in Amsterdam, Autodesk presented the first public presentation of its Smoke 2013 video editing software. … Maxon is shipping Cinema 4D release 14 for 3D motion graphics, visual effects, painting and rendering.

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Email david.cohen@variety.com