×

VFX Companies Struggle Even as Their Movies Break Records

The summer movie season has arrived — bringing with it the usual panoply of blockbusters, spectacular action and eye-popping visual effects. And, as always, supporting this groundswell of big-budget extravaganzas, such as this year’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” is the specialized work of thousands of highly skilled visual effects artists and technicians.

But somewhat counterintuitively, even though many of these films are breaking box office records, the effects houses that create this magic are struggling.

“It’s an incredibly competitive industry,” explains Kelly Port, a visual effects supervisor at VFX house Digital Domain, who worked on “Infinity War.” “For as much money that’s spent on visual effects, it’s an incredibly low-margin business.”

That’s partly because state-of-the-art effects work is hugely labor-intensive; it can take a massive crew eight months to a year of full-time work to finish one film. Such a large investment of time and financial resources can be difficult to recoup because fierce competition for plum gigs on blockbusters drives prices way down.

When visual effects houses pitch the studios, they explain what they can offer and what it will cost. And of course, if a competitor is selling the same effects for a lower price, that firm is likely to be awarded the job. “Sometimes companies are so desperate for work that they’ll go lower than they think the work will actually cost,” Port says. “That hurts the industry. The margins are too thin already.”

The sheer volume of effects work being produced today would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. To put it in perspective, Port cites “Titanic,” which he worked on in 1997, when it was considered a cutting-edge blockbuster. The film had a total of about 300 VFX shots. “Infinity War,” by comparison, has more than 3,000 — a number that’s become an industry norm.

And it’s not just tentpoles. “Everyone can use visual effects now,” says Simon Stanley-Clamp, a visual effects supervisor at VFX studio Cinesite. “It used to be just the big shows. Now anyone from independent films to Netflix series has access to visual effects. They’re everywhere.”

More work means more workers: The field of VFX artistry has expanded enormously. “When I started in the ’90s, there were 300 effects artists, and you’d know all of them by name,” says Clamp. “Now there are 300 artists sitting here with me in this building.”

With margins so thin, timelines so tight and quality benchmarks so high, these artists are often under considerable pressure. Long hours and overtime are standard, especially when a release date looms and shots still need tinkering. “There’s an incredible push near the end of projects to get them out on time,” says Kyle McCulloch, a visual effects supervisor with Framestore who worked on “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Beauty and the Beast.” “We tend to be delivering shots right up until the final weeks before distribution. I’ve delivered shots with a week to go before a film hits theaters.”

Cutting it close is tough, McCulloch says, but necessary when studios demand it. That’s how shops like Framestore build and maintain their standing. “We trade on our reputation,” says McCulloch. “We have to be confident that we can deliver a large quantity of work at a high level of quality very quickly.”

It’s not up to individual companies, however, to handle all the effects on a single picture. There’s simply too much work to be done on an “Avengers” or “Star Wars,” and too much risk for the studio in putting all its visual effects eggs in one basket.

“Studios would be scared [to depend on a single VFX house] so they spread the big sequences across five or six different vendors,” says Stanley-Clamp. If one shop drops the ball or goes under — as Rhythm & Hues famously did after its Oscar win for 2012’s “Life of Pi” — the studio isn’t left scrambling for a last-minute replacement.

With the rise of big-budget cable shows like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and high-end streaming series from the likes of Netflix, top-of-the-line visual effects are typical on the small screen. And over the past couple of years, TV shows have also begun to spread their demanding VFX work across multiple vendors.

“The TV side wasn’t always like this.  … It’s gotten so big that it’s fractured,” says Luke Groves, a visual effects producer at effects studio Mr. X. “Companies like us have to take on more shows because we’re only doing small portions of each of them. That can be a tricky thing to manage.”

The result is a greater variety of work for artists, who often have to juggle three or four projects at once. That means VFX pros have less time to master the look of specific effects: Instead of working on a single show set in, say, outer space, a house like Mr. X might be working on one set in space, one in a jungle and one underwater, all with different effects and needs. “Where we would normally do one show, we now have to do portions of five unique shows,” Groves says. “It can be hard to deliver the highest-quality work across so many different projects.”

Still, Groves is quick to point out that there’s no downside to the company having a lot to do. Rather it’s a matter of “having to pivot to manage bite-sized portions of work and doing enough of it to fill budget caps.”

As the balancing act for VFX houses continues, things will only get harder for artists. “Shorter schedules but still at the highest quality possible; can we manage that much work under one roof at one time?” Groves asks.

There can really be only one answer.

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous GemstonesAdam Devine, Danny McBride,

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

  • Avatar

    Manhattan Beach Studios, Home to 'Avatar' Sequels, Sold for $650 Million

    Hackman Capital Partners has acquired the Manhattan Beach Studios, home to James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, as part of a $650 million deal. Hackman announced Wednesday that it had bought the MBS Group from global investment firm the Carlyle Group. The MBS Group operates the MBS Media Campus — a 22-acre, 587,000 square foot production facility [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content