The year 2008 was a good one for visual effects and animated films, especially in terms of variety. And, 2009 looks promising, as well. What is in store for us? Are there any big, new trends? Recently, Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, provided a glimpse into the studio’s current and near-future plans as it gears up for another year of what it does best: entertain.
As 2008 was winding down, Imageworks remained in high gear, releasing the fast-paced Eagle Eye, the spy thriller Body of Lies, and the World War II drama Valkrie. 2009 starts off “super,” with the film adaptation of the comic-book series Watchmen, followed by heroes of a different species in G-Force. The animated feature Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs will be served up in early fall. “We are active and fully engaged,” says Sarnoff, who adds a number of other projects to the list, including Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2012) and Cats & Dogs 2 (2010).
As Sarnoff points out, some of those films will be stereoscopic, including Alice and G-Force. In fact, there are more 3D films in the Imageworks pipeline than ever before, a trend that began with The Polar Express and continued with Monster House and Beowulf. “We are doing more 3D because Imageworks has been one of the innovators in stereo work for animation and live action,” he says. “We are utilizing our tools and technology so we can do 3D while we are doing our visual effects. It is a lot easier to do 3D when you are already doing the visual effects work on the film in the first place.”
While 3D has come and gone in the past, Sarnoff sees 3D as an industry trend, not a fad, this time around. Because theaters no longer have to drastically change their screening environments to show stereo, there is more opportunity to show stereo. While Sarnoff does not think stereo will completely replace 2D movies, he does believe that “3D will be around from now on.” And it will not just be relegated to theaters; it is spreading to the consumer level, on stereo monitors for computers and televisions, and soon cell phones. “With these distribution options, 3D in theaters is just a starting point, not an ending point where it was before,” he adds.
Another trend that will continue in 2009, according to Sarnoff, is process innovation. “The innovations are more subtle these days than in the past. Someone was always innovating and doing something new for every film,” he explains. “This year and for the foreseeable future, we will be looking to become innovators in terms of the processes by which we create the work. All the shots we are seeing today from everyone are good—the critics aren’t even mentioning most of the invisible visual effects work anymore because it is getting so good. People can no longer look at a movie and criticize the work because it is embedded in the movie itself.”
Tim Sarnoff, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks, is responsible for the direction of the studio, and thus keeps his finger on the pulse of the industry at all times.
Sarnoff attributes that to the slow, gradual process by which visual effects are no longer considered postproduction; they are now considered production. “I do not think there is a film now where we are not in on the very beginning conversations when the film is being set up,” he says. “There was a time when a film was set up and, after the shoot, they would get the visual effects done as sort of an afterthought. I think this change has been the best part of what we have been able to accomplish as an industry—that visual effects is a production thought, not an afterthought. It’s also now a script thought, where writers are involved in that conversation. We’re no longer talking about what can be done, but how it can be done.”
At Imageworks, Sarnoff believes the next level of innovation will be in changing the studio’s global processes. That includes improved efficiencies and extending the use of assets—a growing trend throughout all walks of life today. “We are looking to improve the number of iterations so we can add more to our shots. The more iterations, the more we can improve on individual shots; this gives artists more time to work on their shots and directors more that they can put into a shot,” he adds. “It is not as glamorous or as sexy, but it will have a greater impact on what the audience sees.”
To this end, Imageworks has been extremely active in generating improved software packages—assets that are perhaps even more valuable than, say, a database used to re-create New York City (which Imageworks has readily available). One example is Katana, Imageworks’ lighting package that enables artists to light scenes quickly and with fewer lights and fewer man-hours. The studio also developed new rendering software, called Arnold, that enables the crew to render shots quicker, whether it is for a VFX or CG movie. It was used on Monster House and Eagle Eye, and currently on Cloudy and Alice.
Additionally, the facility has created numerous tracking and production enhancements for locating where shots are at any given instance on any computer, and for helping to determine the cost benefits of making certain changes to a shot.
“There are many internal technological advancements that give artists a very clean way of working on a shot as opposed to just managing the things they need to do to be able to work on the shot,” says Sarnoff. “It is much easier for artists to take [software] off the shelf than to design it themselves. However, there are some things we need to do in this company that are unique because we are always on the cutting edge. Take our lighting tools for instance; we work on a lot of shots, and the commercial tools are not yet able to handle the volume we need. When we are working on tens of thousands of processors, it is more cost-effective to just build something yourself than to buy it for each processor.”
In terms of CG models, the desire is still there to cross-utilize assets among various media, particularly from film to games. However, most film assets are still too heavy to have practical value for these licensees. “What has improved most, though, is the understanding of what people can use and what they do not need, so they are no longer asking for the wrong things,” says Sarnoff. “They no longer ask for everything, but rather very specific pieces of the models or the shaders they want to use, so they can make their model look as compelling as what we created for the theater experience.”
When necessary, Imageworks creates software that enables its artists to do their work more efficiently. For instance, the studio’s Arnold rendering software was used on various films, such as Eagle Eye.
The Economy and the Future
In today’s economic climate, even Hollywood is feeling the pinch. “There has always been this theory that the entertainment industry is recession-proof. The difference now is that there are many forms of entertainment, so you never know which part of the industry will be recession-proof and which will be affected by the economic troubles we are facing,” notes Sarnoff. “So rather than thinking we are bullet-proof, everyone in this industry needs to keep their eyes on the ball to see where the audience is going to get their entertainment. They will go somewhere regardless of what happens with the economy, but we need to be smart about producing the right kind of product they want to see.”
Make no mistake: Imageworks will continue producing movies. “People always want to hear a good story or see a good movie—that is still the biggest bang for your buck, spending two hours engaged in a movie theater,” Sarnoff adds. “Seeing a movie that takes you somewhere else is as good as it gets in entertainment.”
Will uplifting stories draw audiences more so than other types? Sarnoff doesn’t believe so. “Studios are still looking for the best stories and putting them out whenever they feel it will make the greatest impact,” he says. Nevertheless, films are getting more expensive to make. Sarnoff points out that the cost range for films will always exist—those at the high end will continue to get more expensive, and there will always be those with smaller budgets.
“There are new technologies that come along that allow new filmmakers to make compelling films with far less money. But the number of films at the high end will continue to grow because there are more outlets for expensive films, depending on what story you are trying to tell,” Sarnoff explains.
The audience’s expectations will continue to grow, too. “They expect perfection. They want something fantastic, and it is expensive to create something spectacular. To wow an audience today takes quite a bit more skill than it did a decade ago,” says Sarnoff. “It requires not just the machinery and the technology we use today, but the imagination and skill sets of the people making the shots, and that goes back to what I said earlier about innovation.”
According to Sarnoff, visual effects (such as those in Valkrie, left, and Body of Lies, right) are no longer considered part of postproduction. Rather, they are considered part of the production process, and included in the initial film planning.
Sarnoff continues: “I am now trying to give the artists the tools they need to express themselves without necessarily having to go through the mundane process of trying to get the work to appear on the screen. I want to take directly what is in their mind and provide the conduit by which they can place it on the screen—that would be the technology I am looking for. Because, at the end of the day, our imaginations are limitless, so let’s see if we can tap into them better.”
Personally, what is Sarnoff hoping to accomplish in the near future? “I want my kids to turn to each other and say, ‘My God, that’s amazing; that’s terrific.’ It’s personal to me. That’s why we do it—we want to please and impress the audience.”