I’ve had a career that has spanned more than 30 years in visual effects and animation. My first job was in 1980 at Industrial Light & Magic, the year Star Wars: Episode V–The Empire Strikes Back was released. My first taste of how lucrative and larger than life this business could be was in the form of a $700 profit share from the film. That was a lot of money for an 18-year-old, and it says something about the free-flowing nature of spending back then.
Cliché as it sounds, times were much simpler then. In those early days, if you had a film with visual effects, you had only a handful of choices when it came to getting the work done. Shots had to be planned carefully. Cameras were large, cumbersome, noisy, and had to be chained to the floor for steadiness. Visual effects facilities were filled with model shops, motion-control stages, animation down shooters, and optical printers. Production’s weapon of choice was an IBM Selectric II and a good copy machine that would duplicate one page at a time. If you wanted temps for your preview screening, you likely got 5272s and dx’d (double exposed) elements shot on hi-con film. Those of us who roamed with dinosaurs will remember what 5272s were, but for those who don’t, 5272 was a hi-contrast, black-and-white film stock. Back in the days of opticals, it was used as a quick and inexpensive way to create a temp comp by double exposing two film elements, such as a model and a plate, by means of an optical printer. If you needed a few stars added to a night sky, it would cost you about $10,000. But all bets were off if you required them to be streaking across the sky. There was job security and healthy budgets for visual effects work.
Those days of milk and honey seem so long gone now that discussing them is like talking about having had to walk five miles through snow, uphill, both to and from school.
It seems as though the major studios are producing fewer films than ever. The appetite for risk is as low as I have ever seen it. There seems to be more and more partnering with the small studios, VC financiers, and privately held production companies. These smaller and more independent production entities are not generally green-lighting $100 million-plus films, which have typically (and, relatively, in terms of today’s dollars) been the bread and butter of visual effects companies. The majority of today’s independent films seem to be more in the range of $30 million to $70 million. The challenge is innovating in such a way as to be able to accommodate the visual effects for these films.
Though the budgets may be lower, the expectations have not dropped. Many of these films are equally as ambitious in terms of production
With an infrastructure that remains in place after each project, Jenny Fulle’s The Creative-Cartel offers director/supervisors the necessary technology for their respective projects at a reasonable cost.
value and visual stimulation as the studio tent poles of yesteryear. Production companies are looking for new and less expensive ways of doing things. This includes their approach to visual effects work. Parking all the shots for a film that is heavily laden with visual effects shots at one facility is becoming less and less viable in the new world order.
Depending on your point of view, this new landscape either presents opportunity or potential doom in the visual effects world. For many visual effects facilities, the options are innovation or failure. For individuals and small groups of talented professionals possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, the possibilities are numerous.
Larger visual effects companies tend to have the resources to ride out the rocky road as they scramble to come up with new and innovative ways to cope with the changing business. What we’re seeing now is a lot of the larger visual effects companies “putting skin” in the game as a way of reducing their budgets to fit within the constraints of today’s budgets. They’re deferring up-front payment for a piece of the box-office receipts.
Midsize companies don’t often have the luxury of investing their revenues for potential back-end payoff; they’re frequently surviving job to job. Consequently, we’ve seen quite a few midsize visual effects companies close their doors during the past couple of years, and many more that are struggling to keep them open today. Times are most trying for these companies, and they are the most vulnerable to the demands in the changing climate.
Changing with the Times
Technical innovations, combined with new economic times, are causing the business of visual effects to adapt and reinvent itself.
However, all this change provides incredible opportunity for some. The motto for talented individuals and smaller companies should be carpe diem. Never has the need and desire for lower-cost, high-quality visual effects work been so great. It’s certainly no secret that over the years, the business of visual effects has evolved dramatically. Technological innovations have steadily and radically changed what can be conceptualized and executed in a photorealistic manner. Things have now developed to a point where many of the tools required to do a large portion of visual effects work are available as off-the-shelf software and hardware. This is a relatively new evolution. As fortune would have it for this group, never have the required tools been so sophisticated, accessible, and affordable.
The challenge now becomes how to navigate all the companies and the individuals that are providing services at a cost and quality level that are in line with the changing demands. Typically, in the past, if you wanted to economically leverage the expertise of multiple companies, you had to hire one of a handful of supervisor/producers with the expertise to navigate the global community of visual effects artists and companies. With that initial team, you would set up your own department, including the building out of the infrastructure to manage and control all the digital assets and data involved. Generally the cost of this model was limited only to large-studio franchise films.
Two years ago, I started my own company, The Creative-Cartel, because I saw an opportunity to “seize the day” and serve the needs of filmmakers in this rapidly changing business environment. The Creative-Cartel has an infrastructure in place and can be utilized by productions that can benefit from this model but don’t have the budget to build it from scratch. At The Creative-Cartel, the fundamental infrastructure is put in place and not dismantled between projects. This represents significant savings for productions. Additionally, by staying current and using specialized service providers and tax incentives, we can dramatically reduce the cost of production.
The Creative-Cartel’s latest project was for the 2011 movie Priest.
For Screen Gems’ film Priest, which is due out in theaters next year, The Creative-Cartel was able to assemble a cast of talent that spanned from a truly gifted modeler working from his home, to an established character house in the Bay Area. In all, there were approximately 12 vendors that contributed to the successful delivery of more than 750 top-quality visual effect shots. These artists and companies were primarily based in California, as the film was qualified under the state’s tax-incentive program. A few years ago, the quality of the work in Priest would have been accessible only to a production with a budget three times greater than what was allocated for in Priest.
In addition to adapting to a new landscape of changing visual effects, there is a new push for films to be released in stereo 3D, or S3D. Whether a show is shot in S3D, or shot mono and converted as a post process, the task of managing the process involved in S3D production increasingly is falling to the visual effects department. This adds an additional layer of complexity in terms of personnel and equipment necessary to manage shows.
The opportunity for a company like The Creative-Cartel is to continue to find ways to streamline and economize so that high-quality visual effects and S3D becomes more viable for filmmakers at all levels. In my view, among all the challenges and changes taking place in our industry, there exists incredible opportunity to reinvent and innovate. For this 30-year veteran, the current challenges have ignited a spark of passion not felt in quite some time.
Jenny Fulle, founder of The Creative-Cartel and visual effects producer, has over 30 years experience in the visual effects and animation industry. The Creative-Cartel is a Los Angeles-based production company specializing in the assembly of teams tailored specifically for the visual effects, animation, and stereo 3D needs of individual projects. Throughout her career, Fulle has held positions at many of the major studios, including Sony Pictures Imageworks, DreamWorks SKG, Disney, Warner Digital Studio, Digital Domain, and ILM.