Democratization of VFX Brings 'Explosive' Opportunities
Bill Thompson, senior platform manager, Signiant
April 20, 2020

Democratization of VFX Brings 'Explosive' Opportunities

Visual effects are becoming an increasingly large part of modern film and television. With the 10 highest grossing films of 2018 being VFX-heavy, it’s no surprise that directors and producers are optimistic about expanding the use of visual effects in lighting, costume, set, makup, hair, production design and stunt capabilities.

But it’s not just the box office that’s causing this exponentially growing presence.

The democratization of VFX

The VFX landscape is being driven by a number of important trends. One of the most significant is the reduction in cost for high-performance VFX solutions. Before 2009, DaVinci Resolve was priced significantly north of $100,000, a 2010 price reduction put it south of $30,000, and today, certain versions are priced at $299. Of course, with each new release, VFX vendors provide an increasingly capable feature set; DaVinci Resolve 16 (April 2019) added 8K resolution, machine learning and enhanced collaboration tools. Finally, VFX solutions no longer demand exotic advanced hardware platforms; Resolve supports Windows, Mac OS and Linux platforms including laptops. 

These trends have democratized VFX in a dramatic way. In 2009, DaVinci claimed only 100 users for Resolve; today there are two million Resolve users (including free versions). VFX capabilities are no longer restricted to major studios. Rather, they are available from a growing media supply chain consisting of small, medium and large VFX service providers. And, attractive economics is making the use of VFX viable in lower-budget feature films, episodic television, commercials, music videos and other forms of media. The global VFX service market is expected to expand at a 12.7 percent CAGR from 2018 to 2024.

The opportunities this new terrain presents are immense. With a wider range of post-production houses — some highly specialized — and talented VFX specialists around the world, creatives who previously couldn’t take advantage of VFX now have a wealth of options. 

However, along with these dramatic and exciting possibilities, there are a few considerations media organizations should keep in mind.

Big ambitions, big files

One of the biggest challenges to the distributed VFX supply chain is the need to transfer masses of large files back and forth, swiftly and securely. The more cutting-edge the effects, the larger the file is likely to be. VFX files come in a number of different formats, each of which serve a specific purpose in the creation of the final product, and all of which must be sent under the pressure of tight deadlines. 

Examples of files and types of effects include:

DPX files are common and, depending on bit depth and aspect ratio, run from 8MB to 50MB per frame.


EXR files are the product of 3D animation or rendering tools. Though EXR files can be used as a direct substitute for DPX, more typically they are used to provide additional effects layers (fake cigarette smoke, camera glare), to provide 16-bit or 32-bit resolution and to carry additional metadata. EXR files of 100s of MBs per frame are not unusual.


PDB files are the result of advanced computer graphics (CG), such as water, smoke or dust simulations, and sometimes use a technique known as particle simulation. This simulates the motion of the individual drops of water, smoke or dust particles from frame to frame. As one might imagine, representing a complicated effect like an explosion, waterfall/spray or dust storm as individual particles produces an enormous quantity of data (simulation cache) for each frame. When transferred, these .pdb files can exceed 1TB per frame (more data than that contained on 40 Blu-ray Discs).

Global collaboration is here. Media enterprises need to be prepared.

With a larger and more distributed VFX market comes increased collaboration, more complex workflows, and more heavily trafficked supply chains between studios and post-production houses. With this new growth is the need to move larger amounts of content over greater distances and under increasingly tighter deadlines. An organization’s ability to accomplish this will be critical to whether or not they can actually take advantage of the opportunities before them.

All of an organization’s assets are vital to the lifecycle of a project, and content security is paramount. Accordingly, M&E businesses should avoid using legacy transfer tools, such as FTP-based solutions. These products are actually considered such a security risk that they’ve been banned by a number of studios and broadcasters. The online file sharing tools that a vendor might use for sharing office documents also aren’t suitable for these supply chains as tools like Dropbox impose frustrating file size limits and don’t allow organizations to use their own storage.

Choosing the wrong solution can jeopardize the security of the content being moved and result in a catastrophic breach like those witnessed across the industry.

But, with the proper preparation and the right solutions, an organization doesn’t have to become a cautionary tale. Rather, media enterprises who take advantage of modern, media-specific solutions will be poised to seize on some of the most exciting creative chances in recent memory.

Just as they’ve done onscreen for years--with the appropriate tools and the information—M&E businesses can realize their future.

Bill Thompson is the senior platform manager for Signiant. An industry veteran with extensive experience working with production and post-production enterprises, he has specialized in audio/video monitoring, measurement, content storage, video workflows, media transcoding and more at a wide range of organizations.

Image caption: Signiant’s Media Shuttle provides easy, fast file transfer to help VFX houses and studios seize on the explosive demand for special effects.