Spotlight on VFX
October 20, 2010

Spotlight on VFX

VES president Jeff Okun discusses the present state of digital effects in the film industry

On October 23, the Visual Effects Society is holding its Production Summit 2010, titled Navigating Tomorrow's Business Models. Prior to the Summit, freelance writer Debra Kaufman spoke to VES president Jeff Okun about the state of digital effects today in an exclusive Q&A for Computer Graphics World.

What is the state of the VFX industry? Is this a good time to be a VFX house?

It's a terrible time to be an artist and not much better being a visual effects house. The issue is that VFX has been commoditized. The value placed on what we do has been minimized. You're always hearing things from a director, such as 'My son has a Mac and could do this,' or 'Why would you pay more than $200 for this?'

Why are directors ignorant about VFX after so many years?

There are two reasons for the ignorance. We visual effects artists and companies have allowed ourselves to be marketed in a way that minimizes the artistry and maximizes interest in the buttons we push.

Then there's the fact you can get visual effects done anywhere in the world, because the software went from proprietary to off-the-shelf. The fact that the value of human labor is so widely disproportionate around the world means that people have the ability to say, 'I don't want to pay $40K for this shot; I could get it cheaper elsewhere.' Then they go to Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, South Africa. The next tier up is the industrialized places, like France and New York City (in the US).

Is Hollywood still dominant in terms of VFX houses ?

Hollywood is truly a state of mind. There are people who will make a little shot for nothing because they're passionate about it, and others who will use that shot. And those people are overjoyed to be working for Hollywood, and then they go bankrupt. So the blame goes back to the VFX practitioners who haven't taken the time to learn the business. We were just so joyous to be performing our art, nobody was taking care of the business end.

The studios have two concerns: Can you deliver to me on time something that is acceptable. And, second, don't go out of business during the time you deliver to me. If you can meet those two qualities, you're qualified to work on a studio project. There are companies all around that do phenomenal work, but the studios feel insecure that they're so small and that they might go out of business. At the same time, the studios push to send the work to India, Hong Kong…wherever.

The visual effects facilities, because of the anti-trust laws, can't set minimum rates. They're in a cutthroat business where they're bidding against each other. It's become a race to the bottom. Each company is undercutting the other, but they have no choice; they want to stay in business. They are also forced to hire people with less experience or are willing to work for less money.

What is it like at the level of the VFX artist?

If you're experienced and trained, and can do great work, your salary has been cut significantly because the facilities can't afford you. And look at the number of smaller companies-the Orphanage, CORE-that have gone out of business.

Some people in postproduction say that their budgets are being raided for visual effects. Is that true or false?

I used to have a sound company, and they are the end of the financial line. But the budgets aren't being cut to put (the money) into VFX. A great misunderstanding about visual effects, propagated by studios, is that effects are wildly out of control and over-budget. What does over-budget mean? The studio green-lights something based on our agreement: Let's say we do 200 shots for $10 million. Then they look at the movie and want to do all these different things and kick in money to fix things. But I can't ever recall, personally, any story where someone says '$10 million and billed for $50 million.' The studios approve it in advance, so it's not an overage

What does 3D mean for the visual effects industry?

In one sense, we've been doing 3D in visual effects for 30 years now. It's not that big a deal for us; it's about interocular alignment and artistic choice of depth. Whether it's here to stay or not, personally, I don't care. It's about story. Does 3D help you tell a better story? In some cases it does, in some cases it's eye candy. Will it invigorate the business? I don't think so. When it works, it's awesome, but the jury is still out whether it's here to stay.

On the other hand, I think 3D in TV is huge and here to stay, and all sports will be shot in 3D. There's a whole new gold mine with 3D NASCAR races and football games, and converting Bewitched and Bonanza into 3D.

What about credits? Visual effects artists are still listed after caterers. What gives?

That has to do with the original marketing of visual effects-that it's about computers, not artists. It's 3400 geeks eating pizza and pushing buttons, and playing Nerf ball. They're not viewed as 300 cinematographers, which is, in effect, what they are. The fact that you get these amazing shots seems to be the magic of the computer.

How can the situation be remedied?

That's what the VES Production Summit is all about: looking at the future of the industry and seeing how we survive. The exciting part of where we are is we're back in the Wild West frontier, where rules are being written. If you're doing business as usual, you won't be doing business for much longer.

The Production Summit is to get everyone talking. There is no blame. It may be that VFX are dead because it's too commoditized. Without any imagination, I can see Avids doing 90 percent of the effects work, except for characters. What's beyond that horizon? Let's start as a unit to peel back the layers. This is our opportunity to get the conversation going.

I want to see VFX artists recognized for their ability. I want directors to say, 'I want this guy because his work is good.' Visual effects have generated more money for box offices than the 99 years that have preceded it, yet we are nothing. We, the VES, with our own marketing, have to recognize and honor excellence and get the word out that we're not button pushers.

Debra Kaufman is a freelance writer in the entertainment industry. She can be reached at