Visual Effects Society Production Summit 2010: Not Business as Usual
December 2, 2010

Visual Effects Society Production Summit 2010: Not Business as Usual

By Barry Goch

MARINA DEL REY, CA — At the second annual VES Production Summit, Jeffrey Okun, chair of the Visual Effects Society (VES),  kicked off the day’s sessins with the admonishment, “The VES expects you to walk out not with solutions but with ideas.”
The VES represents professionals who procure, produce, create, and educate folks in all aspects of the visual effects industry.

We first heard from featured speaker Dr. Rich Terrile, NASA/JPL astronomer and evolutionary computation designer. Terrile advised the audience, made up of visual effects professionals, studio executives, cinematographers, editors, among others, “If you’re doing business as usual, if you think the future is going to be like the past, from your experiences, you’re dead wrong.” He pointed out that the adoption rate of new technology today is much faster than the past. The transition from B&W to color television took many years, whereas the mass adoption rate of Twitter and Facebook took only a few.

The first panel discussion of the day was titled  “Does It Come With Wheels? How Pushing the On-Set Tech Envelope Affects Your Business.” Vince Pace, CEO, cinematographer and innovator at Pace, now brings post onset with tools such as DVS Clipsters and Quantel’s Pablo. He said, “We’re talking a mountain of information. It’s an encyclopedia that we’re creating onset in 3D in the digital arena. The key to the success of why it comes on wheels is because that’s the index. That’s the way we reference all of our stuff.”

Glenn Kennel, president of Arri, added that the Arri Alexa features a direct to edit pipeline where different flavors of Apple’s ProRes are generated in-camera and saved to SxS cards in addition to the ArriRaw data and a dual HD-SDI output. Along with the ProRes files, the camera creates an XML file with the metadata required to match back to the ArriRaw files. You can take this xml into FCP, for example, link to the ProRes files and start to edit right on set. He added that some customers are actually finishing with ProRes 4:4:4:4.

David Morin, consultant, Autodesk/chair, joint technology committee on virtual production, put forth the idea that the three separate pillars of pre-production, production and post no longer exist and that instead we’re working with a nonlinear content creation pipeline. He supported this thesis with an illustration created by Alex McDowell, Art Directors Guild, of the Digital Mandela: (

The moviemaking process is now very fluid. VFX and previs will come before a finished script to use in a pitch as proof of concept. New scenes will be written and added during post. This also means that all us of media professionals must now have a much broader understanding of all the departments and how they interact and depend on each other.

The second featured speaker was Jeff Miller, president, worldwide post production and operations, The Walt Disney Studios. Miller made a bold statement at the outset of his presentation: “In my 30 year career in the business, I have never seen such a dynamic period of change in the way we capture, post produce and deliver our motion pictures around the world.”

Miller continued by laying out the massive scope involved with a “Day and Date Release” in 42 countries around the world. He cited the release of Alice in Wonderland as an example of the scope of his responsibilities that included generating a staggering 267 unique feature film masters. VFX are typically one of the last elements to be finalized before final delivery and the amount of work evolved in creating all the elements for distribution should be a consideration for sure. He advocated for a common scheduling system across all departments to ensure a timely delivery of materials.

The next panel titled, “It’s So Cool! How An ‘Aha’ Moment Offers New Business Opportunities,” focused on how entrepreneurs in VFX turned problems into business opportunities. For example, Tony Clark, director, Rising Sun Pictures Australia, wanted to do VFX for Hollywood feature films, but needed a way to work with the studios interactively from half-way around the world. They built a new tool from scratch to meet their need, Cinesync, which they later spun off into its own division to sell to the industry. Clark commented on the success of his product that his greatest achievement is inventing a verb.

Seth Rosenthal, founder, president of Tweak Software, transformed its business from a VFX facility to software developer. Their RV product is the next-generation image and sequence viewer for VFX and animation artists.

After a wonderful poolside lunch, the attendees were treated to an extremely candid keynote speech by Bill Mechanic, producer and CEO of Pandemonium Films. At the outset, he made a point to stress the lack of originality in live-action features. At the time of the Summit, he pointed out that the top 10 films of 2010 were animated or sequels with Inception being the only original live-action film.

The next panel, “Tomorrow’s Production Renaissance: Adapting to Ever-Changing Roles” tied nicely into the early panel “Does it come on Wheels” to address the dynamic changes in filmmaking in general and VFX in particular. Ed Jones, CEO, Reel FX Creative Studios, commented on the general state of today’s VFX industry. Jones said that times have changed from when he worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. With today’s smaller budgets and the need to meet an ever-rising level of expectations will drive innovative solutions to which, in the end, may create make better movies.

By far the most irreverent panelist was Jenny Fulle, founder and visual effects producer, The Creative-Cartel. Previously, Fulle spent 11 years as EVP at Sony’s Imageworks. She stated that the VFX business has changed dramatically in last five years. The tools are much more affordable and production is more distributed meaning that big facilities are not as necessary. Coming out of this slower business cycle, studios don’t want to pay like they used to. One must scale things back and adapt salary expectations for the current marketplace. VFX artists today have to be more creative and have to work smarter, which will translate to better movies

The final panel of the day, “The Madonna Approach: The Only Constant is Change” featured true heavyweights of the VFX industry.  On one stage was collected the heads of some of the top VFX facilities around the world — ILM, Digital Domain, Framestore, Prime Focus and Rainmaker Digital. The panel also included a major customer of VFX, John Kilkenny, executive VP at 20th Century Fox. Kilkenny made a point to emphasis the benefits of a healthy VFX industry. His goal is not to put VFX companies out of business in bidding wars, rather to support the industry thereby giving him more choices where to send business.
Lynwen Brennan, president/GM at ILM / Skywalker Sound, stressed the need to build a partnership with Hollywood studios. She said that everyone is being squeezed by the economic situation and she said that flexibility is key.

William Sargent, chief executive and co-founder of Framestore, said  recessions are a part of the business cycle. He stressed the importance of educating his customers to the time and skill required in producing world-class visual effects. This sentiment is echoed on the studio side when Kilkenny, who comes from a VFX production background, stated that sometimes the studio doesn’t fully understand the ramification of asking for certain changes. For example, tweaking a CG characters color could potentially cause hours of work and hours or days more rendering.

Michael Fink, president, visual effects worldwide at Prime Focus, is focusing on infrastructure and pipeline development. He’s responsible for guiding VFX work that is taking place three continents, in 8-10 cities. He also made a strong point about talent. He said expensive artists are cheaper in the long run as they turn out shots faster and at a better quality. Hire the best people to do best work is his motto.

Cliff Plumer, CEO of Digital Domain, corroborated David Morin’s vision of the new production model. Plumer said that Digital Domain worked closely with Tron director Joseph Kosinski from the initial pitch to get the movie made.

When the topic came to VFX talent, Brennan emphasized the need for a core team of talented artists that ILM handpicks from all over the world. She also mentioned how technology has enabled ILM to draw upon talent in LA, for example, that are accessing ILM’s headquarters in Northern California. Sargent added that he has artist from over 30 countries working at Framestore, which adds a great texture to their working environment. He added that part of the community aspect of the London VFX industry is the pub culture where you hang with your mates and share your experiences and knowledge. Brennan expanded on this saying that the VFX industry as a whole is opening and sharing. For example, the OpenEXR file format developed at ILM is fast becoming an industry standard. Companies are also sharing shots more than every before because the scale and scope of the modern VFX film is too massive to be done at one shop, no matter how large.

In his concluding remarks, Jeffrey Okun, chair of the VES, returned to the stage and encourage the attendees to look as downturn as opportunity. The Visual Effects industry will only continue to expand. It’s how it does that which is the big question.

Also see for Debra Kaufman’s report on the event.