The Geeks in the Basement

VFX artists tend to be seen by the rest of the film industry as the geeks in the basement.

Okay, so admittedly, we are all pretty nerdy and into computers. And, I guess our desks do tend to be covered with Lord of the Rings figurines and light sabres. And, sure, due to the light sensitive nature of our jobs, we do work in blacked out rooms… So the name isn’t all that inaccurate.

But it still says something about how the rest of the film crew sees the VFX artists.

And that comes down to how the films are made.

Okay, bear with me here as I go into a little bit more detail than anyone ever asked for on how a film gets crewed, but it is relevant.

You see, when a film is greenlit by a studio – say, Paramount – the producer doesn’t just go out onto the Paramount lot, grab the Paramount film crew, and start shooting.

Instead, the film will be crewed by freelance crew members, brought together by the production just for that one film.

The first person to join the film will be the director (often having a known director attached – along with some big name actors – is part of getting a movie greenlit). Once he or she is on board, the production will start to bring on the heads of departments, people such as the director of photography, the editor, the art director, and so on. These are the people responsible for the creative vision of the film, and they’ll often be people the director likes, has worked with before, or has heard good things about. This will be done in consultation with the studio and producer, who ultimately have final say, but generally want to keep the director happy.

Once the creative HoDs are in place, they’ll start filling in their departments, hiring assistant editors, camera assistants, gaffers, grips, chippies, sparkies and woofies.* As these will often be local talent, most of this round of crewing will happen after the production decides where to shoot the film. These people will be found through networks and friends – hire the 2nd Assistant Camera in Vancouver, and they’ll know someone who can come on as the focus puller. 98.75% of the time, this is someone they’ve worked with before that they like. The other 1.25% of the time, it’s someone they know from film school.**

And that’s it. We come together, spend 4-6 months making movie magic and getting heartily sick of each other in the process. Then, once the film is complete, we have a massive wrap party, grab our crew swag (which is useful, since we probably haven’t done laundry in the last month), and go our separate ways. Until the next film, where we’ll either know half the crew already, or figure out who we know in common.

So, that’s how the film crew works. VFX is a little different.

You see, our software is pretty complex. And, our software also doesn’t like to talk to other software. Even other VFX software. And since every department in VFX uses different software, this can make things tricky.

Say we’re doing a shot where a CG dinosaur runs through a CG river. On a high end film, each step in the pipeline – from building the dinosaur, to adding the CG water, to lighting the shot, before finally putting all the elements together to fit seamlessly within the plate – will be done by a different specialist.

Most of those highly specialised jobs also have highly specialised software packages, and none of them talk to each other. Because apparently that would make too much sense.

So, we have to write a lot of code to move shot information from one department to another. It’s expensive, time consuming, and constantly changing as software packages get updated. All VFX companies have a dedicated pipeline department whose job is to make sure information gets from one place to another.

Another thing that happens along the pipeline is something called rendering. The computer scenes that we work with are very complex, and require a large amount of computer power to process.

Take, for example, a lighter working on the scene with the dinosaur: the lighter will add light sources to mimic the on-set lighting, and then the computer has to go away and think about just what exactly that means. How hot is the kick off the water? Where are the shadows, and how long are they? How do the dinosaur’s scales react to this light? Is there anything causing a bounce light in the scene? These calculations can take hours per frame, so when you’re dealing with a 200 frame shot, that’s a lot of computing. Especially since it takes multiple (and I mean, in the hundreds of) versions to get a shot pixel-perfect.

If we were to just render on the machine we were working on, we’d basically get one render of one shot done every couple of weeks. Oh, and because it would take the entire computing power of that machine, we wouldn’t be able to work in that time. Which sounds like fun, until you have to pay rent.

So, instead, we send all of these scene off to the render farm. This is a stack of computers dedicated to rendering. They have no keyboards or monitors, and their only job, all day, every day, is to render shots. Companies can have hundreds, or even thousands of these dedicated, high-spec computers on a render farm (although still never enough come crunch time). And of course, once you put hundreds of processing computers in a small, enclosed space, putting out a massive amount of heat, you also need to add some heavy duty air conditioners to make sure they don’t do something silly like catch fire.

All of this adds up to one big, expensive nightmare that film studios don’t want to deal with.

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Instead, they can outsource it to a VFX studio that is  already set up with a pipeline, render farm, and artists, and have them make the whole VFX problem go away.

This does, however, create an interesting situation. It means that when I sign on to a film, I’m actually signing on to work for the VFX company, rather than the film production. And this leads to a couple of problems.

The first – and the one that often rankles VFX artists the most – is film credits.

The film studios determine how many credits each VFX company will get. Because credits add to run time, and run time in the cinema costs money, the film studio wants to keep the number of credits to a minimum.

Everyone on set is guaranteed a credit.

No one in VFX is.

I’ve worked on shows with almost one hundred artists, only to be told that we get twelve credits. I know everyone thinks that credits are already waaaay too long, but they mean a lot to people that worked on the film.

But that’s not the worst problem that the division between VFX and the production can cause.

Because VFX and the film making process have become so separated, the director often has no exposure to the process of VFX. After all, it’s not like building a film set where you can walk on the stage day after day and see it take shape. VFX often happens in a different country, and the director only sees a few select stages along the way.

This means that when the directors asks for a change, they don’t always know what they’re asking for. If the director walks on to set and says “yeah, I know I asked for a library, but what I’m actually thinking would work well is a bedroom. Can we change this to a bedroom?” they know just how much of that set is salvageable, and how much is going to be torn down and thrown away. They can see a tangible cost in terms of materials and time.

A lot of directors don’t know that in VFX. Is the change something as simple as loading in a prebuilt bedroom, or is it something much harder? (Hint: it’s something much harder). And, unlike on a sound stage, where the director would arrive at set the following morning to see the haggard, sleep-deprived faces of the set department who had worked through the night to change the set around glaring at him, with VFX, the director often won’t know what the human cost of their changes will be.

(A side note: sometimes, if the revision is large enough, the VFX studio will issue the production with a change order. This is basically something that says “So, you paid us to build a library. We built a library. Then you decided you wanted a bedroom. Now you need to pay us to build a bedroom.” This can also cause problems, as the director, without having a real library to touch and feel, doesn’t understand why a second virtual set costs more money. It’s hard to argue the value of something that – to many people – isn’t real because it only exists in a computer.

Also, this isn’t applicable to all directors. Some, like Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and James Cameron are very VFX-savvy, having owned their own VFX houses, while others, like Neill Blomkamp used to be VFX artists themselves.)

It’s hard to say how this ignorance of the biggest department on most films has come about. I suspect it’s a combination of the directors not being able to be a part of the process, and the VFX houses wanting to shield the director from the daily crazy that is VFX.

I would like this to change, but it will be tough. Ideally, the director would be embedded with a VFX studio for post so they could see the daily rhythm of visual effects, but the director is already spoken for by editorial, sound and music in that time. Besides, with multiple VFX studios in different countries working on the same film, which studio would the director go to?

Maybe over time, as more directors come of age in a time where VFX is as common on a film is as sound, things will start to change; directors and film crews will see us more as equal contributors to the film, and less as anonymous geeks in the basement.

I’d like that. I really would.

Just as long as we don’t have to give up our lightsabers.

*Okay, that last one isn’t really a job, but the others actually all are.

**Which leads to the big catch-22 of the film industry – how do I get a job in the industry without knowing someone, and how do I get to know someone in the industry without working in it? I have no idea, sorry.

The Grouse Grind

I may have mentioned this once or twice, but Vancouver locals are a little on the insane side when it comes to sports. Whether it’s doing the Tough Mudder – a 20km obstacle course with such fun challenges as electric shocks and tear gas – or cycling 200km from Whistler to Vancouver, or partaking in one of the weekly marathons that the city hosts, Vancouverites seem to spend most of their free time trying to find their limits, and then waving cheerfully to them as they blow right on past.

And nowhere is this better evidenced than on something called “The Grouse Grind”.

Grouse mountain is one of three mountains on the north shore of Vancouver. The Three Sisters, as they’re known, provide endless hours of playtime for the locals. In winter, we spend our evenings, weekends (and the occasional sick day) downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, or snow shoeing. In summer, we head to the mountains to hike and mountain bike, while the top of Grouse mountain is also host to kinda-cheesy-but-also-really-fun tourist activities that out-of-towners flock to, with lumberjack shows, bird of prey displays, and two resident grizzly bears.

There’s no public vehicle access to the top of Grouse mountain, so most people take the skychair, a 6 minute gondola ride to the top of the mountain.

That’s most people.

If, however, you like your exercise with a side of crazy, you can join the locals and do something called the Grouse Grind.

The Grind is a pleasant three kilometre hike that climbs the one kilometre vertical height of the mountain. It is known (quite rightly) as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”. It is three kilometres and almost three thousand steps of seemingly never-ending up. 

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to walk to the top of the One World Trade Centre  – twice – then this is the hike for you.

Doing it is a ridiculously popular past time here in Vancouver.

I managed to avoid it for the first three years I lived in Canada. The stairmaster had never been my favourite exercise, so I didn’t really see why I would trek up the side of a mountain when there’s a perfectly good gondola.

Then, I somehow ended up agreeing to climb a mountain in Alaska in July, something that will probably require a staggering amount of fitness. Since the last eight months of my life have consisted of sitting in a dark theatre watching dailies and snacking on candy from the reception desk, I needed a way to get in shape, fast.

Hello, Grouse Grind.

At the start of the climb, I passed a timing station. If you’re that kind of person (and most people in Vancouver are), you can buy a card containing a radio frequency chip which will time and log your climb. And because Vancouverites are not only annoyingly fit, but also annoyingly vocal about their annoying fitness, these times are then auto-published to the Leaderboard on the internet.

IMG_1825

The timer at the start of the trail. Nope.

 

On the day I went to hike the grind, the fastest time was 32 minutes, with most people clocking in around an hour. Some people had done it four times that day.

Yeah, I decided not to time my hike.

I started off feeling positive. After all, I’d done plenty of hiking, how hard could this be?

Mmm. That optimism didn’t last long, as the toll from trying to hike up 233 flights of stairs quickly became felt.

I started passing little signs stuck to the trees. They appeared every hundred meters or so, and seemed to be counting down the distance.

IMG_1827

 

I thought the “GG” stood for “Good Going”.

It does not.

It stands for “Grouse Grind”.

I am not a smart woman at times.

It wasn’t long before a group passed me on the trail. They were all decked out in proper hiking gear, with no bags, just water bottles tucked into a pouch at the back of their waist. They were obviously dedicated “grinders”; I didn’t feel too bad about them passing me.

Next to pass me was a group of university students chatting about school. I was impressed that they could both hike and carry on a conversation at the same time. I was having trouble just hiking and breathing.

Then a woman ran past me while carrying on a business conversation on her mobile phone. She didn’t even sound out of breath.

Being a considerate hiker, I pulled off the trail to let her pass (and take the opportunity to apologise to my heart and lungs). As I was doing that, another runner passed by – a guy in his late thirties carrying a toddler on his back.

Fine, Vancouver. I get it. Everyone is fitter than me. Stupid city with stupid fit people.

The Grouse Grind

The Grind: 2830 steps of up

 

Eventually I hit the quarter way mark. Yay. Perfect spot to sit down and not-die for a few minutes.

Unfortunately,  Grouse Mountain had other ideas.

IMG_1804

Mosquitos – Grouse Grind’s natural incentive to keep moving

 

Sigh. I struggled to my feet and pressed on upwards. By now, I was being passed by every other person on the trail, from four year olds, to sixty year olds. It was not at all demoralising.

A few years ago, Outside magazine listed The Grouse Grind as one of the ten most dangerous hikes in the world – a listing that caused a fair amount of derision here in Vancouver, with many locals pointing out that kids do it, as well as people in flip-flops and high heels. Although I think that says more about Vancouverites than it does the trail.

Still, the hike has claimed lives; there was an avalanche on the trail in ’99 that killed a man, and since then, there have been several deaths from heart attacks on the trail, but with over 3,000 doing it every day in summer, those statistics seem pretty small.

Hoping I wouldn’t add to the list of fatalities, I continued upwards, slowly putting one foot after another. Not that I had a choice – the Grind is one-way only, no down-hiking allowed.

Eventually I reached the halfway mark, a moment I decided to celebrate by trying to vomit up my lungs.

IMG_1831

This would be a very encouraging sign if it didn’t mean I still had half the trail to go

 

 

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one feeling the strain. Around me, my fellow hikers now wore looks of grim determination, with many of them bent over double as they slogged their way uphill. There was no talking anymore; the only sounds on the trail were the tramp of our feet, and the rasping of our breath.

You know how most hikes have little plateaus where the trail levels out and you can catch your breath for a beat? Yeah, the Grind doesn’t believe in them. It’s just all up.

 

IMG_1801

A sign at the end of the trail. The signs were put up by Lululemon, a Vancouver-based exercise clothing store. The CEO likes to hold business meetings while doing the Grind. Because that’s normal.

 

Then it happened. I began to see light through the trees. This meant one of two things: either I was near the end of the grind, or I had collapsed from a heart attack and was going to the afterlife.

At this point, it was 50-50 either way.

On the off-chance I was still alive, I pushed forward, trying to dredge up one or two final molecules of energy to get to the top. Finally! I burst through the thick tree growth and out into the open mountain top of Grouse Mountain.

Hallelujah, I had actually made it.

Cruelly, the Grind timer sits a good fifty meters away from the end of the hike, meaning that those timing their climb have to walk the extra distance to have their hike recorded. Fortunately, since I wasn’t doing that, I decided to just collapse on the ground and gasp for breath.

Eventually I made my way up to the chalet where a bar, a grind-themed sporting goods store, and the gondola back down to Vancouver awaited.

IMG_1835

 

This is the point where I’m supposed to tell you all about the pride and sense of achievement I felt. Yeah, I mostly just felt exhausted. And sweaty.

But… I could see why the grind is so popular. It’s an extreme work out, and incredibly accessible. It’s the sort of exercise you could do once a week and get in pretty good shape. Besides, why go to the gym when there’s a free stairmaster on your doorstep?*

So, because everyone in Vancouver is so proud of their GG stats, here are some to take away with you:

The record for the fastest climb is 25 minutes for men, and 30:52 minutes for women. The record number of climbs in a single day is sixteen, or 45,280 steps. Overall, the most grinds ever done by the same person is 2668 climbs – although, by the time you read this, that number will probably have increased.

In the end, my time wasn’t too bad. The average time to hike the grind is an hour and thirty minutes. I snuck in under that at an hour and twenty. Hopefully, I can get that down to an hour before I head to Alaska in a few weeks.

And then never do it again.

 

*Although, the gym doesn’t have mosquitoes, so that is kind of a bonus.

Oh, The Hours You’ll Work!

Or, a cautionary tale about the film industry

Okay. So, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything to this blog. And, as my last post was all about joining a cannabis clinic in Vancouver, I can see what the natural assumption would be. But no, sadly I haven’t spent the last six months eating cheese puffs and playing video games while high. Instead, I’ve been in crunch time.

“Crunch time” for those not in the film industry, is not a delicious, nut-filled breakfast cereal. Instead, it’s when a major deadline for a film is looming, and it takes over our lives completely, leaving us with no time to do anything except work, sleep, and occasionally* buy new underwear from the 24hour drugstore rather than do laundry at 1am.

Long hours are an accepted part of film making. After all, it’s a creative industry, with a lot of money on the line. It’s natural that the hours should be long, right?

Right. Except… it wasn’t always like this. Back in the fifties, film making was just a regular job. People worked an eight-hour day on the film shoot. They saw their families and friends in the evenings, and in the weekends they made plans. They remained healthy. They didn’t die from falling asleep at the wheel of their car after a 22 hour day back then.

Then, in the sixties, things changed. The industry went through a major upheaval. It’s a pretty long, complicated story, but the gist of it is that Hollywood was in trouble and studios were on the brink of collapse. Some even resorted to selling off their backlots for housing development, or auctioning off iconic movie props to make ends meet.

This was because the industry hadn’t kept up with what people wanted to see. Hollywood was still making wholesome, family friendly films while their audience was getting high and going to Woodstock. Home televisions were also becoming A Thing, and, what with there not really being anything on at the movies that people wanted to see, audiences were staying away.

Luckily for Hollywood, a new generation of directors were on the rise. Brought up on foreign films, and embracing the counter-culture (and also definitely the drugs) of the sixties, these directors – directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, and Roman Polanski –  made exciting, dangerous films that resonated with the cynical movie-goers of the era.

The studios, faced with either letting these film school rebels in, or shutting down completely, gave the new kids the keys to the kingdom, and so began one of the most interesting times in film making.

Before this, studios had kept a pretty tight control over the process, keeping budgets, schedules and work hours within spitting distance of reality (with some notable exceptions – looking at you, Cleopatra), but now all bets were off. In some in cases, the studios were not even allowed to look at rushes.

Film production costs began to skyrocket, and shooting schedules blew out. Did I mention the drugs? There were also a lot of drugs.

Apocalypse Now (1979) was originally budgeted for US$14M with a six month shooting schedule. It ended up costing US$31M and taking a year to film.**

Eventually this party bus swerved off the road, rolled into a ravine and burst into flames with the 1981 mega-flop that was Heaven’s Gate (not the mass-suicide cult, but it does go to show that nothing called “Heaven’s Gate” is going to end well) and the studios took back control of the film making process. But things didn’t go completely back to how they had been in the fifties: working long hours on a film shoot had become normalised in this time. Oh yeah, and the blockbuster had been created – something both movie studios and audiences wanted more of.

So, that’s how we got to today: everyone is trying to create the biggest film they can, while spending as little as possible. For the crew on set, that means long shoot days to keep the overall shoot schedule shorter; it’s cheaper to work a crew for 14 long weeks, rather than 16 normal ones.

On one film shoot, I worked 15 hour days, six days a week for five months. I was so tired towards the end, I remember driving home from set one night at midnight (with a 7:45am crew call the next day) and almost falling asleep behind the wheel of the car. And I was okay with that – if I crashed, I’d at least get a chance to sleep while in hospital.

VFX is a slightly different beast. In VFX, the long hours are because of the film’s release date. Most films have their release date set before the shoot begins. In fact, I know of films where it’s had a release date before its even had a title.

There is a ton of money tied up in the release date. Studios want their film to come out of the gate strong, garnering headlines such as “XXX film made $100M in its opening weekend”. Headlines like that make other people go to the movies. Headlines like “YYY opened weakly to a $10M weekend” make movie-goers stay at home.

So, studios will position their films to open as strongly as possible; this means both opening when the target audience is likely to be going to the cinema, and also when there’s as little competition as possible. Studios want to make sure they don’t release Deadpool 2 on the same weekend as Avengers 3; neither film wins in that scenario.

Of course, if a film is really in trouble, a studio will move the release date, but it’s a last resort as they may well  have to wait a year (or longer) for the next good window to open the film.

There’s also a lot of stigma attached with moving the release date; critics often consider it a sign that the film is in creative trouble, and once that rumour gets out, the film is dead in the water. I know people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but try telling that to John Carter of Mars. Or John Carter. Or whatever that film ended up being called.

And, because VFX is almost the last department on the film, there’s not a lot of work we can do while the film is still being shot or edited. Maybe some character design, or start blocking out any fully digital sequences we might have, but otherwise, we have to wait for the footage to be shot and then cut together before we can get our fingerprints all over it.

So, by the time the film gets to VFX, not only do we already have a very short sprint to the finish line, but any additional delays end up getting absorbed into our VFX schedule.

The studio decides to reshoot a scene? Yeah, that shortens our five month schedule for that scene into weeks. Turnover is late because they’re behind in editorial? That quickly becomes our problem. They’ve recut a scene and add some significant VFX shots? Yup, still gotta turn that around before the delivery date.

There’s never the option to not deliver.

The longest day I’ve done in VFX was 60 hours. The longest week I’ve done in VFX (different project) was 120 hours.

VFX is not for those overly attached to their beds.

But, at the end of the day, it is worth it. It’s hard, and it’s the part of the industry that I wish we could change, but a fourteen hour day doing something I love, with colleagues I admire, is still more enjoyable than an eight hour day doing sales data entry for Cartridge World (true job).

So, if I disappear from this blog at times, it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten it. It’s just that I’m probably still at work.

*And by “occasionally”, I mean “every other week”

**Of course, that film then earned US$150M at the box office, so all was forgiven.

This was a pretty compressed look into the changes in Hollywood during the sixties and working hours in the film industry. If you want to delve deeper into either of these topics, I’d suggest the book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind, for a look at the changes the film industry went through in the sixties. “Hearts of Darkness” is a behind-the-scenes look at the chaos of filming Apocalypse Now, and the excellent documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” by the Academy Award winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler looks at the dangers of the long hours in the film industry and the fight to change the culture. He made this documentary after a member of his crew fell asleep while driving home, and died. The crew member had just finished his third 16 hour shoot day in a row.

Holding lighting reference on the set of Narnia

Me holding VFX lighting reference on the set of Narnia

%d bloggers like this: