Archive for the ‘VFX’ Tag

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.


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

Ups and Downs in VFX

Today’s film industry has three main events in the cinema calendar:

First up is the summer release; these are the big, blockbuster films like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, or Elysium. They are high on spectacle, and big on budget. These are the films with hundred million dollar opening weekends, lots of CG, and plenty of things going “boom!”

After that, comes the Christmas release slate (which, obviously, starts in October); these are the large budget, family-friendly movies such as The Hobbit, Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson, films that the studio can bank on the family going to see together.

Arriving at around the same time are the smaller “prestige” films; films like Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, or Lincoln. These are in no way released at the end of the year to coincide with voting for the Academy Awards*.

Apart from this meaning that there’s never anything good to see at the movies in September and March, it also impacts my life in quite a significant way.

You see, most of us are only employed on a project to project basis, joining a company for a film, working hard on it, then finishing up along with the project. The cyclical release dates mean that March and October are crunch time for us, while June and January are often quiet. The VFX companies try to plug the gaps with smaller projects, but if they can’t find them, we clear out our desks, go for one last pub lunch with our colleagues, and start trying to find the next job.

It also means that any slight change in the film industry can have a serious ripple-on effect on VFX artists.

Like now.

Vancouver normally has a lot of film work. Experienced crews and predictable weather** mean a lot of films and TV shows shoot here, while the tax incentives make it worthwhile for the companies to stay and do VFX here afterwards. Recently, however, shoot dates for two big films pushed by a few months. Our summer blockbuster slate of films wrapped up in May, and the next batch of films won’t be ready for turnover to VFX until July / August at the earliest.

All of a sudden, almost every company in town has a gaping, two month hole in their schedule, and it seems like most of the VFX industry in Vancouver is unemployed. Myself included.

Work should come here. The two films shooting right now should post here – but no one’s signing any contracts until it does, and in the mean time, anything from a change in tax incentives to currency fluctuations could alter where the work is awarded.

This can make for a nerve-wracking couple of months.

Ideally, we would be making the most of it. When we’re on a film, we often do long hours without any time off, so now that we’re unemployed, we should be seeing and doing all the things we don’t get a chance to do when we’re working. It’s just kinda hard to relax when you don’t know how long it will be until your next pay check.

But that’s how this industry goes; we work flat out for six months, mentally plan all the amazing things we’ll do once the job is over… then when it is, we just worry about finding the next job.

This time, however, I think I might do things differently. I feel like taking this chance to actually see some of Canada. Financially, it goes against everything I was ever taught; I should be budgeting, I should be saving my money to last until the next job. Instead, I’m going to relish being unemployed, and just hope that the Vancouver film industry is there to catch me when I run out of money.

If not, I may need to have a chat with my parents about the fold out couch in their spare room.

*These are absolutely released at the end of the year to coincide with voting for the Academy Awards.

** It’s always a safe bet it’ll be raining.

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