With Digital Domain Media sinking like the Titanic and filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but Searchlight Capital Partners coming to the rescue and buying its Oscar-winning VFX division ("Titanic" and "Benjamin Button") for $15 million — temporarily saving jobs, salaries, and benefits in Venice, San Francisco, and Vancouver — what does that suggest about the overall state of the VFX industry?
I mean, it's one thing for Matte World Digital ("Hugo") to sadly close up shop in Northern California or Fuel VFX ("The Avengers") to hang by a thread in Australia, but if Digital Domain (co-founded by former ILM exec Scott Ross and filmmakers James Cameron and Stan Winston) can't survive, what can really be done to improve conditions for companies and artists alike?
Although there have been attempts to organize a VFX trade union with IATSE or the IBEW to provide health benefits for artists, that appears to be a non-starter. And so far the studios have not been persuaded to set up a health care plan for artists. Now there's discussion about organizing a trade association, which would at least allow companies to share info about bidding. But they can't set prices, so that wouldn't prevent the rampant lowball bidding.
As one insider explained, "The challenge with VFX is there is no standard currency. How can you stop people undercutting each other when there are no standards? It's not like we make widgets. The big facilities carry more overhead and will always be more expensive."
But even if you could construct a metric-style measuring system for standard pricing by modeling a fictional studio with all the overhead equipment and technology and studying various shot types, would this really stop the crazy lowball bidding since no studio would want to reveal its overhead structure?
Meanwhile, out-of-control tent pole movies continues to be a symptom of producers and studios struggling to make their budgets while the work at the end of the pipeline gets squeezed because they want it done as cheaply as possible.
But it's not all gloom and doom. There are success stories beyond the elite VFX studios, which are mainly driven by people who understand what it's like to work in the trenches and produce quality work with innovative biz models.
Pixomondo, which won the VFX Oscar for "Hugo" and recently worked on "Snow White and the Huntsman," has figured out how to make globalization work efficiently by dividing the work among its satellite companies using a 24/7 pipeline. For "Hugo," Pixomondo parceled sequences to around a dozen teams in various geographies based on the strengths of their artists and how they matched to shot demands of the film.
Scanline VFX (overseen by founder Stephan Trojansky and Danielle Plantec) has become the CG water powerhouse of the industry (nominated for Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter"). It has expanded from Munich to LA to Vancouver. In fact, in Vancouver they started with eight last July and now have a workforce of 85. However, Scanline does more than fluid simulation. Last year, Scanline helped ILM with the train crash for "Super 8," and recently provided some creative particle work on the trippy, time warping "Looper." Scanline has steadily evolved as a full-service VFX provider with "Cloud Atlas," "Man of Steel," and "Iron Man 3" as standouts.
Then there's Uncharted Territory ("2012," "Anonymous" and the upcoming "White House Down"), headed by Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, which has established a new production shingle model in working with director Roland Emmerich. Uncharted is a driving force for the future of this industry: hiring key talent, setting up space, hiring a core crew, and then outsourcing the majority of the work and acting as a hub.
The Creative Cartel, headed by Jenny Fulle (formerly executive vice president of production at Sony Pictures Imageworks), is part of this new model as well but on a smaller scale. However, after cutting its teeth on such sci-fi fare as "Priest" and "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," the Cartel really blossomed on Seth MacFarlane's raunchy comedy, "Ted," actually splitting the work on the CG bear between two companies (Tippett and Illoura), which is rare. Now, after automating its meta-data toolset, pulling it all down in half an hour, the Cartel is ready to handle more demanding projects.
Meanwhile, Northern California-based Atomic Fiction (co-founded by Kevin Baillie, Ryan Tudhope, and Jenn Emberly, formerly with Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital) has figured out how to use cloud computing to its advantage. They recently did 400 shots in only four months for "Flight," Zemeckis' return to live action. It's a biz model that's being viewed as the future of the industry, with a dynamically scaled infrastructure and an outside the box approach that Paramount liked because they only paid for what they used. It was stored locally and then rendered remotely and securely.
And with computing overall undergoing rapid change, there's likely a whole new paradigm in store for VFX. So perhaps we should look at how these innovators are potentially pointing the way for a brighter industry future.