Ever wondered how Visual Effects for a film were produced? Ever wondered how the shot youre working on ended up in your lap? Ever wondered why you were given such a short amount of time to complete the work? Ever just wondered how the heck it all works? Heres how the visual effects for a movie are produced, from start to finish. You wont find this information readily available, as its generally not talked about…hope you enjoy the read as is sure took me awhile to write. Why did I write it? Well, mostly I just enjoy writing to decompress and clear my mind. Anyone working in VFX will find this interesting, I think.
Making a movie is a complicated thing. There are millions of dollars at stake. Chances are the movie youre working on is bonded and/or has outside investors. Sometimes a studio may sell a film to a fund or organization, and then leases the rights to make the movie back from the fund. Sometimes the studio actually makes money producing the movie before its ever even made (yes, really!). All movies are insured, for millions of dollars. Studios dont lose money on movies, and they are very careful about properly recouping costs for movies that fail to get made. This is a big money game, and nothing is left to chance.
Imagine now, if you will, that your job is to make sure that the VFX for the movie are made, within the limits of the budget that the film is set to. You cannot go back and beg for more money, and you dont get any extra time to complete the work. You either get it done, or you dont. Black and white, there is no room for grey in production. You either do it, or theyll find someone else.
If youre the VFX producer, you probably work for the major studio underwriting the project (ie: warner bros, sony, disney), and your boss is the guy holding the purse strings on the entire project for the studio. Your boss is the studio executive who will step in and make sure you get your job done, and who will cut you off at the knees if you fail. As the VFX producer, you are charged with a large portion of the budget, sometimes the largest.
Step one is to hire a studio side VFX supervisor. You have some to choose from internally at the studio, and you probably have a short list of favorites you want to work with. Its pretty rare youll hire someone externally, but you might if the director or your boss requests it. In some cases you may not need a VFX Sup because the director wants to handle that part of the project.
Once youve hired someone knowledgeable to help you, youll start breaking down the shots with the director to determine which shots have VFX and which dont. Its your job to make sure the VFX Sup and the director dont become creative visionaries outside of the scope of your budget. Reel them in if they go too crazy, thats your job. If you cant do it, your boss will, and sometimes your boss just might step in and remind them whos boss.
Once you have the shot list, you can start getting bids for the work.
The VFX producer for each studio has a list of producers and artists from VFX shops that they generally like to work with. Some of these VFX shops may be 2 guys in a garage. Others may have 800 employees. The studio side VFX producer may call a few of these places up when he or she gets a new project, to see if the project interests the VFX shop, and to see if theyd be interested in bidding on the work. Often, for newer shops, the studio side VFX producer will want to tour the studio, see their past work, and meet the senior staff.
Sometimes a director may request to work with a particular VFX shop, or a particular set of people, in which case its up to the VFX producer to try to accommodate the director. Sometimes a studio exec may know some of the people at a VFX shop, and the exec may tell the VFX producer to throw some work that shops way. In that case, the studio VFX producer will make every effort to work with specific shops, per his/her bosses request.
Generally, your goal is to get bids from a few different places. You dont go with the most expensive, or the least expensive, so you generally go with the guy in the middle. You want high quality, but low risk. So youre willing to pay for good work, but youre not willing to pay for the absolute best work - at least most of the time. On some projects, your budget and project may dictate that you seek out the best. Maybe the VFX are really key for the project to succeed. In that case, you may go for the best, all the way, and leave out everyone else. Of course that wont usually happen, since most projects give you the flexibility to get a good deal on the work.
Getting a bid involves making a few calls, sending over a bid packet with shot breakdowns, and sometimes storyboards and concept art. The VFX shop will review these, and then the producer for the shop will go to work finding out how long it will take them to complete the work, and at what cost to you (the studio). Some shops will want to meet with you in person, and others wont. Some shops may do a test for free, and others may try to get some test money (which is at your discretion).
If youre a supervising VFX artist at one of these shops, you may be called into a meeting by an internal producer to discuss how long a project will take, how many people you need, and what kind of technology you need to develop to get it done. The producer will then take all of this information into consideration when putting the bid together. A bid package may include a breakdown of costs for animation, staff overhead, compositing, and administrative costs, among other things.
This bid, usually broken down at the shot level, may include overages for changes, or charges for delay in turnovers or reshoots. Some bid packages require that the shop submit resumes of senior staff, as well as an updated demo reel. The bid also must include any costs for sending staff on set during production. The VFX producer wants to know every cost youll have, so he knows what hes paying for.
The studio side VFX producer will take each bid, compare them, and then start awarding the work. Sometimes a VFX producer will use the bids to get shops to compete against each other and undercut prices. If a VFX shop wants a particular project, they may take their original bid and slash it to get the work. They may take a loss in the short term, with hopes of gaining more work in the future. Or, maybe they just need their staff to be working on something, rather than nothing, to keep them from losing too much that they go under. It all depends. Each shop is different and is playing a different money game.
Once the work is awarded, or in other words once a contract is written, its up to the VFX shop to complete as agreed. Sometimes a shot is omitted, or cut, and the VFX shop is then required to stop working on it. They usually dont get paid for omitted shots. They may pickup additional shots that were unexpected, to make up the difference. In some cases, the VFX shop will lose money on omitted shots, but will make its profit off the last minute 911 shots that come down the pipeline.
Sometimes a VFX shop is unable to complete the work as agreed. They may try to outsource the work to another shop, if the VFX producer agrees. In fact, the VFX producer may have a list of boutique shops that are very good at finishing shots last minute. They may give them a call to come in a work on shots last minute. This will come out of the bigger shops budget, since theyre no longer completing the work, but at least they wont be breaching their contract due to not finishing. Many small shops thrive on larger shops not being able to complete the work they take on. These last minute jobs usually pay well and turn over quickly. Yet another reason profit margins are so low in the VFX industry.
This is how the work gets from the studio, to you the artist working on the shot at your desk. The VFX producer will send the studio side VFX Sup, and/or director, and other needed people to review the work at your shop and final shots as the movie progresses.
Your shop may have several layers to get through before the work is approved. You may have a producer, an internal VFX sup, a CG sup, and other staff that reviews the work. Sometimes the internal VFX sup goes on set for the shots that your shop is working on, so that your shop gets the information it needs from the shoot, as well as making sure the plates are shot as needed. If something is wrong and requires a reshoot, it may cost your VFX shop money if the internal VFX Sup failed to catch a mistake on set or didnt get what was needed. Or, the VFX shop may opt to do more work than originally agreed, to fix the problem, so that they dont have to pay for a mistake they made.
Of course, its not a perfect world, and the VFX producer may have to shift money around on some shots to get the work done. Sometimes the director or the VFX Sup start changing the shots, even after theyre awarded, and the producer has to scramble to make up the difference. Cut a shot here, add this one, reel everyone in and get it done.
If all goes well, shots will go through the pipeline from studio to VFX shop, back to the studio, where it will end up being color timed and edited into the final film. Of course, theres so many pieces to the puzzle that some times the shots get cut, even after the studio finals and pays the VFX shop for them. Sometimes the director changes his/her mind at the last minute, and that might be why your shot didnt make the cut. The movie has to make a certain amount of time (in minutes), since film is expensive, and this amount of time has been agreed upon already by everyone involved. Sometimes shots have to get cut just to meet time requirements. Theres so many reasons, all valid costly ones.
The VFX producer will then go through all of the shots once the work is completed, making sure everyone completed the work as agreed. He/she will get credit lists from each shop. Usually the VFX producer will tell the shop how many credits they get as part of the contract for the work. Its all negotiable, and its all part of the process.
Once its all said and done, the producer may have some new enemies, and some new friends as a result of the project. Each VFX shop will be judged based on quality, workmanship, and of course, how much they cost. If they did a good job, they will be shortlisted to be used again. If they did a bad job they will be blacklisted and discussed among friends as a place to avoid.
Whats all this mean? It means that when you work on a movie as a VFX artist, chances are that someone at your shop knows the VFX producer at a studio, and that relationship is what is paying the bills. Some shops will know many producers, and that means more options. Some shops know one, and for some thats all they need as long as they do a good job. Some shops have friends that are directors, or friends that are writers, and so they get the work that way. Some shops are the direct result of a director or studio wanting to dictate the work, so they just started their own company.
The only shops making any real profits are the boutiques, since they do the most critical work and usually at the last minute. They also have less overhead. But, they also take the biggest risks on not finishing and therefore risk losing money. They might have more profit, but because they work on less shots its not usually sustainable. A small shop needs constant work to thrive.
The bigger shops have profit margins of 2-5%. Some have negative margins that are allowable due to the necessity of the studio or director to have direct control over the work. These shops may try to get external projects as well, to help ease losses or to even generate profits. Some shops can offer discounts due to economic packages available to them that offer tax breaks - like in Canada, New Zealand, and England. New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia offers similar breaks for US based companies, and is slowly attracting filmmakers.
George Lucas once told his employees at ILM that he could make more off of a Certificate of Deposit (CD) at the bank. He was right.