The Producer


#1

Ever wondered how Visual Effects for a film were produced? Ever wondered how the shot you’re 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? Here’s how the visual effects for a movie are produced, from start to finish. You won’t find this information readily available, as it’s 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 you’re 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 it’s ever even made (yes, really!). All movies are insured, for millions of dollars. Studios don’t 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 don’t get any extra time to complete the work. You either get it done, or you don’t. Black and white, there is no room for grey in production. You either do it, or they’ll find someone else.

If you’re 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. It’s pretty rare you’ll 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 you’ve hired someone knowledgeable to help you, you’ll start breaking down the shots with the director to determine which shots have VFX and which don’t. It’s your job to make sure the VFX Sup and the director don’t become creative visionaries outside of the scope of your budget. Reel them in if they go too crazy, that’s your job. If you can’t do it, your boss will, and sometimes your boss just might step in and remind them who’s 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 they’d 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 you’re willing to pay for good work, but you’re 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 won’t 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 won’t. Some shops may do a test for free, and others may try to get some test money (which is at your discretion).

If you’re 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 you’ll have, so he knows what he’s 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, it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 they’re no longer completing the work, but at least they won’t 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 didn’t get what was needed. Or, the VFX shop may opt to do more work than originally agreed, to fix the problem, so that they don’t have to pay for a mistake they made.

Of course, it’s 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 they’re 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, there’s 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 didn’t 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. There’s 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. It’s all negotiable, and it’s all part of the process.

Once it’s 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.

What’s 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 that’s 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 it’s 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.


#2

Thank you! That was wonderful!


#3

It was long, but it was good. I’ve learned a new thing or two. Thanks!


#4

What do you mean, “sometimes”? It always happens :stuck_out_tongue:


#5

Great post - Saved.
Thanks Joe

“Generally, your goal is to get bids from a few different places. You don’t 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 you’re willing to pay for good work, but you’re 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 won’t usually happen, since most projects give you the flexibility to get a good deal on the work.”

Given how ILM are often approached for work, does this mean they are capable of much much better work?

Anyways, isn’t it fustrating… all that effort and work, and yet on most films, ONE guy turns up acts his part gets his name plastered all over the poster and gets to have the most fun on set and ends up with a crazy multi-million paycheck. Where’s the sense in it I ask?


#6

Sssshhh, don´t tell all the secrets :scream:

Just kidding, great post, truely spoken to the last words :slight_smile:


#7

Awesome read! It’s nice to see a big dose of reality around here instead of questions like “will I meet movie stars as a VFX artist?”. Most aspiring artists would be better off going into the business with this knowledge (and a alot more). Any info that reflects reality instead of treating VFX like it’s some kind of candy-coated magical dream factory where money flows like Red Bull and artists have free reign to express the genius of their creativity is a good thing.


#8

Really informative stuff. It’s the sort of things I’ve pieced together myself working at one of those boutique companies you mentioned, but it’s really good to hear it all written out as a fairly standard process. Thank you!


#9

or in the case of a shop i used to work at … you still get blacklisted even after doing the best vfx in that particular movie - all because the shop’s vfx producers and the shop’s owner wouldn’t let the main studio walk all over them and demand 100s of more shots for the same price as the original bid … even though the shot count grew by 100s throughout the production. :banghead:

great post btw joe … very “hit the nail on the head” :).


#10

Definitely… and so is any other well known effects studio, whether it’s Weta Digital, The Mill, Framestore CFC, Digital Domain, The Orphanage, Zoic.

The problem is the ancient one of time vs. money vs. quality. You know the one: you can’t have all three ideals, fast, cheap, and good. You can only have two: fast and cheap is bad, fast and good is expensive, cheap and good is slow. With that in mind, what you aim for is good enough, fast enough, for enough. As a studio, you have to decide where to put your strength. You can put up bids that offer quality and quick turnaround, but they’ll be high. You can put up bids that offer high quality at low cost, but your timeframe might run too long. And, of course, you can offer to work cheaply and quickly, and make our eyes bleed :).

Of course, at a studio the size of ILM, it’s probably not that simple. One division might work their butts off on one film while another has a year to get everything perfect. The more jobs you have in the can, the better a balance you can strike.


#11

I think arch viz is probably the least chaotic amongst the cg industries.


#12

Cough…and the most boring Cough

Thanks for the nice post, -dc-. I enjoyed reading it.

EDIT: There’s just one thing that’s been confusing to me all this time. What is the difference from a studio, shop, and boutique?

I’ve never been able to find a definite answer. I had always assumed that a studio consists of a lot of employees and does most of the work on a project, a shop is a specialty studio and also helps out when the main studio doesn’t have enough time to finish it, and a boutique is the one that jumps in at the end of the project for revisions and whatnot.


#13

Thank you, Joe…

What a wonderful thread…


#14

asayan,
i think, specifically referring to joe’s post, when he says “studio” he means places like Paramount or Universal - the companies that have movie properties to be made and who have money to award to those who would provide vfx services for said film. When he says “shop” he is referring to any and all vfx shops - ILM, Imageworks, Weta, R&H, Framestore etc etc. I don’t recall if he used the term “boutique”, but if he did I’m sure he was referring to smaller vfx “shops” that thrive on emergency last minute work that the bigger vfx “shops” can’t quite finish. I’m not entirely sure who is classifying themselves under this category these days, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say studios like luma and/or zoic (?). Please correct me if I’m wrong in that assessment. Regardless … I don’t believe that one of Joe’s goals was to lay down a definitive description and label for the various types of companies out there in the film vfx game, he just used the most descriptive terms he had available to him for each player to distinguish them from one another (not to speak for joe though :D).


#15

I understand. It’s just that the question’s been lingering in my head and I thought this might be a good place to ask. Thanks for breaking it down for me. It all makes sense now…lol


#16

My decsription of the VFX shops and their classification wasn’t meant to stereotype any companies out there. Almost every company has one particular thing that they excel at, but many are starting to become more broad, as the technology and artists become more readily available. I think that’s why smaller studios are expanding and taking on more work.

This in turn has frustrated larger companies who were used to always getting the big shows. Now shot packages are being chopped and split between shops. Instead of competing with 3 or 4 big shops, you now have to compete with very good boutiques who can handle 100+ shots. Split that 10 ways and now the money is all spread out. The result is the larger shops are sufffering to make the 2-5% they need to get by, and some of them are taking losses to keep their head above water.

At the end of the day, there’s plenty of work for us artists, as VFX in movies are now common place. It’s just a matter of picking which company you want to play the game at.


#17

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