The (re)Invention of the VFX Industry

It’s no secret that the Visual Effects industry as we know it is in trouble.

Hostility and whining will not remedy the situation. The protest at the Academy Awards seemed driven more by emotion than by purpose. It doesn’t help the cause to complain without offering some semblance of a solution. Of course there is considerable anger and frustration out there, but as Scott Ross, a long time VFX industry leader has aptly pointed out, the VFX world needs to win the war, not the battle.

We need to take a step back and re-evaluate, rejuvenate, and re-invent the VFX business.

Is anyone really all that surprised we’ve ended up in the current situation? The giant VFX vendors of old have been shrinking and disappearing for more than a decade. It’s not because Hollywood doesn’t care. Like everything else, VFX has become less of a specialized field with the proliferation of small mom-and-pop shops offering worthy visual effects without the massive overhead of the more traditional facilities. Tools and pipelines available off-the-shelf can give great advantage to these smaller companies – consider the development and maintenance costs of the custom pipelines of the major VFX facilities – they’re astronomical compared to the smaller houses, and someone has to pay those costs. No tax break will make the overhead shrink to that of the smaller facilities.

Yes, perhaps the studios could do more to work with their filmmakers to understand better how to work with VFX in storytelling. The filmmaking process itself has changed in many cases to where filmmakers gather raw materials in production and figure out where the story is in post-production. That in itself is a significant reason why production costs are as high as they are today. In my own experience, I’ve seen far too many situations where filmmakers have little idea what they want until they see it near completion, which then leads to endless change orders until they get what they want, and then the studio wants to know why the budget keeps inflating.

Think for a moment how the scenic trades felt when set constructions were reduced to the bare minimum in favor of digital set extensions. Imagine how the set decorators and prop builders felt about losing significant work to productions largely devoted to greenscreen shooting with CG props. Change in the industry is inevitable. It’s time to embrace the opportunity to re-invent VFX.

If everyone could just take a breath and look at the history of filmmaking in Hollywood, we can clearly see the precedent for this type of change. Runaway production is a problem with a far longer history than the current VFX problems. To selfishly push to enact tax breaks for VFX companies in California isn’t the best approach. It would make far more sense to unite with all of the unions and craft disciplines in film and television to enact bigger changes to keep productions local.  United not divided.

Maybe tax breaks are a part of that quest. If a production is already shooting in Canada or London, why wouldn’t a studio use the local vendors? Keep the productions local, and the other services will follow.

It’s better to channel the frustration into finding solutions rather than targeting bad guys and casting blame if you really want to re-invent the VFX industry.

You’ve all got great imaginations – start imagining how this might work for everyone involved.