The industry has entered a New Age.
The first thirty years showed us the growth of a new digital entertainment industry and the reign of domestic production units. Companies like Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (1975), Rosendahl's Pacific Data Images (1981), Edlund's Boss Film (1983) , Hughes' Rhythm and Hues (1987), and Ross/Cameron's Digital Domain (1993) epitomized the early production paradigm: single bonded, sole-source post contracts providing head to tail production design and delivery.
Proprietary software required a technical artist that was more engineer than cinematographer or painter. As workflows improved, due in part to the vast improvement in off-the-shelf software (starting with the release of Side/FX Houdini (Prisms) in 1994 and Alias' Maya in 1997), production efficiency increased. Digital dailies allowed for an increase in creative iteration during the production week, allowing supervisors more control over what they could provide the client. Landmark effects films like Jurassic Park and Twister proved that the heyday of the analog model and miniature set was over and digital effects would predominate, driving blockbuster film costs to new heights.
Fast forward 1999. The release of the Matrix marks the end of the Great VFX Renaissance. (The feature animation industry was as yet dominated by Disney, soon to be overtaken by a young Pixar, helmed by ex-Diseny animator, John Lasseter.) A double Academy Award Winning three-quel and highest grossing set of blockbuster VFX films at that time would prove to Hollywood that the old-line production companies need not be involved in the process. Offshoot companies led by defectors from the majors would set up veritable forced labor camps, running 24 hour non-benefit shops in order to cuts costs and keep bids.
In 2003, the mighty Industrial Light and Magic was forced to lay off nearly a hundred artists over a two-year period, many ending up in new start-ups and small boutiques. Those companies, like the Orphanage, would in-turn grow to accept small sub-contracts from larger companies. In 2004, The Day After Tomorrow, a project started at Digital Domain, would be finished by more than three dozen credited and non-credited sub-contractors.
If 1999 was the end of the VFX Renaissance, 2003 was the beginning of the Dark Age.
No longer would sole-source projects survive from turn-around through release printing. The norm would become an outsource partnership model (ILM/Singapore) or the increasingly cutthroat practice of underbid/change-order 911 sub-contracting (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, Witch & Wardrobe, Rhythm & Hues). 911 refers to emergency work: when the project goes south, the client takes the work away from the troubled contractor and sub-contracts it to a proven company -- at a premium.
Today, large production houses are simply managing large outsourced projects conducted overseas. We're seeing the rise of international VFX companies that rival domestic work. (With the release of Kung Fu Hustle in 2004, Asia had arrived. Companies like Base/FX and Pixmondo are providing main production work for television (Boardwalk Empire) and film (I Am Number Four) in partnership with companies like Sony Imageworks.
Collaboration and Supervision
The Great Domestic VFX Era is over. Costs in California are driving large companies like Sony to develop facilities in less expensive locales, like New Mexico. Digital Domain has opened offices in Vancouver and Rhythm and Hues has been operating a sister facility in Mumbai for years.
Without experience in collaborative workflows, without experience in visual effects design, today's entertainment trade school graduates will be at a disadvantage. The jobs in roto and matchmoving still exist today... but these entry positions are fast disappearing as overseas outsourcing is demanded by ever tighter bids. Tiny domestic boutiques fight over smaller and smaller sub-contracts and the trending industry job for the near future will be in production and workflow design.
Knowing how to manage artists, design bids, understand the complex relationship between client and studio will be the most important skill set in the next VFX Era. Producers are absolutely key to efficient project models: without them, the complex sub-contracting system fails.
We'll talk about ways to collaborate, build workflows, design pipelines and make successful projects in an upcoming series of posts. Meanwhile, grab a friend and collaborate.
Join the AAU Collaborative group here: