A little over a year ago we ran an interview with Scott Ross regarding the state of the visual effects business on ProVideoCoalition. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Scott recently for a conversation about what, if anything has changed in the VFX business since then.
What follows is the unedited transcript of the first portion of our discussion, about where the business is currently headed. The thoughts articulated are provocative to anyone working in the business today, and hoping for any kind of return to the “good old days” of visual effects, which is now typically the largest line item on the budget of any tentpole Hollywood film.
Spring of 2013 was something of a watershed moment for the VFX business, with the Oscar winners from Rhythm and Hues abruptly played off-stage just as they began to describe how it could be that they could simultaneously be accepting the award and preparing for bankruptcy. Just outside the ceremony hundreds of protesters organized to stage the first (but not the last) Hollywood VFX protest march.
We began the discussion talking about whether it would even be productive to host an industry round-table discussion on the current state of things, given how difficult it is for anyone in the industry to be open about what’s really going on.
Mark: It’s a challenge to get anyone to go on record about how the protests and organizing that began in earnest last year really fundamentally challenges anything, or even what needs to change.
Scott: That position would be, “yeah the industry is screwed up. They're problems that we’re all aware of, and it’s the reason I started my company and we’re doing things outside of the way in which typical visual-effects companies do it. We don’t even consider ourselves to be a visual-effects company. We’re focusing on original content and all forms of digital imagery and all forms of entertainment and education. That’s the future.”
Mark: So that begs the question, where is feature film work going?
Scott: It begs two questions. One is what you just mentioned about feature film work, but the second question is around how that process is going in those places. From my perspective, the feature film work is basically going to two separate areas.
There’s the high-end visual effects work, which is the stuff that puts butts in the seats and is very difficult to do. That work is going to places that have world-class subsidy programs. Generally, if we look at the history of that, those world-class subsidy programs have been in English speaking countries. So whether it’s New Zealand, Canada, England, etc., what happens is that because the world-class work is going to these English-speaking places, the world-class artists are being subsumed by those counties and we end up with a roaming band of gypsy artists.
So let’s say tomorrow that Banff up in Canada decides it’s going to spend 75% of all their tax credits in visual effects. You’ll see an amazing influx of Americans, English, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and others that will move to Banff for the period of time that those subsidies are in place. The studios are following the subsidies and the higher-end working artists, which are generally comprised of Americans, end up needing to follow that money.
But then there’s the stuff that’s not really talked about. It’s a problem, and it’s a growing problem, and I think that it ultimately could be the biggest problem. The thing is, all of the other work that’s not the world-class work where the studio is looking to get the best price they can while utilizing these tax credits in English speaking countries, there’s a growing population of 3rd world countries, plus China and India, that do all of the lesser known and less critical work is being done for even less money than the tax subsidized work is. So I see a growing component of the feature film work moving to countries like India, China, Thailand and the Philippines where the cost of living is considerably less, even in a subsidized 1st world country.
…there’s a growing population of 3rd world countries, plus China and India, that do all of the lesser known and less critical work is being done for even less money than the tax subsidized work is.
Mark: And that takes away your apprenticeship program in your facility. You get rid of your roto and tracking departments that were often a way in for a lot of people who are now senior level in the business.
Scott: I’m sensitive to this because I was the person who came up with the term “digital artist”, but if you look at any show of around 1,000 shots, maybe 15-20% of the digital workers on that show are in fact digital artists. So around 80-85% of the workers are digital manufacturers. That digital manufacturing work is going to continue to migrate to the lowest cost provider, and that lowest cost provider is going to continue to be facilities that are able to do the work that have the lowest cost employee base.
Mark: We both know what Hollywood wants the most is being able to “commodify” as much of this business as possible, so they squeeze as much as they can into the category of “this does not make an artistic difference to the shot”. And then you let a few reasonably well paid experts, who are also subsidized, handle the rest.
Scott: This is my doom and gloom picture, but I think it goes even further. If you look at the 15-20% of people who are actually digital artists, one of the reasons why they’re capable digital artists has to do with their talent base, which is to say their intrinsic artistic skills, which isn’t something limited to English speaking folks. There are world-class artists, painters, sculptors throughout the world and the only reason we see the world-class artists, painters, sculptors in English speaking countries is because there’s a history of doing that work in English speaking countries.
But over a period of time there are world-class artists, painters, sculptors who are the Phillipines, Brazilian, Chinese…it’s not the like the English-speaking world has a lock on artistry. What the English-speaking world has had is a history of digital pipelines and digital VFX, and even visual VFX going beyond that for the last 50 years. But now, as these tools become more democratized, and less and less expensive, and as the work starts to be being done in places like India, China, Thailand and the Philippines, those artists will rise up and they too, since they were artists before, will become digital artists. If you look out 10 or 15 years from now, if things don’t change, I can see a landscape where almost all of the VFX and animation work is done outside of 1st world countries and the planning and creative storytelling work close to the directors and producers will be done by the uber digital creative people, and those people will join 1st unit, and they will become like the what the cinematographer, editor or production designer has become.
If you look out 10 or 15 years from now, if things don’t change, I can see a landscape where almost all of the VFX and animation work is done outside of 1st world countries
Mark: So that means if there ever is a victory for the industry it’s a victory for the 99% of the industry. It’s an “A list” victory.
Scott: It depends on what side of the coin you’re looking on. If you’re a world class artist and you live in Shanghai, China, and you’re learning the skills of digital artistry, it’s a victory for that person because now they’re working on Godzilla at the highest level. So it’s a victory for them.
Mark: But in terms of the Western, and particularly American, industry is trying to do, you’ve got…
Scott: On the feature film side of things, from the Western/English-speaking/superstar group, those people will be whittled down a lot. There will be a lot less of them because there’s just a lot less of them. And those people will be subsumed by 1st unit, and I can foresee a time where there’s a local, and that they get front title credits and nobody has to talk to the DGA about it. They’ll just get it like the editors get it and the composers get it and the production designers get it. They’ll be considered a part of the top level creative people on a feature film. And there might be a team of three of them.
Mark: Right, and you only need one team per feature and there are only so many features per year.
Scott: That’s right. So we’re seeing a whole population shift. If you go back to the day where I was running DD, we had team of 250 people doing an entire motion picture. Now that factory mentality will now move to the lowest cost provider and just the super elite people will be the similar to the cinematographer.
Mark: So there could even be this guild that many in the industry have been pushing for, but it will be the equivalent of the ASC. It’ll be invite only, and there will only be a small set of active members.
Scott: Whether it’s a guild or actually an extension of the IA, because if you look at the camera operators local, it could be like 600, where there are 50 people in the United States that belong to this Digital Production, because you wouldn’t even call it VFX.
Click here to check out Part 2 of this discussion