Visual Effects are not a Commodity

With all of the finger pointing going on about underbidding and tax incentives, there’s still very much a need for high quality visual effects. Where we see a great deal of the problem is that someone, somewhere, in control of the purse strings, thinks that this industry can be commoditized. It’s happening right now on every large movie and stereo conversion project.

The idea of commoditizing is that if you throw enough warm bodies at a vfx problem, you will deliver on time. This happens on conversion projects all the time. India supplies a majority of the roto for the depthing process. Young men, working for slave wages or worse, get stuck rotoing hair and clothing for every major 3D release. Sometimes the shops there will just close up and walk away leaving all the workers without pay. Someone makes a lot of money doing this, but it is on the backs of the poor and the weak. People just wanting a fair wage.

Many of us in the industry have been a part of this; hell, in some cases we even created whole systems at studios where the lowest of the low could do the work of the most senior with little direction. It was a necessary evil, and it’s not just at the mid-sized television effects studios; it is at the biggest of the big. The push for this system comes from the content producers. The way that it currently works puts all of the strain on the artist and the infrastructure of the facility. The benefit of charging hundreds per hour for a seat rate of a junior artist goes straight into the facility coffers. In bigger studios, this seems to be the norm. When outsourcing to other countries, there doesn’t seem to be a concern about the artists doing the work, whether they get breaks, or have a life/work balance that doesn’t destroy them. It’s about getting the work done as fast and as cheaply as possible.

The struggle, though, is to get away from that. Or, if there is no way around it, find a way that artists can benefit from it.

Legion’s solution to this particular challenge is to pay artists a senior rate, no matter the country or locale. Give them templates to work with, and offer them what we feel is adequate time to get it done and personally benefit from the speed at which the template increases their workflow. So it isn’t about some underpaid junior artist trying to work as fast as possible to make the facility money, we give it directly to the artist and let them control how fast or how slowly they feel they need to work.

We haven’t been able to convince the studios that this takes time and talent. We have created a way to incentivize the structure directly to the artist. It is a compromise to be sure, but as we experienced in the last few weeks, with a relatively small team, we were able to pump out hundreds of shots that looked damn good. They looked good because some of the top talent in the industry built the tools, and templates, and then we gave it to more of the best of the best, they blasted it out and solved the little problems that came up, because they have the skill to do it and they benefitted directly from the process.

When we bid, we bid fairly for the work, and the time we believe it would take a senior artist to do the work including a round or two of notes. We do our best to cover our costs and growth projections. In the end it may be more or less than others, but the guarantee is that really talented people get to work on it with a passion and a drive that is their own. No one forces our artists to take shots. They choose the work and know what it will pay. This transparency is the key to trust and understanding that makes us stand out from the crowd.

In the end, if the producers who make the movies are going to continue to throw work at studios as if it is a commodity that ‘many hands will make light work’, we will do our best to tell our story. A story that says it isn’t many hands… It’s fewer hands working smarter and relying on experience honed from years and years of doing this kind of work. We are Legion, this is how we are different.

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