The FX Cartel Co-Founder on VFX Design, DI Management, and Why Freelancers Are the Future

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like VFX supervisor Kevin Tod Haug was on a roll. The films he was working on, including Fight Club, The Cell, and Panic Room, were expanding the potential of visual effects as cinema moved from a celluloid based to a more digitally pliable medium. His projects were only getting bigger. But a few years ago, a funny thing happened – Huag hooked up with director Marc Forster to do pirate-ship effects for a more modest, less envelope-pushing movie called Finding Neverland, changed his title from “VFX supervisor” to “VFX designer,” and never looked back. F&V got him on the phone to talk about doing VFX for Forster’s latest not-a-VFX-film, Stranger Than Fiction, finding good work in Russia, and the VFX industry’s “roving horde” of freelancers.

Watch the trailer for Stranger Than Fiction:

F&V: Marc Forster doesn’t direct traditional VFX pictures. How did you connect?

KEVIN TOD HAUG: I had made up my mind that I wanted to go work for an indie director. I made a short list of people I was interested in meeting, and he was on it because Monster’s Ball was doing well and he seemed interesting. I got a call from Gary Binkow who was his producer at the time for Finding Neverland, asking if I wanted to come meet with him. He had seen Fight Club and was interested in the impossible camera moves. We ended up meeting – and then his producers wanted desperately to get rid of me because they knew they couldn’t afford to have effects in that movie at all. They were trying to make me sound expensive and make the whole idea sound stupid. I had a broken arm at the time and couldn’t drive, so at the end of the meeting I said, “I’m going to wait out here and my wife will pick me up in a minute.” And Marc said, “No, no – I’ll take you.” That’s the first time a director has ever offered to drive me anywhere. I jumped in his car, and I said, “OK, so, we’re going to make this work, right? I don’t care what they’re saying, but we’re going to make this work out.”

With Finding Neverland, your title changed from VFX supervisor to VFX designer. Was your work with Forster a departure?

“Supervisor” is one of those titles that everybody who’s in charge of something on a movie ends up having. The “visual effects designer” is the guy who’s the politician, if you will. He’s the equivalent of the production designer, who works for the director. That means I go to work early in the movie to define what the director wants to put in the movie, and start breaking that up into pieces that can be done by individuals or vendors. Marc is not an effects-type director, but he has specific ideas about how he wants to put the movie together, and a 21st-century way of looking at it. He feels VFX is one of the tools he needs to use to make the movie.

You’re obviously starting that process in pre-production.

Yes. I get hired about the same time as the production designer, and I have to be there for at least a few weeks after the editor is done with his job. So it’s a really long gig. In the case of working with Marc, it overlaps. As we finish one show, we’re already prepping another one. The man is compulsively a worker. When we were finishing Neverland we were working on Stay, and we were delivering Stay while we were in Chicago starting Stranger Than Fiction. There’s probably 400 shots in Stranger Than Fiction, but about 150 of them were editorially demanded – not something we could design up front. [Editor] Matt Chesse has a way of working that demands a lot of visual effects. He does a lot of splits and split performances. In one scene, Harold [Will Ferrell] is talking to Hilbert [Dustin Hoffman], and when we shortened the sequence there was a reaction he wanted from Will that didn’t fit in sequence anymore – and we ended up cutting Will’s head off from one shot and putting it in another. That’s not something you can plan up front, but there were a lot of those in the movie.

Has that kind of editing been going on for a while?

One editor I worked with told me it had been done all the way back to the original Thomas Crown Affair, where someone had done this as an optical split. I call it “video sweetening.” It’s not really visual effects. It’s vertical editing, it’s not horizontal editing. It’s been going on in TV and commercials since digital began, or even before. In movies it’s just starting to gain traction because until fairly recently you didn’t have the whole movie scanned. Now that you have a DI, the editor has the option to drop in a shot at the last minute because it’s all digital.

Going back to your role as VFX designer, do you think what you do is unusual in the industry?

I’d love to tell you it’s typical. But [Stranger Than Fiction producer] Lindsey Doran was kind of surprised at how involved I was in the movie from beginning to end. She had just done Nanny McPhee, and the people who worked on it weren’t nearly as involved in the making of the movie. There is still this odd, 19th-century concept of jobbing it out to some other production company to do the effects, with the infrastructure of the big facilities slowing down the changeover to everything being freelance. I have lots of friends who work this way, so I imagine it’s normal. But it’s not.

Is it a function of the kind of directors you’ve worked with?

Every director’s different, of course. With David Fincher, he more or less dictates what the effect is going to look like and to some extent even how it’s going to be done. My job is to make sure whatever is in his head gets out onto film. I act as the intermediary to the effects studios. But Marc’s different. He hires his department heads because he trusts their taste level and what they’re going to do. He waits to see. He’s a little more difficult to work with because you have to show him something that looks good enough that he can say, “Yes, that’s what I want in the movie.” The opening shot, the fly-in, in Stranger was one of the very first things he approved in pre-vis and yet it was the very last shot to go into the movie because we kept making changes to how it worked and how it looked. The GUI [the graphic elements that illustrate Harold’s thoughts in terms of charts and graphs that hang in the air around him] was in the movie and out of the movie.

I asked him about the GUI, and he said the trouble was finding a designer that he really liked. He said, “I’d rather go with no graphics than graphics I don’t like.” And you finally found a company in Kansas City that got it just right.

MK12 []. You can see their stuff on MTV. They’re a very of-the-moment, bleeding-edge graphics company. Marc went ahead and shot as if the GUI weren’t going to be there. It was very near the end of production that we pulled in some reels that included MK12 and got excited about their stuff. One of my partners in Montreal came down and taught them how to do 2K, since they had never done anything above video resolution before.

Another VFX element was Harold’s watch.

When Zach Helm wrote the script, it was very clear the watch had a personality. And it’s easy enough to write a personality in, but it’s really hard to show it. We couldn’t figure out how much would be audio and how much would be video. We played around with different watch faces, and we had all these microexpressions. We went through this Paul Ekman phase where we tried to make a watch’s hands show a facial expression that was kind of subtle, so if you looked at it you could tell if it was happy or sad. Because Harold worked at the IRS, we thought it would be funny to put George Washington, from the front of the dollar bill, on the face of the watch, and then subtly change George’s facial expressions. And Marc hated that. [Laughs.] It was a little too easy for us, I’m afraid.

How do you deal with issues in the digital intermediate?

We’ve been dealing with DIs ever since The Cell. It’s starting to get settled down, but in many ways its worse than when you were working on film. Setting up the pipeline for a DI is a very critical step. We’ve been doing this with [Forster’s D.P.] Roberto Schaefer and we did it on Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium as well. He comes in and color-corrects all the temps we have for the director’s cut screening. At that point, he tells us how the movie’s supposed to look by sitting in a DI suite – or a video suite if it comes to that – and giving us back a look. You can tell the guys working on the shots to just match the scan, but that doesn’t mean anything when you finally start screwing around with it. Often you’ve approved a shot for months before the DP actually gets into doing the final color correction. That’s another reason you should be there until the very very end, to make sure these things don’t get screwed up. I have this whole approval process where we go down the list – approved, approved, approved – and you finally get to one that says “final approval pending color correction.” And the vendor can sit on that approval for sometimes 10 weeks. “We may have to open this up again, so don’t take it offline. You may have to go back in and fix this.” You don’t have to do any more animation – you can let those guys go. But the compositors? They don’t get to go anywhere.

What is FX Cartel?

FX Cartel is a production service that I started with some partners in Montreal. When we’re on a movie, we form a little sandcastle production company and use the infrastructure that’s in place to build teams. On this little movie [Stranger Than Fiction] we ended up with nine companies working on the show. We had what we called the Montreal Cartel: Bar X Seven [], Digital Dimension [], Fiction Science [], Klon Films and Mokko Studio []. And then we had a company in Toronto called Intelligent Creatures [], a company in London called Double Negative [], and we had MK12 in Kansas City and a pre-vis company called Proof [] in L.A. The Cartel can provide the infrastructure so the studio sees one vendor, and not nine vendors. If enough work comes through Canadian cities, we manage to pull Canadian tax credits that cover our overhead. It’s one-stop shopping for your visual effects, but you don’t get stuck with whoever happens to be free at the moment under the roof.

Do you believe the best work in VFX these days is being done by smaller entities?

The best work is being done by the best people, regardless of where they happen to be working at the moment. What bothers me about going to “an entity” is that you’re talking to salespeople who put together bids and tell you what it’s going to cost, but you don’t really know who is going to be working on the movie until they pull the best team together that makes sense to them at the moment. It doesn’t give me, as a visual effects designer, any control over who I’m hiring.

To me, the most interesting development in the VFX industry over the past five years is that the people who work at most of the big facilities and on most of the big shows are all freelance. They don’t have long-term contracts. There’s probably this roving horde of 5,000 to 10,000 individuals in their late 20s and mid 30s, and this year they may be working at Weta and next year they’ll be working in London and then at ILM. They rove around and bring their own crews with them. They’re sort of like mercenaries. They’re fairly easy to hire – you just need to find out where they are and when they’re going to be available.

Part of the challenge is breaking through the problem of anonymity. People don’t have a chance to figure out what you’re good at.

The casting aspect is tricky. Of my partners, Carole Bouchard is our casting person, and her job amounts to traveling around and getting on the Web and finding out who’s where and who’s cool at the moment. She’s involved in CG Channel [] so she knows where to find people and what trends are. Currently one of the interesting trends is Russian visual effects. We all know about Hong Kong and Shanghai visual effects but now there’s Russian visual effects. I just designed Zach Helm’s first movie [as director], Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, and we hired a company in Moscow who are really cool, really good, and incredibly cheap at the moment because they’re so motivated to work on American movies. It’s a made-in-heaven kind of thing for a little movie like that.

What’s the name of that company?

Dr. Picture Studios []. They worked on Night Watch, Day Watch, and The Wolfhound. The guy’s name is Vladimir Leschinski. He did a few shots on Mr. Magorium – a couple of really difficult things. There’s this animate Slinky. If you say that to an animator, they get hives. There’s physics involved in the Slinky, and you’ve got all these surfaces that get in your way of doing it quickly. And yet it’s supposed to be animate so it has to break physics in very specific ways but not look like it’s not a Slinky. It’s really a tough job. They took it on as an overage on the show without it ever becoming a big deal. And they were great at it.

Is it a very big VFX film?

Not big. They couldn’t hire me full-time and I was already busy on Stranger and starting on The Kite Runner, so I overlapped it and designed it and then put another supervisor on full-time to see it through to the end. I think it’s got 300 or 400 shots at this point.

Is your work on The Kite Runner unusual?

Everything about Kite Runner is unusual. The movie’s being done in Dari, so it’s subtitled from the get-go and there’s not a lot of money for it. I just got back from China, and I may go back for some green-screen shooting, but I’m not really affordable in post. So we had to find a company that was easy for Marc to work with with me not being around. But it’s pretty straightforward – just CG kites and anachronism fixes. We can’t shoot in Kabul, obviously, so we had to do a few matte paintings. It’s a crazy production. There’s four languages being spoken simultaneously on set at all times.

Are you happier working on smaller films?

It means working on a lot of little movies at once, which is maybe a little more hair-raising than I thought it would be. But it is more interesting, by far.

Would digital acquisition make your job easier?

Well, it will make it easier because there are fewer choices. I can say, “Well, you shot it on digital. It’s not my fault.” But then, how can you fix it? And we’ll have to start recreating things that were never there. Even deep in the blacks where there’s probably nothing, you can find something to grab hold of. But up there in the whites on a digital, like an HD-type chip or the new one on the Viper, there’s really nothing there. If something gets clipped and somebody wants it back, you’re going to have to make it out of I-don’t-know-what. There’s lots of stuff in the toe, which is why Fincher likes it – he was always more interested in the toe!

He was a real photochemical wizard, too.

He understands all that stuff. He’s one of these brilliant, master-genius nutball types, but it always made me laugh because he was always trying to force film to do what video did. It was because he worked in commercials, I think. He knew once it had been transferred to video he would be squashed down to a four-stop range, most of which was down in the toe. So he got very used to working down there. And besides, he is the prince of darkness, right? It was funny that he was always trying to make film do what it didn’t do well. Now he’s in digital. I’m waiting for him to start doing daylight exteriors with digital – because that’s hard, too.