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Scott Ross, Uncensored: Part One

I”d like to introduce you to a man who needs no introduction: Scott Ross.

Scott is a pioneer in this industry who has helped define the pathway of VFX development. His reputation is out there, from harsh to soft, and it's probably all true. To me he's a special, brilliant guy who really gets this business, so I asked him to share his view of the industry as it stands today with us. I gave him carte blanche to say what ever he wanted, and he did. The views expressed here are Scott’s. I agree with much of what he says, but not all. What he has to say is always worth listening to. It will make you think. Read, and make up your own mind.

Scott Ross:

Scott RossIt's been a while since the Visual Effects Society issued its hopeful VES 2.0 letter to the industry. Many on the board of the VES have stated that action is being taken by various subcommittees within the VES and that this is a difficult issue that needs a great deal of research and a strategic plan. I contend that the time to be effective is quickly slipping through our fingers. I believe that the structure of the VES, its charter as well as its management and its board of directors, makes addressing the issues that the visual effects industry faces an impossibility.

The VES is an honorary organization whose charter is to further the art and science of visual effects. However, both art and science need to be well funded for those disciplines to exist. Over 20 years ago, I tried starting a visual effects trade association called AVEC (short for Association of Visual Effects Creators, and French for with). Unfortunately, because of paranoia, the association never really got off the runway. Two meetings were held, but all of the major VFX companies of the day (ILM, Boss, Apogee, Dream Quest) were so mistrusting of each other that AVEC quickly became SANS (French for without).

Years later, Tom Atkins had started making some noise about starting a new visual effects community effort, the VES. I was, at the time, apprehensive about this new organization, fearful that it would not have a business component — which I felt, then and now, is the critical issue facing any industry, particularly ours. I mean, without a healthy and vigorous business climate, any industry is doomed. Lo and behold, the VES board at the time did not want the VES to be involved with business issues.

The Visual Effects Society is a nonprofit professional, honorary society, dedicated to advancing the arts, sciences, and applications of visual effects and to improving the welfare of its members by providing professional enrichment and education, fostering community, and promoting industry recognition.

I decided there and then that while I love awards shows and honoring great visual effects, I fully understood that visual effects artists and visual effects facilities needed to make money to continue to make great images. Imagery was the heart of our industry, but money was the blood. I decided that the VES, while well intentioned, was misdirected, and so I withdrew my involvement.

At present, and over the last 20 years or so, the visual-effects industry has been managed poorly. The companies that support the men and women that create the outstanding and outrageous images that propel box office on all tentpole movies have been unduly taken advantage of. Dozens of visual effects companies have gone bankrupt, even after creating incredible value to producers, directors and motion picture studios. Profit margins for visual effects companies have been mostly non-existent, even while box-office returns on these effects-laden films have soared.

Recently, Peter Berg (Battleship) has publicly stated that the business to be in is the visual effects business, as the lion's share of tentpole films' budgets goes towards creating visual effects. In the past, I’ve had lots of conversations with directors who feel exactly as Mr. Berg does. It’s hard for a director or a producer to understand that, even though the visual effects component of a film is by far the largest line item in the budget, given the cost structure as well as the deal structure of visual effects, there is rarely any money left to fall to the bottom line. I used to get in conversations with Mr. Cameron, who constantly challenged the pricing structure of Digital Domain (DD). He would be stymied by the fact that DD’s fee was far in excess of his fees — and he was the director, the producer, the writer, the editor and the cinematographer! Despite my efforts, he seemed to not understand that the costs against DD’s fees were oftentimes 90% to 110% of the actual fee. And while I am sure that Jim had expenses as well, they were far less than those of an effects company. Bottom line, Jim could reduce his fee by 50% and still make a profit and still have a back-end upside as well. If DD had cut its fees by 50%, we would easily have gone out of business halfway through production.

The issues facing the industry are complex and lengthy. Visual effects workers face growing problems around benefits, overtime pay, relocation and workload, to name but a few. Visual effects facilities, given their inability to maintain reasonable profit margins, are scrambling to do what they can to stay in business. Those efforts include opening up facilities in low-cost markets, chasing the tax incentives and other subsidies offered by various governments, and cutting labor costs wherever they legally and, at times, illegally can. Much of this desperate maneuvering by the VFX facilities has further exacerbated issues facing VFX workers. Yet 18 of the top 20 box-office megahits are laden with VFX. Something here seems unfair and in need of attention.

Next blog? Scott takes an informed look at globalization and turning things around.

Peter Plantec and Scott Ross


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  • http://www.facebook.com/LourdesAndHerJourney Lourdes Colon

    Love it. you said it like it is my friend… and hopefully something is done soon to correct the lack of acknowledgement on FX workers. maybe they can start getting paid like they should have been all along. It is because of their work that we get to love these movies. if it weren’t for them I can’t even imagine how the movie would turn out…. though I am sure nothing like they have because of FX

    • Peter Plantec

      Lourdes, Thanks for chiming in. I think what we all need is a balance of fair pay, good hours, job stability and great working conditions. That’s what the studios that are thriving are offering. it’s difficult to run a vfx studio, one has to keep so many things in balance. But clearly this balance is achievable given the two examples in my past blogs.

    • Scott Ross

      TITANIC without the ship sinking, TRANSFORMERS without the robots, AVATAR without the blue people…. I want my money back.

  • Sheba green

    The current method of bidding for VFX is a request to the client to push for changes until the VFX company goes broke. If bids were made based on hours this would become fair for client, VFX house, and staff. If there was an association which required a cross section of the VFX industry to submit records of the number of hours it’s staff worked, it would stop the abuse of the VFX workers.

  • Steve Fredericks

    I’ve been away from this for over 10 years and it’s like I never left (and thanks to Scott, I never will). I’ve heard no new thinking, just the same old bitching. Let’s look at the facts:

    1. Studios own the content and the capital to produce it.

    2. VFX houses are work for hire vendors.

    3. As vendors, they can generally only compete on price. Used to be that quality and reputation had some cache, but the ability of studios to assemble and then disassemble mobile VFX houses by production without seeming to suffer loss of quality (at least not in the eyes of the paying public) means that price is what it’s all about.

    4. Once you compete on price, you commoditize the product/service because someone will always do it cheaper.

    5. Independent houses cannot maintain the talent level because they can’t guarantee the next production (see what happened to DD when they were through with Titanic, Fifth Element and Dante’s Peak).

    6. The VFX industry has now ‘matured’ into a Borrow and Pay model. Today’s production pays last month’s bills. Not sustainable unless someone rides (or gallops) in to save the day with an infusion of cash because they believe what Berg says. Of course, the money runs out, as do the artists and the company closes its doors.

    So where does that leave the VFX industry? In shambles…unless. Unless the industry fights fire with fire and places a stranglehold on the productions. In other words, unless the studios have the capacity (which I’m pretty sure they don’t) to offload all of the independent VFX productions, then the threat of disruption to release schedules, etc. becomes pretty lethal. If a loose confederation of effects houses all agreed that when one of them is being raped, they are all being raped and then all shut down production until the studios stop the nonsense, the world will change pretty quickly. Because one studio misstep affects all studios. No one wants to cross the picket line.

    But that would take leadership. Is there any?