Thinkbox Software, maker of the Deadline compute-management software widely used for render farms, is working with longtime VFX producer Joyce Cox (Avatar, The Dark Knight, The Jungle Book) on a new tool that may help studios keep visual effects budgets from spinning out of control.

The new software, Vero, debuting at SIGGRAPH in Anaheim, CA, next week, is described as a cloud-based application, accessible via laptop, desktop and mobile devices, that simplifies VFX budgeting and cost-management for studios and VFX producers who may be struggling to track thousands of VFX shots from multiple vendors on a complicated feature-film project. Cox adapted the system that she has developed over the years for general use, while Thinkbox developed the software to put it into practice.

“I have an accounting background, so I brought that to the job of producing VFX,” Cox tells StudioDaily. “If a particular scene is requiring more shots or less shots than expected, there is a change in the cost to our bottom line. I try and have solid information to give to my director and producer so that they can navigate financial issues clearly with the studio, and so that the studio has enough knowledge to see the creative or financial benefits to the movie.”


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Breaking Down the Process

Vero will break the budgeting process down into four stages, Thinkbox said. First is Script Breakdown, where screenplay files can be automatically broken down into scenes and actions, and all of the different VFX shots required can be specified. “The traditional process of breaking down the script is incredibly manual and laborious,” Thinkbox founder Chris Bond says. “Managing that and tracking it through cost accounting is difficult, even in small facilities. The idea here is that we automate a bunch of those processes.”

The second stage is the Budget Room, where users rate the relative complexity of all of their VFX shots and estimate costs. “That’s where the VFX producer would ballpark the movie’s costs based on experience,” Cox explains. “The kind of detail work that we have automated in our system is done manually right now, and most producers use Excel or Filemaker. So this saves an immense amount of time.”

Next is the Market Place, where bid packages are created for VFX vendors, and where the bids that come back for a project can be compared and evaluated. And finally the Contract Room is a “central hub” for what happens after the contracts have been signed and the numbers locked in.

“As you’re shooting the movie, you’re getting rough cuts from editorial that aren’t approved by the director but are representations of how things have been organized based on what’s been shot,” Cox says. “You look at it against what you planned, and you get your vendors’ input on any additional costs. That way you can forecast it for the studio and they can see how the movie is going.”

As visual effects have become a larger and larger part of Hollywood’s filmmaking formula, Cox laments that industry standard procedures haven’t kept up. “For the big movies I work on, a $200 million movie with heavy VFX, you’re talking about 50% to 75% of the budget is being spent on VFX,” she says. “In [EP] Movie Magic, one line represents that spend. My system is all the detail that creates that single budget line for the studio, and provides lots of detailed background and information for them to understand that.”


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By a VFX Producer, for VFX Producers (For Now)

In its first incarnation, Vero will very much be a tool for Cox’s industry peers — VFX producers who need better visibility on complex projects. “You can’t necessaily avoid going over budget, but you can know you’re going there before you get there,” she said. “I’ve been hired to bail out a couple of movies, and it was a disaster. I’ve gone onto a film where they had spent 100% of their budget and had 1% of their shots done. It just got out of control, and the people who were doing it didn’t have the knowledge to handle a complex film with a complex director. One of the most critical things is forecasting into the future based on the day-to-day evolution of the movie.”

Bond says the plan is to expand its scope over time. “The next phase will be to make sure the VFX facilities can log in and see the VFX packages,” Bond says. “At the end, we want to have a sandbox version for vendors. I think it will evolve quickly, but I don’t have a firm timeline. Ultimately, we’d like to allow anyone who has to create a bid or an estimate on creative content — storyboards and scripts — to use this solution to track the job from start to finish.”

Thinkbox said it expects to launch Vero in beta this fall. It will be demonstrated at Thinkbox’s booth (#449) at SIGGRAPH.