Is it time for the visual effects industry to change its name to digital production to face the changing paradigm shift? And should the Academy Awards consolidate cinematography and VFX into a visual imaging Oscar since virtual production has blurred them? These were topics discussed yesterday at the fifth annual VES Summit at the W in Hollywood.
“Visual effects doesn’t make sense being subservient to physical production,” proclaimed Ed Ulbrich, who recently left Digital Domain 3.0 as president and served as producer on Ender’s Game, which opens this week. “Call it digital production…. There’s no such thing as post anymore. We are suffering from tradition. It’s a giant cultural and mindset shift. But it’s also a time for opportunity.”
Ulbrich predicted disruptions, a rising global market, cannibalization, consolidation, and a changing model that will see much of VFX work move to the front end in the way that production designer Alex McDowell has envisioned with his 5D philosophy. The world building should be designed, prototyped, and tested at the outset the way it’s done in all other industries, Ulbrich later told me.
Ulbrich appeared on a “New Strategies” panel moderated by Carl Rosenthal with Chris deFaria, president of digital production, animation and VFX at Warner Bros. Pictures; Arnon Manor, VFX production executive at Columbia Pictures; Tim Sarnoff, president of Technicolor Digital Prods.; and Chris Kubsch, president of Method Studios.
De Faria asserted that consolidation is already taking place with doing different kinds of work and they are not fixed bid contracts. “My watch tracks release dates.” Tentpoles are works in progress from beginning to end. As an example, he explained that they first contracted Gravity R&D with Framestore, which was then followed by a shot construction contract. By contrast, for the upcoming 300 sequel, Warner Bros. partnered Scanline with Rhythm & Hues because of their specialties and then the challenge was getting them to work in sync.
Method routinely balances work that is technical, artistically challenging, or pedestrian, and will continue to seek partnerships. Technicolor views the challenging as keeping utilization high together with proper bidding and controls.
As for Digital Domain’s involvement as an Ender’s Game producer and the viability of the content creation model, Ulbrich said it points to different relationships with development, talent, production, and studios and was “absolutely worthwhile as a concept.” However, you have to mitigate the risk to offset it. It’s an alternative way of making tentpole pictures. In many ways, it’s the first of its kind outside of the usual system.
But Manor countered that becoming a content provider “doesn’t speak to the majority of the visual effects community.” They are a service provider that has to define compensation and find the right price point.
Meanwhile, on a panel of AMPAS Presidents moderated by Bill Kroyer that included Cheryl Boone Issacs, Sid Ganis, and Hawk Koch, they discussed the impact of digital technology on blurring the lines between cinematography and VFX. Now that it is difficult to discern where the work of the cinematographer ends and where the VFX begins, Koch suggested that perhaps it’s time to come up with a new category called visual imaging.
On the other hand, Koch wondered if it’s still possible to get that moment of discovery for actors live on set, using the bittersweet climax of The Way We Were as an example. Yet Boone Isaccs pointed out that what Sandra Bullock accomplished in Gravity proves that attaining an emotional connection with the audience is possible through virtual production as well.
And in an informative keynote, Illumination Ent. producer Chris Meledandri (named one of the top media disruptors by Vanity Fair) described his career as embracing subversive storytelling (Ice Age, Despicable Me) and then making it marketable to audiences around the world. He also admitted that the animation industry is cannibalizing itself but remains optimistic: “Because of this volatile period, it’s also an exhilarating period,” he offered. “It demands [entrepreneurship]. I love to discover feelings that I never had before.”