Hina Pandya speaks to the co­founder of Dig­i­tal Do­main and ex-gen­eral man­ager of ILM about the fu­ture of VFX


There’s a rea­son for that; the UK of­fers high tax sub­si­dies and tax credit. The Bri­tish Film Com­mis­sion, with a satel­lite of­fice in LA for good mea­sure, states that with a min­i­mum UK ex­pen­di­ture of 10 per cent they can then qual­ify for sub­si­dies as large as 25 per cent. Ross ex­plains that to get the sub­si­dies the six big stu­dios, or ma­jors, should hire in-coun­try staff, whose pro­duc­tion houses con­sis­tently bid against each other to get the work. fixed bud­get This com­pet­i­tive spirit makes the shot-by-shot price cheaper and cheaper, each out­do­ing each other to get the work. How­ever, there are real prob­lems with this, which are echoed by Ross, “The good news is they [the pro­duc­tion house] got the project, the bad news is they got the project.” A turn of phrase also used by ex-ILM Pro­ducer Jeff Ol­son. What Ross and Ol­son mean is that now the pro­duc­tion com­pany must pro­vide the shots and work they promised to de­liver on a fixed cott Ross pos­sesses three decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in the VFX in­dus­try. He is the rea­son vis­ual ef­fects house Dig­i­tal Do­main ex­ists to­day, and be­fore be­ing a co­founder, he used to run Ge­orge Lu­cas’s In­dus­trial Light & Magic in the Eight­ies, his ex­per­tise led to Academy Awards. It makes sense then to take heed of his ad­vice when he ex­plains the pit­falls of cur­rent movie VFX work from the pro­duc­tion com­pany to the movie house to the en­tice­ment of gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies. “Movies are driven by ac­cess to free money or cheap money,” he says un­abashedly, “a lot of VFX work­ers look at the cor­po­rate en­tity,” not from an un­der­stand­ing of how things work, movies are al­ways chas­ing low cost. Out­side of LA, Lon­don is cur­rently the vi­brant cap­i­tal hub of vis­ual ef­fects and post-pro­duc­tion for com­mer­cials for all of Europe, thanks to the smaller pro­duc­tion houses that came to­gether in or­der to bridge the gap in in­di­vid­ual tal­ents as a col­lec­tive, mak­ing them multi-skilled and highly ex­pe­ri­enced.


bud­get. This bud­get can no longer be ne­go­ti­ated when shots go wrong or get changed.

Over­time and money for ex­tra staff can­not be re­cu­per­ated, leav­ing some of these pro­duc­tion houses with hor­ri­bly long hours and trapped into jet­ti­son­ing any no­tion of work-life bal­ance in or­der to meet their orig­i­nal com­mit­ments.

Many in the in­dus­try com­plain this is a ‘race to the bot­tom’ with some staff work­ing 72-hour weeks and some un­able to af­ford a train ticket to get to work given such low pay. But this is no doubt good news for the big six ma­jor film stu­dios want­ing to make movies and at­tain max­i­mum prof­its.

Ross says that if Brexit should af­fect free­dom of move­ment and work­ing in the UK, then it might mean a drain of ta­lent.

How­ever the fact the com­mon lan­guage is English should con­tinue to draw the ma­jors in, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key he stresses; it’s much eas­ier to com­mu­ni­cate in­struc­tion and di­rec­tion to peo­ple who speak the same lan­guage.

Brexit may pos­si­bly mean the re­moval of EU fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance. Michael Ryan, the chair­man of the In­de­pen­dent Film and Tele­vi­sion Al­liance, said the de­ci­sion made to exit the Euro­pean Union is a “ma­jor blow” to the UK film and TV in­dus­try which in it­self is a “very ex­pen­sive and very risky busi­ness”.

con­tribut­ing to econ­omy

The ref­er­en­dum re­sult is de­scribed by Ryan as hav­ing, “blown up our foun­da­tion – as of to­day, we no longer know how our re­la­tion­ships with co-pro­duc­ers, fi­nanciers and dis­trib­u­tors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our ac­tiv­i­ties in the rest of Europe or how pro­duc­tion fi­nanc­ing is go­ing to be raised with­out any in­put from Euro­pean fund­ing agen­cies. The UK cre­ative sec­tor has been a strong and vi­brant con­trib­u­tor to the econ­omy – this is likely to be dev­as­tat­ing for us.”

Ross is well aware of how much the UK gov­ern­ment is keen to keep film thriv­ing as are all the ma­jors. He thinks the strat­egy the UK em­ploys to sus­tain its po­si­tion will be to “up the ante” and fur­ther in­crease the sub­si­dies.

He could be right. The Depart­ment for

Cul­ture Me­dia and Sport said in April 2018 that the, “UK’S pro­duc­tion sec­tor is rooted in

As of to­day, we no longer know how our re­la­tion­ships with co-pro­duc­ers, fi­nanciers and dis­trib­u­tors will work

in­ter­na­tional con­fi­dence in the film-friendly poli­cies of this gov­ern­ment,” stat­ing that 2017 saw a new ex­pen­di­ture on in­ward in­vest­ment on film with £1.6 bil­lion.

Although lit­tle has been de­cided on Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions at time of press, the BFI has con­firmed the UK gov­ern­ment’s con­tin­ued sup­port for the film in­dus­try, “What’s im­por­tant for the stu­dios is to know that the tax re­liefs con­tinue to work as they cur­rently stand, that we are con­tin­u­ing to in­vest in our skills base, which we are, and here is an­other area of work that the BFI is lead­ing with with our Fu­ture Film Skills strat­egy backed by £20 mil­lion of Na­tional Lot­tery in­vest­ment.”

Scott Ross is un­sup­port­ive of such tax sub­si­dies, or per­haps he’s just more so­cially con­scious, as he adds, “If I was a Bri­tish politi­cian I’d be want­ing this in­ves­ti­gated, why would you put money you could give to pay your teach­ers and your pub­lic ser­vices to Sony Pic­tures?” In fact, Ross is al­most de­spair­ing try­ing to com­pre­hend the eco­nom­ics that would lead to “wel­fare for cor­po­ra­tions”.

no­madic work­force

What about work mov­ing over­seas to more cheaper mar­kets for labour and the cost of liv­ing? “When I started Dig­i­tal Do­main, I came up with cat­e­gories. At ILM, peo­ple were given the ti­tle tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors, when you came to Dig­i­tal Do­main you were dig­i­tal artists from the out­set, but this did not mean you were cre­ative or artis­tic in any sense,” em­pha­sises Ross.

Some of these roles are what he refers to as “me­chan­i­cal” or “dig­i­tal man­u­fac­tur­ers” he com­pares this work to fit­ting the tyres or a car­bu­ret­tor on a car; it’s im­por­tant but it cer­tainly does not mean you de­signed the car.

The com­pa­ra­ble roles in VFX are likened to match-mov­ing or ro­to­scop­ing – the ones that would move to places like In­dia, China or the Philip­pines which ac­count for roughly 20 per cent of all VFX roles ac­cord­ing to Ross.

“If you do one of these jobs, you move an eye­brow in a shot on Spi­der-man, you’re just telling them to move the shot, you’re not cre­at­ing any­thing, you’re not de­sign­ing any­thing.”

Soft­ware cost is no longer pro­hib­i­tive any­more, al­low­ing smaller pro­duc­tion houses like places in In­dia that em­ploy 250 peo­ple to do these things, although skillset can be miss­ing in the low-cost coun­tries, mean­ing that those pro­fi­cient in these roles will need to move to where the work is, Ross coins a phrase for these peo­ple as “dig­i­tal gyp­sies”.

“It’s a no­madic work­force. They must move to where a film is hap­pen­ing. This may be for two or three years, which is fine if you’re young and sin­gle, but it’s prob­a­bly not great if you want to set­tle down and have a fam­ily some­where. Where does ca­reer pro­gres­sion go then?”

High-end de­sign roles over­see­ing the low-cost work, and CGI mod­eller or view pain­ter roles re­main in the higher cost coun­tries like Canada, USA and UK.

Scott Ross clar­i­fies the is­sue; for the UK to con­tinue to be a leader in film for the ma­jors it will need to make con­ces­sions to make up for the loss of EU sub­si­dies, en­sur­ing that the highly skilled peo­ple from the EU re­main in the cur­rent UK VFX work­force.

The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is clearly not with­out its down­sides, and even if tax sub­si­dies do keep the film in­dus­try in the UK, should we be more con­cerned with the ethics of it all, and what that means for the long term?

What’s im­por­tant for the stu­dios is to know that the tax re­liefs con­tinue to work as they cur­rently stand

With Brexit’s po­ten­tial da­m­age on the uk VFX in­dus­try, new pro­duc­tion hubs may have to spring up in other lo­cales

ross also took part in the dig­i­tal hu­mans panel hosted by chaos group labs’ chris ni­chols

ross says that roughly 20 per cent of all match-move and roto work comes out of in­dia, china and the Phillip­ines

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