SCOTT ROSS THE CHANGING VFX LANDSCAPE
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”.
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