Better, faster, stronger: VFX in the modern age

The movie industry – with all its glitz and glamour – sounds like a fun place to work. Who wouldn’t want to be an a-list actor or director, moving from set to set, ceremony to ceremony? Hollywood is awash with fame and fortune, and it would be easy to assume that everyone sitting at the blockbuster table gets a fair slice of the pie.

In the past, one crucial cog in the movie wheel has been frequently overlooked: the visual effects (VFX) industry. Watch the credits of old movies and you’ll notice that the names of the VFX crew are often listed towards to the bottom. 

However, today’s blockbusters are overwhelmingly reliant on visual effects. Big budget franchises like Star Wars, Marvel and DC Comics, depend on highly creative, realistic effects to satisfy cravings for more immersive and unique experiences. As such, VFX has the potential to make or break the success of a movie like never before, increasing the importance of the post-production process to movie producers and directors. 

VFX supervisors are even becoming more well-known and trying their hand at directing and producing.  Take Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars franchise, for instance. VFX artist turned Hollywood director, Gareth James Edwards, helped Rogue One to become the second highest grossing film of 2016. VFX masters like Rob Legato (The Jungle Book, Titanic, Hugo) are also becoming as famous as directors, receiving widespread recognition for the key role they play in moviemaking. 

VFX artist Foundry

The VFX industry’s troubled past

However, life hasn’t always been so rosy in the post-production world. Of the four biggest VFX companies in the late 1970s – Boss Films, ILM, Dream Quest Images and Apogee – only one remains: Lucasfilm’s ILM. The industry has been plagued with issues of debt, and the entertainment industry hasn’t always understood the job of VFX professionals and the creativity involved. 

The most high-profile case of a studio going bust is Rhythm & Hues, the post-house behind the multi Oscar winning Life of Pi. Set against a backdrop of protests and public spats, the event marked a crossroads in the VFX industry. Following the crisis, many artists were left questioning the industry’s role in moviemaking. How could an Oscar-winning VFX studio go bust so soon after the movie was released? 

The reality is that studios operate with very tight profit margins of just a few per cent. This is primarily because VFX artists want to create beautiful pictures; they aren’t in the business of making huge amounts of money. As a result, there is always a fight between the VFX producers who want to keep budgets tight, and the artists who want to create the most unique and attractive images. 

A bright future for VFX artists?

Since R&H went bankrupt, the VFX industry has taken a number of steps to prevent repeat episodes. Technology is moving apace, and developments in analytics tools are helping artists to track projects and provide detailed analysis of the work they are doing. This provides studios with accurate data to inform future bids, as well as the ability to monitor projects in real time. 

Developments in cloud computing are also making tasks easier and more accessible, reducing time spent on technological tasks and empowering freelance artists to access industry leading tools from anywhere in the world. The democratisation of VFX work means that studios are able to outsource smaller tasks and spend more time on specialist, higher paid work.

VFX glasses

Today’s VFX tools are also much more artist-friendly than they were 20 years ago. They are less technical and provide artists with more freedom to be creative. It is also now possible to get a degree in visual effects production, which is helping to change the industry’s image and promote it as a first-class profession for creatively minded individuals.  

Above all, the work of VFX artists is becoming more recognised within the entertainment industry and beyond. As the quality of visual effect become more important in moviemaking, the relationship between studio and VFX supervisors is improving. The success of The Jungle Book at this year’s Academy Awards is largely down to the seamless collaboration between producer Jon Favreau and VFX supervisor Rob Legato. This relationship sets the bar for future projects, and shows that the VFX industry may finally be getting its seat at the Hollywood table. 

Interested to hear about how one studio thought outside-the-box and saved a huge amount of money on operational costs? Take a look here.