As the Demand for Visual Effects Grows, a Shortage of Artists Looms Ahead

Captain America Marvel's Captain America: Civil War - Still Group shot-H 2016
Courtesy of Film Frame/MVLFFLLC/Marvel

Captain America: Civil War

There may not be enough artists to meet the every-increasing demand for visual effects shots, participants warned Thursday at the FMX animation and visual effects conference in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Matrix was only 420 VFX shots. These days, it’s 2,000 [shots], certainly on a Marvel film, and they have gone up to releasing one more movie per year,” said Diana Giorgiutti, executive producer of features at Luma Pictures and a former Marvel producer.

“I’m starting to feel a little concerned about how all of the work is going to get done," she said, adding that numerous studios have increased their number of VFX-heavy releases. "I don’t think there are enough VFX artists out there to do all of this work.”

Shawn Walsh, VFX exec producer and general manager at VFX house Image Engine, noted that knowing and managing capacity is critical. “You have to be able to do the work,” he said. “Knowing your capacity is really one of the cores to running a company properly. Knowing when to say no is just as important as saying yes. We track our capacity; we look at it every week.”

Lionsgate’s senior vp of VFX Kathy Chasen-Hay feels it's “hugely risky” to go to just one VFX facility if a film has more than 500 VFX shots. “You just don’t know how much it will grow. You get a directors cut, and it’s easily 1,000 shots. You risk not delivering."

“There needs to be an understanding of how long things take; I try to keep an open dialog [on changes],” she continued. “There is such a huge benefit to the digital age, but also with the digital age, everything is instant. The director can keep changing things up to the DI [digital intermediate color grading stage]. We can even change the DCP [the digital equivalent of a film print], because we want to accommodate the creative. We want to accommodate the director.”

She added that a VFX project might start with a 30 percent profit margin "but when you're finished, you're lucky if it's 5 percent margin, because you can't control the creative. At the end of the day you have to make a call whether you are going to make changes [because you have a] relationship or go back and ask for overages. I think it’s really tough for any VFX vendor.”

She stated that quality versus budget is the biggest challenge facing the VFX industry.

Also discussed during the session was the move toward 4K “Ultra HD” resolution, which amounts to four times more data than regular HD. Speakers argued that there’s no time or budget to go to 4K in VFX. “It will bring costs higher,” Giorgiutti warned. “And cost is just one part; there isn’t time.”

Agreed Walsh: “We are ready for it, but you can’t deny the fact that it’s more expensive. Eventually production will be expected to absorb [the cost].”

“And you can't see the difference,” Chasen-Hay admitted, adding that today there are only a limited number of cable or OTT channels that can even accommodate the 4K format, a fact on which Giorgiutti and Walsh also agreed.