Produced By: Warners' Chris DeFaria Talks 'Hobbit' and VFX Biz Troubles

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Armitage Oakenshield Fight - H 2012
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Armitage Oakenshield Fight - H 2012

Chris DeFaria, executive vp digital production, animation and VFX at Warner Bros., opined that the future of California-based visual effects companies might involve offering R&D and production management, while the creative workforce continues to leave California to operate in international markets.

Speaking Sunday on a panel at PGA’s Produced By conference, he also responded to questions about The Hobbit in high frame rates, the VFX on Alfonso Cuaron's upcoming sci-fi title, Gravity, and the struggling visual effects business.

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The Hollywood Reporter's executive editor Matthew Belloni, who moderated the discussion, kicked off by asking DeFaria about the stunning bankruptcy of VFX house Rhythm & Hues, which occurred in February, just weeks before the company's visual effects on Life of Pi won an Oscar. (R&H was acquired in March by a wholly owned subsidiary of Prana Studios.)

“It’s a tough and changing business; We’re in the middle of a tumultuous time,” DeFaria said, adding that the industry is moving toward international workflows in tax-incentivized markets while tools continue to evolve. “Rhythm & Hues will survive, as Digital Domain did,” he explained. “I wish it were easier.”

On how the VFX business might reinvent itself, DeFaria responded, “I think in the future it will be even more decentralized and entrepreneurial.” He described a potential model where a Los Angeles office would handle R&D and production management, but can be nimble enough that much of the actual work is handled in other cities and countries or at “pop up” VFX companies, which DeFaria defined as three to ten artists doing work while relying on accessible tools.

Namit Malhotra, CEO and founder of Mumbai-headquartered Prime Focus, pointed to the success of Apple, noting that products are designed in the U.S. but not necessarily manufactured there.

DeFaria cited Nike as an example of a global business.

VFX budgets, however, are likely to remain in flux, according to speaker Palek Patel, president of production at Roth Films: “The VFX budget is always adjustable,” he said, admitting that if production goes over budget during the shoot, it will be looking to make cuts in other areas down the pipeline, such as in the VFX budget.

The VFX on the upcoming Gravity, the use of high frame rates on The Hobbit, and 3D also factored into the discussion.

Panelists said they see increased use of 2D-to-3D conversion — for instance, on Warners’ upcoming Man of Steel. DeFaria claimed that a movie conversion could run anywhere from $8 million to $21 million, depending on factors including the length of the film, the amount of VFX in the production, how much of the effects are delivered in 3D by the VFX house and the release schedule.

Adding that shooting in 3D requires more gear on-set and bringing the visual effects into the 3D environment, he said, “I don't know if you can argue that one is cheaper."

Various speakers discussed the use of tools to previsualize work, but DeFaria related that for Warners' upcoming Gravity, a large number of visual effects were actually "well under way if not close to completion" even before the movie was shot and “backward engineered for the actor's performance."

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Emmanuel Lubezki is the film’s director of photography. VFX houses on the film including London-headquartered Framestore.

During the session, DeFaria restated that the remaining two Hobbit films will have a release in high frame rates, calling it "a terrific option to offer an audience."  When asked about the mixed reviews to this new creative use of HFRs in the first film, the exec admitted that "some parts are spectacular to look at" while other parts "I was struggling to connect with."

Sunday's panel also included Oren Peli, producer behind the Paranormal Activity franchise, and Mike Simpson, partner at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.