VFX Vet Scott Ross: 'A Trade Association Has to Be Put Together'

Scott Ross Headshot - P 2011

Scott Ross Headshot - P 2011

Industry veteran will tackle VFX challenges in SMPTE keynote address.

Formation of a visual effects trade association to initiate standards and practices could help to reverse the downward spiral of the visual effects business, says industry veteran Scott Ross.

Ross—who is a co-founder and former CEO of Digital Domain and served as the general manager of George Lucas’ Industrial Light + Magic and as senior vp of LucasArts—will address the state of the visual effects industry during a keynote Tuesday at the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers’ Technical Conference & Exposition at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

The Visual Effects Society—which doesn’t have collective bargaining power—has been aiming to raise awareness of the alarming state of the VFX industry, citing issues including working conditions, facility profit margins, overtime, credits, change fees and ownership of intellectual property. That organization recently wrote and released a VES “Bill of Rights” and is urging the industry to discuss and address the problems.

Ross suggested though that an effort in the form of a trade association might be useful. “A trade association has to be put together ... where there are certain rules and stipulations in the ways that (for instance) cancelation charges happen and the way people get paid,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “There needs to be standards and practices put into effect that deals with financial considerations. Obviously there are issues of price fixing and I’m not suggesting that at all. But there are so many things that can be done in a trade association where the studios I think will sit up and take notice."

“I tried about a year ago (to form a trade association), but the response that I got was very lukewarm,” Ross told THR. “I backed away and my understanding is the VES is trying to fill that vaccuum—not as a trade association but by trying to bring up the issues the industry faces."

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“There is still a window of opportunity (to reverse the downward spiral of this industry in California),” Ross says, nothing that there are “only 7-10 visual effects companies in the world that really do the (largest projects). If they approach their business model in a different way, I think that studios would be forced to make changes.”

But he warns that those companies based in the US are at a disadvantage because those in other countries benefit from incentives. “It's not a fair playing field for the U.S. companies," he said. "(Many US VFX companies) are doing everything possible to set up facilities wherever there are tax incentives and a cheap labor pool. I think they are setting themselves up for failure.

“California as a State needs to realize that postproduction is a really important part of this industry,” he added. “We have seen so many VFX companies fold and seen so much outsourced, meanwhile we have seen box office increasing and studios making more VFX-oriented tentpole movies.”

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Separately, there has been some discussion about formation of a union. Ross opines that a union “exacerbates the situation and intensives the need to go overseas.”

Ross also urges companies specializing in 2D-to-3D conversion services to learn from the VFX industry’s situation. "(The studios) are going to look for the lowest cost, highest quality provider (of conversion sevices) … that is probably going to be very difficult to find in the US,” Ross warned. “If you fast forward to 2015, I think the 2D-to-3D conversion companies will be facing some of the problems the visual effects community is facing in 2011.”