VFX PRODUCERS ROUNDTABLE: ‘MY TOUGHEST CHALLENGE’
By IAN FAILES
It’s been a couple of highly unusual and disrupted years in the visual effects industry. Among the many weathering the storm have been VFX producers, those responsible for managing projects, undertaking and reviewing bids, tracking VFX shot delivery and so many other aspects of the visual effects process.
Here, several visual effects producers – some operating for film studios, or as independent contractors, or work at VFX studios, and some who do both VFX supervision and producing – discuss the biggest challenges they’re currently facing.
Our roundtable of producers include: Diana Giorgiutti, currently on Dungeons & Dragons, after having worked on Mulan; Terron Pratt, who recently finished three seasons of Lost in Space before moving to post on Season 4 of Stranger Things; Hal Couzens, in post on Beast, with past credits including F9 and Dumbo; Karen Murphy-Mundell, whose recent films include Blade Runner 2049 and Gemini Man, in post on Black Adam; Mark Spatny, experienced in both VFX supervision (Lethal Weapon and Station 19 series) and a VFX producer (currently on The Peripheral); Scott Coulter, a VFX supervisor and producer for independent features, most recently Reagan; Annie Normandin, a VFX producer at Rodeo FX on Jungle Cruise, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Season 5 of Better Call Saul; and Anouk L’heureux, Vice President of Production at Rodeo FX, with VFX producing experience at several other VFX studios.
AN INTERESTING CHALLENGE: SO MUCH WORK
Diana Giorgiutti: “For me, the explosion of streaming content alongside theatrical releases has now created a situation where there is too much work and not enough crew to cover everything. This in turn leads to a lot of crew being thrown into positions they simply are not really experienced or qualified to do. The other key and equally important factor is that there are not enough VFX facilities to easily do all the VFX work across all the varying release timelines. You really have to be on your game to make sure you are doing deals well ahead to guarantee VFX capacity.
“For my current project, we awarded the work to our vendors well ahead of shooting, which is something I had not done before. And we awarded with only script pages as reference. There were little to no visuals at this point, so the award bids were very early and based loosely on words off the page. In turn, this has led to a lot of changes, from the award to actual shot turnovers. A lot changes from the script through prep as things are fleshed out leading up to shooting, and then shooting itself. Not to mention the many adjustments that happen getting a film greenlit.”
“Not only does one have a diplomatic role to play straddling a few fences to ensure the right info is given at the right time and in the right way, one also gets to see all stages of the project from development, prep, shoot, post and wrap, occasionally resulting in a lovely moment – being ignored – on a red carpet.”
—Hal Couzens, VFX Producer
Mark Spatny: “Hands down, the biggest problem for VFX producers right now is the global glut of work filling up every VFX facility in the world, thanks to the explosion of high-production-value streaming shows piling in on top of the normal big tentpole features. Prior to March 2020, VFX vendors were constantly knocking on doors looking for work and undercutting each other to get it. In today’s climate, I’ve had AAA multi-national vendors and small boutiques alike turn down $2 million of work with a relatively easy eight-month schedule, simply because there aren’t enough artists and in-house supervisors to get the work done. Even simple roto and paint work that previously would have been completed in a week by an outsource vendor, have to be planned months in advance. And prices have soared accordingly.”
Terron Pratt: “Most recently, one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is limited artist resources. With so much content being created right now, vendors all over the world are booked for months, even years out. On Season 3 of Lost in Space, thankfully, we were one of the first shows to get back to production, which gave us a slight edge for booking talent when it came time for post. We could see it coming and built a season-wide plan for distributing the work as early as we could. Even with that, we still felt the pinch toward the back half of post forcing us to spread the work a bit more than was originally planned.”
PANDEMIC VFX, THE RISE AND RISE OF WFH, AND NEW TECH
Scott Coulter: “Dealing with COVID has been the biggest challenge for me, namely staffing. I have had to rethink every aspect of working in film. From set work to post, we really have taken the idea of remote work to heart. The primary lesson for me is that specialization is not as valuable as it was before. Now you have to wear many hats simply because there are fewer people on set.”
Annie Normandin: “Now that remote work is becoming a new reality, we’ve had to rethink the ways we approach projects, and stay together and cohesive as a team while continuing to offer the clients new possibilities. I mean, let’s take Shang-Chi, for example. When we were tasked to do the scaffolding fight scene in Macau, the client had planned for it to be a matter of sending a team on location, getting footage, and then we would composite it in the background. But with the travel bans, the production had to change the approach, and they asked us to digitally recreate the entire city. This was a completely new process and required a lot of collaboration with the client to get the best possible outcome. Adaptation is key.”
Anouk L’heureux: “I would add that establishing a good partnership with the different clients is key to the success of our shows. To listen to their needs, manage expectations and work with them to find creative solutions. I also think that today one of the other main challenges is how to keep that sense of community and togetherness as a team when everybody is alone at home. As a producer, we also have to deal with the human aspects of our work.”
Hal Couzens: “During the pandemic, a lot of films went to tell stories in locations requiring few, if any, extras. My most recent [project] had us in South Africa on the borders of Zimbabwe and Namibia in a tented camp. Naturally, the pressure of this landed mainly on the unit and transport departments. However, being so remote there was almost no cellphone connectivity or internet, and base camp and set were far apart. As a unit, we had 40Mbps for the entire operation. No, not 40Mbps per person or department. What internet there was, we needed for production to run the operation, including getting the rushes back to the editors in the U.K.
“It was back to the days of runners delivering messages as even sending WhatsApp messages was a significant challenge, let alone running a previs operation back in the U.K. Given our distance and the need to remain extremely tight during a pandemic, we worked without an actual on-set server for the first seven weeks of a data-intensive shoot. This created a number of expected and unexpected issues. One doesn’t appreciate multiple users operating on the same system together until one can’t! Herculean efforts in data management with rather long hours from our coordinators got us through. Not an experiment I intend to repeat soon!”
“The primary lesson for me is that specialization is not as valuable as it was before. Now you have to wear many hats, simply because there are fewer people on set.”
—Scott Coulter, VFX Producer/Supervisor
Karen Murphy-Mundell: “Technology-wise, for me, the latest challenge is weighing the pros and cons of the latest LED walls and on-set virtual camera system technologies. We have to determine the benefits in quality of the final shots as well as the cost of using the technology compared to old school/traditional methods. Putting up an LED wall right now is an expensive venture. There is real pressure in determining what you can save in post and quantifying the value of being able to provide temp shots quicker and screen a more complete film earlier.”
WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT VFX PRODUCING
Spatny: “The VFX producer is an equal partner to the VFX supervisor on a project and is every bit as responsible for its success – or failure – as the supervisor. At a facility, many artists just think of producers as the timecard police who pinch pennies on every shot. They aren’t aware that every project is an intricate, constantly moving puzzle that the producer has to solve, with a million variables and moving parts all over the world. It’s frankly embarrassing that one of our major industry awards doesn’t recognize and include the VFX producer. I’m glad the Emmys and the VES Awards are more progressive in that way, and I’m proud to say I had a hand in making that happen for both organizations.”
L’heureux: “I think people might see a producer as someone who takes care of business and the admin part. But when working with a VFX supervisor, you need to be as creative as they are so that you can help them, provide the tools they need and understand what the client has in mind. And through that creativity, a symbiosis between the VFX supervisor and the VFX producer occurs.”
Normandin: “The VFX supervisor and the VFX producer are a real duo. We really have to work in sync with a great team around us to bring a sequence to life, so you need to know your partner and trust them.”
Coulter: “What people don’t always know about VFX producing is that people come from all sorts of areas. My background originally came from practical effects. Over time, this has proven to be a fantastic training ground for visual effects. Even in today’s productions, I am always offering a practical solution, such as using a translight instead of a greenscreen. On a large project like Automata, I proposed full-scale practical puppets instead of the planned pure CG robots. This saved production countless dollars and provided a superior result.”
Murphy-Mundell: “I think that people outside film communities aren’t aware that the job as a VFX producer involves evaluating the daily changes in all departments while in film production and how it affects the VFX plan. Decisions made on set in stunts, art department, costumes, construction and script can have big consequences for VFX costs and methodology many months into post.”
Giorgiutti: “As a studio-side VFX producer, most people probably don’t realize that we are on from the very beginning of a film to the very end. A lot of the time the VFX producer starts even ahead of the VFX supervisor. Other than the director and producers, VFX is the only department that is on a film all the way. Bearing this in mind, I often say that my job as a VFX producer is 50% budget and management of filmmakers and our VFX teams, with the other 50% being counseling. This counseling is totally tied into the plethora of politics we have to navigate to keep a good balance with the filmmakers, studios, VFX crew and VFX facilities.”
Couzens: “Indeed, often the VFX team and the VFX producer are the longest-running crew members on a production, aside from director, producers and occasionally an accountant. The result of this is that the VFX producer provides a continuity that runs the ‘full length of the counter’ and can thus provide support in making choices, creative and otherwise, to all sides of filmmaker/ studio/editorial/finance and facility equations. Not only does one have a diplomatic role to play, straddling a few fences to ensure the right info is given at the right time and in the right way, one also gets to see all stages of the project from development, prep, shoot, post and wrap, occasionally resulting in a lovely moment – being ignored – on a red carpet.”
Pratt: “VFX producing doesn’t start in post. I think it’s important that the VFX team is involved as early as possible, even at the script stage, including the VFX producer. The conversations early on are not solely creative but also involve securing resources [production team, on-set team, previs artists, budgeting and scheduling], understanding which vendors are going to be available when and engaging them early. The job is as much about developing relationships and building a team as it is about hitting a deadline. The only way to hit that deadline is with the right teammates.”