Why Videoconferencing Is Killing the VFX Industry

Guest blog: The largest cost in visual effects is not labor, it is waste due to lack of live pure direction

Last Updated: July 24, 2014 @ 11:47 AM

Let's begin with the words of one of our greatest authors, John Steinbeck:

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”­

I’ll hold here for a bit while some of you yell at Steinbeck. Go ahead.

How dare he! There are great collaborations, what about the Stones? What about NASA? What does he mean?

I’ve been on some terribly bad direction­less shows, and some magnificent ones with great focus.

One great success went against part of Steinbeck’s premise. It  had  two directors and a subtle yet effective creative hierarchy. Why did it work? They respected us and our ideas as if we were human mirrors reflecting the essence of the story back to the directors. All of us breathing the same air, and breathing it every day in the same creative space. The group built and extended their miracle of creation, and we felt creatively alive and a vibrant part to a pure story. We created something that was truly amazing and amazingly profitable.

Our long history of authors, painters and songwriters telling us their tales directly has sold millions of books, paintings and songs.

Whatever the reason, it's how we humans relate, how we recognize the human face. It’s how we’ve done it for a very long time.

Read the quote on creativity again after you read this, and maybe your objections will have diminished a bit — at least you may find that the exceptions are far fewer than Steinbeck's rule and that maybe there’s a great clue for us all in there.

I know there is for visual effects.

Stories told by a crowd of people speaking over each other are just noise. How many times have we witnessed this only to request that one person tell us what happened while the rest “Quiet down, please!"

Imagery created by a crowd can suffer the same fate. It introduces an area of transmission that is easily warped and diluted when too many brushes are on the same glass. There are no masterpieces from a mob of painters.

Great direction purifies the vital visual stream making it alive and real with the singularity of vision much like that of a novel. Words describe everything as the reader quietly assembles the lonely fragile experience. Stephen King, a man who’s sold a few books, describes this as a delicate form of telepathy, one mind to another, author to reader, human to human, with simple paper and ink between them.

I believe the answer to success in visual effects lies in the simplicity of human interaction. Taking advantage of every seen and unforeseen aspect of it and sharing in living space.

If I could sum it up my observations in one sentence, it would be this: The largest cost in visual effects is not labor, it is waste due to lack of live pure direction.

Wasted time, wasted money, and even worse, wasted creativity. On the traditional movie set the meter is always on. Each second costs money. The director is compelled to be present at all costs. Like author to reader. For a century directors have been in the same human space as the talent on the set, and the focus is paramount and sharp.

Waste is minimized. The pace is lively. Creativity is nurtured. The story is pure. It feels human. If feels this way by instinct, it's perceptible, yet elusive to instruments. It is only really measurable by one beautiful indication: People flocking to its purity with mind, purse and wallet open.

Communication in visual effects is no longer live, it’s gone in vitro. It’s long been known that a baby can recognize a human face at birth. No one knows why. This very first human communication is one clue of many to the depths of our innate ability to communicate.

You could raise your children by video conference, but you’d pay a price.

Speaking to your mother on the phone is light years away from speaking to her in person. This easily goes undisputed. We can sense these differences as easily as we sense the sun, but the mystery as to why they exist is far from solved.

We know so little about human communication but are blessed with the instinct to feel certain truths about it. Lack of understanding of these principles is no reason to dismiss them, especially when a product that so deeply depends on absolute communication, focus and direction involves substantial investment risk. Sums of 100, or 200, or even 400,000,000 are being invested in the telling of these stories.

Some films over a billion or more come back, some do not. Could it be because we are gambling on ignoring heart felt principles simply because we have yet to devise an immediate way to measure them?

The arrival of digital visual effects has made story telling limitless. It can be deceiving. The only limitations are the ones imposed by us. “We can” does not always mean “we should.” We can now send imagery over a wire, under the ocean, through glass and bounce it off birds in space, but we've distanced ourselves from the human element in creativity, and we've cut off the director from the human artists that are often creating most of the screen space.

Creative hierarchies have evolved instead of creative circles. All are meaning well, but each one can be a lens of distortion. That impurity that a child can sense, leaks out all over the place. Lost under the ocean, lost in space, lost in the translation.

Our imagery is trickery and it has tricked us.

The temptation to outsource to cheap labor locations or to chase political bribes for votes around the globe has become fire controlled by gasoline, and it's money that's burning rather than being saved as intended. The purity Steinbeck describes is now a murky blend of ideas under a web of wires and broken connections flung around the globe completely removing the human vitamin from the creativity meant to be consumed by humans void of nutrition, becoming processed junk food, an eye candy piñata, dumb and short lived.

The nature of the screen and its transmission of story by light and sound is already placing one layer of glass between the audience and the humanness of the creation.

Compounding the problem by introducing an endless series of lenses removes the audience further with each step. Rows of funhouse mirrors. The picture becomes more warped with each reflection.

Sometimes there’s just a bubble, a nick, sometimes a deep scar on top of what could have been. If we default to one clean-looking glass between storyteller and audience, the movie screen, we default to the most profitable target and our best shot.

I don’t believe we should abandon the internet, it is a great tool for distribution of ideas assembled live, but it has serious limitations when it comes to human creativity and human communication. It’s missing vast parts of the spectrum we have yet to identify but we know exist.

We are raising our “children,” our stories by video conference, and we are paying a price. You may have quickly considered this an exaggeration when first introduced to it above. You may even have leapt to the convenient conclusion that filmmaking has nothing to do with that kind of family attention, focus, love and care.

I'd suggest that you don't tell those that are giving you the helm of hundreds of millions of dollars that you feel that way.

And definitely don't tell them that over the phone.

Next, I'll discuss why bidding is killing the VFX industry…




BIO Dave Rand

Dave Rand is a senior visual effects artist or 20 years. He has been a spokesperson for his industry for several years and helped recover funds for many unpaid artists, mostly outside the USA. He has helped develop successful alternative business models (cost plus productions) and worked on many profitable shows because of them. Currently a member of the Animation Guild, he has worked for union and non-union shops, internationally and domestically. He was worked for a many shops and studios and was on the staff of five major effects companies that have suffered failure. He has created VFX content and often supervised such films as "Life of Pi," "Seventh Son," "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," "The Matrix" and "Fantastic Four."

He will be speaking at SIGGRAPH along with some of his colleagues on July 25.