Future of the VFX Industry (FMX 2013 Talk)
Well everybody who hasn’t been living under a rock has heard about the massive problems emerging this year with the animation and VFX industry. FMX decided to tackle this by organising a series of lectures to discuss this, possible solutions and also predictions for the future. Here is a digested list of key points from two of the big conferences; Le Big Shift (by Marc Petit) and The Future of the VFX Industry hosted by Eric Roth (VFX Society).
- The main things causing the problems are cheap labour, government incentives, fixed cost pricing, custom software / hardware and infrastructure driving up costs.
- Cheap labour and government incentives are hurting the industry because other countries / cities cannot compete with organisations with government handouts and workers able to work for very low wages.
- Fixed cost pricing means that all overtime, additional time caused by director changes etc are not accounted for in the price.
- Custom software / hardware and infrastructure are driving up costs a lot and keeping a massive overhead. If there aren’t enough films in the pipeline for the infrastructure to work on, it is losing money.
Directors vs VFX & Animation
Directors need flexibility so there needs to be systems in place where this can happen without hurting the VFX companies. Sometimes the version of the movie changes every day.
- One way to solve this seems to be by introducing game engine / GPU style setups for feature, where real-time rendering is possible. This will significantly lower render costs and will also enable the director to see something sooner (therefore they could try more in less time).
- Another thing that companies want to do is to introduct a cost plus pricing structure. This way nobody loses out and all of the work is paid for. It will also mean the companies are more happy to make changes and therefore the director will get more freedom to do this.
Infrastructure vs VFX & Animation (possibility of Cloud computing)
A lot of hardware is sitting around doing nothing because it isn’t being used whilst animators are at home or working on something else. This infrastructure continues to eat up energy and wastes money. Another big problem is custom software that studios develop at a huge cost to themselves. Maintaining all of this pushes the overheads up.
There are a lot of big people in the industry talking about how cloud computing can solve some or all of these issues. However there are some problems to overcome before it is a perfect solution.
- Privacy is currently a big question with cloud computing however solutions are currently being developed (apparently there’s a promising solution coming from Canada at the moment). If you are sending files off to be rendered it is one thing, but there is also the privacy issue of having outsourced freelancers working on projects.
- Standardisation of many aspects of CG will be needed before any broad solutions can be relied on entirely. For instance there will need to be some degree of standardisation in shaders. Without standardisation between software packages and cloud services, not a lot will be compatible.
Benefits of cloud computing in VFX & Animation:
- The costs will be significantly lower because you only pay for computing power that you use (when you don’t use it you don’t pay for it). This will presumably be one of the ways variable pricing will be possible over fixed pricing.
- Render time etc will be much reduced because there will be an almost unlimited reserve of power for you to use. For instance a complicated 1000 frame shot could be sent off to hundreds of computers in the cloud. This would mean faster turn around and will allow artists and directors to focus more on being creative.
- Workers can choose where they want to live, which I assume will drive costs for the studio down (in cases where cost of living is lower).
Cheap labour & Governments vs VFX and Animation
Some countries and cities are giving big tax breaks to studios and companies which means that they can charge less for their work. Also if the cost of living is lower (as it is in places like Korea and India) the price can be further lowered. The imact of this is that the studios are making the sensible business choice of going for the lowest bidder. This is what is putting a lot of non-tax break countries to struggle. They can’t keep up so have to cut workers pay, make layoffs and reduce / remove incentives like healthcare.
Unions the answer?
- Christian Vogt from Pixomondo does not think that unions are the answer because it would only solve part of the issue. By introducing local / company unions it would on the face of it give workers more rights but also turn the studios more towards places like india.
- If Unions were to work the whole world’s VFX & animation industry would need one. Mark Drisull from LOOK effects thinks this is unlikely to happen. It’s too big a task to expect the entire world to accept a Union. Pierre Buffin thinks that Unions are one of the only ways to solve the industry problems however.
- Unions would have to be global. Even if the entire United States and Europe had a union it would still mean that the studios can still go to places like India & Korea to get the work done for cheaper.
- One thing that was brought up is that it probably isn’t beneficial to the studios for the work to be going to all of these places. By doing this the studios are reducing their local talent and placing it all in far off lands where it cannot control things as much.
Trade Associations the answer?
Trade associations are different to unions in that they are essentially aiming to be viewed as the elites of the industry. Being part of a trade association means that you have to abide certain rules (like with a union) however it also serves to promote the trade association members as being the top companies in their fields.
- Mark from LOOK effects would definately join the right trade association and Jean Portugal (founder of jnko) says that France already has a trade association that he is part of. The next step for France is to make the trade association Europe wide.
Other interesting points
- Having VFX companies / people in discussions with the director sooner and getting involved in the creative provess sooner would actually save money. This is because they could suggest better ways of doing things that will also lower the cost / time needed.
- In VFX and animation 80% of the cost to the company comes from the artists. In most other industries it is kept at around 60%. So both companies and artists must work together to come up with solutions.
- Somebody at one of the panels said that TV productions will become more valuable and important than features in the future. This is because of the repeats and extra series possible for TV.
- Fixed price vs variable cost will require companies to be a lot more transparent about the work involved if it is to work for studios.
- When hiring new recruits, Chris from Pixomondo says that his decision to hire is usually based on 50% skill and 50% personality.
Most encouraging was the fact that all participants in the conference ‘the future of vfx’ said that overall they were optimistic about the future and think things will work out in the end.