If you follow people in the film industry on Facebook or Twitter, then back in 2013, you probably saw them turn their avatar to a plain, bright green box for a day. It was a political statement, but not about the usual causes. Rather, it was a response to the way the movie business treats the people who responsible for so many of the magical moments that films deliver to us: Namely the visual effects artists who transform plain green screens to other worlds, alien environments, or mythical realms. What do movies look like without VFX artists? Basically just a plain green box.
That was two years ago. The VFX studio Rhythm & Hues had just won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for their work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi–and subsequently declared bankruptcy amid the high costs and low investment from Hollywood in the format.
Some things have changed in the visual effects world since that happened, but a lot of things have not. One thing that has changed since then is that certain studios have found ways to work that avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared their peers.
Bryan Godwin of Shade VFX runs one of those studios. Shade is responsible for the effects on shows like Daredevil and Netflix’s forthcoming Jessica Jones, as well as massive films like Batman vs. Superman–and they’ve navigated the “high volume, low-margin” world of visual effects (which Godwin describes as “an extremely challenging industry”) through some creative approaches to the business–and by finding ways not to experience the kind of downfalls that other studios have been forced to deal with.
“We don’t take every job that comes our way,” Godwin says. “We pass on jobs. We demand fair prices and fair schedules, or we move on and hope we can tell our clients nicely, ‘This one’s not going to work out because it’s unrealistic.’” That approach comes with its own challenges–newer studios looking to establish themselves will often take those unrealistic, low-paying jobs at a loss in order to make a name for themselves in the business. “You can only have so many loss-leaders before you go out of business,” Godwin notes. Effects studios are also forced to chase tax incentives, creating what Godwin calls a “migrant VFX worker” system, where places like Louisiana and Detroit offered tax breaks for production in those locations–but without a talent pool already based in those places, the FX artists would be forced to relocate after the political will to support those incentives dried up when the anticipated economic effects didn’t follow.
That hasn’t hamstrung Shade, though, and Godwin has some ideas about how his company has weathered the storm that’s threatened his industry.
“We’ve always tried to be the biggest little boutique in the industry. We take a very technology-focused approach to how we do business, and we keep our overhead low by being smaller than some of our competitors,” Godwin says. “While we compete on a larger stage, the overall risk management ends up being a little bit more manageable because we don’t have ten facilities worldwide, or two hundred people in each location. So it’s less to manage, and less risky.”
Shade manages its workforce and workflow by keeping a small team busy as often as possible–rather than a “gear up when the work’s there, scale down in the lean times” approach that many in the business go with. “At lot of our competitors, they tend to put a team per project together–if they have six movies, they have six teams going. At Shade, we try to treat the bulk of our work as one project with one team, and then we task our resources as we need to ebb and flow from project to project. One artist might bounce around between three or four different movies at any given time. That tends to keep our utilization at a peak level, and sort of evens out those bumps and keeps the cash flow coming, and keeps our team intact. It allows us to have a better culture, higher retention, and much less attrition than a lot of other places.”
When Godwin talks about taking a technology-focused approach to the business, one of the things he’s talking about is the fiber network between Shade’s L.A. and New York offices. While the company has resisted chasing tax incentives as a rule, they opted to open the New York office because the tax structure in New York is favorable–and because the city, of course, has a very strong film community, which allowed the company to recruit talent from within the city itself, instead of importing its artists to a community they may not want to stay in for long. And in order to allow the two offices to work efficiently, Shade set up a fiber network that allows artists in both locations to collaborate in real-time.
“We essentially set up our Santa Monica office as a data center,” Godwin says. “The majority of our equipment, our render farm, our computers, our servers–all of that is located in our Santa Monica office, and it’s accessed via this point-to-point fiber network in New York. In New York, there are no workstations, there’s no big server room. We can have a workstation that’s being used in L.A. today, but it can easily be connected to New York tomorrow through this virtual fiber channel. It allows us to move resources up and down between the two offices as much as we’d like. Most of the time, when you open a second location, it’s like running two companies and doubling your infrastructure–you double your hardware, you double your management, you double your overhead. I think we’ve kept our expansion down to more like a 30% increase, rather than a doubling, by keeping so many resources located centrally in Santa Monica.”
That layer 2 point-to-point fiber network provides an immediate link between the offices on each coast. It’s not the Internet, and the assets that are shared between New York and Santa Monica are the exact same assets–there’s no transfer of files, instead the artists are both connected to the same system. “Essentially, everybody [in New York] has a keyboard and a mouse and some monitors, and a really hefty connection to the L.A. office.”
All of the technology in the world doesn’t matter, though, if the creative work being done isn’t world-class. And Shade’s approach to the creative product is innovative, too. On a show like Daredevil–where the studio was responsible for all of the visual effects in the entire series (as opposed to serving as a problem-solver on a project like Batman Vs. Superman)–that meant being intimately involved with all phases of development.
“We were involved from the early days of the script process, with the showrunners, with the directors, with the props department and set designers, to help them establish a look that took advantage of visual effects and kept those effects invisible,” Godwin says. In fact, the mission statement on Daredevil was to have every visual effect in the series go unnoticed. “Most people say ‘What did you do on Daredevil? ‘Well, over a thousand visual effects shots,’” Godwin laughs.
To that end, the process on the show involved Godwin and the Shade team telling Marvel all of the places they weren’t needed. “It was our goal to work with them to say, ‘You don’t need visual effects here. Cut that. Same some money. Let’s put that money toward this really big explosion shot, where you’re going to need the visual effects effort,’” he recalls. It was a successful enough approach to collaboration that Shade was tapped once again to do the effects work for the forthcoming Jessica Jones, as well as season two of Daredevil.
Most of the visual effects world is still in flux, and the industry’s challenges are still very real, and very present–but it’s reassuring to see that there are studios doing work on a high level, on the sort of projects that we all tend to love, that have found approaches to make them work. Visual effects aren’t going to be less important to movies in the future, after all–so figuring out how they can be sustainable is more important now than ever. If that’s a fiber connection or advice to not use effects where they’re not needed, as long as the field keeps innovating, we’ll be happy.