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The VFX Industry – The Medium Essay (Part 1)

Note: This is Part One, of a two part series dealing with the VFX industry. Originally Planned for the website Medium until Ev Williams changed certain aspects of his collections/publications setup, the recent dislocation of the VFX marketplace is not only a lesson in how far Hollywood has gone in trying to reconfigure animation into a safe mainstream success, but has not only caused consternation with different state laws concerning tax credits and stipends (this extends to live action BUT NOT 2D animation), but with the legality of said contracts between studios and the states/providences in Canada and Overseas. This first part, posted on Medium around 2014, gives us what happened with R&H and Digital Domain. The next part is the aftermath of the PDI Closure and the ADAPT project ending just as the announcement of PDI was coming into play. If things are to be change in order for people who work in the VFX business stay afloat and to have animation not truly be a toy for the illegal use of tax funds by politicians to the studios, we must have account on why this is so. The second part does this. Before that – this is the first essay:

Troika, a LA Based VFX TV firm who clients range from NBC Sports, ESPN and Time Warner Cable — helped in the branding of the “Vortexx”, a low rent Broadcast TV block that came out of the bankruptcy of 4Kids Entertainment. Vortexx Media Ventures, owned by Saban Capital convinced the Firm to do the work.

Meanwhile, in Techwood, GA; eleven members of the [adult swim] production team, is working on a rebranding of the then newly returning “Toonami” block. The newly minted VP of Creative for the [adult swim] block, Jason Demarco — and five other folks that had work on both the original and new versions of the “Toonami” franchise — pretty much go it alone with the logo’s, lower thirds, placards, social media, etc.

The difference between the two styles?

One gets the ratings, newer franchises and world exclusive premiere series (Toonami)

One lives on the past glories that it took over (Vortexx).

This short introduction showcases the microcosm of troubles that face VFX in Hollywood. From Rhythm and Hues, to backstage deals — Governmental Tax Cheats, and all and all out “We must look good” egotism.

Hollywood has many crisis’s, but this might be the one that takes the studio system down… And the reason may be as simple as pie…

Sometimes, the best answer is a question:

Is VFX, Animation?

To many animators — who cut their teeth on storyboard, cartooning, working on the movement on the 1’s, 2’s, 3’s and 4’s — its a concept some say needs to rectified.

Some time ago, Amid Amidi from Cartoon Brew, tried to answer the question:

Animation plays such a seamless role in live-action production nowadays that some films which are identified as live-action are mostly animated. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but when such films are presented to the public as live-action, it devalues the role of animation artists in the process. Quite simply, these films would not exist without animators.

A perfect example of this new technology-driven, animation-heavy hybrid film is Alfonso Cuarón’s highly anticipated space movie Gravity, which opens this Friday. The film used previsualization to a larger extent than almost any other live-action film to date, and was animated once in its entirety before actors even entered the production.

Amidi quoted from a piece from the Wall Street Journal’s Don Steinburg:

First, a complete version of the movie was made inside a computer. The animation process called previsualization is a way that many filmmakers plan scenes, as a step beyond illustrated storyboards. But it’s unusual for an entire film to be “prevised.” Here, they essentially created a Pixar-style animation of the movie containing everything but the actors. The simulated spacecraft and tools other objects needed to look ultra-real rather than cartoony. Rather than just serving as a reference and planning tool, detailed imagery created in the previsualization became the movie…In some scenes in the film, the only thing on the screen that’s a “real” camera shot rather than something computer-generated is Sandra Bullock’s face.

This was not without precedent, the film “Beowulf” as well as the “Polar Express” used “motion capture” to use on the films. Beowulf had over 450 animators in 2007. Many aspects of the film used keyframes, rotoscoping (the motion capture). The project got so huge — they had to develop a new way to save the data. The movie was a middeling success, but “character capture” as a technique for live action — was here to stay.

When “District 9″ came, Weta Digital (one of the big boys in the VFX industry) were not available because of the “Avatar” commitment. Therefore, Blomkamp went with a Vancouver based firm. The CGI was done in a style that fit the gritty, 1980’s look of the film. People began to wonder if VFX could be done on the cheap, just like it was done for animation by the late 50’s.

The only difference? One was not supported by governmental kickbacks but when it concerned children, was kicked in the rear all over by the same Governments. And its for that reason that you can never “truly” consider VFX as animation outright — but as a politically protected class, and quasi-mature offshoot of cartooning and animation.

To explain how that happened, we must take a look at why these things took place — and it started with the deregulation of the media in the 1990’s.

Craft, Outsourced — Or The Long Night of the Tax Havens…

Two things took place during the 1990’s deregulation era.

One, the concept of free trade between unequal neighbors trading as equals.

The second was that every thing could be done on the cheap with very huge results.

The first concept worked with “tremendous” success. If you call success the majority of the work force (Union and Non Union) going from near forty dollar an hour wages to eight in a span of twenty years. Which also effected how workers dealt with bosses and how businesses changed.

One of the major reasons the first concept effect Hollywood? For years Hollywood did most of the special effects (and animation) in house. There were very little outside companies that did such work.

This worked fine for a while, until economic forces came into play by the end of the sci-fi/chariot epic/western era in the very late 1960’s to early 1970’s. Kubrick (and his team), Lucas and his team (many who came from Kubrick’s team) and Spielberg’s ideas formed the bases of the Independent VFX house. Hollywood never was the same.

By the deregulation era, the studios were on a crash course with margins. Now a choice had to be made. How to continue to produce work with the quality the audience expects?

There is that dreaded “O” word. VFX mainstays call it “Outsourcing” (I really call it cheating history, and I will explain that in a moment). Instead of dealing with their in-house VFX, and going to a independent VFX house in the US (which is only paid by a contract basis, and many times they go over contract because the directors and his/her producers want more work on post production, which makes the Independent VFX producer deal with the lack of funding). the studios look for a low tax or a tax credit friendly country (such as New Zealand, or Vancouver/Toronto and very recently London and the rest of the UK) for production. However, many of these VFX companies have to tell their workers to move to the UK, Canada and India in order to do the project.

In certain cases it gets worse. In one instance, a British Columbia based VFX company stated that the Hollywood studios take advantage of the Canadian tax credit and then outsource the rest of the work to China and India in order to save money than hiring workers from British Columbia.

This is a major problem. This effects everything from the prices of the contract the studios give to their VFX teams, to hiring of the stars (in particular action stars) in order to “force project” charisma that they may lack. (Hollywood also has a problem with finding a new action star, and while VFX helps in augmenting ones strength on the screen, it helps none when it comes to charisma).

This has lead into a movement not only to Unionize/make the union stronger. One of the ways this was done was the green screen protest which made impacts in the 2013 and 2014 award ceremonies. The internet has also been a help — one major site being VFX Soldier. The blogger has worked in exposing these issues, which one of his biggest success was the study on whether digital product (such as CGI, VFX and other type of effects) are goods or not. The study was crowd funded, and the results were surprising:

What the legal study suggested was that we use the same anti-subsidy duty laws for imported goods on internationally subsidized VFX which would help us effectively discipline the subsidy race The study also pointed out some potentially big legal hurdles:

This has never been done before for electronically transmitted digital products.

MPAA would argue that VFX is a service and and not a good since the anti-subsidy duties only applies to goods.

What it means is this: Since the Movie studios use VFX as a service to a good, and not the reverse, the duty law was not in effect. However, the SCOTUS in dealing with Uranium enrichment between the US and France and the US companies were trying to get out of paying the fair share. The US Supreme Court said otherwise and said the US companies had to pay.

The studios (represented by the MPAA- lead by Chris Dodd), got caught with their pants down by the study and realize that if the VFX groups see that the MPAA try to weasel their way out, they will be in a world of hurt.

So, we know why the studio’s obfuscate the issue. To save “money” (but they have made billions on end for years) and face, but could the reason be more political?

Troika Vortexxed and Bamboozled…

Troika TV, is one of the largest TV VFX houses in the country. As stated at the start, they work with ESPN, NBC Sports (even despite NBC owns NBC Artworks, which is THE largest TV VFX house in the country), Time Warner Sports Net and Time Warner Cable (which in the biggest twist of fate is about to be bought by Comcast which owns NBC and NBC Sports and NBC Artworks)…

And does work for Univision and Saban Capital…

Wait, why does Univision and Saban Capital have anything to do with the Movie VFX work folks?

Lets talk politics, and a bit of history.

Years ago, there was a company called 4Kids Entertainment lead by Al Kahn. As you guessed, he was the dude that brought Pokemon into the United States. Because of this — he broke the power structure (in Kids TV) that Haim Saban, his biggest and most powerful rival built on another TV franchise that he brought from Japan — which uses VFX and action stars called Super Sentai — a.k.a Power Rangers (and Masked Rider for a season).

4Kids Entertainment didnt have the connections nor the money to pay somebody like a Troika to do introductions and Brand Identify. 4Kids ENT did most of their work in house. The success of Pokemon (and later Yugi-Oh which on occasion would beat NFL ratings during the late 1990’s for kids 6 -11.) would lead the Al Kahn lead company to take over the Fox Kids block (which both Rupert Murdock would work with Saban in the failed Fox Kids worldwide venture which they would later sell to Disney, which is the reason why ABC family exists).

But all things come to a head, and a end. When 4Kids declared bankruptcy back in 2011, it lead into the loss of the both the CW4Kids block, once held by Warner Brothers (they lost the fox block in 2009) and the last remnant of the Saturday Morning milieu. In turn, Saban Capital came in as the only bidder of the 4Kids product, outside of Yugi-Oh which became of part of Konami. I felt that was one of the strangest cases of liquadation — considering the fact the DHX Media, Dreamworks Animation, and a whole host of North American companies would love to rebuild the genre.

But the courts gave it to Saban.

Not being out done, Troika (who also does work for the Hub Network, who’s president is one Margret Loacsh who used to run Fox Kids before Saban took over and overseer of the hit “My Little Pony”.) later came in and did the intro’s, outtros and so on for the new “Vortexx” block — a reconstructed knockoff of “Toonami” with one of the legendary mainstays of the Toonami block “Dragon Ball Z” (The Kai series is a semi abridged version of the franchise with changes for edits).

The Vortexx has not trended once on twitter. Its ratings are shot and dead in the water. You cant get good data on the ratings because aspects of which are controlled by Saban Capital (along with Nickelodeon and Disney).

Meanwhile, Toonami; many said that would never come back — came back, airs world excusive series (Space Dandy)— and has helped just enough for the Adult Swim block to take over the now eight o’clock spot from the Cartoon Network (who recently fired Stuart Snyder).

Troika did this video some time ago which wouldn’t be so ironic if it wasn’t strangely funny and poetic in the most… well see for yourself:

What if they really did their job?

What if they really had quality control?

Or maybe, they always been the same old Troika… slumming for power.

Making music moguls sing Mighty RAW intros and having political connections doesnt give certain VFX companies and branding promotions work any better or keep the audiences eyes on the TV.

There is however, solutions for these problems — and they have to deal with the most expensive work Industrial Light and Magic has done:

DIY, Models, Anime, and You: How VFX can dig its way Out of its Problems:

People may dismiss “Pacific Rim” as some genre piece.

But it one of the best films to show case the future of VFX.

Despite its lack of awards in the Oscars, del Toro’s work in making sure the VFX costs if not lowered, but mitigated by making sure that most of the work that is usually done in post production is done before or even during production, is one way disasters like what happened on the Life of Pi dont continue to happen.

Could a return to in house based VFX studio’s be in the offering? The cost of the making such of the VFX has gone down a lot in the last several years. Elysium and District 9 were shockers in the way VFX was handled.

Could a return to practical set work and models also work? The three films mentioned along with Robocop (2014) had a mix of practical model and VFX.

Could the VFX business on TV go to a DIY model to handle rising costs? People who care about the process should not only watch Toonami for the shows, but for the way they produce the block. 11 people work on Toonami at one time — and its one of the best produced blocks in media. It outpaces certain sports productions in its look and feel.

But both the TV and Movie VFX businesses need a course correction. One of these is the end of the subsidies shell game. It’s has caused more problems then the solutions it was supposed to solve. It has broken families up, forced people to live in hotels which folks know how bad they have gotten in the last few years, and has bankrupted companies such as Rhythm and Hues, who like Troika was once in the TV VFX Business but by the same “bad deals” for Political gain and favors and promises of better days — it never really came…

But maybe the biggest correction is one that where nobody can predict the outcome.

Could this whole VFX thing — all the way up to replacing actors (like the recently passed away Phillip Seymour Hoffman) can be finally considered animation?

Or will the MPAA, try and trick their way around this — making the whole thing a “politically protected”, “socially safe”, “edutainment” and “non objectified” form of “animation” for the masses to enjoy?

I dont want to get too much into it on the way the media sees animation vs VFX/CGI — but drawing has become a computer generated enterprise these days. There are no physical cells, theres toon boom and flash and other such things.

But there are some who are not ready to give up the feel and the look of the cel.

Maybe the real fight has always been the use of technology over the skill of the artist. Maybe the real issue has been (in the case of Photoshop) the manipulation of the object for objectification and gratification of an audience with its eyes mosaicked not knowing who is offending who, what is beauty, what is right in a job place — what kind of behavior is needed and so on.

Maybe the VFX industry many issues and problems in both the TV and Movie areas are the continuing result of a damaged nation, festering to get away from its own reality of self worth.

At the end of the film “Life after Pi” cakes were to be had by all. Some were going to continue on other projects. Others were going to move on.

But this was a family — broken by political back talk and grandizing, a system without a strong man (super producer along with action super star actor and actress) to guide franchises, the repeat game of not one — but two or three or more sequels, and a way to defeat pure animation — for it has lost its power because others wanted it to move it to something it had already done in the first place.

This is the sad truth of about Life After Pi. Good men, and women broken by a broken system built for broken and damaged people.

This isnt the end of the story, not by a long shot.

But this is just a warning. How good is Marvel’s Movie Franchises…without the VFX to back it up?

How long before the next big Hollywood “walking and pacing in fear” take place over the collapse of the independent studios — now that Disney not only has ILM, but Pixar’s Renderman? (which studios will have to pay a kings ransom to Disney?)

How long before the independent movie studios, who gotten big on VFX for Hunger Games, and the like — lose out in the game?

Without VFX, how does the next great action hero have the “charisma” to sell tickets without steroids?

These are questions you need to answer for yourselves.

But for me the answer is already clear…

The Vortexx represents the longing of the past, a hollywood past that has never succeeded.

Toonami was the stone the builders rejected, and tried to destroy but now has to become the corner stone.

Do you Troika, want to be left in the winds of past glory like Rhythm and Hues?

Or you want to win?

Do you, Hollywood want to be left in the winds of change that is coming?

Or do you want to have a future?

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