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F/X Heavy Films Pushing Industry to the Breaking Point

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Industrial Light & Magic
There's a fantastic feature on Variety this morning (actually it's from yesterday) about the monumental pressure this summer's tentpole films are placing on the CGI houses, especially ILM.

These places have what are called server farms, or dedicated servers that do nothing but render animation all day, every day, for weeks and months on end. When you think of CGI artists, you think of the people sitting at workstations building 3D models, and those people spend the bulk of their time doing that, but what you don't think about is what you don't often see hidden in the back room.

Those artists are not rendering the graphics, they are building the models, creating "textures" to paint onto the models surface, and animating the models in a "scene". Once a wireframe version of it all looks solid, they send it off to the render farm where hundreds of servers work in parallel to render bits and pieces of the animation.

A single frame from the quality animation you see in Pirates 3 would take days to render a single frame on even the highest end home PC. With more films relying heavily on CGI every year, the graphics houses are coming under increasing pressure to get it done, as cheap as possible, as fast as possible, and some are being pushed right to the breaking point.

Industrial Light & Magic topper Chrissie England, who's seen many blockbusters come through her shop, calls the editing/post-production race to the pic's delivery deadline "about the scariest thing I've ever seen." The film's vfx supervisor, John Knoll, calls it "a freakin' miracle" that the film was done on time.

"Pirates 3," warn England and Knoll, is just one tip of an iceberg that's sending a chill through the visual effects industry. Visual effects houses are worried about the increasing demand for more product, at higher quality, in less time. Some effects houses have been losing key workers, and a few are threatening to shutter, because of the shifting economics.
Two years ago, ILM delivered eye-popping visual effects for Paramount's "War of the Worlds" only three months after the end of principal photography. That set the bar impossibly high, so that producers now routinely demand "the 'War of the Worlds' schedule."

The article continues, talking about how other F/X houses are popping up all around the world, driving down wages in an industry that is already suffering from a flawed model that pays by the "shot", rather than for the project as a whole. One thing exasperating it all is the differing capabilities between all the graphics houses, where ILM and a select few other shops are the only ones capable of creating the bleeding-edge shots the block busters demand.

Something to consider is that what we may be seeing is the overly rapid progression to a level of CGI that can be created with just enough quality and in just the right amount of time to place live actors within a fully artificial environment in such a way that the audience just can't tell the difference anymore.

Maybe that day is still 10 years away, but at the pace the industry is pushing, it may be just around the corner, and it may just result in the industry imploding altogether.

Read this story, you won't regret it.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.