Cause and Effects

While building and animating convincing CG humans is still the Holy Grail for visual effects, the biggest challenge facing most VFX houses is maintaining quality in the face of budget restrictions, says Smoke and Mirrors’ Gary Szabo

The visual effects industry is a very strange place at the moment. Whilst I am watching the stunning, industry reaffirming (and hopefully Oscar-winning) work on films like Gravity coming out of Soho, I am also having daily conversations about ‘maximising’ – client-speak for ‘reducing’ – budgets. At times it feels like VFX companies are being asked to be the equivalent of a Thai suitmaker delivering an Ozwald Boateng for £250, and the challenge is in meeting full expectations without compromising creative quality. That’s why I see a continuing trend toward the technology that supports and facilitates that stance. Bespoke software, repurposing from asset libraries and the correct blend of increasingly lower entry cost kit and high-end specialist operators will be key to success in the future.

Technically, whilst the Holy Grail of CGI remains building and animating convincing humans in close-up, the current trend continues to be ‘invisible effects’. Nobody has the budget to scour for the perfect location anymore. Much better to shoot the almost perfect place and ‘fix it in post’ – remove a power station or oil rig here, add a valley there (all things we’ve done recently, by the way). These days it’s highly unusual for us to not send a VFX person on even the simplest of shoots. This also gives a production the ability to move quickly – perfect action under fading light? We’ll bring that problem back to the post house. And the production can move on to the next shot.

The biggest problem that any company faces in 2014 is that there is always someone who can and will do it cheaper. This routinely results in extreme price pressure, but you cannot lose sight of the bigger picture; ultimately no one wants to be seen to go to the ‘cheap’ place, and nobody really wants a ‘cheap’ job done. Clients really want quality work at a fair price and the industry’s job is to make that fit with current budgets. Therefore, a big trend for us has been to add more strings to our bow, use more of an existing budget and have only a single mark-up. It’s really not what you spend, it’s how you spend it.

Those of us who have successfully weathered the storm have achieved this whilst maintaining a reputation for being specialist. For example, we’ve added audio suites to our offering, brought the press and print retouching business into the same company as well as collaborating with top directors to ensure a single budget can go much further whilst the proportion of that budget that ends up on screen is not compromised. In an increasingly producer-led industry, creative standards cannot be allowed to drop. It’s these standards that make London stand apart from its global competition.

Aside from technology, the ability to listen to your clients remains key. Advise your clients correctly and always deliver above expectation. Make your business fit with theirs. Build trust by continuing to excel at everything you do for them. On the understanding that all clichés are based on a truism; ultimately you shouldn’t sell what you’ve got, you should sell clients what they need.

Gary Szabo is managing director of leading special effects house Smoke and Mirrors,


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