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July 01
2020

Doing the Bidding of Visual Effects

By TREVOR HOGG

Imagine trying to hit a moving target rather than a static object. That is what essentially occurs when visual effects companies bid on projects for television, streamers and movie studios, as what is conceived on the printed page is never entirely replicated in principal photography and post-production due to financial and logistical restrictions or creative serendipity.

How does one navigate through the ins and outs of the bidding process? A good place to begin is with the words of advice of industry veterans who have gained a firsthand insight that has enabled them to survive and thrive in what has become a highly competitive market place.

Erin Moriarty portrays Starlight/Annie January with help from Framestore in the Amazon Studios production of The Boys. (Images courtesy of Amazon Studios and Framestore)

Duncan McWilliam, CEO and Founder, Outpost VFX

We will bid to the script and then caveat that with a document that goes into the bid contract that these shots are based on these assumptions on this visual effects breakdown, which is often supplied by the client so we’re filling in their spreadsheets. We would never be able to bid a script and then deliver exactly what we said we would because so much can change by the time you get to the end of the shoot. Invariably you have incurred more costs. You’ve got to re-evaluate the bid as you go, [including] overage for more work, or give credit for work that didn’t end up being done. As long as you’re clear upfront that things will change and we’re prepared for it, that usually works out just fine.

The way it has changed is, in the old days there was big talk of buyout bids bankrupting visual effects houses. If we agreed to do Life of Pi for 10 million quid but it cost 14, that’s your problem and you go out of business. Since then, what everyone has understood is that we bid based on what we’re talking about this week, and if it changes next week then we rebid. We have a continual bidding department constantly adjusting, refining and resubmitting bids based on every new conversation that we have around a job, and if they can’t afford it then we’ll do our absolute best to come up with a cost-savvy way of doing it either on set or in 2D instead of 3D. Or we will help them with their edit.

Freefolk had to recreate 19th century New York City for the TNT series The Alienist. (Image courtesy of TNT and Freefolk)

Fiona Walkinshaw, Global Managing Director, Film, Framestore

Sometimes the client will tell you what tax incentives rebate that they’re looking for upfront, if they have a strong production plan. That can be for all sorts of reasons. It can be that the production side through to the director and DP want to shoot in a certain place, or the production plan has been built around rebates in various places in the world. We will either bid according to that or to our capacity. You have to be able to look at your capacity globally, but also you can’t say to every client, ‘We can put 100% of your show in Montreal where there is a 40% rebate.’ We have to balance that up with a lot of our animation capacity, which might be in the U.K. Part of that work will be 25% rebate, part of it will be 40% rebate, and part of it will be India, which makes for a cheaper blended cost. It’s certainly always a negotiation. Clients understand that you’ve got to balance the work, but they’re always looking for some rebate. Without a doubt, a blended cost of rebate is important to winning work.

Ethan Phillips stars as Spike Martin, who claims to be the first Canadian to land on Mars in HBO’s Avenue 5. (Image courtesy of HBO)

Method Studios took part in the famous ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode of Game of Thrones. (Image courtesy of HBO)

A live-action plate shot in South Africa becomes populated with buildings courtesy of Milk VFX for the Amazon Studios production of Good Omens. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios and Milk VFX)

Das Boot was remade into a television series for Sky Atlantic, with visual effects provided by UPP. (Image courtesy of Sky Atlantic and UPP)

Jeff Shapiro, Director of VFX Global Resource Strategy, Netflix

Title complexity and budget are key variables that guide the vendor selection process. Netflix’s highly diverse slate provides opportunities for all types of visual effects studios. The wide degree of creative slate demands can be serviced by local and multi-regional service providers with varying specialties and competencies. Vendor diversity and inclusion are top priorities and drive assignment consideration.

Before the streaming boom, visual effects studios focused on efficiency over agility. Today, production and creative agility is critical to a vendor’s success. Production planning and scheduling, artist workflow and creative pipelines need to be able to handle varying degrees of iterations. Production tracking tools are more important than ever.

 

Andy Fowler, Director of Visual Effects and Virtual Production, Netflix

It comes down to market pricing and vendors being realistic about what they need to sustain their business. Being mindful not to bid too much below their market price, hence lowering their margins. Also, those making content should respect those market prices. It’s an ecosystem, we depend on each other, and so we need to support each other. Responsible management at all levels and sides of the business are important for it to remain sustainable.

 

Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer and General Manager, Image Engine

At Image Engine, we bid exactly the same as always – assessing CG builds, shots and management personnel expenditures needed to execute the work from a cost perspective as a priority prior to assigning market value. We believe strongly in first assessing the cost impact on us prior to seeing what the market value for a particular scope of work might be. This is probably a more film-like approach in its considerations, but our philosophy has always been that if we are using all of the same things – facilities, technologies, people – and those things cost exactly what they did yesterday, then why would we cost out differently? That being said, our bidding process is extremely robust and can both adjust to a rapidly changing creative brief as well as keep us in check with historical information. We are confident that whatever work makes it through our bidding filter will be the right work regardless of what type of work it is. Lately, it seems like even our relationships are straddling the gap between television and film work with many of our former film clients coming back to repeat work at Image Engine, only on the television side.

Looking at the debt loads and fiscal challenges of larger entities like Deluxe and Technicolor, who have a major stake in the visual effects business as a whole, is duly concerning for everyone in the industry. Without sufficient cash flows to substantiate research and development, many of the top 50 or so companies worldwide will struggle to move forward, and that’s bad for our clients. Especially in an era of rapidly increasing sophistication, that’s a lose-lose scenario. Just surviving corporately is not enough, and perhaps that’s where the win-win is for the industry and the client base. Well-run companies that prove their merit technically, creatively and managerially deserve the assumption of profitability from their clients towards the goal of sustainability. That has to be a win-win, and it has to start with the client base valuing what visual effects companies bring to the table.

 

Viktor Muller, CEO and VFX Supervisor, UPP

Visual effects vendors will always find how to adapt to all requests from their clients. Of course, only some will survive. It’s the same as the time when a rebate system came up. Vendors should worry more about what happens when one of these giants stop their production and there’s a few hundred projects less. In the meantime, this industry is super hungry and everyone is missing people. What will everyone do when Netflix or Amazon slows down? There is a new ‘millennial’ style that connects people/freelancers into virtual companies/clouds so all of them are working on their own and the only management, supervision, rendering and IO is going through a solid VFX house. I am personally pessimistic about this model as it will lead to problems with laziness and egos.

Anthony Mackie portrays Takeshi Kovacs in the second season of Altered Carbon, which streams on Netflix. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Wayne Brinton, Executive Producer, Rodeo FX

We don’t differentiate how we work with streaming versus studio. With different constraints and timelines, you have to make sure you understand the work before giving a cost. We spend a lot of time and effort understanding the scope of work before we bid, but the process is essentially the same.

Everything is schedule, but quality is absolutely paramount. How can we fit enormously complicated shots into a very tight budget? Truth is, scheduling for streaming episodic work is tight, but it’s consistent, and that’s what’s good about it. With films, once you start working on a project, you don’t know when you’re going to finish it. When it comes to episodic TV, schedules can change on a regular basis, so we work really hard to get ahead of things.

 

Will Cohen, Co-founder and CEO, Milk VFX

You need to be brutally honest with yourself about your capacity. Those of us who come from the 1990s in a service industry are used to trying to make hay when the sun shines. We’ve lived in a world for years of increasingly shorter deadlines, more ambition and higher resolution. Depending on the dynamic of each individual project, schedules can push or pull accordingly, so you need to be careful. Most projects that visual effects companies work on grow rather than shrink. Like stocks and shares they can go up or down. You’d be smart to anticipate a bit of growth on a project that you have. It can be frustrating for the client if you can’t accommodate growth on the shots or sequences. You have to be brutally honest about your capabilities, because it is better to do a great job of the work that you have than a bad job of too much work and ruin a project and relationship by greediness. You get rid of your offices, put artists at desks, and have a triage of the visual effects community to get through a busy period.

Claire Norman, Business Development Director, Milk VFX

Generally, the process is that we like to get the script at the initial stage and some sense of the director’s creative vision. Obviously on TV projects, if you have multiple directors then you’re vying with different visions all at the same time, but you try to keep everybody happy. After the initial discussions we usually break the script down and ballpark it with the best knowledge we have of the methodology of shooting and with an eye on the budget. When it’s that kind of bidding process it has to be collaborative, because you have to work with them and, equally, they have to work with us understanding what we can achieve in visual effects for that financial cost.

Sometimes they will highlight a particular sequence because it might be challenging to shoot, so they want to be clear as to how they might want to go back to it. They don’t often board the whole series, but cherry pick certain sequences because of their complications. You do rounds and rounds of bidding. You often do alternative bids for the same shots for possible additional requirements so the client has a sense of where their money is going and can decide what the best vendors are for onscreen. There is constant bidding and transparency as well. If you’re raising the cost of anything you have to be able to justify the need.

 

Meg Guidon, VFX Executive Producer, Freefolk

Competitive bidding – this has to be expected as part of handling longform work and is a time-consuming process. Bids for TV and longform projects are always on a larger scale in terms of shot count across multiple episodes. The time required to create accurate bids has to be allowed for unpaid [work], even though the award is not guaranteed. Bids can go through several iterations.

Money is sometimes the most important factor in winning work, rather than the creative. Being awarded visual effects shots that require the creation of bespoke CG assets will normally guarantee more work due to the ‘ownership’ of the asset across the series. So, though sharing assets happens more often, it is still thought better to keep assets with one vendor if possible.

Clients expect good quality work at competitive rates. For this to work as a business model, we need to have access to a broad range of talent. If talent becomes too expensive and difficult to access then the model can quickly break down with the available budgets.

 

David Conley, Executive VFX Producer, Weta Digital

No doubt about it, bidding is booming! I think we’re at an inflection point in the industry where we’re seeing an increased number of bidding packages come through the facility. And with the increase in these packages, we’re being asked to turn them around in shorter timeframes to allow studios to make a lot of decisions very quickly. However, these bid packages are increasingly less detailed with studios themselves often having to turn around breakdowns in less time to give to facilities. Which means we’re dealing in the bidding laws of averages.

While we have been putting a lot of effort into our bidding analytics in recent years to give us some confidence in turning bid packages around at these speeds, the risk we’re seeing across the industry is that projects can be awarded with wildly divergent creative and financial expectations. And that can have an impact on the greater visual effects community, as the resulting overages and schedule extensions required to solve these problems has a corollary downstream impact to production pipelines around the world.

Behind the scenes of the Netflix adaption of Locke & Key with Connor Jessup and Emilia Jones. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

One of Us was the sole vendor on the Netflix series The Crown. (Image courtesy of Netflix and One of Us)

A strange doll makes an appearance in the Netflix series Black Mirror with some assistance from Outpost VFX. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Outpost VFX)

See on Apple TV+ was not viewed as a visual effects-driven show, but Adrian de Wet supervised over 3,000 shots that featured digital humans, creatures and environments with large effects simulations. (Image courtesy of Apple TV+ and Outpost VFX)

Netflix provided filmmaker Martin Scorsese and ILM with the opportunity to push the boundaries of facial capture in The Irishman. (Image courtesy of Netflix and ILM)

Brian J. Smith as Doug McKenna in the pilot episode of Treadstone, produced by Universal Content Productions for the USA Network. (Image courtesy of USA Network)

The Mind Flayer comes to life in the Netflix series Stranger Things courtesy of Rodeo FX. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Rodeo FX)

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Jim Hooper (David Harbour) fight demonic creatures from an alternative world known as Upside Down, created by Method Studios for Stranger Things. (Image courtesy of Method Studios and Netflix)

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