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July 01
2020

ISSUE

Summer 2020

The Art and Business of VFX for TV and Streaming

By TREVOR HOGG

Visual Effects Supervisor Adrian de Wet believes that there are more complex visual effects shots with a cinematic style in TV shows now than ever before, such as in See on Apple TV+. (Image courtesy of Apple TV+ and Outpost VFX)

The 2019 subscriber numbers for the top seven cable companies in the U.S., which include Comcast, Charter, Cox, Altice, Mediacom, Cable One and Atlantic Broadband, totaled 45.8 million, according to the Leichtman Research Group. The number of cable subscribers can be contrasted with the explosive subscriber growth of streaming services. In 2019 Netflix reported 61 million paid memberships in the U.S., Hulu had 30 million and Amazon Prime Video had 112 million. The major driving force for viewership remains original and exclusive content. Not surprisingly, as the streaming wars heat up, BMO Capital Markets forecasts that content spending by Netflix will go from $17.3 billion in 2020 to $26.3 billion by 2028. A significant portion of that expenditure will be devoted to CGI, with the “Global Animation, VFX & Video Games Industry: Strategies, Trends & Opportunities (2020-2025)” report stating that special effects as a percent of production cost is between 20%-25%. The report also estimates the size of the streaming market for animation and VFX content was $3.5 billion in 2019 and is growing at an annual rate of 8%.

“The continued emergence of new streaming platforms, Disney+ and Apple TV+ among some of the most recent to launch, has created entirely new avenues for content, and much of it is prestige programming that requires quality visual effects, with the scope of a traditional feature blockbuster or high-profile cable series,” states Simon Rosenthal, Executive Vice President Global Studio Operations at Method Studios. “At the same time, technology advancements are enabling studios to work more quickly and efficiently, and so producers are increasingly using visual effects to support their storytelling, whether creating a full CG creature, mass destruction, or digitally altering practical locations to be period-authentic.”

The Witcher was the most-watched first season ever for Netflix, with Framestore having a major role in the production. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Framestore)

Before Netflix, a major rival to cable television was specialty channel HBO, which has always sought to blur the line between film and television productions. A big part of being able to achieve this is in the willingness to embrace and push technology. “We have always built our projects around having to have the time to make excellent visual effects,” states Cynthia Kanner, Senior Vice President, Post Production at HBO. “Our schedules traditionally have been longer than network schedules. I would say that there are more effects in every show now. Whereas you used to have some shows that were visual effects heavy, we would have as many as 103 shots in a half hour of Silicon Valley. I know that Avenue 5 is the same way. That is somewhat new. Technology has made it easier to do the visual effects, so it’s part of the language of filmmaking.”

The growing demand has improved the quality of the visual effects. “This is 100% quality-driven and it’s raised the bar quite a bit,” remarks Adrian de Wet, who was the Visual Effects Supervisor on the first season of See for Apple TV+. “Audiences have extremely high standards, and so do we as artists and content providers. Audiences and providers are feeding off each other to push the bar higher every day. There are more complex visual effects shots, with a more cinematic style, in TV shows now than ever before. For instance, I recently completed an eight-part series that contained 3,000+ visual effects shots, many of which were highly complex [digital humans and creatures in digital environments with large effects simulations] in a show that would not necessarily be described as being ‘visual effects driven.’”

The Mary Powell was a fast and luxurious steamboat built in 1861, and is added into a live-action plate by Freefolk for the TNT series The Alienist. (Image courtesy of TNT and Freefolk)

“[T]here are more effects in every show now. Whereas you used to have some shows that were visual effects heavy, we would have as many as 103 shots in a half hour of Silicon Valley. I know that Avenue 5 is the same way. That is somewhat new. Technology has made it easier to do the visual effects, so it’s part of the language of filmmaking.”

—Cynthia Kanner, Senior Vice President, Post Production, HBO

Hugh Laurie, Andy Buckley and Rebecca Front star in the HBO series Avenue 5. (Image courtesy of HBO)

It is not uncommon to have over 100 visual effects shots in a half hour of Silicon Valley on HBO. (Image courtesy of HBO)

HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones is seen as setting the gold standard for high-end visual effects on television. (Image courtesy of HBO)

“The interesting thing about Game of Thrones is we couldn’t have made each season any earlier than we did. In many cases we were driving the visual effects industry to produce some new tool or way of doing something to allow us to be able to make the show. In that respect, it’s more about setting the pace for the technology, and knowing that this is the expectation of our filmmakers and the audience.”

—Stephen Beres, Senior Vice President, Media & Production Operations, HBO

Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) battles with a stand-in performer that is subsequently turned into a ferocious marrok by Image Engine for the Amazon Studios production of Carnival Row. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios and Image Engine)

Olivia Taylor Dudley portrays Alice Quinn in The Magicians, produced by Universal Content Productions for Syfy. (Image courtesy of SYFY Media)

“New technology is playing a key part in removing or lowering barriers that make our stories possible across the globe. Stranger Things 3 required complex simulations that would have been impossible at such scale and quality for series a few years ago.”

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

Television and film do not share the same workflow. “You do less iterations for television than you do for feature film work,” states Fiona Walkinshaw, Global Managing Director, Film at Framestore. “The iterative process is reduced because there is simply no time. The filmmakers generally understand that because they’re working to the same deadlines. They’re not thinking that these 300 shots are being delivered in four months. They’re thinking 100 of these 300 shots need to be delivered in six weeks. The post is scheduled differently as DI is being done as they go along each episode.”

The demand for higher resolution such as UHD HDR is not going to disappear for streamers whereas networks and theatrical releases remain at 2K.“There is a perceived idea that more pixels make better pictures,” remarks Rachael Penfold, Company Director and Executive Producer at One of Us. “4K or even 6K is slower than 2K, but we strive to find ways to avoid this impacting on the free flow of creative ideas. And besides, other components of the technology go some way toward compensating for the impact of resolution inflation.”

Calculating a compound annual interest growth of 11.4%, Zion Market Research predicts that the global visual effects industry will be worth $23.8 billion by 2025. “From my standpoint, the demand for visual effects has had a positive impact,” states Duncan McWilliam, CEO and Founder at Outpost VFX, “Our growth has doubled every year for seven years now, and more than half of our business is now TV and streaming.” Image Engine has seen the amount of streaming content that it is bidding on quadruple over a period of five years. “The worlds of high-end television and feature film are fundamentally and tangibly much closer together now than ever,” states Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer and General Manager at Image Engine. “As a result, the impact on the industry has been deep, affecting the assigning of key staff, facility resources, technologies and management.”

Jon Snow (Kit Harington) rides a dragon buck, which is transformed by Image Engine into an aerial shot featured in HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Image courtesy of HBO and Image Engine)

Increased demand for visual effects means that there is a strain on the available talent pool. “There is a challenge in getting good visual effects supervisors, producers and coordinators,” remarks Kanner. “We don’t have a visual effects department per se. The effects are part of the show and each executive oversees their show.” There are productions where a vendor is given the responsibility of managing the visual effects. “A couple of things haven’t changed over the years,” notes Walkinshaw. “As with Gulliver’s Travels, our supervisor for His Dark Materials was also the production side supervisor, so we were able to streamline the process as there weren’t lots of people between us and the director.”

“At Netflix we have dedicated teams specific to features and series embedded in our global offices,” states Andy Fowler, the company’s Director of Visual Effects and Virtual Production. “They help bring the right talent together, working closely with showrunners, producers and visual effects teams. We generate a lot of visual effects content; hence, a unified connected group ensures that the many international vendors and crew we employ intersect well across our content. We also look to leverage technology that helps reduce friction and ease the process of visual effects production.”

The final shot of the Ice Age episode of the ‘Love, Death and Robots’ anthology, produced by Netflix, was created by Method Studios. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“The ability to visualize the story and characters the way the creators imagine it has given TV and streamers the opportunity to produce high-concept series at a level that was not possible a few years ago. The ability to produce material with such scope means that the costs have escalated and the time from greenlight to air has expanded significantly as a result.”

—Mark Binke, Executive Vice President of Production, Universal Content Productions

Claire Foy portrays Queen Elizabeth II on her wedding day in The Crown, with visual effects created by One of Us for the Netflix production. (Image courtesy of Netflix and One of Us)

The Netflix production of Altered Carbon takes place in futuristic setting of Bay City which was formerly known as San Francisco. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

UPP was responsible for the cinematic visual effects featured in Neill Blomkamp’s live-action trailer for the sci-fi game, Anthem. (Image courtesy of UPP)

“The innovation is in how you can build large-scale environments, rig complicated creatures and characters, and get to first pixel render within these shorter schedules, without compromising labor costs. In protecting our artists, we have to give them the best tools to succeed in this business environment.”

—David Conley, Executive VFX Producer, Weta Digital

Rodeo FX created the Demogorgon for the Netflix production of Stranger Things. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Rodeo FX)

Milk VFX was sole vendor for the Amazon Studios production of Good Omens. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios and Milk VFX)

Renowned for creating photorealistic creatures, Weta Digital was responsible for Pogo in the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Weta Digital)

Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) travels to the future where he witnesses an apocalypse in the Universal Cable Productions adaptation of The Umbrella Academy. (Image courtesy of Universal Cable Productions and Netflix)

The academic mindset needs to be altered. “This is an industrywide issue where at the entry level there is a vacuum of talent,” observes Stephen Beres, Senior Vice President, Media & Production Operations at HBO. “One thing that we’re doing is investing a lot in education to try to help post-secondary programs understand what the industry of today needs is not the traditional liberal arts film school concept but a curriculum that is craft focused.” Visual effects companies are being impacted by the talent shortage. “On one hand it’s exciting to see a broader range of projects being greenlit,” states David Conley, Executive VFX Producer at Weta Digital. “Studios are taking more creative chances than ever. But this demand has put pressure on worldwide capacity. There just aren’t enough artists available to produce all the work.”

Staff salaries are rapidly rising, as well as the poaching of talent. “With all of the larger facilities opening TV divisions, they are taking from the midsize vendors who have a track history in this work,” notes Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor, CEO and Co-founder at BlueBolt. “However, this must be the same in every area of the industry and [if it isn’t] it will become unsustainable.” Shifting deadlines can complicate staffing. “One thing I would say on scheduling is networks have booked advertising around the programming slot whereas streamers aren’t bound to that rule,” remarks McWilliam. “If streamers want to slide the deadline back further then they are able to do so. That can be good or bad. If you have another job colliding with another finishing, that can be a real recruitment issue for us.”

“The scope and ambition of productions has grown exponentially along with costs,” observes Mark Binke, Executive Vice President of Production at Universal Content Productions, a division of NBCUniversal Content Studios. “As a result, series typically require more high-end visual effects, spread globally across more vendors. For television, unlike film, a high volume of visual effects shots are required on an ongoing basis versus film which is typically backloaded and for a percentage of the time.” Increased content spending does not necessarily mean more money allotted to each project. “Tighter budgets and shorter schedules have created a squeeze all around on visual effects studios,” notes Meg Guidon, VFX Executive Producer at Freefolk. “It requires an extreme streamlining of workflow with increased use of project management tools such as Shotgun to monitor shot status and share data for delivery.”

Tom Hooper portrays Luther Hargreeves/Number One, who returns to Earth upon learning of the death of his adoptive father in The Umbrella Academy, produced by Universal Content Productions for Netflix. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Television is an innovative medium. “You get to do things easily that you might not be able to do on a big feature film,” remarks Framestore’s Walkinshaw. “Even back in the days of [1996 television miniseries] Gulliver’s Travels, we developed a motion tracking system that you wouldn’t be able to possibly do if it hadn’t been on a miniseries where you were owning all of the technology and working out how to do it. There is a lot of innovative work going on in television at the moment.” Game of Thrones set the gold standard for high-end visual effects. “We couldn’t have made each season any earlier than we did,” notes Beres. “In many cases we were driving the visual effects industry to produce some new tool or way of doing something to allow us to be able to make the show. In that respect, it’s more about setting the pace for the technology, and knowing that this is the expectation of our filmmakers and the audience.”

“Our content can raise the bar for visual effects normally destined for studio theatrical releases,” remarks Fowler. “The Irishman, for example, would not have been possible without new thinking around facial capture and deep learning, and it was Netflix that opened the door to allow ILM to execute upon this ground-breaking work. Certainly, continued advancements in visual effects have brought about higher quality work throughout our series and feature content.” Expanding the canvas of storytelling also means the studios have more of an invested interest with Binke noting, “The ability to produce material with such scope means that the costs have escalated and the time from greenlight to air has expanded significantly as a result.”

Tax incentives remain essential in attracting projects to different countries and visual effects companies. “Incentives sometimes play a huge role and other times do not,” remarks Kanner. “I had a show recently where we ended up having more visual effects than we thought, and I needed to move some of the extra visual effects to a place where I could get incentives to make the overall cost less significant. In other cases, we may move visual effects not to where the visual effects are cheaper, but because we need a certain spend in that country or need a labor ratio to make it work for a different part of the incentive.” There is uncertainty regarding international productions continuing to be drawn to the U.K. “Removing the 80% cap on the current U.K. tax credit would be vital for the visual effects industry to keep the work in the U.K.,” states Ainsworth-Taylor. “This is essential, and hopefully after Brexit this can be addressed by government with the help of U.K. Screen lobbying for it.”

Lela Loren portrays Danica Harlan, the governor of the planet Harlan’s World in Altered Carbon, produced by Netflix. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

The good times will not last forever. “If we’re not careful, there can be a breaking point,” states Wayne Brinton, Executive Producer at Rodeo FX. “With streaming, there’s just so much work coming. Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Hulu and Apple TV+ are producing original content over and above the traditional studios. This means exponential growth, and so we need to find different business models. We need to invest in AI and machine learning to automate a lot of processes and we’re looking at different rendering software. Sometimes the trend is to outsource to cheaper regions with more available labor, but even that is starting to become harder and harder. At some point, there won’t be enough people. Visual effects is only going to increase. At Rodeo FX, we’re always using R&D to find better, more efficient ways to do work so both the people and tech we have will be fast enough to produce the content.”

Production spending by streamers will not continue at the current level. “One of the reasons it will hit the wall is, go speak to a 10-year-old about what they’re interested in,” states Will Cohen, Co-founder and CEO at Milk VFX. “It’s not going to the movies or traditional dramas. I won’t buy everybody’s services because no one can afford to do so every month. People will go where they think they’re best served. There will be a war that lasts five to 10 years and then it will definitely change. In the last five years we’ve seen truly global companies develop that were once local, and whether the market is sustainable for that I don’t know.”

Right now, it is all about seizing the moment. “It’s an exciting time to be in the industry,” notes Conley. “There are more creative opportunities with new kinds of stories being told than ever before. There are greater visual challenges being asked of filmmakers and their creative partners. The theatrical experience is evolving, streaming experiences are evolving. As stewards of the industry we need to work together to make sure these changes don’t have a lasting impact on the economics of the industry so that we can focus instead on the exciting technical advancements and creative opportunities at present.”

Cows magically appear in HBO limited series Watchmen courtesy of Outpost VFX. (Image courtesy of HBO and Outpost VFX)

An Eye Towards the Future

If one is to look into the technological future, the visual effects industry will be transformed with the proliferation of real-time rendering, AI and virtual production methodologies.

5G networks will be important in allowing the shift from fiber optics to wireless. “There may be a time in the near future where things are shot in the morning and feedback is being given by creative executives by late afternoon,” remarks Stephen Beres, Senior Vice President, Media & Production Operations at HBO. “That’s where we are excited about the promise of 5G. We’re starting to look at the idea of immersive object-based sound, and there is a certain amount of conversation about interactivity in content being an important new venue for storytelling. Digitally de-aging opens up an interesting realm where actors can play roles that would have been considered to be inappropriate given their age. The idea of digital doubles and bringing actors back from the dead is also interesting. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing to do, but it’s certainly intriguing to see where that technology is going and the opportunities it presents.”

Technological advancements in distribution and exhibition need to be kept in mind. “Production teams need to keep up on advancements in areas such as camera technologies, volumetric capture, previsualization, and others that may affect how audiences consume the programming,” states Mark Binke, Executive Vice President of Production at Universal Content Productions, a division of NBCUniversal Content Studios. “Certain processes, like rendering time for visual effects and dailies, require more time. Additionally, the ability to ‘broadcast’ higher quality programming to more devices creates the need for all produced media to be of the highest quality. Even at the HD level, on-set hair and makeup has become even more important.” The ability to do real-time rendering would reduce costs, believes Duncan McWilliam, Founder and CEO at Outpost VFX. “Something technological, which would help us a lot, is to get towards a real-time rendering built into every workstation so that an artist can animate on a final quality image, and we’re not animating on basic rigs then putting them through a whole pipeline of six other people until we see a final result, and then realize that the muscles don’t move right and we start the loop again.”

“Visual effects production is a complex endeavor, and it is easy to lose clarity of oversight and steer the ship in the wrong direction,” remarks Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer and General Manager at Image Engine. “In order to address this problem, we are consistently trying to progress towards a more data-driven approach to production management using analytical tools. Expect terms like data-warehousing, business intelligence and data-driven predictive modeling to become more commonplace as companies realize the wealth inherent in this often-unused information. Also, the industry-wide adoption of open file formats and standards like USD and ACES will make it even easier to share more and more complex assets between vendors easily, removing technological hurdles that previously required complex ingest, conversion and delivery pipelines.”

Cloud-based technology will continue to be a significant part of the visual effects industry. “While the cloud debate is hardly new, cloud-based solutions have reached a point in development where studios are successfully leveraging them in a secure, effective and efficient way, and I think this will increasingly be the case,” states Simon Rosenthal, Executive Vice President, Global Studio Operations at Method Studios. “We’ve used the cloud for rendering and will continue to do so. There have been projects we would have been hard-pressed to deliver on time without cloud rendering, so we certainly see the value in being able to quickly scale.”

“As virtual production tools and workflows continue to mature, they’ll have a huge impact on how the business plans for and implements visual effects content,” remarks Andy Fowler, Director of Visual Effects and Virtual Production at Netflix. “LED stages, virtual studio and real-time rendering all open up even greater opportunities for filmmakers to engage with visual effects in so many new ways. Visual effects, virtual production and animation will merge more and more over time; hence, it will become harder to distinguish where one folds into the next. This is an exciting time to be in the business as these worlds align. The influence of AI will have a big impact, the limits of which are unclear. The question may become: Are there any limits to what AI could achieve in visual effects?” AI is the way of the future. “It’s fascinating to see the inroads that AI is already making, and this will only accelerate,” states Rachael Penfold, Company Director and Executive Producer at One of Us. “Things which were inconceivable when we thought we had to code them have now become workable. This means that those aspects of an image which seemed to be utterly beyond the reach of automation are now beginning to succumb.”

The future is in real-time rendering. “Game engines will be more important in our film world,” believes Viktor Muller, CEO and Visual Effects Supervisor at UPP. “The quality of games has grown faster than the quality of filmmaking over the past years. A few years from now there will not be a big difference between feature, TV, streaming and games in terms of visual effects quality. Another important element will be AI. The tools that we use are 20 years old. The latest Nuke studio has the same features as Flame or Inferno did 15 years ago. Yes, computers are much more capable, so some algorithms work better now, but nothing super new. I am personally investing a lot of money and energy in AI tools like automatic keying W/O B/S, rotoscoping, retouching, AI color matching, compositing, and AI scan model cleaning. This is the way to improve quality versus time versus budget for the whole industry.”


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