By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
In March 2020, the escalating international situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic resulted in governmental work-from-home mandates to prevent the spread of the disease. As the film industry slowly recommenced productions last August, protocols were implemented that will continue to evolve.
Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould (No Time to Die) isn’t sure whether the ramifications of COVID-19 will have a lasting impact. “It is difficult to say, at the least; however, I am determined that this horrible virus will not stop us from providing spectacular films that will make us forget the events of 2020. I am currently fighting to make filming a viable process, as it used to be, but also providing film fans with a relief from some heartfelt tragedies.”
In the meantime, changes will be implemented to counter the impacts of the virus on the industry. “COVID-19 and social distancing are going to inform everything in our business until we get a handle on it, including set design and location selection,” notes Production Designer Scott Chambliss (Star Trek Into Darkness).
“Real crowd scenes will likely become virtual ones, and a scripted cramped environment may turn into one with, if not windows, then perhaps lots of vent ducting present. Lasting changes are hard to predict, but habits do form with repetition. New choices required by COVID management may become accepted norms over time.”
Human nature and the requirements of movie-making could work against establishing a ‘new’ normal. “From what I’ve seen and understand about people, this is going to go back to the old norm whether it is safe or not,” remarks Cinematographer Paul Cameron (Man on Fire). “We can’t go about this job differently. You can’t put a camera on a remote head or rig without close proximity and multiple people holding stuff, passing batteries and cables, and trying to shoot things. All of a sudden, everybody’s face ends up inches apart.”
Post-production has also been impacted. “We finished a score for a Netflix series that featured a small musical ensemble, the kind you would typically see playing together in a room,” explains Composer Jeremy Turner (Five Came Back). “But this time around, we had to get unusually granular with who, where and how we recorded the music, then find clever ways of mixing the score so that it sounded seamless and all felt natural. When size and scale increase, the challenges obviously compound. I genuinely wonder how smaller projects will even get made during these times. My guess is that there will be a real shift where location might dominate the decision-making process. Not only for shooting or tax credits, but for an entire production, start to finish.”
On the sound side of the film industry, Mark DeSimone (Boardwalk Empire), ADR Mixer/Re-Recording Mixer at Soundtrack NY Recording, remarks, “With a sudden stoppage of production, and after regrouping and reinventing how to move forward, at least with the post-production side, there were a number of ways to continue in some capacity. More editors are working from home and connecting remotely with directors and production staff. ADR Mixers sending out remote kits to the actors’ homes and being able to have some control, while Zooming in anyone who needs to be part of the session. Not ideal, but a way to keep moving. As New York City numbers came down drastically after months of struggle, we have been able to see more actors in the studio, while Zooming in everyone else. We have even had directors in the studio safely, with a social distance and masks for everyone.”
“I am determined that this horrible virus will not stop us from providing spectacular films that will make us forget the events of 2020.”
—Chris Corbould, Special Effects Supervisor
Frequent Robert Zemeckis collaborator Jeremiah O’Driscoll (The Walk) provides the perspective from the cutting room. “In anticipation of California’s statewide lockdown orders, our producers and studio post-production team secured our editorial crew with home workstations, improved our home Internet connections [as necessary], and provided access to essential communication systems via Slack, Zoom and BlueJeans. All work and sessions were attended, previewed and enjoyed from the privacy of our homes.
“I must say,” O’Driscoll adds, “freed from the time constraints and stress of my usual two hours plus daily commute to and from our offices and cutting rooms, the quality of my attention to my work also increased. The occasional need to check material on a large screen was handled by occasional trips to Mr. Zemeckis’ empty office screening room. I can envisage a continuation of many of these economies and protocols becoming standards in our industry. An editor’s facetime in the room with the director is invaluable in our convoluted process on the way to telling the most effective story from material we inherit. I wish I could say the path becomes easier with time and experience, but every film is its own beast and wonder.”
“If anything, this [past] COVID year has given visual effects studios an opportunity to prepare for the changing landscape that started shifting years ago,” states Lon Molnar, Co-President of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ). “The visual effects model as it currently stands is based on feature films – a long post-production period driven by the volume and complexity of visual effects. Condensed timelines are becoming the norm, but the industry hasn’t yet solved for that. The prevailing attitude is to continue throwing bodies at the problem, as has always been done. From the outset, MARZ recognized that the solution is technology. Technology has always helped find efficient ways to speed up the process and bring more spectacle to film and especially to TV. It doesn’t mean that incredible talent isn’t needed. If anything, the technology we’re developing is meant to free the labor to focus on the art. There is no reason to completely change the business –only to adapt and get better at it.”
With movie theaters operating at restricted capacity, drive-in theaters have made a comeback and streaming has become a more accepted form of distribution, with Universal Pictures Releasing Trolls World Tour on various digital platforms and Mulan appearing on Disney+. “Studios have been forced to consider straight-to-streaming and PVOD releases in place of the box office, and it looks like this may become a permanent alteration to the distribution model, with shorter theatrical windows and more direct-to-consumer content,” remarks Philip Greenlow, Global Executive Producer at MPC Film.
“Visual effects have been quick to offer potential solutions to help the recovery of physical production,” Greenlow adds, “from remote and virtual prep to LED walls. All things which have been evolving steadily in recent times and may now become more prevalent.”
Tom Williams, Managing Director at MPC Episodic, agrees with his colleague. “COVID-19 has created such an intense focus on new ways of working and new toolsets; we are constantly talking to our clients about their needs, but now through this COVID lens. It’s made us scrutinize why we worked a certain way in the past and it’s opened up ways of working we never thought would be possible. On the flip side, it has also put focus on what we miss about centralized working – that the creative process is a personal experience to be shared and enjoyed. As things begin to ease, we plan to maintain that flexible working practice where possible and get together when necessary, but make the most of both states.”
Pixomondo CEO Jonny Slow turns to a famous business tycoon for an appropriate description of the events of 2020. “Warren Buffet once famously said: ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.’ For the film industry, in 2020, the tide truly went out – a good part of a year with pretty much no cameras on. This will have been very painful for almost every company involved in production. From the smallest ones to the largest ones. It will take many years to recover the losses and the lost time.
“The delays caused by COVID, and the safety protocols being put in place right now,” Slow assesses, “will prove to be the clear tipping point for any technique that can save time, save costs and contribute to a safer production environment. When the tide comes back fully in 2021, the backlog will mean that production schedules are under more time pressure than ever before. We are going to see many productions embracing technology-driven techniques out of necessity – and once they have, they will never go back to how it used to be done. And the world will be a better place as a result – fewer miles traveled, less energy consumed, less waste, less time away from families, easier collaboration, more time to focus – and much more work possible for prolific producers than they could ever handle before. Time for a new swimsuit!”
Despite not relying on live-action footage, the animation industry was nevertheless impacted by the coronavirus lockdown. “I have two predictions,” notes Steve May, CTO of Pixar. “First, the euphoria of, ‘Hey, we can work from home’ will be replaced by the recognition that highly creative processes do best when we are in-person, in shared spaces, in environments that inspire us and encourage serendipitous interactions.
“Second,” continues May, “one of the advantages of Zoom is that it has allowed us to be more inclusive in our creative processes. It’s easier to quickly share work and organically invite stakeholders into short conversations where, in-person, this is typically hard to do with more than two people. Likewise, by ‘listening in,’ a larger portion of the crew gets a better understanding of the creative decisions happening and how their individual work contributes to the larger filmmaking process. We have traditionally been cautious about opening these kinds of meetings up to more of the crew. Working remotely forced us to and we’re seeing benefits.
“Prior to 2020, we made many strategic moves for a more nomadic production lifestyle,” observes Mandy Tankenson, Senior Vice President, Head of Production at Sony Pictures Imageworks. “With the rise of the pandemic, our industry and company were thrust into getting our artist and production teams home quickly, and safely, while still working out plans to deliver the work that was promised to our clients. Connections are now made through Google Meet, Zoom calls, online happy hours and online trivia contests. Daily check-ins with the artists and production teams ensure that the camaraderie that delivers the best imagery is maintained.
“As we continue working outside the office, where we can’t ‘bump into’ someone from another department,” Tankenson remarks, “we have to plan for those unscheduled conversations that lead to big-picture ideas. Our goals for innovating now encompass a broader scope. It’s not just about the tools to make amazing imagery, but also about that importance of keeping us connected to one another.”
ILM worked with Unreal Engine to produce the Emmy-winning visual effects for The Mandalorian. (Image courtesy of Disney)
“Interestingly, even before the pandemic happened, the National Film Board had begun using state-of-the-art technology to digitize and restore some 4,350 films and interactive works to make them available online,” states Julie Roy, Director General of Creation and Innovation at the NFB of Canada. “The NFB recently did its first-ever remote color-grading on an animated short being co-produced with France and Denmark. The two co-directors were supposed to travel to the NFB to supervise that part of the work, but instead took part in the color-grading session from Viborg [Denmark], taking cues from our color grader, who was at our head office in Montreal. This experiment and many others are quite valuable for an institution like ours, which has 10 studios all across Canada and co-produces with partners all over the world.
“The whole process of implementing new shooting protocols along with the reorganization of our production calendars has been quite demanding and required plenty of agility and hard work,” Roy reveals. “Where we thought everything had come to a standstill at one point, we now see that everything has accelerated and intensified. And then there’s the visibility of our content online, which has exploded, with nfb.ca logging four times as many monthly visitors as before.
Suppliers and film studios have not been immune to the repercussions caused by the coronavirus. “We’re currently supporting a production that’s testing the limits of virtual sets through the use of LED walls, digital programming and good old-fashioned movie magic,” states Garin Josey, Executive Vice President and COO of William F. White International Inc. “By combining pre-built, high-quality LED video walls with real-life actors and specific props, productions can limit the amount of people and locations needed to pull a scene together. Clients are already making room in their budgets to incorporate long-reaching camera cranes in order to keep everyone separated. These cranes can even be pre-programmed, which further limits the number of people required on set.
“Productions are also investing in PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] in the form of multiple hand-washing stations and medical-grade air scrubbers to keep people and the air they breathe routinely disinfected,” says Josey. “At William F. White we’re ensuring all our rental equipment and studio properties are sanitized to the highest possible standard. We’ve worked hard behind the scenes to support clients with stringent protocols, so they feel safe when equipment passes from our hands to theirs. After all, we’re all in this together.”
The movie industry has been in flux for a long time. “In 2020, even before the spread of COVID-19, it felt as though festivals had become the last haven for independent films,” notes Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director at the Austin Film Festival. “Netflix and Amazon, for example, provided some outlets for distribution, but those programs have tightened up as of late. COVID-19 is subverting the notion of normal lives and escalating poignant conversations surrounding inclusivity and racial injustice. For AFF, we’ve had to specifically consider how to stay true to the ethos of our organization. As the Writers Conference is known for fostering organic intimate moments between writers, we’ve put a lot of thought into any possible way to recreate some semblance of those moments for our audience. That’s the challenge facing all festivals at this point in time really.
“How do we recreate that level of connectivity when we can’t get closer than six feet to each other?” asks Baron. “It’s interesting to watch a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. partner with Epic Games and Fortnite to host events around an Inception screening and the reveal of a new trailer for his film Tenet. Perhaps that holds some clue for the evolution of film industry exhibition and showcase. The capacity for independent films to have a space in this rapid evolution will be paramount to defining what the future of the industry entails, but I do think those spaces will come to the fore soon enough.