Yesterday it was announced that one of Hollywood's big effect facilities, Digital Domain, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At this time it's unclear if the studio will make it through this crisis *. This came in the wake of the news that another prominent effect facility, Matte World Digital, closed its doors only a few weeks ago. There's no denying that the visual effect industry is under pressure.
Digital Domain was founded in the early 90's, backed by three industry heavies: James Cameron, Stan Winston and Scott Ross.
The studio quickly made a name for itself, by producing visual effects for True Lies (1994), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Apollo 13 (1995), and earning Academy Award nominations for two of them. In the early days James Cameron put his full weight behind the facility, but he has long since left it behind. Since 1997, when Digital Domain won the Oscar for Titanic, the company had been struggling. They worked on countless huge effect films, delivering outstanding work, but they rarely found a high profile project they could call their own. In 2008 the company did win the Academy award for one of the most impressive visual effect efforts in recent memory, the David Fincher directed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but that was the exception to the rule.
Industrial Light and Magic has a profile, WETA has a profile, Double Negative has a profile. There's still a small chance that Digital Domain can pull through, but if they do come out on the other side, this lack of a clear profile will have to be addressed.
In 1993 Jurassic Park opened, and changed the visual effect scene overnight. A gross simplification perhaps, but not entirely untrue. Since then the effect industry has been on a downward spiral. Full service facilities - capable of creating effects using a wide variety of techniques - have shut down or changed. Model departments were discontinued, optical departments were a thing of the past, matte paintings were now done with a mouse and a digital pen, rather than actual paint and brush.
Simultaneously the attitude towards visuals effects changed, and the need for effects rose dramatically. In the past even big effect films had only a couple of hundred effect shots, but today big budget effect films often have over 2000.
Computer opened new possibilities, but they also closed the door on variety and ingenuity. Old school visuals effects forced filmmakers to think outside the box, to use every trick in the book. Not only that, but they were forced to hire highly skilled, experienced artists to pull off their illusions. Anybody can do visual effects on a computer. We all have computers, we all work with them every day, and off-the-shelf software can easily be used to create perfect illusions. There's no longer any need for complex, versatile companies, with large studio spaces, model shops, and mechanical departments. Nothing is built, nothing is created.
The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it. The highly skilled artists that used to form the backbone of the industry are disappearing, and they won't be replaced.
The competition is fierce. Small companies underbid each other to extinction, just to get material for a show-reel, only to shut down after a few months, because they're not making any money. It's a vicious, self-destructive circle.
The effect industry is broken. And to be perfectly blunt: It's only going to get worse.
Flashback. 1990. Little Mr. Bjerre walks into a comic book store to check out their selection of film magazines. He's drawn in by a cover showing the familiar sight of two heroes carrying suspicious looking ray guns, the kind you bust ghosts with. This was the cover of Cinefex issue no. 40, featuring stories about Ghostbusters II (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
Cinefex is the industry's leading visual effect magazine. Since 1980 editor Don Shay and his posse have written about the major effect films four times a year. I remember flipping through those early volumes. I could barely read the highly technical text, but the images spoke volumes. They presented a completely unique look behind the scenes, and they were endlessly fascinating.
Present day. Cinefex has launched its iPad app and Mr. Bjerre considers canceling his subscription to the print edition. He hasn't done it yet, but he probably will.
It's been a long time since I read Cinefex magazine cover to cover. The articles just aren't that interesting any more, and the images do not entice me. It's no fault of the dedicated writers or the editor. It's not the articles that got smaller, it's the films. How much can you write about the rendering of metal surfaces on the robots of yet another alien invasion film? How interesting is it to consider the complicated mathematics behind the perfect breaking of a computer generated window? What kind of interesting behind the scenes stills can you use to bring the text to life? Another picture of a man behind a computer? A wireframe model? The empty shot, before the CGI was added?
I have no illusions that we can go back in time, I'm not even sure that I'd want to if we could. The perfect solution would be to combine everything a 100 years of visual effects production have taught us, with the capabilities of computers. That would take patience and skills, so it won't happen. It's too easy to go the CGI way. Easy for the producers, and for the directors. CGI has no soul, but the images are too good, to try something else.
I'm sorry if you read this far, thinking I had some sort of solution, or some comforting words. I don't. The game is over. It's all done. CGI is the future. The only thing we can do is remember the old films, and the artists who worked on them. And support the hell out of any current effect company who has the balls to do the same.
* Note: For a more comprehensive look at Digital Domain's financial structure and possible future, read the extensive article on FX Guide, by Mike Seymour.