Did CGI break the visual effect industry's back?

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.


  1. Anonymous12/9/12 11:04

    "The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it."

    Which often results in crap-effects...

    ...but there's always been plenty of practical crap-effects too - a low entry-bar is not something the digital revolution has brought with it.

    But I know what you mean. ;-)

  2. There were plenty of crap effects in the old days that's true, but there's a vast difference compared to CGI work. Back then you needed a camera, equipment, film stock, and sorts of things. Today, you just need the computer you already have. So the entry level HAS definitely dropped, considerably.

  3. I totally agree with you, but I have to play the devil's advocate here...not everyone can make good effects on computers, there's some skill required, not a huge amount but some.

    Also, gagathemovies says "stop talking about yourself in the 3rd person!"

  4. I didn't say anybody can make "good" effects on a computer, but it's a fair point. David agrees with us.

    1. Actually you did:
      "off-the-shelf software can easily be used to create perfect illusions"

    2. The software can do it, not everybody using it can.

  5. "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."

    "The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it."

    You sir. . .do not know what the hell you are talking about.

    1. I'm not talking about doing The Avengers or Battleship on a cheap laptop for God's sake. I'm talking about indie films, YouTube videos and so on - There's a picture from Monsters right there!

    2. But the guy who did Monsters is a talented filmaker and VFX artist. Your attitude of "anyone with a computer can do it" is what is wrong with the industry.

  6. "The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it."

    Not true in the slightest. (I've seen many demo reels that support my belief!) Trust me, not everyone can do it well enough to produce even poor results, let alone GOOD results. And look at it this way, the people submitting the crap demo reels I have to look at WANT to do this... and they still can't do it well. Forget about ever grabbing a random person off the street and trying to get decent work out of them. Never going to happen.

    And I would like to add... the entry level has always been low! The only difference now is that the entry level actually affords higher quality results in skilled hands. The catch is, becoming skilled is harder than it has ever been! The software really doesn't do enough work for the artist to offset the complexity of it. If anything, the complexity of doing things digitally only raises the bar for all the things an artist needs to know before they can make any work at all (good or bad... most likely bad).

    In the past the techniques typically involved making miniature or proxy versions of things and photographing them. That's pretty low tech. Anyone can do that also. Seriously. All you need is stuff you can get at the hardware store! Yes, I'm simplifying, but no more than you are when you say "anybody can do it".

    The truth is, traditional techniques actually lend themselves better to making FX on the cheap than digital does. Sure, some things are "easier" to do digitally, but you still need to be an artist and very skilled to get a decent result. Actually, this is true regardless of the technique or tool you use.

    Just think of the glass matte shot, or a foreground miniature. All you need is some paint and a sheet of glass, or a cheap model kit. That's even less expensive than the cheapest computer. Add in a Super-8 camera and you are still coming in cheaper than most computers. (Trying to keep the motion picture technology in sync with a pre-digital era. These days you could just use an old cell phone camera or hand-me-down digital camera and probably get better results. You could use a hybrid of digital and in-camera and get the best of both worlds. ) One of the nice things about miniatures are the fact that you get a lot of stuff for "free" that requires immense amounts of work to get just right in the digital counterpart.

    Anyway, my point is for the aspiring VFX artist, the bar hasn't come down it's pretty much stayed the same or even moved up. It's still incumbent on the artist to know how to get good results with the tools they have. Modern tools are extremely complex and more expensive than model kits and your dads Super-8 camera ever were. And if you look at it another way, there are more TECHNIQUES to learn now then ever before. (The old techniques never went away entirely!)

    Informed VFX companies do use hybrid techniques that leverage the best of traditional and digital. (You'd be mad to want to re-create something digitally that could have simply been photographed) Having said that, many traditional techniques are simply obsolete. For example, modern audiences would laugh at a stop-motion animated King Kong. And only a masochist would do a matte painting on glass when they could just do it digitally on a Cintiq or some other really nice digital interface.

  7. "The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it." - seems to be the line most CGI apologists get upset over. I guess I should have added IF THEY WANT TO WORK IN THE EFFECT INDUSTRY. I'm not talking about pulling my grandmother in to do CGI.

    And yes, you can produce effects with a model kit and and 8 mm camera. Do I really have to spell out that I'm talking about PROPER FEATURE FILM MAKING?!

    As for "Informed VFX companies do use hybrid techniques that leverage the best of traditional and digital." Yes they do. Some of them. A few of them. Occasionally. But most of them don't. Most of them just use CGI. They use it because that's what their pipeline is set up for, that's what their artists can do, that's all they know.

    There is still stunning Non-CGI effect work being done these days - The Dark Knight, Hugo - but nowhere near enough to offset all the mediocre, soulless CGI.

    1. Almost every show I have worked on has had an elements shoot where real things are shot to be added to our work. This included explosions, water, weather, blood hits, falling sand. Regardless of the fact that large chunks of the shot may be done in CG, if we can use something real we do.

  8. Another CGI apologist here... Hugo was filled to the BRIM with soulless CGI and so was The Dark Knight. The mistake most often made is that all CGI looks soulless. Granted some of it looks very very bad :D But then so did some practical effects. We're not saying that all practical effects were fantastic right? Because low budget practical looks just as bad as crappy CGI, in a different way. What I'm trying to say is that most people don't see 80% of CGI and always focus on the bad stuff. We're rapidly getting to the point where on a lot of shots CGI is looking just as good as the stuff that was shot. I agree that it should be a mixture and film makers like Nolan and (yes) Michael Bay try to do that to varying degrees of succes.

    And if you say that it's easy to work in the VFX Industry... Sorry dude, only a few people are hired out of hundreds of applications. And then a lot of people start as a runner or with very basic tasks. After years of experience you start to have a grasp of the techniques used. This stuff is complicated, no doubt about it. Yes the companies are bigger and yes the golden age of ILM doing shots in a garage are over. But we still shoot stuff outside on the street or fix stuff with a practical effect if we can. It is still a lot of fun to work in VFX. Hard work, yes. Easy, no.

    just my 2 cents. (enjoyed reading your take though)

  9. @MadMazzer
    Curse you! Another one! Nah just kidding.
    I mentioned Dark Knight and Hugo for the good use of models, not for the CGI - which was quite awful in Hugo. And yes, before we Old School effect apologists (me being one of them) crawl completely up our own rear end, it's completely fair to point out that practical effects can suck too.

    The invisible CGI is fine - it is after all invisible. My main problem is stuff like Battleship, Green Lantern, The last 30 minutes of Avengers, where CGI is front and center, and some shot are just straight up full animation.

    Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that working in the VFX industry today is easy! Access to computers is easy. Access to software is easy (if not cheap), but to make a living in this industry must be absolutely hell, and I'm glad I can just sit here by my keyboard criticizing the work, without having to navigate that battlefield to put food on the table. If you're working for a company which is still stuff on the parking lot or whatever, then BLESS you, and I wish you all the success in the world.

  10. Creating great visual effects has always been hard and requires great skill regardless of if it is optical or digital. Miniatures and models are always an option when it makes sense for the particular project. Virtual shots likewise have their place when it makes sense. Digital provided artists with the ability to focus on the images and worry less about common issues like matte edges.

    What people don't realize is just how many effects shots they've been seeing without even realizing it. You see the bad ones and the ones that have been abused.

    Good filmmakers have been able to make the transition from film to digital without issues. Non-vfx artists have been able to make great art even with digital tools. In the end it's not about the technology as much has the people using it.

    Also important to point out it's not just the small companies underbidding. Even the large companies in countries with film incentives have been underbidding their work.

    The visual problems today:
    1. Not all digital artists understand photography and design.
    2. Not all digital artists use real images as references.
    3. If all you've done is digital and CG effects then you will use that to solve every problem even when there are alternatives.
    4. Visual effects work is being compressed into shorter and shorter pre and post-production leaving little time to properly design and little time to polish the effects. With less shots in the days of optical you could spend time working on them. Now you're just trying to keep with the flood of daily changes.

    But the biggest problems is quite a few films (and directors) do not use visual effects to get the best out of them for movies. You need to have a good story and tell that story well. Visual effects should be used to help tell stories as needed and not be used as something to simply continuously blast in the audience eyes. Zooming, shaky cam, car stunts, etc have all been things that have been over used and abused over the years. At a certain point the audience will roll their eyes and leave.

    Visual effects artists have shown what is possible to achieve and more than willing and able to do the work. They shouldn't be blamed when a film miss uses their abilities.

    1. @Scott Squires
      Thanx for the great feedback.

      You are of course right to blame the filmmakers. They're a part of the problem as well, and I know it's a little unfair to blame CGI artists for bad CGI every time, but I don't know what played out behind the scenes. There may be many reasons for bad CGI, but all I can do is look at the film and judge it.

      Re 1) I've heard this from many seasoned VFX artists that (I'm paraphrasing) "kids today don't even know how a camera is built"

      Re 3) This is where I feel the biggest problem is today.

      Re 4) This is really a subject I wish more artists would talk about. I understand no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them, but I get the feeling this is a growing problem - and I know how much you've written about proper working conditions.
      Also, "less is more" - Something the whole film industry would do well to remember.

      "Visual effects should be used to help tell stories as needed and not be used as something to simply continuously blast in the audience eyes"
      - Amen to that. I couldn't agree more.

  11. Articles like this angry me.
    To suggest that anyone can to proper vfx is such a ludicrous assumption.
    There is an insane amount of knowledge, experience, talent and multi facet skillsets one requires to pull of what us professionals have to pull of on unsustainable timetables and quality requirements.
    Claiming that with just off the shelf and 'cheap' software the same output can be easily achieved, even by entry level enthousiasts is to me the same as believing the latest 'look i took pictures from space with my cellphone' on youtube is just a step and a hop away from landing a rover on mars.
    But i can't reasly blame the misguided author, after all we have been bombarded with so much crap and false advertising that it is hard to maintain a common sense attitude.
    But one day our industry is going to implode so hard that you will start writing about the good old days when those amazing CGI artists used to bribg such entertaining spectacles to the big screen.

    /rant off

    Danny B

    1. Don't be angry Danny.

      I don't mean to suggest that ANYBODY can do visual effects - as in, my grandmother or the guy in my grocery store who wears his pants around his knees. What I mean is anybody who wants to work in visual effects can, with a computer and readily available software, sit down and produce visual effects. Not Transformers, not Battleship, not Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but simple, effective, completely believable illusions. And yes, even shots that are good enough for a feature film - That's all I mean, when I say "Anybody can do visual effects on a computer"

      You say, "we have been bombarded with so much crap and false advertising that it is hard to maintain a common sense attitude."
      - Can you elaborate?

      "one day our industry is going to implode so hard that you will start writing about the good old days when those amazing CGI artists used to bring such entertaining spectacles to the big screen."
      - Well this is EXACTLY what I fear! Why are we arguing? I want the good solid artists to survive, I don't want them to be underbid be inferior work. I want to be able to come out from a film and say "was there any effects in THAT?" And I want a good, hardworking company like Digital Domain to be able to make it. That's all. If that makes me misguided, so be it.

    2. I can believe that your article came from a good place, the choice of sentences in its content is what set of my rant senses.

      Let me elaborate on the "crap and false adv" comment. Right now there is a Dell spot running that makes the audience believe that any little girl can take a horrible green towel and run some afx presets to make it seem she can flawlessly fly in a school video. This is the same nonsense as all the etrade pre dotcom meltdown spots making the gullible audience believe that by just punching in some numbers at home will make every kid have a personal helicopter in his backyard a week later.
      And crap for all the stupid software apps and tabloid interviews that make one believe "dinosaur, np, press control D and then shift F3 to make it green"

      I am also extra sensitive (artist have such tendency ;)) because I have many hardworking friends with families that constantly get affected by unneeded hardships caused by our industry lately, and I am a DD alumni, so its even more personal.

    3. Thanks for getting back to me Danny. I know what that's like. sometimes you read something on the internet and you're off.

      I'm not familiar with that spot, so thanks for clearing that up. I think I know what you mean, though. I feel like sometimes those "making of" clips give people the wrong impression as well. "First we animated an alien ship, then it crashes into an animated building, here's the debris layer, here's the background, click-click-clik. Done!" And I'm thinking to myself, yeah sure, somebody worked six months on that.

      There was a time when I knew the name of virtually every effect studio, now I just can't keep up. Sometimes they mention it casually on The VFX show, "Oh, company A closed, turned into company B and then split up into company C and D" - and my head is spinning. I can't imagine what it must be like working in that atmosphere. The fact that the company that did the effects for Benjamin Button can't make it in this world (other finical complications notwithstanding) just makes me sad, and that was why I got ranting in the first place.

      I really do hope there's still a chance to turn the tide, for the sake of the movies, for my own sake as a viewer, but more than anything for the sake of folks like you who have chosen this battlefield for your profession.

  12. Yes I know we shouldn't listen to everything Wikipedia says, but nevertheless this description from the article on the British sci-fi film "Monster" directed by Gareth Edwards should shed some light on whether or not anybody can do CGI:
    "Edwards did all the special effects himself using off-the-shelf Adobe software, ZBrush and Autodesk 3ds Max.... Once the film was locked, Edwards had five months to create all 250 visual effects shots, a process he undertook in his bedroom. "[I was] churning out about two shots a day, which was fine until I got to the first creature shot. Then suddenly two months went by and I still hadn't finished a single creature shot; it turned out to be the hardest part of the whole process." Due to time constraints, the sound effects had to be produced before the special effects were undertaken. Edwards claimed that the advances in computer technology in recent years made it possible for him to create the films visual effects on such a low budget; "You can go in the shop now and you can buy a laptop that's faster than the computers they made Jurassic Park on"."

  13. This post made me angry for the same reasons most of the comments above discus. I've had similar issues with movie reviewers who trash the VFX work without understanding the process.

    I've written my own blog post about the issue here: http://conradolson.com/reviews-and_vfx-or-why-mark-kermode-sometimes-makes-me-mad

    1. @Conrad
      Thanks for the link. I'm glad you mention Inception, to me this film represent the perfect use of CGI. I wouldn't change a frame of that film, and I can promise you when I reviewed it (in my Danish podcast, sorry) I praised the HELL out of the effects.

  14. Just to add another specific note:
    "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. "

    "The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it. "

    These are the key issues visual effects artists have with the article.

    I've covered some of this previously in my post:http://effectscorner.blogspot.com/2011/10/people-not-computers-create-visual.html

    At the end of the day anything can be said to be easy given the availability and cost of the tools. Word processors doesn't turn everyone into accomplished novel authors. An exacto knife doesn't turn everyone into surgeons. Pens and brushes don't enable everyone to be a world class artist. Anyone can purchase a baseball but that's unlikely to make you into a major league player or some that people will want to watch play (except for your parents)

    Even those experienced in photoshop would have a hard time dealing with moving footage. The vast majority of visual effects work is on the big screen and reviewed as such by the director and studio. Keep in mind the director has revised the work numerous times and has approved every shot shown. Ultimately your issues with specific shows or shots is likely a specific request from the director or studio.

    As mentioned earlier how much polish is done and how much work is squeezed in the last week before release is dependent on the director and schedule. Most of the artists have been heavily trained and experienced so it's frustrating to them for their effort to be dismissed just as it would be for a concert pianist to be dismissed because anyone can rent a piano. You may not care for Bach but if that's what the pianist was asked to play then that's what you get.

  15. Anonymous14/9/12 03:22

    I'm not sure if you realized this, but your article essentially states that any person with a computer and some software can be a VFX artist, much the same way anyone with Instagram can be a photographer.

    Really real VFX artists are as obsessed with practical effects as you claim to be, and most of the time they will try to convince film directors to shoot practical effects whenever possible, and then use CGI to enhance those effects. And while there probably aren't as many puppet makers as there used to be, where do you think those veterans have gone? They haven't retired, they've just learned the new software and are still applying the same skills they've refined in the past.

    In fact, where do you think CGI was born from? It came from the desire of old-school VFX artists to do things that they couldn't achieve before... to make things even more realistic and bring more fantasies to life.

    People generally harp on CGI constructs like Jar Jar Binks etc... but be aware that the majority of CGI shots are the ones that go totally unnoticed, like the removal of buildings in background, or a digital matte painting of a spectacular mountain range. They're good, because you totally didn't notice them.

  16. I would like to point out that standard blockbusters now take several hundreds of artists, 6ish month full steam, minimum 45 hours a week to produce the effects for these films. I personally have spent upwards of a year on a film. My lead on "battleship" was on that project almost two years. It's this "push a button" logic that is causing the collapse of these companies, because it's assumed this process is easy and cheap.

  17. Also coming from a start up studio, to get a team of 10 artists going, I will need capital of $50,000 for software and hardware alone. And I am using the cheapest I can.

  18. Before computers came around the creation of visual effects was prohibited by budget and physical limitations. While the creation of VFX these days remains difficult and demanding of artistic vision as always I think the supporters of both practical and CGI miss something in this debate.

    Audiovisual entertainment is in a sense defined by visual gimmickry. You could almost compare it to a circus act that different audiences pay to see. The point of the format is to entertain, to distract people from everyday life. What's missing, however, is a certain type of reciprocity between circus and theatre. IMHO, the best film experiences of the past and present alike have a harmony between story of well written character(s) and visual sophistication.

    To repeat myself, the creation of visual effects is in no way less demanding today as it was back when all that people had was different materials and good ideas in how to use them for the best visual result. The only difference is in how the old prohibitions have become redundant due to computers taking over certain functions. To someone else the loss of such limits sounds like a good thing.

    Truth is, that's a double edged sword. Some people make cheap gimmicks, others do expensive ones. DIfference of quality aside, it is nevertheless gimmickry. The less prohibited creation of visual gimmicks has become a foundation of sorts to film-making, the price being that storytelling suffers from being outweighed by said gimmickry. It doesn't really matter what type of stories you try to tell when the end result is always the same; the gimmickry wins. Is that the sole motivation to build a story around? I don't think so.

    I know that this sounds harsh and I by no means want to jump the gun and offend the passionate but it has to be said; film-makers, watch out! If you're not careful with your beloved format a bigger moronic need will lead to a bigger moronic supply. As a result, bye bye storytelling, hello bigger attention deficiency.