These days, depending on how you look at it, there are far more effects jobs out there and far fewer places to go. In an industry where people use sophisticated expressions like "paradigm" and "matrix" to refer to what they're doing, the realpolitik of making effects commercials is an odd paradox: while there are fewer places to do 'em, there's more choices available than ever before.
What strange form of Steve Forbes' flat tax math is at work here? Well, while the number of big effects-oriented studios that are active in the commercials arena has declined, what's replaced it has been a small but potent cadre of companies that have given directors, agency producers and creatives a plethora of options, all of which is based on two simple business models that are roughly analogous to Quantel vs. Silicon Graphics, Henry vs. Flame. One is an open architecture world, where effects spots are shot by nonaligned directors who, just a few years ago, would have titillated Vegas bookmakers if word got out that they were doing a big effects job. This is the model chosen by Digital Domain, currently one of the two 800-pound gorillas of the visual effects industry.
The other model knows the sound of one hand clapping. It's populated solely by that other hefty primate, the one and only brand name in the effects industry, a studio that is closed off to carpet baggers but a free-for-all playground for its anointed few. We're talkin' Industrial Light & Magic, where the only spots that are shot are done by the directors they got.
Fleshing out the model matrix are two venerable firms that sort of straddle the line-Rhythm & Hues and RGA Digital Studios, where, much like at Burger King, you can have it your way: shoot with our guys, shoot with your guys, just shoot!
Comparing these approaches to making effects spots is no easy task, especially when you consider the permutations and distinctions that exist. That effects jobs are often exercises in high anxiety only adds to the pressure that accompanies awarding them. "It's a big issue, one that we deal with all the time," says an agency producer with fear in his voice, who's been down this road before.
So, who ya gonna call? One of the smaller, nimbler companies that subcontracts out those services they can't provide on their own, such as Alan Barnett's well-regarded Sight Effects, which Barnett says offers essentially visual effects supervision for hire? Or one of the boutiques that have opened in recent years, providing directors and agencies with everything from Flame and Henry to CGI, such as Radium, Click 3X, Quiet Man and 9006? These shops mix it up with a growing number of post houses and freelancers, many of which claim to offer similar services. It can be, worries Barnett, a confusing jumble for agency producers, made more so by the growing availability of the necessary hardware.
Of course, there's a huge distinction between ILM and all these other shops, none of which ILM considers direct competition, by the way. Alone among them, ILM is a production company. It has its own roster of directors, and the goal of exec producer Kevin Townsend and marketing director Phillip Collins is to marry their directorial roster to the needs of the agency business, not to serve as an a la carte effects facility for jobs awarded to other filmmakers. "What the industry needed was a facility that had a core competency in both directing and effects work," Townsend says of ILM when he arrived in '93. Up until then, as anyone will tell you, an agency took its effects jobs either to a live-action director with questionable effects ability or an effects director with questionable live-action skills.
So far, the ILM approach seems to be flourishing, and the studio is adhering to it religiously, in spite of being second-guessed and at times openly questioned, not only by their competition but by potential agency clients as well.
Michael Crapser, executive producer and head of commercial production at Rhythm & Hues, points out that the model ILM established in the features world-where they worked on movies shot by any number of directors-ended up being the exact opposite of the model they chose for their commercials production arm. "And then Digital Domain came along and reinvented the business," adopting what Crapser describes as a fairly simple philosophy: "There are thousands of directors out there-you don't have to choose from one of eight."
The dominant role Digital Domain has played in making effects production and finishing more widely available cannot be ignored. "What Digital offers is that it allows you to go after any director you want, for any reason, whether it's the talent of the director, your own relationship with them or the client's comfort," says DDB/Needham executive producer Greg Popp, "and you get them with Academy Award-nominated effects."
While Townsend describes ILM's strategy as being a reaction to changes in the business, essentially DD's was driven by the same forces. RGA's Bob Greenberg says that Digital essentially did what his studio had been doing years before in New York with Steve Horn and Bob Giraldi, "except they did it in Los Angeles, which is a huge difference," and they did it at a time when other effects studios were still closed to work from directors who were not on staff. "I think their timing was right; the industry was looking for that solution." Indeed, says DD's marketing and development maven Mitch Kanner, "our timing was spectacular."
That's because, as the distinctions between live action and effects diminished, agencies began demanding that their effects spots be handled with the same kind of vision and style that their live action work was getting. Suddenly, everyone agrees, it was not about effects anymore, but about concept. Increasingly, companies like DD, Rhythm & Hues, RGA and Sight Effects were providing the best directors in the business with access to the best hardware, software, facilities and, above all, talent. "We're the great equalizer," says DD's Ed Ulbrich, senior VP-production.
"You have to look at what visual effects are: they're tools that are used to enhance a director's vision," says Greenberg. "And the commercials business is really a director's medium; agencies are buying directors, they're not buying visual effects studios. Meanwhile, the tools have become democratized, they're no longer in the hands of a few large companies. The ability to do seamless effects can be had in a lot more places, which means that the top directors in the business, who are more versed in digital filmmaking techniques, have a lot more choices themselves."
OK, so the open-end model is a wonderful thing, but neither model is without its disadvantages. Townsend and Collins like to describe a paranoia-inducing scenario of confusing lines of responsibility and buck-passing (Townsend calls it "the cross-pollenization of blame"), not to mention the bugaboo of multiple markups. There's also the potentially conflicting agendas of live-action directors, who want to devote as much of the budget as they can to the shoot; to the effects house, which wants it for digital work; and to the post house, which wants it for finishing.
Then again, there's another aspect of cross-pollenization: it's where mystical new things are born. "Working with different directors is a huge learning process," says Sight Effects' Barnett. "Each has a different approach, there are different aesthetic processes. We feel it has broadened our perspectives on how to approach things, and has given us a good look inside directors' heads. It's a paradigm that gives us a collection of shared experience that helps us solve problems better."
But there are distinct benefits, some creative, some practical, to working under the umbrella of ILM, not the least of which is access to their legendary effects capabilities. Richard O'Neill, head of production at TBWA Chiat/Day, has only heaps of praise for the studio, and particularly for the work they did with director Steve Beck on the Nissan "Pigeons" spot (although, in all fairness, the appraisal of this spot among both agency producers and effects specialists interviewed for this story was pretty evenly mixed). O'Neill believes that, given the amount of time the agency had to produce the spot, the one-stop approach was the only way to go, and he applauds what ILM did over the holiday season to make the airdate. It's worth noting that C/D, which enjoys a great relationship with ILM, tried to get ILM to work with Kinka Usher on "Toys," but the company declined.
Fans of ILM's work nonetheless believe that their insistence on accepting effects work only via their staff directors limits the company's options. "If you want a Bruce Dowad look, or what Kinka is doing, ILM probably doesn't have that for you," says Mike Davison, exec producer at Suissa-Miller in Los Angeles, who produced the EV1 electric car spot for Hal Riney & Partners with director Joe Johnston at ILM. "But in a world of choices, they represent another option. You can go freelance, or you can take the one-stop approach. As an agency producer, it basically gives me the world at my fingertips."
A less optimistic Usher puts it a different way: "Places like Digital Domain have an open door policy, and ILM doesn't; the business thrives on an open door policy."
The ILM guys are aware that their roster of directors is often at the heart of their competitors' criticism, and they've taken steps to not only broaden it but to find ways to bring in the kind of aesthetic influences that Barnett talks about. Perhaps most important is an assessment of these shops' reels, and here is where ILM's strategy can leave them at a perceived disadvantage. While it's true they frequently get the plum of big effects jobs, it would be difficult for any single production company to compete with the aggregate that's found on a reel like DD's, with its spots from David Fincher, Sam Bayer, Allan Van Rijn, Eric Saarinen, Dowad and others. Both ILM and DD execs agree that when Steve Beck loses a job, he doesn't lose it to a DD or Rhythm & Hues, he loses it to a Kinka Usher. Beck himself says he'd like to see the ILM work become edgier and more raw-a little less perfect at times. A nice little PSA on the ILM reel for the Fund for Animals, shot by newcomer Mo Husseini, can be seen as an effort to hip up the visual treatment of the studio's work. It's pure style, with little or no effects feel to it, and an encouraging move into cutting-edge visuals.
Of course, this business is nothing but fluid, and some observers suggest that everything just might be up for grabs; directors say they've heard that ILM is mulling over its staff-only policy, while producers say that DD has quietly packaged some of its internal people to direct certain selected projects, most likely to help out regular agency clients with schedule or budget problems. "It wouldn't surprise me to hear that ILM was doing a job with Henry Sandbank," says a half-kidding Crapser, although both Collins and Townsend say ILM's policy is firm. Meanwhile, there's the speculation of DD's competitors that the company will eventually have to start offering its own roster of directorial talent in order to obtain the full production company markup, even though Kanner says this would play havoc with their business model.
What will probably affect everyone in the effects business is the observation, expressed by Crapser and others, that the business is getting more and more budget driven. "It's not that things are not as creatively focused as they've always been," he says, "it's just that as you can get effects production and finishing from a greater number of resources, the whole thing is going to become more budget sensitive." It's an outlook that can only confirm some effects specialists' worst fears: "Competition will no longer be based on merit, it will be based on budgets," says Barnett, whose recent assignments include work with Kinka Usher on Nissan and Peter Smillie on MCI. "It will lead to a quagmire of