Digital Reshapes Production budgeting, billing

    Holdouts and traditionalists may be sticking with 35mm film, but the digital revolution has triumphed.

    You probably knew that, even if you don't like it. What you may not have fully grasped yet, though, is that this revolution means more than doing the same things you've always done but now with digital gear. It means changing the way you think about your work, the way you do your work, and, in many cases, the way your work is billed and paid for.

    Consider Martin Scorsese's 3D pic "Hugo" and visual effects company Pixomondo.

    In the analog world, f/x were "post." The editor and director locked their cut and handed it over to visual effects, hoping they'd have no regrets when they saw the result. Changes late in the game were difficult and expensive. Most visual effects studios still charge on a flat-bid model left over from those days, based on cost per shot.

    Digital editing is more fluid, though. It starts earlier -- on some pics rough cutting starts before a scene is done shooting -- and continues later. That shift thrown the vfx business model for a loop. Since the cut isn't locked early, vfx studios are coping with continuous adds and changes that weren't in their flat bid.

    Scorsese and longtime film editor Thelma Schoonmaker like to experiment with their cut almost up to the pic's delivery date. On "Hugo," they had a short post-production period by their standards -- about 38 weeks instead of the 58-68 weeks they prefer -- and a vast number of 3D visual effects to be completed. Adds and changes were inevitable.

    So Pixomondo came up with a three-part solution, according to Ben Grossmann, the company's vfx supervisor on the pic. An on-set previs system let Scorsese and his camera team know what would replace the greenscreen, so they could frame accordingly and avoid "fix it in post" moments. Then Pixomondo provided temporary vfx for the edit, so Scorsese and Schoonmaker could see what would be in the frame as they did their editing.

    The third part and most counterintuitive part, says Grossmann, was "save all your bullets until they're really useful."

    In other words, wait as long as possible to turn temp vfx into finals.

    "If you're used to the idea that the visual effects are turned over to the visual effects company after editorial, then your instinct is, as soon as you have something, get working on it. But when visual effects is before or simultaneous with editorial, you have to flip your mindset. You don't want to get working on something until you're certain it's in the movie." On "Hugo," the team knew there was a good chance that any vfx shot -- even a simple wire removal -- would move, or start and end in a different place, or be replaced altogether with a different take. To do such work early would waste money and resources. So they only finished vfx shots when the team around Scorsese and Schoonmaker, especially assistant editors, signaled that something seemed locked.

    "It scared the shit out of a lot of people on 'Hugo,'?" says Grossmann. There were screenings with temp effects before the official delivery date. But in the end it worked.

    Moreover, Pixomondo didn't use flat-bid pricing. Instead, the shop broke out costs for construction of digital sets, as in physical production. Then, once those digital sets were built and lit, the cost of "shooting" on them, even with adds and changes, could be relatively modest: a few days of labor and commodities like computer time.

    Said Grossmann: "A flat bid is based on the premise you know what you want and I know what I have to do it with, so I can give you a total cost estimate on what it's going to take. In the new model I have to start to adapt that to a time-and-materials model just like everything else in filmmaking."

    Though this model has been used in TV, Grossmann said movie producers tend to be skeptical of it. By experience, they understand how to negotiate down a flat bid. But now they need to either learn more about vfx or trust their vfx producers more.

    Studios and production companies, on the other hand, love the non-flat-bid approach, said Grossmann, "because the filmmaker gets what he wants, which is more control and interactivity and, somehow -- they don't quite understand how -- they get cheaper costs."

    For visual effects firms, which have been searching for a new business model as the old one creaks under the strain of short posts and late changes, it's a mixed bag.

    "The thing that (the vfx business) is nervous about is, 'Well the one good thing was the edit would be locked and we would stop dicking around with it.'?" said Grossmann. "But you have to buy the whole thing part and parcel. You can't say, 'We want to be involved, and we want you to have all this control and interactivity, but we want you to lock the cut blind and hand it over to visual effects."

    Article by David S. Cohen - Variety

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