Viewers have high expectations when it comes to visual effects, and could care less if a show’s budget is more public television than Hollywood. ‘You don’t hear people standing around the water cooler saying ‘That TV show last night, the CGI was really great considering their budget,” says Andy Davies-Coward, creative director at Bristol-based visual effects and CGI house 422 South. ‘It just doesn’t happen like that. The value judgments people make are absolute, and the broadcasters have pressure to out-wow each other by having the latest thing.’ The trickle down effect means producers face added pressure to deliver superior FX, and they share that responsibility with the FX companies they hire to create them.
Getting jaw-dropping effects on-screen starts with getting your expectations in check. And that means finding the middle ground between what you want on your budget and what the effects companies can accomplish with it.
It’s easier said than done, especially given producers’ heightened expectations of late. After working on CGI for docs for 20 years at 422 South, Davies-Coward says, ‘Because people have seen such brilliant stuff in movies, they assume there’s a button you can push on a computer and get a tornado or exactly the effect they’re looking for.’ There are just as many erroneous expectations around budgets. Take the proposal for a doc with Hollywood-level aspirations that recently came across Davies-Coward’s desk. An indie prodco wanted a 90-minute doc that would use CGI with live action back plates throughout for £750,000 (US$1.5 million). It sounds like tons of cash, but considering the high level of realism expected, Davies-Coward says it would cost at least 10 times that. ‘That shows a level of mismatch between expectation and reality that’s mind boggling, and the scale of these mismatches is getting greater, no question about that,’ says Davies-Coward.
Ed Kramer has also encountered towering expectations as visual effects supervisor at Denver’s Impossible Pictures, an effects house that mainly does promos, branding and show packages for clients including Discovery and National Geographic. ‘A producer will see The Perfect Storm and say, ‘Well, I guess [FX houses] can do photorealistic 3D oceans now, so let’s design a spot with one of those,’ based on the assumption that since those oceans were done seven or eight years ago, by now [the process] ought to be quick and easy,’ he says. There’s the added assumption that since technologies have improved (faster rendering times, more sophisticated software) and the cost for the technology itself has decreased, post houses will charge less. There’s some truth to that, but it still costs $10,000 to $15,000 per week for a cg artist’s time to do photoreal 3D work today, says Kramer.
That’s not exactly pocket change for producers who’ve faced major budget cuts. Kramer estimates that his clients’ effects budgets for promos and the like have been slashed to half of what they were two or three years ago. ‘A lot of times clients are surprised that we bill in the neighborhood of $225 an hour for our high-end computer graphics,’ he says. (Depending on the level of the CG artist and other factors, that rate can go up to $500 an hour.) Budgets for effects used within shows themselves have also been hit. ‘The budgets broadcasters have at their disposal to hand down to the production companies are usually missing one or two zeros off the end,’ says Davies-Coward. ‘It’s true to say that anything is possible in CGI, but not anything is possible for fixed budgets.’
How, then, should prodcos realistically budget for CGI? That depends on the role it plays in your project. Davies-Coward says there is a sliding scale, but ballparks that a fairly low-level CGI presence can warrant roughly 10% of the budget, but if CG is pivotal to the point where it will be used to entice audiences in promos, it can go higher than 20%. If your show’s whole premise is hinged upon CGI, budgets may shoot up to half of a total budget. He adds that the highest budget 422 South is currently working with is $650,000 for roughly 60 minutes of CGI screen time.
To get the best look on-screen for the lowest price, start conversations with FX companies before you pick up the camera. ‘For goodness sake, don’t shoot your shots and expect post to fix them because you won’t get a good result and you’ll probably waste a lot of money,’ says Phil Dobree, director at London-based visual effects shop Jellyfish Pictures. ‘Planning really is everything.’ He references New York-based Engel Entertainment as a prodco that’s using that motto. Engel is currently shooting Earth’s Revenge (w/t), a two-hour special for A&E Television Networks’ History channel about the dust storms that swept through the US in the 1930s. Revenge producer/director Amy Bucher and producer Heidi Burke contacted Jellyfish before the film was even greenlit to get a realistic idea of how much it would cost to use CGI to enhance dust storms Engel is creating in the field. They also had the foresight to send Jellyfish dust storm clips from HBO’s drama series Carnivàle and 1930s archival stills of the ‘black blizzards’ to show their scale and scope, and give a clear idea of the look they want.
The effects budget ended up at roughly $60,000, and Bucher estimates Jellyfish will provide 12 to 15 shots, or roughly 90 to 120 seconds in total screen time. She and Burke had extensive conversations with the Jellyfish team about how to shoot the plates needed for the post process, and what kinds of shots would help keep costs down. In taking these steps, they avoided the hassle of re-shooting or dropping a shot altogether if it would be too expensive to fix.
Another benefit of getting the FX company in as early as the draft script stage, says Davies-Coward, is that it helps the artists understand the context in which the CGI will be used. ‘Based on the assumption that 99% of producers do not know exactly what they want when they come in, most of them have a perceived gap in their ability to put pictures on the screen to go with the proposal they’ve sold,’ he says. ‘If I can see draft scripts I can see the context and say ‘He’s building this moment up as a scientific experiment and this part is a wow moment’ or I can say ‘This is a really didactic piece, without this CGI story the audience will not get this key scientific point.”
But more than simply communicate with effects companies early and frequently, it’s also good to offer them some creative wiggle room to get the most bang for your effects buck. When, for instance, Impossible did the opening for Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, Kramer says his team was trusted to choose the best techniques to produce the spot. The end result saved Discovery money and time because rather than use 3D computer software to create a tornado, Impossible used Flame, which only took about two days. They then used the budget allotted for 3D on other elements, like trees shaking in the wind and debris flying in the tornado, and had the time to do extra design work on the logo. The whole project was completed in about 10 days, and within Discovery’s budget range.
‘My main advice is work with us early enough on both the design and the budget so that we can actually create something you’ll be happy with that won’t cost you an arm and a leg,’ says Kramer.