Monday, February 25, 2013

A quick sidetrack before we return to our story...

In 1992, I met with freelance photographer, Louis Psihoyos, who was working on assignment for National Geographic magazine.  The assignment was that they would travel around the world and dig up (no pun intended) all of the new information about dinosaurs.  He and his friend/assistant John Knoebber had stopped by Stan Winston studios to photograph the dinosaur construction.  In his hands Louis had a digital 35mm camera - one of the first.  I asked him what it was like not having film in the camera and he told me (then) that it made him a little nervous.  He no longer had control of the negatives he shot (which was how photographers maintained control over the images they captured) and explained that once the image had been interpreted by a computer, making a duplicate would not result in any loss of image quality (which would happen if you traditionally re-photographed a photograph using film to make a new negative).  Those words struck a chord with me.

 Most everyone in Hollywood (and in the world) has embraced digital technology and it has thrown incredible tools into the hands of many creative people who, otherwise, would find creating cost prohibitive.

That is good.  Right?  Anyone who had the guts to pick up a Super 8mm camera (that's right, I said GUTS) and shoot a few days of crude stop-motion animation, knows what I'm talking about.

It used to be that you would buy a roll of film for about $7 (which was expensive), build your puppets, sets, and props, shoot the animation only to discover upon development that it was full of "flash frames" or parts of it were out of focus. And that was that. The person working at the drug store where you had it developed didn't care - you still had to pay the $7 (in the 1970's mind you) to have it processed.  You, essentially LOST $14 and to many of us, that was MONTHS of allowance!

These days, all you need to do is grab your laptop, plug your camera in and start capturing frames.  You can look at them in a series, perfect the movement, make corrections - anything - all through the miracle of digital photography.  Heck, I'll even go so far as to say that digital photography SAVED stop-motion animation.  With a new generation of film artists raised on instant-gratification, stop-motion is no longer a "blind visual effect" the results of which would traditionally be seen only AFTER the film returned from a lab.

Meanwhile, for 40+ years, makeup artists were pushing the envelope of what could be accomplished with prosthetics to change the appearance of an actor into a character or in some cases a monster.  Dissatisfied with limiting their vision to heads and hands, they began to branch out and construct full-bodied creatures.  When that didn't satisfy movie audiences, intricate puppets were constructed and photographed.

Laugh all you want, but when you stop and consider the man-hours needed to create a Godzilla film from the 1960's AND the risk it must have been to shoot it all on film with high-speed cameras, it staggers the imagination.

Why?  Because a team of artists and technicians had to build cities and vehicles in perfect scale WITHOUT the use of a computer.  A team of people had to be confident enough in their skills to set miniature explosives and rig those buildings to come apart on cue.  And if it DIDN'T work - the lab didn't care.  You still had to pay to have the film processed.

Miniature builders, glass matte painters, effects animators, rotoscopers, Optical Printer technicians ad nauseum were all trying to push what was being seen on screen stretching the limits of their imaginations and production budgets to bring the impossible to audiences in the name of entertainment.

See, that's why I don't refer to these decades as the "photo-chemical" age, I refer to them as the "Special Effects Days" because creating an effect was special - it was unique.  Sure, you could use the same techniques (even the same molds and suits for the most part) but invariably, there would be SOMETHING new that no one had figured out yet.  There was some challenge that took the combined brain-power of a group of talented folks to figure out before the all-expensive film would begin to run through the camera's gate.

Bored yet?  Okay.  So now where are we?  Look on vimeo or youtube and you can see thousands of people making films in their backyards or on locations all over the world.  The picture quality is fantastic (even mind-blowing in some cases).  They don't own multi-million dollar visual effects companies; some of them use little more than an iphone and a laptop.  I've heard it been said that a renaissance of sorts has begun.  Or has it?

During the Italian Renaissance did EVERYBODY have the skills of Michaelangelo and the ability to paint the Sistine Chapel?  Could just ANYBODY pick up a hammer and chisel and begin to sculpt incredible figures like Bernini?  Just because a group of talented individuals were given the opportunity to create timeless works of art did not mean that (proportionately) thousands of people were doing it.

Our current creative environment is something much more akin to the American frontier.  The computer has become equivalent to a gun which was called "the great equalizer" in its day because a person no longer had to be possessed of physical strength to survive in the savage wilderness.  All they needed was the knowledge of how to use a gun. Sure, the better you were with the gun, the better you could protect yourself or exploit someone else but the gun was what offered the opportunity for equality.

I don't think I have to spell out the comparrison here.  Computers, like guns, are tools.  They are used to get a job done, however owning this tool and having the knowledge of how to use it for visual effects sets an individual ahead of the curve compared to those who do not have a powerful/fast machine, the right software and the know-how. I don't think I need to tell most of you that I've seen films on the Internet with effects that nearly rival ILM scale projects.  Look at Neill (District 9) Blomkamp's early work as just ONE example.

Sure, there are a lot of crappy projects on the Internet as well but to that I say look at 90% of the original programming on the SyFy Channel.  There is a LOT of dodgy effects work going on and yeah, I know, I know, I know the dance - no money, no time. it's meant to be campy, blah, blah, blah.  What many don't realize is that poor digital effects are "conditioning" audiences.  Since those who feel compelled to watch this stuff are seeing it in a "professional venue" (where sponsors are paying for advertising time) - they eventually accept this level of effect as "professional."

So now we have our margins - on one end we have giant effects houses: ILM, Sony Digital, and I'll throw in Legacy, KNB EFX, and Pixar to be fair and on the other side you have little boutique effects houses and indviduals in their homes with a lot of imagination and the knowledge of Maya, Z-Brush, and After Effects.
Throw on top of that the Gnomon School, The Stan Winston School of Character Arts, Creative Cow, Digital Co-Pilot, Free YouTube tutorials, and accredited universities and trade schools all over the world TRAINING new generations of VFX artists every year.

Do you see where this is going?

So now, after Practical Effects artists whom have been compared to "rock stars" have taken the back seat to visual effects companies and concerns, after Screan Actor's Guild puppeteers suddenly find only a few venues that still consistenly get them paid gigs, after Screen Actor's Guild stuntmen shit their pants as digital "stuntmen" began hitting propellers in TITANIC, after Local 706 makeup artists have had their work augmented or in some cases replaced by digital effects, and after film labs all over the world shut down or heavily reduced their payrolls because of the progress made by digital technology, NOW digital effects technicians and artists are calling for solidarity.

To what end?

Who came to the rescue of all of the UNION cel animators when Disney closed its doors?  Who rushed to all of the non-Disney animators when their jobs were outsourced to Korea? All of this was done in the name of progress, right?  It is what audiences wanted!

When the WGA struck, SAG marched along side in "solidarity."  When the WGA strike ended and the SAG strike began, what did the writers do?  They worked - they didn't strike in solidarity.  The in-fighting between SAG and AFTRA before the unions, the new "emerging markets" combined with the creation of SAG Low Budget and Ultra Low Budget agreements has caused a DROP in salaries and residual structures. Actors (with the exception of celebrity/actors) now earn less money. And actors are "above the line!" 

This is not a fair world, kids.  This is what we call progress.  The world has turned and it is what we all wanted.  If Nooks and Kindles and Ipads were not so popular, then you could still find big bookstores in every mall.  If there were no flat screen TVs and home theaters around, serviced by cable/satellite/on-demand networks, more people would have to go to theaters for entertainment.  If, if, if, if....

We all wanted this.  We all wanted to know how - we wanted to know how the magic was made - from pop music to novel writing and what has happened?  WE have disrupted how creative work is made and marketed and while a few of the old guard remain, making their millions, controlling what and how mass media is fed to the public, for the first time we see large numbers of independent creators out there.

Yes, piracy is a growing concern, but had everything remained analog, think how difficult making copies of music, art, and movies would be.  Am I suggesting we go BACKWARDS? NO!  We're here! It's clear! Digital's not going to disappear!  So why do I say all of this?

Because we have to stop all of the horseshit.  We have to stop the fighting and name-calling and everything else that we are doing.  If you feel like you are being exploited by someone who is making tons of money off of your efforts - leave.  Start your own business.  Make your own movies. Is the market saturated?  You bet, but all markets are saturated.  We live in saturated times but in a way - that's good!

You don't HAVE to watch "Honey Boo-Boo" if you don't want to; you have options.  You don't HAVE to work in your hometown anymore if you can figure how to use and employ the Internet to your advantage. It is a brave new world (well, we can argue "brave" if you want to) but it is certainly very different than when most of us started in this business and for those of you starting your careers now - WATCH OUT!  Twenty years goes by in the blink of an eye and soon you'll find yourself wondering how it is that you have become redundant.

All of us have a choice RIGHT NOW!  You can weep and mourn for the way films were made and do your damndest to try and turn the clock back - or you can decide how you fit in.  Not just as a VFX/digital/practical artist but as a human being.  Strength and independence are the cornerstones of  human spirit and creativity.  You are creatively in so much better shape now than ever.  Figure out your place or better CREATE your place.

You got your "great equalizer" right in front of you.  Might as well parcel out a little spread o'territory here on the Internet and call it your own.  Make whatever you want and share it with everybody else.  Will it make you rich? I don't know, but I ask you this: Does it HAVE to?  Sometimes just knowing you own a kingdom (virtual though it may be) is enough to make carrying the yoke for someone else a little more bearable.

I bet Louis Psihoyos shoots with a digital camera almost exclusively now, but I also bet his deal as a photographer has been restructured and I also bet that he still has film cameras and film still sitting around his studio.  He may have shot dinosaurs, but he refused to become one.  Time to evolve.

Now....get back to work!

See you next time with the continuing story of the creation of THE PREDATOR (and should you feel lucky that you don't have to do it the way we did!).