Monday, March 4, 2013

What Does a Visual Effects Producer Do, Exactly?

Martin Gabriel is a visual effects producer with a long list of successful feature films on his resume, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireX-Men, The last Stand, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. He also worked on the TV series Band of Brothers and The Prisoner.

Following the collapse of Oscar-winning facility Rhythm and Hues, FLIP asked Martin to talk about what, exactly, a visual effects producer does, and how a vfx film gets put together. In short - how does the industry really work?

FLIP: Tell us about your job. What do you do, exactly?

MG: The simple answer is - project management. But, as the VFX industry has not evolved a standard protocol for dealing with clients , the exact meaning of the term "visual effects producer" can vary widely between projects and facilities. Ultimately, you are the person responsible for bringing in the project on schedule and within budget so that the facility can - hopefully - make a profit.

FLIP: How do you get started on a project?

MG: The starting point can be discussions with a client over what type of FX are needed and how that can be achieved. This will always be with a VFX Supervisor who can provide the technical and creative know-how, and at this stage the Producer's main task is to ensure that the suggestions remain within the bounds of what is definitely achievable with the timescale and budget involved and to make clear to the client what they need to be doing when the principal photography [the live-action shoot] takes place.

The client may or may not have their own VFX Supervisor and, since it may not be possible to attend the shoot, it pays to stress the importance of key objectives to be met in camera to enable the manipulation of the image in post to the standard the client is aiming for. You have to be a diplomat at all times and this means sometimes having to say no in a way that makes it clear that you are being helpful.

The client may send a script and/or a VFX breakdown and ask you to bid for the work. In doing this it is crucial to specify the limits both of what they and you will be providing and the determining factors which make that work possible in post-production. As the final version for the client usually details the price per shot, you need to break out as a separate item the cost of anything which works across a number of shots.

You may find that you inherit a project with a bid already in place and accepted by the client so you need to examine everything with a fine tooth comb so that you know what could be a problem and to raise that with management before the work begins. If you don't say anything the assumption is always that you have agreed to everything and this is a hazard that you constantly have to be careful of.

FLIP: What about the live action shoot? Does the VFX Producer get to go?

MG: You may be called on to attend the shoot along with the VFX Supervisor and others from the facility. This enables you to ensure that everything is shot as per the requirements of the production or, if this does not happen, to provide the studio with a new anticipated cost for the work based on the fact that the footage is not as stated in the original bid documents.

The same thing often happens with turnover [photographic plates that will need VFX work done] that arrives from an unsupervised shoot. The trippiest thing about being on set is when you are called upon to give advice about something that is being shot and you realise that hundreds of people are looking at you to tell them what to do next.
The Cinesite VFX team hard at work in LA. From left, VFX supervisor Matt Johnson, Managing director Courtney Vanderslice and VFX Producer Martin Gabriel. Photo by Alex Williams
FLIP: How do you manage the budget?

MG: At the bidding stage and throughout the project, there needs to be both an internal budget and a schedule. The budget is something that management usually create with the Producer in attendance. This introduces new constraints on the management of the project in terms of the number of people available to undertake the work in the time available and from this you can construct a schedule showing each of the units of production (modelling, animation, lighting etc) and how they inter-relate. Ideally, the number of people in the team lines up with what you know is needed but there are often pressures from above meaning that your dream scenario is just that - a dream.

FLIP: OK - so the studio sends you the plates from the shoot - what now?

MG: Once the turnover is in, the work needs to be assigned to the various team members and the flow started. It helps to have already completed and tested all of the 3d and other assets using test plates you have requested from editorial so that the shot work can begin in earnest. What you absolutely don't need at this stage is somebody telling you that an important aspect has been overlooked and they need another couple of weeks of development time.

Once shot production is underway, the Producer needs to be managing the information flow and of course it helps to have a good team of coordinators who know what they are doing. It is really important for those people and anybody else on the team to be flagging difficulties they are encountering at the earliest possible moment.

An ancillary role of the producer involves having enough knowledge of systems generally to be able to undertake discussions with both the Technical Services department and management to see that unnecessary bottlenecks are dealt with using the technology rather than seeing people waste their time on manual workarounds.

FLIP: How do you manage the client's expectations?

MG: All the time, the Producer is also having to report to the studio on the progress of the project. This is where the lack of a standard protocol is often sorely felt. Different studios have different ideas about the formats for reporting. They are often very old school (e.g. relying on Excel spreadsheets), can be specific to the person you are dealing with and can mean manually filling in several separate spreadsheets every week, some of which may contain the same information. This is when you can often see the VFX Producer looking a bit drawn as they have spent the entire day typing in dates and re-jigging the schedule to fit the format they have to use for that project.

For example, the progress report can specify exactly when tracking (or any other part of the production process) is started and completed, when versions are going to be available to the client and even (bizarrely) a prediction of the date the shot will be approved. The studios often seem to think that extensive reporting of this kind ensures that the project is being managed correctly, but the vagaries of production mean that you are often making a good guess rather than an exact prediction - and this often leaves the production facility as a hostage to fortune.

You can be assured that no matter how many additional shots are presented to the client on a given day beyond what the schedule stated, they will focus on the one that didn't make it and want to know why it has all gone horribly wrong. Report generation can be the worst thing about the job. Some reports are frankly nonsense and seem to come from a culture of inventing things to fill somebody's time, especially as you rarely get any feedback on the data provided. Progress updates can be generated automatically by several means. In this day and age, having to fill in a spreadsheet manually is an inexcusable waste of time.

Throwing the VFX Producer in the pool of the Sunset Tower Hotel can be an important part of the production process.
FLIP: What part of the job do you enjoy the most?

MG: The best bit about producing is working with a team of highly skilled and creative individuals who enjoy what they are doing and whose work you are proud of. It's great when you can see the work in progress and view the shots in dailies but often the demands on your time - from both clients and management - mean that days or weeks can pass by when you never get the chance to see anything. Which is a real downer. There is never enough time to cover everything. You always feel slightly anxious that you have missed something important.

I have met many decent and generous hearted people in this business but also, unfortunately, some deeply unpleasant individuals who make no secret of the fact that they are there to make your life as difficult as they can. You have to be polite but firm in refusing to be coerced into giving the client stuff for free and ensuring that they pay an overage for work that turns out to be more complicated than originally specified.

I have found that the people who are most skilled at what they do are generally the easiest to deal with, precisely because when you discuss something with them it is clear that you both know the score. The shouty ones are usually trying to hide a lack of deeper understanding of the issues.

FLIP: What kind of people become visual effects Producers?

MG: VFX Producers come from a variety of backgrounds. Mostly the training involves simply rising up through the ranks, starting off as a runner or Production Assistant and learning as you go along. They thing is to become familiar with the various processes involved. The more computer literate you are the better. You must be methodical but also realistic enough to know that the schedule may change tomorrow. The main thing is to understand that you cannot possibly micro-manage everything, so you need to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the way things are done to know that somebody you trust is taking care of each separate area - and will tell you if they are feeling uneasy.

Most producers have a particular area they like to play special attention to which they feel is critical. People often think I have an editing background because I am a bit obsessed with making sure the line up [the frame-by-frame record of what is to be done] is completely accurate.

A good vfx Producer should be calm but equally have the strength of character to be able to remind management that the reason things may have played out in a less than perfect way is exactly what you (and the other senior team members) said would happen if nothing was done to address a structural problem - often one that affected previous projects. You do need to find a way of speaking truth to power or your team will be spending much of their time fixing something that ought not to have been broken.

I think it pays to have had experience of the world of work outside VFX so that you don't fall into the trap of thinking it is completely unique. VFX does share many characteristics with other types of project, and the failure to systematise adequately has been just one of the many reasons that have led to the current crisis in the industry. I am hoping that this can change and that in the future more consideration will be given to the accumulated wisdom of very skilled professionals who collectively know how to create more efficient pipelines. It is a tantalising prospect.

(Editor's note: for more information about producers and what they do, see our interview with Lion King Producer Don Hahn, our interview with Zahra Dowlatabadi (who literally wrote the book on producing animation), read what Claus Toksvig has to say about producing independent animated films, hear Nathan Erasmus explain how to get your project off the ground, and see what Paul Harrison has to say about financing animated TV Series. You can also read about the why the VFX industry is going green, discover the wonderful VFX studio that was Rhythm and Hues, and read our September 2012 piece on the sad end of Digital Domain... )


  1. Search for the "Stimpy's Cartoon Show" episode, you can't find a better explanation! :)