Industry veteran emphasises virtual reality to young digital artists ahead of Dublin event.
A long time ago in a VFX (visual effects) company far, far away, Scott Ross oversaw award-winning visual effects for Hollywood blockbusters including Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Innerspace and The Abyss.
As former general manager of George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), he has seen the VFX industry move from analog to digital and become the backbone of most modern box office successes.
As an industry veteran, Ross went on to set up special effects company Digital Domain with director James Cameron, producing the Oscar-winning effects we saw in Titanic. Nowadays, he travels the world giving advice to aspiring animators and visual effects artists.
While new technologies are lowering the barrier to entry into the VFX industry and creating opportunities for new kinds of entertainment experiences with the advent of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality), there is a downside to an over-reliance on these technologies within the movie industry, says Ross.
"The transition from analog to digital was a big technological leap in that it allowed us to do things we couldn't do before but it's a double-edged sword. On one hand you can do a whole lot more and, with enough time and enough money, you can do almost anything. On the other hand, it has made film-makers very lazy," says Ross.
"The concept of ?fix it in post' was always a joke back in the analog days because there were certain things you couldn't fix in the post-production process. Nowadays you can fix anything in post or worse yet, movie studios don't understand the concept of what a good movie is and so they throw in as many visual effects as they possibly can."
Ross, who has worked with Star Wars creator Lucas, gives his two cents on where special effects have played a not-so well received role in cinema history.
"Star Wars: Episodes I, II and III were nowhere near as good as Episodes 4, 5, and 6 and part of the reason is that it was lazy film-making. You know, ?let's put 400 spaceships in the background, let's have a character named Jar Jar Binks'. What the original Star Wars movies had was incredible story-making and myth-building, which is a lot more difficult to do [than adding special effects]."
Computer-animated car crash Jar Jar Binks aside, Ross concedes that technology has in some ways democratised film-making, lowering the cost of equipment for young artists.
"I got involved early on [in the VFX industry], almost 30 years ago. In the early days the barriers to entry were pretty high and part of it was capital investment: the artist's workstation was a silicon graphics machine that would cost anywhere between $75,000 or $100,000. Today an equivalent rig is about $5,000. The barrier to entry and acquiring the capital equipment needed to be able to do VFX work has gone down significantly because of Moore's Law," he says.
"Additionally, back in the early days, a lot of the tool sets that artists needed to create the imagery just wasn't there. There were computer scientists actually writing algorithms as they were needed. Today you buy a software package off the shelf, you plug it in and it's only about how good the artist is and how good they are with a particular software application."
Ross will be talking at the Irish Film Institute as part of Image Ireland's Double Eye VFX Conference in Dublin on Sunday, September 18th. He wants to talk about the visual effects industry's equivalent of Silicon Valley syndrome: rather than Apple or Google, everyone wants to work at Pixar or Lucasfilm when Ross thinks the equivalent of an independent start-up mindset should be fostered.
"A lot of these younger folk that are coming into the VFX industry will do almost anything to work at Pixar or Lucasfilm. They enter the field thinking, 'I'm going to work on the next Star Wars' because they're fan boys and girls but how many people actually get to work on the next Star Wars out of all of the people that are graduating in this field around the world?"
"Then once you get there and you are working on this film, is it everything that you expected it to be or you are just another cog in the machine?"
Ross says that it is important for people in the visual effects industry and the animation industry to take a good look as to whether they're primary or secondary creatives or just "digital mechanics" who don't get to create a piece of intellectual property that is theirs alone.
"Otherwise all you can say is that you worked on a movie that was sort of like Star Wars and they left your name off the credits. Or you made Sausage Factory but what's the real meaning here? Because everybody is really starting at the ground level in VFX in Ireland those are the kinds of things that the Irish community needs to look at carefully."
He says that if he was a young digital artist or a digital storyteller starting out now he would be excited by the fields of VR, AR, and mixed reality (MR), where real and virtual content are combined.
"The old boys' network, those who get to make the big budget movies, these people will not be focusing on VR, AR or MR because they're ensconced in doing what Hollywood has done for a hundred years. So it's a brave new world."
"All of this new technology is happening and like cinema in the 1910s, you can blaze a new trail and make incredible products. And maybe even change the world and make some money."
Right now, though, Ross feels that the visual effects industry is in an uncomfortable place where it is propping up mediocre superhero movies while being underappreciated: ?If you just watch the credits on a movie, visual effects comes up after the caterers. We're the toilet paper that's wiping the butt of the movie industry.
"Now, I think we're the most important part of it in terms of marketing because people are going to see movies because of world-class visual effects but the way Hollywood and the movie industry treats the visual effects industry is like we're below the crew."
While Ross's opinions might seem a bit extreme to some, he speaks from his own experiences, including watching his company Digital Domain teeter on the brink of bankruptcy while working on Titanic, while the film itself went on to make a lot of money.
The VFX industry, he says, has never been profitable like the movie industry but he talks about the business like it is as much about passion as the employment of cutting-edge VFX technology, and this creativity, he says, can potentially be experienced by everyone with a smartphone.
"I had a conversation with Martin Scorsese a couple of years ago and we were talking about the democratisation of technology. When he went to film school he was saying that there were only five cameras in New York City that you could use and now everybody has the ability to have a camera: you can go out and make a movie with a smartphone."
"With all of those tools available to these young folk that have incredibly wonderful gifted creative talent, they really should focus on telling their stories. There are more opportunities to create stories now than there ever has been because the tools are democratised: you shoot your film on an iPhone and edit it on your Mac."