In September 2008, Ray Feeney was selected by the Visual Effects Society Board of Directors as the recipient of the VES Founders Award.
Ray's VES Acceptance Speech
First of all, thank you for this award. When Jonathan Erland was accorded this honor, he gave an eloquent and scholarly overview of what he felt were some of the important historical influences in visual effects. Those of you who have heard me speak know that I gravitate towards addressing the issues of the future, rather than the past.
I am hopeful, though, that there are some useful parallels from the past that can help us all manage these precipitous times in visual effects. Inspired by Jonathan's talk, I am going to speak about the past from my perspective and try to link some of the trends and lessons learned to the issues at hand.
We didn't have any special insight "back in the day" when we were first pioneering these technological advancements. The business models that we helped originate to place these technologies in broad use, were what seemed to make sense then. How did they get cast in stone? What happened?
I believe strongly that the VES needs to evolve into a trade organization or perhaps a guild. Not to negotiate salaries between animators and management, or to tell studios how to do their jobs, but to interface between the consumers of visual effects and the practitioners -- in order to help all of us to navigate these changing times. I know that this is not a popular view. But I also know from first hand experience that the business models don't evolve and change without the efforts of a determined group of motivated individuals.
For some reason, and I don't really know why, I pretty much always knew that I wanted to be in the visual effects business. I always was under the impression that this was a bit odd, but over the last few years, I have learned that several of our visual effects luminaries were similarly drawn to the crafts of visual effects from a young age.
I had the good fortune to end up meeting Bob Abel and Con Pederson pretty much as they were forming Robert Abel Films. After a bit, I managed to align myself with a project there and work part time. In fact, I started there the same week as Richard Edlund, but he was a seasoned cameraman and I was just a child. Ironically, I was the assistant to an even younger kid named Bill Holland -- a high school senior with a military surplus computer in his basement. I know that today that doesn't sound like much, but back then, it was like saying that you had a particle accelerator or a fusion reactor in your basement. Remember, there weren't even pocket calculators back then. Not to sound trite, but Bill and I did our homework (and by that I do mean schoolwork) on slide rules and occasionally, an adding machine. Why Bob let two kids design and build the infrastructure that supported what turned out to be one of the most creative and innovative studios we will never really know, since Bob has now passed away.
But Bob did have a unique business model and artistic philosophy. It probably warped me forever that my first exposure to the business of Hollywood was through Bob. He could charm money out of a polar bear. He would spend the entire budget for the project on the first third of the deliverables and then ask for more. In order for that to work, the images needed to blow the client away. We were encouraged to innovate and create. No idea was too preposterous. I am sure that we had a backup plan and contingencies in mind if something fell short or didn't work, but we were constantly cajoled by Bob to "push the envelope". It wasn't about playing it safe or doing something adequate. It was about being creative. None of us slept much.
Robert Abel Films became a Mecca for talented and creative individuals. I remember working on a Kawasaki motorcycle commercial with Richard Taylor. Richard did such a good job of capturing the essence of the thrill, that the commercial was banned on the basis that it would encourage excessive speed. The only time I know of, that a commercial was banned for being too effective.
Anyway, Bob's business model worked for commercials because the cost of the creation of the commercial spot paled compared to the costs of actually running the commercial on the air. If the images were compelling enough, there was always more money available. Ultimately, the value to the customer was usually there. This business model did not hold for feature films.
Of course, feature films started toying with the technologies. Richard Edlund went off to this little project in Van Nuys called Star Wars and I let Bob talk me into designing a pipeline for Star Trek, The Motion Picture. What geek kid could resist the lure of Star Trek?
Bob's business model broke horribly on Star Trek, The Motion Picture. Studios are used to saying no. There were no reinforcements, it was truly a bridge too far -- and the beginning of the end for Robert Abel Films.
But before Star Trek melted down, we built the last major investment into 65mm animation equipment and I purchased an Evans and Sutherland Picture System. These 65mm building blocks empowered Doug Trumbull and Richard Edlund for Future General and Boss Films. And the Evans and Sutherland fostered Bill Kovaks, Richard Hollander, and John Hughes efforts at Abel Image Research and ultimately Wavefront Technologies.
And I did what everyone (then and now) does when they realize that Hollywood will not fund their creative vision. Go into video games. Back then, it was arcade games and primitive home systems. But the principle is still the same. The business models are different than the "service fee" model for visual effects. The best way to make enough money to be in control of your own destiny, is to be successful in video games.
Flash forward a couple of years, and one day John Hughes and Charlie Gibson are in my driveway wanting to talk about my helping them with the infrastructure for a small studio that they wanted to start called Rhythm and Hues. It turns out that most of the CGI visual effects studios had been purchased by John Pennie of Omnibus. When the combined entities of Digital Productions, Abel and Associates, and Omnibus were all shut down by the Canadian version of the SCC as too reminiscent of a ponzi scheme, the impact on the industry was huge. It became known as "The Big Bang"
Of course, PDI and Ed Catmull's group at ILM were intact, but the rest of the industry was in turmoil. Once again, the idiosyncrasies of a business model trumped talent.
When smart, articulate, thoughtful people like Ed Catmull or John Hughes ask for help, what else are you going to do? You help. Besides, there was this new workstation from a company called Silicon Graphics that might change the business model. Previously, the industry was built around a super-computer mentality. Ed Catmull's group had built the Pixar Image Computer to address the problem, but they were being spun off and purchased by Steve Jobs. They would finally be given their chance to pursue animated films rather than visual effects.
So Ed Catmull got Steve Jobs and John Hughes got me.
But two things were happening at about this time. The Silicon Graphics workstation became truly usable and at ILM they realized that they missed certain aspects of having CGI at their disposal.
George Joblove and Doug Kay were put in charge of a modest effort to put CGI to work as an assist to conventional effects. Back then, we were all still reeling from the Big Bang. No one had budgets sufficient to be self sustaining. We all knew from bitter experience that if anyone of us failed, it set everyone back. There wasn't a lot of risk tolerance amongst those putting up the money. It really truly became a frontier atmosphere where we all competed, but we all helped each other out. There was great deal of technical sharing through Siggraph and we each had to depend on mutual assistance.
Sometimes one can look back to individual projects, specific decisions, or even a single moment when everything comes together. One such specific moment concerns the three movies at ILM that ushered in the Golden age of CGI. The Abyss, Terminator II, and Jurassic Park. How could these rise from the ashes?
The business model was broken. No one wanted to invest. It was all accomplished despite conventional wisdom. George Joblove and Doug Kay managed a small team that was responsible for the pipeline on the CGI watersnake in The Abyss. Dennis Muren, John Knoll and others created a breakthrough series of visuals. Even so, the significance of what had been accomplished was not obvious to many people. The level of effort, the amount of compute resources required, the benefit over traditional techniques, etc. -- all these and more were debated. There were other visual effects in the movie that did not hold up in comparison and that threatened to over shadow the significance of what the team had done. But The Abyss did win the visual effects Oscar and it empowered the taking of larger risks in Terminator II.
It was not obvious at the time how to scale this up. There were two competing schools of thought at the time. The "big iron" edit bay type of mentality (not that dissimilar to what evolved into DI) and the workstation based model. I strongly believed in the workstation model and I recall the exact meeting with George Joblove where he agreed to let me assist with the ILM pipeline for Terminator II. I had done some work with the R&D department at SGI for a couple of other unrelated projects and I knew how far the SGI systems could be hot-rodded before they would break. If you like the current world of personal computers with powerful visual effects tools like Maya, then thank George Joblove and Doug Kay. They made the decision that all modern visual effects workflows arise from. It wasn't obvious, it wasn't safe, and I am sure that Dennis Muren had a backup plan if we failed, but George and Doug had the courage to take the risk.
Once Terminator II came out, then the value of CGI based visual effects was obvious to everyone. And ILM really drove it home with Jurassic Park.
At that point, the business model changed again. Gone was the small community of pioneers helping each other with the occasional "barn raising". A point exemplified by one visual effects studio taking to flying a Pirate skull and crossbones flag from the roof over their facility.
The industry evolved until the situation became more like the movie Casablanca -- and my company, RFX, was Rick's Cafe. Sooner or later, everyone came to RFX. The business model didn't let facilities actually own and amortize everything that was required for CGI effects so RFX became the neutral ground where solutions could be acquired or rented. We always tried to do the "right thing". And because we had the equipment and resources on hand, there were times when virtually all the non-commercial sequences in the Siggraph film and video show were accomplished by space available use of these resources on a free or loaned basis. Fundamentally, though, it was the commercial requirements of the local Hollywood visual effects industry that made it all possible.
Today, the business of visual effects is changing once again. The global nature of the industry today means that the business drivers are not within my sphere anymore. Paying attention to the business models has been very good for me -- both financially and professionally. But today, all I can do is pro-bono and volunteer activities through the Academy and the VES. It will take an organization like the VES to step up to the challenges and the opportunities that are there today.
There are several technologies that hold potential for the industry and visionaries today are split as to which hold the greater promise. Digital is moving into production, not just post production. There is much debate as to the benefits of Stereoscopic techniques, or virtual cinematography to name but two.
But I believe that we have seen another equivalent to the breakthroughs hinted at by The Abyss. I refer to The Dark Knight. I believe that many do not see the significance of what Chris Nolan, Wally Pfister, and Double Negative have accomplished. To truly understand, it is necessary to see it in Imax or in 4K projection. To me, the debate around The Dark Knight is deja vu all over again. The level of effort, the amount of compute resources required, the benefit over traditional techniques, etc. -- all these and more are being debated. At least Chris Nolan has come out forcibly on the importance of image quality in the motion picture experience. And it is true that the comparison of the 5.6K effects done with the Imax background plates can be seen when compared to the also included traditional 2k scope effects. I believe that only a few can see the potential for a true renaissance of visual effects as we once new it. Where we as an industry reach for the risky, unproven methods (while always having a backup plan and fallback position). We must reach for new heights. For every "Bridge too Far" there comes along something that builds on the ideas or the techniques and sets new standards. For every Star Trek, The Motion Picture, there is a BladeRunner. For every Sky Captain, there is an Avatar.
If you believe that your job is to just do an adequate, safe job of getting the directors vision onto the screen, that 2k is good enough, that no one will pay for more, and that the appropriate tools are the known methods, then you are part of the problem -- not part of the future. It is not about accomplishing the effects using the techniques that you know will work, it is about reaching for the unknown and making that work even better. It is about pushing the envelope. It is about wondering if it will all come together and then making sure that it does.
Successful visual effects always come down to three things:
Fix the image quality, Fix the business model, and tell good stories.
Every advancement in visual effects has been about breaking the business model. And then pushing the new thing until that breaks also.
Every advancement in visual effects has been about reducing the level of disbelief that audiences need to bring to the theater. And about making the images be more realistic while improving the image quality.
I am just sorry that there doesn't appear to be much courage left in California. I constantly hear endless excuses as to why the issues of today can not be fixed. I take my hat off to the breakthroughs and vision that seem to be coming from our peers elsewhere in the world.
And for anyone in visual effects, I challenge you to reach for new heights and to make our work seem quaint and primitive
I challenge you to continue to make us proud.