Gareth Edwards

What are the practical tools we need to deliver great VFX at a low budget?

Visual effects have traditionally been perceived as a big-budget endeavour. But our research* uncovered some handy tips for using VFX effectively in low budget films.

First of all, the key areas to think about if you want to make a low budget VFX film are:

  • Efficiency – plan better, understand your budget and your processes. Fix it in prep, not post.
  • Communication – make sure everyone understands what other departments need, and why they need it; talk to VFX specialists at an early stage of development about ways to tell the story without exploding the budget.
  • Expertise – employ people who know what they’re doing.
  • Negotiation – can you be flexible so that your schedule fits round your VFX team’s other commitments? can you give away some back-end if you’ve not much up-front?
  • Motivation – make sure your project is exciting, different, something that will boost show-reels, allow for some experimentation, and make the extra effort worthwhile.

And here are some of the key factors identified as routes to keeping the costs down on VFX from our interviews:

  1. Good planning. As an example, an experienced CEO of a VFX company had already reduced his staff and equipment costs. Thus, the only place he could improve profitability was in better project management. So he developed custom made project management tools to improve efficiency, and developed better communication structure to avoid undertaking work that was no longer needed or correct.
  2. Good communication: Many of the professionals interviewed commented on time and money wasted due to poor communication between members of the production team and the VFX company and their technical representatives. Talk to each other, and ensure that you’re aware of what both sides need next.
  3. Approach budget constraints creatively early on. Work with writers/producers to reign in more expensive ideas and explain the range of options available. This doesn’t mean stemming a writers’ creativity – instead it means giving the creative team a better understanding of how much things cost so they can tell their stories most effectively within the budget constraints. One sentence from a writer could mean the difference between an affordable VFX solution and a big budget extravaganza that will never get made. Most likely, there’s a way of showing the same story beat at a much lower cost.
  4. Design simpler shots that are affordable, rather than attempting more complex shots that will look “cheap”.
  5. Understand limitations – i.e. don’t try to recreate people/organic objects/3D creatures; humans/animals are much more expensive than robots/animating solid objects. Adding performance and set enhancements are expensive.
  6. Use fewer high-quality VFX shots sparingly but effectively. Jurassic Park is a big budget film, but surprisingly, there are relatively few VFX – it’s a great example of ‘less is more’
  7. Consult a VFX director or supervisor at an early opportunity when planning the shoot, and work closely throughout the process. They can provide crucial knowledge of whether a shot would be cheaper to shoot or to recreate later. It can also be useful to let the VFX Supervisor direct the VFX shots, and to keep the VFX team involved in the shoot – with daily assemblies helping to inform both the shoot and the VFX elements.
  8. Motivate your team, and keep them inspired. It’s all about firing up a team to work harder to achieve something remarkable despite the lack of budget. Appreciate everyone’s effort. Create exciting opportunities. Make sure you’re delivering a valuable showpiece for those that work hard for you, not just looking for ways to make your film as cheaply as possible.
  9. Exploit more ‘old fashioned’ shooting cheats (for example, positioning actors in front of buildings you might otherwise remove in post)
  10. Choose who you work with carefully. Use lesser know talent and facilities if you can see they have potential and passion – this is a risk, but one that can pay off. A good alternative is to partner with large VFX houses to access a higher level of resource (that is in effect partly subsidised by their work on bigger films), and which can offer more than a ‘pop up’ studio.
  11. Allow less opportunity for modifications and feedback once in post. Instead invest in pre-visualisation and storyboarding to minimise the risk of additional costs, shots and overage.
  12. Gareth Edwards offered a ‘bad rule of thumb but which has some truth in it’ – shoot everything 25 metres in front of you and the next 2 miles you can computer generate.
  13. Set your film at night, not in the rain or snow…

A great example: Monsters

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was regularly cited as an example of a current low budget feature film (estimates place the budget at less than £300K) with a distinctive visual sensibility, unexpected story/genre, and impressive creative use of limited high quality VFX.

It’s interesting to know that Gareth fully funded his film on the basis of a treatment (the project was mainly improvised), a taster tape demonstrating the VFX he hoped to use in the film, a budget, schedule, and other pre-visualisation material such as storyboards. These are the kind of tools we’re hoping to develop through the Cross Channel Film Lab, to ensure that more exciting projects like this reach production.

Gareth explained how his direct personal experience of working as a VFX Supervisor on numerous low and high budget productions equipped him with the specialist knowledge he needed to make fast informed decisions about whether to shoot something or recreate it in post. Effectively, he played the role of both VFX Supervisor and Director/Writer in one, which is certainly unusual – and demonstrates the value of a close link between these two skillsets.

This blending of skillsets is one of the key areas we’re exploring in the Cross Channel Film Lab – what happens when you bring screenwriters, directors, producers and technicians together at an early stage of development to share what they want to create and work out the most exciting, clever and cost-effective ways to achieve this? Exciting times!

* In 2010, a small team of CCFL researchers carried out research into the UK VFX and Stereo 3D industry, based on 71 interviews, industry brainstorming sessions and existing research material.

2 Responses to “Low Budget VFX”

  1. […] Paddy Eason’s clarion call of “Fix it in prep!” is never truer than for low budget VFX films. Early research and development can save you time and money. So can sticking to the plan, most of the time. (As well as these things…) […]

    Reply

  2. […] Paddy Eason’s clarion call of “Fix it in prep!” is never truer than for low budget VFX films. Early research and development can save you time and money. So can sticking to the plan, most of the time. (As well as these things…) […]

    Reply

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