By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By CHRIS McGOWAN
One only has to look at the 2018 Emmy Awards to recognize Netflix’s rapid ascension and its importance for the film and TV industries, including those people working in the VFX domain. Prior to that, HBO had won the most Emmys of any single network for 16 straight years. That all changed this past year, when Netflix tied HBO, with each taking home 23 Emmy awards. Netflix’s accomplishment is even more notable considering that the firm only began streaming media in 2007. It debuted its first exclusive series, Lilyhammer, in 2012, and launched the original series House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black the following year. Since then, the company’s expansion of its original and exclusive programming has positively exploded.
Netflix claims to have more than 130 million subscribers globally. The Economist projected that in 2018, Netflix would spend $12-13 billion on original programing (earlier estimates by others were in the $8 billion range), which would include an astounding 82 feature films. CFO David Wells estimated last February that Netflix would have some 700 new or existing original series worldwide in 2018, including 80 non-English-language productions. It debuted 52 original shows and movies alone just in September.
The Emmys also reflected Netflix’s growing excellence in VFX. In the Outstanding Special Video Effects category, Netflix took three of the nominations, with Altered Carbon (“Out of the Past”), Lost in Space (“Danger, Will Robinson”) and Stranger Things (“Chapter Nine: The Gate”). (HBO’s Westworld and Game of Thrones were also nominated, with the latter triumphing). The three shows illustrate how Netflix has been applying upper-tier VFX to its series, creating what Milk VFX CEO Will Cohen refers to as “feature television” and others term “cinematic TV.”
For Lost in Space, for example, more than 20 vendors from four continents contributed to the high-end VFX, according to Jabbar Raisani, Visual Effects Supervisor for the show’s 2018 first season. Altered Carbon and Stranger Things also had extensive teams of VFX houses working on their impressive effects. Black Mirror is another Netflix original with impressive VFX. Netflix has established itself as “among the biggest providers of visual effects work today,” comments Aymeric Perceval, Mill Film VFX Supervisor.
While the visual effects quality is generally high on its shows, Netflix applies it judiciously. “The plan of course is to keep ‘raising the bar,’ but this objective needs to be executed with sensitivity so that each show doesn’t simply become bigger and more complex than the last for no rhyme or reason,” says Andrew Fowler, Netflix Head of Global VFX.
“However,” he adds, “with many filmmakers turning to series, they expect a certain level of finish, and Netflix does all it can to partner with all involved to maintain top-quality work responsibly. Stranger Things is a great example of finding the right level of execution, a ‘film brush’ [business approach] employed to a [television] series budget and schedule.”
Fowler continues, “At Netflix we have an amazing VFX team managing film and series that touch on many levels of scope. From documentaries, international content, indie film, and of course original film and series productions, these content verticals all have the day-to-day support of the Netflix VFX studio group to help improve workflow and add efficiency within the VFX space at Netflix. The intent is to provide a collaborative approach to the creation of VFX content not just for our production partners, but also with our partnered vendors and freelance talent. By creating a smoother experience, the work on the screen has a chance to become the focus leading to greater creative thinking and a higher quality output.”
“The plan of course is to keep ‘raising the bar,’ but this objective needs to be executed with sensitivity so that each show doesn’t simply become bigger and more complex than the last for no rhyme or reason.”
—Andrew Fowler, Netflix Head of Global VFX
“With many filmmakers turning to series, they expect a certain level of finish, and Netflix does all it can to partner with all involved to maintain top-quality work responsibly. Stranger Things is a great example of finding the right level of execution, a ‘film brush’ [business approach] employed to a [TV] series budget and schedule.”
—Andrew Fowler, Netflix Head of Global VFX
Two of the things that Netflix offers to consumers are a vast supply of programming and on-demand viewing. House of Cards was one of the first TV series to have a new season released all at once. This helped increase the streaming service’s popularity, as it satisfied many viewers’ desire to watch episodes as much as they wanted, when they wanted, instead of having to wait a week between episodes or having to record them. Russell Dodgson, Creative Director Television of Framestore, describes Netflix as being a “positively disruptive influence on how the world experiences long-form entertainment.”
Netflix is astute in using analytics of all kinds “to optimize what kind of content they produce,” comments Method Studios Senior VFX Supervisor Kevin Baillie, who worked on Stranger Things. This helps the company reach viewers with existing content they’d like, and also produce films and series that will appeal to them.
As a result, Netflix is a major backer of unique indie productions and of mid-budget genre pictures. The latter had been somewhat abandoned by much of the movie industry, according to Cinesite VFX Supervisor Salvador Zalvidea. He credits Netflix’s openness to “bold storytelling” as having made it possible for the Duncan Jones sci-fi film Mute (which Cinesite worked on) to have been produced.
To attract global customers, Netflix is currently making programs in 21 countries, including Brazil, Germany, India and South Korea. With so many original movies and series in production around the world, the coordination of different VFX vendors across the globe is a challenge. “Simply put, it’s evolving, especially for international where being able to add support at the right level at the right time is dynamic,” says Fowler.
“The run book for what Netflix is doing in VFX does not exist in some spaces, although we are of course creating solid guidelines as we go, taking our learnings and applying them moving forward. Already in Asia, Latin America, Europe and even in the USA, our VFX workflow is iterating and improving all the time thanks to the talented local teams we engage with and the exemplary VFX team here at Netflix working across series, film, international and our initiatives division.”
Netflix is often praised for being supportive of and working in close collaboration with VFX vendors, and for its willingness to take chances on content. It is described as “artist-forward” by Mr. X’s VFX Supervisor Chris MacLean, who worked on the Netflix series Godless.
“Netflix strives to create firm partnerships with talent based upon freedom and responsibility, which are core values of our company,” comments Fowler. “This strategy leads to better professional understanding with more impactful communication, which in turn leads to greater trust and respect up and down the line.
“Working at tremendous scale with high levels of complexity globally,” Fowler states, “it is imperative to create an environment where partners have their minds set in the right direction, creating their best work, and taking out the friction. Mutual trust and respect lead to better content plain and simple, plus it makes the experience much more enjoyable!”
Netflix is present in more than 190 countries. According to Fortune, Goldman Sachs projects that Netflix could be spending $22.5 billion per year on content by 2022. A proportionate part of that will go to VFX.
“Netflix is reinventing the way we produce, tell and consume stories, and I believe it will be a great place to push the envelope in terms of visual effects. The streamer provides writers and directors with a vision check to explore bold storytelling and visual ideas that could be a bit too risky for some traditional studios. This was the case for Duncan Jones’ film Mute, which I supervised for Cinesite earlier this year. Jones spent 15 years trying to get the project off the ground, no small feat in an industry that has all but abandoned mid-budget genre pictures. Without Netflix, the film and our VFX work may not have reached an audience.”
—Salvador Zalvidea, VFX Supervisor, Cinesite
“Working on Lost in Space has shown us the invaluable respect and knowledge that Netflix has for the post-production process. From planning to execution, we had a close collaboration with their team and felt fully supported, which enabled us to push the quality of VFX production in an episodic show.”
—Niklas Jacobson, VFX Supervisor/Cofounder, ILP
“From the bidding process to the final delivery, Cinesite Montreal has worked hand-in-hand with the creatives on Lost in Space, Game Over Man!, and now Murder Mystery to find the ultimate way to enhance each of the projects. We’re fans of the shows and projects, so this pushes us to strive for something new, something epic. Knowing that we are part of a new era in production, distribution and visual effects is an added bonus.”
—Marc A. Rousseau, Director, VFX Studio, Cinesite
“Content providers like Netflix have, without doubt, ushered in a new era of televisual entertainment. It’s part technology-driven: the ability to watch on any screen, anywhere. But Netflix has also committed to a high standard of storytelling and production values that helps push the creative boundaries of the TV series once more. Demand will only grow, now that consumers have had a taste – which is fantastic, as high-caliber televisual VFX is something Framestore prides itself in achieving.”
—Michelle Martin, Head of Television, Framestore
“I am personally excited every time I hear of a potential creative collaboration with them, especially since my time VFX Supervising [Black Mirror episode] ‘USS Callister.’ It was a great pleasure to work on a show with such a strong and supported visual ambition.”
—Russell Dodgson, Creative Director Television, Framestore
“From a visual effects perspective, they have always been supportive, and with the breadth of content we get to stretch the outer limits of our imaginations and deliver some very exciting shots. They value quality imagery as much as they value storytelling, which means we are constantly challenged to deliver our best. This is a challenge I accept wholeheartedly.”
—Chris MacLean, VFX Supervisor, Godless and The Highwaymen
“Netflix is a key driver behind the emerging genre of what is being labeled as ‘feature television.’ The production value bar is being raised like never before and directors are looking for more ambitious film-style VFX work and creative agility. This, coupled with the volume and variety of film and TV content being produced by Netflix, presents an exciting opportunity for VFX studios, such as Milk, to push the boundaries creatively and technically. We’re excited to be a part of this zeitgeist.”
—Will Cohen, CEO, Milk VFX
“Netflix releases a diverse range of quality content each year, and it’s clear it has established itself among the biggest providers of visual effects work today. It feels like there are hundreds of projects brewing at any given time, each with a great deal of cool, creative and challenging projects to work on. Netflix aims to impress, knowing that today’s audience has a very discerning eye when it comes to VFX, and doesn’t pull any punches.”
—Aymeric Perceval, VFX Supervisor, Mill Film
“What’s so great about working with them is that they look to visual effects studios as creative partners in developing this content. Their approach is more about collaborating with us around both our capacity and our ideas. As a visual effects company, it’s like, ‘Hallelujah!’ – it’s amazing to be able to share information and work together like this up front.”
—Kevin Baillie, Creative Director & Sr. Visual Effects Supervisor, Method Studios
“From a workload standpoint, taking on a full series requires having the bandwidth to deliver top-quality VFX work come the final episodes. On Stranger Things season 2… we knew delivering the Upside Down would be a huge creative challenge, and our waterfall delivery schedule required us to deliver a large number of shots for each episode while maintaining the quality of the later episodes’ unique content. Our team was extremely crafty with procedural techniques and pipeline builds that allowed us time for creativity, while delivering against our timeline.”
—Seth Hill, VFX Supervisor, Method Studios
“What’s been great in our partnership with Netflix over the past year has been the creative trust that they’ve placed in our supervisors across our three studio locations. We have L.A., Atlanta and NYC Netflix projects all in various stages of production and post, ranging from character-driven indie features where we provide environment enhancements and invisible FX work, all the way up to our more stylized, design-driven work on the new season of Stranger Things. Netflix has been on the forefront of future-proofing the visual quality level available to streaming viewers.”
—Matt Akey, Director of Production/Business Development, Crafty Apes
“The content, along with their visual effects needs, have not only been varied in terms of scope but consistently of the highest quality. We have worked on projects from 13 Reasons Why to Marvel’s Iron Fist, and the commitment to create the best work is extraordinarily consistent. In addition, Netflix has shown a great deal of savviness when it comes to visual effects and consistently supports the options for VFX that are best for the show visually, not just those that are best for the bottom line. The end results are projects that are visually compelling and uniquely engaging to the viewer.”
—Greg Anderson, Senior VFX Supervisor/Head of Production-N.Y., FuseFX