There’s a little buzz starting to build for a film by the name of Monsters. It’s by no means being eagerly awaited by a legion of comic-con pilgrimaging fanboys, nor are breathless Twihards counting down the days till it’s release.
Let’s be honest, Snakes on a Plane had a bigger internet presence than Monsters… but it’s early days yet, the buzz is slowly, steadily growing.
Having been screened (out of competition) at the recently concluded Cannes Film Fest those who saw it seem to be in universal agreement, this is one to see.
Outlined (Monsters from my understanding was improvised, not scripted) and directed by Gareth Edwards, the film is being described as “Lost in Translation” meets “Jurassic Park”, a description that instantly piqued my interest.
The story is that prior to the film NASA discovered signs of life in our solar system and sent a probe to investigate, without incident. On the return home though the probe crashed in Central America, unleashing new life forms. Now, six years later, half of Mexico is quarantined as the US and Mexican governments struggle to stop the spread of the aliens.
Our protagonist is a photographer for an American newspaper whose been covering the incidents that occur within the infected zone. As it happens his editor’s daughter went on vacation in the area and he is saddled with the task of finding her and bringing her safely home.
As a writer I am always excited by original takes to well tread territory and Gareth Edwards’ goal of grounding a monster movie in the most realistic world possible does just that. I haven’t yet seen the film and unfortunately there’s no script to get my hands on but by all accounts the story is more “Lost in Translation” than “Jurassic Park”, a structure unique to attack of the monster films that I am told makes the scenes when these aliens do attack a hundred times more scary sheerly for the fact we actually care for these three dimensional character rather than just caring about the three dimensional monster animation.
But the CGI is a big part of why this film is gaining buzz. Rumours suggest the film was made for the minuscule budget of $15,000 and with the smallest crew possible.
To hear how this was done, in the director’s own words, check out this video:
A lot of people in the industry are taking notice, as they do every couple of years when an outsider makes an excellent piece of cinema for a fraction of the normal Hollywood budget.
There’s no doubt that the current business model of this industry is up for evaluation and Monsters is starting to be bandied about as maybe one to learn from, maybe, they say, it’s the magic bullet that solves the unsolvable problem we all seem to know is right around the corner: film industry profits will dramatically drop while the astronomical price tag of production will stand frozen.
Let’s be honest, Monsters sounds like an excellent film but it’s no magic bullet. Read on and I’ll tell you why…
Visual Effects are not cheap, bottom line.
There is this prevailing mythology ever since the dawn of computer effects that says because computer processing power, hard drive sizes, et al gets cheaper and cheaper according to Moore’s Law, there should be a trickle down effect in film budgets.
And there is, to be fair. Computerized background performers (the term extra isn’t PC these days) are cheaper than paying for the time, wardrobe, and catering of the real flesh and blood versions. It’s cheaper to paint a wall green and build the set digitally than to have your carpenters, painters, and set decorators build you a physical version. The problem is Moore’s Law cannot account for man hours.
Not that long ago I was working full time as a Visual Effects Coordinator. My job was to oversee a department of artists from assigning the shots to ensuring they met the producers expectations before sending them off to the editors.
I worked on high budget television productions and big feature films alike and let me tell you the cost of a skilled artist or animator, not basement bargain value cheap.
Is it cheaper for a show like Fox’s “Fringe” to shoot in Vancouver rather than New York? Yes. Is it still cheaper when you add a matte painter creating the New York City skyline? Yes. Is it still cheaper when that shot the skyline has to go into is a crane shot, requiring a 3D animator to ‘track’ the camera movement before the matte painting can be put in? Yes. And when the 2D artist is finally brought in to be the one who seamlessly inserts the painting into the shot, still cheaper.
That’s three employees and maybe a week – week and a half of work. But also don’t forget you’ll be paying for not only their time but the time of the immediate supervisor (Visual Effects Coordinator), the visual effects studio manager (VFX Production Manager), and at least one Visual Effects Producer. If that same shot required some digital smoke or maybe a 3D building your now bringing in more artists who specialize in atmosphere for the former and 3D set construction for the ladder, plus now your going to need someone who will light your 3D generated graphics to match the lighting of the scene that was shot.
That’s a lot of employees, and specialized employees at that (pay for the best right?). They’ll be getting paid by the hour and you’ll need that shot fast since it’s episodic television.
And what if as the producer we sent it back to you and you weren’t happy with the height of the Empire State Building in contrast to the other buildings? It happens, it’s a visual art not science, most shots require revisions. Now your paying for the matte painter and 2D artist all over again.
The fact is it’s still a significant enough saving to justify not uprooting the crew and setting up shop in New York City, but does it make that episode of “Fringe” so financially cost effective that it can survive the seemingly inevitable profit drop the industry is bracing for in the next five to ten years?
Not even close.
Even if I shot a DIY straight to Youtube version of Fringe with just a crew of 1 camera man, 1 sound recordist, and an editor the cost of the visual effects alone (ignoring we haven’t even solved budget for actors, locations, props, etc) would clear me out of my personal savings long before I reached 22 episodes to conclude the season.
My costs in that scenario too will far exceed the profits.
Simply put visual effects take time and manpower and neither of those things are getting any cheaper in North America.
The small budget is the red herring of Monsters. Gareth Edwards, a Visual Effects Artist prior to becoming a Director, did all his effects himself, for free. He put in time on a labour of love.
This isn’t the story of a new business model, just of one excellent employee.
Back in 2008 the Guardian newspaper over in the UK ran a story on Edwards hailing him for creating the first big budget sword and sandal battle spectacle on a considerably small BBC documentary budget for the aforementioned network’s doc on Attila the Hun.
His effects heavy film didn’t usher in a renaissance of Lord of the Ring’s scale battle sequences on the small screen at small screen prices for the simple reason that Gareth Edwards created all the effects in his bedroom again, the BBC wasn’t paying for those.
The same holds true for Monsters. I’m excited to see it, from what I hear it sounds like an excellent film and Gareth Edwards sounds like an incredibly talented director that I am sure will be helming some big budget spectacles in no time.
As for the solution to Hollywood’s income woes, we’ll have to keep looking.
For now enjoy the creative ingenuity of Mr. Edwards: