Spectacular science fiction movies. They’re always big studio productions, right? As for the visual effects, they’re always provided by outside vendors – companies hired in by the producers to make movie magic. That’s how it’s always done.
Ender’s Game is different. Despite having a budget widely reported to be $100 million, it is in fact an independent film, co-produced by Oddlot Entertainment, Summit/Lionsgate and Digital Domain 3.0. Famous as a leading visual effects facility, Digital Domain is not known for film production. However, with Ender’s Game, the company known familiarly as “DD” has broken the mould by acting not as a vendor on the show, but as a partner.
I spoke recently to Daniel Seah, CEO of Digital Domain, and Matthew Butler, DD’s overall VFX supervisor on Ender’s Game. I was particularly interested to learn how DD’s unique role on the film impacted on the creative process …
Daniel, as I understand it, Digital Domain has an equity stake in Ender’s Game, and made further contribution in the form of visual effects services.
DS: Yes. Digital Domain’s contribution was both financial and creative, which is why it was such an interesting partnership. With a VFX company as an equity partner and co-producer, the production was able to take advantage of our ability to visually develop the film in the earliest stages to support foreign pre-sales and to produce VFX at cost.
Do you view this as a one-off experiment for Digital Domain? Or is it part of an on-going strategy to explore new business models? And how important is it to future plans that Ender’s Game is a success?
DS: Ender’s Game was an investment in Digital Domain’s future. It allowed the company to expand its role, to participate in a meaningful way, and to start building a track record in co-production. Handled strategically and in a balanced way, we see co-production as an important part of Digital Domain’s more diverse business strategy moving forward.
Matthew, you were overall VFX supervisor on Ender’s Game. What difference did it make to you and your team knowing you were working on an in-house project? For example, did you enjoy a more creative role? Did you feel more invested in the project as a whole? Or was the pressure on to “get it right”?
MB: All of the above! Working on a feature that we were part-owner of allowed us to take a more active creative role, much earlier in the process than usual. Part of the reason for that is that Gavin Hood is wonderfully collaborative. He was the screenwriter as well as the director. Very early on, he and I went over to DD’s local watering hole here in Venice, and he opened up his laptop with the script on it and we started talking and designing right then and there. It was exciting for me, and it’s a great way to get the most for your money. If you start world-building during the script stage, it also helps to save time. It lets everyone involved know the cost of things as you go – what will be painful and what will not.
How about budget management? Did you get more – or less – bang for bucks working this way?
MB: Definitely more. Being a co-producer means that you have skin in the game, so it’s risky, but it also protects you from the system that’s been in place for years. Typically you assess the level of work the best you can, create a budget, plan, and follow through that with the producers involved. When things change – and they inevitably do – as a service company you put your hand up and say, “Hang on.” Then the money people get together and you start the change order process. As a producer, it’s now a closed system. You hold hands with your partners and say, “We’re going to make this movie for this much money and time. These are our assets.” It works well if everyone plays ball. But it was also tricky. You need to be fluid and let things change. It’s an artistic environment. But there are ramifications to that. We got it done, and in the end we were much more efficient and ended up with more on the screen.
Did the financial risk to Digital Domain influence your readiness to take risks creatively? Were you still able to put resources into R&D, experimenting with new techniques and so on?
MB: Every new project means new challenges, new approaches and breaking records in one way or another – that’s true for every visual effects company on every film, and Ender’s Game was no different for us. We had huge simulations – in one shot 27 billion polygons – and we had brilliant technologists figuring out how to render those scenes without causing a blackout in the studio. Our role in co-financing the movie didn’t change that in any way. You still have to solve problems. It did help us to make choices – like, for instance, while we did create fully synthetic characters for the entire cast in the zero-G battle room sequences, we limited that to simple performances – no dialogue. Having CG actors delivering lines was not a way we wanted to go. Shooting as much as we could live, then using CG and developing new tools where it was necessary to achieve correct zero-G physics was our approach. Again, having that mindset of “these are our assets” and sticking to our plans made that successful.
The production of Ender’s Game spanned a difficult period for Digital Domain, involving bankruptcy protection and ownership changes. Daniel, was it difficult to keep the project on track when you took over as CEO?
DS: When I started as CEO in August, the VFX for Ender’s Game were nearly finished, so I don’t believe that management change disrupted the work at all. VFX Supervisor Matthew Butler and the team were laser-focused. I have so much respect for the commitment and abilities of these artists – they went through a lot and delivered amazing work.
Matthew, how easy was it for you and your team to maintain focus on the project through this difficult period?
MB: Honestly, when we’re on a film, crews just put the blinders on and focus. We did that with Ender’s Game, and the whole studio was supportive of keeping teams focused on their shows during that period. We are all really proud that it didn’t impact the quality or schedule of our project.
The visual effects industry as a whole is experiencing turbulent times. Do VFX companies need to explore new revenue streams in order to survive? And, perhaps, to become empowered?
DS: I can’t speak for any companies other than Digital Domain, but we do believe that a diverse business strategy is important, while still understanding and focusing on what is core to the company – in our case, visual effects for feature films and commercials. Approaching co-productions strategically is a path that we believe will benefit our company as we move forward.
MB: I think every company needs to figure out what’s right for its business. Having a strategy that includes diverse lines of business is something Digital Domain believes will be successful for us. A balance of feature film VFX, commercials and games work, co-productions and digital human projects is what Digital Domain has outlined as our path.
Is the “VFX company as producer” model scalable, or is it only big players like Digital Domain who can afford to take the risk?
DS: We at Digital Domain are fortunate in that our parent company is very supportive of our selective involvement in co-productions. Again, I can’t speak for other companies, but having strong financial backing for a co-production strategy is an important consideration.
Now that Ender’s Game is playing in theatres, does Digital Domain’s production role give you more of a sense of ownership? Is this your movie?
MB: Absolutely! We are following the numbers as closely as anyone. And the way we’re reading reviews is different too – we’re just as interested in how the story and actors are received as we are about how the visual effects are judged.
Daniel and Matthew – thank you both for talking about Ender’s Game.
Ender’s Game features a total of 941 visual effects shots, of which Digital Domain delivered just over 700. An additional 250 shots were delivered by Vectorsoul and Post23 (Mind Game), Method Studios, The Embassy, Comen VFX, G Creative Productions Inc (motion graphics) and Goldtooth Creative Agency Inc (motion graphics).
All images used with permission. Motion Picture Artwork ™ & © Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.