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Marvel VFX Blowback

There’s an interesting piece in Vulture from an anonymous visual effects artist complaining about how hard Marvel is on the VFX houses.

I see it’s been picked up this morning by other outlets. Anytime you have a “David vs. Goliath” story like this, it’s catnip to the media.

I am presently researching the VFX for my Sky Fighter project (based on a short) and getting an education on the business.

It’s an interesting field because, well, it’s kind of imaginary. You’re not buying rubber and turning it into a tire. The only real cost is the time of the artists. (Sure, there’s their equipment and software.)

The VFX houses are expensive because of their overhead. If you’re willing to employ people breaking in, and/or use people moonlighting, you can get VFX for much less.

Also, there’s no one “price” for anything. Oftentimes when you ask what the VFX for your script will cost, the answer is, “Whaddaya got?”

You can get TV-quality effects for one budget, low-budget feature-quality for another, and ILM-quality for yet another. So it’s all a big, “It depends.”

So it’s kind of confounding.

With Marvel, the studio is locked into Disney’s inviolable release dates. In an effort to maximize their films’ entertainment value, they ask the artists for a million choices and make huge changes up to the last minute. And needless to say, the VFX need to be top-quality.

The Vulture piece makes it sound like they’re bullies and, well, it’s believable.

One thing in the article that I totally believe is that you’d be shocked how many filmmakers just don’t know how to work with effects. That’s why changes happen so often and so drastically. They don’t understand what something will look like, so they need things fully rendered in order to make a choice—and they still don’t fully grasp the implications of their decisions, so they go around in circles until the clock runs out.

This actually made me feel encouraged because I’m the opposite of that. I truly don’t need to see things fully rendered to understand them. As a director, I’m almost always chasing something I see in my head. It’s just a matter of communication to get there.

Self-aggrandizing Lukas alert!

When I was doing the Sky Fighter short, we had a ton of VFX that would be added later in the spaceship console holograms. These shots were, when I was editing with Rob Burnett, totally blank. We just put in sluglines over the empty part of the frame (the wall of the spaceship), e.g. “Good Guy Ships Lock Missiles.”

So it looked like this:

Well before it looked like this:

We were quite apprehensive that the final VFX might need shorter or longer “plates.” It seemed insane to do so much storytelling “blank,” just guessing the timings.

But I was confident in what I was doing—and coming from a musical background, I’ve always felt I had a good sense of rhythm as far as communicating to the audience. And Rob is a phenomenal editor for timing—so we just put in the “plates” (cutaways to the empty wall, sans VFX) in the length that felt right, and hoped for the best.

I think of 80 shots, when the VFX came in from Tobias Richter and The Light Works, we only had to change the timing on one of them. And in one other place, we re-ordered a couple of shots so they made more sense.

That’s it. And we were very proud of that.

So I was a little annoyed when some guys on YouTube made snotty comments about our VFX looking like a videogame. Part of that was the retro aesthetic—but most of it was the importance of keeping the VFX simple enough so the audience’s eye can quickly find the important story point.

The truth is that there is a ton of visual storytelling in our short, and it was so effectively done you take it for granted. Believe me, had it been off by just a hair—nothing would have made any sense.

So right now I’m trying to put together a budget for the VFX for our Sky Fighter feature and convince financiers that I can bring the cost way down just through knowledge and decisiveness.

I would love so much to be working with artists like the one who went off about Marvel in the Vulture piece.

I have often had the experience of working with a creative artist—whether it’s in audio mixing, color timing, composing, VFX, or editing—and after 20 minutes, they go, “Oh, now I get it. You know what you want.”

And it’s like all the tension leaves their body. They are just so happy to be working with somebody who has a vision.

And I am truly happy to be working with such experienced and capable artists who can go on those journeys, help me get there and teach me what I don’t know.

I hope I don’t sound full of myself, but I’m just so excited to make something again. I hope I get the chance!

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