An Anonymous TV Writer Offers An Inside Look At Why Special Effects Seem So Bad Right Now
3:08 PM EDT on May 18, 2022
Last week, I wrote a story about the current state of special effects in Hollywood and how they have become, as New York Times columnist Kyle Buchanan told me, “oversaturated and shitty.” I chalked the problem up to a combination of economics, creativity, internal studio politics, and the taste of both studios and the audience. But because I don’t work in Hollywood, and because no VFX supervisors would speak to me for that post, I wasn’t really able to get at the problem from the inside.
However, after I posted that story, Defector got a tip from an established TV writer that I have never met before and will, for this post, refer to as “Writer X,” both to protect their anonymity and because it sounds cool. Writer X does not work as an effects supervisor, obviously, but they have some insight into how the sausage is made. Or, more accurately, how the machine that makes the sausage is made. They got on the phone with me and described a post-production process that is frequently marred by compressed schedules, unfair labor practices and—you guessed it—cost-cutting. I have edited our conversation below both for length and clarity.
Defector: Can you tell me what the problem is with special effects in Hollywood right now?
Writer X: I can't speak to the movie side of things, as I'm coming from a TV perspective. But the short answer is, there are more TV shows being made now than ever before, many of them with more reliance on VFX than ever before, and nobody wants to give things the time or money they deserve, because they don't want to spend a single cent they're not forced to.
In your original piece you asked, How is it possible for a $10 million dollar an episode series (Marvel’s Moon Knight) to have CGI that looks like this? Part of it is that those budget numbers are deceptive. Ten million dollars an episode doesn't necessarily mean you're spending more time or money on VFX. It might just mean a larger percentage of that money is getting funneled into above-the-line costs.
Defector: What are above-the-line costs?
Writer X: Above the line is basically everything except crew. Crew is below the line and production expenses are below the line. Above the line is writing, directors, talent. Marvel is pulling in legit A-list movie stars to do their six-episode television miniseries, so my first question is, "Okay, but how much is Oscar Isaac getting paid? How much of that budget is talent sucking up?" In the early days of the Netflix/Marvel partnership, the lead actors—who weren't movie stars—were mostly getting $20-$30k/episode, with some exceptions.
Then you start to look at when all the movie stars started coming in. There are plenty of movie stars who only want to do $200 million movies and make $20 million for doing it, but there are just as many actors who are like, "Man, I just want to work. I want to stretch myself. I want to do something interesting." So they come to TV, where you don't get paid nearly as much.
Defector: They might also know that they have to take a slightly lower salary for that project to make the rest of the production work. Would that be fair to say?
Writer X: Oh, 100 percent. But probably around 2018, you started to notice, "Wow, these actors are making $450,000 an episode." I think Drew Barrymore was making $450,000 for Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix (Note: It was actually $350,000). Then you started to see those above-the-line salaries creep up and up and up and up. If you're a showrunner, you're sitting there saying, "Oh my god, we could get A-list actors." For a ten-episode, premium cable show, let's say somebody is asking for $600,000 an episode. So your No. 1 on the call sheet is earning $6 million total for a show that might be budgeted at $80 million total, which means one actor is sucking up 7.5 percent of your total budget.
Defector: If you're an actor, it's hard to say no to that.
Writer X: Right. And look, it's a really hard job for actors. But they don't let showrunners pick where the money is going. You can push back on certain things, but you're not going to win every battle. You're ultimately beholden to the money people.
And it's crazy that we expect every hourlong TV show to be able to be shot in eight or eight and a half days. In the olden days of TV—say, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation—99 to 100 percent of your show was shot on a soundstage. You could control lighting, temperature, noise. It's a very friendly environment to make television in, and you can hit your dates easily. You can wrap on time or early every night. But for the average hour long show today, it's way more exteriors. It's way more stuff not on stage.
Defector: And that eats into effects.
Writer X: I think people care a lot and want VFX to look good, but the overcapacity issue (in terms of both the number of movies and TV shows currently being made and the production requirements they demand) means it's becoming an impossible burden to apply the same standards across the board. For instance, on an episode of one show I worked on, every time we knew that there was going to be a VFX shot, we would have a rep from the VFX company on set. The rep is there to say, "That's going to be bad for us from a lighting perspective," or "Let's make sure we grab that insert shot (a quick closeup shot of an item to insert into the edit)." VFX companies aren't just coming in months after production has wrapped. They're actively involved in production in an attempt to make sure they're best set up for success once it's time for them to start work. And there are no mistakes, because mistakes equal increased costs.
Defector: But you told me time becomes a vital issue there.
Writer X: A post-production calendar is timed down to the minute, because you have all these steps to go through before it's handed over to VFX. First comes the editor's assembly; then the editor's cut; then the director's cut; then the executive producer/showrunner's cut. Then you're going through various studio and network notes and continuing to refine the cut as you try to make it to picture lock (Note: “Picture lock” means the cut of all principal photography is now finished and every edited shot has been “locked” in). Any delay, during any part of the post-production calendar, has a downstream effect on every other department and how much time they have to do their work.
In the old world, when you're shooting 22 episodes a year and production was entirely in Los Angeles, a showrunner would be going from the writer's room to the editing suite, to a sound mix, to stage where they're shooting the next episode. You would be doing all of those things in one day. Now that it's been distorted and the calendars have been pulled apart so insanely, and it takes five years to make eight episodes of television. While all of these other steps are going on as part of the post-process, the VFX technicians are working their magic. But if anything goes wrong, they might lose time they genuinely needed to polish and refine their stuff. And things always go wrong.
So let's say, for instance, you have a release date that you're trying to hit. The studio and network know that, but they keep giving you notes and big things keep changing. You are gating all of these other departments from doing their jobs and you're pushing the calendar out. The FX houses are very good at what they do when they have the time and the money to do it. But if NBC wants to air something, if they want to advertise something during the Olympics, that's that. If Marvel wants to release a movie on July 4th, whatever is ready is going to be released on July 4th.
Defector: So then, on certain shows where you've put a good amount of creative stock into VFX, the effects team can end up being left with a reduced amount of time to create those effects, and can’t put in the care and meticulousness that they want to provide. Would that be correct?
Writer X: Yes. It all comes down to time and money. You can always just crunch across the entire studio.
Defector: I know that word.
Writer X: That happens too. That happens at every level. Very few of FX houses are unionized. IATSE (the union that represents many of the people who work behind the scenes in entertainment) was trying with limited success. So it means the working conditions are terrible: working 14 or 17 or 18 hours days for weeks or months on end, with none of the benefits or protections a union would provide. Like, say, making sure people aren't doing unpaid overtime. It's a similar thing and you hear about it a lot with animation studios closing. A lot of Canadian animation houses have closed in the past few years because they were crunching for their lives and then the contract is over and the work dries up.
I did hear this one anecdote the other day about a major movie studio. Their VFX company just quit because it was going to be six months to a year of really hard, intense work. They were like, That's actually not as good for us as taking on a handful of smaller, shorter-term jobs. VFX houses are perhaps getting smarter and saying, "We're going to put more work into this than we're actually getting paid for. We're going to be trapped into this project no matter what you throw at us. Maybe it's more lucrative and possibly it's better on our artists if we can do six one-month jobs instead of one six-month job."
Defector: Given the circumstances, are FX houses tempted to charge more for the work with the understanding that they will get it done as fast as they can, and quality ends up taking a backseat just so long as it's on schedule?
Writer X: Nobody wants bad VFX in their projects. Many of us, while we're sitting there writing TV pilots, are envisioning our series having significant VFX elements. But we don't know how easy or difficult or expensive those elements might be to implement, or how much time it'll ultimately take, or how crunched we'll be when that work is actually happening. And the studios and networks don't either.
Nobody is thinking about numbers when they're writing a pilot. They're thinking about story. But then, later on, when you start to think about costs, and start to ask questions like, How are we going to do this? Who's going to do it? How are we going to pay for it? What does that VFX houses' calendar look like in three and a half years when we're actually in post on this? In a way, it's unknowable, and so I think a lot of creative and production executives have said, 'That's a problem to be handled down the road. We know it's a solvable problem because there are a ton of CG artists out there who are really good.' But there's just so much coming through the pipeline!
Defector: So everybody loses except the studio heads and, I suppose, the people who run the VFX houses. Same way that the fucker that runs Blizzard makes a mint and treats his workers like shit.
Writer X: Absolutely.
Defector: Do you believe studios have convinced themselves certain houses make "good" effects when really they’re just grading them on their ability to turn work around fast, and for less?
Writer X: I think you find the cost-cutting comes in subtler, more dangerous ways. For instance, look at the movie Rust. A non-union production. You look at the DP who got shot to death on that set. They were having the armorer double up as an assistant to the props person. That's a way to save money that’s also guaranteed to make sure that something fucked up happens on your set.
Those are places where I think that corners get cut because production executives are just like, "Make it work," and they can ignore the downstream effects of it. There are no excuses for poor on-set safety, regardless of whether it's non-union or not. That whole thing was a fucking travesty, and I've made a promise to myself because of it that I'll never have real guns on any set of mine in the future. We'll do muzzle flashes with—you guessed it!—CGI.
So when you're actually looking at a visual shot and saying, "That hippo looks ridiculous," or "That tiger doesn't look real," or "That is laughably bad," I don't think any creative executive watching that would be like, "Eh, that's okay." They might say, "We hate this. Is there anything we can do about it and explore all the options?" But if the answer is no, they might still release it.
Defector: Is there any hope of unionization among FX workers, or is it too disparate a business for that to ever happen?
Writer X: I don't know. One issue is, these VFX houses aren't just in the U.S. So even if every VFX house here unionized, the studios would go to Canada, or the UK, or whichever place gave them a lower quote for the cost of work. But I'm not totally without hope. A couple of years ago, I was kind of like, "Video game folks will never unionize because it's too closely related to tech." It's a lot of people hoping to make a ton of money, hoping to make a killing on a thing, and the workers don't have any buy-in. But there has been some progress there, and some tech-specific unions are making a dent in organizing workers.
Defector: On the tipline, you gave us one example of a streaming service delaying something because the effects weren't ready yet. But in general, that’s never the case. Would that be accurate?
Writer X: On an established streaming service [like Netflix], delays matter less. On the streaming services that are still trying to make their bones, all of them now are really dependent on these quarterly earnings reports and how many subscribers they're adding. There's a reason so many new shows are launching in March now, right? They're trying to get in under the Q1 deadline and goose the number of subscribers they have right before their earnings calls. Any delays become harder to stomach.
I also think Marvel is its own really weird beast. I'm not totally convinced that they know how to make television yet. It's feature people taking a feature budget and then just dividing it by the number of episodes. They’re not calling anybody a showrunner, but instead calling them a head writer. That is on purpose. What Marvel shows do is they bring on a head writer and they basically say, "We're just going to pay you scale for X number of weeks. We're not going to give you a full writer's room." They're trying to get the most amount of stuff, in the least amount of time, for the least amount of money. They're actively saying, "How can we pay scale to make people work for very short periods of time to do the same amount of work that you always had to do?"
I hate to say this because it's going to fuck up all of my projects, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's a Writers Guild strike in 2023. I'm not hoping for one, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's just gotten so hard for people to piece together a living on mini rooms and the wages are not going up.
Defector: Yes. It's just cutting margins wherever they can find them, but to no greater benefit for the product, or obviously, for the people who are doing that work.
Writer X: It’s [the studios] pleading poverty. This is what they always do. They always say things have never been harder. They got a special cut-out deal in [the 2008 CBA with the writer’s guild] for new media. New media is just media now. Netflix doesn't pay residuals. Believe me, if there is a strike in 2023, there's a lot of great stories in it. And the town's press always turns against us to such an insane degree during negotiations, because they're all owned by the studios. MRC owns The Hollywood Reporter. Deadline is just an industry bulletin board, but whenever the writers are like, "You should pay us what we're worth," they're like, "Is that a Tesla we see in your garage?"
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