Listen up VFX producers: making games will save you

With film and TV visual effects producers finding times tough, making games could be the panacea they have been looking for says Guy Gadney.Guy Gadney

In September, US special effects studio Digital Domain Media Group, producers of special effects for movies such as Titanic and Transformers, announced it was filing for bankruptcy protection. The group was founded in 1993 by James Cameron and others and has worked on some of the largest movie effects in recent years.

This is a heavyweight loss to the industry but not something new as the recent administration of Fuel VFX here in Australia showed. Special effects companies worldwide are feeling the impact of commoditization of their skill sets, cheaper software and outsourcing.

The Digital Domain announcement triggered a debate on the Digital Labourers Federation forum about the future of computer generated image studios. Jimmy Gunawan, an animation teacher at the University of Technology Sydney, suggested exploring the interactive opportunities that extend from CGI production.

The first employee at The Project Factory was a 3D artist we trained into adding interactive properties to his models that rapidly became game prototypes, virtual worlds and 3D experiences. It was a process that took about three months from “I’ll never be able to learn this tech stuff”, to “look at this prototype”. With the explosion in distribution platforms for small-scale games such as the Apple App Store and Google Play, there is an end-to-end chain from concept to mass-market which is unique in game industry history.

Back on the DLF forum, Arran Potter, a 3D freelance artist, said: “Making money from apps is not a gold rush but it’s something. We are having enough success to make another two larger titles.”

Digital media forces all industries to think differently. Cutting edge technology and creative industries are no different. The CG industry is, however, one of the best positioned to move into game creation and forge itself a new entrepreneurial future.

Guy Gadney is a director of The Project Factory.


  1. Jamie
    16 Nov 12
    5:58 pm

  2. Easier said than done, in Australia at least.

    You are in a much better position as a freelancer to profit on building models for mobile games, as most mobile game productions only require the most basic of 3d renderings in order to satisfy their needs (and budget). Easily enough handled by a single designer.

    If you look at the most successful mobile games which use 3D renderings (apart from the big ported franchises), the models used are low-polygon count models straight from the 90s probably created by (relatively) cheap software such as 3DS.

    They are jobs easily achieved by 1 or 2 artists, or even free-sourced completely off the internet.

    These budget of these entire games can be less than $10,000 (with only a fraction dedicated to model design) – not enough to sustain or even worth the time of many VFX studios.

    The ‘big budget’ mobile games, the likes of some of the racing titles, RPG and FPS games generally ported from franchises owned by the major game developers – are productions that themselves can run into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

    One blogger even mentions that Angry Birds, a relatively flat 2D mobile app, cost anywhere *from* $180,000 USD.

    Productions on this scale are generally not available in Australia.

    So, yes, while some business may be out their for struggling VFX studios to tap into – its not like their skill set is exactly in demand on the mobile market. Why go to a VFX studio when you could pay a 1 freelancer a small flat fee to mess around with 3DS max?

    The greatest need for VFX Studio quality 3D design in the gaming industry is obviously large console/PC productions, but when the budgets required are so high – and in turn requiring an organisation and management structure which will incorporate its own in-house design team, VFX studios will only be able to contribute a narrow field of skills in translating their film elements to a gaming space.

    And while just producing any profitable 3D game is significantly cheaper, and proven reasonably achievable by Australian gaming studios – the productions that require a specialist VFX film component, are exactly those titles out of reach of Australian budgets.

    In the end, contributing to games won’t save VFX producers, it may individually save single people in the industry – no doubt the work is there for individuals who seek it, but it won’t save complete companies or studios on the brink.

  3. ian christy
    17 Nov 12
    10:02 am

  4. I have a mixed reaction to this. The difference between film quality FX and AAA game quality is negligible, and will be even less readily apparent via the next generation of technology, console or PC or better. The article though is asking VFX houses to pad their revenue by making Angry Birds or Farmville type games. That’s a huge leap of faith, and really, while potentially profitable, skips past the idea of adding interactivity to their portfolio in a meaningful way via transmedia, or game extensions to film IP. An iPhone app is a far cry from dealing with the physics sim and procedural debris or crowd ai of a large FX scene, like comparing building a Ferrari to sculpting car shaped proxies out of bars of soap.

  5. Anne Miles
    19 Nov 12
    11:11 am

  6. That’s a big call. I do agree that there is opportunity growing in the gaming/gamification market and 3D/VFX is still growing in that industry. There are some skills that do move across well and some that don’t. I agree with the Ferrari versus bar of soap analogy, although add to this by saying that a bar of soap is marketable and people want it – so there is a place for both.

    The article specifically suggests producers can move across from straight motion productions to game and, I agree that is an easy migration. I’ve worked on apps and digital to some extent myself and the skills for this type of work do move over quite well with some technical up-skilling that’s easy to do with the right support from a tech lead. A good producer knows what they don’t know and how to get the right support to plug the gaps.

    I also agree with @Jamie that individual artists can translate across fairly well and I agree there too. Generalists in particular should translate well. The Hollywood pipeline style used by the bigger VFX houses doesn’t seem so easy to apply IMHO.

    My feeling too, is that the bigger houses are not really set up to work with this game world because of the scale of projects here currently. Those that want to invest in creating their own IP are on another level and may well crack a big one. But, just like the big break in movies, the big break in games takes a massive investment up front too. How many of the industry cite these big successes as if they are so easy to crack!? So, we can all be positive about cutting those kinds of deals but counting on them would be madness. I see so many film companies burning time and money on their own big ideas and most of it is wasted.

    My suggestion is to prove it before spending the money on it. So, VFX industry – don’t make the leap as suggested without testing the water first. Do something small and go one step at a time.

    I also think that clients need to start being more careful about what suppliers they start trusting with projects these days as many are scrambling for a share of each others’ markets and are not always skilled in what they propose to do. With less people using skilled producers too they’re making risky moves.