Spotlight : October 1997
By Owen Hammer
TThere has been much said, inside and outside of the VFX HQ, about the decreasing quality of big budget effects films; not the technical quality (although that is also decreasing) but the quality of script, acting, directing, and so forth. You can really see cognitive dissonance at work when people assume that an actor who commands a eight-digit figure per picture, or a writer who receives an equally impressive deal, has to be good, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
People talk about all the money spent on special effects, but the number of effects houses has been increasing, so economics dictates that the price of effects is going down. It also follows that effects houses are losing clout. You'll never hear the following conversation between a studio production executive and an effects house sales executive take place.
Studio Production Executive: Hello, is this the Effects House Sales Executive?
Effects House Sales Executive: Yes. Am I speaking to Studio Production Executive?
SPE: Yes you are. We've got another project brewing, THE BURNING; it should be out for next summer, late summer -- November -- and we're considering hiring you to do the effects.
EHSE: Yes, please send us a script.
SPE: I beg your pardon?
EHSE: A script. We need to see a script before we consider doing the effects for a movie.
SPE: Wait a minute, you guys are just doing the effects, what do you need a script for?
EHSE: To see what were getting into, we can't make a decision on a project of this scale without some understanding of it.
SPE: Oh, you mean a breakdown of the effects shots. Well, we need to get the complete shooting script before the storyboard artists...
EHSE: Whoa, whoa, back up. I'm not talking about specifics yet; I want to see what kind of story it is.
SPE: What do I have to do? Draw you a picture? It's about THE BURNING.
EHSE: I'm talking about the quality of the story. Is it well written?
SPE: Of course it's well written, we spent three million on it, and that's not including the one million we spent to option the novel two years before it was written.
EHSE: Well, we would like to see the script. You don't bake a cake without a recipe do you?
SPE: Why the hell not? I don't have time for some cook to come up with a recipe. Just get in there and start mixing the ingredients. You can always fix it during the baking stage. Say, I could send you some cake with the script.
EHSE: Er, just the script please.
(THE NEXT DAY)
EHSE: Hello, SPE?
SPE: EHSE? Good to hear from you. What did you think of the script?
EHSE: Well, I'm not sure I have the right version of the script. Is the red version the most recent copy.
SPE: What red version? There is no red version. I'd be informed if there was a red version.
EHSE: Well, the copy I have has a red cover.
SPE: You're sure that's not the crimson version.
EHSE: Oh wait, it says here on the front "crimson version" it's the version after "goldenrod."
SPE: Yeah that's almost the recent version. "Lavender" just came out today, but it's pretty much the same, except with more burning.
EHSE: How exactly does your color-coding system work?
SPE: Uh, I dunno, I just stay away from any shade of blue. If you get a script on your desk that's a shade of blue, you may as well pack up your things; you're through.
EHSE: So this is the script?
SPE: Yes, lots of burning in it, eh? Think of the money we'll save on lights.
EHSE: Actually we all thought it sucked.
EHSE: Yeah, it's not the sort of project we're interested in. What happened to all the writers you had writing cool scripts in the eighties?
SPE: We got 'em, all thirty-two of them! They wrote the script; that way it's thirty-two times better than if just one of them wrote it.
EHSE: We can't attach our names to a "story" that's so contrived and silly. Spending massive manpower and money on this would be like building a skyscraper on wooden stilts.
SPE: Now you're insulting our office design! We didn't have time for some schmaltzy architect to lay down a central support pillar; we got work to do. Say, maybe if you meet me in my office here on the good old thirty-third floor, I could change your mind about the project.
EHSE: Uh, maybe I could refer you to our competition.
SPE: EHSE, you've got to help me. All the other effects houses turned me down too. We start shooting in two days, and we have no one to do our effects.
EHSE: You start shooting in two days? I thought you didn't have a completed script yet.
SPE: We can always rewrite the script while we shoot it.
EHSE: What? Listen, the only way out of this situation is to get a new script. Trash what you have, get a good writer, have him or her write what they feel is good, judge the script on your own intuition, get something you really believe in, and the audience will know that.
SPE: Jeez, you make it sound so easy. If writing was that simple, our teams of market researchers, co-writers, additional dialoguers, and studio executives would be an unjustified expense; therefore that cannot be true. Besides everybody knows that writing is hard, otherwise anyone could do it.
EHSE: Well listen, that's the only way you're getting an effects house. So think it over.
EHSE: So, SPE, did you think about what I said?
SPE: Not really, I just got canned from the project.
EHSE: Got your pink-slip, eh?
SPE: No, a blue script! Not 'cornflower,' or 'indigo' mind you, but solid, primary blue.
EHSE: Whoa, man. I'm sorry to hear that.
SPE: Don't be, I've already landed a great position on TUMOR, so it looks like I'll be calling you again soon. You'll be more impressed by this one though, It's nothing like THE BURNING. It's got a real solid story, with good characterization. The way it's written the special effects would be used in a subtle and subdued manner primarily to advance the plot.
EHSE: Say, that is good news.
SPE: Yeah, but once I get on board, I gotta get more tumors in it...
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