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Who is VFX Whizz Scott Ross?

In our second C-Suite Interview, KIDS FIRST! introduces you to Scott Ross, a maven of the Visual Effects Industry. Veteran KIDS FIRST! Film Critic Gerry O. recently met with Scott in his southern California home to discuss the history and future of VFX. Take a look and learn!

Marvel produces films full of actors in green suits running on green treadmills in front of green walls. Yet, audiences never see these films, because of the thousands of people working in an industry called visual effects (VFX), the art of cinematic illusions. VFX ranges from mirrors and double exposure to making ghostly images on film, to complex supercomputers processing 3D models that mimic reality.

Few know the VFX industry better than Scott Ross, former general manager of Industrial Light and Magic as well as co-founder of Digital Domain. His work has garnered an incredible seven Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, Technical Achievement Awards and more.

When Scott first entered the VFX industry in the 1980s, computer technology still had years of development ahead. Thus, the industry relied on photochemical processes, optical printers and optical illusions to achieve the desired effects. “Everything was film-oriented, and everything was organic,” Scott explained.

When computers did arrive, the VFX industry had a brand-new issue: “there were no… true artists that understood how to work within a computer.” So, the pioneering VFX artists were computer scientists from top institutions such as UC Berkeley. As expected, mixing computer scientists with traditional cinematic artists, “didn’t work all that well,” Scott commented.

While technology has certainly improved with the release of sophisticated programs like NUKE by Foundry or Adobe After Effects by Adobe Systems, the industry still has many problems to solve. Marvel’s most recent hit, Avengers: Endgame features characters made digitally, worlds made digitally and even the outfits of main characters are made digitally. This has caused many to argue that VFX has become overused as the average film becomes increasingly digitally made. Yet, production companies have a reason to put in as much VFX as possible.

Scott explains that international markets have become an increasingly larger portion of a film’s profit and, “you’re not going to have Driving Miss Daisy [a dialogue-heavy period piece] play very well in Beijing or Shanghai.” Yet, characters turning to dust? Volcanoes erupting? That has far more international promise than a film with two characters talking.

While there may be an ever-growing demand for VFX, VFX companies continue to go out of business due to production companies constantly asking for changes, increasing the time needed to perfect their work. The pressure-riddled VFX artists suffer as they work long hours with little rest due to razor-thin time constraints (Avengers: Endgame finished VFX less than a month before premiering) and, do their work inside in darkness, often across the world from where production takes place. Sometimes, they don’t even appear in the credits of the film.

While technology continues to improve to make the lives of VFX artists easier, it also invariably has caused the industry to “bifurcate,” making many artists obsolete while only the world-renowned artists maintain demand. For example, take the field of rotoscoping. This animation technique revolves around cutting out objects from the rest of a frame and, based on personal experience, maybe the most monotonous step in the filmmaking process. Because it can be done by anyone, it has been outsourced to countries with cheaper labor like India and China, and has increasingly been replaced by sophisticated computer programs.

Visual Effects continues to be an increasingly important step in filmmaking. Despite the industry being in its infant stage, it has already felt the blunt impact of technological innovation and will continue to do so as lifeless computers become more involved in the emotional process of making cinema.

By Gerry Orz, KIDS FIRST! Film Critic, age 17
Author’s Page – Amazon
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