Why the CGI expense?
May 11, 2009 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Why are CGI-animated films so expensive?

It appears that a typical CGI film-a la Pixar- costs a comparable amount to a live action movie...in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. I can see where all the money goes in a live action shoot: physical locations, sets, props, explosions, stunts, etc. But with a CGI film it's (mostly) nerds pecking away on computers. Okay, that's simplifying things, but you get my point.

So where does all the money go?
posted by zardoz to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Man hours. Animation is much more time consuming than a live action shoot. Which is why it tends to be reserved for things that are impossible or very difficult in real life (living toys, robots in space, blowing up really, really big things, etc.).
posted by ocherdraco at 5:50 PM on May 11, 2009


Talent is a BIG money sucker. When you look at the Shrek films, they tout some pretty A-list stars, including Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, John Lithgow, etc. Don't underestimate an A-lister's salary.
posted by Spyder's Game at 5:51 PM on May 11, 2009


You're paying for computation "rendering farm", which means you're either running a huge cluster of computers with all the associated capital and runtime expense (hardware, electricity, cooling, system administration) or you're renting time on someone else's cluster.

You're also paying the equivalent of programmers to work on the artistic attributes of 24 frames per second of a two-hour movie.

Unless your software is in-house, you're paying licensing fees. Otherwise, you're paying real programmers to write rendering software, as well as update it with new features or bug fixes.

Then you have to redo shot after shot until the director is happy with the end result.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:57 PM on May 11, 2009


Voice talent. And a huge amount of labour. A lot of systems get built for each film and there are a lot of scenes that are essentially hand-built.

If you know the scene in Monsters Inc where Sully wipes out in the snow, I had the opportunity to see how they built that shot. The snow scatter was built as a one-off and had to be modeled for each object in the scene - Sully, the skis, poles, etc.

Additionally, each film gets made several times. In the same lecture they showed storyboards shots overlaid with the voices, basic wireframe renderings, unshaded renderings and the fully character animated renderings. It's really amazing how painstaking it is to do all the stuff in a Pixar film.

At any rate, the staff for a CGI move easily runs way over 200 people and if you compare it to a software company that has 200 employees, that's a $20M+ annual budget on mostly geeks pecking on keyboards.
posted by GuyZero at 6:02 PM on May 11, 2009


Then you have to redo shot after shot until the director is happy with the end result.

Believe it or not, apparently they don't do this.

The lecture I saw was by Rob Cook, the guy who runs Pixar Engineering. He also invented RenderMan, the standard used for their rendering software.

They draw the storyboards and record all the voice talent off of that. At that point the film is basically complete. I imagine there may be some rework, but basically for the plot it's a pure waterfall process that's debugged with storyboards that are hand-drawn. He showed several clips where the storyboards matched the final version perfectly. Although I can't say whether this was 100% representative based just on a few minutes of clips. The animators do a lot of work, but what they do is simply a fancier version of the storyboard sketches.
posted by GuyZero at 6:08 PM on May 11, 2009


ocherdraco is right with man hours. Lots of nerds can be expensive.

Just as an example, 200 people working for 2 years. Lets give them a salary of 50k, thats 20 million right there. That is a really conservative estemate.
posted by phyle at 6:09 PM on May 11, 2009


Oh, also: the the UP premiere they had the UP logo on a zeppelin floating over the Bay Area a few days ago. Pixar has a BIG marketing budget. All those ads cost a lot of money.
posted by GuyZero at 6:10 PM on May 11, 2009


Perhaps you are not seeing where all the money goes in a big budget live action shoot? The live-action budget goes into the CGI. CGI is expensive. The fact that you do not see the CGI is a big budget life action film is all the reason more to understand why it costs so much.

I'm not sure what live-action films you speak of where "physical locations, sets, props, explosions, stunts, etc." make up a huge portion of the budget.

Also, it takes something like 3 times longer to film a feature animation than a live-action film. phyle's 200 people working 2 years at $50K is more like 200 people working 5 years at $100K.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:12 PM on May 11, 2009


*The fact that you do not see the CGI in a live-action film is all the reason more to understand why it costs so much.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:13 PM on May 11, 2009


They draw the storyboards and record all the voice talent off of that. At that point the film is basically complete.

You couldn't be more wrong.

I'm a character animator that works on feature length animated films and the movie I'm currently working on is constantly tinkered with. Yes, the directors get a script lock before production commences, but its not uncommon for movies to be tested in front of live audiences and whole acts rewritten prior to animation getting ahold of it. Often times I'll be halfway through animating a shot and there will be a dialog change causing my some, if not, all of my animation to be a wash.

GuyZero has it right. The majority of money that goes into an animated film is in the form of voice talent and production costs. Most animators out here in LA are also not making 50k a year. Its considerably more than that. Currently I'm on a team of about 70 animators and then factor in the production staff, lighters, FX artists, compositors, technical directors and you can easily see how things can start to get expensive REAL QUICK.
posted by AsRuinsAreToRome at 6:15 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Apparently I have it right and wrong. :)
posted by GuyZero at 6:19 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of people are missing the big picture: they choose to make them expensive. Look at UP. Part of the basic premise is that this house is held up by a few thousand tiny balloons, each with its own string, blowing separately in the wind, colliding with its neighbors. That is not a creative decision made with a tight technical budget in mind. Pixar seems to love pushing the envelope technically with every film, and that's not cheap. But because they have had such fantastic success, they can spend that money.

And there are counter-examples: Hoodwinked is an example of a lower budget animated film.
posted by smackfu at 6:20 PM on May 11, 2009


Model making is unreasonably expensive. By which I mean figuring out where all the polys go, and how to articulate the figure. For an expressive character (e.g. Shrek), designing and controlling the face is grotesquely difficult.

3D backgrounds are an amazing time sink, too, more than you realize. I've done just enough of it to realize what a bitch it is, and when I see a scene like this one, I cringe. That was probably thousands of man-hours to create all the models. Some of it can be created algorithmically (e.g. the palm trees) or by tesselation (the cobblestones) and some of it is stock models (the horses) but the buildings, and the castle, and all those people's clothing?

For really good CGI shows, model making is one of the biggest expenses.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:23 PM on May 11, 2009


I think a lot of people are missing the big picture: they choose to make them expensive.

I was just about to say that.

The Hollywood mogul thinks that using cool and expensive CGI might improve a movie's chances of making money.

For the geeks at Pixar and elsewhere, a movie that makes money is a great way to pay for all their server farms, massive screens, Wacom tablets and other geek toys. Understand this: for a geek expensive toys are the end, not the means.

The genius of Pixar is that they have reverse-engineered Hollywood and figured out the secret to reliably making great movies. If this isn't the revenge of the nerds, I don't know what is.
posted by randomstriker at 7:12 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


So add up all the things that everyone here is saying costs a lot, and you have your answer - every step in the process costs a lot. Even the things that are being dismissed:

nerds pecking away on computers? Trained, talented and experienced artists. Wacom tablets and other geek toys? necessary tools of the trade.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:29 PM on May 11, 2009


Don't forget that most VFX/ CG animation shops have mandatory OT all around, and a basic week as defined in your contract can be anywhere from 40 to 55 hours long. Of course, then there's OT on top of that during crunches, to meet delivery dates to the client, etc. (Mr. F once royally upset his office's timecard software by working a 22-hour day, for instance.) 80-90 hour crunch weeks are not uncommon in some disciplines of the field, including CG modeling.

I worked part-time at my VFX job when I was starting out, and that was 38-44 hours a week. I lost Labor Day last year to a current big-budget blockbuster because my team was 300 frames ahead of target at 6:55pm that Friday night... and 555 frames behind by 7pm, when the client and our producers worked out a new shot schedule. Everyone else had plans and I was our team lead, so I bit the bullet. My paycheck was pretty nice that pay period, though.

Oh, and you have to feed folks, if you're going to deprive them of meals with their families and keep them in the office until 11pm. Craft service runs up the bills, as does insurance, if you're insuring your staff (a lot of people work "project," which is at-will with no benefits).

But mostly, us "nerds" work damn hard, very long hours, doing complicated shit that involves CS, mathematics, color theory, lighting design, fluid and hair simulation, crowd simulations, 3D modeling, laying out every scene in every shot, and making it all look convincing to not only Joe Average Audience Member, but to supervisors who've been doing this sort of work since it was done with Sharpies and X-acto knives, models, and optical lineup tables. That kind of expertise doesn't come cheap.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:16 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


But mostly, us "nerds" work damn hard, very long hours...

And burn out frequently, leading to recurring high replacement costs.
posted by rokusan at 1:25 AM on May 12, 2009


I'd recommend watching The Pixar Story, and then grabbing (if you can rent 'em), a disc with the special features that cover the "Making Of" for one of the Pixar films. It'll give you a rudimentary idea of all the work that goes into making CGI animated films. I have nothing but awe and respect for all the work that they put into the films.
posted by Atreides at 6:03 AM on May 12, 2009


...just want to say that GuyZero's point about storyboards seems based on a comparison to live-action movies where the editor has the ability to mix and match different scenes/takes to create the final film. Because production costs are so high for animation, the storyboard must serve as the blueprint for every facet of the film. It's like building a house, the blueprint should have everything mapped out, but there's a whole lot of messy production work to get to the final film.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:38 AM on May 12, 2009


But with a CGI film it's (mostly) nerds pecking away on computers. Okay, that's simplifying things, but you get my point.

I have several friends who work at Pixar. None of them are nerds. They are ALL classically-trained animators and artists. There's a ton of actual, hand-drawn art being done for those productions. A couple of them work exclusively as art directors and stylists, setting the visual tone and feel of the productions by turning-out extensive studies and drawing using traditional media such as pastels and pencils. Then there are the character designs and studies. Again, a lot of hand-drawn art up-front.

Once you get into the digital realm, it's still a lot of hand-work. Sure, many things are automated, but it's the hands-on work by talented artists, writers, and technicians that vault a Pixar production above the rest. And, damn them, they all expect to be paid for their labor.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on May 12, 2009


I think a lot of people are missing the big picture: they choose to make them expensive. Look at UP. Part of the basic premise is that this house is held up by a few thousand tiny balloons, each with its own string, blowing separately in the wind, colliding with its neighbors. That is not a creative decision made with a tight technical budget in mind.

They don't have animators sitting there managing every ballon and thread. you can do "mass" animation pretty cheaply these days, where all the objects are controlled by computer simulation.
posted by delmoi at 8:17 AM on May 12, 2009


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