Post Production

A Conversation with Nancy St. John, VFK Producer

Nancy St. John has been in the visual effects business for over 30 years.

In 1996 she was the production side visual effects producer for the Academy Award Winner “Babe” and in 2001 for another Academy Award winner, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”. She was also a visual effects producer for the Academy Award Nominee “I-Robot” in 2004.

In 2013 she completed work on “Ender’s Game” directed by Gavin Hood where she worked on the Production side for both Odd Lot Entertainment and Lionsgate.

Before Ender’s Game she ran the Vancouver BC division of Prime Focus and oversaw the completion of a number of VFX projects including “Men in Black 3”, “Total Recall” and “Resident Evil”. (Courtesy of IMBd.com)


Q: What would you say to a young person getting out of school who wants to get into visual effects as a producer? We’re not talking about someone who paints or draws or knows how to run the box.

St. John: Well, clearly my career path was as a visual effects producer. As a producer you don’t have to sit on a box but you do need to understand the entire production process. It’s similar to being a general contractor who builds a house. You understand and appreciate what each of the trades do. In VFX the plumbers, electricians and other trades are the modelers, trackers, roto people, animators and lighters.

As long as you know and understand what all the different trades in the visual effects pipeline do and how to schedule their work, then you can be that VFX general contractor and it’s actually a really interesting job. You get involved in all aspects of production from meeting with the director and producer right from the very beginning to delivering the last shot at the very end.

VFX is a technical category and so it is the VFX Supervisor who receives all the credit. That’s okay if you’re not an ego driven human being and don’t mind having the job behind the scenes orchestrating. They say every good general sits in his tent and orchestrates. I kind of like being behind the camera, so to speak.

The director ultimately gets the credit for everything that is shot during principal photography and takes the blame if the movie doesn’t succeed. In VFX we are here to help the director achieve his or her vision.

Being in post-production is very satisfying. A lot of creative minds come up with great scripts. They go out and they shoot a bunch of great stuff with great actors and together with the editor they assemble the movie. This is when VFX can come in and really help polish the movie. VFX has its greatest impact during the post-production process.

For many directors, they get to post-production and they’re completely overwhelmed. They were set up to choose actors and shoot. They knew what locations they wanted and costumes for their actors. But sometimes when they see the movie assembled they realize how much more work there is to do.

That’s when VFX can really impact the post-production process as we collectively rally around our director. The post-production process is all about finishing up sequences on a shot by shot basis. We ask how can we make this better? What does this sequence need to make it work? How do we collectively create all the different elements needed to make the shots work?

As the VFX producer I try to get the director and producer to focus on each sequence and to think about the rhythm of the movie. What part of the story does each sequence tell? Is the story being moved forward by each sequence? How can VFX help tell those stories? During principal photography there is a whole team there to help the Director tell his or her story. There’s the DP and the camera dept. There’s the scenic and costume people, hair and makeup and so on. Each day onset they are asking the director for his input but in post, we get him all to ourselves. In post-production it’s all about fi ne-tuning the movie and crafting it.

Q: You mentioned that, in 2005, the studios became gun-shy about green lighting big-time VFX movies when the accountants appeared to take over.

St. John: Back in the day producers had an instinct about a story that they felt needed to be told. They felt that if the story was told correctly and the actors did their part to make the story come to life in a genuine way there would be an audience. Today before a script is green lighted a team of accountants determine what the potential worldwide box office is. For a studio to invest in a movie its risk needs to be minimum and potential return on investment needs to be high. Filmmaking is a business investment, no longer is it an art.

I think, what you see now is a trend. Sony Pictures has just announced that it needs to cut US$250 million out of its budget this year. So how does one go about doing that? Well you can lay off a few people and that accounts for a few million. But what it means is that you have to go into risk management mode and start looking at your slate of pictures, see how expensive they are, start placing odds on who the winners and the losers are and manage your risk and return on investment, putting money where you think you’re going to get your biggest bang for the buck.

All the studios are doing it. They’re rolling the dice on a few US$150 million to $300 million movies and reducing the overall number of pictures they produce each year. As a result, a new version of the same vehicle is being distributed each year. For the accountants this is a safe bet as the movies have already found an audience and they want to tap into that audience as long as they can. If there is an audience for Iron Man #7 then they will make that movie.

There will always be a handful of less expensive movies that will get made. The hope is that the studio will get a winner out of the bunch and create a franchise.

Q: And so the lower budget pictures don’t lend themselves to CG necessarily?

St. John: Yes, look at Paranormal. The last two have been made for US$5 million each and have easily made their money back. The VFX are fairly simple and don’t cost a lot. No fighting Robots to bring the costs up.

So I think each studio is looking at their A, B and C class movies. Look at Silver Linings Playbook. There are no visual effects in that movie. It won all kinds of awards and was a fantastic movie and they made a ton of money. The tent pole movies with the big budgets also tend to have the biggest VFX budgets. If the studios are willing to create those movies then the big name VFX facilities will be there to create those visual effects.

Q: You mentioned that contemporary directors seem to rely too much green screen and CG when they run out of ideas. And, maybe you could elaborate on that.

St. John: I really wish I knew why this was happening. Maybe it’s because actors are only available for a short time, maybe the money isn’t there to build proper sets or to travel to real locations but more and more productions are shooting on green screen and deferring most of the decisions into post-production.

A lot of movies are organized and structured around the timetables of the actors. Actors work both in TV and film and have schedules that need to be shot around. Long gone are the days when the cast stayed with first unit through until principal photography was completed.

Budgets don’t allow for sets to be built. So now it’s just super simple: “Let’s just shoot the whole thing on green screen. We’ll worry about everything else later.” Directors have started to get a little lazy too: “Well if I don’t have to choose a location ahead of time, then I won’t” or “If I don’t know what the background is going to look like now, I’ll put it off until later because I want to concentrate on the actors.”

More of principal photography is now being pushed into post by doing it the green screen way. It’s unfortunate because, when you get to post, the production designer’s gone, the costume designer’s gone, the makeup people are gone, the scenic people are gone, the DP’s gone. None of the people that were involved in the decisions during shooting are there. At that point you’re just relying on your director. All he’s got is his visual effects supervisor and producer and that’s it. Now they have to complete the movie in six to eight months.

That’s the trend that I’ve seen. When you think about it, if an actor or actress gets US$30 million per shoot and they’re only available for 20 or 30 days, everybody else scrambles. And the irony is that the actors don’t like it. Now, they’re acting a scene with no props, no background, no nothing. They’re just on a green screen. And they don’t like it either. It’s what the business has become.

Q: The movie 300 really proved that concept that it’s possible to shoot a whole movie in a warehouse in Montreal, which in that case was shot against blue and they didn’t have to worry about the backgrounds or at least not have to deal with them right then and there.

St. John: Now decision-making can be put off to post-production, so they will do that. When you defer decision-making that would normally be done during principal photography into post, you’re causing the cost of post-production to go up. Now we’re asking everyone in the post-production process to make up for the fact that you didn’t make those decisions when you shot the movie. That’s why so many visual effects companies go out of business. They are being asked to do production and post-production without the funds to cover the additional costs.

VFX companies are asked to give a bid before shooting even begins. They have no idea that two thirds of the things that they thought were going to be done in principle are now pushed into post. And then they’re asked to eat the difference. And as a result, visual effects companies go bankrupt. They just go under from the demands of completing the movie that was not managed during principal photography.

The larger well-affiliated VFX facilities will survive. Disney is going to give their tent-pole VFX shows to ILM. Sony’s going to give theirs to Sony Imageworks. Weta’s going to get Peter Jackson and Jim Cameron movies. And then there’ll be a bunch of little boutiques that’ll cover the rest of the work. It will be about tent-poles and then smaller movies.

Like on Limitless, with director Neil Burger and Bradley Cooper starring, there were just under 400 shots. We did a really bitchin’ opening sequence that was super cool and did some great VFX shots too. But the movie was not about visual effects. The movie was not about robots killing robots. Limitless had actors being actors on location and onsets in a traditional filmmaking way and VFX was in service to the movie, filling in where needed. That’s where I hope we are going in the future.

Excerpt from Modern Post: Workflows and Techniques for Digital Filmmakers by Scott Arundale and Tashi Trieu © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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