February 29, 2024

Planning for the Cost of VFX Production with Geoff Leavitt

Chris Cullari
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The cost of VFX production is one of the most important but least understood elements of modern media budgets. The wizardry performed behind the scenes by teams of artists with digital tools sometimes feels like magic, but that is far from the reality.

Like any filmmaking tool, VFX costs money. Often lots of money. But those VFX production costs can be reduced by careful planning and preparation.

To walk us through some of these helpful VFX production strategies, Wrapbook spoke with VFX Supervising Producer Geoff Leavitt.

Meet Geoff Leavitt

Leavitt is a visual effects supervisor with over 25 years of experience in the industry. With credits as diverse as X-Men: The Last Stand, The Lost City, and Criminal Minds, he has a wealth of knowledge on all aspects of VFX: from the cost of VFX, to VFX workflow, VFX pipelines, and beyond.

Planning for the Cost of VFX Production - Wrapbook - Geoff Leavitt
Leavitt is a master of VFX production with over 25 years in the business.

His advice breaks down into a handful of practical categories that can help a production of any size plan for the cost of VFX. 

Determine the type of VFX you require

You might be surprised to learn that VFX teams don’t just work on big, expensive action, sci-fi, or fantasy sequences. While VFX are essential in bringing digital characters and worlds to life, Leavitt tells us that’s not all visual effects are used for.

“There's two types of visual effects that we talk about: seamless visual effects, which is set extensions, which is cosmetic cleanup, which is, ‘Oh, we can see the mic pack on the back of the actor when they walk away, we got to remove that.’ Then you have the [...] visual effects as a main character, which is spaceships and dragons and, you know, everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

In other words, even a straightforward romantic comedy or character drama may require “invisible” VFX work to polish some rough edges. 

Of course, not all these kinds of VFX share the same costs – nor do they take the same amount of time to complete – and one of the first decisions you’ll make with your VFX supervisor is what type of VFX your project requires. 

For instance, basic compositing (that is, placing green screen elements into a scene) tends to be cheaper than character animation or digital de-aging.

Planning for the Cost of VFX Production - Wrapbook - Man And Green Screen
The cost of VFX to put this guy on the moon is relatively cheap compared to animating an original character. SOURCE

If your project features some of these big ticket VFX items, it might be obvious from the jump which VFX pipeline you’ll need to build. If not, there are other ways a VFX supervisor can help your team decide what exactly you will need. 

Let’s say the script features a sequence in which a character races through multiple sets. One strategy that Leavitt might employ to figure out the VFX workflow is detailed pre-viz, or pre-visualization. As he explains:

“Typically what will happen is that the art department will hire a storyboard artist to storyboard the biggest sequences of script. And then what I tend to do is I'll take those storyboards and I'll do some pre visualization. That way the director can get in there and we can move cameras around [...] and kind of see how it's going to lay out. Then we can determine, ‘Are we going to be able to have sets built for this, or are we going to have to digitally add a lot of this?’”

Get clear about your scheduling and budgetary needs

As Leavitt puts it, to pull off quality VFX work “I need both time and money.” While this holds true for most elements of production, it’s especially true for the cost of VFX. 

On an appropriate delivery schedule, a focused team of artists can deliver astonishingly polished and complex work through a VFX pipeline. On an accelerated delivery schedule, more manpower and hours are required to achieve the same results. 

This often involves farming shots out to various VFX vendors which not only drives up the cost, but complicates the VFX workflow and pipeline. To avoid VFX costs piling up in post, it’s essential to bring your VFX supervisor into the production process as early as possible. 

They can help your team break down the script from the very beginning and get a handle on how many VFX shots will need to be completed for the show. They will also be knowledgeable about how long those shots will take to complete and how much they will cost.

A VFX supervisor in addition to a VFX producer will also help you get a handle on the number of VFX artists and support team that will need to be hired for the project, any rental facilities, equipment, and software that may be needed for your VFX production, and all other pertinent information.

Planning for the Cost of VFX Production - Wrapbook - Woman
The cost of VFX depends on both the number of people and hours involved. SOURCE

All of these factors will help you come up with an approximate cost of the VFX for your project. If that number needs to come down, your production can start to make adjustments to the schedule, the shoot, or the script.

Look into stock footage and AI support

One strategy to bring the cost of VFX down is to look into using stock elements. While “stock” is considered a dirty word in some creative corners, that’s not the case in the world of VFX. 

Here, it relates to elements that already exist in your VFX supervisor’s  library. Every time they shoot practical smoke, sparks, flames, water, blood or bullet hits, that footage goes into your producer’s library.

Planning for the Cost of VFX Production - Wrapbook - Meeting
Unlike this terrible stock photo, stock VFX elements are not viewed as cheap or lazy. SOURCE

And while Michael Bay may demand that each dust particle in the Transformers franchise be created specially for the shot they are featured in, not every project can afford to do the same. One way to bring down the cost of VFX on your project is to ask your VFX supervisor to look through their library and figure out which elements will fit your project.

Leavitt tells us that the successful use of stock elements is all about how you use them.

“I've taken two dimensional fire elements and projected them on cards and turned them into a 3D plane. And then I took [that plane] and copied it probably about 30 or 40 times, projected the same fire on there. And then if you rotate it around in 3D space, you're still getting a full, almost three dimensional fire, but it's using two dimensional assets.”

In addition, some AI applications can facilitate the creation of VFX at a lower price point. While far from the only new technology disrupting film production, AI is a highly controversial option in the VFX world, as many AI applications can take jobs from VFX artists. 

However, there is one example Leavitt gives of an AI application that helps humans, saves time, and thus creates savings that can be passed onto production.

“There is one company called Monsters, Aliens, Robots, and Zombies or MARZ. They have developed this amazing technology, Vanity AI. What they've created is this amazing aging software that allows an artist [...] to point out all the different points on a face. And then they have the ability to adjust all those different facial features and the anatomy to de-age or to accelerate the age.”

Leavitt explains that this sort of work is time consuming and tedious for artists, so having AI assist with the task is a net positive. 

It’s important to consult with your VFX supervisor to learn what is fair game and what isn’t before turning to AI to help cut the cost of VFX. 

Don’t wait on hiring until you go into post

Of course, the biggest cost saver in VFX production is starting early. 

VFX may be considered part of post-production, but the time to think about hiring your VFX supervisor must happen well before you wrap on set – especially if your needs require that VFX supervisor to be on set!

And the only way to determine if you need a VFX supervisor on set (or when you’ll need to deliver final notes on VFX to the team, or what your VFX workflow will look like!) is by setting your VFX team for success by hiring them as early as reasonable for your project.

As Leavitt notes,

“Always bring visual effects in at the very beginning, and then discuss the schedule. [...] It's kind of difficult to get started on visual effects unless you pre-plan and know that, okay, well, we need six weeks to render out these wolves for this scene.”

Communication is key

From the moment you bring your VFX supervisor on board, it’s important to maintain clear and consistent communication – both ways!

As a producer, you need to make sure that your VFX supervisor understands the scope of your project, your specific needs, where you’re willing or able to make compromises and where you are not.

For instance, let’s say you’re producing a commercial spot for a fast food company. You know that the most important part of the project is making sure those product shots look as tasty and mouth-watering as possible. 

This might mean clarifying to your VFX supervisor that even though they’ve built digital beauty touch-ups for talent into the budget, that money would be better spent on creating digital steam that you couldn’t capture on set. 

And if you’re the VFX supervisor, let the production team know what you can (and can’t!) help them with in post. Maybe that ketchup splat won’t look right as a digital element, so you need to make sure they shoot footage of a practical splat – even if the director is more focused on the big picture. 

Give your team – and yourself – a buffer of time and expense

Everyone wants their project to go off without a hitch, but rarely is that the case. As much as possible, factor in the inevitable additional time or expense that may come with your VFX needs so that you’re not put into a challenging position late in the project.

Leavitt shares that even on projects that are well prepped and planned, delivery can get out of control. On one recent shoot:

“I was brought in at the very beginning. We started shooting in March and delivery was sometime in September. Essentially the visual effects were manageable. And then somehow they blew up because the director and others kept adding things and changing things. And so, essentially, I had three months to deliver 1,300 visual effects.”

The crunch could’ve been avoided if the studio and producers had built extra time into the schedule to allow for VFX changes. Instead, both Leavitt and the production were backed into a corner where the delivery schedule incurred a very noticeable cost increase to compensate for the lack of time that was needed to deliver high quality work.

Wrapping up

Thanks again to Geoff Leavitt for laying out these best practices, tips, and tricks for getting the most out of VFX without breaking the bank!

While VFX production is a complicated and expensive part of the filmmaking process, it doesn’t have to be unmanageable.

By understanding the value of collaborating with experienced VFX supervisors, working to build a realistic schedule and budget, and finding creative ways to bring costs down if necessary, high quality VFX are achievable in almost any situation.

For more information on how to master post, check out our guide on how to optimize post-production workflow.

Last Updated 
February 29, 2024


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Chris Cullari

Chris Cullari is a writer/director based out of Los Angeles. His most recent film, THE AVIARY, is available for streaming on Paramount Plus and Showtime. You can find him tweeting about monsters, pro-wrestling, and horror movies.

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