Visual Effects for Ad Content Confronts New Realities

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are only part of the ongoing evolution of VFX work for spots and brand videos, says ZERO VFX brain trust.


With Star Wars mania still upon us, the Super Bowl just around the corner, and Oculus Rift set to release its consumer virtual reality headset any day now, the craft and execution of visual effects imagery has never been more relevant. Effects shots are now the norm in almost all categories of film and video production, whether it’s simple clean up or jaw-dropping visuals.

With all of the hype surrounding the art form, the content creation community is looking to effects artists and designers to help create a new world of digital tools, techniques and styles.

For insight into this explosive field we’ve turned to the leaders of the fast-growing Boston and Venice, CA based effects, animation, design and CG studio, ZERO VFX. Founded in 2010 by Sean Devereaux and Brian Drewes respectively, a veteran VFX Supervisor and Creative Director, and an experienced Executive Producer, ZERO VFX has helped put Boston on the map as an effects hub, providing effects, CG, animation and post for a range of ad assignments and feature films.

Joining Devereaux and Drewes in this Q&A on the state of the effects industry is Executive Producer and Director of Business Development Sarah Spitz, a former agency producer who moved over from Arnold in 2013. Since her arrival, ZERO has worked for such brands as Jack Daniel’s, Scion, New Balance, Dunkin' Donuts and many others. On the feature side, ZERO VFX has played a supporting role in such recent films as Black Mass, American Hustle, and Southpaw.

ZERO’s ability to easily shift back and forth between advertising and entertainment projects – often working with the same teams of artists and producers – gives the company a uniquely broad perspective on the effects industry. We met to talk about creative trends, the impact of new media formats, the role of VR, the ever-present challenge of working with budgets, and where ZERO sees the effects industry headed. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

From a creative standpoint, what are some of the biggest trends you're seeing in terms of visual effects and CG work for brands?

Sarah Spitz: In advertising, effects used to be an afterthought or seen as a post-production fix, or something that was unique to big-budget, fantastical stories. However, as technology has progressed, it’s allowed the entire VFX and CG pipeline to move faster within an overall production, and as such, commercial clients now think of VFX as a more integral part of production. Even in a largely live-action piece, they more frequently ask the question ‘What VFX tools are at our disposal to make the budget, schedule or story work better?’ rather than thinking of VFX as an ancillary tool that lives in a different genre of filmmaking. More simply said: VFX are more seamless and integrated than ever.

Brian Drewes: Really, at the end of the day, it’s about telling a story – whether we’re working in film or commercials. If the story is about an average Joe being surrounded by huge explosions in an ad for a video game, that’s totally do-able. If the story is about subtle invisible effects, that’s totally do-able. I think people are finally understanding this better, and choosing creative partners who get it too.

What impact has the push towards more web or mobile-delivered video had on the work you're doing for agencies? Has there been any push to scale visuals to fit smaller screens?

Brian: We’ve seen all sorts of web-based or mobile-only work coming through the door – it’s absolutely necessary to understand the context within which the work will eventually be consumed.  But that doesn’t mean our creatives or artists apply a different (or lower) set of standards to the project. You have to pour as much attention into those projects as you would 4K images that are projected onto huge screens. 

VR is everywhere, it seems, followed by its second cousin, AR. Are visual effects and CG companies inherently better positioned to work in the VR field than other forms of production entities (i.e., live action studios, post houses, etc.)? What is ZERO VFX doing in the VR and AR spaces?

Sean Devereaux: Visual effects studios certainly have a head start over traditional production companies when it comes to creating VR content, but that won’t last long – the technology to create VR has already improved ten-fold, with easier-to-use cameras and automated stitching. At ZERO, we’re partnering with filmmakers to create live action VR experiences that are truly immersive, and we’re looking forward to talking more about that very soon!

Brian: Like Sean says, we’ve got something cooking here that’s a bit in stealth-mode right now, but there are definite opportunities to be found. With VR, it’s about whoever can tell the best story in the medium – it really has a lot to do with the environment and impact. The amount of development going into the hardware, the applications, new methods of rendering, and new experiments with storytelling is really great for anyone who wants to take on the challenge. 

Sarah: Some of the technology applicable to VR is baked in to what we do in our day-to-day work at ZERO, so in that way we’ve got some inherent advantages. But like all things in production, successful experiences are a matter of good communication. Whether it’s creating a VR experience or a feature film, we feel it’s a matter of building the right team and process to meet the project’s needs.

What's your outlook on where VR and AR technology will net out? Are we looking at a niche application, or will this go mainstream?

Sean: It’s so mainstream your grandparents will have headsets soon! But seriously, VR and AR, although simplistic now, will be the way we interact with the world in about a decade or so. It will be prevalent and awesome.

Brian: I believe it’s definitely going mainstream, but first we’ll see it used as a tool for specific industries. I imagine tons of applications in things like healthcare, construction, etc. I think it’s got a ways to go before it takes the place of the ‘average’ person’s TV or Netflix time.

Sarah: I’m interested in how VR is transitioning from the gaming world into the real world. It’s also going to be interesting to see if VR truly cements a place in entertainment. Are we going to be sitting on our couches wearing headsets? Is this a unifying experience or an isolating one, and how do we feel about that as consumers of media?

I think The New York Times sending out Google Cardboard headsets to its subscribers, which it did a few months ago, was brilliant. Many people have never experienced VR, so the Times brought it into the home, literally, in a way that it hadn’t yet existed for the majority of people.

At the moment, I think it’s a chicken and egg scenario: will VR popularity and use grow because of the content that’s created for the genre, or will there be a demand for content to be created which will, in turn, popularize VR?

Budgets always seem to be an issue. How has the downward pressure on budgets impacted the kind of work you're being asked to deliver? What's been your approach to pricing issues, scope creep and other thorny areas when dealing with agencies and cost consultants?

Brian: Are these things a hassle? Yes. Are they new? No. It’s what we as producers help navigate and work to create a conversation with the stakeholders (agency producers, cost consultants, etc) that results in us having the budget we need to fulfill the creative expectations of the project. It takes time and attention up front to carefully listen, consider, and understand the project’s needs, while being seasoned enough to recognize where things are most likely to go over budget, and then protect everyone for those situations from the outset.

Sarah: Budgets go down and scope goes up. We’ve been seeing this for a while, especially since digital became part of the conversation, because clients want to find alternate ways to use the content they were producing. Because ZERO works in both features and advertising content, we have a large staff of artists on our crew. This allows us some flexibility to work with tighter budgets because we have the ability to build the workflow in an efficient way using the talents of the people already on our team. Once a team is assembled it’s led by a creative director, and that person stays on the project from start to finish, ensuring consistency and a complete understanding of the project’s needs.

The VFX and CG industry has had its share of problems, with high-profile bankruptcies and work shifting between low-cost production centers such as India or regions that use tax incentives to attract business. What's your take on the health of the industry? How does your company protect itself from the ups and downs of the VFX sector?

Brian: It’s really hard to comment on the industry at large; there are so many layers of issues that it’s tough to make a sweeping statement that’s accurate.  From our own experience, we’ve found it comes down to some elementary factors, such as seeking out a good balance of clientele, not taking on more work than you can handle well, avoiding complacency, and maintaining a culture that engages both clients and staff to have fun with the things we make.

Sean: I’m with Brian in that I can’t speak to the health of the industry as a whole, and don’t want to pile on to the negativity that surrounds it these days. I do feel that we’re blessed to create art for people all over the world to enjoy, and this art can be created without always sacrificing every other aspect of our lives. We protect ourselves most of all by investing in the right artists and producers that share our passion, strive for excellence, and enjoy life!

We’ve also avoided going into debt at all costs, and we’ve maintained a steady organic growth. We also leverage multiple streams of revenue to flatten out the roller coaster of production schedules. These include advertising, films, special venue projects and software development. 

With the Super Bowl upon us yet again, we can expect to see any number of big, VFX-laden TV ads. What’s your outlook for visual effects and animation in advertising? Where do you see the genre going? How will it change or evolve over the next few years?

Brian: The pessimist in me says that every year it’s ‘better, faster, cheaper,’ and that may be the reality. Agencies will certainly keep pulling more and more work in house as finishing technologies become more ubiquitous and accessible, especially as their clients are demanding more content for less money. That said, I believe the kind of work we excel at – the kind of work you need a big, experienced team to execute – is still going to be quite important, if not more so, than it is today. 

Sarah: It’s hard to know what we’ll see on this year’s Super Bowl. It’s different now because in recent years, marketers have chosen to release spots prior to the big game. So, for me, at least, some of that ‘edge-of-your-seat’ anticipation is gone. Yet it’s still the biggest broadcast stage we have, so by nature of that, we’re compelled to watch – and critique – and everyone loves to be a critic on Monday morning.

The spots that tend to resonate the most with viewers are those based on good stories. It’s not a platform to sell a widget; it’s an opportunity to sell a brand. When you can associate your brand with a great story, and connect the brand and story in a way that clicks with people, those are the spots that get talked about. Within this, VFX can help do the job of telling a great story. So, I’m as curious as everyone else to see what this year is all about!

As for the direction advertising is going, Brian touched on it when he mentioned how everything seems to be about rapid content delivery. There’s a need to push out work that’s produced efficiently and is responsive to the marketplace. Sometimes that will call for quick production, but in my experience, wanting something fast doesn't mean it’s okay for it to look sloppy. If the goal is a rough look, it’s usually an intentional and cultivated style.

Within this type of work, we can move faster using digital tools in ways that used to take too long for quick response work. And, of course, there’s always going to be a place for the big-budget epic, too.


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