How Has CGI Affected Movie Making Economics?

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Computer generated imagery, or CGI, has found its way into every type of movie. No longer limited to sci-fi epics, these digital innovations have changed the face, sometimes literally, of the movie-making industry. CGI has decreased costs in many areas, but has also introduced new economic realities to Hollywood.

Low-Cost Visual Adjustments

  • CGI has changed the amount of on-the-ground time necessary for filming. This is due to the ability of CGI companies to digitally adjust a multitude of small “mistakes” in the post-production process. If heavy filming equipment accidentally finds its way in the shot, for example, it can be digitally erased instead of taking time and manpower to move it. Multi-million dollars sets can now be created digitally at a fraction of the cost.

Reduced Staff On-site

  • All of these cost reductions come at the expense of human resources. Staffers traditionally used to accomplish visual feats are increasingly finding themselves replaced by CGI. A stunt woman was unnecessary for Angelina Jolie in “Salt,” as the actress was wired to harnesses for her own stunts; the harnesses and wires were then digitally removed. In the past, operating a Hollywood-grade camera required four workers; with a reduction in the size of the camera needed to capture CGI-grade, hi-definition images, only one worker is needed. Carpenters and set builders play an increasingly smaller role on film crews in a world of “green screens.”

CGI Increasingly Consumes Other Budgets

  • Since Jurassic Park, audiences have grown to demand CGI in virtually every major movie. Good or bad, CGI is a necessary component to the top-grossing movies. Creating a summer blockbuster requires significant investment, just as it has in the past. However, today a large amount of that investment goes towards the new CGI systems. James Cameron, for example, spent nearly $300 million creating his movie Avatar, the set for which was a house in an abandoned aircraft hangar and used custom-made “performance capture” cameras. Unlike Cameron, whose successes afford him larger budgets, many smaller productions find the requirements of a CGI-hungry audience consumes money that, in the past, might have been invested in acting, music, writing and other non-CGI components.

Underpaid CGI Companies

  • The money saved by CGI innovation does not necessary translate into high profits for the companies doing the work. In fact, the company responsible for the CGI in the movie “Life of Pi” declared bankruptcy before it could receive its academy award for Best Visual Effects. This is a growing problem, as the CGI industry works on a bidding process which favors ultra-low bidders. The idea is that major projects are more important than bidding at a price which allows the CGI companies to pay adequate wages. As a result, Hollywood has come under fire for increasingly outsourcing this CGI workload to companies which cannot afford to pay fair wages or provide benefits.

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