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The Computer and The Screenplay: Why Screenwriters Should Care About VFX

October 4, 2019
4 min read time
Photo courtesy of Joseph J. Lawson, Portals of Wonder Media* 


In movie lingo, visual FX (VFX) and special effects (SFX) are not interchangeable. Visual FX are digital and created in post-production while special effects are created on a set during production. While we all love a good on-set explosion or a man in a rubber monster suit, the truth is almost every film and television show produced these days has some form of visual FX in it. 

As such, VFX companies play a huge role in the development process, which means their point of view on story, style and visualization can’t be understated. Still, most screenwriters don’t understand (or don’t care) about how VFX inform, impact or improve a script. 

That’s where Cantina Creative comes in. A design and visual FX studio in Los Angeles, Cantina has an impressive pedigree; they’ve done work on blockbusters like Aquaman, Bumblebee, Hotel Artemis, Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther as well as TV, commercials and video games.

Here, Cantina co-owner and executive producer Sean Cushing and VFX supervisor Tony Lupoi talk all things VFX and storytelling and the wonderful, weird marriage of the two.

Dennis Fallon: Explain how visual FX work to interpret what’s on the page of a script and how that has evolved over the course of your career.

Sean Cushing: Typically, an initial VFX shot breakdown is done by the VFX producer or someone hired specifically to provide the breakdown. It is their interpretation of the VFX shots that are going to be required to deliver what is written on the page. Then, hopefully, the director and the department heads go through the VFX breakdown and determine what can be done practically and what shots will be handled by the VFX department. At this point, a master VFX breakdown is created and then sent out to various VFX vendors to get bids for the VFX work.  Once the bids are received, changes are made to the script or to the VFX approach to accommodate the budgetary restrictions. Unfortunately, initial VFX breakdowns don’t typically account for the final number of VFX shots required to complete the movie. I have heard a two or two and a half multiple is common from the initial VFX breakdown of the number of VFX shots required to the actual number of VFX shots completed for the movie.

Tony Lupoi: Due to advancements in technology, audiences have now grown accustomed to this masterful buffet of VFX features. Films that inspired me, such as Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993, used only four minutes of VFX shots compared to today’s blockbusters, which dive headfirst into a heavy VFX workflow on almost each shot. A good story is the priority and VFX is a supporting character to help bring a script to life. A great story can be told with minimal VFX. However, in today’s market we do trend more toward the “show me” approach rather than the “tell me” approach. VFX is a key aspect to creating a specific vision that could only be achieved through computer-generated imagery, giving audiences a carefully handcrafted “show me” experience.

DF: What’s an ideal situation for a VFX company when it comes to developing or designing and adapting something from the page of a script onto the screen?

SC: The earlier a VFX team or VFX company is involved in pre-production the better, so that the production can take advantage of more efficient shooting methodologies that will help in post-production. Being involved earlier also helps the production make better financial decisions regarding which VFX shots should be entirely computer generated, which ones would be better done practically, or which should be hybrids between practical backgrounds and augmented computer generated elements. Also, being part of the process from the early stages of pre-production enables the VFX department to build working relationships with the other departments and to also get a better feel for the director’s sensibility.

TL: Working with a writer to develop a script can help pave the road for what is realistic and possible; simply touching base and going over key VFX scenes to iron out the foreseeable issues without compromising the integrity of the script. When a script is written, it still may go through a gauntlet of changes. With that said, it is not uncommon for VFX to be involved late in the process, which can result in compounding challenges that get compressed into small time frames at expedited costs. So we love to be involved early and included in the details to help steer the best possible product.  

DF: What are some errors, mistakes or problems that develop at the script level that can result in difficulties for VFX or even result in a weak film?

SC: I think the issue that some writers aren’t aware of is shot count, e.g., changing a character’s eye color or adding a small computer-generated prop to a scene. While each individual shot isn’t terribly difficult or expensive, doing 300 of these kinds of shots can become time consuming and expensive. In our experience, VFX is best utilized when it adds value to scenes either through accomplishing something that couldn’t be done in production or creating worlds or characters that can only be done via VFX. When VFX is used to fix story problems by completing overhauling scenes then you run the risk of tremendous financial overages and a level of uncertainty as to what the outcome will be. Obviously you have to do what’s best for the movie, but it’s a slippery slope when you start changing things via VFX because the tendency is to change everything, which means you can lose a sense of the story in a hurry.

TL: If your story hinges around VFX to guide the audience, be prepared to re-imagine that scene three or four different ways to accommodate the foreseeable challenges. Have those plans on deck so you are not caught off guard. This may be terrible advice, but don’t edit your imagination based on unknown limitations. If the script calls for a city block to fold over on top of itself, defying gravity, give it that life to breathe. It just might work. In my opinion, if you think it, write it and imagine it, it can be done. Try not to limit that imaginary force by pre-editing and undercutting your own ideas to fit easier into a VFX box. Unleash the hounds!

*Photo courtesy of Joseph J. Lawson, Portals of Wonder Media



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