May 30, 2024

VFX pioneer Scott Ross, founder of Digital Domain

As a pioneer in digital visual effects, Scott Ross was instrumental in the advancement of VFX in Hollywood. He led groundbreaking work at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and co-founded Digital Domain with James Cameron and Stan Winston. Scott looks back on his career, discusses systemic problems within the VFX industry, and possible ways to fix them.

Scott began his career in sound recording for television and film in the San Francisco Bay Area for a video production company, becoming president of the San Francisco office. The success of Star Wars ignited a space race for studios, and ILM became the holy grail for VFX artists. “I get a phone call from a headhunter who says, ‘Hey, Lucasfilm is looking for somebody to head up production operations at Industrial Light and Magic.’ And my head exploded,” says Scott. “If you’re going to live in San Francisco, you want to work at Lucasfilm. That’s how I got hired.” At the time, ILM was creating visual effects for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His experience in the nascent digital video industry sped up the process, and by 1989, ILM developed a technique to work in a digital medium for making special effects. While Scott was at ILM, the company won five Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.

However, ILM’s creative spirit began to wane under corporate pressure. “It turned into cubicles and whatnot,” says Ross, favoring a “work hard, play hard” environment. This philosophy fueled his decision to leave and co-found Digital Domain in 1993. “When I started Digital Domain, we’re going to play hard, work hard and party hard. And that’s the culture that I wanted to create. I think generally we did a pretty good job of it.” Digital Domain became a leading VFX company, creating visual effects for films such as Cameron’s Titanic.

The VFX industry is notoriously troubled, with visual effects houses underbidding on projects to stay competitive and creating dismal working conditions for employees. “There are certain companies that the only way that they could stay alive is by taking advantage of their employees, not paying them overtime, not having health care,” says Scott. “That really comes as a result of the way the clients, studios and the directors deal with the visual effects companies.” He blames a producer mentality that prioritizes squeezing VFX houses rather than fostering a sustainable industry. “The visual effects industry workers need advocates for themselves. Currently, they have no one fighting for them. They need an international trade association that changes the business model.” Today, effects workers continue to voice their need to form a union. The rise of AI further complicates the picture, with some fearing job replacement.

Find Scott Ross: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottross/
Instagram: @scott_ross

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June 29, 2023

Jurassic Punk, Life After Pi, Midnight Son director Scott Leberecht

Director Scott Leberecht began his filmmaking career as a visual effects art director at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic. His latest documentary film, Jurassic Punk, is about his fellow ILM effects artist Steve “Spaz” Williams. A talented artist, Steve pioneered computer animation VFX in movies, creating the alien effects for The Abyss and the morphing transitions for the “T-100” in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Steve’s most ambitious and revolutionary work for the movie and VFX industry was his work on the completely computer animated dinosaurs for 1993’s Jurassic Park.

Scott met Steve during his internship at ILM. Jurassic Punk was originally meant to be about the whole ILM ensemble at that pivotal time between The Abyss and Jurassic Park. But as Scott gathered the stories, he realized that he needed a main character who had an interesting arc, and Steve definitely fit the profile. Steve’s work on Jurassic Park had never been properly acknowledged, with credit for the visual effects going mainly to Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren. Steve himself was always a notoriously difficult, hard-drinking asshole who had trouble fitting into the corporate structure of ILM. Scott found it hard to shoot Steve’s interviews for Jurassic Punk, since his friend was at such a low point in his life. But Steve understood that Scott was trying to tell the story of what life can be like for a creative worker who gives their all, only to be left with little credit or money. Scott sees Jurassic Punk as telling two cautionary tales: be careful about innovating within corporate structures, and ensure that the people who create the art are properly acknowledged.

Life After Pi, a documentary short Scott made with Christina Lee Storm in 2014, is also a personal story about working in the VFX industry. Shortly before winning the Oscar for their special effects in Life of Pi, the visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy. Scott had been working for the company for about six months when everyone was fired. The doc explores what’s been happening to the visual effects industry, as work is outsourced and it becomes a race to the bottom for the cheapest price. There was a very short window of time after Rhythm & Hues’ collapse where effects workers could speak their mind, even staging a demonstration outside the Academy Awards that year. Today, effects workers continue to voice their need to form a union, as the quality of effects work declines while studios demand cheaper VFX done at an even faster pace.

You can watch Jurassic Punk streaming on Amazon and Kanopy.

Life After Pi is on YouTube.

Midnight Son has just been released on Blu-Ray and features a soundtrack by Kays Al-Atrakchi

Find Find Scott Leberecht: https://www.jurassicpunkmovie.com/
Instagram: @jurassicpunkmovie

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