Interview: The Wolf of Wall Street's VFX producer

Mark Russell discusses working with Martin Scorsese, why setting up VFX unions matters and why New York is an up-&-coming city for VFX work.

While in New York last week, I interviewed Mark Russell, VFX producer on the forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street, which reunites director Martin Scorsese and leading actor Leonardo DiCaprio (though from the trailer above, the real star of the film is Matthew McConaughey's collapsed meringue 'haircut'). The film is based on the true story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who became incredibly rich and went on to spend 22 months in prison for stock market manipulation.

Mark's also a big proponent of the NYC-based VFX industry, so it gave me a chance to discover what's changing in a city best known for servicing the advertising industry. And we could hardly not discuss the big issues of the year, the financial troubles of the VFX industry – and whether unionisation would help or hurt the industry.

Working alongside VFX supervisor Rob Legato on The Wolf on Wall Street, Mark has helped craft the VFX for a film that is by no means driven by them – but still includes 400-450 VFX shots (though as we discussed, the number of shots can often be a poor indication of the level of work, as a shot can include a complex full-CG environment and/or character or a simple composite). The film includes one big VFX-driven set piece – a boat sinking due to a Mediterranean storm – but most of the work was to save the time, cost and effort of flying actors and crew to the Cote D'Azur or even just to the Hamptons in Long Island.

The Wolf of Wall Street's VFX

As The Wolf of Wall Street is still in post-production – it's not out in the UK until January 17 2014 – Mark couldn't give much detail about its VFX. But he could discuss Martin Scorsese's approach to how VFX should look – while Scorsese isn't necessary associated with VFX, his film Hugo won last year's VFX Oscar and through use of a subtlety of CG and beautiful art direction, managed to be one of the most compelling uses of stereoscopic 3D filmmaking so far.

"A lot of it is not just making things look realistic but making them artistically compelling," he says. "Fortunately for this job I have Rob Legato as VFX supervisor, so most of that burden is put on him and I get to support him with that.

"Working with Martin Scorcese, everything is about propelling a story forward and contributing to the film. I feel that with his movies, there's a kind of stylised realism to them that we have the integrate with. Rob has worked with him for eight or nine films now, and he gets that shorthand better than I do."

A stylised sense of reality pervades both the film's that preceded and followed Hugo as VFX Oscar winners: respectively the solid dreams of Inception and the heavily choreographed natural world of Life of Pi. These films' use of VFX is a world away from your average VFX-driven summer blockbuster, where ever-more-intricate CG characters bore or bamboozle us slugging it out behind ever-more-techincally accurate clouds of dust.

"Getting recognised for that is a big step forward to visual effects. The idea that visual effects is art – in the same way as cinematography is art – is important"

"Wardrobe is art – anything that goes into the making of a film should be considered an art form. Yes, there's a lot of technical prowess and expertise that goes into VFX, but ultimately it's to achieve an artistic goal.

Mark points out that Jurassic Park created an entire world of dinosaurs in a 'mere' 65 visual effects shots: more VFX doesn't necessarily make for a more exciting movie.

"With movies like Transformers – and others I won't mention because I know a lot of people who work on them – they have taken it so far away from [what Spielberg achieved] that we can't enjoy it – or I certainly can't. There's so much saturation and inundation with stuff that you [as a viewer] lose focus."

New York isn't a usual destination for film VFX work in the same way that London, Los Angeles or Vancouver is – it's VFX scene is much smaller and based around the advertising industry. There are no large facilities and even the medium-sized ones are generally offshoots of larger houses in other territories – such as London's Framestore, The Mill and MPC, or LA-founded Method Studios. Most are boutiques, with  between six and 12 staff depending on the projects they have on.

Staff retention is an issue as, as Mark puts it, "they're so used to jumping around from facility to facility based on who has the big Nike ad" and with the tight deadlines, working on ads is often more about doing something fast, rather than to the quality of a Hollywood feature. However in New York, Mark sees a chance to grow what the city can offer for advertising, film, TV and more.

"Since I came here I've been a great proponent of trying to build the New York VFX scene and marketplace," he says, "and trying to support everyone in town. I try to keep most of the work I do here in town – whereas the tendency currently is to talk about global outsourcing and tax incentives. Thankfully for us – and unfortunately for everyone else – New York has a very good tax incentive."

The big question of VFX tax incentives

Tax incentives – which puts places like London and Vancouver (which have them) at a financial advantage over those that don't (like LA) – have been a big talking point in the industry over the last year, leading to protestors from the VFX community outside this year's Oscars in March. However, Mark says that you can't just rely on tax incentives for the success of a city's VFX industry as it has little control over stopping those incentives from going away, or from other territories creating as good or better ones – as he expects LA to do soon.

In the long run, Mark expects tax incentives to level out across the different territories Before that happens, he wants to see New York's VFX capabilities grow and attract talent that means that the city can compete on talent and capacity as well as cost, though he admits NYC is a long way off from offering the capacity of London.

Another financial issue damaging the VFX industry is that around the world, houses are falling over themselves to undercut each other. The creative process hasn't got any cheaper – if anything, due to raised client expectations, it's got more expensive. With less money coming in and more going out, it's not surprising we've seen facilities closing worldwide or filing for bankruptcy protection in the US.

"There's a tendency now in visual effects to bend over backwards to please the client, and put in your own money and R&D to do that. That's a bad thing.

"Certainly now, in order to get the jobs, you have to prove that you can do it – but you also have to do it cheaper. It's tough and companies are constantly trying to underbid the next company. Ultimately we all get burned."

How the VFX industry achieves this is the billion dollar question. Mark says "there's a correction in visual effects that needs to happen", referring to the principle that when vendors are selling goods or services for too little due to buyer pressure and intense competition, the long-term effect is that the number of many sellers withdraw from the market, the level of competition drops and prices rise.

Prices are also going to have to rise if the current push towards unionisation of VFX workers goes ahead – something that activists are trying to build momentum around bot in the US and UK. Members of a VFX union may not get paid a higher standards rate than they previously would, but they would be able to either work fewer hours or get paid overtime for those burnout-inducing all-nighters just before a project gets signed off.

"I'm in support of the idea," says Mark. "Inside studios there are artists who get taken advantage of because [they get told] 'you're working on the next James Bond film and you should be happy with that, even though I'm making you work 24 hours a day.' I think there should be some regulation, whether that's in the form of controlled overtime or a set of guidelines everyone follows.

"The result of a union is that everything's going to get more expensive – but maybe that's necessary. At least prices would be standardised across the board."

As well as VFX unions representing facility staff, Mark would also like to have one for VFX supervisors, producers and others who aren't tied to a particular house.

"On the film side, we're one of the only departments that doesn't have a union, and we come in and get paid flat rates for the day - and sometimes we get paid 6th and 7th days. Everyone else on the crew is paid hourly. They get meal breaks and if those meal breaks don't come at a certain time, they get paid extra for that. We're not covered by that and don't get paid any extra for that. We don't have healthcare or benefits."

"It's something I'd like to see on the production side, but I represent a tiny sliver of visual effects. The bigger need is for people who work in the facilities that get abused. I'd like to see that stop."

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