Jordan Soles, a vice president of technology with the Quebec-based visual effects company Rodeo FX, was recently tasked with creating a "red breath."
As Disney was wrapping up production on A Wrinkle in Time, the latest film from lauded director Ava DuVernay and an adaptation of the beloved children's book, out Friday, the production team reached out to Rodeo FX to add finishing touches on a selected scene. This included, as Soles tells Inc., a vague request for a red visual effect to emanate from the mouth of protagonist Meg Murry (played by Storm Reid). "They had no idea what they wanted the red breath to look like, and of course, we only had a matter of weeks to figure out how to generate it," says Soles. So his team launched a computer algorithm that simulates the movement of particles, such that they spread out and dissipate in a color scheme that fit with the background of the shot. Despite coming in at the last minute--and hurriedly creating a visual product with little creative guidance--not only did Rodeo FX meet Ava DuVernay's vision, but she personally reached out to thank them for the project as well.
While major production companies and distributors, à la Disney, typically get most of the credit for the success of Hollywood films, there are dozens of independently run startups like Rodeo that contribute in no small part to the success of projects, and without which these films would not look as glossy as they do. Rodeo, alone, has worked on top-grossing projects such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Black Panther, and the award-winning television series Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, as the industry continues to grow, "it can be tough to carve out your own niche," concedes Soles, an early employee and now part-owner of the now 450-person company. It helps, he suggests, that Rodeo is headquartered in Canada, where the company receives a generous tax credit from the government.
While Rodeo had red breath on its hands, the Lidar Guys were focused the bigger picture. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, startup, specializes in 3-D scanning and data capturing. Founder and CEO Jed Frechette, a geologist by training, launched the business back in 2009 when a colleague asked for his help on the post-apocalyptic neo-Western The Book of Eli. Unlike the majority of effects shops, explains Frechette, "we're at the very front of visual effects, and make digital computer models of any sort of real world object that [the director] needs." The five-person company has worked on dozens of projects including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts I and II, where they helped to bring the ethereal Capitol city to life.
For A Wrinkle in Time, the Lidar Guys modeled various shots of the New Zealand countryside, which were then handed off to larger visual effects vendors to generate new imagery to be added. "Sometimes, they wanted to replace the mountains behind the lake, or add more alien geography or something like that. By using our scans, they have good reference for what was physically there and make sure what they add matches up with the computer generated topography," explains Frechette of his work.
Not all glitz and glam
To be sure, there are challenges associated with being runts in an industry of top dogs. For one thing, the budget for these types of projects can be scant, and it's up to the startups to make ends meet. "For a company of our size, the challenge is resources," suggests Frechette. "The film industry is very much boom or bust, so we are either dealing with a lot of resources, or we don't have any work and are still trying to pay our staff." The Lidar Guys have been able to make it work so far, however, growing revenue by roughly 10 percent annually.
Another challenge is the investment of time that's required to bring a project to life, which often doesn't match up with corporate deadlines. "Release dates tend to be inflexible," explains Soles. "That's why these days filmmakers are relying more on post-visualization technique in order to get to their director's final cut."
Ultimately, the strategy for both firms is to continue building and leveraging relationships. Rodeo, which recently won an Oscar for its work on Blade Runner 2049, is already hard at work on new projects, including Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, as well as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, forthcoming in November. The Lidar Guys, meanwhile, hope to expand beyond film services to launch a commercial 3-D scanning service. "I firmly believe that the best tools are built by people who use them everyday," says Frechette. "Development will become a significant portion of our revenue stream."