Million Dollar Bash

If 3D hardware and software costs have lowered so much, why do all-CG films still cost the earth to make, asks Craig Zerouni?

A long time ago, it cost a lot of money to set up a facility, whether CG or video post-production. But as more and more functions began to be taken over by general purpose computers, and as the price of the software dropped a little (and the price of the hardware dropped a lot), we had a lot of conversations that went: "Soon everyone will be able to afford to create a full-blown edit suite/CG facility/space shuttle in their bedroom. Then we'll really see a creative explosion." And that has sort of happened - you can do amazing things with relatively little money, which is great.

And yet there was a time when it cost about $1 million to set up a video edit suite. I'm talking tape machines with open tape spools that you had to lace up onto the machine yourself. You had a couple of those, some switchers and patch panels and audio equipment and a lot of gin and tonic and whoops! There went a million bucks. Then we got digital VTRs and disc-based editing and Harry and Henry and offline editing on PCs (kind of), but somehow, if you wanted to set up a professional suite, it was still a million dollars.

Then it was all going to be done on SGIs or Macs or something, but people bought flames and infernos and when you added up the bill for a new facility it was still a million goddamn dollars!

And what of CGI? Well, here we are, finally able to run real 3D software on a laptop, which is something I've wanted to do for 15 years. It's fantastic. So surely everyone will soon be in their bedroom, changing the world, right?

Er, not quite. I say that because The Incredibles cost $140 million to make, and The Polar Express, I read with some incredulity, cost $170 million to make. Further, I'm currently involved with a 'low-budget' CG feature, which is budgeted for roughly $60 million.

So what the hell is going on? If everything's so much cheaper, then why does a fully CG feature still cost around $100 million to make? And is this going to be the new inviolable rule? Will all CG features still cost many millions of dollars, no matter what the technology advances to?

I think the answer is yes, at least for the medium term. But why? Well, firstly, because the gap between a few nice images and a 90-minute feature that holds your attention is huge. You're talking about a multi-year project involving roughly 150 highly skilled people and that's always going to cost money. Secondly, the work has to really shine, and the backers of these films are willing to spend what it takes to make that happen. Why? Because the rewards are just so huge. Take The Incredibles, which clocked up $140million in costs. That's a hell of a lot of money, but it made back half of that in its first weekend. When you include licensing rights and merchandise and whatnot, this film will almost certainly bring in close to a billion dollars over the next several years. If you're trying to shoot the moon like that, you shovel in as much coal as you can find. So yes, I suppose that eventually it will certainly be possible for a couple of people to do a short feature in a reasonable time for not much money. But we're not there just yet...