Digital Media Trailblazer: Scott Ross
FOUNDER, DIGITAL DOMAIN INC.
BY JENNIFER SCHREIER PELCZARSKI
With a legendary career that has spanned over three decades, Scott Ross has distinguished himself as a pioneer and visionary in digital media. He has seen first-hand the technology evolution and how it is transforming the way films are being made.
During the mid 1980s, very few studios were using visual effects and even fewer were using digital media. Fast forward to 2011, and it would be nearly impossible to identify a movie that has not predominantly relied on the capabilities that digital technology now provides. From conception through postproduction, distribution and more, Ross has intimately experienced the metamorphosis that has occurred in filmmaking.
“In the past, if you were to consid- er making a ‘period piece’ film into a great movie — every decision involved to create that authentic look and feel for a particular era was incredibly complicated,” acknowledged Ross. “Now, relatively quickly in postproduction, we have the ability to make adjustments in a particular scene or shot that previously would never have been possible.”
He cites seven significant movie milestones in the development of visual effects, starting with A Trip to the Moon, written and directed by Georges Méliès in 1902. “Then next would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1968. However, it is also important to remember Douglas Trumbull, ‘the’ visual effects supervisor who had a critical role into making this totally intellectual movie a cult classic,” Ross explains.
It would be over a decade before George Lucas introduced people around the globe to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars in 1977. “Here was a quintessential example of an allegorical story, man and mythology that transported people to another world that they could experience,” says Ross.
Then in 1991, Terminator 2, directed by James Cameron, ushered in a new genre of action/ science fiction films, followed by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993. Ross continued, “Here are two films that without a doubt represent significant landmarks in the use of computer-generated, visual effects and had enormous box office success.”
“People of all ages can remember when they were awestruck watching a movie,” remarked Ross. “For me it was when I was working on Terminator 2. We had been watching it in dailies for months, and I wanted to see it as a ‘civilian’ in a movie theater,” he continued. “What blew me away was the scene where the liquid metal man starts growing out of the floor…the audience gasped, and it seemed as if all the oxygen in the theater was consumed.” Ross pointed out another example. “There I was at the premiere of Jurassic Park and the first image of the brontosaurus in a wide-shot appeared…my pulse quickened and my heart started racing. They looked so real. It is that type of moment one never forgets.”
Next, Ross went to work on Titanic, written and directed by James Cameron. This film won Digital Domain its first Oscar in 1997 for the groundbreaking visual effects that mesmerized audiences around the world. Avatar was released in 2010 and upped the ante, proving that the biggest visual and special effect break- throughs were yet to come.
How dollars are allocated to a film’s budget is significant, and films have become more and more expensive. “What is being spent on visual effects is substantial, and a primary reason that movie studios have to really start sharpening their pencils, when looking at the overall bottom line and the resources available to them,” says Ross. This trend is readily apparent as more studios and visual effects companies over the past five years have started looking to other parts of the world to conduct business.
According to Ross, “approximately 80% of every visual effects budget is spent on VFX personnel. And, only 20% of the people needed to do the work are top-level creative artists, while the remaining 80% of the visual effects staff are in manufacturing, which has resulted in a shift for offshore alternatives.” He continued, “I agree with making a movie at a lower cost because it’s always been about the bottom- line. But, America was built on the sweat and innovation of the middle class. What’s happening now is outsourcing.”
Even back in the mid-1990s, Ross had the foresight and understanding that the visual effect industry was going to go through a major upheaval. New computer technology was setting the stage for that change. In 1993, he coined the term ‘digital artist,’ which was to become the nomenclature for the new opportunities developing in the visual effects and digital media arena. Borrowing from a popular Waylon Jennings song of the time, Ross used to say, “Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys! Let them grow up to be digital artists!”
“Though students were graduating from universities making some pretty high level starting salaries, nowadays one can hire four or five Chinese or Indian workers for the price of an American or British worker,” emphasized Ross. “Make no mistake about it, these men and women that move pixels around can hail from any country. In the end, it’s the bottom line to the motion picture studio. Who can get the job done for less?”
Visual effects have become the most expensive line item, as well as the marketing sizzle of big blockbusters. Yet, as technology has become so pervasive, film- makers can often miss what the core of movie making is about. “In my opinion for a film to be successful, the audience has to emotionally connect and allow themselves to feel and go to places they could never imagine … I guess that’s what one calls art!”
So how does Ross define art? This is a subject that often leads to Ross being asked how long it takes to make a movie or what software was used on such and such shot? “That’s like asking how long does it take to fall in love,” he reflects. “For me, it comes down to what is the emotional content of a film. It’s a method that like all art can be a very difficult process to understand. It is evasive. And, there are no rules to creating something compelling that an audience can connect to. Therein lies the difficulty of creation and the beauty of art.”
Today Ross lectures extensively about the creative process, content and technology all over the world and most recently started a blog titled Tales from the Script — an inside look at what happens behind the scenes. He also has several film projects in pre- production, consults with some of the largest corporations and is still trying to understand this thing called “art.” While this New York City native would agree that things have changed, one can only describe Scott Ross as a true digital Renaissance man.