Veteran VFX producer Joyce Cox has a long and impressive list of credits to her name. She got her start producing effects shots for Titanic and from there went on to produce VFX for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Dark Knight and Avatar, among many others. Along the way, Cox perfected her process for budgeting VFX for films and became a go-to resource for many major studios. She realized that the practice of budgeting VFX could be done more efficiently if there was a standardized way to track all of the moving parts in the life cycle of a project’s VFX costs.
With a background in the finance industry, combined with extensive VFX production experience, she decided to apply her process and best practices into developing a solution for other filmmakers. That has evolved into a new web-based app called Curó, which targets visual effects budgeting from script to screen. It will be debuting at Siggraph in Vancouver this month.
Ahead of the show we reached out to find out more about her VFX producer background and her path to becoming a the maker of a product designed to make other VFX pros’ lives easier.
You got your big break in visual effects working on the film Titanic. Did you know that it would become such an iconic landmark film for this business while you were in the throes of production?
I recall thinking the rough cut I saw in the early stage was something special, but had no idea it would be such a massive success.
Were there contacts made on that film that helped kickstart your career in visual effects?
Absolutely. It was my introduction into the visual effects community and offered me opportunities to learn the landscape of digital production and develop relationships with many talented, inventive people. Many of them I continued to work with throughout my career as a VFX producer.
Did you face any challenges as a woman working in below-the-line production in those early days of digital VFX?
It is a bit tricky. Visual effects is still a primarily male dominated arena, and it is a highly competitive environment. I think what helped me navigate the waters is my approach. My focus is always on what is best for the movie.
Was there anyone from those days that you would consider a professional mentor?
Yes. I credit Richard Hollander, a gifted VFX supervisor/producer with exposing me to the technology and methodologies of visual effects; how to conceptualize a VFX project and understand all the moving parts. I worked with Richard on several projects producing the visual effects within digital facilities. Those experiences served me well when I moved to working on the production side, navigating the balance between the creative agenda, the approved studio budgets and the facility resources available.
You’ve worked as a VFX producer on some of the most notable studio effects films of all time, including X-Men 2, The Dark Night, Avatar and The Jungle Book. Was there a secret to your success or are you just really good at landing top gigs?
I’d say my skills lie more in doing the work than finding the work. I believe I continued to be offered great opportunities because those I’d worked for before understood that I facilitated their goals of making a great movie. And that I remain calm while managing the natural conflicts that arise between creative desire and financial reality.
Describe what a VFX producer does exactly on a film, and what the biggest challenges are of the job.
This is a tough question. During pre-production, working with the director, VFX supervisor and other department heads, the VFX producer breaks down the movie into the digital assets, i.e., creatures, environments, matte paintings, etc., that need to be created, estimate how many visual effects shots are needed to achieve the creative goals as well as the VFX production crew required to support the project. Since no one knows exactly what will be needed until the movie is shot and edited, it is all theory.
During production, the VFX producer oversees the buildout of the communications, data management and digital production schedule that are critical to success. Also, during production the VFX producer is evaluating what is being shot and tries to forecast potential changes to the budget or schedule.
Starting in production and going through post, the focus is on getting the shots turned over to digital facilities to begin work. This is challenging in that creative or financial changes can delay moving forward with digital production, compressing the window of time within which to complete all the work for release. Once everything is turned over that focus switches to getting all the shots completed and delivered for the final assembly.
What film did you see that made you want to work in visual effects?
Truthfully, I did not have my sights set on visual effects. I’ve always had a keen interest in movies and wanted to produce them. It was really just a series of unplanned events, and I suppose my skills at managing highly complex processes drew me further into the world of visual effects.
Did having a background in finance help in any particular way when you transitioned into VFX?
Yes, before I entered into production, I spent a few years working in the finance industry. That experience has been quite helpful and perhaps is something that gave me a bit of a leg up in understanding the finances of filmmaking and the ability to keep track of highly volatile budgets.
You pulled out of active production in 2016 to focus on a new company, tell me about Curó.
Because of my background in finance and accounting, one of the first things I noticed when I began working in visual effects was, unlike production and post, the lack of any unified system for budgeting and managing the finances of the process. So, I built an elaborate system of worksheets in Excel that I refined over the years. This design and process served as the basis for Curó’s development.
To this day the entire visual effects community manages the finances, which can be tens, if not hundreds, of millions in spend with spreadsheets. Add to that the fact that everyone’s document designs are different, which makes the job of collaborating, interpreting and managing facility bids unwieldy to say the least.
Why do you think the industry needs Curó, and why is now the right time?
Visual effects is the fastest growing segment of the film industry, demonstrated in the screen credits of VFX-heavy films. The majority of studio projects are these tent-pole films, which heavily use visual effects. The volatility of visual effects finances can be managed more efficiently with Curó and the language of VFX financial management across the industry would benefit greatly from a unified system.
Who’s been beta testing Curó, and what’s in store for the future, after its Siggraph debut?
We’ve had a variety of beta users over the past year. In addition to Sony and Netflix a number of freelance VFX producers and supervisors as well as VFX facilities have beta access.
The first phase of the Curó release focuses on the VFX producers and studio VFX departments, providing tools for initial breakdown and budgeting of digital and overhead production costs. After Siggraph we will be continuing our development, focusing on vendor bid packaging, bid comparison tools and management of a locked budget throughout production and post, including the accounting reports, change orders, etc.
We are also talking with visual effects facilities about developing a separate but connected module for their internal granular bidding of human and technical resources.