VFX Artists Protest For Awareness to an Art Form in Crisis

Protest and Abrupt Oscar Playoff call attention to bankruptcies and layoffs

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

When we reported on Digital Domain filing bankruptcy, I have to be honest, it just seemed to be that the venerable visual effects house had just over extended itself with a multi-million dollar learning campus in Florida. And after that, several more. Then Rhythm and Hues went under as well. So, when Rhythym and Hues Visual FX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer was given the bums rush by the Oscar orchestra playing the theme to “Jaws,” last Sunday while he attempted to make a speech about the poor state of the industry, it shone a bright spot light on an art form in crisis, and how Hollywood has nobody to blame but itself – and VFX Artists are paying the price.

“At a time when visual effects movies are dominating the box office, [the] visual effects companies are struggling. And I wanted to point out that we aren’t technicians. Visual effects is not just a commodity that’s being done by people pushing buttons. We’re artists, and if we don’t find a way to fix the business model, we start to loses the artistry. If anything, Life of Pi shows that we’re artists and not just technicians.” –Bill Westenhofer, after the Oscars

Visual effects are not only being used by big budget blockbusters like the Avengers, the Hobbit, and Life of Pi, but also in every day episodes of your favorite TV shows (see the video below). More and more, Hollywood is becoming more reliant on the artistry of visual effects artists, and as such, they’ve begun to treat it as a commodity – something that should be easily achieved and for a cheap price.  That’s at least the sentiment of Oscar winning director Ang Lee, who is catching fire for not only missing the opportunity to acknowledge the hard work of over 400 Rhythm and Hues VfX Artists who guaranteed him his own Academy Award along with their own, but he went so far as to specifically express the opinion that VFX should be cheaper, but understands how hard it is for FX houses to make a buck.

“I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house. They all have good times and hard times, and in the tough times, some may not [survive].” – Ang Lee

The result has been a lot of ire from FX artists who believe what they do is more than just pushing a few key strokes on a computer, but is a genuine art form. In an open letter to Lee, Phillip Broste of Zoic blasted Lee’s short sighted comments and offered this retort: “I just want to point out that while, yes R&D can be expensive and yes it takes a lot of technology and computing power to create films like yours, it is not computer chips and hard drives that are costing you so very much money. It is the artists that are helping you create your film. So when you say “I would like it to be cheaper,” as an artist I take that personally. It took hundreds of hours from skilled artists and hard-working coordinators and producers to craft the environments and performances in Life of Pi.”

So, with all the work to do, why is the industry on the ropes? It can’t be bad management everywhere can it?  Fact is, the FX Houses bid on jobs and in true fashion, the lowest bidder gets the gig. So when the FX shots change and the budget goes up, they’re unable to absorb the additional costs of R&D and overtime by hundreds of artists. Many are left with being forced to work overtime for free, according to the Facebook page VFX Solidarity International, or were unpaid for weeks on new films for studios like Fox and Universal in order to absorb the shortfalls. And most houses are quietly laying off hundreds of artists all over the world as they close facilities and tighten the bottom line. (Editor’s note: Also consider that when a project ends, if another one isn’t lined up, layoffs become commonplace, unfortunately.)

And you can’t dismiss the technological angle in all this. I think we’re running into the same old story that horse and buggy operators and elevator operators, and every other industry that has had to evolve has faced… evolution of the state of the art. Fact is, this isn’t 1994 anymore. You don’t need a room filled with Silicon Graphics workstations to render out your visual effects. Computers have become more powerful, render farms have popped up to do the job cheaper, and even consumer-grade software with FX packages like Action Essentials have streamlined many FX shots and as they mature, they’re giving the professional level a run for their money, and studios are taking notice, which is why they want it cheaper.

Artists also argue that countries are providing illegal subsidies if FX Houses move to their countries and hire local talent. These subsidies come in the form of tax breaks, which they claim go to the studio or the producer, and not the FX house itself. The result is that the margins have become razor-thin in the FX industry, and many are going out of business.  Even the big boys like Dreamworks Animation have lost nearly $100 million this year on fx heavy animated projects like Rise of the Guardians, which failed to reach expectations at the box office. An anonymous VFX artist known as VFX Soldier, has called attention to the subsidy issue with an Indie Go-Go campaign to make a documentary where he says that subsidies are illegal and violate International Trade agreements. But tax breaks aren’t illegal. States do it all the time, which is why movies film in North Carolina, Louisiana, or Illinois. So that countries like Ireland, India, and China are also offering them is no surprise. It’s how movies are always financed.

I’m not so sure about that. First off, most subsidies in my mind are tax breaks.  Yes, it doesn’t help the FX studio if the film producer gets to take advantage of that and they don’t, but VFX Soldier also doesn’t take into account the greater equalizer to tempt work overseas… the exchange rate, and the fact that many countries don’t have unions that require higher rates and other benefits which boost the budget. And I think that the notion of unionizing Visual FX artists is one of the ultimate goals here. Frankly, I’m shocked that they aren’t already.

So, at the end of the day, I think the industry has been hit a perfect storm of over reaching management, a glut of cheap work, subsidies that over extend houses who have crew up and spent a lot on R&D, and the natural evolution of the art. And as Bill Westenhofer tried to say at the Oscars:

The visual effects are definitely in a challenging position right now, and we’ve got to figure out how to make this business model work, because there are artists that are struggling right now. It is not just something being done by anyone pushing buttons. There’s artistry involved, and we’ve got to make sure we maintain that, because we start to lose some of the quality we see on stage, if we’re not careful.”

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.

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