When Winning An Oscar Means Bankruptcy: VFX Artists Protest The Academy Awards

Visual effects pros gathered in person at the Oscars and on Twitter to protest the unsustainable model supporting the creation of Hollywood’s most eye-popping films.

The post-Oscars morning-after ritual usually involves dusting off champagne haze, peeling off the Prada dresses, and returning the Harry Winston jewels, signaling a return to relative normal following Tinseltown’s glitziest night. For the visual effects community, however, this morning’s ritual involves replacing social media profile pictures with green (representing a greenscreen) and stoking the flames of controversy set on Oscar night.

For anyone not glued to Twitter during the 85th Academy Awards, you likely missed last night’s furor. But the problem at the root of it could jeopardize the very films you love. Last night, outside the Dolby Theatre nearly 500 visual effects professionals gathered to protest the challenges facing their industry. VFX players and those who appreciate them were also demonstrating on Twitter at #VFXprotest against practices that see VFX jobs sent offshore, a financial model that relies heavily on global film subsidies and the downward pressure on VFX budgets that contributed to the demise of visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues just as it was poised to take home a trophy for the lush and largely CGI world of Life of Pi.

If the protests were organized before the event, the real crystallizing moment came when the Rhythm & Hues team came to collect their Oscar for Best Visual Effects. As is the norm for such categories, a slew of elated individuals took to the stage. Just as one of the R&H winners (who’s now sadly unemployed) began to talk about the shop, and presumably was about to get a little political, he was unceremoniously cut off by the orchestra to the most distasteful tune of Jaws. While to most observers—and likely the poor conductor who was sequestered with his orchestra in the nearby Capitol Building—it was likely seen as an excited group of winners simply going over time, to the visual effects community it was a rallying cry.

But first, there was a chance for redemption. When Ang Lee received the Best Director award for Pi, many felt the auteur would correct earlier ills by giving Rhythm & Hues its due. Instead, he awkwardly rambled on thanking everyone from the countries of Taiwan and Canada to his lawyer, quite obviously omitting the team that made what was deemed an unfilmable book, one that involves a boy and a (CGI) tiger stranded in a lifeboat, possible.

In an interview with Bill Desowitz after he and his team were played off, Rhythm & Hues VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer said: "At a time when visual effects movies are dominating the box office, that 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 lose the artistry. If anything, Life of Pi shows that we’re artists and not just technicians."

The reality boiling under this Oscar night controversy (which usually centers around more trivial matters like flailing hosts, crazy acceptance speeches, or poor sartorial choices) is critical for the future of film as we know it. If the business model of Hollywood puts undue strain on the very companies that make the impossible possible, and if companies like Rhythm & Hues can expire just as they’re receiving the industry’s highest honor, then what does that mean for film?

Phillip Broste, lead compositor at Zoic Studios, had some thoughts on the matter, which he voiced on Facebook in an open letter to Ang Lee. Responding to a comment that Lee made about R&H stating he would prefer if VFX were cheaper and not so tough on the vendors, he had this to say:

"Mr. Lee, I do believe that you are a thoughtful and brilliant man. And a gifted filmmaker. But I also believe that you and everyone in your tier of our business is fabulously ignorant to the pain and turmoil you are putting artists through. Our employers scramble to chase illegal film subsidies across the globe at the behest of the film studios. Those same subsidies raise overhead, distort the market and cause wage stagnation in what are already trying economic times. Your VFX are already cheaper than they should be. It is disheartening to see how blissfully unaware of this fact you truly are."

While most Oscar "controversies" are quickly forgotten once the lights go down, it seems that this one is just beginning. What do you think? Is the future of VFX at risk or are practices like outsourcing and chasing subsidies a result of a free market? Tell us in the comments below.

In the meantime, take a look at the greatest hits (digs?) from Twitter during the Oscars telecast.

Patton Oswalt ‪@pattonoswalt‬
"They just JAWS/BONANZA'ed you." = new slang for "shut the fuck up"

@pattonoswalt Let's see how movies look next year with greenscreen and sock puppets. #fuckhollywood #fucktheoscars #vfxprotest

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