Co.Create

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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25 Comments

  • Guest

    Here is an example of a VFX company outside of the US that worked on Life of Pi:

    http://www.fx3x.com/work.html

    As you can see part of the creation of Life of Pi and many other movies were outsourced to this company.  Now my question is: does Rhythm & Hues outsource their job themselves or it is done by the studio that made this movie? 

  • ferricoxide

    It would be "doing it for less" if everybody was getting the same subsidies. If the only reason I'm able to "do it for less" is because a third party is paying for my expenses, then I'm not really "doing it for less" when you combine all the payment sources.

    It would be "doing it for less" if I were coming up with the technical innovations for achieving an end rather than leveraging the innovations of others (who've yet to recover their innovation-costs).

    But, whatever: let's race to the bottom and see who wins.

  • adamkru

    When Globalization affects skilled labor... Will only get worse as skills and technology increase in those parts of the world were labor is cheap.  We've been on this course for years.  Our studio has seen it.  Budgets get smaller and smaller every day.  Other industries are having the same problems.  The arts are hit especially hard because Americans don't care about art and when these organizations are forced to fend for themselves they tend to get pushed aside in the free market system.  If the gov doesn't step up and help - it's only a matter of time before everything from grocery shopping to heart surgery is done off-shore through technology.  It's just Capitalism.

  • Guest

    .....

    >Implying its not taxes BY the government that causes this type of thing to happen
    >Implying the government stepping in MORE would help
    >Implying America has a free market
    >Implying you know anything about capitalism

  • $29409261

    I feel the VFX pain. The music industry has been sliced and diced like this for over a decade.

  • hemp

    I don't know anything about VFX. But I do know that most software developers don't get their names in the credits and don't cry about it. We don't get academy awards (or usually any awards) and we don't cry about that. In fact we usually don't get any public feedback about our work unless it's negative. We do get the pleasure of working 60-120 hours a week to meet deadlines, with no overtime pay, bonuses, or royalties.

    Many of us are just as passionate about our craft as VFX folks are about theirs. Few of us would consider ourselves artists, but we certainly do work closely with designers, who are artists, just without the chip on their shoulder that comes with working in Hollywood.

    Maybe the VFX community will see an influx of empathy and maybe things will change in the industry as a result. But I'm confident that empathy won't be coming from the software industry or its equally skilled, equally talented workers whose jobs have been shipping overseas for the past decade.

  • Aubyanne Meletio Poulter

    Okay, hang on. 

    (First off - hi. I'm the silly slack-jawed girl in the trenches with the magic-makers fighting the good fight. In fact, we lost one last May, right before his teammates brought home a much-deserved award for 'The Walking Dead'. But that's neither here nor there.)This is less a free market discussion (read: economic) than it is a sad reminder of how many pile-ups happen at the intersection of Art and Commerce. But whose job is it to direct traffic? How about no one's?Whatever happened to acting like responsible adults out to create damned good art in a limited democracy with (some) of the benefits of a (somewhat) free market? (I'll save my bailout rant for another day.)This is where it's gonna hurt, though. Average Joe doesn't give a whit about Lehman, but he's notice the change in the Emerald City when the Wizard is exposed for being a little man pulling levers. The fact our pre-striking VFX artists and their supporters (appreciators) are already ChromaKeying their avatars is the shot across the bow. It's gonna get ugly. I think it needs to.We screenwriters have been tapping our watches for this day; yeah, we were the least respected out in Tinseltown, the 'who are you again?' brigade. Now our brothers in Green-Blue are getting shafted. That's not cool. None of this is the Hollywood I want to preserve.You want to do your part? Watch the friggin' credits. Oh, wait, that means you'll be stuck in the theatre an extra five minutes of your life you'll never get back. Nevermind the hours these artists spend working on what'll get outsourced by the studio.It's not the free market. It's humanity. I'm sorry. We're a selfish species in the midst of a recession. I want to see Middle Earth just as much as you do, but maybe we need to take a look at reality here. We've been gorging ourselves on the magic of the greenscreen for too long. It's time we get back to solid storytelling first, and then worry about whose going to create our visual effects later - and more than anything, give credit where it's due. These guys hold the keys to the kingdom. The future of storytelling - at least the future we've been pursuing - belongs to them. The least we could do is admit it and show the proper respect, for chrissake. Nobody deserves to be 'JAW'd' off the stage; especially those who lost their jobs to bring entertainment.Can we be more selfish? I'd never treat my VFX team this way. I may not have the budget to buy them more than pizza, but they'll have my undying respect and genuine awe regardless. I'll be in their debt.Y'know, Hollywood, it's hard to maintain your integrity; I get that. It's hard to do what you said you're gonna do, cast the unknown, pay people what they deserve, and respect those who help you make it happen. The alternative is to just do without. It's not unheard of; welcome to microbudget. I'm well aware of the practise of doing without. We've all gotten a bit spoilt in the Naughts. If the party's over, it's time to take down the disco ball and go home. Not start playing the blame game of which economy or which country or which subsidy is responsible for taking our jobs. You don't eat at a restaurant you can't afford. You don't hire people you can't pay, and you don't treat them like gum on your shoe for doing what you - nor I - couldn't even dream to accomplish. I'm a writer. They're friggin' wizards. I acknowledge this - fully.I'm sad their field is now coming under fire in much the same way our own did which rocked the small screen, leading to the loss of an entire season of primetime. But maybe the independents will inherit the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was once the thriving concrete jungles of Screenland. The truth is, Tinseltown is a ghost town. Hollywood itself has been outsourced. It's the golden era no more. We can't control overseas markets which are going to prove more competitive, because they haven't made their baseline so freakin' high. Studios are going to go for the cheap solution - rather than listen to their cousins in the trenches filming real cinema-verite, scraping by, and thanking their lucky stars for the talent they've got. Why? Because we can't afford VFX artists. That's not a restaurant we can go to right now. Our credit cards are already maxed, and, with the cost of gas, it's just not on the itinerary.Hollywood, as a whole, needs to stop living outside of its means and show some integrity - or get kicked off the couch. The fact we're being outsourced into the poor house is evidence of that. Either we're going to grow up, tighten our purse-strings, and stop being such douchebags, or we're going to all be without an industry.It's hard, but not impossible. Really. I did it. I got some integrity, some amazing talent, and a life lesson out of it. My series won't burn up your box; it won't be the next big thing everybody's talking about. It may not even get greenlit. But, if it does, it'll be a throwback to strong story-telling, solid acting, and the fruits of labour made possible by a tight-knit, incredible group of artists and creatives who still love this business, and treat each other with respect. We can't afford VFX, but, if some of my friends still have a job after the shake-down, who knows? I've been blown away at how far I've gotten on treating people with basic respect, kindness, and being in genuine awe of their talent, and the amazing accomplishments that are made possible by it.

    Maybe the big-wigs need to give that a try. Seems like all else has failed. Why not?

  • Aubyanne Meletio Poulter

    Good God. How did I end up with a block o' text? Serious formatting fail there. Sorry, guys.

  • ROTE simple machines

    First off, Actors and Producers are the top heavy drains on all levels of the production scales.Second, it seems only the biggest pictures are making money these days.

    Just like oil refiners, embedded labor gets pushed to the point of unsustainable rates. I hate banksters.

  • Aubyanne Meletio Poulter

    Yes, yes, and yes. Producers are the worst. (Hey, we've gotta get our due, but it quickly ends up being a LOT more than our due.) Cast is another thing. Sometimes, they come with that high price tag for a reason - most of the time, you're just buying their ego. (No, thank you.)

    If we appropriately budgeted without the whole production being top-heavy in regards to the administrative and dramatic - yeah, it'd be a different story.

    Unfortunately, as you said above, nobody's really making money these days. Not even the blockbusters. We're all broke as jokes, and it seems only the independent market are willing to admit it. The big budget guys are still walking around like the economy isn't tanking and the party's still going. I wish they'd stop.

  • Figgy Pudding

    Enjoy being outsourced. I bet you white collar types thought you were immune right? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

  • Aubyanne Meletio Poulter

    Nobody's immune. And they're hardly white collar. They SHOULD be, considering how hard they work. 

    Quick! Name the top three VFX working today. 

    Now name three top directors.

    ... Actors?

    Made my point. 

    BTW, Fishbulb: Ever hear of the name Ray Harryhausen?

    (There's a reason VFX artists don't get the respect they deserve.)