Special effects artists' not-so-special treatment

If you managed to survive this week's Academy Awards telecast, you might have noticed a sad note as the orchestra struck up and played off Best Visual Effects winner Bill Westenhoffer's speech. 

The audience reacted with sympathy, including Our Nic: 

However, what made this particular instance of a traditional Oscar moment (there's always a nerd who talks too long and gets played off, Keyboard Cat style) so galling is that Westenhoffer is a Rhythm & Hues employee, and just days earlier, the company - which contributed to the stunning visual effects that led to The Life Of Pi's winning in that category and Best Cinematography - had declared bankruptcy. 

Similarly, when Ang Lee picked up Best Director, he offered scant mention of the VFX artists who had created much of the world of Pi while bemoaning (albeit cheekily) the cost of VFX, and mere days before the ceremony, told The Hollywood Reporter he wished VFX was cheaper. 

Indeed, what the Oscars coverage also didn't show was R&H employees and over 400 other VFX artists picketing the red carpet, because what you might not know is that the VFX industry is presently in dire straits. 

Devin Faraci provides a summary of the issues facing US-based effects houses here: "studios are outsourcing VFX jobs to countries with impossible-to-sustain subsidies, places where the studio (not the FX house, with whom the studio contracts, but the studio itself) gets back $60 for every $100 spent on salary. This has led to an economic situation where FX houses are underbidding each other to stay competitive with companies in other countries. Rhythm and Hues is a major success in the world of VFX, but it still hit the skids."

And a success they are: R&H also won Oscars for their work on Babe and The Golden Compass; this isn't a case of a small-town startup going down the gurgler because nobody appreciated their work. 

R&H is not the only casualty of a penny-pinching environment; this week Pixomondo, a German VFX house that won an Oscar for its work on Hugo and creates the dragons for Game Of Thrones, shut down its London offices in order to trim costs. 

There are added unfairnesses at foot beyond outsourcing, too: io9 noted that many studios will be paid a set fee for their work, which is often a sizeable slice of the film's budget, but offers none of the film's box office takings. (The actors, to put that into perspective, generally receive a percentage of the megabucks profits that VFX-heavy blockbusters bring in.)

Philip Broste, a lead compositor who works for Zoic Studios, posted a scathing open letter to Lee in the aftermath of the Oscars: "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. Not to mention the engineers that wrote all of that proprietary code and build the R+H pipeline. That is where your money went. I’d say, judging from the night you just had, you got one hell of a deal."

VFX artists and their allies in this fight have been updating their social media avatars to squares of bright green: quite literally what exists on film before visual effects is applied. If that sounds over the top, browse the newly minted Tumblr, Before VFX, which provides a sobering idea of just how much VFX artists bring to the table. Here's the tiger from The Life Of Pi, before R&H turned it into an Oscar-winning masterpiece: 

And here's a thrilling vista from Cloud Atlas

A huge issue facing VFX artists as they navigate this minefield is that the industry is, currently, not unionised. Of course, it's very easy as a union member in a vastly different industry (not to mention a different country) to say "Well, unions will solve this problem!" but certainly when outsourcing copy and subediting threatened the jobs of many of my comrades, having the union to back us made an immense difference to the outcome. The Writers' Strike would have ended very differently (i.e. much quicker and with far less security for the writers) had unions not been involved. 

What's certain is that Hollywood could be facing a behind-the-scenes disaster that will make the Writers' Strike look like a minor hiccup. 

As HitFX's excellent editorial on the issue put it: "When you've got someone like Randall Cook, Oscar-winning FX artist on all three Lord Of The Rings movies, furiously ranting on Facebook the night of the Oscars, literally writing 'Fuck the Academy', something is wrong."

After all, yes - as horrible as it is to admit - you can make a film without a decent script; you can pay some aspiring Shane Black-wannabe $15,000 for 93 pages of drivel and, if the movie looks good enough and has stars people like in it, not many people will notice. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is a perfect example: "written" during the Writers' Strike by Bay and then expanded by Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the film still made $836 million worldwide.  

If, on the other hand, you screw VFX artists to the point where nobody can (or will) work, all of a sudden those big summer blockbusters full of cool giant robot battles, flying scenes, and otherworldly landscapes are going to look pretty green around the gills. 

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