You only need look at the 10 highest grossing films of all time to see that Visual Effects has become a staple of Hollywood films. Visual Effects, or VFX, have become their bread and butter. In 2011, Avatar broke all records to become the first movie to gross over 2 billion and this year Life of Pi is predicted to hit 1 billion. A list of the Top 10 highest grossing films of all time says it all: http://www.successstories.co.in/top-10-highest-grossing-movies-of-all-time/
You would think, then that the industry would be in rude health, and that the VFX companies would also be reaping the rewards but things could not be further from the truth.
Just 2 weeks before Life of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects; Rhythm and Hues, the company responsible for all of the effects in the film filed for Bankruptcy, leaving 100s of artists out of work and unpaid. How, you may ask, can company that made a film which has so far grossed over $600 million end up penniless?
The answer is not black or white and the finger can be pointed in many directions. However, to understand where the problems lie, you have to look at the relationship between the Hollywood Studios (the money, the power) the Visual Effects companies and finally, the artists that create the effects.
THE POWER OF THE STUDIOS
The VFX companies have incredibly flawed business models and will often make little in profit, or even lose money on the films that they produce. In a good year they will have a profit margin as small as 3-5%.
The studios create so much competition between these facilities that the winning bid may mean a loss for the company. One unnamed Hollywood exec was so unapologetic of this practice that he wrote the following in an article:
“If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job.”
This overwhelming power that the studios have over the VFXcompanies means that they have little option to accept the terms or lose out to a competitor. If a company does speak out or kick up a fuss, they could then be potentially blacklisted and no studio will work with them again. This, in turn, is mirrored by the VFX workers and the companies they work for. The Visual Effects industry is the only area of film production which does not have a union. Even the cleaners have a union. As a result it means that the artists have no rights, no say and can be totally exploited. During the closing few months of production they are expected to work long hours (12-14 hours a day), and on the weekends for no extra money, often without given a credit; and if they don’t like it, they know that there are 100 other artists behind them waiting to take their place, and so do the VFXcompanies. If the artists complain then they would also face being blacklisted and as a result of this they just suffer in silence.
The studios also demand for cheaper work, and very often for last minute changes to be made to this work, yet deadlines remain the same or in some circumstances are even brought forward. A lot of the
big films used to take over a year to complete, whereas now they have been cut to 6 months. Yet instead of
compensating the artists for these changes and paying more for speedy work, studios still expect the VFX companies to stick to their agreed deal. It is the artists who have to pick up the pieces and compensate for this is in unpaid overtime.
The visual effects community feel so undervalued and unloved in an industry which now relies so heavily on their craft. Today it is rare to have a big film which has not been touched by digital effects. Indeed the very best effects blend in so seamlessly that the audience will have no idea that they are there. Before the recent oscars, one executive was heard to say “I dont like CG in my fims, thats why I voted for Lincoln”. Can you imagine how frustrating that must be to hear if you were one of the 100s of artists that had in fact worked on Lincoln?
The Bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues was the final straw for many artists who took to the streets and camped up a few blocks away from the Oscars. So complex are the issues that the industry faces that the protesters did not seem to have a universal agenda, or aim. Many focused their attention on their unjust working conditions while others proclaimed that they wanted a “piece of the pi” in reference to the huge sums of money made by the studios a the expense of the very people that make the films.
Their frustrations were exacerbated when Bill Westenhofer, upon picking up the award for Best Visual Effects was cut off 44 seconds into his speech just at the point when trying to highlight the crisis in the industry.
Finally, Ang Lee failed to mention the artists when picking up the oscar for best film. This felt like another slap in the face to all the artists who had spent months (and years!) working on the breathtaking effects. The protest was not covered by the media at the time, but thanks to the age of social media, the message was spread far and wide. Since then Facebook and Twitter have been flooded by pictures showing what films would look like without their VFX work
GLOBALISATION OF VFX
The competition that VFX companies face is an international one. Film subsidies are in many ways having a devastating effect on the industry. Countries or regions may open up new tax incentives to encourage film production to their area which saves the studios a lot of money. This in turn means studios then favour those VFX companies residing in those areas. The consequences of this is that you get whole facilities moving to new parts of the world at a huge cost, just to make sure they secure big films – at the expense of the local workforce. Once again, the only party to benefit financially from this is the studio.
The emergence of new subsidies in Asia and Eastern Europe has increased the pressure only more, as decreased production and labour costs are able to further lower overheads and increase their profits. At present, there is not the talent to rival the big VFX companies but it is only a matter of time as more money is pumped into training up the workforce.
There needs to be a fundamental change as to how Hollywood deals with our Industry. The respect is simply not there. The 50 highest grossing films of all time are dominated by films that are heavily reliant on visual effects. Huge amounts of money is made but very few benefit. What needs to change?
To start with, there needs to be a dialogue between the Studios, the VFX companies and the Artists. Whether or not a union could work remains to be seen, but somehow the Artists and the FX companies need to wrestle some of the power away from the Studios.
So what change, exactly, do the artists want to see? Nothing more than what most people take for granted. They want job security, a fair salary that reflects their skills, to be treated with respect. Essentially, to receive the rights that you would expect in any job and finally the recognition that all the artists deserve. Putting their films credits before the caterers would be a start…
On March 29th A meeting will be held in London with 100s of Artists from the world of VFX to discuss their future and how they can go about changing the culture of Visual Effects. Whether or not we shall see any change depends on many factors, but the fact that people are finally talking about change is certainly step in the right direction.
We shall keep you updated on any developments.
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Further Reading: Guardian Article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/feb/25/oscars-protest-life-of-pi
Huffington Post article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/24/jaws-oscars-life-of-pi-_n_2756380.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false