The Visual Effects Problem in Hollywood

Life of Pi visual effects
Photo: 20th Century Fox

This year at the Oscars, acceptance speeches were cut short using the theme from Jaws. If you asked me to name those that were cut short, I couldn’t. Well, except for one.

It is well known the visual effects house Rhythm + Hues recently filed for bankruptcy. It is also known visual effects artists from R+H were at the Oscars, but not inside the Dolby Theatre, outside pounding the pavement in protest.

kidman-piOf course, they were also inside, accepting the Oscar for work on Life of Pi and when Oscar winners Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer and Donald Elliott took the stage and were done with their “thank yous” they attempted to get out a few words regarding the state of the industry. That was when Jaws cut them short. You can see Nicole Kidman‘s reaction as they were played off, and you could read her lips saying, “Poor thing.”

I’m sure that brief glimpse of Kidman (as well as her husband and others behind her laughing), tied with the theme from Jaws, immortalized on television just as the bankruptcy of the Oscar-winning effects house was about to be acknowledged, bit harder than anyone could have ever imagined. But what is all this concerning?

The issue, as compiled by indieWire, is in regards to outsourcing of effects work to Canada because of incentives and studios are requiring American houses to compensate them with the same incentives if they are to keep things south of the border. And while studios sell films like Transformers on the backs of the visual effects and not with Shia LaBeouf, the fact they get no residuals stings even further.

There is talk of unionizing the effects industry under the banner of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), but all the details were laid out by Visual FX artist Phillip Broste in an open letter to Oscar-winning Life of Pi director Ang Lee, which indieWire reprinted and I’ve included directly below.

Dear Mr. Lee,

When asked about the bankruptcy of Rhythm + Hues, the visual effects house largely responsible for making your film “Life of Pi” as incredible as it was, you said:

“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].”

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.

Incidentally, those were the same gorgeous sunsets and vistas that your DP Claudio Miranda took credit for without so much as a word of thanks to those artists. And the same animated performances that helped win you the best director statue. Nice of you to mention the pool crew, but maybe you could have thanked the guys and gals who turned that pool in to an ocean and put a tiger in to that boat?

It was world class work, after all. And after a fabulously insulting and dismissive introduction from the cast of the avengers, at least two of whom spent fully half of their film as a digitally animated character, R+H won for it’s work on your very fine piece of cinema. And just as the bankruptcy was about to be acknowledged on a nationally-televised platform, the speech was cut short. By the “Jaws” theme.

If this was meant as a joke, we artists are not laughing.

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.

By all accounts, R+H is a fantastic place to work; a truly great group of people who treat their employees with fairness and respect. Much like Zoic Studios, the fabulous company that I am proud to work for. But I am beginning to wonder if these examples of decency will be able to survive in such a hostile environment. Or if the horror stories of unpaid overtime and illegal employment practices will become the norm, all because you and your fellow filmmakers “would like it to be cheaper.”

I, for one, won’t stand for it. Please join me.

Warmest regards and congratulations,
Phillip Broste
Lead Compositor

Read more about the effects work done in Life of Pi here and check out a featurette below.

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