May 15, 2017
video essay

Watch: Hollywood's Greatest Trick is Not What You'd Expect

Hollywood is throwing its most dedicated workers under the bus. 

Invisibility has long been the characteristic of great visual effects. Being unseen is something to strive for; the less you notice the strings, the better the puppet show. But being invisible has taken its toll on VFX artists, turning them into veritable puppets of their own.

As a revealing new video essay from Sohail Al-Jamea details, being a VFX artist—even an Oscar-winning one—is a "swim to the bottom" in today's entertainment landscape. Hollywood jobs are being increasingly outsourced overseas, leaving Los Angeles VFX companies to underbid for local jobs, while employees go without retirement funds, benefits, or health insurance.

Scott Ross, former VFX executive at ILM, points out in the video that 80% of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is animated. It's not the performances that made Gravity so affecting; it's the cinematic experience. And that was created by VFX artists. Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock made $62 million on the film, while Framestore, the visual effects company behind Gravity, "does not make money."

Or, as one VFX artist in the video puts it, "Johnny Depp's a great actor, but let's be clear: the visual effects are the real stars."

According to Lee Berger, former President of Rhythm & Hues Studios, VFX companies can expect to see 5% profit margin—"on a great year."

Part of the problem is a broken business model. When VFX companies bid for a film, they bill speculatively; nobody, not even the director, knows how much work it will take to bring the vision to life. This means that hundreds of hours of work can go unpaid if the director or studio decides to alter or expand upon the film's visual effects after they have been rendered. VFX artists call this common phenomenon "pixel-f*cking."

If Hollywood blockbusters gross $700 billion a year, why shouldn't VFX artists get the slice of the pie they well deserve?      

Your Comment

15 Comments

Don't they have a union? Everyone else seems to.

May 15, 2017 at 2:12PM

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Alex Douglas
Music Video Producer
157

Exactly.

IMHO, vfx artists smugly distanced themselves from unions as their art-form took off. Associations with blue-collar union workers was below them.

Now, every awards season and randomly sprinkled throughout the year, vfx artists make a plea for their jobs being unfair. Its difficult to feel bad, I hope its not too late to see what many other tradespeople have learned prior to them- collectively bargain.

Heck, didn't some of the biggest names in software get busted a few years ago for collectively and illegally pushing down wages? Fight back people.

May 15, 2017 at 3:24PM

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Doug
224

A union won't stop the studios from outsourcing to Canada, India, New Zealand or the UK. Just like the other unions in Hollywood etc can't stop productions from shooting in Vancouver or the UK. You would need a global VFX union and that is never going to happen.

VFX in the US has been killed by massive tax breaks and other incentives (including relaxed labor laws with no overtime. I'm looking at you London) that are being offered by foreign countries that the studios were eager to accept. Here in the US we did nothing to counter that. And now that India is in the game there is no way to compete with their low wages. I wouldn't be surprised if a few years from now India does to the UK, Canada etc what they did to the US.

Part of the problem has to do with our political system here in the US. We have become a borderline banana republic, where our representatives only listen to the wealthy and influential. Whom do you think a US politician is going to listen to? A big studio that can make a big campaign contribution or a few VFX artists who are just your average tax payer? The current system works just fine for the studios. They are saving a ton of money, making huge profits and don't care whatsoever about US workers. Until the studios complain nothing will change and VFX in the US will continue it's decline.

May 15, 2017 at 4:00PM, Edited May 15, 4:02PM

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I think you're mostly correct.

But I think IATSE members in Vancouver, while displacing LA workers are at least earning health care and pensions.

There are advantages to doing business 'locally'. I don't think keeping all work in the U.S. is possible, but I think we should start by making sure those who do work locally are treated fairly.

May 15, 2017 at 4:59PM

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Doug
224

I was in IATSE at one point and of course that came with a lot of benefits.
I've also been in this business since the early days, so I've experienced all of this first hand on an international basis.

But if we are talking about the decline of the VFX business in the US, then the unfortunate truth is that being in a union wouldn't stop the work from being outsourced.

Local unions would make a difference as far as working conditions go. Maybe then fx workers in the UK would be paid overtime, but they would have to first revoke the exemption the industry was granted from labor laws.

But the moment you formed a union and increased wages and benefits or stopped the erosion of them the studios would move on to the next country where they are given a better deal. That is why they are now pushing for India.

May 15, 2017 at 5:22PM, Edited May 15, 5:25PM

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If I were a VFX artist and saw this video I'd think differently about going into the field. Unless you're fine with working long hours and not making money by all means. I guess you have to really love VFX work. There are plenty of people who deal with this same issue though with various industries. It's just the way it is. The top execs will always make the most money, in this case it's the actors and such who are putting their faces on the screen. It's a shame but it's the way the world works. From an artist POV i can see why it's frustrating though as they are both considered "artists".

May 15, 2017 at 4:32PM

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Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media
401

Why aren't there any back end points on these deals? Makes no sense. I'm sure Sandra Bullocks rate wasn't $67 Million, she had to have had points to get to that number.

May 15, 2017 at 4:51PM

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Hard to make money when your artists spend 3 weeks on shots that should take 3 days while they surf Facebook and pontificate about tax credits from the comfort of their ergonomic chairs.

May 16, 2017 at 12:57PM

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Matt Drummond
Writer/Director/Producer
175

You wouldn't be a Australian VFX / Director / Producer? Does your crew know that you think they are a bunch of overpaid whiners?

May 16, 2017 at 6:00PM, Edited May 16, 6:11PM

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My crew are great. Very small, super talented, very efficient and well rewarded. It's hard to find people who are this capable. However most artists have never run a business and are far from qualified on making comment. I've watched kids blindly jump on this bandwagon for years, donning green T-shirts and writing outraged posts about the very tax credits that just paid their wage. They need to focus this energy on their chosen craft. About 1 in 30 of the submissions I see are capable enough to be considered for employment despite have big credits to their name and showreels to match.

May 18, 2017 at 8:38AM, Edited May 18, 8:39AM

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Matt Drummond
Writer/Director/Producer
175

First off I wanted to say I’m a big fan and can’t wait to see My Pet Dinosaur. I dug Dinosaur Island and can’t wait to see where you go. Honestly, I thought your name would be attached to Jurassic World by now. I myself want to make a dinosaur film so I got a job as an in-house director for the vfx house, Pixomondo. I was hoping to learn enough so I wasn’t an idiot talking to my vfx supervisor. Yeah there are a few ergonomic chairs but most of them are ancient wobbly ones. When Fate of The Furious was wrapping up I witnessed people putting in 20 hour days throughout a week. It was brutal. Then the movie credits didn't list 16 of our artists. Imagine pulling those ridiculous hours, multiple weeks just to get rid of Vin Diesel's double chin or have a submarine come out of the ice then not get credit. They get trashed on so much I really hope they do find some way of standing up to these studios. By the way artists can’t log on to Facebook. If the computers were connected to the internet it could be susceptible to online hacking.

May 16, 2017 at 6:30PM, Edited May 16, 6:30PM

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Julian
Director
311

Hi Julian, I appreciate that silly hours are done by artists and unreasonable demands are made often without credit. The tech gets better so artists jam more in. But this is what leads to ridiculous inefficiencies in the production of mainstream VFX with hundreds of artists adopting ever more ridiculous workflows. Thousands of lines of code to do procedural scale placement, writing in house renderers, rewriting hair systems, muscle systems, production trackers. Basically studios will re invent the wheel on every major job. When budgets change you must change with them. As an artist I'm guilty of tech abuse but as a director and producer I never forget that VFX is just a tool to sell an illusion that tells a story, not win a VES award.

May 18, 2017 at 8:46AM, Edited May 18, 9:09AM

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Matt Drummond
Writer/Director/Producer
175

we can discuss this for ever, but in the end the industry will not change coz ppl especially younger people are willing to work for free or little money. thats the way it is. so quit the movies and do shitty advertising, at least they dont rip you off. after working in berlin, london, shanghai and vancouver i am done with this shit. i am sitting in cologne, germany, enjpoy my life and advise all friends, family and people i know not to go to the movies but visit a website where they can watch the latest blockbuster for free. anything else than that, i give a shit.

May 16, 2017 at 5:34PM, Edited May 16, 5:34PM

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Torsten Neuendorf
vfx compositor
88

WHAAAAAAAAAA! WHAAAAAAAAAA! Rhythm and Hues filed for bankruptcy and left a lot of people with unpaid invoices. Including 75K owed to myself. I was a lucky one, I was eventually able to get mine out. The problem I have with all of this is: a week after closing up shop here and burning half the town, they opened their doors again in Thailand and washed their hands clean of all the carnage they left behind. Aing Lee didn't mention them...Whaaaaaa.....
.fuck off!

May 21, 2017 at 12:42AM

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Steve chase
Director
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July 4, 2017 at 3:55PM, Edited July 4, 3:55PM

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Karel Bata
Director / DP / Stereographer
427