Wonder why all your production friends on Facebook have changed their profile pictures to a familiar shade of green? News of Rhythm & Hues Studios going bankrupt, the studio behind the recent Oscar-winning Life of Pi, has acted as a catalyst for awareness. A recent letter written by Phillip Broste has been making the rounds via outlets like VFX Solidarity International, stirring up the visual effects community in a call-to-action. More info and an interview with independent VFX artist Jeff Foster after the jump.
Instigated by this tweet from Scott Ross, Digital Domain founder and ILM's General Manager, hundreds of VFX artists showed up to the Sunday Oscars with picket signs to protest:
I had a dream, 500 VFX artists near the Dolby (Kodak) theater on Oscar day waving signs that say ” I WANT A PIECE OF THE PI TOO”.— Scott Ross (@DrScottRoss) February 21, 2013
Why? Here's how it works:
When a large studio makes a film, the VFX houses bid for jobs, constantly undercutting the competition (other VFX houses). Budgets are locked and when it comes time to make the deadlines, the VFX workers are the ones who suffer, often working unpaid overtime with unsecured jobs, without healthcare, or waiting months to receive pay. There is no union in place to protect VFX workers from poor conditions, and state worker's laws being broken seems to be the norm. On paper, the effects budgets for these films seem massive, so we assume they must be getting paid well -- but in reality it's a lot of overhead, not profit.
In turn, VFX companies can't make profit and are going out of business, and artists essentially have to become migrant workers who have to follow the work, largely because of various government subsidies that are set up to attract work to different countries. The VFX community are largely against these subsidies, but finding a way to fight against them and survive at the same time is a struggle. VES, the Visual Effect Society, who has supported and called for expansion on the subsidies in the past, has released an open letter describing its role in this movement. The letter asks for an open congress of VFX artists from all around the world, and tax incentives for California. From fxguide:
The congress is the next major move from the VES, and the Society states “it is hoped that this effort will lead to a number of direct follow up actions that will gain consensus from visual effects artists everywhere.” The congress will be an online meetup of visual effects artists from around the world in various cities (the details are still to be worked out) during which ideas can be put forward and discussed openly and honestly.
Why solidarity? Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy on February 11th, firing 250+ workers, yet are reported to be opening a new facility in Taiwan this month. The community is upset, and received salt in their wound when Bill Westenhofer (visual effects supervisor on Life of Pi) tried to bring up these issues at the Oscars and his speech was cut short -- by the theme song from Jaws:
Some are pushing for solidarity to go on strike, others like Scott Ross are vying for a trade association or a guild. The discussion is ongoing, and there's also a petition to the Obama administration to end the export of American VFX jobs.
I think part of the issue is that we generally see VFX artists as just a ton of names on a list at the end of a film, and not as individuals. Even the main decision-makers on a film crew (like the Director) don't often have personal interactions with the VFX people, making it easier to marginalize their efforts and working conditions.
On the outskirts of the studio world, I recently spoke with Jeff Foster, an independent VFX Artist / Compositor, writer of the internationally published Greenscreen Handbook, and a regular writer at ProVideo Coalition.
Is a VFX Union something you would be interested in if it was successfully formed?
Unions aren't necessarily the answer as that won't stop studios from just sending everything overseas even more. It's a mess but I think it's too late - the toothpaste is already out of the tube. People are finding a new industry to work in because this one is totally drying up in the U.S. I've been seeing what's been going on the last few years, I have friends who are directly affected because they are getting laid off. They win an Oscar and then they are getting the doors shut on them.
If joining a union would mean a promise of steady work on big productions, it might be something to consider. I've been invited to work on big productions, to work at Weta, Pixar, and I chose not to, mostly for family considerations, but also because you have to think about what you want in life, and I don't want to be a number. And unless something steps in and saves the day for those working on big budget productions for big studios, I don't see much of a future there. Smaller boutiques with little overhead will be the ones who survive.
What's wrong with the current studio model, and what suffers because of it?
The people who are making money are all at the top. The studios can assign 80% of the budget of a film to post-production and visual effects. So when they go in to shoot the film, they will basically slop through it because everything can be added and fixed in post. If you're the studio producing a film and you're relying on a few hundred people with computers in a building to basically create the movie for you, you're not going to take the same amount of time and care that say an independent filmmaker may take to really get the shots you want. People are getting tired of the mega studio VFX films, there's a hunger for watching a great story unfold. They are tired of fast food, and they finally want some good organic food.
How does / will this affect independent filmmakers or VFX artists who are just starting out?
I suggest that people become more of a generalist, if you're so niche oriented, then you're going to be really limited down the line, especially since people are bypassing certain things now. For example, the Adobe Creative Suite offers so many tools that an independent now has access to, and if they apply them, then they aren't going to be going out to post facilities for color grading, compositing, etc. The delivery system is changing too -- not every film is going to theaters.
How do you support solidarity for visual effects artists?
It's an awareness issue, just like any other cause. It certainly has momentum, and it's good to start hearing people who are outside of my industry starting to take notice and say "Hey, I saw your profile picture and I had no idea about any of this!"
Are you a VFX worker? Join the discussion in the comments.