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?