December 12, 2019

'Lion King' VFX Company Has Closed - Here's Why

The Lion King's realistic CG effects were the talk of the town, helping turn the movie into a billion-dollar hit for Disney. So why is the company behind them going out of business? 

The Lion King remake was an incredibly lucrative venture for Disney in the summer of 2019. It grossed nearly $1.7 billion -- which is a massive chunk of change. 

But the new Disney movie didn't make everyone happy. We've covered the original writers' grievances with how they get no credit on the story, but now some new victims have stepped forward. 

It turns out the VFX company behind the movie's photo-realistic visual effects has shut down its studio in Vancouver, Canada effective immediately. 

The way traditional VFX places normally work is they have a few full-time employees and then a ton of freelancers that help them from gig to gig. This allows the companies to keep costs down in between big studio projects, and employ lots of people to work when they come in. 

When studios need a gig done, they want it to be done fast, so they send multiple vendors scenes and have them working on them simultaneously. Since this space is so competitive, VFX houses usually bid low in order to make sure they get the gig. That causes them to work to break even, instead of making a profit. And since there's no VFX artist union, it drives wages down as well.

This leads to a lot of overtime and extra expenses that most VFX houses cannot afford.

The company that worked on Lion King, a VFX shop named MPC, was forced to shut down when they paid way more than they charged to work on Lion King. That movie came with thousands of shots that had to be digitally created and rendered. 

This work caused 17-plus hour days and around the clock supervision. It ran up bills that were unforeseen by MPC. 

This morning, MPC told its employees it was closing their doors. A message from an ex-MPC Vancouver employee has been posted on Reddit. 

We are not able to verify its authenticity, but this is what the message said:

"We’ve all put in extreme hours wrapping two infamous projects in the last couple of months. We’ve done multiple weeks without a day off, regular 17+ hour shifts to the point that most of us are seriously sleep deprived and are suffering still. We’ve worked really fucking hard to get this work out the door for MPC, and I’m genuinely ashamed that they are happier prioritising their profit margins and tax incentives over the insane talent and commitment of hundreds of dedicated VFX artists in Vancouver. I honestly feel insulted, like I’ve given MPC my all and in return they gave me the finger. Good luck to all the other insanely talented artists that MPC currently employs in other locations, because the second another location becomes more ‘attractive’, you could be next on the chopping block."

This is obviously a disturbing account of what happens behind the scenes on these kinds of projects. 

We know there are late hours, but this borders on abuse and dangerous behavior. With studios making billions of dollars, there has to be a better way.

Whether it's VFX houses demanding to be part of the profit-sharing in each release, or just having a union set a rate with overtime, changes to the current business model are necessary. To the benefit of both the VFX companies and the studios that employ them. 

Leave your ideas or experiences in the comments.       

Your Comment

13 Comments

The system is broken and has been since I've been an adult. When your whole industry is run by soulless fucks who choose "partners" based on how much they're willing to abuse themselves and their freelancers, we need a revolution. Same deal in advertising. But that's another column.

December 12, 2019 at 7:01PM

7
Reply
avatar
Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.

The system needs repairs. And with Barr trying to end the Paramount Decree (hope this never happens), it is trying to be regressed. It's officially close to ruin.
But the world is changing. It's time for a filmmaking/storytelling revolution on the level of New Hollywood in the late-'60s, 1970's, and early-1980's... but in different mediums, especially film, stories with all sorts of meanings, and in all sorts of genres.
Plus, increased support for freelancers, whether they're in any trade union like the WGA or not, including visual effects artists and especially writers.

December 13, 2019 at 4:42AM, Edited December 13, 4:43AM

0
Reply
Jesse J. Tripp
Screenwriter
13

Unionize

December 12, 2019 at 10:18PM

0
Reply

Badly researched / copy pasted article. Mpc isn't going under, they closed their Vancouver location. Also its not because of a single film like The Lion King. NoFilmSchool really dropped the ball on this "article", even the cited article on CartoonBrew has better info.

December 13, 2019 at 12:46AM

0
Reply
avatar
Philip Drobar
Video Editor
252

This is one of the crimes that Iger and Horn have committed against Disney and the film industry. Such disgusting behavior to a VFX house, forcing that company's employees to go WITHOUT SLEEP!

December 13, 2019 at 2:39AM, Edited December 13, 2:39AM

0
Reply
Jesse J. Tripp
Screenwriter
13

Superhero movies and those "live" Disney new versions use too much CGI. This tendency is going to push for lower prices and fast deadlines. Besides the idea that computers can do anything you imagine is true; at the cost of your TIME. Seems unionising is a possible solution. Expect VFX studios soon in India and China...

December 13, 2019 at 4:36AM, Edited December 13, 4:36AM

0
Reply
avatar
Javier Diez
Director/Writer
143

Just wanted to mention that the “expensive” 17 hour days that artists worked actually saved MPC money.
The Lion King was done in their London studio, which does not pay artists for overtime work.
When people work extra hours they are doing the company a favour, and if MPC still cannot get the project done in time despite essentially paying people half their actual wage, then that is just a case of terrible negotiation and planning with the client.

December 13, 2019 at 12:20PM

0
Reply
Dingus
74

Not mentioned in the article: they moved offices to Montreal which is a cheaper place to do business (better tax incentives) and retain talent (cost of living is out of control). .

for a better read look here:
https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/moving-picture-company-closes-v...

December 13, 2019 at 1:32PM

0
Reply
Andrew Kierans
Digital Cinema Technician
262

Nothing new. I was in the VFX world for a while and moved over to editorial because VFX was fucked. Take a look at the documentary "Life After Pi", same story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lcB9u-9mVE

December 13, 2019 at 6:43PM

0
Reply
Joe Hughes
Editor / VFX
173

The whole editing industry hiring process will get worse when producers can hire low wage editors and creative talent overseas using the edge computing technology. Software like Blackbird and Frame.IO will provide the tools.

December 13, 2019 at 10:17PM

0
Reply

I definitely think a union would help a lot cause this happens far to often, it's CRAZY to think that they shut down and the filmmakers spent all their time developing this, why aren't filmmakers supporting these VFX houses!

December 16, 2019 at 11:56AM

0
Reply
James Blanco
Filmmaker
87

This has been a major problem for YEARS, and these guys are sadly just one of many that have produced incredible (and extremely profitable: for the movie!) and then gone under. The big studios hardly notice and pretty obviously like it this way. VFX houses need to become linked to the screen-actors guild or or something and start demanding honest pay for honest work.

December 20, 2019 at 11:04AM

3
Reply
avatar
Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
378

Indeed its a bad cultural 'work ethic' that persists - that started back in the early days of CGI when small self-owned outfits were prepared to put in the hours and then some, for the benefit of the company. For these 'independents' it was a reputation building process to gain enough heft to even be considered for taking on any farmed-out work from the 'in-house' facilities like Lucas' ILM/Pixar, Cameron's Digital Domain etc. A lot of water under the bridge since those early pioneering days - but unfortunately the bad 'work ethic' all too conveniently transferred to the 'corporate freelance' model. And once the 'benefits' of this way of hiring around a core of 'permanent' staff members - from the growing freelance market - was adopted it became the standard this last 20 years. Since then many a VFX crew member had to become nomadic shifting from jig to jig across the world. Some moved from movies and commercials production, onto games production and some the other way too down the years. CGI feature VFX started as a boutique business but became a heavily commoditised business. As long as there's a steady supply of graduate students from the various Polytechnics and Art schools eager to practice their craft - then the circus will continue, as no-one stays around long enough to build a Union. Some of us tried, back at the time of the Life of Pi lay-off scandal - but to no avail, as money and impetus ran out.

December 20, 2019 at 7:13PM, Edited December 20, 7:17PM

0
Reply
Lamplighter
Supervising Technical Director
8