VFX is in trouble. What do we do about it?
Brutal working hours, unreasonable deadlines, and rampant burnout are hitting VFX houses hard and quickly becoming a problem that studios and fans alike are now unable to ignore.
In a new YouTube video, Andrew Saladino describes the problematic working conditions facing visual effects (VFX) houses today and how it's impacting not just the lives of individual artists, but the timing and quality of their work as well. Saladino quotes numerous VFX supervisors who point to problems the VFX companies themselves have been facing for more than a decade.
Dig in below.
Their biggest example is Rhythm & Hues, a VFX company that won an Oscar for its work on Life of Pi and then promptly declared bankruptcy due to the cost overruns they incurred on that very project. When the director Ang Lee and the studio decided to scrap and redo many of the visual effects more than halfway through the process, Rhythm & Hues had to eat the costs incurred by that change instead of the studio. They faced a cash crunch and, unable to get out of the downward spiral, filed for Chapter 11.
As studio mandates shift ever more quickly, and massive, expensive reshoots become the rule rather than the exception, the weight of these changes tends to fall on the below-the-line VFX artists, who suddenly have way more work with way less time. Saladino explains how artists are getting screwed by executives, creatives, and studios who have no idea how the process actually works.
There is even an industry term for it when clients insist on endless minute changes—Pixel Fucked. This is exemplified by director Tom Hooper and his infamous film Cats, who apparently insisted that every scene he reviewed be fully finished and rendered, rather than the usual rough approximations. This means that those artists were forced to put in hundreds of unnecessary hours on work that was being used merely as an internal proof of concept and would be, by necessity, changed over and over again.
Saladino also points out that while there has been a massive expansion in the number of VFX houses all over the world, many of them with their own specialties, that proliferation has also made the industry much more fractured.
It can create communication and workflow issues for the final film and makes it much more likely that a director will have no emotional or physical connection with the VFX studios and artists who are working so hard on their vision. It becomes easier and easier to see the VFX work as disposable. And, I would argue, that lack of care, connection, and understanding on the part of the director come across on screen as well. We as the audience feel it too.
As an example of this fragmentation, Saladino mentions that The Phantom Menace had only Industrial Light and Magic as their sole VFX house, while Rise of Skywalker had a dozen different houses all over the world. It’s now not unusual for Marvel movies to have upwards of 25 different VFX houses working on any one film. And that can cause additional problems where the tone of various scenes and effects can shift.
This can be seen in the oddly weightless and cartoony final fight in Black Panther, which differs greatly from the other VFX throughout the film, in large part because it was handled by a new effects house that wasn’t part of the process for the rest of the film.
What can we do?
So, what can be done about it? One of the main suggestions (other than for studios to stop being so fickle) is profit participation so that, in success, VFX houses and the artists who work there can share in that success. This money could keep them from becoming cautionary tales like Rhythm & Hues and make them more resilient to the extremely tight margins and timelines that now seem to be the norm.
To highlight this, Saladino uses portions of an interview Kim Masters did with veteran VFX Supervisors Craig Barron and Jeff Okun, where Okun points out that, aside from Keanu Reeves giving the VFX artists a big bonus out of his own paycheck on The Matrix, no VFX companies see a dime of extra money, regardless of how much their work contributes to the success of a blockbuster.
Perhaps the answer is just to always hire Keanu.
(Fun fact, VFX supervisor Jeff Okun was paid homage by Brent Spiner in Independence Day in the role of Dr. Brackish Okun. There’s uh, a slight resemblance.)
Another possibility, according to Saladino, is unionization. He posits that the VFX industry finds itself in the same exploited position that many other artists, such as actors, writers, directors, and crew have found themselves in over the years and which led to the creation of their respective unions.
But it’s not only the artists who suffer under these constraints. These time crunches have reverberations throughout the industry, causing backups, bottlenecks, and delays on many new VFX-heavy films and shows. There literally aren’t enough artists to complete all the work in the given timeframe.
Anyone online in the last few months has heard the complaints about the She-Hulk VFX work which, according to the creators, came not from a lack of talent, but a lack of time. There were constant changes close to delivery and they simply didn’t have enough time to get it right.
This can also cause a literal inability to fully finish effects on time. One of the biggest recent examples of this is Warner Bros/DC’s upcoming slate. In August it was announced that almost all of that slate had been pushed back. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is delayed over eight months from March 2023 to December 2023 and many others have followed suit, largely because of VFX bottlenecks.
While nothing concrete is being done yet to solve the problem, the hope is that as artists become more vocal and the work itself begins to suffer, there will be more and more support for VFX artists and greater efforts to find a real, sustainable solution rather than, as they say, merely fixing it in post.
Let us know what you think in the comments.