To The Victor Go The Spoils? Life of Pi Wins Top Honor At The Oscars But Their VFX Team Is Left In The Dust
After climbing to the podium to claim his Oscar and reflect on making the groundbreaking visuals in Life of Pi, Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer turned serious. Speaking over the ironically ominous theme from Jaws, he said, “…Sadly Rhythm and Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now and I urge you all to remember…”
Westenhofer’s mic was cut. Nicole Kidman pouted. The orchestra moved on to the theme from Bonanza.
What Westenhofer didn’t get to say is that despite their win, the company responsible for Pi’s stunning CGI effects filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month.
Outside the Dolby theater, 400+ effects professionals picketed as a part of the “I Want a Piece of the Pi” demonstration. Twitter’s #vfxprotest hashtag lit up with indignant tweets. Likes multiplied on the VFX Solidarity facebook page. Their collective message as summarized by Scott Ross, founder of Digital Domain (the company that brought you the effects for Titanic and the Tupac Coachella hologram among other feats):
“[Visual Effects ] artists create incredible images that translates into huge box office [hits]. BUT, [Visual Effects] companies are going out of business.”
Photos Courtesy of vfxunite
Rhythm and Hues’ financial woes are not unique to the company, but rather indicative of changes within the effects industry as the whole. Digital Domain closed its Florida facility in September of 2012, while Pixomondo closed its Detriot and London offices late this February. Reddit has been compiling as list of related hardships.
Put at length, Ross wrote about the multi-faceted problem on his blog:
Visual Effects Workers face growing problems around benefits, overtime pay, relocation and workload to name but a few. Visual Effects Facilities, given their inability to maintain reasonable profit margins are scrambling to do what they can to stay in business. Those efforts include opening up facilities in low cost markets, chasing the tax incentive and subsidies offered by various governments and cutting labor costs wherever they legally and, at times, illegally can. Much of this desperate maneuvering by the VFX facilities have further exacerbated issues facing VFX workers. Yet 18 of the top 20 box office mega hits are laden with VFX. Something here seems unfair and in need of attention.
Indeed, Life of Pi’s profits are nothing to sneeze at. According to the New York Times it has grossed more than $583 million at the box office. The film’s multiple Oscar wins will only help those numbers climb. Director Ang Lee commented, “I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money.”
I just want to point out that while, yes R&D can be expensive and yes it takes a lot of technology and computing power to create films like yours, it is not computer chips and hard drives that are costing you so very much money. It is the artists that are helping you create your film. So when you say “I would like it to be cheaper,” as an artist I take that personally. It took hundreds of hours from skilled artists and hard-working coordinators and producers to craft the environments and performances in Life of Pi. Not to mention the engineers that wrote all of that proprietary code and build the [Rhythm and Hues] pipeline.
One specific point increasingly brought up online revolves around globalization and state subsidies. Simply put, governments can offer a film tax incentives to produce work in their country, which lowers the sticker price of VFX work made in that country. To compete and stay afloat, companies that don’t benefit from government subsidies have to continually slash their costs. And unlike many other sub-industries within film, like editing, there’s no formal visual effects union to, as one artist wrote, “prevent VFX houses from underbidding each other to death.”
According to Wired, “if at least 25 percent of a film’s production costs are spent in the UK, then that film qualifies for a tax credit.” The credit has a significant effect. The aforementioned article quotes Sir William Sargent of Framestore saying “between 50 to 75 percent fewer films would come to the UK for visual effects work if that tax credit were not there.”
The anonymous blogger who authors vfxsoldier.com, a major hub for industry rally cries, calls the current global structure “a race to the bottom.” Late in 2012, VFX Soldier raised over $16k on indiegogo to hire legal counsel to formally challenge production subsidies as a violation of international trade agreements.
Moving forward, many questions loom large: Will Hollywood hold on to its reputation as the “dream factory”? Will the kind of visual innovation seen in Life of Pi continue to evolve as rapidly as it has in the recent past? In addition to changing the lives of the VFX visuals artists involved, how might the precarious structure of the VFX industry influence the kinds of films made in the future?
Perhaps, before he was cut off on stage, Westenhofer might have warned against the dangers of ignoring a growing problem. Because unlike movies, not everything can be fixed in post.
Photo Courtesy of @tvaziri