Occupy Visual Effects

The VFX industry is in trouble, and now they're angry. 

Last night Life of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. The timing of that win is ironic, as Rhythm and Hues, the FX house that created many of the stunning visuals in the film, had declared bankruptcy just days before. As Rhythm and Hues' Bill Westenhoffer began to talk about the difficulties facing FX houses these days, the Oscar orchestra began playing him off the stage. It's possible that the directors just wanted to move the show along, but other below the line winners got more time. Later, Ang Lee didn't even thank the FX artists who brought his film to life, leading to an angry open letter from a compositer working at Zoic Studios.

Meanwhile, a few hundred VFX artists protested outside the Oscars, essentially invisible to the audience at home. Their beef: studios are outsourcing VFX jobs to countries with impossible-to-sustain subsidies, places where the studio (not the FX house, with whom the studio contracts, but the studio itself) gets back $60 for every $100 spent on salary. This has led to an economic situation where FX houses are underbidding each other to stay competitive with companies in other countries. Rhythm and Hues is a major success in the world of VFX, but it still hit the skids. 

There's a sense among VFX artists that they don't get respect. They're not technicians, they'll tell you. They're real artists, not just pixel-pushers. Of course that doesn't make much of a difference in Hollywood; as Drew McWeeny writes, the studios just got done screwing screenwriters, so why should VFX artists expect any different?

I don't usually write about business because it's simply not my strong point. I feel qualified to write about the art of the movies, but the business of the movies.... well, even if I had a head for that stuff, few industries obfuscate their true numbers the way Hollywood does. This feels like something worth talking about, though; I've given you the facts above, and now this is the part where my not-that-qualified opinion comes into play.

It seems to me that the VFX community has no choice but to unionize. They probably should have done so years ago. Collective bargaining is the greatest tool available to workers, and they should avail themselves of it. They should stand together in solidarity and demand the respect and the pay they deserve. Union has become a dirty word in this increasingly corporatized world, but unions have won incredible victories for workers - everything from weekends off to better pay to ending child labor. 

But we're certainly in a post-union era, so I don't know if that will happen. If not, the future seems fairly clear: the false economy of subsidized overseas VFX houses cannot last, and neither can the false economy of stateside FX houses underbidding in an effort to get jobs. There will be a continued contraction, and many people will lose their jobs. They might even be the lucky ones, as horror stories about unpaid overtime and unbearable hours are the norm in the FX industry. 

I stand behind all workers and their right to be treated fairly and paid properly. I would like to see the VFX industry strike a blow for working creatives, the kind of blow that the WGA was unable to land on their latest walkout. 

At the same time I wonder if part of the answer isn't pulling back from the CGI precipice. There's a tumblr called "Before VFX," which aims to show how much work VFX artists do on blockbuster films. That amount might be 'too much.' Looking at all that green screen makes me kind of sad, to be honest. I'm old fashioned... I like sets. There was a time when movies were made without tons of tweaking in post, and getting back to some of that old-fashioned craftsmanship wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. It might also help lift some of the impossible demands facing the industry.

This is really a pivotal moment in movie history. On the one hand our movies are devolving into a mess of CGI creations. On the other hand the men and women who work so hard to make those creations are being utterly shafted. Both of these things cannot continue - one or the other must give. I think you can be sick of excessive VFX and still want VFX artists to be treated fairly. 

You may see people on Facebook or Twitter changing their avatar to a solid green field - that's to show solidarity with FX workers. A little bit of support goes a long way.