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VFX Artist Protest Hollywood


away for a while
May 20, 2007
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I'm genuinely surprised this topic hasn't been brought up yet. VFX companies are struggling to survive, many workers are unhappy with how the system currently is despite films like Life of Pi winning Oscars. For people unaware Rhythm & Hues the company behind those Oscar winning effects filed for bankruptcy recently having to let go over 200 employees, and yet Ang Lee was quoted as saying ''I would like it to be cheaper.'' and if you saw last nights Oscars you would have seen the FX winners being cut off before he could mention the plight of the industry as well as the 500 VFX workers protesting outside the Oscars.

These people are the lifeblood for every major film we get every year, without these artists Robert Downey Jr doesn't become Iron Man, King Kong doesn't scale the Empire State building, and the world of Pandora doesn't exist. These people are spending hundreds of hours and countless overtime to make Hollywood's film look good, to bring any character you can think of come to life, to make any world you want a reality, and yet for all the fantastic work they do they are getting screwed over, in some cases people aren't even getting paid. Right now VFX artists are starting to take a stand against the system they are currently working under and I for one applaud them for it. I for one was unaware of what the circumstances were for a visual FX artist when it came to delivering work for films, in fact I'll say most of us didn't. I think members on this board need to show their support for the VFX artist for without them every franchise we love can't exist. Many supporters on Twitter and Facebook are changing their profile images to a blank green image representing what Hollywood would be with these artists, coz it's not the computers doing the work, it's the manual labour.

This fantastic ariticle from Hit Fix is a good read about it.

The visual effects community sees red in the wake of Oscar protest and on-air snub

Dear Hollywood,

You schooled us pretty hard the last time there was a WGAw strike. You made a pretty convincing case for a Hollywood without writers, and while we'll never admit it to you as a group, you broke us. You really did. And it has ruined the industry that I love in a million small ways that you're not even going to notice for a decade or so, and when you do, it may well be too late. You fought us over money and your right to more of it, and you hurt us enough to make us take a deal that we knew in our hearts was not right.

If you try to do the same thing to the VFX industry, you are going to lose.

I'm not telling you this because I want you to win. I just don't think you realize that this is not the same situation as when the writers decided to strike. You are correct. You can indeed lowball us and force us to do free rewrite after free rewrite and you can screw us on points and offer us insulting archaic math problems instead of real profit participation and we'll smile and ask for more. But if you start putting FX houses out of business and trying to lowball that side of the business, you may be crippling yourself.

After all, when you see pretty much any trailer for any tentpole film at this point, the shots you're going to use to sell that movie will, more often than not, contain some degree of visual effects work. Sometimes, the visual effects are the entire thing you're selling, promising a wild ride to a new world. When you look at your highest grossing films each year, ask yourself what those movies would be if you couldn't offer ticket-buyers more and more marvelous visions each year.

I'm not even going to talk about quality. The systemic abuse of writers proves that is not what drives the decisions in town. Instead, money talks, so let's talk money. "Avatar," the #1 grossing film of all time… picture that without visual effects. Or picture it done on a rushed schedule with no money to speak of. "Titanic." Same thing. "The Avengers." "The Phantom Menace." "Star Wars." Nolan's "Dark Knight" movies. "Shrek 2." "E.T." "Pirates 2." That's your top ten right now in terms of all time domestic box-office. Every one of those films was the cutting edge when it was made. Every one of those films depended in large part on those visual effects being the best they could be at the time the films were released.

Honestly, the time to deal fairly with independent FX houses seems to have passed. With Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and ILM with it, they've brought the two largest talent pools of state-of-the-art computer animation under one roof. Pixar and ILM aren't just part of the big leagues… they are the big leagues. And now they are all part of one brand, and I can guarantee when ILM is picking who works on what movies, the A-team, the absolute cream of the crop, will always be working on Disney projects first. That's great news for Marvel Studios. It's great news for anyone making a Disney film.

I think the 21st century is going to belong to companies that follow a model along the lines of what Hydraulx is doing. You don't have to like "Skyline" to admire what they're up to, or to see how canny it is as a template for how to make movies in this modern economy. They don't have an FX department… they are an FX company that also has a creative branch. They are developing material in-house, and they own their own cameras, their own post-production facility… they can go start to finish on whatever they want, and all they need is a few hits to make this really start to pay off. They can make movies for 1/10th of the budget of something and make it look the same. In many cases, passion on these smaller projects pushes people to work even harder than they do for the giant impersonal blockbuster stuff. "District 9" was a great example of a movie that felt like it was made by people with something to prove working outside the system.

I didn't watch the Oscars yesterday, but enough people were instantly outraged by the way the orchestra played off Bill Westenhofer, who won for "Life Of Pi," a movie that was impossible to make without the active participation of a team of FX artists working at the absolute peak of their craft. It's particularly galling that the FX guy, speaking about a protest that was happening outside that directly addresses the financial realities that are starting to damage the FX community in a way they may not be able to fully recover from, was cut short at a ceremony where they actually had a computer-animated character give away an award on live television. Ted was so successful an effect last night that my mother called me after the awards to ask me how they fit the midget into the suit. And without a great, dedicated FX team, that moment doesn't happen.

I don't think Hollywood is nearly scared enough right now. I don't think they're truly thinking about what could happen if they make it financially impossible for innovation and artistry to thrive in the FX community. Rhythm & Hues may have won an Academy Award last night, but they are also facing bankruptcy. I remember the year they won for "Babe." It was their first Oscar, and I was at the studio for their big giant Oscar party with a friend who worked there, and the jubilation was amazing. They were so proud of what they'd done, so proud of being a small independent house that turned out work that made magic for audiences all around the world, in a film that was beloved. Last night, I'm wondering if any of that same joy was part of the experience for them. Yes, they have another trophy, another round of kudos on doing remarkable things, but they may not have a future as a company. How does that even make sense?

It's not like animators or FX houses are wasteful. They're not trying to soak the studios for the sake of luxurious digs and casual decadence. This morning, a very strongly worded open letter appeared in several forums and was reprinted on VFX Soldier, and much of the indignation in the letter stemmed from a comment Ang Lee made about the problems with Rhythm & Hues. Specifically, he said, "I would like it to be cheaper."

Oh, boy.

When companies are already playing things close on their profit margins, they can't really keep shaving things closer. Ultimately, what you're paying for when you pay for a VFX budget, is the manpower you throw at your movie. And on these giant films, with release dates set in stone before film has even rolled, the only way to get these films across the finish line is to throw more and more people at them. How many times in the last ten years has a blockbuster been forced to hire more VFX artists during the last six to ten months of production? How many times have they worked those extra bodies 10 or 12 or 14 hours a day? How can you demand that things get cheaper in an environment like this?

Over the course of the weekend, I've been in touch with people working here in the US and at some of the overseas houses as well, and by and large, I think most of the people working in VFX have reached a similar place, emotionally speaking. I think they love what they do, and there is such pride I hear in the things that are accomplished all the time right now. There are miracles being created for the movies, and perhaps they've gotten so good at what they do that audiences take these things as commonplace, but they shouldn't. Look at how often entire characters are created by teams of people at this point. Gollum is not just digital information on a hard drive, cold 1s and 0s that somehow suggest life. Thanks to the people who created him, Gollum has a soul. Look in his eyes in every scene he plays in "The Hobbit" or "Lord Of The Rings," and there is someone in there. Look at Richard Parker as he tries to figure out how to get his footing on the tarp on the lifeboat, and pay attention to all the tiny behaviors that make the difference between a cartoon and something that appears to be living and breathing. These people do what they do because they want to be part of that miracle, they want to help create these moments and images of wonder. They believe that VFX are one of the key parts of what makes moviegoing so magical.

And many of them are considering quitting the business.

Unsurprisingly, many people are scared to speak up, scared they'll lose their job where they're drawing a regular check or scared that they won't be hired the next time a house is staffing up. They are fed up and they want a better system and they have no idea how to go about making that happen.

One comment from an overseas friend who moved overseas specifically to find work: "No matter how many deadlines we meet, they keep moving the dates. They love to set it up so we look like we can't deliver or so we're apologizing or so we're the ones they're waiting for, but the truth is that we've still delivered on everything we've ever done. But there will be a breaking point, and somebody's big movie is going to get burnt to the ground in the process."

A friend closer to home was outraged today by the Oscar moment and by what he sees as a dangerous schism in the protest outside: "I've already heard people say that we should eliminate any and all talk of profit participation from our wish lists, because if we insist on getting points, the studios will just stop negotiating and we'll all be out of work. Yeah, good luck with 'The Avengers 2,' *******s. Hope you're okay with a dude in green body paint again because without us, you don't have a Hulk. Hell, without us, Iron Man doesn't even have his damn pants on."

We know from the historical model that Hollywood hates sharing their money with anyone. They bemoan the death of home video right now as the newest reason they couldn't possibly hope to cut anyone else in on even the smallest piece of the pie, but that's just one more excuse. There are always excuses. There is always a sense that they have to defend what is theirs. But you have to consider who it is who is bringing audiences in and getting them to part with that ticket money. Right now, you're like NASA trying to convince yourselves that you don't really need the people who build the rockets anymore. They're rockets, right? How hard can it be? We'll just build them overseas, right?

I'm not sitting in one of those rockets, and frankly, I can't imagine the blockbuster landscape if you really do succeed in shuttering companies like Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues. We need more Animal Logics and WETAs. We need more companies like Hydraulx. Frankly, I would love it if the studios pushed this issue and it blew up in their faces. It's time for something to shake up the status quo again, and this is a bigger deal than Hollywood acknowledges, making me think they may not even fully see the writing on the wall.

When you've got someone like Randall Cook, Oscar-winning FX artist on all three "Lord Of The Rings" movies, furiously ranting on Facebook the night of the Oscars, literally writing "**** the Academy," something is wrong. Sure, the Oscars plays people off all the time, but considering how hard the Academy worked to render the protest outside invisible on any official broadcasts, it came across as a particularly nasty choice to not even let Westenhofer finish. Ill-timed doesn't even cover it. Now I'm seeing FX guys from all over the world starting to change their Twitter and Facebook avatars to a solid green box, a reference to what you'll have if you don't have the FX artists anymore.

I don't know what the future of Hollywood looks like. But I do know that the studios are as vulnerable right now as they ever have been, and taking a hardline stance against an entire section of the business that is so intimately involved in doing the things that are more financially important to you seems like a very, very bad decision.

Maybe you feel like testing my theory. Maybe you think you can win this one. Maybe you think you can bully enough animators and FX artists that you can just freeze out the ones who won't fall into line.

And maybe you're wrong. Go ahead, Hollywood. Pick this fight. Make it worse. I have a feeling anonymous sources won't stay anonymous much longer and that guys on the level of Cook are just getting warmed up.

Adapt or change. Embrace your creative partners. Make it fair for everyone, and let's get back to the business of blowing audience's minds.
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I also feel bad for those VFX artists and workers, and Hollywood hasn't done anything to acknowledge or compensate those people who made it possible for the industry to generate billions on a yearly basis. It's a sad reality, and I hope eventually the Hollywood community will recognize their own mistake and do something about it.
i am guessing it is only the less known ones i am sure ilm,weta,sony image works are fine
i am guessing it is only the less known ones i am sure ilm,weta,sony image works are fine

Yeah but there is a huge amount of work being done at the smaller effects houses, even on films where WETA and ILM are involved.
I have a friend who is in practical effects for these major blockbuster movies who this whole thing is rubbing the wrong way. So it's more complicated than any of us know. Something more is at play here than this black and white view.
I don't exactly understand the issue here. It's apparent that The Oscars interrupted what was about to become a soapbox moment by Bill Westenhofer about the state of the industry, and a particular company, and in my mind, that's a type of demonstration that is completely inappropriate for a ceremony like The Oscars.

Obviously, Rhythm and Hues was unable to compete with some of the other effects studios, but what's the larger issue here? Because effects artists are being kind of vague about what's going on, much like writers were somewhat before the writer's strike.

Because if it's "Not everyone gets equal recognition and opportunities in Hollywood", that's kind of a tired story.

I don't think anyone doubts that special effects are important to film. And effects artists acting like no one in the business thinks that is important is kind of silly.
I have a friend who is in practical effects for these major blockbuster movies who this whole thing is rubbing the wrong way. So it's more complicated than any of us know. Something more is at play here than this black and white view.
have any info from him?
OMG...it was right there and we didn't even see it. Nobody saw it and it was right there!

Did you notice that Sam Jack at the Oscars completely skipped over dialog, honoring the VFX artists, which prompted fellow Avengers Ruffalo and Downey to correct Jackson. Then Jackson was overly abrasive about it.

Watch the clip at 3:18

What a *****e:

Seriously, I never noticed how rude Jackson was. I just don't know IF it was the producers who only told Jackson to hurry along, or what, because I don't see the correlation between his motivations for this 'banter and the VFX crew. I thought it was just awkward improv at first..but I don't think Sam has an agenda but he handled it poorly and p*ssed off RDJ.
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i think this was part of the act.
did you watch it though? I really think Jackson was told by the producers to move it along but he handled it oddly.
it would be awesome if the crumbling of the VFX system resulted in a resurgence of SFX...but unfortunately i dont think thats the case.
i agree with you Motown on some examples. with sets. i would like bigger sets and not greenscreen 1 meter away from an actors face.

but where would you use practical effects for fantasy characters or animals?
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have any info from him?

None that I can easily understand, so I can't really summarize it. But it's bringing about a practical effects team versus visual effects team sort of thing somehow. I should say he's been involved with making the big practical effects type of effects for films, including superhero films and so on. It just seems really divided. Like while it's a thing and there's sympathy for those who are getting laid off, there's also a sense of people taking this beyond what it actually is. Part of it is how some people are acting as though visual effects make or break a film or are the key importance while ignoring all of the other work and practical work being done which is rubbing the practical guys the wrong way.

For background information people here might not know which I know from my own experience (with top studio walls) -- Hollywood businesses like EVERY business is still suffering because of the economy. So part of it is probably because of that as well and not some "big statement" against visual effects. Companies are letting go of big time producers they've had contract with for years. Everyone everywhere is getting laid off as well. From my view, I think studio heads just see this as the easiest and best way to go. Hollywood isn't thriving as some people seem to think, it's suffering as well. Shooting abroad is done because of saving money in this economy, for example, not just because they want to. I've seen A LOT of things driven by surviving today's economy and as said -- this was at a BIG company you wouldn't expect to be having problems.

Fantasy characters -- we've had that before VFX came about, Star Wars comes to mind. Animals, you've got me.
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Unless you're one of the actors, a director and at the most maybe a screenwriter of the thing, the average joe doesn't give a ****.
True. But most of our jobs, I'm a writer, is to be as invisible as possible. So invisibility is actually the mission. People shouldn't really notice. The best compliment you can give an effects guy is you can't tell what is real and what is made up. Basically, I don't think it's that people don't notice- it's the whole job thing- but I think the one thing that people in the industry are having trouble with is those who are acting like they only have it bad while it's rocky across the board and for everyone right now.
Is it possible they cut the guy off because he was running long?
Is it possible they cut the guy off because he was running long?

That's probably it. And most likely it. I've never seen anyone looked down upon in Hollywood, yet have always seen the family atmosphere. But it is something that can be used as ammunition in it. When, as said, everyone including HUGE producers are being consequently "fired" due to this economy. As said, with major lay offs- it's the same reason every company has lay offs.
i agree with you Motown on some examples. with sets. i would like bigger sets and not greenscreen 1 meter away from an actors face.

but where would you use practical effects for fantasy characters or animals?

You act as if the entirety of Rick Baker's career doesn't exist.
Some goofiness from the web.

I think this is potentially a case of angry effects artists making more of this than it is.

Companies go out of business, and people get laid off all the time. Sometimes it happens because companies are tightening up their belts. It doesn't mean there's a vendetta in any industry against a certain type of job.
You act as if the entirety of Rick Baker's career doesn't exist.
i meant characters and animals that were used in close ups with dialoge and emotions. with Baker you needed a big compromise. i love all those effects but it had limitations.
I think this is potentially a case of angry effects artists making more of this than it is.

Companies go out of business, and people get laid off all the time. Sometimes it happens because companies are tightening up their belts. It doesn't mean there's a vendetta in any industry against a certain type of job.

I somehow doubt it. We're talking hundreds of unpaid man hours to deliver for Hollywood studios with ridiculous deadlines in place. Lets be honest, how many of us here have really given a second thought about the FX artists?
How many people who aren't film buffs think about the writers? The directors? Hell, even the actors? They just want to be entertained. You can also apply that to any career outside of Hollywood.

I don't know the situation with the effects artists, because even though they are protesting, they're being kind of vague about what the actual issues are. And until I see evidence that they're legitimately being treated in an unfair or downright illegal manner, I can't bring myself to see their plight.
You'd be surprised how many old people don't know what a green screen is.

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