A still from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, one of Hollywood’s most effects-heavy recent releases.
At Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony, as Bill Westenhofer and the Life of Pi effects team took to the stage to accept their award, visual effects artists across Hollywood moved to the edge of their seats. It was a chance for a major figure in their field to take a stand against what VFX specialists see as years of increasingly poor treatment.
But Westenhofer’s potential public stand ended before it began, the night quickly devolving into what the VFX community saw as yet another series of insults. The result is a full-blown revolt with possibly devastating consequences for major studios — or so says the anonymous blogger whose site, VFX Soldier, has been at the foment’s center.
A little background: in recent years Hollywood’s visual effects industry has been crippled by a combination of competition subsidized by foreign governments, tighter production deadlines, and cost-cutting in Hollywood, which has led to thousands of jobs lost in the industry and, in the past six months, the bankruptcies of two of the four major effect production houses. As members of one of the only non-unionized trades in show business, effects artists have watched in despair as their work has evaporated. So when Westenhover — whose company Rhythm and Hues was the latest to announce it was shutting its doors — rose to accept his award, it seemed like the perfect time for a public statement about the struggles of VFX pros.
Here’s what happened instead: as soon as Westenhofer got done thanking his family and began to discuss Rhythm and Hues’ plight, the orchestra drowned him out with the Jaws theme. A grinning Seth MacFarlane quickly appeared to point the team offstage. When Ang Lee, the director of the effect-heavy film, rose to accept his own Best Directing prize, he neglected to thank the VFX team from his own movie. And in comments after the show, the director said he wished that visual effects could be “cheaper.”
The treatment couldn’t have gone over worse with VFX artists if they were colonists who’d learned about a new British tea tax. Within hours, members of the trade long accustomed to taking their lumps in silent, nerd solitude were in the streets protesting. Their online display of solidarity — asking supporters to turn their Facebook and Twitter photos green to represent the blank background screen filmgoers would see without their work — went viral across Hollywood.
But far more disruption may be yet to come from the people who hold the fates of Hollywood’s biggest films in their hands. “There is so much frustration because the studios haven’t responded,” said the writer behind the blog VFX Soldier, which for three years has served as one of the principle organizing points in the trade. The writer, a VFX artist with over ten years experience in the industry, spoke to BuzzFeed by phone on the condition that his identity not be revealed. He continued: “People are saying, ‘if you don’t listen your film isn’t going to get finished.’ If this keeps occurring you’re going to see a situation where a film doesn’t get done, where people walk out on a production. They feel that’s the only way to get the industry’s attention.”
And all this comes at a time when the industry is particularly vulnerable, with the majority of this summer’s effects-centric blockbusters currently in post-production; as they scramble to make their premiere dates, any work stoppage or even slowdown could be deadly.
Conversations with others in the field — who also spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they don’t want to jeopardize their chances at future work — confirmed that the anger is boiling over. One effects worker with a decade of experience said that walkouts, which had only been previously discussed in the abstract, are being seriously considered. Another, who has been unemployed for a year and a half, said “word on the effects street” goes beyond mere walkout talk into discussion of actual sabotage. “People talk,” he said, “about us committing a cyberattack, but we don’t need to make a cyberattack, we already hold the keys to the castle. The fate of the year’s biggest films is in our hands.” The buzz among his colleagues, he says, points toward March 14th as a possible date for action, 3/14 being the beginning of the number pi, as in Life of Pi.
(Requests to the studios for comment on how seriously they are taking these threats had not been returned by press time. This story will be updated with such statements as we receive them.)
Organizing buttons made by a fan of the VFX Soldier site and passed out at the Visual Effects Society’s awards dinner.
As the anger has exploded, VFX Solider has seen its traffic skyrocket, its author reports, from 5,000 visitors on a good day to approximately 150,000 a day for the past week, with many of his posts receiving hundreds of comments.
The writer describes a trade seeing more and more of its jobs shipped overseas with little safety net to help those left behind. “As with all production work, there are big gaps between jobs. That’s why you have unions to see you through those gaps and provide insurance, but we have nothing. I had a lot of friends who have lost their houses, who had been working for years and had companies tell them, ‘we’ll let you go but you can have a job in Vancouver, if you can get up there.’ I have friends with incredible medical problems, and they get laid off. There’s a huge problem with people being expected to work unpaid overtime.”
With production moving overseas, the writer says, “there’s been this institutionalization of displacement. Every few months, you’re expected to move to different locations and cover the costs of the move.”
Most of his friends in the industry, who once considered making films the job of their dreams, he says, are now actively seeking other careers, looking for work in the gaming world or going back to school to start over. “My friends say, ‘we fought so hard to get into this industry, now we’re fighting so hard to get out.’”
The result for film viewers, he says, is a huge loss of talent to the film industry and a diminishing of the product that reaches the theaters. “Without us, all you have is green screens. All these actors are doing is just acting out on some stage in Ohio. Everything you see, there’s a person who makes that looks right. There are people who specialize in creating perfect hair, there are people who specialize in lighting skin. All these specialities are disappearing.” Films, he says, are getting shoved out into the marketplace unfinished, with the results so shoddy that people who worked on them are “embarrassed by the films and tell their friends, ‘you don’t want to watch it.’”
With nations such as India and Canada offering Hollywood studios heavy financial incentives to send their work abroad (British Columbia, for example, spends $434 million a year to subsidize production), many in the industry have been urging California to attempt to compete with similar incentives. The VFX Soldier author, however, disagrees with that approach, saying the focus on throwing more money at the studios creates a “race to the bottom” in which effects houses will still end up being squeezed for more and more savings. “The problem is,” he said, “it’s not a business anymore. It doesn’t matter how efficient you are or how successful you are, it comes down to the next government willing to offer more, not about great work, just about getting a tax rebate.”
The solution he sees lies in, first, pursuing claims against these countries for unfair trade practices. To that end, he raised $13,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund a study by a law firm to look into filing claims with the World Trade Organization. Second, he calls on the trade to unionize.
If all that fails to produce results soon, however, he would stand behind calls for a shutdown or guerilla action of some sort. He says he prefers attempting to unionize first, but that “I would totally be for [walkouts] if everyone is on board. There a lot of people say, who should just let it all crash and then when the films can’t get made, then they’ll talk”
Ultimately, however, the VFX Soldier feels there are practical solutions available for workers participating on blockbuster projects that make hundreds of millions of dollars. “These are really solvable problems. It just involves planning and taking care of your workers. The money is all there.”
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I’m surprised the most obvious solution is only hinted at toward the end of the article - unionize. Maybe there isn’t a big push within the VFX industry to do so, but wouldn’t that be the best way for VFX artists to gain some real power (especially given that a VFX union would presumably be able to count on solidarity from the other film trade unions when dealing with producers and studios).
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