Movie Visual Effects Business in Turmoil


It's not easy being greenscreen.

Movie visual effects artists, frustrated by poor pay, working conditions and recent Oscar snubs, met recently to consider organizing a union and other solutions to the industry's numerous problems.

On March 14, close to 300 people jammed a greenscreen-walled Quonset hut at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood. Among other things, they heard assorted speakers push for unionizing the workers, advocate a trade association for the financially troubled digital effects shops that employ them and take swipes at "Life of Pi," the Academy Award-winning film that has become a rallying object for many disgruntled artists.

The town hall style meeting followed a variety of events that have shaken the VFX field to its core.

Nearly 500 artists staged a protest outside the Academy Awards ceremony in February to call attention to the lack of benefits, job insecurity, massive amounts of (sometimes unpaid) overtime and other hardships they increasingly go through to ply their trade.

At the Oscars, the award-winning "Pi" team from effects house Rhythm & Hues -- which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off more than 250 workers earlier in the month -- was played offstage with the "Jaws" theme just as a statement was about to be made about the industry's difficulties. Later, "Pi" director Ang Lee neglected to thank the effects folks, without whom his

film's magical tiger and other wonders would not have existed, when accepting his award, and complained later about the high cost of VFX.

That, coupled with another large swath of layoffs at DreamWorks Animation, fired passions. VFX pros replaced their Twitter icons with blank greenscreens to evoke what movies would look like without their contributions, and websites such as VFX Soldier popped up to enable further venting.

"It went viral in a matter of a few minutes," digital compositor Phil Broste said of an open letter he wrote to Lee that was posted on "It was just a letter expressing some of the frustrations that visual effects artists and workers in the industry in general have been feeling for a long time -- work conditions and common misconceptions about the place of visual effects and their importance in filmmaking. How important they are to films of all kinds now, and just the lack of recognition about that, and due to that lack of recognition the mistreatment that gets passed on to the digital effects professionals."

Although digital effects have increasingly become key components to movies and, to a lesser extent, television shows and commercials, in the two decades since James Cameron and Steven Spielberg showed what they could do in "Terminator 2" and "Jurassic Park," the increasingly large pool of VFX workers remains the only major talent group in Hollywood that has not been unionized.

But the problems in the VFX field won't be solved by that. For one thing, the existing animation guild (Local 839 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), which is trying to organize the VFX artists, would be bargaining with the owners of the effects facilities "" which, if not bankrupt, are mostly operating on thin profit margins as it is.

They earn their money, of course, primarily from the

six major film studios which produce the nine-figure extravaganzas that require thousands of effects shots. Those studios can make hundreds of millions of dollars off of tentpole blockbusters such as "The Avengers" -- but can lose similarly staggering amounts when films like "Jack the Giant Slayer" and last year's "John Carter" tank at the box office.

To hedge their bets, producers generally insist on fixed bids from VFX providers, which can lead to a lot of unpaid extra work when a director decides he doesn't like the look of certain shots. Some say the big corporations with the money also coerce VFX companies into setting up expensive shops in big tax-credit states so the studios' productions can take advantage of the incentives.

Multiple studios and production entities asked to comment for this story declined to do so.

Then there are just cheaper countries in Asia and elsewhere to get the work done, which studios can also play off against L.A.-based facilities and those providers themselves can threaten unionizing Americans that more jobs can go overseas. Doddering R&H's shop in Taiwan, for instance, recently posted 200 job openings.

Most advocates of union and trade organizing acknowledge that that path is fraught with difficulty. But it's better than doing nothing, and now certainly seems to be the time.

"It really is the Digital Spring," Scott Ross, who has run Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain, which went bankrupt last year, told the cheering town hall crowd.

"The most important step, and the thing that a trade association needs to focus on, is changing the business model," Ross, who has long been trying to get VFX houses to unite, explained in a later interview. "How are you going to do that if all of the companies are not willing to say 'change the business model'? If there are 15 or 20 companies in the world today that can sink the ship of 'Titanic,' and only three of them say 'We don't want to be paid that way anymore, we'd like a business model change,' if you're a producer, why not go to one of the other 12?"

Or, if you're making a movie for Disney, why not go with the now Mouse-owned ILM; or if it's for Columbia Pictures, their parent company's VFX outfit, Sony Imageworks?

"A trade organization might have a better chance of regulating bidding practices and contract purposes, say the director gets the work that's done tweaked three or four times and after that you have to start paying more for each iteration of the work," noted Marty Shindler, who with his wife runs the Encino-based Shindler Perspective, a business consulting firm with many entertainment and technology clients. "Getting all of them to speak with one common voice will be very difficult. There are things they all need to agree on, but they are competitors."

While the studios may control the purse strings, sound business practices could still be the best bet for beleaguered VFX companies and their unhappy employees.

"I don't want to seem like someone who is claiming that there isn't a problem in our industry because there definitely is when so many companies are struggling," noted Payam Shohadai, co-founder of 11-year-old Luma Pictures, which has provided effects for Marvel and many other films. "But studios pay a lot of money for what they do. Is it enough? I think it depends on your specific business. If the contract that the studio is offering you is not enough money for you to make ends meet, it is not the contract for you. There should never be a situation where a company is not able to pay their employees for past work, let alone give them a nice notice if they need to let them go. There should not be deficit financing."

How ever the studios and VFX facilities work out their business, it looks like now they're both going to have to deal with an activating work force.

"History is definitely repeating itself for us," said Dave Rand, an R&H senior VFX artist and one of the organizers of the Oscar night demonstration. "If you look at where the rest of the talent was in the 1920s and '30s (when actors, directors and writers organized), it looks just like it in 2013 with the visual effects artists.

"The studios would never treat Brad Pitt like this," Rand continued. "They don't perceive us as the same value, but we're exactly that. You look at Richard Parker in 'Life of Pi'; the performance of that tiger has a couple of hundred people behind it, both here and in India. That team should be valued the same way as your most valuable actors are."

"It starts with them," Steve Kaplan, an organizer for the animation guild, said of the VFX workers. "Each and every artist needs to be able to stand up and speak, but it's more than just saying I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. It's saying I'm mad as hell now and I know I can make a difference."

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