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Red Carpet, Green Screen
February 24, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Without visual effects the average blockbuster movie would look like this. However as Hollywood comes under financial pressure they are putting the squeeze on the VFX industry that they rely on, who are in turn passing the pressure onto workers. Now VFX workers are organizing a protest in time for the Oscars, which will be celebrating visual effects as the companies responsible for them close down.

* VFX Soldier Commentary On The Visual Effects Industry's March To The Bottom
* The Meteor Studios class-action suit, a previous success of David Rand who is involved with organizing the protest.
* Losing Our Share of the Pi
* Effects Corner Insights to Visual Effects for Motion Pictures and Television
* IATSE, the VFX union
* Threats fly over Hobbit document release
posted by Artw (73 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Maybe we can go back to using puppets and stuff will look real again.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:29 AM on February 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


There's always going to be someone who will do just as good a job for just a little less. Unsurprisingly, studio's exploit the hell out of these, but hey, that's capitalism.

Can VFX make their own movies? That might be a way to avoid pressure from studios.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:32 AM on February 24, 2013


Can VFX make their own movies?

You mean like the Final Destination franchise and all the new Star Wars?
posted by dubusadus at 11:39 AM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's also worth mentioning The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839, which has been supporting the VFX artists and covers many of them working in animated feature work.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:45 AM on February 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Interesting post. This is a huge issue in Canada at the moment, as the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have unleashed massive de facto subsidies for games and VFX companies. A result has been increasing pressure for British Columbia to do the same, and our unsophisticated government has resisted similar unsustainable tax breaks not out of superior wisdom, but because the people in charge hate Vancouver, where the VFX shops are.

Vancouver is unsustainable no matter what - there are no publishers here, and so work depends on the whims of studio execs south of the border. It's not working out too well.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:52 AM on February 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's also worth mentioning The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839, which has been supporting the VFX artists and covers many of them working in animated feature work.

What role does SIGGRAPH play, or is it strictly for pro-D, rather than representation?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:53 AM on February 24, 2013


Can VFX make their own movies? That might be a way to avoid pressure from studios.

Isn't that how Pixar got started?
posted by zixyer at 11:55 AM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


My friend's company just about went under...then the Americans came and bought it, saving his house. But the hours he now works are killing his family.

He worked on amazingly famous films, but the margins were exploitative. It's just impossible.
posted by taff at 12:18 PM on February 24, 2013


As someone who doesn't need to see films as often as the average American, I've never understood why movies are so amazingly expensive to make. Especially if the effects houses aren't getting paid, who is responsible for the exorbitant cost?
posted by karlos at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2013


Marketing.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:31 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well if they don't want to pay for expensive VFX there are a few alternatives right?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:35 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here's the "magic" market at work. Eating its own guts.
posted by Trochanter at 12:39 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm totally down with the puppets idea, aesthetically; I love stop-motion like what Laika does and the Henson creature shop. But it's not cheap -- Farscape had brilliant effects (and costuming and make-up), but cost a bundle.
posted by jb at 12:40 PM on February 24, 2013


Thunderbirds puppets were actually 20 feet tall, with some truly massive models, just sayin'
posted by KokuRyu at 12:41 PM on February 24, 2013


That's the original motivation behind VFX, isn't it? That it's cheaper than physically building the set and shooting on location?
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:43 PM on February 24, 2013


The world needs more puppets. It's hard to argue the world needs not VFX shops.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:52 PM on February 24, 2013


Puppets *are* VFX.
posted by Artw at 12:53 PM on February 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


Yes. We're not strictly speaking about CGI monsters here, folks.
posted by ShutterBun at 12:58 PM on February 24, 2013


Especially if the effects houses aren't getting paid, who is responsible for the exorbitant cost?

Hollywood accounting. Basically, the studios own a lot of related businesses, which artificially inflate the costs of making movies. That's why Return of the Jedi has officially not made a profit.

I'm not sure why they haven't just bought FX houses and brought them into the system. Possibly the pace of technological change?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:00 PM on February 24, 2013


“If I don’t put a visual effects house out of business, I haven’t done my job.”

-- anonymous movie producer
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:08 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a movie fan, I look forward to less VFX. Hopefully the VFX workers can take their highly transferable skills to less exploitive industries.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:10 PM on February 24, 2013


While it's just amazing what they can do visually, when it comes to sloganing they should call the WGA.
posted by sammyo at 1:12 PM on February 24, 2013


This is why the dinosaurs got loose.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:15 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Could someone just round this up for me? Is the problem studios not paying their bills, FX companies underbidding, financial mis-management at the FX studios, or... ?
posted by DarlingBri at 1:16 PM on February 24, 2013


it's not cheap -- Farscape had brilliant effects

I think I read that it was produced in New Zealand specifically due to the lower costs of special effects.
posted by sammyo at 1:17 PM on February 24, 2013


Karlos: VFX movies are expensive to make because creating things like, for instance, a photorealistic tiger is very difficult. These movies take teams of hundreds of highly skilled people to bring them to the big screen.

DarlingBri: the problem (for the artists) is that visual effects for film has become increasingly commoditized. As Brandon Blatcher said, there's always someone who will do it for just a little cheaper. Skill level is no longer a defining factor in who does the VFX for a film.

VFX is very difficult work, requiring a team of highly skilled professionals. But on the other hand, at the end of the day, it is skilled labor, it is manufacturing. Another problem is that, at least in film, there are only six customers: Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Fox, Disney, and um, one more I'm not thinking of at the moment. It's very difficult to diversify into other markets.

Sure, studios could develop their own content, but making a movie costs money, and making a movie is risky. I believe Digital Domain put themselves in trouble when they went public, and they went public in order to raise the capital necessary to develop their own movie.
posted by cleverevans at 1:28 PM on February 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


The interesting thing to me about the split screen interactive graphic in the WSJ article was how much of it was stuff that they just wouldn't have shown 30 or 40 years ago. The car sequence wouldn't necessarily have been VFX, just filmed along a road; I actually saw someone doing that in Lost Pines the summer before the big fire. Or the iPad with the stuff on the screen.

Sometimes showing things you can only make with VFX is crucial, but sometimes I wonder what the point is.
posted by immlass at 1:31 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love VFX. I love blockbusters. But this seems to be a problem of overcapacity, which happens at times and is followed by a shakeout (now) as well as the distortive unexpected consequences of meddling in the marketplace by governments via tax incentives. When you incentivise something, you get more of it - hence the overcapacity and the moving around of resources.

It's not like VFX are going to go away, it's that there will be churn in the market, pretty much the same as in every industry.
posted by rr at 1:39 PM on February 24, 2013


b1tr0t: As a movie fan, I look forward to less VFX. Hopefully the VFX workers can take their highly transferable skills to less exploitive industries.

This man is bleeding to death! Quick! Get me that guy who can make the raisins dance!
posted by dr_dank at 1:39 PM on February 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


Read the comments here for more info.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:43 PM on February 24, 2013


DarlingBri, I think the crux of the "pressure" on Hollywood is stated in the Economist article:

TV is relatively stable and currently lucrative. TV networks earn money from advertising and from the fees that cable and satellite operators pay to carry their programmes. These fees amount to some $32 billion a year in America, and are growing by about 7% annually. People love watching TV, and, per hour, it is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.... But film-going in America is not a growth business, especially now that people have so many media to distract them at home.

Also:

Netflix and other firms are changing the home-entertainment business profoundly—and studios are scrambling to keep up.

Hollywood managed to deal with the TV threat the first time around back in the '40's and '50's. Of course, the studio system died during that time and the business model had to change then too. Not sure how it will pan out this time.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:45 PM on February 24, 2013


I've long had an idea for a Sam Raimi meta-Spider-Man movie where Mysterio is a practical effects guy laid off from the new Evil Dead movie in favor of CG.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:56 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


DarlingBri: both of those are part of it. You may want to look at Axium and what happened with Digital Domain (warning: both of these are pretty one-sided kinds of stories).

For some insight into the situation and some ideas about it, you may want to read things from this blog post from Scott Ross (who amongst other things helped found the aforementioned Digital Domain and may have some insights).
posted by mephron at 1:56 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've long had an idea for a Sam Raimi meta-Spider-Man movie where Mysterio is a practical effects guy laid off from the new Evil Dead movie in favor of CG.

Only if Mysterio is played by Bryan Brown.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:01 PM on February 24, 2013


A friend of a friend worked at Rhythm and Hues (the VFX studio on Life of Pi). I don't know too much about the details of the exact pressures on that studio or that production. I do know that a couple hundred VFX artists were way behind in getting paid, and now probably won't be paid (or will be paid some fraction of what they were owed) because of the bankruptcy.

I am not really a fan of the trend towards films that are more and more effects-driven as opposed to being character-driven(not necessarily Life of Pi, but stuff like Battleship, the Transformers movies) but these seem to be the movies that are the most profitable these days, and it's not because of the actors and actresses getting paid millions to star in them. It's because people want to know if a particular movie is 'worth seeing in a theater', where 'worth seeing in a theater' means a lot of explosions and lasers and stuff which would have less impact on DVD. The artists behind those effects just want to earn a living making those movies what they are.

It's a sad situation; I am glad for the protest and hope that it brings some attention to the situation these artists are in.
posted by matcha action at 2:13 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


What role does SIGGRAPH play, or is it strictly for pro-D, rather than representation?

SIGGRAPH is the ACM symposium for computer graphics research. In the context of the IATSE Locals, they have been targeting SIGGRAPH with information booths and distributing info packets.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:14 PM on February 24, 2013


Sometimes showing things you can only make with VFX is crucial, but sometimes I wonder what the point is.

I don't personally do all that much VFX, but I do some and work with a lot. And the attitude seems to be that there is more control available with certain types of shots if they are done with VFX.

Car scenes are a really good example of things that used to just be shot in a car being pulled along the road, but now are shot in front of a green screen with the background added in later. There are more options and more control available during shooting and during post if the scene is shot using a green screen.

But my view is this: If you know what you're doing and you know what you want, then you should be more than capable of shooting this scene without vfx (generally speaking). And it would be cheaper too.

More directly to the post: The bigger picture for the VFX industry is a complete mess. I am super interested to see if Life of Pi wins an Oscar for best VFX tonight. If Rhythm and Hues can produce a major amount of VFX for a profitable and well respected movie, but can't stay in business, then there's clearly a structural problem within the industry that should be changed.
posted by dogwalker at 2:16 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


On preview, from Scott Ross's blog post linked by mephron, this sums up my thoughts much better than what I wrote:
"The companies that support the men and women that create the outstanding and outrageous images that propel box office on all tentpole movies have been unduly taken advantage of. Dozens of visual effects companies have gone bankrupt even after creating incredible value to producers, directors and motion picture studios. Profit margins for visual effects companies have been mostly non-existant even while box office returns on these effects laden films have soared."
posted by matcha action at 2:17 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure I don't need to point this out to people here, but VFX isn't just limited to big budget blow-em-up action pictures of the Transformers-type or special visual films like Life of Pi. It's all over the place including in quieter (except for the stupid plane chase) character movies like Argo.

"The first invisible effect takes place in the first scene: a shot of a demonstrator waving a burning U.S. flag. "The original flag was shot practically," explains Dessero. "But the nylon flag used simply burned too quickly and didn't have the drama needed to start the film, so we replaced it with a CG flag." The job of replacing the flag was more challenging than it sounds. Method artist Sergei Kofareff used Houdini to texture the flag and create the burning holes. "We painted the original flag out, but we were still tied to the demonstrators performance. Sergei had to match the movement of the flag to the flag pole that the man is waving," he says. "We really had to art direct that shot and we went through lots of iterations. To complete the shot, we had to extend the crowd, add the Embassy, and matte paint the distant mountain scape.

"In fact, every view of Tehran -- wide shots of the city surrounded by snowy mountains, the nighttime city views outside Affleck's hotel window -- as well as extensions to the U.S. Embassy and other buildings, and virtually all the backgrounds -- are digital."
posted by sardonyx at 2:24 PM on February 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's all over the place including in quieter (except for the stupid plane chase) character movies like Argo.

In a lot of ways, they sound like blue collar jobs: important by but no single worker (or house in this case) is irreplaceable. Movie studios are keen to use and abuse that fact.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:32 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


this is another quote from Scott Ross that I think goes into detail with the situation they face:
These large VFX houses, given the ongoing cost pressure by the studios, are constantly looking for ways to lower their costs. Each large VFX house is in a competitive bidding situation and the studio/clients take advantage of cross bidding between them. Each VFX company lowering their price, even though they don’t really know what it will cost to produce the effects asked for. This practice, along with the fear of pissing off a major director or one of the major studios generally drives the VFX studio to lose money on their work.
It includes, from things I've heard, saying they need a shot produced by day X, and not giving the required data for it until 36 hours before required time, resulting in insane crunches and massive overtime. The studios have beaten the idea of 'penalties for failure to provide' out of the contracts, and that doesn't help them keep things up and running.
posted by mephron at 2:33 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of this is reminiscent of the situation in the gaming industry, in particular that the profession seems to attract a huge number of fresh faces each year. Working in VFX is Cool. Working in VFX straight out of college is Cooler. And for a fresh grad getting paid twice minimum wage is Coolest.

It all adds up to a lot of churn, and longevity for almost no one.

Recently a friend of mine and I were both asked to come to a high school Career Day and talk about game programming. We both declined as a single slide saying "Under no conditions become a game programmer" was not what they had in mind. It sounds like the same is true of VFX.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:45 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


The two people I know that were doing 3D work in VFX have switched to Architectural Visualisation. Not as cool as VFX but but they see their families more and seem to be a lot happier now.
posted by the_artificer at 2:51 PM on February 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's worth pointing out these two quotes from the WJS article:

Digital Domain said its bankruptcy occurred in part because it had taken on risky expansions, including original animation and a trade school in Florida.

and

"We made some bad investment choices that cost us a lot of capital and we did not book enough work to sustain the size of the company," said [Rhythm and Hues] feature film division chief Lee Berger.

(Not to say that the VFX business is in perfect health were it not for the apparently bad business decisions of these two companies, but it's worth noting.)
posted by incessant at 3:02 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Could someone just round this up for me? Is the problem studios not paying their bills, FX companies underbidding, financial mis-management at the FX studios, or... ?

It sounds a lot like why companies are constantly going out of business in the games industry - even putting aside low bids and dodgy accounting, these companies have teams of highly skilled, expensive people, but it's essentially contract work - a movie or a game is a project that lasts for a year or two, and when it ends, that company better have a new gig already lined up and miraculously timed to start just as the last one is finishing, because every day the company is not fully engaged on a contract, it's hemorrhaging money at a terrifying rate.
But to the publishers/studios, that's not their problem. They work on their own schedule, and if a company can't accommodate that schedule, they can find someone who can.

So it's kind of a game of slow-motion russian-roulette - at the end of every gig, you dodge a bullet by managing to have another gig already lined up, and then one day the stars just won't align, you can't get a gig for a few weeks or months, and you bleed out.
posted by anonymisc at 3:13 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Today I finally got around to watching the big budget film Immortals. It cost about $75 million to make and at least another 35$ million to market. The number of specials effects was extensive and in many ways good, though the film itself was not.

I'm watching the Staff Picks stream on Vimeo as I type this. It's a feast of animation, storytelling and cinema tography that is stunning for its depth and breathe. Way more enjoyable than the two hour slog that was Immortals. It's free. I'd pay to go see two hours of this on the big screen, but not for some of the crap Hollywood pumps out on a regular basis. I've been fuming in my private life over the lack of any interesting movies to see in the beginning of this year, but I haven't lacked for watching great media on tv, Netflix, YouTube and what have you.

Yeah, I'd say Hollywood is under pressure.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:32 PM on February 24, 2013


As a movie fan, I look forward to less VFX.

Why? VFX isn't just BAYXPLOSIONS all over the screen; you can use them to make Black Swan or show your actors in Grand Canyon/Manhattan/ the rainforest without having to pay to shoot there or disrupt volatile environments. Hollywood tries too hard for spectacle, but then again Hollywood can produce perfectly awful films a.k.a. 'comedies' without obtrusive VFX. All films needn't follow Dogme 95.

We need more VFX like Alien.
posted by ersatz at 3:53 PM on February 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


We need more VFX like the Slo-Mo sequences in Dredd 3D, or Speed Racer, or anything that shows us something we haven't seen before.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:56 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Much, much love for Speed Racer.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:56 PM on February 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Interesting how the winner for VFX got cut off just as he was starting to talk about this stuff.
posted by HostBryan at 6:13 PM on February 24, 2013 [11 favorites]


they cut off the winner as he started to mention this tonight. With the Jaws theme no less.
posted by concreteforest at 6:15 PM on February 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


He should have led with the bankruptcy story instead of tacking it onto the end of an already over-long speech. At least a little of it made it onto air.
posted by Potsy at 6:19 PM on February 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


One issue I'm surprised not to see here, or in scanning the first two links in the post, is how vfx companies abuse unemployment. I learned about this from a guy I sat next to on a plane who did vfx work. He said the companies do something like hire you for a few months, then it's expected that you go on unemployment for a few months until they have work again. Added up to a reasonable salary, and you fully expect they'll bring you back on once a new project starts. Has anyone else heard about this? It sounded utterly unethical, basically like abusing what amounts to government subsidies.
posted by gusandrews at 6:44 PM on February 24, 2013


gusandrews, a friend of mine had a job doing school photographs; everything from preschools through high school. When picture season was over, the entire team was supposed to file for unemployment. So; it's not just VFX companies; there are a ton of companies where this is SOP.
posted by dejah420 at 6:51 PM on February 24, 2013


Update: VFX guy's speech got cut off in favor of an extended number of songs from movie musicals, which is good considering it's 2003 and Chicago was nominated.
posted by HostBryan at 6:57 PM on February 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


If it's not Shirley Bassey it can fuck off.
posted by Artw at 7:12 PM on February 24, 2013


Don't bring down the man's party.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:28 PM on February 24, 2013


Today I finally got around to watching the big budget film Immortals . It cost about $75 million to make and at least another 35$ million to market. The number of specials effects was extensive and in many ways good, though the film itself was not.

I'm watching the Staff Picks stream on Vimeo as I type this. It's a feast of animation, storytelling and cinema tography that is stunning for its depth and breathe. Way more enjoyable than the two hour slog that was Immortals. It's free. I'd pay to go see two hours of this on the big screen, but not for some of the crap Hollywood pumps out on a regular basis. I've been fuming in my private life over the lack of any interesting movies to see in the beginning of this year, but I haven't lacked for watching great media on tv, Netflix, YouTube and what have you.

Yeah, I'd say Hollywood is under pressure.


YouTube is amazing amazing amazing (most of my YouTube history is made up of HD train videos).

Anyway, an AskMe question today has some awesome suggestions for watching full-length movies on YouTube.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:47 PM on February 24, 2013


This is a major issue in Australia too, many reputable VFX companies are going under. Part of the reason is because they undercut each other to get jobs, then work their - now fewer, as they can't afford more - staff into the ground to meet deadlines.

The other major issue that I know of (I worked in advertising, at the big agencies) is that client budgets are now smaller - but they expect the same quality product as before and won't accept less. So ad agencies are told, produce the same quality ad for a fraction of the price or we'll pull our (Pepsi, Nike) account. The ad agency, now panicking. goes to the VFX company and say, we need this huge job done but we only have xxx dollars. If you work for a massive company like I did, that gives you clout because you put so much work through a VFX company that they can't afford to say no and miss out on future business.

Basically it's icky and the whole system is screwed. Clients need to accept that their money only goes so far and to stop asking for freebies. Agencies need to grow balls, say no to clients and stop asking for VFX freebies, and VFX companies need to band together, put their foot down and stop screwing each other and themselves over. The industry is about to collapse.
posted by Jubey at 9:13 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


It all adds up to a lot of churn, and longevity for almost no one.

The games industry is mess right now, to put it mildly. Outsourcing like mad. Just look in depth at the train wreck that the new Aliens game was. Basically a company got tagged to make a game, then ended up outsourcing the whole thing, but didn't like what they got back so they redid it but didn't have enough time to do it right. Not to mention hiring people who are cheaper and will work longer hours but can barely animate a decent walk cycle for the main characters. (pet peeve of mine, seen way too often lately)

There is a lot of this in VFX too, with several houses doing certain shots or parts of films. When done right, it's seamless, as each house focuses on what they excel at. When it's bad, you get one scene that is an example of great effects, then something that looks terrible.

It doesn't help that there is still very much an art to VFX, and i always laugh at people who say no effects are better, much less no computer effects. CGI is still basically in it's infancy, having come leaps and bounds from what it was, and if you pay attention, you can tell which scenes are done by more skilled and talented artists.

Should some things be done practically instead of GCI? Maybe, but there are things that are impossible, not reasonable, not safe or not cost effective, that are better and less noticeable in CGI.
posted by usagizero at 9:30 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


One issue I'm surprised not to see here, or in scanning the first two links in the post, is how vfx companies abuse unemployment. I learned about this from a guy I sat next to on a plane who did vfx work. He said the companies do something like hire you for a few months, then it's expected that you go on unemployment for a few months until they have work again. Added up to a reasonable salary, and you fully expect they'll bring you back on once a new project starts. Has anyone else heard about this? It sounded utterly unethical, basically like abusing what amounts to government subsidies.


It's worse now than ever. It's unbelievable, the amount of free labor agencies and studios manage to negotiate. VFX houses will often take a job if it will potentially earn them publicity or secure future work from a client, even if the job is expected to *cost* the house money. It's very competitive - just to stay in a client's good graces, producers will often not charge overage fees when a show inevitably extends weeks beyond the agreed timeframe, or when a client keeps giving notes and demanding changes up to the point of delivery. This is the kind of behavior that completely screws artists into working 90 hour, seven day weeks with no overtime for months on end.

And then, if you're a freelancer like I am, if you don't have / can't get anything lined up after the job ends, then, yeah, you have to go on unemployment. As a result of the feast-or-famine nature of the business, freelancers drive their rates up - and as a result of freelancers driving their rates up and clients expecting faster and faster turnarounds, more and more studios have started outsourcing work (namely roto and modeling) overseas and across timezones.
posted by bxyldy at 9:58 PM on February 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


He said the companies do something like hire you for a few months, then it's expected that you go on unemployment for a few months until they have work again. Added up to a reasonable salary, and you fully expect they'll bring you back on once a new project starts. Has anyone else heard about this? It sounded utterly unethical, basically like abusing what amounts to government subsidies.

This is a semi-regular practice in many industries. Many businesses that operate on a seasonal, or per-contract basis and experiences periods of up-time and down-time will use this method. I know factories that do this...Churn-out widgets for 6 months, then lay-off everyone so they can get unemployment. Then, hire the crews back 4 months later for another 6-month run.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:49 AM on February 25, 2013


“It’s bad news that visual effects are too expensive and I’m aware of Rhythm & Hues’ (situation)” [Ang Lee] said. Here is Lee's acceptance speech.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:44 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Beasts of the Southern Wild was made with unpaid labour, bit bummed to find that out.
posted by Artw at 8:24 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have worked on and off at Digital Domain for the last 8 years...working on many Oscar nominated films in the process. I have also worked at other studios around Los Angeles and only in the last 3 years have I noticed the industry sliding over the cliff. What last year looked like we had maybe 5 more years of slow decline has suddenly turned into an all-out death spiral.

Just today employees at Pixomondo London arrived to work to find the doors shuttered and the furniture gone. Pixo will also be closing their Detroit offices. There will be more shuttering of other companies in the near future...

The main reason for all the turmoil, as Scott Ross, VFXSoldier and other voices in the industry have noted, is due to subsidies from foreign governments paid to the major studios for making their movies and doing their post work in those countries. These subsidies induce VFX companies to move their studios to these countries just to get the work. The VFX companies themselves do not get the subsidies. The real leader in this arena is Canada.

In general a Features VFX company, from an employee's perspective, operates like this:

1. VFX company puts in bids against other VFX companies to get work awarded to them by one of the 6 or 7 Major Studios.

2. The bids for the work are agreed to ahead of time and generally do not account for the endless cycles of revision after revision of shots to suit the directors taste. Large changes are referred to as "overages" and are billed in addition...but what constitutes a chargeable "overage" versus an equally time-consuming non-billable "tech fix" or "cbb (could be better)" fix is generally a shady affair.

3. In order to get the work, therefore, VFX companies bid against one another in a race to the bottom to get the work...doing the most amount of quality work for the LEAST amount of money.

4. VFX companies generally only have a handful of "staff" employees who are salaried and receive benefits like healthcare / 401ks. The large majority of employees are freelancers or "project hires" who will sign a contract to work on the project for a specific amount of time at a specified rate. They may or may not get benefits and health insurance and companies often use various practices to legally, albeit unethically, deny benefits and health insurance to these workers. Depending on the company the project hires may or may not be paid overtime. In many cases, at least for California, not paying overtime IS ILLEGAL. Project hires often do not rock the boat for fear of tarnishing their future hiring prospects. More on this later.

5. If work is awarded to a VFX company, they will swell their ranks with project hires and work harder than any other industry I have ever seen. 60-70 hour weeks are common, endless OT...all in windowless low-rent buildings (depending on company). Until recently good money was made by all and at the conclusion of a project it is common for burnt out project hires to take time off before lighting out to search for work again. Staff employees, during down times, will go on "overhead" working on R/D, busywork or generally being told to take some unpaid time off if things are really slow.

Now subsidies. With countries like Canada, Singapore, the UK, India etc. offering subsidies to companies like Warner brothers for VFX work all these VFX companies have had to open offices in these locations on their own narrow margins just to be able to bid on the work. As a result more of the work has moved to these locations...oozing out of LA. This is an example of a market distortion that is having a real negative effect on jobs here, and even in the subsidizing countries when the subsidies change on a whim and the work vanishes. There are examples of this happening to studios in the US when states like Florida and New Mexico offered subsidies and companies like DD and Sony opened offices there...only to close them when the subsides vanished...or in the case of DD when the company was badly mismanaged.

Now it is my opinion that a lot of this could have been avoided if VFX companies created an International Trade organization or had the artists UNIONIZED years ago. We are quite literally the only facet of the film production pipeline that is not unionized. The VFX community leans heavily Libertarian and has a general distaste for Unions for no cogent reason other than Ayn Rand or whatever. This bent has them putting effort towards dismantling subsidies on an international scale rather than putting that effort towards a union.

I like the sentiment, but the effort to dismantle subsidies will not work. I have been grousing about a union for years and years due to the substandard working conditions of the industry in many cases...and I was essentially pegged as a complainer. Only now are folks starting to talk union and I fear it is too late unless it is a truly international union.

I am now currently out of work, in between contracts with crappy individual health insurance which was denied to me for so many years because I took anti-depressants (to cope with work) back in 2009. It is unlikely I will find work at one of the major vfx houses given the nature of the industry now...so my latest contracts have been at smaller boutique houses in LA which get around fair-labor practices by classifying me illegally as a 1099 contractor - even though I have to commute to their offices and use their equipment. Or they use an EOR which takes a fee from my day rate for the privilege of employment. They agree only to "day rates," pay no OT and offer no benefits, and work even longer hours on shorter schedules than feature film vfx studios. They are usually full of younger guys who think it's "so cool" to be working on 3d / graphics / whatever that they are willing to slave away in their skinny jeans not really realizing what they are missing. It is not a sustainable type of employment for someone who is entering family-stages of life.

And amidst all of this I echo the constant refrain of my fellow VFX workers - that maybe it is time to find a new line of work...
posted by jnnla at 11:01 AM on February 25, 2013 [17 favorites]


As someone who doesn't need to see films as often as the average American, I've never understood why movies are so amazingly expensive to make. Especially if the effects houses aren't getting paid, who is responsible for the exorbitant cost?....

Well, let's see: 500 people getting paid, let's say, $200 each per day to wrangle dogs, move lights, drive cars, sew pants or carry water. That adds up to um...hang on, I'm still looking for zeroes....*

Anyhow, that's not even counting how much brangelina gets for grinning at the camera, or the studio bigwigs spend on lunch. I think my son can produce some pretty neat special effects on his computer, and he'd do it for peanuts. Well, everyone would be hopping around like one of the mario bro's, but still.

*(...yeah, I know the union prolly says they get paid more than that. I'm just sayin'...)
posted by mule98J at 11:25 AM on February 25, 2013


oh, thanks for reminding me - i forgot to mention, FUCK Yurcor and the rest of those EOR companies. They charge "administrative overhead" fees, plus I get taxed as an employee AND an employer. This can't be legal. Many studios *require* that freelancers either have their own S-Corp / payroll, or they must go through an Employer of Record; or else the studios would be responsible for paying for worker's compensation themselves, which I guess is a mess of paperwork and money. Yurcor isn't going to just provide that out of the goodness of their heart for free... so it comes out of our pockets as well.
posted by bxyldy at 11:28 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


@bxyldy..

Yeah, Yucor and the EOR companies are, in fact, illegal, yet they persist. What most freelancers I know do is to correspondingly jack their rates up by 20% to compensate for the EOR fee that is skimmed off the top. This, of course, can rate you out of work and lose potential gigs. It is egregious and awful and some straight up bullshit...but people put up with it because "cool graphics media job lol"
posted by jnnla at 12:25 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Related to this, it seemed like the guys from The Avengers were going to make some sort of statement about the state of affairs in the VFX industry during their bit during The Oscars, but Samuel L Jackson put the kibosh on it. Robert Downey Jr. started to say something, was cut off, then muttered something like "we're not gonna do it? Fine, screw it" and Samuel was like "let's just agree they deserve respect and give them their award".

Couldn't really tell if it was a scripted "in character" moment or if they had actually planned to acknowledge how shitty this important segment of the industry is being treated.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:14 PM on February 25, 2013


I'd guess that was scripted. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
posted by incessant at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2013


How the Oscars proved Hollywood is killing the VFX industry
posted by Artw at 6:38 PM on February 26, 2013


Before VFX
posted by Artw at 9:34 AM on February 27, 2013


Slices of Pi
posted by Artw at 9:52 AM on March 2, 2013


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