Sunday night’s presentation of the Oscars struck a few sour notes that are still reverberating on into the week. Eventually, we’ll tire of the debate over whose jokes were funny and whose were simply offensive, but another issue raised over the weekend will not be going away any time soon: the standoff between animation and visual effects (VFX) artists on the one side and Hollywood’s studios on the other.
Let’s briefly back up a bit to December, when Sight & Sound ran a video essay with an accompanying text and charts by Kevin B. Lee on the evolution of the computer generated animal in cinema:
The stars of the piece, you might call them, are the VFX company Rhythm & Hues and what’s surely their crowning achievement, Richard Parker, the tiger in the boat in Life of Pi. Without Richard Parker, and for that matter, without the countless man-hours put in by VFX artists on those stunning sunrises and sunsets glistening off the ocean waves or the glowing sea life that outlines the contours of the whale leaping in the night, just to name a couple of examples, there would be no Life of Pi—and no VFX Oscar, obviously, but also no Oscars for cinematographer Claudio Miranda or director Ang Lee.
Fast forward to February 11. Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy and laid off around 200 of its 1400 employees. The reasons behind the company’s troubles are “myriad,” as Brent Lang put it in his story for TheWrap the following day, but the crux is this: “Countries like Canada and the United Kingdom offer generous tax subsidies that have lured away effects work in recent years, contributing to the closures of more than a half-dozen visual-effects shops in California.”
Two weeks later, this past Sunday, just hours before the Oscars, VFX Solidarity International staged its Piece of the Pi Protest, “a demonstration,” noted Cartoon Brew‘s Amid Amidi, “at Hollywood Blvd and Vine Street demanding more equitable treatment of animation/VFX artists.” Then, the evening and the awards. And the Visual Effects Oscar goes to… Life of Pi. VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer rattled off his thanks, but when he turned to the crisis his and other VFX teams are facing, he was gonged off stage with the theme from Jaws. In an angry open letter to Ang Lee—who, it should be said, has expressed his concern—posted at Indiewire, VFX artist Phillip Broste of Zoic Studios, noted that this came “after a fabulously insulting and dismissive introduction from the cast of The Avengers, at least two of whom spent fully half of their film as a digitally animated character.”
With artists working nights and weekends and still worrying about holding on to their jobs, and VFX companies squeaking by on the thinnest of profit margins while studios farm work out abroad, tensions were already high; but the producers and director of Oscar’s big show exacerbated them unnecessarily.
“The entire fault does not lie with movie studios or VFX studios,” writes PixelMagic in a post at Reddit (via IW‘s Bryce J. Renninger), “but both contribute to the bad state of affairs in different ways.” PM elaborates on eight of them; from the first: “If a VFX studio in California bids on work for a set price, then a VFX studio in Vancouver can bid that very same price AND offer a 30-35% (not sure of exact figures) tax rebate on that work, but the VFX studio doesn’t get that money, the movie studio does. So they (the movie studio) automatically get 30% of their VFX paid for by taxpayers instead of out of their already wealthy pockets. The California VFX studio therefore cannot compete with this situation, so fair competition is impossible.”
In a message to members of the Visual Effects Society, Chairman Jeffrey A. Okun writes, “in a sense, we cannot blame the studios for our woes—we are in a business, not a charity.” But: “We must be willing to say no unilaterally if we want to make change.” And at HitFix, Drew McWeeney warns the studios that VFX workers will not roll over as readily as writers have in the past.
Hours before the Oscars and the protests that preceded them, Jason Sperb took a broader view:
Over the last several decades, technological innovation has more often than not negatively affected labor in the United States. Technology not only decreases the physical demand of individual laborers needed, but also generally drives down the cost and value of those who still find work. I don’t need to tell newspaper reporters or auto factory workers this, but it seems a glaring blind spot in media studies—a structuring absence in the constant rush to write about the latest television shows, iPad or digital 3D spectacle. This is partially what I was trying to write about in the “virtual performance” essay, recently—using the notion of the “synthespian” (the virtual actor) as both an allegory for the slow but constant shift to post-human labor, and as a reflection on the persistence of the star system’s—and the age-old “how’d they do that” spectacle’s—ability to distract us—textually and paratextually—from the kind of radically problematic labor practices which will be (somewhat) exposed today in LA. Its also something that is a constant arch in my Disney (Pixar) classes—the evolution of animation labor practices since the 1930s closely reflects the devastating shift from a massive manual labor force needed in the industrial age to a much smaller, much more specialized workforce in the information age.
Updates, 3/1: “Visual Effects Society Executive Director Eric Roth has issued an open letter and a ‘call to action,’ imploring government and, certainly, industry attention be paid to this post-production sector,” reports In Contention‘s Kristopher Tapley. “‘The amazing irony,’ he writes, ‘is that while 47 of the top 50 films of all time are visual effects driven and billions of dollars of profits are generated yearly, the actual people who create the work are becoming an endangered species in California.'”
Meantime, just a whole lot of pix snapped on sets of blockbusting franchises before VFX artists apply their magic have been floating around out there. La boite verte collects some of the best of them.