Wednesday 27 February 2013

Editorial: The VFX Dilemma

This is what most modern blockbusters would look like without

2012 was a great year for animation, we saw a plethora of exciting animated films and some of the most stunning computer-generated creations ever conjured up on-screen in big budget blockbusters like The Avengers, The Hobbit and Life of Pi. Yet, amidst the awe, between the breathless delight of movie-goers, the artists behind a large portion of these films are struggling. It's a tough market; the work has to be done superbly, it has to be done quickly and, as Oscar winning director Ang Lee hopes, it often has to be done cheaply. As such, the visual effects artists behind creations like The Hulk and Richard Parker often have to work exhaustingly long shifts for little practical reward.

One particularly poor turn is with Life of Pi. The film, directed by Brokeback Mountain helmer Ang Lee, is an absolute marvel; the story is powerful, the acting is good, the direction is tight. But one thing all who've seen the film agree on is that the visuals are its crowning achievement: an animated tiger so realistically rendered and animated that you often forget it's a digital creation, - 1s and 0s in a computer - beautiful landscapes and scenery and indefinitely spanning oceans. On Oscar Sunday, the film took home four Oscars: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects, yet the company behind the visual effects that made it what it is are bankrupt.

Life of Pi pre-VFX

Rhythm & Hues are rightly one of the most respected visual effects houses on the planet, having won Oscars and BAFTAs for Babe, The Golden Compass and now Life of Pi. Yet, immediately after winning the BAFTA for Best Special Visual Effects this year, the studio, in a grimly ironic twist, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As a result, although Pi has made almost $600 million worldwide and won countless awards, the 400-strong staff that created its most impressive element are now out of a job and without pay.

Something has to change. That much is clear. Studios like Marvel, Lucasfilm, Warner Bros. and Disney are heavily reliant on VFX - just take a look at the five highest grossing films of all time, they wouldn't be a fraction of what they are without visual effects. Avatar would be essentially nothing. Yet, these studios still try to get their effects cheaply, almost ignorant to how arduous, artful and long-winded their creation is.

Odds are you're aware of the controversy at the Oscars on Sunday: after winning another award for Life of Pi, Rhythm and Hues' Bill Westenhofer and the nominated team took to the stage - clearly pleased to have won the prestigious accolade - and tried to turn the focus towards the plight of R&H and the VFX industry, before being crassly played off by the Jaws theme tune. The mike was then cut off. The stunt could almost have been funny if it happened during an overlong acceptance speech that wasn't trying to address serious, personal issues. It was insensitively facetious of the production team and unfortunately indicative of the lack of care shown to the majority of VFX artists.

This came after a day of protesting in Hollywood just before the Oscars were aired, where hundreds of VFX artists took to the streets to try and raise awareness of the growing problem and incite change. The problem being, as stated, studios want quick, cheap, yet very high-standard work, if they don't get it, they can and will outsource it or try and get other studios to underbid the current one. The artists aren't covered by a union and as such have little recourse. Unionising is by no means an easy fix - there is no easy fix - but something definitely has to be done.

Perception matters too; these are visual effects artists, it's not just a matter of mouse-clicking. What they are not is sweatshop workers; people entering into the industry may well think twice given the well-documented reneging on pay and overtime, and that will ultimately hurt the industry.

Computer animation is expensive; it's simply not possible to do it cheaply, quickly and well. Yes, Moore's law means technology gets more powerful and can accomplish more, but if it can accomplish more, it will be used to accomplish more, and that means the prices don't shrink. Unfortunately it often means the pay for VFX artists does.

People all across the Internet - VFX artists, animators and even just fans (like us) - are showing support, that's why you've probably noticed that quite a lot of tweeters (herehere) have switched to a green profile picture - demonstrating what a lot of these high-grossing films would look like without VFX. If you feel so inclined, please do the same - every little helps.

Check out some uninterrupted words from Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott about the situation above. *UPDATE - 05/03/2013, 23:37 (GMT): The video has been subsequently removed, but check out some post-Oscar words from Westenhofer here.* Also, see some particularly potent instances of films before their VFX scattered around this post and, if you're interested, give this great article and this powerful open letter a read.

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