Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Straw That Broke The Tiger's Back

VFX movement solidarity symbol
NOTE:  A bankruptcy sale of Rhythm & Hues remaining assets are going to be auctioned off on July 23, 2013. The assets include workstations, chairs, desks, flat screens and an array of technical gear. The last vestiges of the company will be gone following the auction

Maybe you were one of the billion people watching the Oscars’ 85th Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday. I was tweeting & texting my comments to a friend while watching the show. He is in the VFX industry and was particularly interested in who would win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

When Rhythm & Hues supervisor Bill Westenhofer accepted the Oscar for the studio’s work on Life of Pi, Westenhofer thanked everyone and said, "Sadly, Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now, and I urge you all to remember..." 

His mike went silent and the band was playing him off with the Jaws theme music. This awkward moment left countless Twitter followers breathless. No doubt Academy attendees were embarrassed by the non-scripted screw up.

My friend’s blood was up. “You see that! They cut off his mike!”.

For VFX artists, like my friend, along with VFX artists who were protesting down the street from the Dolby Theatre, this was the last straw. 

The artists wanted Westenhofer to tell the world about the inequities of the entire American VFX industry. The artists were thwarted by the motion picture industry -- once again.

In what should have been a triumphant celebration of Life of Pi,the evening turned sour, illustrating that there are indeed cracks in the fantasy world of the Oscars. And for the first time, there was no one in VFX to “fix it in post.”

And neither would the humiliation stop with the Jaws music.

Later on in the program, Ang Lee accepted the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi. Earlier his film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In accepting the Best Director's award, Lee never mentioned that the company that created his visual effects was filing for bankruptcy. Instead, Lee thanked his wife, Taiwan and his lawyer. 

Lee, who has publicly criticized the VFX industry for being too expensive could have been magnanimous and acknowledged Rhythm and Hues dedication, professionalism and craftsmanship during a time of turmoil for the VFX studio. Lee could have admitted that without visual effects artists, the Bengal Tiger never would have come alive. 

The Tiger Is Not Real
Lee’s acceptance speech probably infuriated the some 400 protesters down the block, among them 250 former employees from Rhythm & Hues who were laid off following the company’s filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy  February 13.

On Tuesday came the news that Dreamworks animation will lay off 350 artists after 4th quarter results from 2012 revealed a $83 million loss.

Rhythm & Hues' demise comes six months after Digital Domain’s massive failure. (See in “A New Way to Fail in America”).

There is no single factor to blame, not even the current recession. There are no culprits, as there were with Digital Domain. But rather, the seeds of these bankruptcies were planted well before Life of Pi was ever a book.

There have been many poor decisions made in the VFX industry in retrospect. Perhaps none were more important that failing to create a business worthy of respect.

Visual Effects has never been part of a business plan for motion picture studios. While hundreds of entrepreneurial boutiques built extremely sophisticated technology, married to creative genius, VFX never developed into a business model.

Instead, VFX grew up as a wonder child and remained an adolescent for far too long. It never matured and remained child-like and slow. As it grew up in the shadows it became the lost step-child no one wants to talk to at parties.

Why VFX works and other methods don't

Most business decisions were “one-offs” and based on small change. Because they were stunted from a young age the artists were prey for bullying producers who made them feel inadequate and not worthy enough to ask for what they felt they deserved. Along with periodic humiliation from parent-like producers, the step-child exhibited poor self-esteem and would always be glad to do more for less. There was no one they could model themselves after. Why would they? But then again, even writers had agents and unions.

In every day terms, when a producer or director had a problem with an under-developed script that hampered the shooting schedule or if the creative talent needed to spike up the story arc, producers would go to the dark secret closet and ask the unworthy to “fix it in post”. This became standard practice, paving the way for producers to ask for the moon if for no other reason than to see if they could.

 Unlike a collaboration with other creatives,the big movie studios never gave VFX people a place at the table. So, VFX took on the role of janitors. Typically, their wages were minimal and their job status fell as a result. They were never respected well enough to be given a fee for service, like the unionized crafts and art design departments.

“In VFX it’s like being hired to do the costumes for a movie --- and then making one costume at a time,” says my friend, experienced in such matters.

If a small VFX company ever tried to negotiate for a better budget, producers would suggest they had the option of going younger or going off-shore where VFX artists work cheaper than free—for longer hours.

A salary discussion nearly always implied that there was someone out there who would gladly do the job for nothing.

Inevitably, you as an artist are invisible and don’t deserve recognition even when you win something, say like Best Visual Effects at the Oscars.  .

When Life of Pi began production, the big studio producers were already exploiting this uncommon labor force.

With a go or no-go decision, and with no power to negotiate, Rhythm & Hues was in no position to quit. Rather, they chose to risk business failure in order to finish the film because they had faith in what they were doing.

In a not-so-perfect world, that alone should be worth paying for.

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