The big winner at this years Oscars was Life of Pi, winning for Director, Cinematography, Score and Visual Effects.

But in a bitter twist, Rhythm+Hues – the film’s highly lauded and respected VFX company – had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy only days earlier, in spite of the film’s global commercial success.

Come Oscar day and more than 400 VFX artists protested the closures, while only blocks away the 2013 Academy Awards proceeded apparently oblivious…

The bitterness only increased when Bill Westenhofer’s acceptance speech for the VFX Award was cut off by the orchestra striking up the Jaws theme – the Academy’s ham-fisted attempt to keep politics off-stage.

To add insult to more insult, neither Ang Lee nor his cinematographer Claudio Miranda thanked the VFX teams in their speeches.

David Cohen in his tragically hilarious summary of the event says:

The Oscars presented an almost perfect storm of slights for visual effects, to the point where conspiracy theories are flying… The lack of damage control after the Oscars, even as rage poured forth on the Web, testifies to how very oblivious Hollywood at large is about vfx issues and vfx artists’ raw nerves.

Bruce Branit voiced his industry’s reaction in a Facebook post which concludes:

So thank you Ang Lee. Thank you for not thanking us and for letting us all know where we stand. Our industry is the only non-organized part of the movie making business. I am afraid that may need to change.

Branit’s veiled threat has indeed mobilised a lot of individuals and organisations in the VFX industry to start talking about this exact subject – to build an international collective body to represent VFX and post-production workers.

What Lee Actually Said

It should be noted that off-stage Ang Lee was unequivocal in his appreciation of his VFX team:

VFX is a great, great visual art… [I] refuse to think of them as technicians. The bad news is it is too expensive, very hard, I heard about Rhythm and Hues…

And days earlier he told Hollywood Reporter:

“They did wonderful work, so many people, hundreds and hundreds.”

“I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]… It’s very hard for them to make money. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house.”

But online, Lee’s words were twisted in Philip Broste’s open letter (Broste is Lead Compositor at Zoic Studios, unconnected to Life of Pi or Rhythm and Hues):

When you say “I would like it to be cheaper,” as an artist I take that personally. It took hundreds of hours from skilled artists and hard-working coordinators and producers to craft the environments and performances in life of Pi.  Not to mention the engineers that wrote all of that proprietary code and build the R+H pipeline. That is where your money went. I’d say, judging from the night you just had, you got one hell of a deal.

Clearly Broste interpreted Lee’s words in the worst possible light – that VFX artists should get paid less.

Unfortunately it went viral and the web’s Chinese whisperers pounced, whipping up a storm of resentment around Lee.

Open Letters and Calls To Action

One of the loudest voices in the industry is Eric Roth, Executive Director of the California-based Visual Effects Society, which represents a small minority of working VFX artists, but nevertheless has spoken loudly on their behalf for a number of years.

Roth’s own open letter strongly advocates increasing film subsidies in California – which apparently means screw the rest of the world:

Firstly we call upon Governor Brown and the State Legislature to immediately expand its tax incentive program for the entertainment industry and to include a focused approach concentrated on the visual effects and post production sectors of the industry

The climate in California is stifling to VFX companies at the moment, where not only Rhythm+Hues, but Dreamworks and Digital Domain are all facing financial jeopardy, so Roth’s fight-or-flight reaction is unsurprising.

But his sentiment has angered many, including the newly radicalised VFX Solidarity International and VFX Soldier, an anonymous industry blogger, both US-based.

Roth’s next call was for a “VFX Congress” in California with international representatives to find an international solution. This sounds more constructive.

Especially because it’s international competition which underlies many of the industry’s problems. In R+H’s case, their bankruptcy was due to a collapsed purchase deal by a competing VFX company based in Mumbai, Prime Focus.

Most countries offer tax subsidies to film productions, this is how international productions are viable and even preferable. Roth’s expressed intention to petition Congress to end international VFX subsidies is therefore rather odd, and of course unenforceable.

Also historically, a strong US Dollar has always bought more shots per buck in India or Canada or New Zealand than it ever could in the States, quite aside from whatever subsidies that country might offer. (Of course the USD isn’t as strong as it was, and this could also lead to a sea change…)

The situation in Middle Earth

In NZ, The Hobbit has  received subsidies in the form of tax rebates, currently totalling NZ$67m. For a massive three-film production like The Hobbit, this is not unusual or excessive. But it also isn’t just for post-production or VFX, so it’s hard to base any argument about VFX budgets on an amorphous figure like that.

But there have been other compromises made for The Hobbit including an adjustment to NZ employment law redefining “contractors” and “employees”.

This came about after a 2005 court case where former Weta Workshop contractor James Bryson sued 3 Foot 6 Limited for unfair dismissal. The court ruled he was a contractor in name only, and to all practical purposes he was an employee.

After this ruling Wingnut went to great lengths to get this ambiguity tidied up, to safeguard Warner Bros’ investment in a NZ production of the Hobbit, as documents released this week make clear.

NZH_HobbitDocuments.PDF

The motive behind this move was to prohibit collective bargaining – i.e. unionisation – which is legal for employees, but illegal for contractors. Securing a contractor workforce eliminates any risk from possible industrial action.

This move preserves the status quo so no one can rock the boat.

I think recent events have made all sides more wary. The currents are pushing workers and companies in directions that are good for neither.

Perhaps collectivisation in our industry can one day underpin a stable, competitive global market for VFX. But we are a long way from that dream.

These early discussions will demonstrate how receptive the industry will be to something it has resisted for a very long time.

 

Further references

Some Facts and Statements about the Bryson Decision: http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/node/27762

Cullen Law (NZ) on the Bryson Decision: http://www.cullenlaw.co.nz/Site/Publications_Media/2010/Contractor_or_employee.aspx

The Wrap on the wider context of the R+H bankruptcy: https://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/rhythm-hues-sends-shockwaves-77181