Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Bryce J. Renninger
February 25, 2013 8:06 PM
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Fighting for a Piece of the 'Pi': The Full Story Behind Hollywood's Visual Effects Problem

"Life of Pi." Fox
As a surprise song, the theme to "Jaws," swelled up as the cut-off music to the Visual Effects Oscar acceptance speech, "Life of Pi" VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer had just gotten to a very important issue:  VFX vendor Rhythm + Hues, who had worked on the film, has recently gone into bankruptcy.

Rhythm + Hues, it just so happened, was down the street protesting the industry's outsourcing of VFX contract work.

A post on Reddit and a recent piece on KCRW's The Business (this segment starts about 10:00 in) have laid out many of the issues.  Because of incentives, much VFX work is being outsourced (to Canada), and studios are often requiring American VFX firms to compensate them with the incentives they would get were they to go with a Canadian operation.  As VFX artists Craig Barron and Jeff Okun explained on The Business, Hollywood movies often sell themselves with their effects.  As they joke, audiences didn't see "Transformers" for Shia LaBoeuf.  Yet, unlike big box office stars, VFX houses rarely see any residual income from a profitable film.

Barron and Okun make the case for major changes in the industry.  There are many middle class jobs at stake, they say, and what's needed are conversations with the California state government (which, it is proposed, focuses on agriculture and ignores Hollywood) and studios.  Other options like trade agreements won't work because foreign parties aren't currently hurting.  Muddying matters even more is the widespread practice of outsourcing various components of the VFX process to countries like India and China.  This outsourcing is done by VFX firms to help cut costs in the face of already cash-strapped operations.

VFX workers are organizing in groups like VFX Solidarity International and with the Oscar protests and the attention being paid to the Rhythm + Hues bankruptcy, in general, signs seem to pointing to a bigger conversation about this important labor issue. 

In an open letter to Ang Lee after "Life of Pi"'s great success at Sunday's Oscars, Visual FX artist Phillip Broste wrote an open letter to Lee. Indiewire received permission to reprint the letter from Broste, who said he's seen a generous outpouring of support from friends and colleagues after making his concerns public and that he's excited for the industry to have a real conversation about these issues, sent out the following letter to the director:

Dear Mr. Lee,

When asked about the bankruptcy of Rhythm + Hues, the visual effects house largely responsible for making your film “Life of Pi” as incredible as it was, you said:

“I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house. They all have good times and hard times, and in the tough times, some may not [survive].”

I just want to point out that while, yes R&D can be expensive and yes it takes a lot of technology and computing power to create films like yours, it is not computer chips and hard drives that are costing you so very much money.  It is the artists that are helping you create your film.

So 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.

Incidentally, those were the same gorgeous sunsets and vistas that your DP Claudio Miranda took credit for without so much as a word of thanks to those artists.  And the same animated performances that helped win you the best director statue.  Nice of you to mention the pool crew, but maybe you could have thanked the guys and gals who turned that pool in to an ocean and put a tiger in to that boat?

It was world class work, after all.  And 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, R+H won for it’s work on your very fine piece of cinema.  And just as the bankruptcy was about to be acknowledged on a nationally-televised platform, the speech was cut short.  By the "Jaws" theme.

If this was meant as a joke, we artists are not laughing.

Mr. Lee, I do believe that you are a thoughtful and brilliant man. And a gifted filmmaker.  But I also believe that you and everyone in your tier of our business is fabulously ignorant to the pain and turmoil you are putting artists through.  Our employers scramble to chase illegal film subsidies across the globe at the behest of the film studios.  Those same subsidies raise overhead, distort the market, and cause wage stagnation in what are already trying economic times.  Your VFX are already cheaper than they should be.  It is disheartening to see how blissfully unaware of this fact you truly are.

By all accounts, R+H is a fantastic place to work; a truly great group of people who treat their employees with fairness and respect.  Much like Zoic Studios, the fabulous company that I am proud to work for.  But I am beginning to wonder if these examples of decency will be able to survive in such a hostile environment.  Or if the horror stories of unpaid overtime and illegal employment practices will become the norm, all because you and your fellow filmmakers “would like it to be cheaper.”

I, for one, won’t stand for it.  Please join me.

Warmest regards and congratulations,
Phillip Broste
Lead Compositor

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  • axup | May 12, 2013 9:40 AMReply

    Any Lee what a d*ck. He took the#1 biggest book of 2009 and outsourced an fx company to follow that script and somehow he thinks himself a generous. Hope he can't get another decent fix company to work for him again then see what rubbish he rolls out. Any Lee YOU should be paid less!

  • Jim M | March 1, 2013 12:06 PMReply

    Not the first time this happened. Remember Titanic. Cameron didn't just sink a ship in that movie.

  • Thomas | February 26, 2013 10:18 PMReply

    My hope from all of this is that we see less VFX in films, ie budget them properly and lets have a whole lot less of them. Less Transforminators! More great stories, acting etc!

  • davef | February 26, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    This is why producers get paid what they do. To anticipate there will be twice as many VFX shots as predicted, that it will take twice as long and require double the man hours before the they get their bid. Then it's the producers job to solve this problem with the writers, EP's, DP's etc, before shooting.

  • Shana | February 26, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    Look, here's the reality: If you tell your bosses no, you won't work overtime, the next movie will be done overseas. And they won't be sacrificing quality; people over there are just as knowledgeable. But here's the difference: they don't expect — or get — American salaries. It's going to be a rough road ahead for lots of people until things even out globally. Your only hope is studios that are willing to pay American salaries in the interests of supporting American workers. But that does not seem to be the trend.

  • Jordan | February 26, 2013 1:29 PMReply

    Thanks for the post Mr. Renninger. His best director win is owed entirely to the special effects team. I did get a laugh out of the Jaws music cutting off the bankruptcy discussion though... like the comedy of MacFarlane being chosen to host the award show that gave best picture to the man who he so sorely belittled 15 years prior. What goes around comes around except when it comes to credit and money - they go to the few when the many work just as hard.

  • Jim M | March 1, 2013 12:27 PM

    Missed the point BLUE. You can't tell that story in Cinema without those VFX. Lee's vision is just that without the KEY tool to tell it. The production wouldn't look as "brilliant" with a cartoon tiger painted on glass frames in that boat. As leader he deserves the award, but as someone who needs to lead again his comment was silly. He is a very good, disciplined manager with vision.... not brilliant... brilliant is Einstein ( someone who has a vision and can produce it or prove it on his own).

  • BLUE | February 26, 2013 4:10 PM

    Life of Pi was believed to be unfilmable and the visuals were the least of the problems. This man made a brilliant film out of impossible source material and you are seriously suggesting VFX deserves the ENTIRE credit?

    He didn't single out sound editors either. Or cinematographers, art designers, film editors, composers, and hell even the screenwriter. The childish belief that you are entitled to be singled out is a sign of victim mentality.

  • YELLOW | February 26, 2013 10:35 AMReply

    As much as I'm sympathetic to your cause, this open letter and all the personal attacks on Ang Lee make VFX artists look like unreasonable brats.

    First of all, Ang Lee is in no way to be blamed for your situation. Direct your frustration at where it is due, in this case it should be the studio executives. A movie with no obvious selling point like Life of Pi would never ever have been made, had Ang Lee not found a way to control the budget. This is exactly the point he was trying to make with his offending comment - In order for VFX to become a mainstream filmmaking tool outside of the superhero/summer blockbuster genre, the only way is to cut down the expenses. Lee in no way implied that this cut reduction should be at the expense of the VFX professionals.

    Secondly, please do realiza that Ang Lee is NOT a native English speaker. You can't expect him to be as articulate and accurate with words as you are, just like the native Mandarin speakers would not expect you to be if you tried to communicate with them in Mandarin. Taking ONE sentence he said, likely without thinking, this far is beyond ridiculous. His offending comment can be interpreted in many ways, even if it were said by a native speaker.

    What bothers me particularly about this whole thing is that, this kind of mentality is exactly what killed my favorite film of the year Zero Dark Thirty. It doesn't matter the reason why Ang Lee failed to acknowledge the situation of the VFX industry in his acceptance speech. Just because he did not participate in spreading the message that YOU decided would benefit YOUR cause, does not turn him into a vicious enemy and warrant any sort of demonization. Welcome to the real world mate, in which people don't plan their every move around your needs. Grow the hell up.

  • JV | February 26, 2013 1:47 PM

    I'm willing to concede that I may be wrong in my perception of the realities at work here. However, after listening to KCRW's "The Business" piece, and reading this article, I still am a little confused. I keep hearing the argument made that the current situation is not fair and that VFX artists need to be paid more. And also that they are asked to work insane hours. Am I wrong in saying that a culture that continues to say yes to longer hours and lower pay has to bear some responsibility for this? If these artists started saying NO more often then maybe things will change. But the counter argument would be, we can't say NO because productions will just go to India for their VFX work. But isn't Fox supporting R+H as we speak because they value R+H's work?

    Good work will always be valued according to supply and demand. If the supply dries up in California because of runaway production, then the economy will suffer and maybe VFX quality will suffer too. And then new VFX houses will open to fill that need.

    And as far as VFX houses not making residuals on movies... if you want residuals then form a union and negotiate for them. Fight for what you want.

  • Jeff | February 26, 2013 12:23 PM

    I agree with a good deal of Yellow's post in that aiming this at Lee is misdirected and, ultimately, de-values the conversation. For the most part, this system is designed so that directors DON'T understand what things cost and why - they need to focus on the creative and producer has to guide those expectations. There needs to be more constructive conversation on that end.

    As for JV's comments, I think the writer comparison is apt, but doesn't make it any more right in either situation. As for a DP asking his crew to hang in longer here and there, can you ever imagine a situation where the director/producer/studio decide on 6 weeks of reshoots without pay. That is actually the situation with VFX. I've seen plenty of artists do 70 hour straight shifts without complaint (for "days" on end), but it should be the exception l, not the rule. Right now, it is the rule across the board. Whether someone 22 is willing to do that or not, it should mot be the expectation on most projects from the get go.

    Worse yet, the majority of these vfx houses are still losing money on the majority of jobs. There is suffering for an art, but there is also a standard for ethical business practices, no?

  • Joffrey | February 26, 2013 12:22 PM

    To JV:

    Writers and Camera crews have union protections for such things. No person on the camera crew for LIFE OF PI worked obscene hours for no pay, had their job outsourced to India, nor did they go bankrupt after doing so. The general public's ignorance on the discrepancies in fair practices in mind boggling. I'm in the editors' union and have a great deal of protection against the kinds of mistreatment the VFX crews suffer, and I literally work on the same scenes they do. Even as an apprentice, I would have better pay guarantee and rights protections than most VFX artists.

  • yogo | February 26, 2013 12:18 PM

    This is a horribly uninformed response.

  • JV | February 26, 2013 11:39 AM

    What about the writers who the studio's ask to do a "producer's pass" (essentially a second draft) for free? What about the cinematographer who has to ask his crew to work for free sometimes? We're all artists and this is a very tough business and if someone else can do it cheaper, faster and better, then he/she is going to get rewarded. That person is probably younger and hungrier and doesn't have a family yet.

    On the flip side, if and when (and probably more like when) that VFX work comes back from said younger-whipper-snapper, and the quality isn't as good as R+H can do, then producers and studios will pay the higher premium for bigger VFX houses. The market swings like a pendulum -- we're seeing it now with bookstores; Barnes and Noble put the small bookstore out of business, and now, what do you know, there's no more Barnes and Noble and the mom and pop bookstores are coming back.

    The unfortunate side effect is that middle class jobs are lost when the pendulum is in mid-swing. For my part, I know what kind of business I'm getting myself into. It's feast or famine for everyone and if you think it shouldn't be that way then you're gonna suffer. If you want something more stable then stop being an artist and get a job in an industry that's not as volatile.

  • Jeff | February 26, 2013 9:22 AMReply

    There is some great background info here: http://tinyurl.com/Vfxsummary

    As a former VFX producer, I can attest to the insanity. A script comes in with 40 vfx shots. You bid them based on a one line description (ie: "add NY skyline to GS windows, 10
    Sec). They go shoot the movie and start editing. There are now 80 shots and the example above now was shot handheld with the camera flying everywhere as three women run by, their hair blowing around against a poorly lit greenscreen. And it is a two minute long take.

    So, you rebid. This shot is now 5 times the work and there are twice as many shots. The post producer blows up. "you told us it would be x and that is all we have."

    You go back and forth for weeks. The carve out chunks to other companies, you sub out the crazy camera tracks to India. Of course, you've now lost 4 weeks and sonare dealing with a 6 week schedule. You either need more artists or must pay overtime to those eho actually get it - more likely freelancers. You decide to eat it and knownyou will not make profit, but want to build a relationship. At week six their preview screening bombs and they recut, adding 4 more weeks to the schedule and they aren't paying you more. Yiu are now paying to work on the movie.

    My last job hit 120 hour, 7 day weeks by te end. I slept at work for nights on end (we all did, some did 70 he shifts with no sleep). There was no overtime and so you hit your 40 hrs by 10am wednesday and the rest is free. And a lot of people have it much worse than I did.

    So, it is definitely not griping and goes far beyond free market into abusive situations. Tough situation.