Fighting for a Piece of the ‘Pi’: The Full Story Behind Hollywood’s Visual Effects Problem

Fighting for a Piece of the 'Pi': The Full Story Behind Hollywood's Visual Effects Problem
Fighting Piece of the 'Pi': The Full Story Behind Hollywood's Visual Effects Problem

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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