Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

VFX in crisis

I had planned to post “Adventures on a Small Island, Part II” today (even if I hadn’t actually written it), however something is happening in VFX that I would feel strange not mentioning, even if I don’t normally write about work.

You see, the VFX industry is in turmoil.

Last Sunday, VFX artists demonstrated outside the Academy Awards. The mainstream media seemed oddly resistant to reporting on it, but the protest is making waves around the internet.

It seems strange. After all, aren’t we the lucky ones?

Not only do we have jobs in this tough economic climate, but we have jobs that we love, that allow us to travel the world, and work on movies. It’s exciting, challenging, and intensely rewarding.

So why are we complaining, when so many struggling people would take any job they could?

I think I was about eight when I realised I was going to work in the film industry.

My brother had rented “An American Werewolf in London” for his birthday*, and my parents – having very liberal views on what children could watch (ie, anything, because nothing would be worse than the 6 o’clock news) – let me see it as well.

I wasn’t scared. I was amazed. A man turned into a werewolf in front of my eyes.

That was it. I was going to work in the film industry. There, you could make anything happen.

Years later, I finally broke into the industry, working at Weta Digital on The Lord of the Rings (along with the rest of NZ. It’s kind of our version of compulsory military service).

That was when I found out what they don’t tell you in the trade mags.

Most of us are only employed contract to contract; six months here, a month there, another 8 months somewhere else. We follow the work around the globe, never really knowing where we’ll be next. Those of us with families drag them around the world after us. Most of us know what it’s like to spend months apart from your loved ones.

A “normal” week is fifty hours, but at crunch time it’s not uncommon to work eighty, or one hundred hour weeks, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. I’ve worked for sixty hours straight to get a film out on time.

Most people I know have.

Our lives are at the mercy of the studios; a temp screening, a trailer delivery, the edit changing or simply the studio needing a shot can mean that we suddenly have to work any and all hours needed – forget whatever dinner, holiday or school recital plans you may have had.

This industry has seen the death of more relationships than I care to remember.

But for all that, that’s not why a lot of us are angry.

After all, I get paid to make movies. If that means long hours and leading an itinerant lifestyle, it’s part of the deal I made for being able to go to work with brilliant, talented, crazy, passionate people every day and put pictures up on the screen for others to enjoy.

I am angry because the VFX industry – the industry I love, and will sacrifice so much for – is on the brink of collapse.

Companies are struggling to deliver better work on a tighter budget and with shorter deadlines.

I’ve watched one company after another go under, at a time when the studios are posting record profits from the very movies that these companies helped create.

Last year, The Avengers made $1.5B at the box office, while Prometheus made $400M. Fuel, a Sydney VFX company that worked on both shows, went into administration less than six months later.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Titanic, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, earned in total somewhere around a gajillion dollars. Digital Domain, the company that did the VFX for them, declared bankruptcy in September last year and was bought by a Chinese / Indian consortium.

But, why?

In the film industry, there are only a small number of Hollywood studios (the guys most likely to make films requiring high level VFX), while there are hundreds of VFX houses around the world, with more opening up every day. Some of these new companies are so desperate to make a name for themselves, they will actually pay to work on a film in the hopes that it will garner them future work in the big leagues.

This means that the studios can bid facilities against each other to drive down the price. Often a company is lucky to have a 5% profit margin working on a film.

A slim profit margin is still better than nothing when you have rent and staff to pay – until the first round of non-budgeted changes occur. Then that 5% vanishes quickly.

A while ago, I worked at a company (due to the very extensive confidentiality clause in my contract, I can name no names) that took on work on a high-profile film.

Once the VFX work started, the director was unable to decide what he wanted. Concept work that had been approved months ago was suddenly not what he wanted, shots that had hundreds of man-hours poured into them were thrown out and started again – with no extra time or money for the changes.

It was like asking a builder to construct a small, two bedroom cottage, then, once roof had been put on, saying “Actually, I think I’d prefer something with three bedrooms, in a Tudor style”, then not paying the builder any more, and still expecting the house to be finished by the original deadline.

By the time that show was completed, the VFX house not only didn’t break even, they were several million dollars out-of-pocket.

The film went on to make $700M at the box office.

The VFX house didn’t see a dime of that money, and instead spent the following year trying to avoid going under.

I hear many people say “well, it’s just a negotiating tactic. You have to just be better at asking for money for changes”. But when you’re working in such a fluid, creative industry, how do you decide why a shot took longer than expected? Was it because the director wasn’t clear enough, or because the VFX artists didn’t get it right? Where do you draw the line between not hitting the brief, and unreasonable revisions?

The news of the closures of Fuel and Digital Domain (and many others) last year rippled through our industry, raising eyebrows and ringing alarm bells. But the latest shot came just a few weeks ago. Mere days after winning our industry award for Best VFX, we heard that Rhythm and Hues had filed for bankruptcy.

Rhythm & Hues is no fly-by-night company. They’ve been around for over twenty-five years, and at that time had won two academy awards for Best VFX.

These were the people who created “Richard Parker” for The Life of Pi.

The news that they were filing for bankruptcy and that some staff there hadn’t been paid for weeks sent us reeling.

Knowing that Life of Pi was broadly tipped to win the Academy Award for Best VFX, artists in LA gathered together to stage a protest.

Inside the awards,  Life of Pi was announced as the winner for Best VFX. Bill Westenhofer, the VFX Supervisor from Rhythm and Hues, thanked the VFX artists who had worked on the film, only to find “Jaws” theme music kicking in to play him off. He then attempted to mention the plight of the industry, and had his microphone cut off.

This did not go down well in the VFX world.

There is an anger in the industry that I haven’t seen before. The slow upwelling of discontent over the last few years has erupted into calls for a strike, arguments about unionization, and heated debates on what we can do to save the VFX industry.

I don’t know whether we can maintain this anger long enough to make a significant change, or if the momentum will slowly ebb away as people return to their deadlines. The next few weeks will be a telling time for our industry.

These places are often a second home to us. They are where we have striven with our co-workers to create ever more amazing effects. They are where we have poured our heart and soul into making the director’s vision come to life on the screen. They are places where we have friends.

I don’t want to see any more of them close their doors.

Life of Pi with & without Rhythm and Hues

withoutrandh1

If any non-VFX readers want an idea of what movies look like before we get hold of them, check out: http://beforevfx.tumblr.com/

*Growing up in rural New Zealand in the eighties, there really wasn’t a lot of entertainment on offer.

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Adventures on a small island (Part I)

There is a trick to hiking in snow. Particularly fresh, deep snow. Particularly if you don’t have the proper equipment. Like, snow shoes, for example.

You can’t just step normally; any weight on the lightly packed snow will make it give way, and you’ll plunge thigh-deep into the snow.

Instead, you have to compress the snow into a stable base by tamping down where you’re about to step. This make hiking something like: Stamp stamp stamp, step. Stamp stamp stamp, step. Stamp stamp stamp, step… and so on.

Or at least that’s the theory.

For me it’s more: Stamp stamp stamp, step. Stamp stamp stamp, step. Stamp stamp stamp, step, fall into the snow. Swear at the snow. Put my weight on my back foot to try and pull myself out of the snow. Have my back foot join my front foot in the snow. Collapse into a me-shaped hole in the snow. Tell my boyfriend that all hope is lost, and that he should just go on without me. Consider throwing snowballs at my boyfriend who is now laughing at me. Slowly dig myself out. Wonder whose dumb idea it was to climb a mountain without the proper equipment in the first place.

Repeat.

Fun, right?

So why was I spending my hard-earned weekend trying to climb a mountain in hiking boots? Oddly enough, because an eighteen year old kid was caught with cocaine back in the early nineties.

There are some strange public holidays around the world. Australia has Melbourne Cup Day, where everyone in the state of Victoria gets a day off work to watch a horse race. In the north, Queensland has “Show Days”, where the region gets a holiday because of an agricultural fair. New Zealand even has “The Day After New Years Day”, because apparently we need two days to get over New Years Eve.

And in British Columbia, this past Monday was “Family Day”.

The day started in Alberta in 1990, on the advice of Don Getty, who was Premiere at the time. The rumour I’ve heard is that Getty’s son was arrested for possession of cocaine. Getty tried to spin the ensuing scandal by blaming himself, saying that he had spent too much time at the office, and so his son had gone astray from paternal neglect.

Obviously, the solution to this was to create “Family Day”, a public holiday for everyone to spend time with their family. I’m not completely sure why folks couldn’t do that on the other nine public holidays throughout the year, but I guess they had their reasons.

Prior to Family Day, there were no public holidays in Canada between New Years Day and Easter, meaning that the three months of winter were one long, hard slog of getting up in the dark five days a week to go to work.

Since its inception in Alberta, Family Day has slowly spread across all the provinces of Canada; some celebrate it on the third Monday in February instead of the second, and some celebrate for different reasons, but all of Canada is united in the belief that there should be a long weekend in February.

As this was our first long weekend together in Canada, my boyfriend and I decided to have our First Canadian Adventure.

To start with, we needed to figure out where to go. To the north was the Sunshine Coast (somewhere I’m thinking was named by the same folks that came up with “Greenland”), while south of us lay the US and Seattle. East and we could head inland to forests and lakes, and west was the Georgia Strait, with an archipelago of islands ranging from Vancouver Island (the largest and home to the capital of British Columbia) to tiny dots in the sea, with nothing on them but wilderness and more wilderness.

As this was An Adventure, we opted for the “wilderness and more wilderness” option.

We booked a car, rented a cabin, brushed up on all the ways to die in a cabin in the North American wilderness, and set off to see something of The Canadian Outdoors that wasn’t my cycle route to work.

Our trip started with the not-very-holiday-friendly wake up time of 7am, with a trip to go pick up our rental car.

The price I’d been quoted was $25 per day, plus tax. I’d spent the last week patting myself on the back for finding such an amazing deal. Of course it was through a company called Thrifty, so I wasn’t expecting a top quality car. Just something to get us to the island and (hopefully) back.

My boyfriend was dubious.

Unfortunately, with good reason.

It turned out that the price really was $25 per day, plus tax. Oh, and plus an energy recovery fee. And a vehicle license fee. And a fleet maintenance fee. EALI, whatever that was. Another $33 for an additional driver (my boyfriend). Oh, and the optional insurance. That turned out to be compulsory. And another $40 per day.

All up, our $100 rental car suddenly cost $278, with $198 of “additional costs”.

Right.

Normally this is where I would say something rude and take my business elsewhere. Unfortunately, 8am on the morning of a long weekend, with a ferry due to leave in ninety minutes, is not the best time to be trying to find a new rental car company. So we handed over our credit card, winced as the payment went through, and quietly planned to trash the rental car as much as possible since we had just forked out $120 for $0 liability insurance.

Leaving the bad taste of financial chicanery behind, we hit the Trans-Canada highway, an 8,030km road that runs the width of Canada, linking all ten provinces, from Newfoundland on the Atlantic Coast, to Vancouver Island, on the Pacific. We joined it heading north to the ferry terminal. The highway didn’t stop there though; the ferry ride is actually considered part of the Trans-Canada highway. Just a very wet part that you probably shouldn’t try driving across.

Once we arrived on Vancouver Island, the plan was to keep heading north, where a few hours drive and another ferry crossing would take us to our remote island. There we would have the afternoon to relax, unwind, maybe even take in a late afternoon stroll.

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t factor in getting lost several times, taking the scenic route, and stopping for an hour to have lunch by the ocean. What should have been be a four hour trip ended up taking an entire day of travel. We arrived on Quadra Island tired, and heartily over traveling.

Then we turned down the driveway to our cabin.

A small, cozy bungalow sat facing the water, while a gate at the bottom of the garden took us to an overgrown path. Following it, it led us through the woods and onto the beach, where the bay lay before us, grey and haunted in the deepening twilight. Across the water, the skeletal forms of winter trees stood silhouetted against the evening sky.

The beach was covered with driftwood, remnant timber from the logging on the islands of the Georgia Strait. The wood had been washed down the rivers and out to the ocean by the winter storms, only to return with the tide.

We carefully picked our way through the bleached bones of cedars and firs, and slipped over moss-covered rocks.

There wasn’t a single car or person to be seen. Overhead, birds flew back to their evening roosts.

Nothing could possibly go wrong here.

Right?

Right. Part II coming soon, where I learn all about how not to go hiking in Canadian mountains in winter.

Oh, and if anyone knows whether it’s true about Dom Getty’s son, please leave a comment below. I’d love to find out.

Cabin + lake + woods... nothing bad could possibly happen. Right, hollywood?

Cabin + lake + woods… this never ends badly, right, Hollywood?

Little differences

Recently I faced the thought that I might fall asleep and not wake up again.

Not in a “sleeping beauty” kind of a way, more in a “becomes an article in the Vancouver Sun due to a stupid death” kind of a way.

Let me explain.

Earlier that day I had started to feel a bit run down; my throat was scratchy, I was feeling lethargic and I had a pounding headache.

I was coming down with the sniffles.

We were in crunch time at work delivering a trailer for the Superbowl, so time off wasn’t really an option. Instead, I headed to the local drugstore to stock up on cold medicine.

That was where everything started to go wrong.

We don’t have drugstores in New Zealand, we have pharmacies. In a pharmacy you can buy medicine. Maybe health and beauty products. If it’s a bit fancy it might have sunglasses and a photo printing kiosk.

Canadian drugstores, on the other hand, carry everything from groceries to electronics. They even have post offices in them.

This is great for when you need to buy underwear, a set of chairs, and an HDMI cable, all while posting a letter back to NZ. This is not so great for when you just want to buy cold medicine and go home to die.

I shuffled my way around the immense store, through the book section, past the food aisle, and down the rows of stuffed toys, desperately searching for the pharmaceutical section with its nice bottles of pills that would make all the bad go away.

Eventually I found it, tucked away in the back of the store, almost as if the drugstore was ashamed that people might come for something other than a coffee maker.

Snuffly and miserable, I gazed blankly at the rows in front of me. There was Advil, Tylenol, Buckley’s, Benylin, London Drugs’s own brand, and NyQuil.

The names meant nothing to me. I was used to Coldral, Panadol, Neurophen and Vicks. I had no idea about any of these brands.

Traveling to another country – even one as similar as Canada – means relearning a lot of everyday things you take for granted. Things may look and sound similar at first, but scratch the surface and everything is subtly different.

A while ago I went to mop the floors of our apartment. Looking in the cupboard, I found this:

A mop?

A mop, right?

Wrong.

A swifferIMG_0393

Apparently this is a swiffer.

It’s about as close to a mop as a platypus is to a duck. If you’re stoned and you squint, you might just get the two confused, but otherwise there’s no relation.

Confused, I tried pushing the swiffer across the floor in case the rubber picked up the dust and crumbs. Nope, it just moved them around. I tried dunking it in water and then running that across the floor. Definitely nope.

So I sat down and googled “swiffer”. I was thirty-four years old and having to google how to clean the floor of my apartment.

Eventually I gave up and just used the swiffer to push the hard-to-reach dirt out to where I could attack it with the vacuum cleaner. Then I carefully put everything back in the broom closet, closed the door and forgot about it.

It’s all part of the challenge of starting life in another country.

There’s a floorlamp at work that I have no idea how to turn on. For the first three weeks here, I couldn’t figure out how to use the range hood on the stove. It took me days (and google) to realise that “broil” here is the same as “grill”.

And now, run down and tired, I was trying to figure out which cold medicine to buy.

I started looking at the active ingredients of drugs in front of me; not because I knew what any of them did, but because it made me feel slightly more adult than selecting one by going “eeny meeny miny mo”.

At the same time, my body started sending pretty insistent messages about the benefits of lying down – preferably at home, but it wasn’t fussy – so, figuring there would be little difference between cold medication here and in NZ, I grabbed the only one I’d ever heard of before, NyQuil, and left.

Unfortunately, the only reason I’d heard of NyQuil was through Dennis Leary’s stand up routine. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best endorsement.

At home, I opened the packet to find toxic green horse-tranquilizer sized pills. They looked like the sort of thing that would give a person mutant super-powers.

Vaguely hoping I would wake up with the ability to shape-shift, I took two, tucked myself in to bed, and tried to go to sleep.

Except I couldn’t. I felt very very relaxed, but I wasn’t sleeping.

My limbs were six feet long and impossibly heavy, but that was okay, I didn’t have any plans to move them any time soon, I was happy to just lie there and let my mind float on mutant-green waves of tranquility.

2am came and went, but I wasn’t worried about not being asleep. Heck, I wasn’t worried about anything. Zombie attack? Fine. Nuclear holocaust? Sure, whatever.

And then something odd happened. Something that’s kind of hard to describe.

I exhaled, and then… nothing. I didn’t inhale. Not for a few seconds. Not until I consciously thought “you know, I should probably inhale now”.

The medulla oblongata – the part of my brain responsible for going “and… in, and… out, and… in, and.. out” was also very relaxed. So relaxed it had apparently clocked off.

I’d had to consciously think to inhale.

That was worrying.

I didn’t believe NyQuil could be that dangerous; after all, it’s an over-the-counter cold medicine. Surely it couldn’t be that strong?

Then I read the warning and cautions on the package.

I probably should have read them before taking the drugs. It turns out that in the right circumstances, NyQuil can actually be quite dangerous.

Yikes.

So I gathered up all twenty-four feet of my arms and legs and staggered into the living room to ask Dr Google about the side effects of NyQuil. Apparently there are quite a few of them, including respiratory depression. In other words, take too much NyQuil and you can get so relaxed, you stop breathing.

That was what had happened to me.

I’d been blasé; I was familiar with New Zealand medication, and – presuming that things would be no different here – had blithely knocked back two capsules without a second thought; capsules that were a colour that can only be described as chemistry’s way of saying “don’t take this”.

I started to worry. What if I got respiratory depression while I was asleep? Would I notice? Or would I simply stop breathing and never wake up?

I went back to bed and lay awake worrying, too scared to let go of consciousness in case it never came back.

Eventually I must have passed out, as all of a sudden my alarm was going off, the bedroom was bright, and my eyelids had managed to glue themselves together.

I had survived. I was still sadly lacking in mutant super-powers, but my cold did feel a bit better.

Next time, however, I might try reading the warning labels on medicine before enthusiastically downing it.

It sounds like a grown-up thing to do.

NyQuil: perfect for colds, flus, and back-to-back Lord of the Rings marathons.

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