Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Vancouver: Whatever the weather

It’s now a month on from the protests at the Academy Awards, and the initial rage in the VFX industry has given way to calm discussion about where we go from here. It will be interesting to see where this leads.

While we debate exciting things like tax incentives, the next post here will finally be the long-delayed follow-up to “Adventures on a Small Island”. I’m sure you’re all keen to find out what happens next:  Will I be attacked by polar bears? Chased by a chainsaw wielding maniac? Get lost hiking in the snow like an idiot?

Actually, that’s probably not hard to guess.

But until then, a New Zealand newspaper is running a series of articles by Kiwis living abroad. A short piece I wrote about Vancouver is this week’s feature:



VFX: Not Just Explosions

It’s been several weeks since the simmering anger in the VFX industry boiled over and VFX artists protested outside the Academy Awards.

Within VFX, the debates began.

Was Bill Westenhofer’s mic was cut because he was out of time, or because the studios didn’t want the plight of VFX to be mentioned? Should we unionise? Call a strike? Should the VFX facilities form a trade union?

Then, as with most debates on the internet, it got a little bit out of hand.

By mid-week, we had somehow gone from “hey, we’re hurting, and the industry that we love is in trouble” to “we want royalties from all films we work on”.

A petition was lodged with the White House to stop Canada and New Zealand from offering tax incentives, an action that only irritated those of us from Canada and NZ who enjoy working and being able to pay rent, without in any way specifying how Obama was supposed to influence other countries tax policies.

Ang Lee – the director of The Life of Pi – became a target for some people’s anger.

At this point, many decided to get off the crazy-bus, and stepped away from the discussion.

By the end of the week, deadlines and day-to-day concerns about renders had reabsorbed much of our energy. The fire gradually died out of the on-line exchanges, and the debate moved into calmer, saner territory with less talk of strikes, and more talk of, well, talks. Well, it’s a start.

But the anger directed at Ang Lee did bring to light an interesting problem with VFX.

When Lee won Best Director at the Oscars, he thanked the people of Taiwan, his lawyer and his agents, but – aside from thanking the “three thousand people” who worked on his film – he made no mention of Rhythm and Hues, the recently bankrupted company without which his film would have been a guy on a boat in a swimming pool.

I’m willing to accept that it slipped his mind with the emotional overload of winning an Academy Award, but many people in VFX took his lack of direct mention as an insult.

Next he mentioned that “I would like it [VFX] to be cheaper and not a tough business”. I’m sure he meant that he would like companies like Rhythm and Hues to not face bankruptcy, but to some it came across as undervaluing the contribution of VFX to his film.

Then, just as that fuss was dying down, he stated in an interview “Normally they do big explosions, but I want to do visual art with them”.

In that wonderfully inaccurate sentence, I think he managed to demonstrate why so many people in VFX are upset right now.

We cop a lot of flack for “ruining cinema” from people who think we only do blockbusters and explosions.

Believe it or not, we actually do very few explosions, and relatively few blockbusters. Most of what we work on – if we’ve done our jobs properly – you’ll never even know we touched.

We’ll take a film shot in Burbank and place it in rural China. We’ll roll back the clock and set a film in 1975 Vietnam. We’ll bring fire, storms or snow; we’ll place the film on top of a mountain or strand it at sea; we’ll add cityscapes or help stuntmen fly.

Yes, we work on films like Transformers, John Carter or Jack the Giant Slayer, but we’re also a big part of films like Argo, Rust and Bone and Lincoln.

Unfortunately however, when we do our work well, no one ever knows we were there.

Even within the film industry, we’re not seen in a much more flattering light.

VFX is often looked down on by the rest of the film crew who consider VFX artists to be peripheral to the film’s actual production.

In fact, we’re not a part of production. We’re vendors; the work is contracted out to a facility, who then crews for it. We often work in completely different countries from the rest of the production, and most of us will never set foot on set.

At the same time, the director will probably never visit the VFX facility that is working on his (or her, but let’s go with statistics here) film, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever meet the hundreds of VFX artists working it. Even when that film would not exist without them.

To many in film making, we’re just those faceless geeks who work in the dark.

This feeling of being an outsider is brought home by the credits on a film.

A credit may seem irrelevant to the average film-goer – they’re just names that roll by in the background while you find your coat – but within the industry, a credit is seen as an acknowledgement that you were a part of telling the story, that your contribution mattered.

Everyone on the crew is guaranteed a credit. People in VFX – being external contractors – are not. In fourteen years and dozens of films, I’ve only worked on one where everyone in VFX received a credit – and that was only because the VFX house held the final shots hostage until the studio agreed to give everyone a credit*. Other times, I’ve seen anywhere between one-half to two-thirds of the VFX crew miss out.

For many people, not getting a credit is like being told you didn’t matter.

That sense of invisibility and disregard is a large part of the hurt and anger that we’re feeling now.

When Hollywood continues to squeeze every last dime out VFX facilities, it gives us the message that they don’t consider what we do worthy of paying a fair price for. It says that they don’t consider us highly skilled artists. It says that they think we can be easily replaced by the next start-up company offering bottom dollar.

It says that they don’t value us.

I don’t think we really want royalties. We want respect.

We want acknowledgement that we are part of the production as well. We are highly skilled artists who have each poured tens of thousands of hours into the pursuit of perfecting our craft. We have become experts in everything from the physics of underwater torpedoes, to skin translucency, to feather dynamics, all to create seamless, invisible effects.

We breathe life into characters. We create and destroy worlds. We give you gods and monsters.

Our contribution matters.

*That VFX house went out of business a year later. It turns out that film studios don’t like having their final images held hostage for credits.

%d bloggers like this: