Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Ups and Downs in VFX

Today’s film industry has three main events in the cinema calendar:

First up is the summer release; these are the big, blockbuster films like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, or Elysium. They are high on spectacle, and big on budget. These are the films with hundred million dollar opening weekends, lots of CG, and plenty of things going “boom!”

After that, comes the Christmas release slate (which, obviously, starts in October); these are the large budget, family-friendly movies such as The Hobbit, Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson, films that the studio can bank on the family going to see together.

Arriving at around the same time are the smaller “prestige” films; films like Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, or Lincoln. These are in no way released at the end of the year to coincide with voting for the Academy Awards*.

Apart from this meaning that there’s never anything good to see at the movies in September and March, it also impacts my life in quite a significant way.

You see, most of us are only employed on a project to project basis, joining a company for a film, working hard on it, then finishing up along with the project. The cyclical release dates mean that March and October are crunch time for us, while June and January are often quiet. The VFX companies try to plug the gaps with smaller projects, but if they can’t find them, we clear out our desks, go for one last pub lunch with our colleagues, and start trying to find the next job.

It also means that any slight change in the film industry can have a serious ripple-on effect on VFX artists.

Like now.

Vancouver normally has a lot of film work. Experienced crews and predictable weather** mean a lot of films and TV shows shoot here, while the tax incentives make it worthwhile for the companies to stay and do VFX here afterwards. Recently, however, shoot dates for two big films pushed by a few months. Our summer blockbuster slate of films wrapped up in May, and the next batch of films won’t be ready for turnover to VFX until July / August at the earliest.

All of a sudden, almost every company in town has a gaping, two month hole in their schedule, and it seems like most of the VFX industry in Vancouver is unemployed. Myself included.

Work should come here. The two films shooting right now should post here – but no one’s signing any contracts until it does, and in the mean time, anything from a change in tax incentives to currency fluctuations could alter where the work is awarded.

This can make for a nerve-wracking couple of months.

Ideally, we would be making the most of it. When we’re on a film, we often do long hours without any time off, so now that we’re unemployed, we should be seeing and doing all the things we don’t get a chance to do when we’re working. It’s just kinda hard to relax when you don’t know how long it will be until your next pay check.

But that’s how this industry goes; we work flat out for six months, mentally plan all the amazing things we’ll do once the job is over… then when it is, we just worry about finding the next job.

This time, however, I think I might do things differently. I feel like taking this chance to actually see some of Canada. Financially, it goes against everything I was ever taught; I should be budgeting, I should be saving my money to last until the next job. Instead, I’m going to relish being unemployed, and just hope that the Vancouver film industry is there to catch me when I run out of money.

If not, I may need to have a chat with my parents about the fold out couch in their spare room.

*These are absolutely released at the end of the year to coincide with voting for the Academy Awards.

** It’s always a safe bet it’ll be raining.

LA Stories: Part 4 – Leaving LA

It was our final day in LA, and, with a few hours until our flight, we decided to check out the La Brea Tar Pits. There, I learned several important facts:

1) Okay, mammoths really were huge.

2) Direwolves were actually a thing before Game of Thrones

3) “Brea” is Spanish for tar. This means it’s actually called The Tar Tar Pits*.

This new knowledge in hand, it was time to return the rental car, and head to the airport.

Check-in for our flight was at 7:40pm, with the flight leaving an hour later. We’d been advised it might take half an hour to do the paperwork and get to the airport from the car rental office, so we needed to get to Thrifty – a ten minute drive away – by 7:10. I figured if we left by 6.50, we should have plenty of time.

Of course, I only thought that because I’m not used to LA traffic.

It was not plenty of time.

We sat at the traffic lights, watching them cycle from green, to orange, to red, then back to green, as the LED lights of the car clock inched closer to 7pm and our car stayed firmly put.

I held my breath, anxiously.

7pm came and went. I began to wonder what would happen if we missed our flight.

Then, as suddenly as it came, the traffic jam cleared, the cars began moving, and I remembered to breath again. It was 7:03, and – according to our GPS – we were less than a mile from Thrifty. We could still make it. I began to feel cautiously optimistic.

That lasted until we found ourselves driving along next to sand dunes. I didn’t remember sand dunes as being part of the LAX Airpark. I started to worry again.

Then the GPS told us to turn down a broken track between the dunes to get to the Airpark. The track was locked with a chain and padlock.

Okay, this wasn’t good.

We took the next two left turns – essentially a giant U-turn – in the hopes we could approach the road from the other side.

We could. The only glitch was there that there was nothing there except more sand. Somehow our GPS had managed to confuse LAX with a sand dune.

The clock read 7:09.

Okay, our GPS had failed us, the only paper map in the car was the tear-off city map from the car agency, we had no internet on our phones, and we had one minute to find the rental car office.

So we did the only thing we could do in the circumstances – we tried to find Thrifty by ourselves.

This was an interesting idea, given that LAX is surrounded by freeways, one way streets and stressed drivers.

Fortunately, we managed to piece together the route, and a few lucky turns later, we found ourselves at the junction for W Century Blvd, where Thrifty’s offices are located. The only problem was we weren’t sure if the rental car company was to the left or to the right of us, and the concrete lane divider in the centre of the road made a U-turn out of the question if we got it wrong.

We turned right.

We got it wrong.

We took the first left we came to, hoping to get on to a smaller street where we could do a U-turn.

Naturally, we ended up on a freeway.

The clock read 7:25pm. This was not going well.

The next fifteen minutes were a blur of street signs, stress, and the fervent hope that there were no traffic cops monitoring our speed. We were circling the area we needed to get to, but the network of freeways, flyovers and on-ramps meant we could never quite get there.

I wondered if my travel insurance would cover our missed flights, but I don’t think “LA roads being the 7th circle of hell” was included in my policy.

By the time we eventually found our way to Thrifty, the time on the playschool clock said 7:40pm.

I tried convincing myself we could still make it. If the shuttle bus left immediately, and we got every green light on the way, and there were no queues at the check-in, we could still make it, right?

We didn’t make it.

It was 8:10pm by the time we arrived at the check-in counter. To the credit of the woman at the Alaska Airlines counter, she didn’t actually laugh out loud when I asked if we could still catch our flight.

The next flight was 9am the following morning. By now I was resigned to paying several thousand dollars for a last-minute ticket, but the woman took pity on us. There was space on the flight, so she simply swapped our tickets and recommended we get there at 7am for check in.

I liked her.

Our flights sorted, we headed to the information desk to find somewhere to stay for the night.

As we walked through an empty terminal, we passed a woman in a trench-coat and several friends heading to check-in. I didn’t pay it any mind, but my boyfriend seemed uncharacteristically excited.

“I just saw Steve Tyler”

“Huh?” I looked around, the only other people nearby were the woman and her friends.

“Don’t look round! It’s Steve Tyler!”

“Huh?” I repeated “what, with that woman?”

“That’s not a woman, that’s Steve Tyler”

I looked at him dubiously. “Are you sure it’s not a woman?”

“She had a beard.”

“Oh.”

From the back, I guess it did look like Steve Tyler.

That was pretty cool.

I had been expecting the hotel rates to be expensive, but we managed to get a room at the Best Western for far less than I expected.

We soon discovered why. The hotel was at the fringes of the Airpark, surrounded by laundromats, liquor stores and fast food joints. This area wasn’t for travelers, this was where the airport workers lived, in the houses nestled at the edge of the park.

I had thought the Airpark soulless and depressing before, but this was on a whole other level.

We headed out to a nearby diner. There were several airport workers in front of us ordering dinner.

The women looked tired; they were obese, their eyes were yellowed and bloodshot, and their skin had a sickly, jaundiced look to it.

They ordered several burgers each. I watched as they devoured them in one sitting.

The food was deep-fried and covered in fat. It’s the sort of meal you might want to eat once or twice a year at most. They looked like they were regulars.

Here, at the edges of the Airpark, there’s not a lot to choose from. We were there because it was the only place open within walking distance.

I can understand why the women, tired after a day at work, and with no other easy alternatives, opted for the convenience of take-away for dinner, but it was still depressing to watch. Their meals weren’t cheap, and were doing nothing for them except slowly killing them.

I felt sad watching them eat, knowing that they were trapped in a cycle of poverty and self-abuse.

I wasn’t really hungry any more.

We awoke horribly early the next morning to catch the shuttle bus back to the airport. After the previous attempt, we weren’t taking any chances with missing this plane.

Fortunately, everything went smoothly, and we arrived at LAX in plenty of time for our flight.

We boarded our plane back to Canada, and said goodbye to the beautiful, bizarre and wonderful city of Los Angeles. There really is nowhere else in the world quite like it.

And that’s probably a good thing.

**Which was like learning that “Timor” means “east”, so East Timor means “East East”

Bullet proof glass at the night check in at the Best Western.

Nothing says “good part of town” like bullet proof glass at the night check-in.

The diner.

Mmmm… deep fried fat. Dinner in the Airpark.

LA Stories: Part 3 – Brokedown LA

As a child, I always wanted to go to Los Angeles. It was the home of Hollywood; it was where movie magic happened.

Unfortunately, for a country kid from NZ, getting to LA was about as likely as cycling across Africa. For a long time, the closest I came was six hours trapped in the LAX transit lounge, halfway through a 32 hour trip.

It was exactly as horrible as it sounds.

Then, in 1999, Hollywood came to New Zealand to film “The Lord of the Rings”, and I no longer needed to go to LA to work in the film industry. It never lost its appeal for me, though.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when my boyfriend and I headed south for the wedding of a friend Down Under*.

I had heard rumours that the city was struggling financially, but I hadn’t realised quite how badly.

Gone was the glamorous town of my childhood dreams, replaced instead with cracked roads and abandoned buildings.

Homeless people panhandled at stop lights, while a flat, sprawling landscape of pawn shops and loan offices stretched behind them.

I’d seen towns in developing countries that were in better condition than LA. What on earth had happened to it?

Maybe we were just a bad part of town. The groom was based in Echo Park, and we were staying nearby. Maybe things were better in the western suburbs.

So, the day after the wedding, with our flight back to Vancouver not until the evening, we decided to play tourist and see some of the rest of LA.

We soon turned down a brick-paved street where the ever-present decay we’d been seeing was gone. Instead, the buildings and gardens were immaculate, and an impressive blue church stood at the end of the street.

Oh. It was the Church of Scientology.

Well, that explained a lot.

As soon as we left L. Ron Hubbard Way, the streets returned to their former broken state. We passed a closed shopping mall, the car park eerily deserted, and a shanty-town of tents at the side of the road.

This was just depressing.

We continued west, until eventually we saw a sign for Rodeo Drive, and, on a whim, decided to check it out. Suddenly, the crumbling roads of the last few days were gone, and we drove over smooth, flawless blacktop. Expensive top-level shops lined the road, and a low-slung sports car parked outside one of the high-end stores.

It was hard to reconcile the wealth and luxury on display here with the poor conditions and poverty that existed only a few blocks to the east.

The sun came out, and we headed north, into Beverly Hills.

Here there were no more run-down houses, empty yards and chain-link fences. Instead, we were surrounded by rambling mansions and perfectly maintained lawns.

But even here the cracks showed. Heading along Benedict Canyon Drive, we passed a property that appeared to have been abandoned years ago. A little further up, a rusting sedan sat parked at the side of the road, slowing losing the battle to the local vegetation.

As a child, I’d dreamed of living here. But now… it seemed like the city was dying.

It turns out that LA has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for a few years now. Last year, LA’s top budget officer released a report warning that the city is heading for bankruptcy unless things change drastically. Which, apparently they haven’t.

Something called CalPERS is being blamed for the financial difficulty. CalPERS stands for California Public Employees Retirement Scheme, it is – as the name suggests – a pension fund for Californian public servants.

The problem is the fund derives its wealth from investments, however the payments it makes are fixed. This is great when the investments make good returns, not so great when CalPERS lost 31% of its value (roughly $80 billion) during the financial meltdown of 2008. Suddenly the government found itself with pensions it no longer had the money to pay.

And it’s not just LA; there are several dozen other towns in California that are either facing bankruptcy, or who have already filed for Chapter 9 Protection under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

But… I can’t believe that’s the whole story. Not here. This is Los Angeles, a town known for its wealth, for the opulent lifestyle of its inhabitants. It’s probably the only place left where “socialite” is still an acceptable career path.

How can a city that is home to such extravagance, be so poor it can’t afford to fix its roads?

Of course, they could always just start taxing the Church of Scientology again. They didn’t look like they were short on cash.

*LA. We’re in Canada. Pretty much everything except Greenland is “Down Under” from here.

The suburbs of East LA

The suburbs of East LA

An abandoned building, just blocks from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

An abandoned building, just blocks from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

An abandoned mall.
A small collection of tents and trolley by the side of the road

A small collection of tents and super market trolleys by the side of the road

It really does look just like in all the movies

Beverly Hills. It really does look just like in all the movies

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