The visual effects community sees red in the wake of Oscar protest and on-air snub

Dear Hollywood,

You schooled us pretty hard the last time there was a WGAw strike.  You made a pretty convincing case for a Hollywood without writers, and while we’ll never admit it to you as a group, you broke us.  You really did.  And it has ruined the industry that I love in a million small ways that you’re not even going to notice for a decade or so, and when you do, it may well be too late.  You fought us over money and your right to more of it, and you hurt us enough to make us take a deal that we knew in our hearts was not right.

If you try to do the same thing to the VFX industry, you are going to lose.

I’m not telling you this because I want you to win.  I just don’t think you realize that this is not the same situation as when the writers decided to strike.  You are correct.  You can indeed lowball us and force us to do free rewrite after free rewrite and you can screw us on points and offer us insulting archaic math problems instead of real profit participation and we’ll smile and ask for more.  But if you start putting FX houses out of business and trying to lowball that side of the business, you may be crippling yourself.

After all, when you see pretty much any trailer for any tentpole film at this point, the shots you’re going to use to sell that movie will, more often than not, contain some degree of visual effects work.  Sometimes, the visual effects are the entire thing you’re selling, promising a wild ride to a new world.  When you look at your highest grossing films each year, ask yourself what those movies would be if you couldn’t offer ticket-buyers more and more marvelous visions each year.

I’m not even going to talk about quality.  The systemic abuse of writers proves that is not what drives the decisions in town.  Instead, money talks, so let’s talk money.  “Avatar,” the #1 grossing film of all time… picture that without visual effects.  Or picture it done on a rushed schedule with no money to speak of.  “Titanic.”  Same thing.  “The Avengers.” “The Phantom Menace.” “Star Wars.” Nolan’s “Dark Knight” movies.  “Shrek 2.” “E.T.” “Pirates 2.”  That’s your top ten right now in terms of all time domestic box-office.  Every one of those films was the cutting edge when it was made.  Every one of those films depended in large part on those visual effects being the best they could be at the time the films were released.

Honestly, the time to deal fairly with independent FX houses seems to have passed.  With Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and ILM with it, they’ve brought the two largest talent pools of state-of-the-art computer animation under one roof.  Pixar and ILM aren’t just part of the big leagues… they are the big leagues.  And now they are all part of one brand, and I can guarantee when ILM is picking who works on what movies, the A-team, the absolute cream of the crop, will always be working on Disney projects first.  That’s great news for Marvel Studios.  It’s great news for anyone making a Disney film.

I think the 21st century is going to belong to companies that follow a model along the lines of what Hydraulx is doing.  You don’t have to like “Skyline” to admire what they’re up to, or to see how canny it is as a template for how to make movies in this modern economy.  They don’t have an FX department… they are an FX company that also has a creative branch.  They are developing material in-house, and they own their own cameras, their own post-production facility… they can go start to finish on whatever they want, and all they need is a few hits to make this really start to pay off.  They can make movies for 1/10th of the budget of something and make it look the same.  In many cases, passion on these smaller projects pushes people to work even harder than they do for the giant impersonal blockbuster stuff.  “District 9” was a great example of a movie that felt like it was made by people with something to prove working outside the system.

I didn’t watch the Oscars yesterday, but enough people were instantly outraged by the way the orchestra played off Bill Westenhofer, who won for “Life Of Pi,” a movie that was impossible to make without the active participation of a team of FX artists working at the absolute peak of their craft.  It’s particularly galling that the FX guy, speaking about a protest that was happening outside that directly addresses the financial realities that are starting to damage the FX community in a way they may not be able to fully recover from, was cut short at a ceremony where they actually had a computer-animated character give away an award on live television.  Ted was so successful an effect last night that my mother called me after the awards to ask me how they fit the midget into the suit.  And without a great, dedicated FX team, that moment doesn’t happen.

I don’t think Hollywood is nearly scared enough right now.  I don’t think they’re truly thinking about what could happen if they make it financially impossible for innovation and artistry to thrive in the FX community.  Rhythm & Hues may have won an Academy Award last night, but they are also facing bankruptcy.  I remember the year they won for “Babe.”  It was their first Oscar, and I was at the studio for their big giant Oscar party with a friend who worked there, and the jubilation was amazing.  They were so proud of what they’d done, so proud of being a small independent house that turned out work that made magic for audiences all around the world, in a film that was beloved.  Last night, I’m wondering if any of that same joy was part of the experience for them.  Yes, they have another trophy, another round of kudos on doing remarkable things, but they may not have a future as a company.  How does that even make sense?

It’s not like animators or FX houses are wasteful.  They’re not trying to soak the studios for the sake of luxurious digs and casual decadence.  This morning, a very strongly worded open letter appeared in several forums and was reprinted on VFX Soldier, and much of the indignation in the letter stemmed from a comment Ang Lee made about the problems with Rhythm & Hues.  Specifically, he said, “I would like it to be cheaper.”

Oh, boy.

When companies are already playing things close on their profit margins, they can’t really keep shaving things closer.  Ultimately, what you’re paying for when you pay for a VFX budget, is the manpower you throw at your movie.  And on these giant films, with release dates set in stone before film has even rolled, the only way to get these films across the finish line is to throw more and more people at them.  How many times in the last ten years has a blockbuster been forced to hire more VFX artists during the last six to ten months of production?  How many times have they worked those extra bodies 10 or 12 or 14 hours a day?  How can you demand that things get cheaper in an environment like this?

Over the course of the weekend, I’ve been in touch with people working here in the US and at some of the overseas houses as well, and by and large, I think most of the people working in VFX have reached a similar place, emotionally speaking.  I think they love what they do, and there is such pride I hear in the things that are accomplished all the time right now.  There are miracles being created for the movies, and perhaps they’ve gotten so good at what they do that audiences take these things as commonplace, but they shouldn’t.  Look at how often entire characters are created by teams of people at this point.  Gollum is not just digital information on a hard drive, cold 1s and 0s that somehow suggest life.  Thanks to the people who created him, Gollum has a soul.  Look in his eyes in every scene he plays in “The Hobbit” or “Lord Of The Rings,” and there is someone in there.  Look at Richard Parker as he tries to figure out how to get his footing on the tarp on the lifeboat, and pay attention to all the tiny behaviors that make the difference between a cartoon and something that appears to be living and breathing.  These people do what they do because they want to be part of that miracle, they want to help create these moments and images of wonder.  They believe that VFX are one of the key parts of what makes moviegoing so magical.

And many of them are considering quitting the business.

Unsurprisingly, many people are scared to speak up, scared they’ll lose their job where they’re drawing a regular check or scared that they won’t be hired the next time a house is staffing up.  They are fed up and they want a better system and they have no idea how to go about making that happen.

One comment from an overseas friend who moved overseas specifically to find work:  “No matter how many deadlines we meet, they keep moving the dates. They love to set it up so we look like we can’t deliver or so we’re apologizing or so we’re the ones they’re waiting for, but the truth is that we’ve still delivered on everything we’ve ever done.  But there will be a breaking point, and somebody’s big movie is going to get burnt to the ground in the process.”

A friend closer to home was outraged today by the Oscar moment and by what he sees as a dangerous schism in the protest outside:  “I’ve already heard people say that we should eliminate any and all talk of profit participation from our wish lists, because if we insist on getting points, the studios will just stop negotiating and we’ll all be out of work.  Yeah, good luck with ‘The Avengers 2,’ assholes. Hope you’re okay with a dude in green body paint again because without us, you don’t have a Hulk.  Hell, without us, Iron Man doesn’t even have his damn pants on.”

We know from the historical model that Hollywood hates sharing their money with anyone.  They bemoan the death of home video right now as the newest reason they couldn’t possibly hope to cut anyone else in on even the smallest piece of the pie, but that’s just one more excuse.  There are always excuses.  There is always a sense that they have to defend what is theirs.  But you have to consider who it is who is bringing audiences in and getting them to part with that ticket money.  Right now, you’re like NASA trying to convince yourselves that you don’t really need the people who build the rockets anymore.  They’re rockets, right?  How hard can it be?  We’ll just build them overseas, right?

I’m not sitting in one of those rockets, and frankly, I can’t imagine the blockbuster landscape if you really do succeed in shuttering companies like Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues.  We need more Animal Logics and WETAs.  We need more companies like Hydraulx.  Frankly, I would love it if the studios pushed this issue and it blew up in their faces.  It’s time for something to shake up the status quo again, and this is a bigger deal than Hollywood acknowledges, making me think they may not even fully see the writing on the wall.

When you’ve got someone like Randall Cook, Oscar-winning FX artist on all three “Lord Of The Rings” movies, furiously ranting on Facebook the night of the Oscars, literally writing “Fuck the Academy,” something is wrong.  Sure, the Oscars plays people off all the time, but considering how hard the Academy worked to render the protest outside invisible on any official broadcasts, it came across as a particularly nasty choice to not even let Westenhofer finish.  Ill-timed doesn’t even cover it.  Now I’m seeing FX guys from all over the world starting to change their Twitter and Facebook avatars to a solid green box, a reference to what you’ll have if you don’t have the FX artists anymore.

I don’t know what the future of Hollywood looks like.  But I do know that the studios are as vulnerable right now as they ever have been, and taking a hardline stance against an entire section of the business that is so intimately involved in doing the things that are more financially important to you seems like a very, very bad decision.

Maybe you feel like testing my theory.  Maybe you think you can win this one.  Maybe you think you can bully enough animators and FX artists that you can just freeze out the ones who won’t fall into line.

And maybe you’re wrong.  Go ahead, Hollywood.  Pick this fight.  Make it worse.  I have a feeling anonymous sources won’t stay anonymous much longer and that guys on the level of Cook are just getting warmed up.

Adapt or change.  Embrace your creative partners.  Make it fair for everyone, and let’s get back to the business of blowing audience’s minds.