Clearing the Air

The Visual Effects Problem in Hollywood

What were the protests during the Oscars all about?

Life of Pi visual effects
Photo: 20th Century Fox

This year at the Oscars, acceptance speeches were cut short using the theme from Jaws. If you asked me to name those that were cut short, I couldn't. Well, except for one.

It is well known the visual effects house Rhythm + Hues recently filed for bankruptcy. It is also known visual effects artists from R+H were at the Oscars, but not inside the Dolby Theatre, outside pounding the pavement in protest.

kidman-piOf course, they were also inside, accepting the Oscar for work on Life of Pi and when Oscar winners Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer and Donald Elliott took the stage and were done with their "thank yous" they attempted to get out a few words regarding the state of the industry. That was when Jaws cut them short. You can see Nicole Kidman's reaction as they were played off, and you could read her lips saying, "Poor thing."

I'm sure that brief glimpse of Kidman (as well as her husband and others behind her laughing), tied with the theme from Jaws, immortalized on television just as the bankruptcy of the Oscar-winning effects house was about to be acknowledged, bit harder than anyone could have ever imagined. But what is all this concerning?

The issue, as compiled by indieWire, is in regards to outsourcing of effects work to Canada because of incentives and studios are requiring American houses to compensate them with the same incentives if they are to keep things south of the border. And while studios sell films like Transformers on the backs of the visual effects and not with Shia LaBeouf, the fact they get no residuals stings even further.

There is talk of unionizing the effects industry under the banner of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), but all the details were laid out by Visual FX artist Phillip Broste in an open letter to Oscar-winning Life of Pi director Ang Lee, which indieWire reprinted and I've included directly below.

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

Read more about the effects work done in Life of Pi here and check out a featurette below.

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  • DDutchman

    Excellent article. I was thinking that during the Oscars, as deserving as Ben Affleck was for Best Director, that Spielberg was most deserving of the remaining group of directors. Nothing against Ang Lee, just that directing actors (three whom were nominated for their roles) in a very distant time that we dont know too well historically, seemed bigger to me then directing CGI animals, sequences, and effects. I almost feel as if everyone who would have voted for Ben Affleck decided to vote for Ang Lee.

    • The Dude

      The ignorance in this most makes me sick. Unless you've actually been on a set like Life of Pi's, you have no idea what you're talking about.

      • The Dude

        That's not to say that Ang Lee deserved it over Spielberg, but your reasoning is laughable.

        • adu

          I agree, I dont see how that is a good reason to award it to Spielberg,

        • DDutchman

          No, I have not been on a set as big of Life of Pi, but in regards to directing - it is just unusual for a film as dependent on visual effects for its storytelling to win best 'director' with a lesser performance from actors.
          - The Artist, The Kings Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Brokeback Mountain, Million Dollar Baby, Return of the King, and The Pianist were the last ten films to garner a best director. So yes, I would think that Spielberg would be the favorite for directing, and I certainly did not think that Lincoln would win for editing (yawn, lol)

  • Winchester

    Goodness knows what goes on behind the scenes in VFX houses when studios push for the eternal mantra of 'cheaper, faster, better' which we all recognise as shorthand for 'where can we cut corners while pretending we aren't cutting corners' whenever it's used.

    Probably many stories to be found (as the letter alludes to).

  • oyid

    I agree, this is very interesting. Seems dystopian to think there was a protest right outside all the glitz and glamour the TV audiences were exposed to, or that its mere mention was cut short. I think this Reddit comment (linked to in the Indiewire article) helps make the VFX artists' case:

    I repost the link here in case anyone might miss it.

  • Newbourne

    The Jaws theme cut them off, not because they were going political, but because they went over the time allowed. Those time limits are established before-hand and they can't just abuse the good faith of the shows' producers, expecting them to receive 3 more minutes so they can rant about their protest.

    Had they immediately spoken about the protest upon grabbing the microphone, they could have sent their message without being cut off. Instead, they decided to say their thank yous, and then protest when the music came up. That wasn't a "joke" nor was is cruel. It isn't the Oscars' fault, that's on THEM.

    • Oyid

      That may vey well be the case, but it certainly doesn't make the Academy look good (or, more fairly, the show's producers and director) to cut them off mid-sentence, especially when paired with the visual of people laughing and Nicoke Kidman making a face.

    • Steve Stager

      If every winner spoke for even five minutes, the show would be two hours long. When will the Oscar producers realize the speeches are not the problem?

  • The Dude

    The backlash against Ang Lee in that article is ridiculous. What did you want him to say? "It should be more expensive?". If Life of Pi cost a dime more than it did to make, it would have never made it to the screen. I do feel bad for those working in VFX, but to take it out on Lee is ridiculous.

    • Yaz

      I agree with you dude, but to be clear, the backlash you speak of is in the open letter to Lee that is simply embedded into the article... Not the article it self.

    • OYID

      I think the issue here is a perceived callousness on the part of Hollywood higher-ups toward the people who make VFX possible. This perception is not completely unjustified, and Lee's comment is probably one of many offhand remarks powerful people make about wanting more bang for their buck, probably oblivious to the real human cost of their demands. Lee is just a visible example of a widespread phenomenon.
      And I don't agree that a major movie studio couldn't afford "a dime more." Or another million bucks, for that matter.

      • A-K87

        I genuinely feel sorry for these hardworking people but the movie industry isn't a charity. I love movies but lets put this into perspective. These guys aren't slaves or working in a sweatshop. Pointing fingers at Ang Lee isn't the answer to their woes. I'm sure that many of these workers buy clothes and goods which have been created in the third world where the employees are treated much worse.

  • OYID

    Hollywood is full of old, powerful, strict trade unions that protect workers against precisely this kind of crap and yet studios somehow manage to turn massive profits.
    You're right that they aren't slaves in a sweatshop: they're talented, educated professionals being overworked and threatened with losing their jobs if they don't compete on unequal ground (and being labeled as "troublemakers" if they complain). If these kind of people have it so rough, what hope is there for the rest of us? Unions work, they get workers protected from the kind of businessman who would trample them for profit.
    As for pointing out Ang Lee: Rythm + Hues worked in Life of Pi, and his own recent comment is indicative of how oblivious the rest of the industry is to the VFX situation. And you can't really fault them for choosing a visible target: They're fighting a losing battle against industry giants, I think they're entitled to adress a director by name.

    • Oyid

      (This is a reply to A-K87)

    • A-K87

      I'm hardly an ardent capitalist but (this is unfortunate) what did they expect Ang Lee to say, "I want to pay you MORE money from my budget." (???) It's a shame what is happening to these extraordinarily talented people and I clearly benefit from their hard work as a regular purchaser of movies.

      I also (ashamedly) benefit from the sweat and tears of children forced to work in the third world. I just don't really understand what these protesters realistically expect. What I expect is for VFX industries to sprout up in the Middle and Far East claiming to offer services for cheaper and quicker. I'm not laughing at the misfortune of these talented people but I find their protests naive. The US Employment (what you guys call Labour) Laws seem so weak that I, unfortunately, can't see a positive outcome for them.

      • OYID

        Sady, this is probably the most likely outcome.

  • Steve Stager

    One of my coworkers suggested that each nominee gives the producers a list of people who they want to thank. Then, as they are walking on stage, the list goes across/down the screen, like "Ben Affleck would like to thank....etc." The person could give a short little anecdote or something else when they actually receive the award. I think this could not only shorten the show, but make sure things like this happen less often.

    • Newbourne

      I think the actors should just be inclined to spice things up and forego the typical "thank people and act humbled" approach. Why not be entertaining instead? I'm frankly bored with all those speeches. They're practically all the same. Thank the director, thank the crew, the wife, the family and sometimes the producers, the writers and/or the rest of the cast.