Photo from Jeff Heusser's Flickr page
During VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer's acceptance speech at the Oscars last night for Life of Pi's Best Visual Effects win, the Academy's orchestra not only began to play the winners off the stage, they actually killed his microphone. Ordinarily that wouldn't be a big deal. Nominees are told they have a certain amount of time, and if they go over it, they're ushered off the stage. What made this particular send-off sting, however, was that Westenhofer's microphone was killed right as he was addressing the fact that the visual effects industry is in such a state of imbalance. Rhythm & Hues, the very company that created the award-winning tiger at the heart of Life of Pi, filed for bankruptcy, and that over 400 visual effects artists were down the street from that very theater protesting their working conditions.
But why are they protesting? And why is an Oscar-winning VFX company going belly up in the same year the box office broke its all-time record?
We actually touched on this a few weeks ago in our celebration of the VFX house Atomic Fiction. Basically it boils down to this: the available VFX artist workforce has grown so much across the globe that it's created an imbalance in the market. Companies are no longer competing with the best of the best in California, they're competing against others in Vancouver, India, China, London and all over. As a result, all of these companies are trying to get the lowest bid possible to win the work, but then once they've won said project, the workload is actually so demanding that they not only never profit, they rarely even break even.
Yes, it's partially the studio's fault for effectively outsourcing work to the lowest bidder, but it's also the VFX companies' fault for scrambling to be that lowest bidder. The end result is that hundreds of visual effects artists end up working 12-plus-hour days, seven days a week during crunch time in order to get a project done in time for a studio to get their latest blockbuster out the door-- and all of that overtime typically goes unpaid. It's a tough spot to be in. VFX artists put up with the conditions, for now, because they know that there's a ton of young bodies fresh out of college who will take their jobs if they balk at the conditions. But what's it all for if they A) don't have that job in three months or B) are never even paid for the work they've already done?
So the protest, made up largely of the 250-plus employees that Rhythm & Hues fired without pay last week, was done out of the hope that it might shine a bit of a spotlight on the problems facing the industry. There's a growing contingency that would like to unionize the visual-effects industry, giving the artists the same job protections that the Art Director's Guild, the Animation Guild, the Writers Guild of America and other craft unions give their members.
That won't be easy, though, considering how global the effects industry has become. Even if a union were to emerge, it wouldn't necessarily stop a studio from going out of the country to get its work done. The potential futility of it is no reason to give up pursuit of better working conditions, though, so we wish anyone campaigning for better working conditions the best of luck. And if you'd like to learn more, here are a few resources worth reading:
An Open Letter to Ang Lee
A VFX' artist explanation of the current state of the industry
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