As “Life of Pi” raked in four major Academy Awards last Sunday, the company primarily responsible for the film’s success was sitting in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Rhythm & Hues, the largest visual effects and CG animation studio in Los Angeles, has won three academy awards, and until filing for bankruptcy on Feb. 11, employed 700 people. But when VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer began to bring these issues up in his Oscar acceptance speech, the “Jaws” theme started to play and Westenhofer was rushed off-stage with his mic cut off. Most viewers didn’t give a second thought, but outside the Oscar’s Dolby Theatre, hundreds of VFX artists were protesting.
So what’s going on, why haven’t you heard about it and what does it mean for the future of the effects audiences craving more and more?
First, I recommend taking a look at the “Before VFX” Tumblr for a look at what this industry means.
When the announcers open the envelopes for Best Visual Effects versus Best Cinematography versus Best Art Design (now called “Best Production Design”) how different were the tasks you imagined? For most, and even many Academy voters, this is a gray area. But each is distinct, and this vague understanding is much of the problem.
Production design deals with the overall feel of the film from a “big picture” standpoint. Even the Academy is inconsistent on who – among art directors, set directors and production designers – actually receives the award here.
Cinematography, meanwhile, is responsible for the visual aesthetic, from camera composition (what is in focus, what lens to use) to movement (zoom, camera position, depth of field) to what lighting to use. That “Life of Pi” won this category for the work of Roger Deakins (“Skyfall,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and the vast majority of Coen brothers’ films) makes me think strongly that the Academy wrongly considers cinematography a blanket term.
Visual effects, most simply, deal with special effects, animation and visual “clean-up.” They integrate generated images with the real world to do what can’t simply be filmed. Take away the visual effects team, and you’re left with literally green screens, animations that don’t move and none of the too-risky, too-costly and often impossible movie magic we expect.
Anyone who saw “Life of Pi” in theaters, especially in 3D, knows that it was visually stunning. The Man Booker Prize-winning novel “Life of Pi” was deemed “unfilmable” by many up until its release. One critic considered Ang Lee’s movie to be evidence that anything and everything is now filmable. Suraj Sharma didn’t actually have to act aside an adult Bengal tiger, though this is the basis of the entire story. The luxurious island didn’t have to be covered in untold thousands of meerkats, though this astounding image from the novel demands to be both fantastical and of utmost realism. The whale, luminous jellyfish and flyingfish, too, burst with life and would be impossible without technology invented only in the last couple years.
Films are ever more dependent on this cutting edge technology. Just about any significantly technical film can be dated within a couple years’ accuracy by the look of effects alone. As dependency on and expectations toward effects have increased, the treatment of visual effects workers has become more and more strained.
Studios and production companies want these effects quickly and cheaply and they pressure companies like Rhythm & Hues to deliver, or outsource to China, India and other countries. Studios take bids from companies in locations offering tax breaks, and these breaks go to studios rather than effects departments. The demand is for cheap, young labor, and companies (least of all effects workers) have little to no leverage. All the while, profit margins grow thinner and thinner.
So what now? An obvious answer would be for effects industries to unionize, but this has complications for the industry at large. If an existing technology union takes in effects crews, this could mean that studios must make fewer films each year and work is scarcer for everyone. VFX Solidarity International is hitting social media outlets to work toward a brand new organization, but it would need studio and production company respect above all.
This isn’t just a big industry problem, however. Internally, as well, effects workers need to be treated less like disposable labor running hi-tech machinery and more like the artists they are. If this was less of a behind-the-scenes process, maybe Ang Lee would have at least mentioned this struggle in his Best Director speech.
The choice of play-off music was perhaps the biggest irony of all on Sunday. The creative team was rushed off the stage to the theme to “Jaws,” one of the most innovative effects leaps in cinema’s history, all as relatively few people took notice. Whether purposeful or not, it was a cruel reminder that there’s a long way to go in visual effects recognition. For the sake both of workers and the movies we love, let’s hope this is a spark for change.
Cameron Mount is a senior English education major. reach him at email@example.com