What's going on with the troubled VFX industry?


Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

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What exactly are visual effects artists saying is wrong with the industry?

There isn’t a simple answer to that. The VFX artists’ movement has been accused of lacking a clear, agreed-upon goal. But there are specific grievances that have expressed:

The migratory life of a visual effects artist:
Though Los Angeles remains the home base of the film industry, production and post-production on movies is being done increasingly outside of Southern California and increasingly outside of the United States. California’s program allocates $100 million yearly to the film industry, which many filmmakers say is not enough to compete with New York’s annual allocation of $420 million, and states like Louisiana and Georgia that do not cap the amount of tax incentives they offer to filmmakers.

This has many visual effects artists traveling frequently across national borders to pursue the next job opportunity, often living away from their family for the duration of a job or having to repeatedly move their family around. Before taking his current job at Rhythm & Hues, Rand says he worked on Transformers: Dark of the Moon in Vancouver, Canada, where he found himself sitting next to artists from Austria, Germany, Japan, Lebanon, and Russia. Because he’s constantly traveling for jobs on different films, he lives out of hotels.

“I think that [incentives have] actually hurt the industry over time,” Oberdorfer told EW. “Even in the areas that have temporarily benefited from that, it’s a roller coaster because it’s all based on temporary giveaways, and it really dislocates the industry over time. In the end it only benefits the studio system and not so much the industry apart from that.”

VFX artists in film industries outside of the U.S. are also impacted. As various regions continually compete to create the incentives most alluring to production companies, where jobs are available continually changes. In Canada, Vancouver has recently found many of its post-production jobs moving to Ontario and Quebec, veteran visual effects artist Scott Squires said at last week’s Town Hall.

“The subsidies do not create jobs. They just move jobs from one place to another,” said Squires, whose work includes such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Mask and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Eric Roth, executive director of the Visual Effects Society (VES), penned an open letter about this issue earlier this month. He wrote that while he wishes there were an easy way to eliminate all subsidies and tax incentives, he’d like to at least see California update its program to be competitive with other states.

Independence Day director Roland Emmerich feels the same way as many visual effects artists: “Every movie I have to go to Canada to shoot. I don’t want to go to Canada. I want to do it here in Los Angeles, where I live,” he said and, like Roth, called for a more competitive tax incentive in California. “I don’t know why California can’t get it together.”

But an update to California’s tax incentive program doesn’t appear to be popular among VFX artists active in the movement to change their industry. At the Town Hall meeting, when VES vice chair Mike Chambers brought up the topic of California tax incentives, he was booed by the Los Angeles audience. Many visual effects artists prefer to push for eliminating subsidies all together, worldwide. The blog VFX Soldier has hired a Washington, D.C. law firm (which is working anonymously on the issue) to investigate whether the practice of offering subsidies violates World Trade Organization law.

The fixed-bid business model:
Several VFX artists have highlighted the widely used fixed-bid business model as the source of many VFX houses’ woes. Most studios make a deal to pay effects houses, which today usually have a profit margin of about five percent, a pre-specified amount for their work on a film. When the expense ends up going over the estimated cost, visual effects artists say they are not compensated fairly for their work.

Oberdorfer suggests a cost-plus model instead. “That would allow [studios] to realize some of the true overages and costs that they endure in a process where maybe the results are not so well-defined and where there’s a lot of risk for the [visual effects houses],” he told EW.

Emmerich acknowledged that underestimation of the time needed for a movie’s effects is a problem. He said that artists often need two or three times as long as originally expected for a shot. The deal-making, as a studio and VFX shop agree upon a fixed price for the shop’s work on a film, rarely involves any of the individual artists who will be working on the film, he said.

Directors’ involvement in the post-production process:
Rand says the post-production process could be streamlined significantly if directors were present for more of the visual effects creation process. Rand compared visual effects artists’ work to building a skyscraper without a blueprint. He said he and his colleagues are usually given a basic description of how a completed shot should look. Sometimes they get concept art. Sometimes they don’t.

“You build your skyscraper until you’ve got it pretty much done. Maybe you gotta put the second coat of paint on or something. And the director or the client comes in at looks at it and goes, ‘That’s not what I want.’ And then you have to tear down your skyscraper and start again,” Rand explained, adding that most directors stop by a visual effects house to look at completed shots on a VFX-heavy film once a month.

“The director should be looking at it at several levels and signing off on it,” he said.

Rito Treviño, lighting artist for Digital Domain, however, has had a different experience with directors he’s worked with. How often a client looks at their work varies, Treviño said, but the director typically reviews a visual effects house’s work once a week.

“It depends on the client. Some directors like to get more involved,” Treviño said, adding that “if their office is just down the street,” the director may come to the VFX house more often. “Michael Bay’s office is not too far away from Digital Domain. He would tend to show up more often for Transformers projects [than some other directors].”

Of the complaint that directors are not involved enough in VFX artists work, Emmerich said, “I hear this all the time” but pointed out, “When you have 1,200 [effects] shots in a film, as a director, how can you ever, ever talk to every single artist about them all?”

He told EW that during post-production, he is “daily involved in visual effects. Mainly I talk to my in-house team” – the in-house team being the artists he and his visual effects supervisors have hired individually, in addition to commissioning various VFX houses, to work on the film.

Daily communication with the visual effects shops doesn’t come until “a later phase – the last two, three months of work” said Emmerich, who has worked with a multitude of VFX shops on his films, including Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic, Zoic Studios and Pixomondo.

Emmerich said that much of his communication with VFX shops is done via conference calls, while a computer or TV screen displays the shots being discussed, though he also really enjoys going to the shops to see their work there.

At last week’s Town Hall, Squires suggested creating a post-production position similar to the assistant director’s role during production. On set, the AD keeps the director and crew on schedule, constantly reminding them how much time they have for a particular shot, but no such position currently exists for the post-production process.

Rand argues that if studios and visual effects companies were to do away with the fixed-bid business model and use a cost-plus model instead, directors would be more inclined to check in with VFX artists more frequently to prevent situations where “rebuilding that skyscraper” occurs. He hopes that directors can learn to look at an incomplete visual effects shot and provide feedback before the shot is done.

“Sure it takes a little longer to do what we do,” Rand said, “but watching paint try is a hell of a lot better than watching money burn.”

No union:
Visual effects artists have a guild through the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and an honorary society in the non-profit Visual Effects Society (VES), but there is no union in the U.S. VFX artists are divided on whether there should be. “Some people say unionize. Some give the argument about how unionization could blacklist a company,” Treviño said.

Roth has told The Wrap that VES has no official position on the question of whether to unionize.

Steve Kaplan, labor organizer for IATSE’s Animation Guild, has been a vocal supporter of visual effects artists unionization. While he acknowledges that “unionization is not going to fix the industry,” he also argues that “it’s going to provide a more stable and a more viable workplace for the artists,” by better guaranteeing benefits like health insurance, pension, and pay for overtime.

Kaplan also believes that if a majority of VFX shops were to unionize, they could create an alliance that gives them enough leverage to push back against the fixed-bid model. “A fixed-bid business model is a business decision forced upon the visual effects shops by the production entities, so a unionized visual effects shop is still going to be forced to work under those conditions until there is leverage to change it,” Kaplan said. “The only way the production companies are going to end a fixed-bid model is if the shops themselves form some kind of alliance and bargain with the producers for their work… The union would encourage the shops to bargain together in what we would call a multi-employer bargaining unit.”

Kaplan and Scott Ross, both of whom were on last week’s Town Hall panel, are calling for a trade association to be formed among VFX shops. Ross, who co-founded Digital Domain and was previously general manager of ILM, received a standing ovation from the effects artists gathered in Los Angeles following his talk about creating a trade association. He argued that such a group would have the leverage to change the accepted business model, could create bidding templates and standardized contracts, and could provide visual effects artists with a lobby and a public relations team.

But Kaplan and Ross say that in their experience, visual effects houses have for a long time been uninterested in joining forces with their competitors to create this kind of alliance. The first sign that they may come around came this past week, when Ross again emailed several VFX companies worldwide about the issue — some “agreed to investigate the possibility of a trade association,” Ross said.

NEXT PAGE: What was that protest at the Oscars?

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