What's going on with the troubled VFX industry?

Image credit: Marvel, New Line Cinema, Lionsgate

Image credit: Marvel, New Line Cinema, Lionsgate

The buzz around the state of the visual effects industry reached a fever pitch this winter when prominent effects house Rhythm & Hues filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-February. Further attention was pointed at the men and women who create whole worlds from a blank green canvas during the Oscars, when VFX artists held a protest near the ceremony, which honored Life of Pi – a movie with effects by Rhythm & Hues – with an Academy Award in the visual effects category. The complaint? Movies like The Avengers, The Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy have scored big at the box office, grossing millions, sometimes billions worldwide, but the VFX industry that brought Asgard, Panem and Middle-earth to life doesn’t reap the same benefits as the studios.

The movement has spurred supporters to change their Facebook and Twitter profile photos to a green box, representing the green screen that would appear in movies were it not for VFX. Blogs have popped up that feature photos of what movie shots looked like before visual effects turned Andy Serkis into Gollum, before Mark Ruffalo was turned into the Hulk.

And more and more visual effects artists and their colleagues are speaking out about their financial woes and the changes to the business that they want to see. Last Thursday visual effects artists gathered for a meeting dubbed Pi Day VFX Town Hall (the name dually referencing Life of Pi and the March 14 holiday, as well as the artists’ frequent call for their “piece of the pi”). Panelists spoke to and took questions from a group of industry members at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Los Angeles, and VFX artists from around the world (including Vancouver, B.C., London, San Francisco, Austin, Tex. and New Zealand) connected via Google+ Hangout for the international discussion.

To help sort out the issues at hand in all this, EW talked to several Hollywood visual effects artists as well as with Roland Emmerich, director of visual effects-driven disaster movies Independence Day, GodzillaThe Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, as well as the upcoming White House Down. We also reached out to several other directors of effects-driven films and representatives for major Hollywood studios and for the Directors Guild of America. None returned EW’s request for comment for this article.

Just how bad are the financial woes of the visual effects industry?

Rhythm & Hues certainly is not the only VFX house to face financial troubles. Visual effects artist Dave Rand, who currently works for Rhythm & Hues, told EW he has worked at five other VFX companies that have since closed their doors or were saved from bankruptcy when bought by foreign companies, including Centropolis FX, where he worked on The Matrix Reloaded before it closed in 2001, and MediaWorks, where he worked on Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Another once-troubled effects house is Digital Domain, founded by James Cameron. The company was pulled out of bankruptcy last fall when bought by Chinese and Indian companies. Pixomondo, which won an Oscar for its effects in Hugo last year, recently closed facilities in Detroit and London.

Rhythm & Hues has found itself in financial trouble despite working on several films that scored big at the box office, including The Hunger GamesThe Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the first Harry Potter film. The company’s work on Life of Pi – previously considered an “unfilmable” book adaptation for its ocean setting and the tiger that shares a lifeboat with Pi – helped propel the movie to a gross of over $593 million at the worldwide box office, well surpassing its reported $120 million budget.

VFX artists have been watching these companies face continued financial problems, but not much call for change has occurred until now.

“I think the visual effects community has been remarkably apathetic for the past decade,” said Peter Oberdorfer, a former VFX artist. In 2010 he left the film industry and founded his own digital technology consulting company. He moved on to parallel technologies because he “saw the writing on the wall” as VFX houses’ troubles intensified.

That apparent apathy has been steadily dissipating since the news of Rhythm & Hues’ bankruptcy broke.

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

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