Slices Of Pi

Friday 1 March 2013, 15:03

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

There was a protest by visual effects artists going on outside this year's Academy Awards ceremony. But what were they demonstrating about and do they have a point?

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  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 1.

    Unfortunately, this attitude is indicative of any creative industry where the hard work goes on behind closed doors. A complete lack of understanding regarding what goes into producing these incredible shots comes before the lack of respect.

    Only the most hands-on film-makers - or those with a background in CGI - have a true understanding of what goes into it.

    You hear it revealed in so many Blu Ray commentaries, when the film-maker says "Oh, this was one of the last effects shots to come in..."
    Not one of the last shots that he oversaw, or composed, or nurtured. It just "came in" in its fully-formed glory, free from the tears that were shed and the hours of life lost to get it there.

    I'm sure studios care even less...

    @middleclassfury

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 2.

    Mark, Welcome to the world of post-industrial capitalism where workers, whether they are unionised or not are finding their jobs outsourced to the third world where wages are many times lower. What is happening to the VFX workers in California has already happened to IT workers both in Europe and I imagine the US. The American film industry is after all a capitalist industry before it is an artistic enterprise. As with other aspects of our society so it is in Hollywood, the rich are getting richer by cutting costs at the expense of the ordinary worker, in this case the cost of VFX which is becoming ever more important in mainstream filmmaking, so expect to see more of this sort of thing. Next time you see some dodgy VFX you'll know why its the cinema equivalent of that cheap pair of jeans you bought in Primark or that dodgy cheap burger you bought in a supermarket which you now know was prime horse.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 3.

    These are the same issues that the video games industry faces. The VFX industry are ahead of us quite a bit here in that we are still relatively young.
    I wonder what proportion of a movies budget is spent on the director/leads and what is spent on the VFX work?
    The only FX houses that can call the shots are the likes of ILM and WETA whilst the rest fight over the scraps. Unionisation will be difficult but I also think it will happen eventually.
    Keep fighting the good fight as you're spearheading it for many other creative teams/disciplines in the future.

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 4.

    As a London based VFX artist I can say that this problem isn't just affecting Los Angeles artists. It's a world wide problem, particularly the unpaid overtime and ridiculous hours we are expected to work to fulfil the studio's crazy deadlines. A day's work averages at 14+ hours and then weekend work to boot and even then you aren't guaranteed a credit (after they've listed the caterers and assistants to assistants etc etc. For a while you get through it because you truly love your job and the fun it is to create all this amazing monsters, tigers, space battles. But as the years go on, going from company to company after being laid off when a project ends and having to shift your family about (and then never see them when crunch time comes), it can get a bit tiring on the old soul. We ARE artists, most of us started out with art degrees (usually animation) and the occasional techie and we just want the same respect as any other person in the film industry. Hollywood would soon come crawling if they had to make movies without VFX let me tell you. It's not all about making the unreal either, every period drama of the last 20 years uses VFX way more than you can ever imagine. For every Gollum there's also a set extension of Victorian London for Sherlock Holmes or a photo realistic horse leading the movie in Warhorse. Our job is make you believe everything on screen is real/or was there on set right along with the actors. Maybe this scandal will make Hollywood sit up and take notice, but given their track record, I don't see anything happening soon.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 5.

    This is a very similar situation to the one which exists in the video games industry. Essentially there are too many people wanting to do the work. There are two additional problems faced by the VFX industry, firstly unlike law, medicine, architecture or other 'professions' there is no difference in the industry from country to country, if you have a good grasp of English you can do visual effects in India, California or Basingstoke. There's little need for you to meet face to face with anyone and so long as you have access to a very fast computer and an internet connection you can work from a boat in the middle of the Pacific. This gives the movie studios huge power over the industry since (as Mark says) there's no need to hire Californian VFX staff in the same way as you would need a Californian lawyer if you were being sued there.
    Secondly the industry has too many people wanting to be a part of it. Unfortunately the VFX people haven't pulled off the lawyers' trick of creating a professional body to keep numbers down (the points mentioned above would make this tricky anyway) this makes any form of collective bargaining almost impossible and means that a VFX person is only as good as their last movie.

    One issue which Mark didn't mention is that movie studios often try to wriggle out of the already low rates they pay for VFX through the old trick of moving money around so that huge hits look unprofitable on the books. Any VFX engineer naive/desperate enough to sign a deal which offers him 'performance based pay' could be looking at cents on the dollar even if the movie grosses billions of dollars worldwide.

    How do we fix this? I don't know. Unless audiences do what the coffee buying public did to Starbucks and shame the film-industry into treating its VFX staff properly nothing is going to change. Unfortunately due to the problems outlined above there's no hope of a 'VFX strike' to show the audience what they'd miss...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 6.

    Their problem is not unique. The problem they face is that in the modern world, much of the work can be done anywhere, so they are competing with IT workers in India and China who are probably equally skilled, but willing to work for 1/10th of the wages US workers demand.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 7.

    Yes - like all artists they have a case but as others have said that's the world we live in. We no longer value years of training, exceptional skills, outstanding expertise and hours of graft. We just want it now and we want it cheap or, ideally, free.
    So we want our music for free, we want our e-books for free, we want our TV for free, we want our films for free. In so doing we devalue everything and, ultimately, limit our options and close our minds. Artist cannot survive on fresh air. If we are not prepared to pay them for their art then they will stop producing it and do something else that does pay. And when that happens (and we all know that it does) then we all lose out.
    If we wish to enjoy a product then we should be prepared to pay for it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 8.

    I think you did a good job of explaining the current status quo in the world of post production visual effects and good of you to make a topic of discussion.

    It really shows how competitive an industry has become when a studio producing some the most outstanding effects work that has ever been done is filing for chapter 11. It gets worse, Rhythm & Hues were farming out tasks like Rotoscoping to offices they have in Asia and India, as well as taking advantage of Canada's attractive subsidy offers, and still, playing the global card they recorded huge losses.

    One of the problems is the way vfx houses bid against each other to get the job. They put in low ball bids to get the work even if it means they only break even or might occur a loss on a job in hope the next one will turn a profit, then because the work has been based upon a fixed bid the client or director comes back asking to make changes, ignorant to the time and money those changes will incur, further pushing the vfx house into the red.
    Competition and margins were tight even before places like India started being very cheap places to send the work, it has become a race to the bottom industry.

    Many say the solution lies in studios creating their own content and look to an example like Pixar as being hugely profitable. Films like 28 Days later or Gareth Edwards Monsters show you can make very good profitable films and not have 100 million to burn.

    For more info check out vfx soldier: http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/
    and fxguide who have interviews with many industry key players on these issues. http://www.fxguide.com/quicktakes/ves-open-letter-what-is-the-vess-role-here/

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 9.

    I absolutely and wholeheartedly support these people! I don't work in VFX myself, but I do work in the UK creative industry, and I've had my own job outsourced abroad on 3 separate occasions.

    The fundamental error that the bean-counters make is that they think anyone with a computer and the right software can do a creative job.

    However, what they're really paying for is what's inside the artist's head, and all his/her years of experience. Skills are NOT automatically installed along with software. The software is just a tool to enable the artist's vision.

    I could go and buy a piano tomorrow, but it won't make me a concert pianist.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 10.

    "I'm a latex guy" - Mark Kermode.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    The same as some of the new Zealand's actors in the hobbit who were exploited because of NZ's weak labour laws.When they tried organise a strike the studios , backed by Peter Jackson threatened to move the production and forced NZ equity to cave in . Which is why I will never watch the hobbit or any Hollywood film made in NZ.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    I work in a large and reputable London based VFX house. I as well as many people I know have been directly affected by these tax breaks and subsidies. As a result of high over heads, too many vendors and extremely competitive under bidding the profit margins in the film vfx industry have become so slim that they now jump on any tax break or government subsidy that is offered abroad.
    Harry Potter brought a lot of work and talent to London, and over the years some of the best work has been created within a few blocks around Soho, but I fear it may become some what of a vfx grave yard and suffer a similar plight to California's.
    The push for bigger deliveries, for less money and less time has trickled down, coupled with the lack of stability has resulted in pretty gloomy prospects for the future of this once thriving enterprise, the entire business model needs to change.
    However Its good to see that people are starting to pay attention to what we do from the last weeks events.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 13.

    I must admit that I wasn't aware of the picketing- the only "controversy" concerning the Oscars that I heard being discussed in the media was Seth MacFarlane's song about boobs. I've just done a search on the BBC news site and couldn't find any mention of it, so it seems like it has been successfully kept under wraps (unless my search skills are failing me).

    On a side note, I thought the use of the Jaws theme tune was incredibly disrespectful, particularly as it was used most frequently during the more "technical" awards, thereby ruining it for those who were probably experiencing one of just a few moments in the spotlight. Having a mechanism for whenever someone drones on, or whenever Quentin Tarantino opens his mouth, can be useful, but it seemed more like an attempt to get the "little people" off the stage so they can get back to the more "important" A-listers.

    Oh, and thanks Mark for making me listen to Coldplay!!!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    Possibly there are TOO MANY films from Hollywood and too many using CGI? The best of rotten tomatoes list:

    1. Terminator 2
    2. Jurassic Park
    3. Toy Story
    4. Titanic (?)
    5. The Matrix
    6. Gladiator (?)
    7. Final Fantasy 8. LOTRs
    9. Finding Nemo
    10. POTC: black pearl
    11. LOTRs 12. Day After Tomorrow
    13. Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban
    14. Star Wars sith revenge
    15. Batman Begins
    16. War of the worlds 17. King Kong 18. Sunshine
    19. Beowulf
    20. Wall-E

    There some amazing work there. And Avatar/Jurassic Park in the below:

    http://www.creativebloq.com/3d-tips/cgi-movie-moments-1234014 ; is quite informative.

    The over-exposure probably cheapens the appeal of CGI and the supply of artists is probably too high for the demand of work also?

    @ #12. LePassenger -

    >"Harry Potter brought a lot of work and talent to London, and over the years some of the best work has been created within a few blocks around Soho, but I fear it may become some what of a vfx grave yard and suffer a similar plight to California's."

    Agree, if it's a particular cultural connection, I think there should be a major onus to "go local". In fact building local expertise is exactly why subsidies are formed in such profitable, highly skilled industries and it's short-sighted to out-source expertise by national countries, even if corporations could not give two hoots except their bottom line. That's what you get with a faceless, shareholder investment capital system: A drain in people capital in the country. First it will be one country then it will shift to eg Vietnam where it suddenly becomes cheaper than eg India... .

    The way for vfx to get their revenge is to make full CGI movies themselves, requiring a mixing of talents and interaction of different expertises to form a product that is not so easily farmed out?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    Mark,

    That was an excellent little summary of the issues the VFX industry face. Thank you for doing some research and coming to your own conclusion. There is a lot of stuff just be regurgitated around the internet at the moment. I was nice to hear someone who had done some reading and come to their own conclusion.

    I am a compositor and I used to work in London. The London VFX industry had been supported by generous tax breaks for the past decade or so but now other parts of the world are offering even better deals. Framestore is opening an office in Montreal to take advantage of these at the expense of some jobs in London.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 16.

    I was aware of the issues surrounding the visual effects artists going on strike and was somewhat disheartened that it hasn’t received more coverage than it has. I personally feel that they do have a case and a very strong one. The problem however is budgets. I have currently written a movie script which is in pre-production at the moment and there are many scenes but one in particular which relies heavily on visual effects and like everyone involved, really wanted the best expertise in achieving what I had written. However, the budget is relatively small and rather than get the people we wanted we have been “forced” to use another company stationed in India which has proved to be beneficial in some ways but sadly to the detriment of those we wanted to use: the reason for this is cost. Those we wanted to use have the knowledge and high reputation one would expect from many successful years in the movie business, this obviously comes at a cost but as a small film unit producing an independent film this is to be expected.

    I feel that those in the upper echelons of the movie industry (e.g. Hollywood) have the time and money to protect those artists who are fighting for their jobs but sadly don’t. Surely Hollywood would find it in their interest to protect those very people in which they depend on making their product a success. Of course, the movie business is exactly that, a business but as it involves creativity you really need a balance of the business and the creative process and what that involves in getting the finished article up on the screen to the best possible standard.

    Another issue is a lack of understanding. I think most people feel that effects produced via a computer is simply done at the press of a button but if people had a better understanding of the process and the many long hours needed to create those beautiful effects we are now familiar we wouldn’t take the visual effects artists for granted.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    This podcast with three industry veterans goes into great detail about the current issues. http://www.fxguide.com/fxpodcasts/fxpodcast-245-vfx-roundtable/

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 18.

    How much of a film has to be CGI post produced before the director is no longer the person providing the vision of the product. He then becomes someone ordering items from a menu and claiming the plaudits for the banquet

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 19.

    I think that there's a big issue with the allotted time that film makers have in the industry. We've already had Rupert Wyatt leave DOTPOTA because he felt that he an insufficient time in order to deliver a good and appropriate story and I can imagine why VFX artists would feel the same way too. On the other hand, sometimes film makers and their work benefit more from not having as much time as they would like, sometimes the pressure of time can make the film makers stop before they get too carried away!

    I do think though, that VFX shouldn't be used as much as they are currently in films. Sometimes the id ways are the best yet I see things on my cinema screen that are VFX, yet there's no reason for it. Model Makers, a part of the industry that VFX decimated (though not my any intention by the computer artists) I think the industry needs to find a good balance between the two. For Instance, the character of Caesar in ROTPOTA wouldn't have worked as well had it been an actor in literal make-up, yet the Star Wars prequels would have benefitted from a bit more model work and a bit less VFX.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    Yes it is all true. You just have to look at the VFX news sites and blogs of the last 5 years and you will see how many high profile studios doing work for many oscar winning movies in this category have closed down or moved their operation to Canad or elswhere. The heart of the problem as far as I can see it is the Studio model it does not work as it squeezes out the companies as they have to compete with each other just to keep the cash flow going in.

 

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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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