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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    Comment number 21.

    "I'm a Latex guy, don't take that the wrong way" .
    Too late, my mind is now soiled forever. If only i could get that image digitally removed !!!

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    Comment number 22.

    Er YES!

    I could not agree more that VFX artists are indeed worthy of being paid well for their work.

    What are Life of Pi and Marvel Avengers without the best VFX artists in the business?

    They are just ideas in a filmmaker's brain that he can't imagine how the hell he's going to put on screen.

    As a filmmaker who works with VFX artists I cannot express enough how important a good VFX team is and let's not forget all the planning work that goes into effect before the computer is even switched on!!!!!

    Let's see how directors, editors, composers and more importantly executive producers react when we ask for more work out of them: quicker and cheaper?

    This really got me annoyed because it's time a union was formed now so this growing division of filmmaking can be protected like the others are.

    It also got me thinking how many films are made where the stars of the movie are in fact the VFX team:

    King Kong - Lord of the Rings Trilogy - Inception and yes indeed: Transformers!

    There is a certain poetry and beauty in seeing technical craft come together on screen. It's completely cinematic even in the absence of actors so while the story and characters are just awful in Transformers - I just sit back and admire the excellence of the artistry that put together all those moving parts in such a symphonic way.

    Remember that Honda advert:

    I think VFX is under appreciated critically too!

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    Comment number 23.

    What? I thought everything was done on computers these days because it was cheaper than doing it for real? So, now visual effects artists are going the same way as every other artist in the world, to the point where the executives will happily outsource their work to slaves who are happy to do it for less.
    Did Life of Pi lose money at the box office? Will it go on to do well on Blu-Ray and DVD for many years to come? Yes to both. The studios money is a long term investment, no matter how much they all talk about opening weekends, these movies bring money in for years. Everyone uniquely skilled artist or tradesmen that works on a movie is contributing to its lasting success but is still only paid for the time they put in. A shame that Ang Lee and every other moviemaker doesn't make more effort to recognise this.

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    Comment number 24.

    Hi Mark. I'm a uk based VFX artist and these problems are worldwide, not just in the US. My thoughts on this having worked at several studios is actually the fault lies largely with the 90% of my fellow VFX artist who work ridiculous overtime and weekends for free without batting an eyelid. I for one have always refused and it does not always go down well with supervisors. I think the artists working all that free overtime makes the studios push the timescales and budgets to breaking point, therefore the big film companies know they can push the studios a bit more with every new project. The result is artists who think they have to do stupid hours just to keep their job, yet are laid off as they have pushed all the profit margins out of the studio they work for. Because hey "if I don't do the overtime, that other guy will and I will be out the door"...

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    Comment number 25.

    Sadly this sort of thing is not just reserved for the VFX part of our industry. I work in offline post production and the corners that are cut and deals that are done to save money is just plane scary. Worst of all it's the bigger productions that will open their wallets the least. Often companies will do the really big prestige jobs at a loss so that they can use the name of the production on their CV which in turn brings in better paid work. A friend of mine recently commented that the average wage for a spark or lighting technician hasn't gone up in the last ten years. I personally had to work for free for the first year of my career and we are forever seeing jobs where one person is doing the work and hours of two at least. At least in the states the unions have more power than they do here so not the whole industry suffers only the VFX guys and I really do feel for them as I know how they feel. In summation it appears Hollywood and the film industry as a whole is devaluing the skilled labour that's required to make these massive budgeted high return projects.

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    Comment number 26.

    I'm not in any way involved in the music industry so I'm wading in here with a good deal of ignorance.

    But hypothetically if a visual effects artists from India came on here and said "I'm an artist too, I've dreamed of working in films my whole life, what's wrong with me and my company bidding for Hollywood contracts. What special right does California or anywhere else have to VFX work?"

    What would you say to them?

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    Comment number 27.

    I am a UK based visual effects worker that has also worked in LA for a number of years and at some of the studios filing for bankruptcy.I think this gives me an different perspective on all of this having lived and worked in both locations.

    Things are definitely bad in the UK in some of the same ways and a lot of different ways. The working hours are worse in the US, but those hours are paid for whereas in the UK the hours are less but you work for free and productions feel that they are entitled to these extra hours to get the project done.

    Wages are better in the US and the cost of living is lower, but contracts are shorter and work can be more sporadic. In the US you usually are not provided with any sort of benefits like sick pay/vacation days/healthcare/ retirement options. Although I do believe the UK is becoming a lot more like the US with shorter project hires, more hours and more sporadic work.

    This is definitely a global issues we are facing and we are definitely at a breaking point when the films we work on make billions and we give up so much of our lives to work on it only to be in the unemployment line.

    Someone off the street can not do this job. It's so much more complicated than I think Hollywood knows or gives credit to. There is a definite craft here and it takes hours and hours of work to bring something like the Life of Pi to the screen by hundreds of artists.

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    Comment number 28.


    I personally have no problem with this. We already have Indian workers and Chinese workers and a variety of other workers from the global sphere. If anyone from any background works hard enough to do what they love, they should be rewarded and paid for their efforts. I believe they should be paid based on the cost of living in their location. It would be the most fair way. I would also like to say that a lot of of the Indian workers I have talked to want to emigrate to the US or the Uk, and even more Bollywood is HUGE and can easily help to make the local industry in say India thrive.

    We still need a global commitment from all artists, India included for fair practices.

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    Comment number 29.

    An excellent video; many thanks for summing the issues up so well and bringing it to a wider audience. I've been working in the VFX industry in London for over five years now, and I thought that was an excellent and very even-handed summary of the current situation (which is indeed just as you described, although not limited just to California). A few small thoughts I'd like to add:

    - An unnamed studio producer was quoted in Variety a few years ago as saying "If I don't put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I'm not doing my job". I think this probably speaks for itself.

    - My experience generally has been that VFX producers are very scared of pushing back on the Hollywood studios or director whenever they cause problems, and not without reason. A rather well known Mexican director recently really put us through the wringer on a certain effects-heavy sci-fi film due out later this year, and a friend of mine calculated he'd had to work well over 120 hours of unpaid overtime on one shot simply because the director couldn't make up his mind what he wanted (and this was far from an isolated case). This friend of mine raised it with his VFX producers and suggested they stand up to the director and say he was being unreasonable. The producers replied that they'd already tried several times, and whenever they did confront the director, he took it very personally and would start being especially difficult about other shots "just to show who was boss". Between the fear of losing other projects from the studio and the fear of making this director even more difficult to work with, they simply didn't dare press the matter further, and the long hours continued (unpaid of course).

    - Some in this thread have been characterising this as just another story of jobs disappearing to India/China. This doesn't stand up to scrutiny - R&H, Digital Domain and Dreamworks all have/had facilities in India, and all have either been declared bankrupt or have made large layoffs in the last few months - clearly that supposed cheap labour didn't help them much! The story here is rather one of governmental subsidies and of a very unbalanced relationship between Hollywood and VFX companies, where Hollywood can demand whatever they please and reap the rewards, whilst VFX artists pay the price with excessive overtime, job instability and low wages.

    Much as I hate to say it, unless the relationship between the studios and the VFX houses is drastically rebalanced, the VFX industry will simply be run into the ground. I count myself as very lucky to have a creative job that I enjoy, but when it comes at the expense of seeing friends and family, you can't help but wonder how long you can keep it up and whether it's really worth it all in the end.

    Thanks again Mark (and agreed on the latex!),

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    Comment number 30.

    Well that's Life of PI poisoned for me. I've seen the letter Ang Lee write and the reply and I felt so angry at Ang basically saying you should work for peanuts. Does HE deserve his probably hugely inflated wage as a director?

    Could the smug Marvel Studios actors do anything heroic without the brilliant VFX teams? No!

    Having seen the God awful Die Hard 5 (I refuse to call it anything other) and its substandard Catwoman style CGI work, you ultimately get what you pay for.

    I think having great VFX in a film will just be the purview of the likes of James Cameron (who has his background in this field) and Spielberg and George Lucas (who built his own VFX companies).

    However I'm not confident that Disney won't downsize ILM or any of Lucasfilms other subsidiary companies.

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    Comment number 31.

    This is a good debate - and I don't think I have a fully formed opinion yet. However, I will say this:

    There is a difference between how an artist works and how a business operates. The VFX artists may be the creatives behind the wonders - but they are not operating independently in their own sphere. They are being paid for deliverables within an agreed timeframe.

    As a consequence the work falls into a basic free market debate. If someone can supply the same product for a cheaper price - its not the fault of the person or company purchasing the service to go to the lowest bidder IF the product is identical - if the product is sub standard at a cheaper price then thats the movie studio and directors call.

    That said, the VFX artists need better union representation to reflect their needs and views - it isnt fair that other VFX companies in other countries are subsidised - this skews the free market debate.

    I say all this as someone who comes from an Artistic background and now working for a big corporate company.

    Supply and demand rules - quality is still quality. You get what you pay for in the time allotted. If we start getting sub standard "cheaper" effects then we'll soon stop paying to see the films.

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    Comment number 32.

    I am a fairly recent BSc graduate in Digital SFX and completely agree. Digital work is seen by studios as a shortcut to maximise their profits by producing vacuous spectacle. Maybe there was a time when SFX (physical or digital) was the "cherry in the middle" and even admired for both ingenuity and creativity but now it's the cheapest way to replace what was once plot or character development in a film. (Does anyone remember how Walt Disney claimed award after award while the actual animators got little or no recognition?)

    We should never forget that 99% of movies are about making money not art. And for that reason directors, Mr Lee, should work more cheaply...

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    Comment number 33.

    Speaking as a viewer, rather than someone involved in the industry, a lot of VFX are really, really, bad, especially in action movies. I think it's time for the viewers to demand quality control and tell movie studios that the punters are not going to tolerate crappy CGI. Unfortunately that's probably not going to happen.

    TheHalfWit made an excellent point. When Jason Alexander (George in Seinfield) demanded 1 million per episode on Seinfeld he was asked to explain "do you really deserve to be paid 1 million a week" and he replied along the lines that, no, no-one deserved to be paid 1 million dollars a week, maybe teachers and firefighters, but that Seinfeld had made the network 600 million dollars and that the distribution rights had been sold for 2 billion dollars and that that money was out there and the real question was what cut of that he deserved as an actor who contributed to making all that money.

    And he's damn right. Seinfeld wouldn't have made the same money without his contribution so he deserves his cut. It's the same with the VFX. Time for the VFX to unionise and develop industry standards.

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    Comment number 34.

    I'm afraid I'm finding it hard to feel sorry for these guys. Firstly, isn't it like this for every industry, indeed every job? Everybody in the world with any sort of skilled work worries about the carpet being whipped out from under them by the next guy who'll do it a bit quicker, a bit cheaper, and with less regulation, right? Welcome to the real world, guys!
    For another thing, the United States is famed for its economic patriotism and protectionist policies. Buy American, right? They're complaining about subsidies being offered in other /states/ - other parts of their own country - well, move house then! I'm sure you'll manage to sit in front of your computer all day without the California sun beaming through your windows. Perhaps it's even a good thing to do decentralise the American film industry and give other places a chance to compete with Hollywood after a 100 year monopoly.
    And in a more abstract way, isn't the essence of VFX that it's a quicker, easier, cheaper way of doing difficult, dangerous things? Most people miss the days of physical effects, and most people admit that VFX tend towards less creativity (in visual problem-solving), rather than more. In a way, VFX artists complaining about outsourcing is like fast food restaurants and complaining about people getting fat.

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    Comment number 35.

    I so much appreciate what you've offered to us about the night of the Oscars and "Life of Pi" in particular. I am now (finally) prompted to buy your recent book, too.

    I've known of several young people (men) going from New York to promising jobs doing digital effects in Hollywood. Because I was at USC in the fifties, and at first wanting to work in the Hollywood industry, I've had an attitude, perspective, philosophy...which leaves me now thinking how yes, sadly, this has been in the cards all along.

    I do think movies were "better" when the people who made them, those who ran the studios, did not believe every picture had to make millions upon millions, and over the first weekend, to boot. What a mess there is today, and so little to offer audiences but marketing gloss.

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    Comment number 36.

    Mark check this good explanation from a VFX artist:

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    Comment number 37.

    As Camus says in The Rebel ,the single most important step in two hundred years ,that improved the lives of the majority of the people ,is trade unionism.Watch the factory scene in les Mis to prove the point. America has a very vicious form of capitalism ,as Michael Moore has beautifully demonstrated.Employers will always want more work for less money.

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    Comment number 38.


    I feel your pain. It is a real issue and one that, I'm resigned to thinking, will likely become much worse as time and technologies march on.

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    Comment number 39.

    I feel I havent much new stuff to add to this thread. I am a big supporter of the vfx guys and its a shame we are seeing this at this time. Yes it happens in a lot of industries but I certainly feel stronger for the entertainment industry as it gives us all so much pleasure it deserves our recognition.

    I have worked in art departments and feel a similar situation occuring at a lower level. A lot of people compete to the point they are fighting for scraps and underselling themselves. My strongest sense of injustice is for these vfx workers to be doing the hard work with little to no incentive/compensation while at the top end of the food chain the big wigs get to profit from films generating over a billion worldwide. Spread the wealth to those who earnt it. Show some respect

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    Comment number 40.


    It's a combination of on going issues, some of which have plagued the wider post production industry, but you are right on the money regarding subsidies. As for working all the hours in a day (and then some), let me just confirm here and now that, for better or worse, has nearly always been the case in my 14 years in post.

    PS Your family will almost always understand. Your partner/wife? ultimately not so much.


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

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