On the 12th of February 2013, Variety ran a headline: ‘Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy reveals vfx biz crisis’. Life After Pi documents how how this came to be; how one of the most successful and stable vfx company, one that been running successfully for twenty-five years, intelligently managed and mobile enough to take advantage of every tax break, went bankrupt.
Globalisation had had an effect on the personal lives of vfx worker. Many former employees of Rhythm and Hue here talk about the impossibility of having homes and families when workers have to move from city to city or country to country as film financing chases tax incentives and tax breaks. Workers also consider themselves artist and companies find it easy to exploit the fact that they love what they do: living in hotel rooms and working hundred-hour weeks near the end of production are shown to be common. But unsocial working conditions are not what led to bankruptcy.
The problem is the business model. Unlike live-action shooting which is paid for by the hour, vfx are paid by the job; if they’re hired to do 500 shots, that’s what they get paid for and that’s what they’ve got to provide. It’s a fixed price for the job. Except that the job itself is not fixed. What happens is that directors sometimes change their mind about what’s to be in the shot, they want the rain moving left or right, and the VFX company has to absorb the cost. In live action, for example, because money is time and the clock is ticking, it would be a major crisis if, after having shot for a week, the director comes in and says, I don’t like the set, strike it and build me another one. But that is exactly what vfx people are routinely asked to do. They have to scrap the work done, start a new job, and absorb the costs of that change themselves. Hollywood is still run on an oligopolistic model. The players might have changed but not as much as we might think. It’s now Sony rather than MGM but still figuring Paramount, Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox. The rules of the game are still set by the majors. And the game is fixed: VFX companies and their workers always lose.
All of this came to a head during the academy awards in 2013. There were 500 people outside protesting a business model that invariably led vfx companies to go bust. Rhythm and Hues, having just filed for bankruptcy, was nominated for Academy Awards for Life of Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman. Pi won. But Bill Westenhofer, who went up to collect the award, was prevented from finishing his speech after only 45 seconds by the Jaws music being played louder than he could speak. His colleagues refer to it in the film as being sharked or being jaws-ed off the stage. To add insult to injury, neither Claudio Miranda, the Director of Photography for Pi nor Ang Lee, the film’s director, thanked the VFX people when they collected their award. ‘75% of that movie is our work. Without us there is no work’, says an irate VFX worker.
Life after Pi demonstrates how this galvanized protest. Supporters on Twitter and on Facebook changed their profile picture to a green square demonstrating how, without their contributions as artists, colourists, designers, much of most movies would be just that. A green screen.
A very illuminating look at what goes into the making of a film today, how films gets made and the crucial importance of vfx within this particular mode of filmmaking. You can see it on You Tube here: