EVERYONE loves to be adrenalized by movies like The Avengers and Iron Man. Right? The films that create new worlds or recreate old worlds that we can lose ourselves in for a couple of hours. These films are in jeopardy. At least the quality of them are. Do you want to continue to be able to see these kinds of films? Do you want to be riveted by the mind-blowing realism of Richard Parker? The thrilling battles of Iron Man? The invisible transformation of time and worlds that allow Daniel Day Lewis to BE Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s?
Or do we want everything to regress back to the mid-90s level effects of Olympus Has Fallen?
The big budget, tentpole films released each summer by the six largest Hollywood film studios are made on the backs of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Most of those people are represented by Unions, which grew out of necessity as film grew into a viable industry. The Unions try to protect the crew on a film through punitive measures against any studio that go beyond the rules. It boils down to a financial hit. Penalties for feeding crews late. Penalties for going over 8 hours in a day. More penalties for over 12. And more penalties if there isn’t a 10-hour recovery period between the end of one day and the start of another. But despite these penalties, studios and producers have a specific time that the film is to be released, which is never enough time. So crews are pushed to exhaustion, ending in faltering health, faltering relationships, and sometimes even faltering lives when crews try to drive home after the sixth 18-hour day in a row. And these conditions exist WITH Union protections in place.
Frequently, when the decision makers are pushed against the wall on set with hundreds of people standing around waiting for the mechanics on a car stunt to be reset, they turn to the VFX Supervisor and ask, “Can we replace this in the computer?” An experienced supervisor would probably say, “Well…technically…yes. But it would be more effective to get it in camera.” A less experienced, but more exuberant, supervisor would say, “Absolutely!!!” In both cases, the producer will call this the last take, and the burden of the car stunt gets pushed to post — where people aren’t standing around waiting, while they collect 1.5x and 2x their normal rates because the shoot is in Golden Time. They are just sitting around on computers…just watching. I mean — what are those guys doing anyway? The computers do all the work…right?
Pushing things into post provides studios, producers, and directors with a lot of latitude. And here is why:
- Costly decisions can be deferred. You don’t have to make a critical decision with a whole crew watching you and possibly have it fail.
- Decisions can be changed. If something doesn’t work, or the studio exec doesn’t like the color of the hero’s weapon that the prop department painstakingly designed and built. Well, we can change that.
- Indecision is considered a methodology. The art department goes through many iterations of designs before they start building. At no time can a director say, “Build me three sets and I’ll chose the one I like”. The VFX artist is frequently asked to generate multiple versions without direction because the director can’t articulate what is in their head.
- Flat bids prevent runaway costs. On set, if something delays production, the meter continues to run. In post, the cost remains the same, and when hourly artists work longer days, the VFX facility eats the cost. Unless the studio actually acknowledges that their decision requires more work and agree to pay for it.
- In the eyes of the Studios, VFX artists are no longer artists — they are a commodity. Now that software is readily available to do what was limited to REALLY SMART and TALENTED people, studios (including VFX Facilities) are under the misconception that anyone can do this work. Well, they are partially right. Anyone CAN do this work. NOT anyone can do this work WELL. In fact, most people with a computer and Maya are not even adequate digital artists. But regardless of this small fact, studios feel that artists and facilities are easily interchangeable — like buying Tupperware or Pyrex. They both store food, right?
- As a commodity, VFX artists are not artists. The studios feel that because VFX artists use a computer, rather than, say, sculpting in clay, that they are not creative and should not be considered artists, but rather, they are equivalent to an unskilled laborer screwing bolts into sheet metal.
- Because it doesn’t require creativity, it can be outsourced as low-skilled labor. Similar to all other industries before VFX, once a trade can be passed on to other countries with lower living wages, it will be. However, just because they can be paid better than if they were sewing zippers, it doesn’t mean that they are being treated any better than their First World counterparts. Long hours, tight deadlines, less than optimal working conditions still pervade.
- Government subsidies in other countries promote an imbalance. Without a standard for what visual effects cost, studios will not choose the facility that is most capable. They will choose the one that is capable AND cheapest. If a facility has a studio in India, or Vancouver, or Singapore, or Louisiana, then they are more likely to get the show, because they are using Tax Incentives in those areas to keep their running costs down, which keeps the budget of the film down, which increases the studios chances to make or increase a profit. If the facility is solely in California, they can’t compete. Period.
- “ART” is hard to monetize. Studio executives are not artists, they are, in fact, very rarely even filmmakers. They are businessmen. Their job is to make money for the studio. And that is all they do. The product that they sell is by most definitions considered art. And how does one put a price on that? Well… very simply, the formula would read. (How Many People Will Pay For It) – (Cost To Make It) – (Cost to Promote It) = My Profit. They can only control the Cost to Make It and the Cost to Promote It. Frequently, after the Cost To Make It is shaved so low that they end up with a piece of shit, they have to spend MORE in the Cost to Promote It to try to convince people to pay for it. But the executives never see that. Never.
- VFX Artists are scattered and have no singular voice. Nearly all groups in filmmaking on the scale we are talking, have Unions to represent and protect them. VFX Artists do not. Since the Studios can’t bully the Union workers, their logical victim is the one without a bodyguard.
- VFX Industry has made itself the victim. The VFX community is in the position it is in because they let it happen. They did not stand up for themselves and place a value on their trade. I think its has something to do with having something to prove. That yes, when we are in the 11th hour, that we will be the ones to pull through and save the day. And the studios like to say that “You are going to be our savior! You guys really pulled through. We couldn’t have done this without you.” It’s hard to say, under that shower of accolades, “I know you’re in a bind, but that’s gonna take more time, and hence, more money, and we aren’t going to do it otherwise.” — because we want them to be return customers. It’s like an abusive marriage. And BTW, those thanks go away once the film is a success, but it’s not forgotten if it’s a failure.
- VFX Artists LOVE what they do. There is nothing like the feeling of working on your first show. Someone is actually PAYING you for something that you LOVE. How can this paradise ever go rotten? The answer? When others take advantage of your passion.
The VFX industry has hit a tipping point. Pressured into underbidding each other and compressed deadlines, artists are starting to leave the industry, VFX Studios are shuttering, and young, enthusiastic artists are being taken advantage of. And it’s not restricted to the VFX industry. The Make-Up Artists in Great Britain are standing up for their self-respect. Every artist from the screenwriter who creates the story and words that the famous actors speak is frequently excluded from the set or the filmmaking process after he turns in his shooting script. The special effects guys are rarely given enough time to design, test, and actualize their vision, and when it fails because of these constraints, the VFX guys are asked to replace or fix it — leading to animosity and hurt feelings between the departments. Even guys who design motion graphics to be on TVs and monitors aren’t given a chance to prepare their stuff for the shoot. It’s up to the VFX guys to stick them in later when the director has time to make up his mind.
The problem is ubiquitous.
Whether you support the visual effects artists; whether you think they’re all a bunch of whiny bitches and should shut up and get back to their computers; whether you think subsidies in other countries are unfair or illegal and THOSE people are taking your jobs. Whatever your stance is on the minutia — the overarching message is this: The workers in the film industry, regardless of their discipline, regardless of the country, should be able to expect to work in reasonable conditions with reasonable expectations, and get compensated fairly for the hard work they do.
It’s not rocket science, but it IS complicated. Creating a Union or a Trade Association that will work internationally is going to take time, effort, and lots and lots of talking. VFX artists cannot strike, because without a voice for collective bargaining, it will end up in naught. Just a whole bunch of out of work talent, and probably the demise of facility that hired them.
I’M NOT EVEN IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT CAN I DO?
We call for solidarity between the artists and the audience. It is the artists, not the studios, that create the films you love to watch. We want to continue to create them, and we want you to continue to be entertained by them.
You only need to do one thing: Refuse to go see Man of Steel on the week of June 14th.
Show Warner Brothers that you, the audience, care about the artists, and you want those artists to keep bringing you the stuff you want to see.
Why Warner Brothers? Because out of the studios who had shows at Rhythm & Hues when they revealed they were in trouble, according to the New York Times, Warner Brother was the only one who refused to help R&H continue on their shows, and instead demanded that assets be delivered back. If you love movies as much as we do, take this very seriously, and ask your friends to skip Man of Steel, and instead go see This Is The End, with Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, and James Franco. Don’t worry. That will have visual effects, too! And hopefully more laughs.
And it isn’t forever. Just a week. You see…the average window of opportunity for a summer blockbuster to succeed is about two weeks before screens have to open up for the NEXT summer blockbuster. If we close that window by half, that is a significant message to the studios that they are not the important ones.
And for the hundreds of talented individuals breaking their backs on Man of Steel at the moment. This is not a slight on your efforts or your work. You lose nothing from having the box office revenue delayed. You have already been paid (hopefully). You do not benefit from residuals. You have no stake in the success or failure of the film. This is more than seeing your name up on the screen (again, hopefully), just after the caterers and transportation department.
Unionizing the artists internationally? That’s hard. NOT watching a movie for a week? I can do that all day long.
Support the Artists. Wait a week.
POST Man of Steel:
Looks like Man of Steel did go on to make $660M world wide. Its not Iron Man 3 or Avengers numbers, but it did fine. And I knew it would. The point of this call to action was not to make Warner Brothers lose money or to have the film fail. I never hope to see a film fail. The point was to try and get enough people to understand the problems that are prevalent in the visual effects industry…and that those problems affect the films that you want to see. The support of enough people could have moved the needle. Moved it enough for studios and VFX facilities to take interest in the resources they so frequently take advantage of, or at least take for granted.
Thank you to those who felt this issue is important enough to actually hold back the fanboy fervor and wait. To those who didn’t…well…yeah…