fredag den 8. marts 2013

Exclusive: An insider's view of the VFX industry crisis (in English)

As all of you have probably heard by now, the visual effects (or VFX) industry is in dire straits.

The digital artists behind the visual effects magic in blockbuster films such as "Life of Pi" are continuously overworked and underpaid, as the six big Hollywood studios want more and more effects done, but cheaper and faster. This unhealthy business model is now threatening to drive the entire VFX industry into the ground.

On February 27th, I came across this cheeky photo collage created by Irish VFX artist Martin Moylan. With great visual flair and wit, Mr Moylan's picture demonstrates just how vital the Oscar-winning visual effects in Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" are to that film's success.

© Martin Moylan/VFXrex
I shared the picture on my Blog-O-Rama Facebook page. In the course of 24 hours, Mr Moylan's striking illustration was viewed an astonishing 2,500 times.

Last week, I contacted Martin Moylan by e-mail to get his comments on the VFX industry's current situation. However, only a few of Mr Moylan's quotes made it into the piece that I wrote for Politiken's FILM section on March 7.

As a very special bonus feature exclusive to Brie's Blog-O-Rama, Mr Moylan has graciously allowed me to publish his thoughts on the VFX crisis in full. You can read Mr Moylan's piece below (Danish translation to follow soon).

An insider's view of the VFX crisis
by Martin Moylan

Most of the pictures going around show an empty green screen behind an actor. The idea behind my picture was to have fun with the concept and contrast a cute puppet, the savageness of a live tiger with the beauty of the final Visual Effects. This is also to illustrate what the real alternatives to using visual effects are, and how valuable VFX is.

> Before And After: A Look At Life Of Pi's Visual Effects (Empire Magazine)
> Bill Westenhofer on the VFX in "Life of Pi" (FX Guide)

To understand what the current Visual Effects crisis is about, imagine a community of artist and sculptors who work to exhaustion and at a loss to fill an art gallery, but with the gallery owners making billions out of the exhibition.

How I see it, the root of the problems is not so much in the VFX industry itself, but rather the relationship between them and the Hollywood production companies. This comes down to carving out a business contract regarding production fees and deadlines.

However, the problems have already begun. A set deadline and fee goes to the lowest bidder, with no provision for overtime, or charging for additional VFX changes and no percentage return from the success of the film.

The tiger in "Life of Pi" pre-VFX | © Fox 2000 Pictures 

It is worth noting that most people working in TV and film don't have a wage, but freelance from one contract to the next. This is true of actors, directors, light riggers, carpenters etc.

Union camera crews can 'clock off' at the end of the day, but by contrast visual effects require large production teams working extensive hours, often through the night, to make the changes and deadline. All of this happens in a set budget, no residuals on profits, resulting in a loss making business, with no money left to pay the staff.

For the Hollywood production companies, this is a great deal. They have little exposure to risk, can make as many changes as they like to the originally agreed designs and keep all the profits.

The VFX industry has fantastic creative skills, are pioneers in technical achievements but desperately need a strong business voice to keep the entity stable and have the power to say 'no' when terms aren't honoured.

Why is all of this happening now?

Computers have revolutionized what can be achieved, but remember, the sharpest chisel is a blunt tool, if its not in the hand of a talented sculptor. Likewise, computers still require talented artists behind them to create amazing scenes.

The expectation of visual effects in film has changed a great deal. Before their task was seen as lazer beams, exploding spacecraft and extended landscapes. But these days the craft is so good and so highly technically skilled, you couldn't tell that the San Francisco exteriors in David Fincher's thriller "Zodiac", or the 20 square blocks of mid-town Manhattan in Marvel's "The Avengers", were computer generated art.

In spite of what Ang Lee suggested in his Oscar speech, the choice of VFX plainly provided a huge saving in budget as opposed to actually shooting on location.

David Finchers "Zodiac" (2007) with no VFX |

It is also fair to say the visual effects actually are the real star of the show. We all lined up to see the hundred rampaging apes in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", the monsters and Gollum in "Lord of the Rings", the giant Autobots in "Transformers", or the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. These films could never get past the script stage without an effects team.

So in the same way that Tom Cruise gets 25 million dollars to star in each movie, these kind of visual effects playing key roles in a film deserve a better deal. They have the same pulling power as a star at the box office, some up to a billion dollars each movie, but right now are going for a meagre fee.

At the moment, Rhythm & Hues, who created the tiger and all the glorious visuals in "Life of Pi" are in the focus at the moment due to their bankruptcy and Oscar win. But they are one of many who are suffering right now.
  • Dr D Studios ("Babe" & "Happy Feet") shut down production, loosing 600 workers
  • DreamWorks Animation ("Shrek" & "Ice Age") is laying off 350 employes.
  • Matte World Digital ("Titanic" & "Hugo") is closing its California office.
  • Digital Domain ("Terminator 2" & "Pirates of the Caribbean") filed for bankruptcy & closed their Florida studio.
But what can be done about this?

One of the first steps to try and work out a solution to this is by getting all the Visual Effects houses to become part of a Union who would provide leverage in negotiating a fair deal. CEO of Digital Domain and effects veteran, Scott Ross, had proposed a union called AVEC (french for 'with') but never took off due to distrust between the studios.

> VFX Solidarity International on Facebook

Residuals in profits is another solution. George Lucas only succeeded in acquiring a share of the merchandise of "Star Wars" as they didn't expect the toys would do that well. The same was true with "Look Who's Talking" where Bruce Willis took a small fee and a percentage for his voice work, it became a surprise hit and made Bruce a fortune. But residuals is a precious mine for Hollywood, and they are not known to give that up readily.

As an animator and VFX artist in Europe, I am very fortunate with the projects and clients I have had. Ireland is a close community in business and I worked with production teams who understood the value of creativity in the job and I always felt we were in it together when a deadline was pressing.

My future concern is many would work in VFX for free, for 'the honor' or addition to their Showreel and in turn, this could be continually taken advantage of, for free or low rate labour. Even if a union was set up, I would worry that film companies would hire only non-union artists, keeping industry wages and value low.

In my opinion, films core industry is entertainment and the visual effects industry has contributed to the bulk of that entertainment. They are often so good at what they do, we believe what we see is real and shot in camera, but therefore aren't noticed at all. But without VFX, there are fewer spectacles, fewer memorable moments and fewer interested in the movies.

It would be very bad business for Hollywood to overlook the significance of thousands of pioneers, artist and technicians who are attracting so many to the cinema. All should share equally and fairly in their success, otherwise, it's everyone's loss.

Martin Moylan | PR photo
Martin Moylan utilises his animation and graphic design background to work in both films and TV. 
He provided Visual Effects and Motion Titles for the science fiction film "Earthbound" starring Rafe Spall (from "Prometheus" & "Life of Pi").
He also has just completed work as Compositor & VFX artist on the cartoon "Planet Cosmo" teaching astronomy to kids. 
You can see a selection of his work and showreel on or

> Interview: Scott Squires on Hollywood's VFX crisis (Empire Magazine)
> Before VFX (assorted behind-the-scenes pictures)
> VFX Soldier (VFX industry blog)
> VFXSoldier@Twitter

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