On the VFX Controversy

27 Feb

Many of you may have seen this green profile picture spreading across your Facebook news feed like a plague. If you’re wondering what it means, it’s a show of solidarity for the struggling visual effects industry that is populating among artists, people who work in Hollywood, and film fans.

The trend started a few days ago after the Oscars. During the ceremony, people from Rhythm & Hues, the VFX company that won Best Visual Effects for their work on Life of Pi, were unceremoniously cut off by the “Jaws” theme song while they were in the middle of giving their winning speech. They had been about to address the issues currently facing the VFX industry, so a lot of people saw the gesture as Hollywood’s attempt to sweep a growing problem under the rug and rose up in protest.

Essentially what’s happening right now is that in response to growing demand for CGI-heavy films, studios are beginning to outsource VFX work to cheaper companies overseas that can offer subsidies. As a result, domestic businesses (including Rhythm & Hues and other Oscar winners) are barely making a profit off of the work they do and having to file for bankruptcy or shut down. What was once a specialised industry is now becoming commoditised.

Additionally, artists are either getting paid less for what they do or finding themselves out of work entirely. Because the VFX industry lacks union protection (unlike actors, directors, producers, writers, etc.), there’s nothing employees can do to fight back against injustices like being unexpectedly laid off without pay. Given that many of these people are artists or professionals with a specific set of skills, it’s difficult for them to find other kinds of work when their companies go out of business.

It’s a tricky issue, and I can honestly see both sides of the argument. Yes, it’s extremely unfair that artists are getting screwed over when the work they do is in such high demand. These days visual effects are half of the reason why people still see movies in theatres. Bringing a film to life isn’t just about the technology; it’s also about the vision and artistic ability of the hundreds of employees who work on any given project. Without companies like Rhythm & Hues (which also worked on Django Unchained, Hunger Games, and Snow White and the Huntsman this year), most of the biggest box office hits would be unwatchable:

"Life of Pi" before and after post-production

“Life of Pi” before and after post-production

That said, as much as I love, support, and appreciate everything the VFX industry does, artists need to stop acting as though they’re the first people who’ve ever been exploited by Hollywood. Job insecurity is one of the caveats of the trade. When you set out to carve a path for yourself in such a competitive, fickle industry, you have to accept a certain degree of risk. This is particularly applicable to creatives, for whom there are competitors aplenty and only so many jobs available. Yes, it sucks that you’re underpaid and losing your jobs (and I’m not trying to downplay the problems they’re facing), but that’s the nature of the industry. Writers and actors can work 15 hours a day for years and still be living paycheck to paycheck. Studio execs don’t care about you; they care about making money. There will always  be someone who can do your job for less pay, and the moment you forget your place, that person, who is undoubtedly next in line, will pounce. Either put up with the bullshit or leave.

Nevertheless, I don’t think the plight of the VFX industry is as bleak as it seems. Like the tech industry, which is also facing fierce competition from foreign companies, the goal is to constantly innovate. If these artists are as valuable as they claim to be, they have to prove it by constantly staying one step ahead of the game. Do beautiful work that can’t be replicated by copycats, and studios will have no choice but to court you.

From a more practical standpoint, the VFX needs to be unionized in order to protect workers from horrible working conditions. Luckily this is already in the process of happening. I totally understand that it’s easier said than done, but considering how essential visual effects have become to the industry, it’s only fair. Additionally, something needs to be done to crack down on these foreign subsidies. Hollywood is so quintessentially American that it’s a shame we’re selling out so shamelessly, especially when studios already make so much money. Keep it in the family!

(Also, can we get rid of the green screen profile pics? They’re clever, but annoying as hell when half of your friends have them.)

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