When French illusionist Georges Méliès discovered film visual effects by accident in the late 19th century, he became one the world’s first VFX pioneers. His work fascinated people – thrilled them with tales of visits to the moon and other impossible voyages. He was a genius.
Until a certain American called Thomas Edison, came on the scene. Georges Méliès then became the world’s first VFX artist to be screwed over by “the system”.
While Edison’s early film empire grew largely unchallenged in the U.S., Méliès films became more and more popular with French and British audiences that consequently saw their export to the U.S as well. This proved to be a big challenge to Edison’s dominance of the market and resulted in Edison becoming resentful of Méliès, so much so Edison attempted to block any further imports of Méliès’ films.
Additionally, having discovered how to duplicate film, Edison started copying Méliès’ negatives and paying only the most minimal of royalty fees back to the Frenchman thus denying him full payment for his work.
This practice eventually ensured Méliès’ downfall. But before this happened, he and other French artists established Chambre Syndicale des Editeurs Cinématographiques to counter the likes of Edison taking advantage of his work. But this was too late for Méliès who subsequently died having spent all his money fighting the actions of Edison and his monopoly of US film industry.
Some 113 years later the VFX industry is in as worse shape as it has even been.
Despite winning the 2013 BAFTA for Best Visual Effects for Life of Pi, the highly respected Rhythm and Hues is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has laid off the majority of its staff. Digital Domain, the company founded by James Cameron, Stan Winston and Dr. Scott Ross, went belly up after a string of disasters in Florida.
Dreamworks Animation is said to have been laying off staff, as has Framestore in London (in order to compete for work in Montreal which is where their new offices are located), and the most recent news is that Pixomondo, the multi-national VFX company that recently won a Visual Effects Society Award for its work on Game of Thrones, is closing down its London offices.
Thanks to unwise business management at some of these companies that has resulted in outrageously low profit margins thanks to the ultra-competitive bidding process that’s egged on by subsidies offered by local and national governments in order to attract Hollywood to come spend money with them (never bolstering their own blossoming film industry, of course, no – why would you want to encourage your own county/country to develop its own film projects? Oh, art, you are so funny..) – these companies can no longer afford to look after the business and their employees.
It gets worse. When you read about how Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild utilised fee-paying students to provide the film’s VFX for free – you’ll understand why Hollywood will happily pay as little as possible. In all of my careers I have NEVER worked for free to get a job, and making films is a commercial enterprise – so why the hell would you expect to get people working on a commercial project for free? Beasts of the Southern Wild was not made for shits and giggles. The people financing it expect to get their money back plus profit. Outrageous.
Even Ang Lee, director of Life of Pi, has said (upon hearing the news about Rhythm and Hues):
“I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money. “
VFX can’t get any cheaper – the vendors are already undercutting each other to the point where they’re going out of business, and some shops have even been PAYING to get jobs. The trouble is that the VFX industry has no international official guild, trade union or trade association to protect it against employees and studios looking to exploit VFX workers. BECTU in the UK have recently stepped up efforts to ensure that FX artists in the UK are given protection. The Animation Guild and IATSE are also ramping up efforts for artists in other countries.
Dr. Scott Ross who ran Digital Domain during its early days and subsequent successes, has encouraged a protest at this Sunday’s Oscars. Called ‘A piece of the Pi’, lots of activity is planned to ensure that the word gets out about how Hollywood is treating artists working on their biggest profit-making successes.
The VFX industry must not become another Méliès/Edison. 113 years and this is how it is? Outrageous. VFX must fight and survive and give the Edison’s of this century a clip around the ear.
Update: 10:46 GMT, the morning after.. Looks like the Academy were trying to play down and drown out the protests: the speech given by the chaps from R&H was interrupted by the theme tune to Jaws! Life of Pi director Ang Lee made no reference to R&H or any of the VFX teams but he thanked his lawyer, though!
The entire ceremony, by and large, looked as though it was trying to ignore the elephant in the room – the VFX community outside protesting against the bigwig Oscar attendees profiteering from their work and making the VFX artists that won them the awards in the first place redundant.
Mainstream media (certainly here in the UK) completely glossed over the issues and concentrated on what people wore. To make matters worse, the Visual Effects Society chairman criticised the protesters. Yet, the VES offered absolutely no advice or offered to intervene in any of the issues raised. Thank goodness they aren’t a union – they appear to be utterly gum-less given the events of the past few weeks.
Despite Hollywood’s attempts to ignore what was going on (the total number of VFX professionals out on the street was, apparently, close to 474), I think ultimately there will be severe consequences for a good number of VFX and film studios on the brink of releasing big budget VFX-fuelled features (and TV shows). I’m seeing a fair number of tweets from artists tendering their resignation of VES for starters. Artists are signing up to BECTU and IATSE. Action is being taken. But there is still much more work to do.
¡Viva la Revolución!
Update: 23:26 GMT At the time of writing this paragraph, some 400 VFX artists have gathered in Hollywood near where the Oscars are being hosted to protest against the film industry’s appalling treatment of those that work in VFX.