VFX Vet Bruce Branit’s Explanation Of The Visual Effects Protests

I grabbed this from Bruce Branit’s Facebook feed; it’s a very clear explanation of why you may be seeing some people avatars going bright green, as I’ve done with mine on Twitter and Facebook.

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Bruce_Branit I’ve known Bruce–who is a talented filmmaker and successful VFX artist / studio owner-since the 1990s and I have a lot of respect for him. If you want to check out his demo reel, I did a post about it a couple of months ago. His explanation here is compelling. Bruce is no hippie or union agitator. He’s a business owner who moved to Kansas to escape the Hollywood culture.

Don’t let the word ‘union’ scare you. I’m a conservative and this is an issue I still care about. There’s a real issue of government-funded unfair competition that’s destroying a creative, modern American industry.

Listen to what Bruce has to say here.

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For my non-visual effects wizard (muggle) friends. Here’s what the green profile pics are all about….

Life of Pi won the Oscar for Visual Effects, Cinematography and Director last night. Good for all, and well deserved in each category.

However, the visual effects company and artists that created the tiger, the ocean, the ship, the skies, etc… is now in bankruptcy, unable to pay its artists’ payroll and back wages. Many of them have been let go with no compensation or benefits for them or their families. This company, Rhythm & Hues, is no sweatshop either. They are/were one of the good guys… a facility created by artists for artists to do what we all love to do. It’s a coin flip whether they survive.

[pullquote align="left"]Hollywood studios demand more, faster and cheaper for their films. They drive this “competition” through unfair bidding competing against work from countries with illegal tax subsidies and incentives.[/pullquote]Talented people, from artists, coordinators and programmers to the software and hardware that are required to fulfill a director like Ang Lee’s vision, are not cheap and a lot of people are required. It is a complex and highly technical mix of artistry and innovation that requires years of experience. Visual effects are so necessary for complex and never-before-seen story telling that 48 of the top 50 box office films are considered visual effects films. But the visual effects community has never been on shakier ground.

The reality today is that Hollywood studios demand more, faster and cheaper for their films. They drive this “competition” through unfair bidding competing against work from countries with illegal tax subsidies and incentives. This practice has created a race to the bottom price-wise and we are reaching a point where talented people are walking away from the industry after suffering long hours, broken families, migrant worker status as they move from country to country following work as the studios chase the latest tax subsidies. We are reaching a point where companies like R&H, Cafe FX, Digital Domain cannot survive the slightest rough patch.

Comments by Ang Lee in the weeks leading up to the Oscars lamenting that “he wishes VFX could be cheaper” were a shot across the bow of the VFX community as many of the Life of Pi crew already sat home out of work. Ang Lee has not discussed how actors’ salaries could be cheaper, or how director or producer’s percentages could be limited. Yet it is valid to argue that visual effect played an equal if not greater role in making the movie Ang wanted to make.

Life of Pi was a perfect VFX storm. A book that people said could not be brought to the screen. You can’t shoot on the ocean, you can’t put a tiger in the boat with an actor. Credit Ang Lee’s direction and the screenplay by David Magee. But the technical, visual execution of that film was a real achievement and the Visual effects team at Rhythm and Hues deserves the credit for that.

Now flashback to last night’s Oscars… and wear a cup.

[pullquote align="right"]Thank you for not thanking us and for letting us all know where we stand.[/pullquote]Neither Ang nor his winning cinematographer, Claudio Miranda felt they needed to thank or even mention the VFX artists who made the sky, the ocean, the ship, the island, the meerkats and oh yeah… the tiger. Ang thanked the crew, the actors, his agent, his lawyer and the entire country of Taiwan right down to the team that built the wave-pool on the soundstage where Pi was shot. But failed to mention 100′s of artists who made, not only the main character of the tiger, but replaced that pool, making it look like a real ocean for 80% of his movie.

And the final salt in the wound to our community… when VFX supervisor, Bill Westenhofer (one of our own) was accepting his well-earned Oscar for Best Visual Effects, he attempted to shine a light on the bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues and the current paradoxical state of our industry, but was promptly given the hook and had his mic cut by the same Hollywood powers that demand lower prices for the very skills that make their tent-pole movies and profits possible.

So thank you Ang Lee. Thank you for not thanking us and for letting us all know where we stand. Our industry is the only non-organized part of the movie making business. I am afraid that may need to change.

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Comments

  1. welldoneson says:

    So, like most leftist-dominated aspects of life, the closer one looks the more blemishes one sees.
    No surprise there, nor would there be from anyone who has had experiences with the industry.

    • What is the leftist-dominated aspect of life to which you refer? Is it the VFX industry, the film industry, or the arts in general? What are the blemishes?

    • I think you need to re read this… perhaps with a dictionary. Take you right-dominated political views out of your cortex, if you can, and try reading it a few more times. There’s nothing leftist dominated here at all, in fact it demonstrates the opposite.

  2. i thank you for saying this and speaking up for so many.Life of Pi,wouldnt be what it was and will be forever if it weren’t for all those who were left thankless and nameless because of hollywood politics and its lack of appreciation to those artists who gave them the ability to make their money.the abilty to take credit for work that others slaved away to create..its sad to watch hollywood forget how and who created it..so thanks again for shedding light on this..much respect and support and grattitude to those hurting and even a basic thank you in respect and appreciation last night at the very least:(

  3. Lee, as a filmmaker yourself and my original Lightwave guru, I’m genuinely interested to hear your thoughts on this, beginning with the words “Unions are not people.”

  4. This is my Lament … the business is a business and every time a freelancer under cuts another they bring it down a little bit. If the artists did not chase the work. If they pulled back and “organized” – as Lee suggests – at least philosophically maybe the business would be less about lowering cost and more about creating. I have been doing this for 25 years and it is an ever downward spiral of people undercutting each other because “they need the work”. Sad but true.

  5. Wow, this is intense. I’m so saddened by this. Artists getting shafted yet again while the egotistical elite get all the money and accolades.

  6. I’m not so sure the unfair competition is so much “government funded” as it is “big corporation-encouraged.” Perhaps that’s where the conservatives and “hippie agitators” come down differently on the issue.

  7. I’m sorry, but I have to say that the union-busting conservatives have brought this upon themselves by embracing the idea that it’s perfectly fine for organized money to work for their benefit but wrong for working people to do so. The only power working people have is unity, without it they’ll be underpaid or flat-out robbed, as R&H clearly was. Maybe the people who did the effects at R&H, being highly skilled technicians, were immune to the kinds of things that happen to less-educated and less-skilled working people on a regular basis, but they were clearly wrong.

    What SHOULD happen is that all the people behind the scenes should refuse to work for any films until the studios stop cooking the books to hide the enormous profits they make. But that’s not going to happen, is it? Even in a small way.

    This is the world you fought for, sir. You won. If you can’t handle the consequences, or if you refuse to accept that your philosophy is just plain wrong, you have little right to complain.

    • Unions have very little to do with this. The VFX industry could have unionized long ago, but within their own ranks could not come to a consensus as to what to do. At that time the VFX stars were making good livings and were treated as specialists, artists, and even magicians. But as technology progresses, it makes things more attainable. More and more people had access to computers and software that could do this sort of work. And this technology spread across the world to opportunistic countries. Let’s say that the VFX industry had unionized way back when. Well, today, I know many, many unionized professionals in the film business who are out of work in spite of (or maybe _because_ of ) their union affiliation. The studios will always go to where the best deal is, and right now, that’s anywhere but Hollywood.

      This is the march of technology. We can’t expect studios to be altruistic and keep their business close to home because it’s the “right thing to do”. Studios have shareholders to answer to, and in fact it’s an executive’s duty to look for the best financial return for the shareholders, which often means cheap labor.

      • ” The VFX industry could have unionized long ago, but within their own ranks could not come to a consensus as to what to do”? Really? Did I miss a meeting? Who exactly was so paralysed by this indecision? Is it too late to unionise?

        • When VFX was being done by model makers and miniatures, those guys/gals fell into the camera department unions. People who did roto work or similar things could end up in animation locals. But when digital came around, everyone scratched their heads and said, “Where do these folks go?” Some said camera because they created frames of imagery. Some said animation because they worked frame by frame. Others said there needed to be a separate digital union. But since at that time the individual workers were still scarce, the market rates for their labor was satisfactory to them so nobody said “we’d better organize or we’re going to be in trouble in 10 years”. So nothing happened. Nobody was “paralysed by this indecision”. It wasn’t a priority at the time – people were fine without it.

          You ask is it too late to unionize? I say yes. Why? Because back when there were discussions about unionizing, the studios were obligated to use IATSE labor. Had VFX joined the IATSE then, they would have fallen under that umbrella, and the lack of readily available alternatives would have allowed them to leverage agreement from the studio. Now fast forward to today. Let’s say all the big VFX houses unionize. The studios aren’t obligated to agree to their terms. They’ll focus on smaller “boutique” places that aren’t unionized. Or, that will incentivize them to go overseas more. All it takes is one talented, opportunistic VFX supervisor with some credits to set up another non-union shop and say “I’ll do your work for less” and the ranks have broken.

          Now, I’m speaking about the US primarily. I’m assuming you’re in the UK so things may be different there, but the “developing nation” pressures still exist there as well.

  8. Don’t be afraid, of course it has to change! The fact that it has gone on so long like this is due mainly to one thing: we love what we do, and we would almost do it for free. It’s the curse of the creative professional, and believe me studio execs are very good at spotting such weakness and exploiting it. They think they’ve got it all sewn up, and they do: most VFX employees consider themselves lucky to be getting paid these days. As long as that perception (on both sides) persists, we have an uphill battle IMHO, but a union+trade union is a good idea IMHO. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine it making things much worse from the artists’ perspective.

  9. THis is nonsense. If you don’t like it, go work as a lawyer.

    • Makes perfect sense. Or a doctor. Or an Indian chief.

    • There’s some truth behind the quasi-snark of the comment. I’d venture to say that most people in VFX are driven to do so because of the artistic, creative, and technological loves behind it. Anything like that – musician, artist, dancer – you’re in an uphill battle because there are a ton of people waiting in line behind you who would do that same work for free. Not to say that the work has no value. In fact, I think it has much more value than many highly paid positions in Hollywood have – there is real craft, skill, and talent behind all this. The crux of the matter is that we love what we do, and so ironically, we devalue it by offering to do it for less…

      • The people behind me willing to do the work for free are usually the newbies with low or no skills who think they can use Poser to make the next Terminator. Any artist or boutique who’s put in the money for equipment and the time for training, anyone with enough work under their belt to have a decent showreel, knows very well the value of their work and charges commensurately for it. The problem this thread is addressing is that of studios not paying or even acknowledging the work.

        My primary job is voice acting. And yes, it’s a race to the bottom, with plenty of untalented wannabes undercutting everyone around them in order to get “the exposure.” But when the big guns go for the big money and hire a James Earl Jones or a Morgan Freeman, they’d better pay them and ought to acknowledge them, union or not.

        Here in Asia (I live in Hong Kong/Macau) there’s lots of great VFX talent– largely due to the widespread availability of pirated software– and no unions of any kind, so yeah, you can hire a garage full of kids. I’d like to think the industry in Hollywood has progressed beyond that.

        • I once had a meeting with a producer of action movies, brought a show reel, and pitched him why working with my group would be a great match – good results from him, we’re the right size for his shows, etc. etc. At the end, he said, “I work with these guys overseas. Their artists get $20 per day. Sure the results aren’t as polished as what you guys do, but I can throw a bunch of them at a shot and eventually they’ll get it good enough.”

          But your post brought up something interesting. When there’s “star” talent, then those individuals are more resistant to the downward pressures. If you want music, you can get it for cheap, but if you want Hans Zimmer, he has his price. If you need a voice over, you can get someone cheap, but if you want James Earl Jones, it’ll cost you. And if you want great VFX, you’ll have to hire Bill Westenhofer, and he’ll have his price. But the faceless team behind the individual VFX will still be subject to the same issues. So the lesson here is, make yourself a brand. Don’t be a guy who does VFX. Be THE guy who does VFX.

          • Fully agreed (and I AM a brand in Asia), but… R&H WAS a brand, and a long established and deservedly well-known brand at that. They had their price. Doesn’t do much good when you get ripped off due to creative accounting.” Hit a milestone, get paid”? Not where I’m from. And when (not if) the payment is delayed, stop work, miss deadline and breach contract?
            I read some time ago in an issue of 3D World where Bruckheimer or some studio exec said he didn’t feel a project was successful unless it ran at least one vfx shop out of business. Probably an exaggeration, but it does speak volumes about the regard in which vfx artists are held: about a half step below the writers. That may be okay for action films or where the writing/fx are secondary, but on a show like Life of Pi, in which they literally ARE the show, not so much. I think some form of organisation is desirable and inevitable: if a shop like R&H can be be brought down, who’s next?
            (Turns out R&H is opening a shop in Taiwan, home of Ang Lee and my old stomping grounds):
            http://www.deadline.com/2013/02/rhythm-hues-facility-to-open-in-taiwan-by-late-march-report/

  10. Gregory Knight says:

    Here is the reality and some of you are not going to like hearing this: If your work can be commoditized and price/cost is your only distinction, then you are in a race to the lowest price. If you provide a unique value which very few can provide, then you can dictate your price.

    If you are in a career without a unique value proposition and what to make real money, get a different career where you can provide a unique value.

  11. This is the march of technology. We can’t expect studios to be altruistic and keep their business close to home because it’s the “right thing to do”. Studios have shareholders to answer to, and in fact it’s an executive’s duty to look for the best financial return for the shareholders, which often means cheap labor…..This is nonsense. If you don’t like it, go work as a lawyer.”

    And there you have it. That the studio lied about their profit margin and simply refused to pay R&H for their work isn’t relevant, apparently. Didn’t get paid? Studio robbed you? It’s your own fault for assuming your work was worth something, or assuming that the studio was actually required to meet its obligations. The only people the studio is responsible to are the shareholders, the employees don’t matter. And the customers matter only inasmuch as they pay for a ticket or buy a DVD.

    And this is the way some of you apparently like it. It’s not so much that you can’t do anything about it, but that you shouldn’t do anything about it.

    • I’m not sure I fully understand you – the studio’s profit margin is irrelevant — R&H’s deal is not based upon the studio’s profits. You say the studio refused to pay R&H? How so? VFX contracts are based upon milestones. Hit a milestone, get paid. The problem is that when the distance between milestones get stretched out, then the cashflow dries up. You end up paying for one job with the next one. R&H could have put payment plans in place based on time not on progress. That would have ensured that the cash came in on time. But then the studio would have likely rejected that term, giving the choice of R&H to a) turn down the work, b) capitulate and try to “make it work”. Well, guess which option they took. VFX has become an industry of a test to see who’s willing to take the most punches. Apparently there are a lot of folks out there willing to take punches.

      • And there are a lot of people, like yourself, who love to blame the victims and find any excuse to justify the behavior of whatever corporation is stealing from their employees. Clearly you think it’s all R&H’s fault for being so stupid, or so naive so as to think the studio wouldn’t try any trick they could get away with to avoid their responsibilities. And since they can now get wage slave workers in third world countries to do the same work for pennies on the dollar, and as long as they have people like yourself carrying their water for them, they have no reason to change. Hope it never happens to you, pal.

        • As to “blaming the victims”, the only victims I see here are the workers, because they were hired with an agreement with R&H to be paid for their time there. I have friends who are now told the last month’s or so wages will not be paid to them (per a judge’s ruling). They’re the victims because they fulfilled their responsibility and because of the way things went at R&H they won’t get paid. I’m not blaming them. But I don’t see R&H as a “victim” here. R&H ran itself as it deemed best and with knowledge of all the workings of the deal. You’re implying that there’s “trickery” here and the studios are “avoiding their responsibilities”. Please tell me specifically how?

          Yes they can get very low wages in third world countries. (I won’t go as far as you to call them “slave” workers however.) They will continue to do so until it no longer suits them. We complain about a Levi’s factory closing in the US, and then get excited when Levi’s are being sold at Wal-Mart for cheap, made in China.

          I’ve been on the boutique and artist side of this, so all this has happened to me. I speak out of frustration for an industry that is self-cannibalizing and deteriorating. But the people who can affect change – those who buy tickets, DVDs, and watch television – don’t care. They’re just happy there’s something new to watch.

          My main point is to ask all the intelligent minds out there, what should we all do about it? And I mean specifically, not platitudes like “stop corporate greed”. Greed has existed since the dawn of time and will continue until the end of it. What I’m asking is what can WE do – nuts and bolts – to change it? What should ALL artists and ALL people require of ALL VFX houses? What should ALL VFX houses require of ALL studios? Will they ALL be willing to refuse work below those terms? What will prevent studios from using more and more ultra-low wage countries? Or free student labor?

          What is the first step?

  12. I saw the industry changing back in the late 90s when you could stop investing in Silicon Graphics workstations and get a PC with a version of 3-D Studio Max. I worked as an animation artist for a VFX studio. Slowly, the work stopped coming in – our high end shop was constantly overbidding when in competition with the PC guys in their basements. First the work dried up, people got laid off, and then the studio closed. Now you can’t even get a permanent job with a studio – it’s all contract work – that’s if you can get your foot in the door. I loved and lived my job for six years, but no way would I recommend 3-D animation or VFX as a career to anyone these days. Sadly – I see this change as one of the “benefits” of the advancement of technology. I remember when I had to know UNIX commands and geometry to do animation work. Now the software is more user friendly, cheaper to produce and cheaper to run. I stick to it as a hobby only. Still love it, though, and will gladly sit through re-runs of ReBoot.

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