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Q1: What do the Teamsters and SEIU have in common with the Academy Award winning film “Life of Pi”?

Q2: Why did the the 2013 Oscar Awards include an under reported protest, happening just a few blocks away?

A: Labor

While much of the country watched the over-hyped Oscars or Academy Awards on February 24, 2013 – with the utterly unfunny Seth McFarlane as host – some 500 film industry workers protested to call attention to economic problems threatening the visual effects community.

Hollywood films are increasingly reliant on visual effects to tell their stories.  The highest grossing box-office films tend to lean heavily on the talents of amazing visual effects artists to composite mind-blowing explosions, create jaw-dropping locales and supplement the often lacking story lines with amazing visuals.hollywood-unions1

 

“Life of Pi” took home the Oscar this year for Best visual effects.  The film was a tremendous vfx feat and a perfect exemplar of the troubles in the film industry.  Rhythm & Hues Studios – the company behind many of the effects in Life of Pi –  had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early February.  Rhythm and Hues has also done notable work on such films as “Snow White and the Huntsman”, “X-Men First Class” and “The Hunger Games”.

Visual FX breakdown in Academy Award Winning “Life of Pi”:

How can a firm like Rhythm and Hues, doing impressive work on successful films, fall into such a predicament?  Apparently they are only one of many such vfx firms, struggling to stay afloat or shutting its doors.

All is not well in Wonderland.

Intense competitive bidding has lead to companies taking on projects at low, fixed rates.  Globalization has American vfx firms competing with very cheap labor abroad, and all of this leads to very tight profit margins — often 5 percent or less — that can be endangered if a project is canceled or delayed.

“Human beings are being put out of work to get these effects done at a dirt-cheap rate,” said Tom Capizzi, an artist recently let go from R&H after being with the VFX house since 1997.

Pointing out that the 20 highest-grossing films of all time relied on VFX, Leslie Ekker, an industry veteran, said that “VFX facilities are being treated in a way that is disproportionate to the importance of VFX to a film.” He pointed out as an example that on fixed-bid projects, “the studios are not forthcoming about changes and schedule adjustments.”  In the end, profits from a multi-million dollar international box-office success rarely trickle back to these vfx firms who contribute so heavily to creating the audiences’ experience.

Representatives from organized labor attended Sunday’s rally to support the artists. “These people are being taken advantage of; it shouldn’t be that way,” said Bob Oedy, international lead organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “The profits are huge for the studios, and the VFX artists have been marginalized. They really need to unionize or this is going to continue, unfortunately.”

A glimpse at the grimy underbelly of Hollywood’s polished and star-studded films reveals the same kinds of economic and labor issues found across American industry today.

Times they are a changing, it seems.  Even in the land of make believe.

You can show your support for artists in the VFX community, and stay up to date on what’s happening by following the facebook page “VFX Solidarity International”

You can also show support by building awareness … forward this article and consider changing your profile picture to bright green on your favorite social network site.  This green is the customary color used to perform “keying” background removal, critical for many of the visual effects in film.

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