The ominous sound of John William's "Jaws" theme creeped up on Bill Westenhofer Sunday night. When the crescendo hit, the mic was cut - and the sound of an industry collectively burying heads in sand was overwhelmed only by the audience applause.
Feb. 13th, 2013. Oscar nominated Visual Effects house Rhythm & Hues files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Reports had been leaking out about unpaid wages and decreasing working conditions for the artists involved. Fresh from some of the best work seen by the industry in years for the Ang Lee feature "Life of Pi", you can imagine the artists involved taking a moment to pause and ponder how this happened.
This is not an isolated incident. Companies across the world have followed the same trajectory. Studios demand breakthrough, cutting edge work on ever decreasing budgets. Companies under-bid for fear of not paying the overheads for that month, wilfully blind to the foreboding issue of wages. Studios simply wait for the lowest bidder.
This is a simple capitalist model. But as expected, the losers are at the bottom. The artists, technicians, engineers and administrators that actually do the work end up without. Pixomondo are the next to go. It was confirmed Sunday that they are closing their London and Detroit offices. They won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects last year for "Hugo".
I know of another London based VFX house that has moved to a three day week because of cash-flow issues. And another that has been closed for over a week because of studios withholding payment. One of the largest houses in Europe recently let go a large percentage of their workforce, ostensibly owing to a scheduling conflict.
So what's the cause? You'd think the free market would decide and the houses producing the worst product would falter, and the cream of the global crop would triumph. You'd be wrong. Sunday night Rhythm and Hues won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, to add to a haul of most of the awards in the film and visual effects industry. London, a city that was producing some of the best frames in the world only a year ago, is now free falling into a wasteland of empty houses and unpaid workers.
To meet the demands of the studios, houses are utilising the wonders of globalisation and outsourcing their work to India, China and Singapore, laying off artists that have trained for years and worked in the industry for decades. Anecdotal evidence assures me the quality of the work suffers - but when wages are that low, you can have quite a few stabs at a shot before getting it right.
It begs the question, would that tiger in "Life of Pi" exist in the beautiful state that it does if not for the sacrifice of those artists? Surely the problem is that the cost of VFX is too high. They need to find a way to make it cheaper to produce this art to increase their margins. Much like the world of fashion - the money is not spent on the physical materials, but rather the work of all the people involved. The people that produce the material, design the clothes, manufacture, advertise, ship and retail the product. Visual effects is the same; it is a human industry. People design software that is sold to the houses, where people use it to create art. And this all takes a very long time. The cost of the computers is negligible against the cost of the people.
So to make it cheaper means to pay the artists less. These aren't premiership footballers or skyscraper straddeling bankers - you seldom meet a rich visual effects artists. They do the work because they love it, because they have a natural talent for it, and more often than not because they believe in film as a form of expression. After his win for Best Director at last night's presentation Ang Lee said:
“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. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house. They all have good times and hard times, and in the tough times, some may not [survive].”Houses do have good times, and they do have bad times. R & D is expensive - because it involves a lot of very talented people working very hard. VFX should not be cheaper. People should be paid fairly for the work they do, and not have their Director saying any different. I would describe "Life of Pi" as a VFX film from head to toe. Lee was right about one thing: "It's easy for me to say".
So Westenhofer rushes through his speech at the podium to squeeze in a comment on the fact that the people who actually did the work that got the film the awards and the box office (currently $583m, with an estimated budget of $120m) are being made redundant and that there is a problem in VFX that needs addressing. And with the quiet threat that instilled fear in millions back in 1975, the "Jaws" theme silenced him, and everybody clapped.
The artists that made the Tiger, sculpted the sea, painted the sky and crafted the fishes, won't be seeing any of that $463,000,000 profit. And VFX houses will continue to exist based on Government subsidies and tax breaks rather than fair contracts. The current city to tempt the industry is Vancouver, offering staggering benefits for productions and houses working in their city. A large percentage of London jobs are being cut and moved to Canada, and in a few years they'll probably all move again. Incidentally, if there's a trade lawyer out there who knows about these things, isn't there some kind of WTO competition treaty to stop Governments 'poaching' industries like this?
Regardless, 'Fair Trade' Film is probably a distant dream. And while studios make huge profits they'll keep chasing lower and lower bids, and houses will outsource more and more work to sweatshop studios. But next time someone tells you that piracy is killing the industry, that your illegal download takes money from the pockets of a poor technician and his family, remember that it's the industry killing the industry, first and foremost.
Never one to end a rant on a downer, I spotted this tweet Oscar night from one commentator named 'Piers Morgan':
The Jaws music cut-off for long-winded acceptance speeches is the greatest addition to awards ceremonies ever. I'd add real sharks.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) February 25, 2013
The only reply to which I can fathom would be to quote "Argo", another big winner of the evening:
"Hey Piers; Argo fuckyourself!"