The visual effects community sees red in the wake of Oscar protest and on-air snub
You schooled us pretty hard the last time there was a WGAw strike. You made a pretty convincing case for a Hollywood without writers, and while we'll never admit it to you as a group, you broke us. You really did. And it has ruined the industry that I love in a million small ways that you're not even going to notice for a decade or so, and when you do, it may well be too late. You fought us over money and your right to more of it, and you hurt us enough to make us take a deal that we knew in our hearts was not right.
If you try to do the same thing to the VFX industry, you are going to lose.
I'm not telling you this because I want you to win. I just don't think you realize that this is not the same situation as when the writers decided to strike. You are correct. You can indeed lowball us and force us to do free rewrite after free rewrite and you can screw us on points and offer us insulting archaic math problems instead of real profit participation and we'll smile and ask for more. But if you start putting FX houses out of business and trying to lowball that side of the business, you may be crippling yourself.
After all, when you see pretty much any trailer for any tentpole film at this point, the shots you're going to use to sell that movie will, more often than not, contain some degree of visual effects work. Sometimes, the visual effects are the entire thing you're selling, promising a wild ride to a new world. When you look at your highest grossing films each year, ask yourself what those movies would be if you couldn't offer ticket-buyers more and more marvelous visions each year.
I'm not even going to talk about quality. The systemic abuse of writers proves that is not what drives the decisions in town. Instead, money talks, so let's talk money. "Avatar," the #1 grossing film of all time… picture that without visual effects. Or picture it done on a rushed schedule with no money to speak of. "Titanic." Same thing. "The Avengers." "The Phantom Menace." "Star Wars." Nolan's "Dark Knight" movies. "Shrek 2." "E.T." "Pirates 2." That's your top ten right now in terms of all time domestic box-office. Every one of those films was the cutting edge when it was made. Every one of those films depended in large part on those visual effects being the best they could be at the time the films were released.
Honestly, the time to deal fairly with independent FX houses seems to have passed. With Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and ILM with it, they've brought the two largest talent pools of state-of-the-art computer animation under one roof. Pixar and ILM aren't just part of the big leagues… they are the big leagues. And now they are all part of one brand, and I can guarantee when ILM is picking who works on what movies, the A-team, the absolute cream of the crop, will always be working on Disney projects first. That's great news for Marvel Studios. It's great news for anyone making a Disney film.
I think the 21st century is going to belong to companies that follow a model along the lines of what Hydraulx is doing. You don't have to like "Skyline" to admire what they're up to, or to see how canny it is as a template for how to make movies in this modern economy. They don't have an FX department… they are an FX company that also has a creative branch. They are developing material in-house, and they own their own cameras, their own post-production facility… they can go start to finish on whatever they want, and all they need is a few hits to make this really start to pay off. They can make movies for 1/10th of the budget of something and make it look the same. In many cases, passion on these smaller projects pushes people to work even harder than they do for the giant impersonal blockbuster stuff. "District 9" was a great example of a movie that felt like it was made by people with something to prove working outside the system.
I didn't watch the Oscars yesterday, but enough people were instantly outraged by the way the orchestra played off Bill Westenhofer, who won for "Life Of Pi," a movie that was impossible to make without the active participation of a team of FX artists working at the absolute peak of their craft. It's particularly galling that the FX guy, speaking about a protest that was happening outside that directly addresses the financial realities that are starting to damage the FX community in a way they may not be able to fully recover from, was cut short at a ceremony where they actually had a computer-animated character give away an award on live television. Ted was so successful an effect last night that my mother called me after the awards to ask me how they fit the midget into the suit. And without a great, dedicated FX team, that moment doesn't happen.
I don't think Hollywood is nearly scared enough right now. I don't think they're truly thinking about what could happen if they make it financially impossible for innovation and artistry to thrive in the FX community. Rhythm & Hues may have won an Academy Award last night, but they are also facing bankruptcy. I remember the year they won for "Babe." It was their first Oscar, and I was at the studio for their big giant Oscar party with a friend who worked there, and the jubilation was amazing. They were so proud of what they'd done, so proud of being a small independent house that turned out work that made magic for audiences all around the world, in a film that was beloved. Last night, I'm wondering if any of that same joy was part of the experience for them. Yes, they have another trophy, another round of kudos on doing remarkable things, but they may not have a future as a company. How does that even make sense?