The truth behind the lights and clockwork.

With the birth of computer generated animation in the early 80s, and its use in films such as Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Tron, those who held sway over the money in Hollywood began to grab at the future with a cheque book in one hand, and a brick-sized cell-phone with a direct line to their corporate lawyers in the other.

Despite Hollywood’s initial reluctance towards computer generated imagery, as was seen by their refusal to include the benchmark film Tron for Academy Awards nomination during its 1982 release, the speed at which the digital era was born, raised and kicked out of college was equivalent in pace to that of a wildfire helped along with crop-dusters filled with kerosene. If we fast forward past Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, Babe, Toy Story and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, to the present day, we find a world where, without exception, every single major blockbuster of the last decade relied heavily upon digitally created visual effects and animation.

The digital era of special effects has molded the entertainment industry today into something that simply cannot function without polygons and pixels. These digital effects are created by thousands of digital painters, sculptors, animators and modelers, each of whom have spent years not only learning their craft, but perfecting it up to the standards we have today, and beyond. Though these artists, whose names are often lost in a sea of credits scrolled across a screen at the ends of their films, are considerably less-known than the Grand Masters of the Renaissance, their work has been seen by just as many people – if not more.

On Blu-Ray sales alone, Marvel’s Blockbuster film of 2012, The Avengers, sold more than 3.39 million units within its first week of release. The Louvre, the world’s most-visited art museum, has an average of 8 million people visiting their gargantuan gallery per annum. Yet despite the world’s entertainment industry’s Visual Art Effects (VFX) oversaturation, the companies that are producing the eye-candy we have come to devour are under threats stalking them from various sides. Computer animation giant Dreamworks Animation, the company behind films such as How to Train Your Dragon and the Shrek franchise, was recently forced to lay off over 350 employees. This, despite making over $300 million at the international box office, which is enough money to produce Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 ten times over. Their recent film, Rise of The Guardians was considered to have been financially unsuccessful due to its staggering marketing budget.

Working with what now seems to have been running on a bicycle business model, meaning that as long as it kept on pedaling and producing there is the illusion of success, the company now faces serious obstacles in maintaining its position in the industry. According to the online all-things-Hollywood news source, The Wrap, Dreamworks Animation’s CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has acknowledged his company’s excessive spending as a source of their current troubles, further stating that they are optimistically approaching it as an opportunity to reboot the company’s structure. Despite Katzenberg’s comments, it is clear that the current situation has done much harm not only to those now unemployed, but also to the sense of security and sustainability of the industry in general. With numerous other companies also beginning to stumble financially, industry morale has become a powder keg, detonating into an explosion of outcries after the recent 2013 Academy Awards.

Directed by Ang Lee, the recent drama, Life of Pi, had made approximately half a billion dollars at the box office by the time of its night of glory at the 2013 Oscars. Apart from a confused-looking shirtless hipster in a rowboat, the film was almost entirely created using digital effects (the row-boating hipster, a product of unfortunate genetics). It won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Cinematography, as well as Best Visual Effects – visual effects created by Rhythm and Hues, one of the oldest independent digital visual effects companies in the industry. In early 2013, Rhythm and Hues, which has been behind numerous Academy Award productions such as The Golden Compass and Babe filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after Life of Pi brought the company to its knees. What is not well known regarding this year’s premier presentation of all things cinematic was that outside of the Academy Awards ceremony, a large protest was being held by well over five hundred disgruntled employees of the visual effects industry. This protest was completely ignored by the attendees of the celebrated ceremony as well as by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in general.

Upon the acceptance of Rhythm and Hues’ Oscar for Best Visual Effects, company representative Bill Westenhofer was shuffled off the stage after having his microphone cut upon the mention of Rhythm and Hues’ financial straits. Though it has been argued that this was due to Westenhofer going over his allotted speech-time, as was signified by John Williams’s score for Jaws starting to play in the background, it was clear that Westenhofer had been given considerably less time to make his statement than is usually accepted. (Incidentally, very few clips of Westenhofer’s being cut short can currently be found on the Internet, one of the reasons being alleged copyright claims by AMPAS.) Kevin Mack, Academy member and Award winner for his visual effects work on the Vincent Ward film, What Dreams May Come, has been reported as saying on the Facebook page of VFX Solidarity International that he is “ashamed and embarrassed for the Academy” in regard to their callous behavior, further stating that he “strongly recommend(s) a widely publicized apology.”

Outraged by the disrespect shown towards the creative hard labor behind Hollywood, many companies and individuals lashed back at the Academy’s (and the industry in general) thick-skinned attitude towards significant contributions of VFX in the film and television industries. South African industry experts, who wish to remain anonymous, echo these sentiments for the need for an apology from the Academy, in terms of both the international and local industry. “The industry and audiences are expecting only the best super-realistic visuals and their appetites keep growing while the budgets are shrinking,” says a prominent South African VFX company, whom for the sake of anonymity we will call Chanticleer. “The standard saying goes: ‘Just make it work!’ VFX Artists are getting fed up with being seen as the bottom feeders.”

Within three days after the incident at the Academy Awards, the VFX International group on Facebook, which was founded on 11 February 2013, increased its numbers at a viral speed, which upon the time of writing had reached over seventy-two thousand members. In protest, tens of thousands of digital effects artists, as well as people sympathetic to their plight around the world have changed their profile pictures on social networking sites to a bright green square. Those roughly familiar with the ins and outs of digital effects will know that bright green and blue are often the colors used for studio backgrounds in films planning to use digital effects for environmental augmentation on screen. In short, by painting their profile pictures bright green, visual artists attempted to remind the entertainment industry of what films would look like without digital visual effects. Amongst those siding with the VFX Solidarity International are software companies such as Houdini, FX Gear and Autodesk, who are the developers of some of the most sophisticated digital art creation software currently available on any market. For the first time in the industry’s history, serious talk about banding together, and even the idea of forming unions, has become the soapbox topic supported by a legion of voices. “We understand that budget constraints are a reality, but we know how much talent and resources this art form requires. This debate has always been there and will never go away,” says Chanticleer “It’s only now that the bubble has burst and left casualties that it’s big news. Artists have been suffering all along.”

Comments made by the Visual Effects Society (VES) executive Eric Roth shortly after the announcement of Rhythm and Hues, Digital Domain and Dreamworks’ financial problems, expressed the group’s anger at recent events, as well as the unfair treatment of VFX workers worldwide. In addition, Roth and his colleagues have begun pushing towards the creation of a Visual Effects Congress, to unite all VFX artists around the world under the same bright green banner to work together and find a solution. Other controversies regarding the VFX community include the VES push for government subsidies to help alleviate the current US industry’s straits. Parallel to this, governments from outside the US are echoing this tactic, often much to the advantage of their own VFX companies. Whilst the VES, a prestigious group of 3,000 authoritative members of the VFX industry, seems to be in favor of government subsidization, claiming it will help solve the US VFX community’s immediate problems, many other sources in the industry are not so enthusiastic, including VFX Solidarity International.

VFX Soldier, a popular online blogger and frequent voice on VFX Solidarity International’s Facebook page, for example, believes that subsidizing the VFX community in the US will ultimately affect its growth and financial income negatively. “VFX facilities are now becoming ‘rent seekers’ where they move from country to country, state to state, to take advantage of free government money,” he says. The simple truth is, it doesn’t necessarily take a Ouija-board and a pack of tarot cards to see that this would cause employment instability, as most VFX artists would be forced to job-hop and relocate every time a contract with an unstable company expired. Furthermore, VFX Soldier gives the following industry statistics: “The top 100 films of all time made a combined amount of $56 billion. You would expect that the companies that administer visual effects for the Hollywood conglomerates would be Fortune 500 companies with stock prices that rival Apple or Google.” Yet, in a ”good year they [VFX companies] will make a profit margin as small as 3-5%. How can this be possible?” he askes. “The reason why is Hollywood studio conglomerates effectively leverage their position by pitting VFX facilities so strongly against each other that eventually one company ends up taking the project for a loss”.

Adding to this mix is an evidently brewing jingoism with regard to VFX companies outside of the US. The employees of the Californian industry giants have begun drawing lines in the sand between them, and everyone else. Sadly, from an international point of view, this could damage the global industry even further. Hypothetically, should the US begin to employ local VFX companies exclusively, with the funding and benefits they believe are owed to them, companies in countries like South Africa and Malaysia will suffer the consequences, creating a Catch-22 where someone, somewhere, is going to lose regardless. “I sympathize with the US’s attitude towards losing work to other countries,” says Stephan Calitz, the Head of the Animation Department of The Open Window Academy in South Africa, “But it’s narrow-minded and unrealistic to imagine that out-sourcing won’t take place. Without government subsidies, just about the only work local VFX houses will have come from places like the US. In the end, drawing lines in the sand doesn’t help anyone.” The reality is that VFX does not belong to the US exclusively. Along with big CGI movers, like Weta situated in New Zealand, countries like South Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, China and Korea are bustling with VFX companies often being outsourced to by heavyweight US companies due to their cost effectiveness. Because many such countries are still considered to be part of the developing world, government subsidies benefit them in a way that doesn’t benefit their more expensive counterparts in the US.

Alongside the debacle regarding subsidies, the cutting of company budgets and the withdrawal of sometime legally obligatory employee benefits are slowly killing the US and international industries. Employees of some companies are often known to work 100-hour work-weeks with no healthcare, or vacation time. “It is one thing to make a point about unfairness, but another to lay-off a whole workforce,” says Chanticleer. “So most companies just tighten their belts and undercut the completion process. And so the card house tumbles.” Calitz further explains the difficulties many South African digital animators have to face: “A fresh graduate usually has one of two options: Firstly, they can opt for working as a freelancer in a highly competitive industry. Considering the probability of a student having to pay off study loans, the unpredictability of freelancing is usually a bad route to take. The second option is to work as a junior staff member at a company that has already been established, working right at the bottom.”

The Open Window, a prestigious college whose laurels include a 2009 bronze Loerie Award, as well as a 2012 Pendoring for Student Creativity, is one the main starting places for South African VFX students to cut their teeth in the industry, with many of their students already employed at fairly successful local South African VFX and animation houses. Unfortunately, with the local industry being what it is, such students are often asked to perform under single year contracts, meaning that despite the high standard of work, they are often left jobless after a contract. Something else to consider is also the nature of the entertainment industry itself. If a film or a television program does not fit the public’s bill, then no amount of revolutionary CGI will be able to redeem it financially. Though film companies often aspire to create successful fourquadrant movies – being films that appeal both to male and female audiences over and under twenty-five years of age – the result often turns out to be a softly fizzling mess. With most VFX working for fixed rates on big-production films, they should in theory still be getting the money they need to sustain their companies.

However, with film companies slave-driving the VFX community, fixed rates can be just as damaging as receiving percentages on a failing film. Another problem facing the world of computer generated visual wizardry is the general public’s ignorance with regard to the amount of work that is put into visual effects. What is at best a two-hour movie represents four or five years’ hard labor for VFX artists. Both overseas and local VFX companies, such as Chanticleers, agree that public awareness with regard to what digital visual effects are, and the amount of effort that goes into its production is not nearly what it should be. “[The public] expects to pay the same for a Bridget Jones ticket as for an Avatar ticket,” says Chanticleer. “That means the massive budget needed to realize Avatar needs to be as tight as possible.” The result, Chanticleer explains, is similar to that of a person with only ten grand to his name who expects to buy a top of the range German motorcar. In the automotive industry, such an individual would usually be given a warm bowl of soup, a blanket and a friendly police escort off the premises. In the world of digital lights and clockwork, this is not the case.

“Filmmakers keep on urging the artists to improve during their cycle and end up with something close to the top of the line model. Somewhere there’s a shortfall.” Alongside this, local South African companies have to deal with the international problems created by government business policies such as Black Economic Employment (BEE). Though BEE may allegedly hold some obscure drops of hope for positive growth in the bucket of local markets, very few companies outside of South Africa are willing to work with such a haphazard and controversial employment structure. Calitz, however, believes that there are opportunities to be found in BEE policies and, if managed and handled correctly, these can only help to make the industry in South Africa bigger. Though South Africa has to date had a relatively small VFX community, companies such as Chanticleer, as well as Triggerfish, the South African animation studio behind the star-studded computer generated family film Zambesia, have made waves in the international film and television market. With the current situation as it stands, the way forward to global growth seems unclear.

However, despite raised public and industry awareness of the international VFX industry’s plight, as well as the first talk of unionization since the industry’s birth nearly a quarter of a century ago, nothing truly substantial has been done to cement employment security and business sustainability within the industry itself. One thing is certain, though. The international entertainment industry, in all of its shapes and forms, simply cannot function without digital augmentation. As awesome as Lou Ferrigno was as The Hulk in the original 1978-1982 television series, and as groundbreaking as the works of Ray Harryhausen were when special effects were in their infancy, it would be hard to imagine Ferrigno standing next to a cardboard and Styrofoam Iron Man, fighting off stop-animation Chita Uri with cut scenes to a 1/812 scale miniature New York, complete with sparkler explosions, to have remotely the same effect as Industrial Light and Magic’s… well… magic.

Make no mistake, Hollywood wouldn’t be where it is today without stop-animation, traditional media matte-painting and animatronics, and anyone who fails to respect these great milestones in the world of art need to be violated with a halibut, but the world of the silver screen is definitely not going any further without the help of digital art gurus. During the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike in the US, thousands of staff members, not necessarily in the writing field, were laid off by their studios due to the financial crisis it sparked. With the exception of a handful of scripted shows, production in the US ceased almost entirely by December 2007. By comparison, a defunct VFX industry will have much the same effect – if not worse. With films like Avatar, John Carter, and Tron: Legacy not only featuring extensive digital effects for their backgrounds and action, but also for their main characters, it is difficult to imagine the consequences for current filmmaking should the unsung artists that breathe soul and body into these characters and stories no longer be able to constantly push the limits of their imaginations in our direction.

By Marthinus Dawid Van Rooyen

Published in Playboy South Africa April 2013