HOLLYWOOD, CA – Last night, as had been widely expected, Ang Lee’s stereoscopic 3D feature, Life of Pi, took home the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. And in a low moment for the Oscars, the award recipients were drummed off the stage by the orchestra, which played the theme from Jaws over Bill Westenhofer’s acceptance speech just as he mentioned troubled VFX company Rhythm & Hues and the current plight of the VFX industry.
In another low moment, Lee, the recipient of the award for Best Director, managed to thank everyone involved in the creation of his stereoscopic masterpiece -- including the guy responsible for cleaning the pool -- except for the visual effects artists who brought the film’s CG tiger to life and created the incredible “Storm of God” sequence that amazed and delighted audiences.
The visual effects community responded with outrage, including an open letter posted on the VFX Soldier blog  from Zoic Studios lead compositor Phillip Broste, shown in full below:
Open Letter to Ang Lee:
Dear Mr. Lee,
When asked about the bankruptcy of Rhythm + Hues, the visual effects house largely responsible for making your film “life of Pi” as incredible as it was, you 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].”
I just want to point out that while, yes R&D can be expensive and yes it takes a lot of technology and computing power to create films like yours, it is not computer chips and hard drives that are costing you so very much money. It is the artists that are helping you create your film.
So when you say “I would like it to be cheaper,” as an artist I take that personally. It took hundreds of hours from skilled artists and hard-working coordinators and producers to craft the environments and performances in life of Pi. Not to mention the engineers that wrote all of that proprietary code and build the R+H pipeline. That is where your money went. I’d say, judging from the night you just had, you got one hell of a deal.
Incidentally, those were the same gorgeous sunsets and vistas that your DP Claudio Miranda took credit for without so much as a word of thanks to those artists. And the same animated performances that helped win you the best director statue. Nice of you to mention the pool crew, but maybe you could have thanked the guys and gals who turned that pool in to an ocean and put a tiger in to that boat?
It was world class work, after all. And after a fabulously insulting and dismissive introduction from the cast of the avengers, at least two of whom spent fully half of their film as a digitally animated character, R+H won for it’s [sic] work on your very fine piece of cinema. And just as the bankruptcy was about to be acknowledged on a nationally-televised platform, the speech was cut short. By the Jaws theme.
If this was meant as a joke, we artists are not laughing.
Mr. Lee, I do believe that you are a thoughtful and brilliant man. And a gifted filmmaker. But I also believe that you and everyone in your tier of our business is fabulously ignorant to the pain and turmoil you are putting artists through. Our employers scramble to chase illegal film subsidies across the globe at the behest of the film studios. Those same subsidies raise overhead, distort the market, and cause wage stagnation in what are already trying economic times. Your VFX are already cheaper than they should be. It is disheartening to see how blissfully unaware of this fact you truly are.
By all accounts, R+H is a fantastic place to work; a truly great group of people who treat their employees with fairness and respect. Much like Zoic Studios, the fabulous company that I am proud to work for. But I am beginning to wonder if these examples of decency will be able to survive in such a hostile environment. Or if the horror stories of unpaid overtime and illegal employment practices will become the norm, all because you and your fellow filmmakers “would like it to be cheaper.”
I for one won’t stand for it. Please join me.
Warmest regards and congratulations,
The open letter comes on the heels of a protest during the red carpet portion of the Oscar ceremony that reportedly drew over 450 attendees, and included a plane commissioned to fly a banner that read, “BOXOFFICE + BANKRUPT = VISUAL EFFECTS VFXUNION.COM.”
Rhythm & Hues, the VFX house behind the CG tiger in Life of Pi, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week despite infusions of studio cash, leading to mass layoffs affecting roughly 250 employees and a class-action lawsuit.