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Guts and Magic in the Air at the VES Ball

After spending the evening with friends and industry acquaintances at the VES Awards, Rick Kerrigan talks about how the industry’s rapid change means vfx professionals must adapt and evolve or get pushed aside.

The Ninth Annual VES Awards held at the Beverly Hilton this year was a wonderful evening. The men were dressed in fineries ranging from the most formal to interpretations of Edwardian garb all the way to elegant Goth. The women were all pretty and covered, sometimes barely, in shimmering golds and soft greens. The light sought them and pointed them out to all in the room to see as they moved through the array of crowded tables. More sources of light than reflection. Fresh faces sat at each table woven in among the time-tested faces of the pioneers and near-pioneers of our business. Occasional dust motes caught in the beams of light evoking stardust, fireflies and summer nights. If the VES performed no other role other than to bring us all together as a family once a year then they would have had reason enough to exist.

There are other places to find the names of the winners so I’ll leave that to those who keep records of such things. With all due respect to the winners and the promoters of the event, after a few awards have been presented I tend to drift away from the table where I am seated to join that intrepid group that has trouble listening to conversation when they are simply wired to participate in it. We congregate at the rear of the room behind the cameras and groups of two and three good and new friends congeal into cohesive conversations and warm smiles of recognition and friendship.

Admittedly the conversation of these groups tends to rise in volume as jokes and laughs cascade upward into the dark. The sound interferes with the recordings of the film crew and being professionals, they complain. A blue-eyed earnest young woman volunteer appears. She has been selected by the VES to herd this group of cats. She visits groups milling around exhorting them to be quiet. She smiles, cocks her head in a pleading gesture and is extremely nice. Her efforts are appreciated and mostly, but warmly, ignored. I would imagine by now that the VES is aware that visual effects people are bunch of independent thinkers and answerers to their own rhythms. The only way to get a visual effects person to do what you want them to do is to pay them. Short of that, they are free men and women.

We are now engaged in a great change that has swept our old notions of our business out the door along with a fair number of ourselves. While it seems unprecedented to us, this is certainly not the case. Given the number of Smiths (inclusive of non-English versions of the name “Smith”) one can see that that profession also went through a major upheaval culminating when the very first Ford Model T rolled down the middle of the town’s dusty street. I imagine some of these men became mechanics and simply modified their skill sets to accommodate the change. Others sold cars or became haberdashers. Life went on.

While the volume of visual effects work worldwide has increased a very large portion of the work is done overseas and unless we can find some way to stop electricity from being produced in China we can expect to face a continuing drain of the work - certainly out of California and largely out of the U.S. in general. Unionizing will not help unless the state and local governments put into place a large and sustained incentive program to keep the work here, mirroring what our competitors are doing. The current state of affairs is leaving visual effects companies all over California by the wayside like shaken babies.

Certainly we must do what we can to adapt but realistically, only a certain number of us will be able to make the transition successfully. Others will drop into the visual effects past uncertain as to whether they jumped, were pushed or simply let go.

I had an Uncle Howard who had married one of my mother’s sisters. He lived in a town in upstate New York by the name of Little Falls. Throughout The Depression he worked continuously at the phone company and had never experienced a day in which he was without a job. Little Falls is not New York City so he did not see lines of proud men standing in soup lines trying to allay their hunger and their fears of the seemingly unceasing collapse of what had just previously been a rock solid world. My mother would tell me stories of Harvard graduates selling apples for a nickel at the subway entrances but would also tell me that even though the men were wearing ragged clothes their shirts were clean, their shoes were polished and they wore ties. They sustained their pride. Until the day my Uncle Howard passed away he swore that there had been no Depression and that it was a creation of the media. He could only see to the limit of his own experience.

The decision of whether we should “stay in the business” or not is largely decided for us. The article in last Tuesday’s LA Times only echoed what we have known for the past several years. The world is on the march and there will be casualties. Some of us will manage to hang on and stay in. Virtually all of us have had the experience where we were so long without work and so bereft of options that we felt we could not go on another day and then we were forced to go another five months without relief. When suddenly the phone would ring (insert my number here…) and we would be invited once again to go and play in the business.

Courage is grace under pressure and we will be tested from here on. For some this will constitute an opportunity to explore who they are stripped of what they do. Thoreau points out that it is best for us to upheave our lives every seven years so that we can truly know who we are. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying makes the statement that the worse thing that can happen to us is to die without truly knowing who we are. While these times are tough, we will be forced to learn from them. At first hardness will come to the fore to protect our inner cores but we will soften and soon recognize in others the struggle we have undergone and are still undergoing. Compassion will be the lesson most widely learned.

To a home I once owned the phone company dispatched a man of then slightly older years than I to set up service. He was not feeling well so I made him a cup of tea and we sat in the side yard on the woodpile and talked. He was a deeply saddened man as the woman he had been with for several years, indeed still loved, had decided that she no longer loved him and was taking custody of his young daughter as part of the bargain. Sad men are kind men. He told me softly that in life the same questions keep popping up and if you fail to answer the question, it will return and plague you until you truly understand and implement the correct answer.

I can’t honestly say that I ever shook hands with or even laid eyes on Grant McCune. The world is such a sea of faces that unless someone is pointed out to us or floated into our lives we slide by them without knowing a thing about them. From what I’ve been told he remains a special man in the hearts of those who knew and worked with him. During the VES Awards show I noted the young faces and foreign accents that filled the tables and the air throughout. While the old guard ages and the threads of the tapestry stretch and break, new threads are taking their place. They won’t be the same threads for if we all have one God-given attribute it’s uniqueness. Despite our losses and most likely because of them, we will be exhorted to move forward and into our own souls.

The hook that pulled me into the business like a bass snatching a shimmering lure was the last paragraph of Frank Capra’s autobiography: The Name Above the Title. In it he outlines in typical upbeat fashion (referred to as “Capra-corn” by pundits…) his life and the events that led him to a life in film. Unfortunately I don’t have the book within my grasp so I paraphrase: “You’re a divine mingle-mangle of stardust and guts. Doors opened for me, they’ll open for you. Hang in there!”. Both the stardust and the guts were on display last Tuesday evening. If you missed it I’m sorry for you.

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