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Practical Magic: The State of the VFX Industry in 2015, Part 2 - Hug a VFX Artist

Despite many great VFX-driven films ahead, Steve bemoans the state of the VFX “business” responsible for their visual magic.

'Life of Pi.' Image ™ and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

In my last blog I mentioned I was writing a two-part “extravaganza.” After all the glitz and glamour of my Part 1 piece on movies to look forward to this year, it’s time to slow things down. Time to put on some sad jazz music and take a long hard look at the industry. Unlike the images you see on the big screen, the VFX industry these days is not particularly pretty. It’s a cut-throat, globalized business at the beck and call of the six big movie studios. They demand profit. Lots of it - unless you believe that they lose money on major motion pictures (see Deadline’s article about Harry Potter 5 losing $167 million). Hmm, I don’t think so.

Well, what’s the deal with visual effects artists? What do they do that’s so special? What’s so important about them? After all, their credits are right at the film’s end; even the 2nd assistant to the caterer’s dog comes first. Simply put, VFX artists create images that can’t be caught on live film, maybe because of budget, safety or simply that they don’t exist in the real world. It is usually a post-production process and today most likely uses CGI (computer generated imagery). If you’re wondering about how important VFX are, take a look at the biggest box office movies of the last handful of years. Almost every movie relied on large amounts of VFX and together have made billions and billions of dollars. You would think that the movie studios would treat these VFX companies as precious commodities but instead they demand tighter turn-arounds and lower costs. This has led several major VFX companies to go out of business, most notably Rhythm & Hues in 2013 which happened literally as they were accepting the Oscar for best visual effects on Life of Pi (2012).

'Man of Steel.' Image © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.


There a few reasons why this is happening. Firstly, CGI led VFX is a relatively new segment of movie making. There has been no unionizing or guilds set up like there are for writers and directors, for example. Secondly VFX operates as a “guessing game.” You have to anticipate what will be required when bidding on a job and usually; usually, bids are fixed and studios will hold you to that agreement. If there are any changes or things don’t go as you predict, then tough luck, the money comes out of your end. Even if the changes are the studio’s fault, VFX houses often absorb the costs simply to keep the client happy; they’re always afraid the client will just take the project somewhere else. This means that companies work with razor thin margins and when something on a project goes wrong, it can lead to a complete VFX studio downfall. A prime example of this is Look FX, who unfortunately had to close its doors in 2014 and identified Noah (2014) as one of the major reasons. There is an urban legend making the rounds of VFX shops from a producer who apparently said, “If I don’t put a visual effects company out of business on my movie, then I’m not doing my job.” Nice.

Finally, because the work is not tangible (i.e. it’s a digital, not physical product) it can be produced anywhere in the world as long as there is a good internet connection. This leads to a controversial part of this discussion: tax breaks and other financial incentives. In an interest to stimulate their local economies, many countries / various US states offer tax credits for movies shot and / or worked on in their vicinity. Two big examples are London in the UK and Vancouver in Canada. These incentives gives the movie studios massive leverage; find the best tax break and then demand low fixed bids for the work. When filming of The Hobbit Trilogy was set to commence in New Zealand, Warner Bros threatened to take production elsewhere unless subsidies and labor laws were made more favorable to their production. Just to pause a moment and reflect, New Zealand rewrote the labor laws to make them more favorable to movie production. The areas of discussion were minimum wage and working conditions. You can probably work out that this didn’t mean better conditions for the artists. So far New Zealanders have contributed $150 million (through taxes) to The Hobbit Trilogy.

'Dark Shadows.' Image © 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures. Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Things might be about to change soon though, and the cause might be dental braces. A company in Texas was 3D printing dental braces created from digital files in Pakistan. The braces are patented to another company in the USA. The problem is that because digital files aren’t tangible, they’re not under the protection of the Tariffs Act protecting imports and exports. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) argues that digital files should be considered tangible to help prevent piracy and illegal trade. Ironically for them this would also mean that digital work transferred from other subsidy havens would be protected by the International Trade Commission and duties would have to be applied. A small glimmer of hope perhaps?

This brings me on to the final part of this sad journey. The VFX artist. All of these factors are invariably passed down to the artist. They rarely get permanent work, nor get benefits or pensions and have had to get used to moving all over the world to chase the work wherever the next tax break might be. So where does this leave us? There have been several movements recently (most notably from VFX Soldier and Scott Ross) to push for guild representation or even some standardization in the industry to help protect artists. This doesn’t seem to have gained much traction and at the moment, it seems like very little has changed.

'Star Trek Into Darkness.' Image © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


So that’s where you come in. If you like the grey-haired Terminator, or the X-Wing filled up with Mark Hamill, or the Hulk tearing down another famous landmark this year, and you see a sad VFX artist, give them a hug.

I’m aware this issue could be considered a little inflammatory, feel free to comment below and add your thoughts!

For more information on this topic I suggest:

VFX Soldier -

Life After Pi -