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Open Letter from the VES: Visual Effects Catches the True Tiger by the Tail

VES Chairman Jeff Okun and executive director Eric Roth issue an open letter in response to an L.A. Times Life of Pi review.

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

The following is an open letter from the Visual Effects Society:


Eric Roth, Executive Director, Visual Effects Society    

Jeffrey A. Okun, Chair, Visual Effects Society

Recently, The Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey gave a glowing review to the new movie Life of Pi, (“‘Pi’ Equals Mastery,” The Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2012).  She praised Director Ang Lee’s use of 3-D and feels the movie is an instant classic.  She goes on to say that, Indeed, Lee has enhanced the novel's power, employing 3-D and CGI technology with such originality that there are moments when the ocean seems to float around you.  And when a certain tiger roars, you may well jump.

“The film serves up cutting-edge special effects, developed over the course of 10 years, and is already generating awards buzz for the Oscar-winning director,” according to The Huffington Post.  Ang Lee waited ten years for visual effects technology to be able to deliver a believable world and co-stars.  It could be said that the film would never have been made without them.  As the only organization that represents the visual effects industry, we at the Visual Effects Society (VES) couldn’t agree more. Director Ang Lee not only employed truly artistic and compelling visual effects work, he did so in order to successfully tell a deeply moving story.

All this said, while printed praise has been heaped on Lee and director of photography Claudio Miranda – as well as production designer David Gropman – there has been no mention of visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer; Rhythm and Hues, the company that created the bulk of the visual effects; Moving Pictures Company, Lola, Look FX, BUF, Crazy Horse Effects or the hundreds of visual effects artists who created the tiger as well as the entire world at sea – consisting of flying fish, a breaching whale and a floating island populated with thousands of meerkats.  Not to mention the overwhelmingly majestic sunsets – all of which were filmed in a water tank surrounded by blue screens and not on an actual ocean.

Too often, visual effects artists are overlooked in the “take a bow” section of reviews, and we find that puzzling; first, because of the incredibly sophisticated skill that visual effects work requires and – second – because they have now become a key driver of the box office.  Consider the stars of the ‘Transformer’ movies, the ‘Harry Potter’ movies, Avatar, The Avengers and so on – it was the visual effects. To put an exclamation point on this, 46 of the 50 top worldwide box office films of all time are visual effects driven. 

In short, visual effects artists make the magic possible, but we don’t always receive the recognition we deserve for the contributions we've made to the final product – creatively, as well as our impact on the financial bottom line.  We can create any kind of visuals a director wants to see on screen, making the impossible possible.  And visual effects artists do this as artists – the computer is only our tool in the same, way a paintbrush was a tool to Monet or a camera to Ansel Adams.  Our work is now every bit as integral to the story telling process as that of the writer, director, editor, actor, cinematographer and production designer.

For everyone watching the tiger Richard Parker and Pi Patel learn to live with one another stranded in a small life boat, remember this: without the phenomenal visual effects artists who spent months painstakingly creating every frame, Richard Parker, the meerkats, fish, whales, storms, ships and sky would never have come to life.  And that would not be worth either the $14 admission price, or the two hours you’ve spent in the theater.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.