Many of you may not have heard of the “OccupyVFX” movement which is starting up in protest of the unfair working conditions experienced by visual effects staff working with Hollywoods biggest names, though it is one movement which is unlikely to go away any time soon. Visual effects artists worldwide enable Hollywoods biggest blockbusters to be the visual feasts that astound and entertain us regularly with flying superheroes and cosmic collisions aplenty.
If you have been blown away by the standard of digital and analogue special effects which are becoming the norm throughout the cinema realm then be sure to read on as TechWench discusses the ripples and waves within the VFX industry.
Cast your mind back over some of the biggest earners in Hollywood history;
4. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows – Part 2
5. Iron Man 3
Bear in mind that Avengers, Harry Potter and Iron Man 3 have all been released since 2010 and so have enjoyed recent meteoric rise to riches and glory, especially Iron Man 3. Now picture these films without any of the special effects; no multiple flying suits careening with fancy head up displays, no crystal clear Pandoran waterfalls and junglescapes, Harry Potters wand shooting out puffs of flour instead of technicolour wizardry. The fact is that these films are not possible without extreme levels of digital and analogue special effects being pumped into them, how a film appears or how convincing its CGI is has surpassed storytelling in its importance as a factor of a films success. This state of affairs has been building for a while as digital technology has been improved and developed with the majority of films being created on solely digital set ups as it allows the wide range of effects which are key to the success of recent films. It is much more difficult for dedicated FX films (such as Matrix, Jurassic Park) to stand out for themselves as every film that reaches cinema has a high level of VFX work applied to it, a level which would leave 80s filmmakers and filmgoers stunned and spinning. So, the big three aspects of filmmaking have become;
The story writers are well catered for with scripts from established writers selling for millions as being potentially worth billions when combined with the right delivery and appearance. Those who deliver the story are even better cared for with actors earning millions alone just for showing their faces in a film. They add nothing to the story but serve only as a “famous face” to try and cover the fact that the story cannot speak for itself. So; two of the major factors of film making make very good money for their involvement in a films creation, and rightly so; a film needs a story, a film needs actors. But what about the third factor, Appearance?
Imagine if it was your job to build a road. A client rings you and asks you to quote against other road builders for the price of a small road, nothing fancy, just a car worthy track really. You undersell your skills so you can land the contract and give your team some work; after all they’ve got families to feed and lives to live. As your team mobilises you find out that the requested road is to link two very distant towns, a bigger job than you were told. You discover that the land beneath the road is swampy and will require a heck of a lot of preparation before you can even build the road on it, an unexpected river crops up and you have to double back and find a path across. As you approach the destination town, the client drives up in his flash car and says “no, no, no this road needs two lanes” and so you widen the road along the entire length of what you have built so far. The town is within site, the road is nearly finished despite being massively overtime and massively over budget, far beyond its original parameters and with nice ornaments at every junction; the client drives up again and says “no, no, no. Now we’re thinking the road should go through the town down the road.” You, as a road contractor, have a contract to fill. You have employees who need work or your contracting company will fail. Very little has been seen by way of money despite all the fancy cars driving on your road already, if you back out now you definitely won’t get paid, let alone get paid for the actual amount of work. All the road users will come together and agree “no more road building for you.” The road is finally finished, the extra roundabouts and crossings have been added when the client shows up and says “cheers guys, we’ll open the road later today, thanks for your help” and drives off again leaving you and your workers with calloused hands and empty pockets.
The analogy is not a far stretch from the realities of working within the VFX industry. Client studios will advertise contracts for films with very little information given as to the true scope of the requirements, VFX studios must bid for this work with a lowest price approach as opposed to esteem of prior work. Studios have to bid at a loss, constantly, just to have work for their employees; it is the greatest factor in the closing down of some of the industry’s biggest names. The road building begins; you find the land/footage you have been given needs reparative work and adaptation before it is ready to layer effects on. The client changes his mind as to the scope of the effects in the film as the story and its delivery were less than stellar, the film needs twice the effects now. As you approach the end of the post-production process again the client shows up looks at your work, slowly shakes his head and points to the town down the road, more work (now time sensitive) for the same pre-agreed amount. You’d already undersold yourself and now you’re overworking your employees too. When the film is finished the client studio rakes in millions, sometimes billions of profit from its cinema run, let alone its home DVD sales. The scriptwriters, actors and the rest of the production staff have been paid and paid amply long before the film has even been released, now it’s out there it is making serious money. So where are the wages for the post-production staff?
This is the reality faced by visual effects artists and designers. Studios take advantage of their skillsets to create the highest grossing films ever, make no mistake, these films would be nothing without the hardwork and elbow grease supplied by the VFX industry. Big name, over paid actors only add so much to a film these days, they do not impress viewers as much as having them melt into silver or fly across a cosmic backdrop. For these reasons and more the VFX industry has gone on strike.
Now over to their demands;
1. Fair pay, including overtime, sick time, and vacation pay.
2. Fair and safe working conditions.
3. Portable health care benefits.
4. Portable retirement plan.
What, you were expecting strange demands specific to the industry? These people are only after fair working conditions, they do not ask for the moon, they ask for a chance to look at the moon and not worry about whether they will be paid for the 40hrs overtime they put in this week alone. In many other industries quitting the company would be the favoured option though there is a blacklist approach by studios barring VFX companies and individuals meaning that quitting one job means quitting the industry altogether, it is an unforgiving trade.
The portability demands are not extraneous either; major western governments offer incentives to studios if they produce films in their country meaning that many workers have to relocate themselves and their families internationally just to continue work. Once the contract is filled and the film finished the incentives stop for the company and they relocate the studios back to Canada, the US or the UK with scant regard for the families they have uprooted and subsequently abandoned. Film studios have no incentive for long term development of creative infrastructure as they only plan to hang around for the length of the film and then can hop off to the next government incentive across the pond. Studios wield enough money to be transnational regularly, unpaid and overworked designers do not.
So if you haven’t heard of the OccupyVFX movement or the troubles within the VFX industry which have been brewing for many a year though have only recently boiled over then hopefully now you are aware of the situation and, next time you see an effects-laden blockbuster film; think of all the work which went into altering that film, frame by frame, again and again. The hours spent moving a starlets hair from one side of her face to the other (special effects are much, much more widespread than you would think) in a poorly lit computer basement with other similarly overworked and underpaid technical wizards for which they may never be paid for. Or, alternatively; only watch films without special effects. Enjoy robots made of cardboard and castles made of sand with a story acted out by overbotoxed and under talented Hollywood big names on a Styrofoam film set. Those actors make more than you do for less work, the designers make less money than you for more work.