A Recap Of The Trouble In The Visual Effects Industry

Visual effects artists are very much like our cousins, in the sense that our industry is visually based much like they are. We felt that we had to post about this for the sake of awareness in case you aren't familiar with the news. Also, we wanted to create an open dialogue and hear from our readers about what they thought about all of this. 

If you watched the Oscars this past weekend you'll know that Life of Pi won an Oscar for best cinematography and visual effects. They also won for best director (Ang Lee) and more.

Rhythm and Hues, the VFX company that was responsible for the beautiful effects, is going bankrupt.

This announcement came right on the eve of the Oscars and it seemed to spark a protest. You can read more about that here.

Even though Life or Pi had a $120M budget, it seemed as though enough was not allocated to compensate the company and the artists fairly.

It wasn't necessarily just because of this particular job that the company went bankrupt but it has put the issue front and center.

To understand this particular situation better, check out this open letter to Mr. Lee over at VFX Soldier by a lead compositor in the industry:

So it seems that the guys who put the magic in movies are suffering while the rest of the industry is making ends meet a little better.

Over at Reddit, there's a great discussion going on that involves a lot of people working in the field.


User 'Down With Pants' wrote a good overview of the situation:

“They went bankrupt because the VFX industry is fundamentally broken. Movie studios play the bigger VFX houses against each other, pitting them in a bid war until one of them finally bids so low that they actually lose money by doing the work - but they lose less than if they hadn't.

Movie studios ship work to all over the world, chasing the next big subsidy being handed out by governments that, in the end, screw over the taxpayers too. BC taxpayers in Canada paid, on average, $60 per person for all of the VFX work being subsidized up there. This practice does a couple key things - first it makes job displacement a core tenet of the industry - so people often chase their job around the globe after every project. But it also lowers the Movie Studios' perceived value of the VFX work itself because while the overall cost doesn't drop significantly, the Studios themselves are paying a fraction of what they paid w/o the subsidies.
Then there's a whole other conversation about the lack of proper benefits and pay for overtime. There are stories of people working 16 hour days for 1-2 months solid straight days with no overtime. That has the potential to destroy lives and families. The current model for the industry isn't sustainable.”

Essentially, putting each studio against each other in a bidding war. The winner settles for an amount barely worthwhile, keeping the studio afloat a little longer till the ship sinks.


User Oddgenetix chimed in with a vivid description filled with emotion. It put everything in perspective:

“I am a laborer in the VFX industry. We are brutalized, constantly. We f***ing make the magic. We f***ing paint worlds in a digital ether that can't be imagined any other way. Our paintbrush is computer code and we're deft at executing. We are also forgotten, abused, underpaid, overworked, and every last one of us is completely burned the f**k out.

I personally poured over shot after shot on numerous movies, hand-massaged every frame, scrutinized the color, stereo depth, technical execution, among so many other things, on so many movies over the past 3 years. I am in a high-end position in the VFX industry.
I am often credited under the guy who gets coffee.

I know it's different for everyone here, but seeing the front page filled with the c*nts that short my paycheck, and accept the praise for the worlds we create.. it f***ing makes me boil.”

You can also read the full discussion here - Full Discussion


This is just an overview for those who aren't aware of what is going on at the moment. If you're on Facebook, you'll see a few people change their display pictures to a green frame in support.

Sound off in the comments below to let us know what you think about the situation, we'd like to keep an open discussion about your thoughts as well.

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Hunter Harrison's picture

On one hand, I really feel bad for the lovely ladies and gents working in VFX. This does suck. However, guess what - that is how it works in every industry. Before focusing on photography full-time, I had a long career in technology. This is old new for many professional industries. I personally used to pit contracting firms against each other to get low costs. It works! However, the companies were mature enough to stop bidding when they wouldn't profit. Sounds like the VFX companies need to learn those lessons.

XNcreative's picture

Spot on.

Adam Temple's picture

As a VFX artist I learned years ago the HWood is was slicing out vfx housing with Korean animation, using schools and other forms of out sourcing. My advise to anyone going into that industry is to stay out of Caly.  

justafa1's picture

well you are working slaves gto the companys and teh 1%.. that´s nothing new.
like most people on this blue marble.

thank god im born rich....

Domagoj Kunic's picture

Maybe we could all illegaly download those crappy movies and do direct damage to the studios?

Adrian Sutherland's picture

I work as a visual effects artist and I can testify that the business climate in our section of the film industry is almost criminally abusive. Artists accept wages so close to the poverty line that they can barely live, but they take it, because they know there are 3 guys right behind you willing to do it too. 

The companies have the choice of essentially taking projects at a cost so low that it will still be a loss, or not having the money to stay afloat until the next project comes around. Of course this trickles down to the artists who need to work 70-80 hour weeks (overtime that is usually unpaid) without health coverage or and job security what soever. 

Rhythm & Hues took on the "Life of Pi" project knowing that they would run out of money. Knowing that the last 5 weeks of production they wouldn't be able to pay there artists (many of which remain unpaid), simply because if they hadn't, they would already been bankrupt months ago while another studio could stay afloat for those extra few months.

VFX is expensive. It's expensive because the work that needs to be done takes years of man-hours to accomplish, but our timelines are mere months. Low cost, short term contracts fill seats to get the work done faster, but still represents a huge investment for companies. If Rhythm & Hues had 3 years to complete the job on a skeleton crew, it could be more manageable, but the unreasonable expectations of Hollywood (people that even though work in our industry, still have no concept of how we do the things we do) force us into a story that ultimately ends in Chapter 11.

Mr Blah's picture

Sounds like there is simply too many players in the field to sustain acceptable wages.

VFX schools should start cutting down on numbers of graduate like they do for doctors, enginneers, etc...

In what country do they cut down the number of graduates for doctors? It´s not really about gaining a University degree at all, if you gain a University degree in Medicine your chances of full time employment is very high, the same cannot be said for photography degrees or VFX degrees. I think that Uni degrees in such fields only help a little in gaining empoyment, personal portfolios, clients lists are another story altogether.

Matthew Lord's picture

I suspect it happens quite regularly elsewhere but I know the number of medical doctors is controlled in Australia using various measures; immigration controls & fixing graduate positions being two I can think of.

Here's a discussion of addressing a surplus.


pireze's picture

I like how you censored the word "fuck", but not "cunt".

Zach Sutton's picture

Problem resolved :-)

Sorry about that..

Spy Black's picture

 Why bother censoring any of this?

Chad Currie's picture

The simple fact of the matter is that if the VFX industry wants to change it, then they have to force the change. It is obvious that producer companies in almost every industry (thinking of video game producers too) are out to make the money and care nothing for the art and the artist. They make sure that the pretty poster faces get paid amazing sums of moneys even if the movies are complete flobs. I do wonder though that if VFX companies pay is constant despite the turn out of a movie, and it wouldn't surprise me if movie companies tried to cut their pay based on how well the movie did or didn't do in the box office. 

Henry Fan's picture

Who ever said that VFX guys were also good businessmen? Seems to me they just need better agents.

Seshan's picture

Why doesn't the VFX industry work together and agree not to bid so low? You can't blame hollywood when it's the VFX companies bidding AGAINST EACH OTHER, Of course hollywood wants the best deal, Everyone wants the best deal, but if no one goes so low on the bid, then hollywood has to pay. They only have them self's to blame.

Leif Hansen's picture

Formal price fixing is illegal. However, it can take place like it did in the auto industry, where, over time, prices start to gravitate towards a common point.

Spy Black's picture

  Hollywood would just send all the work overseas then. It will soon do that anyway.

Jason Armond's picture

I use to be a camera assistant on tv and film productions. I got my union card and all. You know how I got my expensive / hard to come by camera union card. I worked on at national tv show that was non-union. The work conditions and the pay among other things sent some of the crew running to the union. The union came in and we all went on strike. We literally  stood across the street from set one day. The producers then came to the table and had talks with the union and signed a contract. My pay instantly went up by $250 a day, (pay was still less than the 2nd AC rate) I started getting paid correctly for overtime. We got a Medic on set among other things.  In the movie or tv industry if you are not protected by a union you will most likely be screwed.  Simply because there are 20 guys behind you that will do the job for less than you are getting and do it with a smile. The VFX industry needs to form a union.

Jason Armond's picture

I just read that some in the VFX industry are in talks of coming together to form a Union.  The key thing is the all the VFX workers in the industry need to want a change. I mean ever worker even down to the person that gets the coffee. The problem is some VFX house and workers that are getting all the jobs right now are fine because they are ok right now. They are at the top and don't want a VFX Union. They are scared of all that come with a Union.

Adam Temple's picture

I think they are afraid they would be completely outsourced and also turn out the film union where it takes 4 hours to move a cable.  VFX can't work properly if you have a command chain line to talk to the different art directors like most studio unions . 

Jason Armond's picture

I agree with the outsourcing part.  VFX would have no problem working in a union. There is a misconception that a Union slows things down. It actually speeds things up. I sets strict rules and guide lines when in comes to work conditions and pay. If you ever been on a set things move fast. As for behind the scenes workers.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Everything is profitable according to "Hollywood accounting"

James's picture

No pics/vid in the post ?? ... what a square!!

Mbutu Namubu's picture

"Movie studios ship work to all over the world, chasing the next big subsidy being handed out by governments that, in the end, screw over the taxpayers too."

This is a rigged market folks. Don't trash the VFX people when the studios themselves aren't even profitable anymore. When an industry relies on government handouts, then it is no longer an industry and is instead an arm of the government. It's downright cruel to judge the people suffering in VFX by free market standards when they are not even operating in a free market anymore.

Jason Armond's picture

 I don't know where you got your info. The studio's and the movie industry are still very profitable. It may not be like it was back in the day, but they are making money. The reason why the industry looks for government handout and incentives is. They know they can get them. The want to make as much money as possible. They pit Wilmington NC , Charleston SC, Atlanta GA. Savannah GA,  Louisiana, Canada against each other and see which will give them the most tax breaks.

Mbutu Namubu's picture

Every investment is profitable according to "Hollywood accounting" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_accounting

Chris Newman's picture

"Even though Life or Pi had a $120M budget, it seemed as though enough was not allocated to compensate the company and the artists fairly."
I'm sick to death of the concept of "fair" it so subjective it's lost all meaning as a functioning word. A surplus of labor means poor pay and conditions, simple economics. If the companies bid higher, the work goes overseas and instead of working 18 hours/day for "unfair" wages, you get none. 

Look at the profits and working conditions of a company like Pixar or ILM or others and what risks those people that created the company had to do to achieve their dream and it proves it can be done. Unfortunately, most people don't want to risk everything and chart their own path but compromise and live under the rules of others and spend half their time b*tching about everyone above them. 

Jason Armond's picture

The VFX industry is a saturated market. VFX work can be done anywhere in the world.  The business model of small VFX houses has been flawed for years.  Pixar and ILM and a few others create their own movie content. Concept to completion. Most of the small VFX houses are waiting to put in bids on other studios films. They are not creating for themselves. They are just working for the man. 

Jason Armond's picture

After thinking about this for days. I don't see a end to the problem. Say if all the VFX workers and companies in the USA went on strike tomorrow.  The movie studio would just send the work to Canada or or Japan or anywhere overseas.  The thing with all other film workers you have to be physically there to do the work. VFX is done after the fact and can be done anywhere.

Spy Black's picture

Welcome to the age of Corporate Imperialism folks. It's not going to get better. All this work will soon be outsourced. This is especially so if any kind of union is formed. Unions have been dis-empowered anyway. Look at whats happening to all kinds of unions around the country. This is happening in every single industry. Short of a social-political revolution (don't hold your breath), we're all going to be slave labor sooner or later.