A Piece of the Pi

Have you noticed a lot of green profile pics on facebook?  If you work in Visual Effects or have a friend who does, you might be seeing a lot of green on your feed.  Most of my readers here work in VFX/Animation, so you should know what I am talking about.

However, I was shocked at some of my own animation student’s impression of “what is going on” in the VFX/Animation field they hope to enter as a career… so let me explain.

Life of Pi cost $120 million to make, its current gross is $600 million. Ang Lee and Claudio Miranda won Oscars last night for Best Director and Best Cinematographer.  Above is what their film looked like without the work of the hundreds of VFX artists whom neither man acknowledged or thanked.

THE GREEN BOX:  For all the Non-VFX, rising students and animation folk out there, the green square you are seeing on facebook is to show solidarity for the struggling VFX and animation community.  The snubs felt at the Oscars are the symptom of a very ill industry that is on the brink of imploding.  Without the hard work of VFX facilities and artists on films like the Oscar Winning “Life of Pi”, modern films would be nothing but green or blue screens and guys in funny body suits jumping around. I will attempt to explain the complex events that have led up to the current plight of our industry.

THE PROTEST:  There was a VFX protest march at the Oscars yesterday afternoon – February 24th, 2013.  From Yahoo Movies: The protest was spurred on by… 

Scott Ross, who was a top manager of Industrial Light & Magic and a founder at Digital Domain, started the ball rolling with a tweet: “I had a dream, 500 VFX artists near the Dolby (Kodak) theater on Oscar day waving signs that say ‘I Want a Piece of the Pi Too.'” Since then, the plan spread online, with protest organizers launching a Facebook page, and some investing in a banner that will be flown by a plane over the theater during the red-carpet ceremonies, reading “box office + bankrupt = visual effects vfxunion.com.”

Photo permission Jon Tojek 

Artists from VFX and animation carried signs up and down Hollywood and Vine to bring awareness to the issue.  The protest came out of frustration among the artists.  Contrary to what the rest of the world thinks, the artists working on movies are not rich. Artists receive no residuals, royalties or back-end bonuses from the award winning films they work on.  On a union movie set every person working on a film is covered.  They have a residuals, pension, health benefits, but not the post production artists.  Even puppeteers are SAG covered.  Thus, “If the work VFX/Animation/CG artists create is the main reason these movies are blockbusters, why don’t they get a piece of the pi?”

Doing it for effects … a placard held by a protester from the visual effects industry at the 2013 Oscars. Photograph: Billy Brooks

PERCEPTION:  Perception is what this protest was all about.  It’s not about punishing the VFX facilities, or the movie studios…  it’s about letting the rest of the world know what is going on.  The KCRW Interview below reveals the perception of our industry.  The director – Pete Berg sums it up at 19:24 into the show – link below.

VFX Industry in Trouble: Won and Oscar Now What?

Director Pete Berg says, “The Business to be is ILM. (Industrial Light and Magic) That is who is making all the money.”

Wowsie wow.  What a bunch of bunk.  This is why the artists protested. To set the record straight here.  More than 583$ million dollars for Life of Pi!  And, the artists who worked on it were let go without pay… huh?  What if I told Samuel L. Jackson he needs to take a serious pay cut to work on a movie?  What if I said, “Sam, we need you to take a 30% pay cut with no benefits, no residuals, and you need to work 16 hour days, move yourself and your family to another country with a higher cost of living and produce double the work your normally do in that time?”  What do you think ole Sam Jackson would say to that?  Would he still work on the movie?  Yet, the box office hits are the movies with more than 50% of the movie created entirely on a computer with animation and VFX.  Getting the picture now?

CULTURE:  Most VFX/Animation studios today are nothing more than sweatshops with hundreds of artists working an average of 12-16 hour days.  To make this crystal clear, the toughest run I worked in my career was 21 days (16 hour days) in a row.  I seriously thought I was going nuts towards the end of that run. I have friends who have worked 9 months without a day off.

It wasn’t always like this, though. I have seen the decline in culture at the studios since 2000 as CG and VFX driven movies continued to make more and more money.  You would think if the movies are making more money, the folks involved would be too… right?  Nope, the complete opposite has been happening.  The last show I worked on was in 2011.  I have purposely only accepted work from home because the culture at the studios has become one I do not want to work in.

The schedules presented today are 1/4th of what I saw ten years ago.  A shot you would normally have 4-6 weeks to work on, is now bid at 4-6 days!!  It is insane!  No one leaves their desks.  Everyone is tense, trying to make the impossible, possible.  When I moved to LA in 2000, I was given benefits and sick days, permission to work out at the gym for free on lunch hours, 401k, and the animation facility even paid to move me and all of my belongings up from San Diego.  Today, you will not see that.  Today, your are lucky to have a job. It is a toxic, abusive working atmosphere.  Why would I stay in this field?

THE BUSINESS MODEL:  The VFX/Animation industry has a shaky business foundation on which to build a business model.

– very small profit margins
– no trade organizations to work towards raising those profit margins
– no unions to work on the artist’s behalf
– subject to the whims of client, revisions and schedule changes
– no way to cover overhead in between show schedules

ENTER SUBSIDIES:  Government funded movie productions (up to 30% of the budget) pop up in London, Vancouver, India, Singapore, China, Australia and various other places around the world.  These VFX/Animation facilities find a way to pay for the overhead of keeping artists employed and the lights on, in between the schedules of each show, with this extra money in countries with lower costs than the US.

The US studio has no cash flow, everything that comes in goes right back out and now their competition has the upper hand with the extra money to float in between projects and lure cheap talent with the work.  I heard Scott Ross give a great analogy in an interview.  He said owning a VFX/Animation facility is like owning an airline.  You aren’t making money unless the planes are in the air.  So, you fill the seats at any price.  He said VFX facilities are run the same.  Get the bid in low, so you can get the cash flow in to keep the place afloat.

Runaway production, overseas competition and government subsidies have forced domestic VFX houses to survive on less than 5% profit margins. Of the many studios I have worked at over the years, five have gone out of business or bankrupt:
Digital Domain,
Asylum FX,
Cinesite: Hollywood ,
Cafe FX,
and now Rhythm and Hues.

The company behind the Life of Pi’s stunning visual effects, which made the movie possible, Rhythm & Hues went bankrupt as the film just passed the billion dollar mark in global ticket sales. The CG & VFX (visual effects) facilities that make the Hollywood blockbuster movies possible bid shows at a loss.  The Hollywood production companies walk away with profits.  Artists who dedicate their lives to their craft get the boot.

NOT JUST VFX:  The folks working in CG Animation for studios like Dreamworks, Disney, Pixar, BlueSky, etc. are feeling the push to create more profit too. See the breakdown below of recent closings of VFX and Animation Facilities.

From Reddit:

Digital Domain: September 11th, 2012 Closed Florida facility, laid off 350 employees
Pixomondo: February 24th, 2013 Closing Detroit & London Offices http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118066500/
Electronics Arts: February 21st, 2013 Extensive Layoffs http://www.polygon.com/2013/2/21/4014372/ea-montreal-los-angeles-layoff
Rhythm and Hues: Feb. 16th, 2013 Bankruptcy, Layoffs
Junction Point (Makers of Epic Mickey): Jan. 29th, 2013 Extensive Layoffs
Disney Interactive: Jan. 29th, 2013: 50 employees laid off
Sony: January 28th, 2013 Major layoffs
Dreamworks:  Feb. 7th, 2013 Several hundred upcoming layoffs http://www.businessinsider.com/dreamworks-animation-layoffs-2013-2
Technicolor: Feb. 21st, 2013 Closing Facility
THQ Jan. 23rd, 2013 Studio Closure, Massive Layoffshttp://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2013/01/23/thq-layoffs.aspx
Eurocom Dec. 23rd, 2012


TO MY STUDENTS AND NON VFX/ANIM FRIENDS:  If something doesn’t give soon, there might not be an industry for you to enter.  At least not one in the US and not one you would like to work in.

Although the green square on facebook makes reference to the behind the scenes of VFX, CG Feature Animation is suffering the same layoffs and outsourcing.  Artists at big studios working on intellectual properties fear losing their job.  Staff positions with benefits and sick days no longer exist.  Newbie animators with little to no experience are being hired and trained only to find a sink or swim attitude. If the newbie doesn’t cut it in production, they are let go.  You get three weeks to prove you can work at the same level as a seasoned artist.  The race to the bottom is about to hit rock bottom.  The next few months, will reveal what is in store for the industry as a whole.

I could go on about this topic, but I think this a good time to stop, take a breath and see what happens next.  I will say this.  I love to animate.  I had fun when I first started in the business.  I won’t return unless the biz model and culture changes, though.  I am hopeful there will be change.  Artists are not asking for much… live where they already have planted roots and/or own their house and not have to uproot their families to find work every 6 months, work a respectful 8 hour day, fair pay, benefits, health care, and the like.

In the meantime, here are some more articles on the subject.










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