While Seth MacFarlane was leading us into what felt like the longest Oscars ceremony ever this past Sunday, “Life of Pi”’s visual effects artists were protesting on the red carpet. Over 400 technicians outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood marched after well-known effects house Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy, shortly after nabbing a BAFTA for Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film. Over 200 employees were laid off without pay after working over a year on Lee’s mystical movie, which won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects that evening. Supervisor Bill Westenhofer tried to draw attention to the effects industry’s struggles during his acceptance speech, but the obnoxious “Jaws” theme song played him off stage, and his microphone was cut.
After witnessing the embarrassing punch in the gut, film fans and industry professionals on Facebook and Twitter have been replacing their avatars with a green screen photo to show their support for the artists behind Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Why are these prestigious studios and the outstanding talent behind them suffering when their projects are winning Oscar gold?
Unfortunately R&H’s situation has become the norm as more companies crowd the industry and outsource work to places like Canada and India. Artists wind up working demanding (usually unpaid) hours to usher projects to completion that have been bought up by production studios on the cheap. The imbalance between manpower, output, and budget grows increasingly disproportionate, and competition gets tougher.
There is currently no craft union for visual effects artists like there are for animators or art directors, but even that may not be a cure-all since unions pressure members with other demands — monetary, namely — that may be impossible for financially struggling companies to fulfill.
As the debate about how to repair the hostile working conditions visual effects artists face brews — with leading effects studios like Digital Domain (“Titanic”) and Pixomondo (“Hugo”) also shutting offices and filing for bankruptcy — read an open letter to director Ang Lee for an insider’s stance on the issue.