VFX Pros To Stage Oscar Protest

The VFX workers who made Visual Effects Oscar front-runner Life Of Pi possible are planning a two-fronted protest for Sunday’s 85th Academy Awards. A group of past and present employees of Rhythm & Hues, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week, has commissioned a plane to fly a banner over the Oscar red carpet that will read “BOXOFFICE + BANKRUPT = VISUAL EFFECTS VFXUNION.COM”. Organizer Dave Rand, a Senior FX Artist at Rhythm & Hues, tells Deadline protesters plan on gathering at the Compton airport prior to the plane’s departure and also at a secondary location near the Dolby Theatre, possibly at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. The banner is scheduled to fly over the pre-show red carpet between 3:30 PM and 4:30 PM. “We’re tired of paying for the studios’ movies, our employers paying for the studios’ movies, and foreign tax payers paying for the studios’ movies”, Rand told Deadline. “It’s the greatest con of the entertainment industry”.

Related: Rhythm & Hues Confirms Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Filing

The VFX protesters pooled together cash to pay for Sunday’s banner fly-over even though many haven’t received paychecks for over a month for ongoing work on Rhythm & Hues’ tentpole projects. With the support of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) the group seeks to shine a spotlight on their situation by bringing awareness to A-list red carpetgoers and media outlets covering Sunday’s Oscars. Organizers are also waging a grassroots campaign to end government subsidies that some blame for the visual effects industry’s woes.

Last Friday the ailing El Segundo-based Rhythm & Hues received interim approval of a $17 million loan from studio clients Fox and Universal after laying off over 250 employees. Yesterday the courts approved an additional $4.9 million payment from Legendary Pictures to pay for Rhythm & Hues’ completion of VFX work for their October release Seventh Son. Earlier today it was announced that investment bank Houlihan Lokey has come on as financial advisor to aid Rhythm & Hues in finding a buyer out of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the VFX studio is the front-runner to win the Academy Award on Sunday for its work on Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, for which it already nabbed the VES Award.

Related: Rhythm & Hues Gets $5M To Finish Legendary’s ‘Seventh Son’

  1. If the WGA had any intestinal fortitude they would join this protest.

    Writers are also tired of paying for the studios’ movies through unpaid drafts and sweepstakes pitching and pre-writes. The studios’ entire development slate and R & D budget is effectively subsidized by the free labor provided by screenwriters.

    1. The first intro line on your comment I kind’a rolled my eyes. But then I read the paragraph below it, and you’re right. Studios are using us by having us do unpaid drafts and free pre-writes. No one is doing anything about it.

  2. If they can do anything before Sunday to make this banner more readable/understandable then that might help. Perhaps employ a writer for a really nifty message? Otherwise this appears complex/might get lost.

      1. That would have been MUCH better, and would not cause people to believe the VFX artists think unionization is the answer when most of them know that is NOT the solution.

  3. A complex issue– half the problem lying in the willingness of VFX venders to underbid to get work, half the problem lying in the studios encouragement of the same practice.

    s

    1. It won’t help them out of bankruptcy but it will shine a light on what the studios have managed to do, kill the industry in L.A. For VFX artists! They treat the artists and the studios like slaves and then don’t want to pay fair wages for the work being done and on top of that outsource to Canada, India, Malaysia and a host of other countries. hasn’t the artist worked hard enough for a little respect and a fair wage?! Those suits will step on the writers and artists every chance they get! They need a union with a leader to negotiate just like the stars have their agents, the writers have their union etc

      1. If money to make these movies is coming in from China, is getting India to do the VFX really so crazy? There is too little work and too many shops. Globalization is not an option, it is reality.

        Freelancers bounce from company to company in between jobs, so can you blame a Producer for not knowing the difference between different companies? It makes promise of quality secondary to promise of price.

        How do you fix this issue?… Not sure. Bin betweenut I’m sure it involves a lot of companies closing shop and freelancers out of work while the market adjusts itself.

        s

        1. Globalization would be fair, but when governments subsidies are in play, it is not fair. Not only do I have to compete against the wages and labor practices of India, but I have to compete against governments paying big $$ to have movies shot and completed in their country. That’s only helping one entity in this equation: big studios.

  4. There are simply too many VFX companies in the marketplace right now and this is how the market is going to fix it. Some won’t survive, and those that are trying are underbidding just to get work. This gets dangerous as Hollywood gets used to paying for cheap labour and these prices start to become the norm. It’s incredible how the list of VFX companies working on one movie has grown over the decades.

    1. Even more amazing is how VFX companies are underbidding each other and yet the budgets of the movies keep going up for VFX. Where is the money going? I don’t see any rich VFX artists, do you?

  5. It should be an entirely free market. Get rid of the unions all together, they are completely prohibitive and suffocate the industry.

    1. Actually, if you know anything at all about the labor movement, you would know that unions are the vehicle created by the rank and file to protect themselves from unbridled capitalism. In a sense labor unions are capitalists as well, it’s just that they represent human capital rather than financial capital. And this collection of human capital gives the rank and file the opportunity to assert leverage in negotiations with financial capital. So you see, labor unions are just another part of the free market economy that you so clearly cherish but do not understand in the least.

      1. Rubbish. It’s too expensive to run VFX houses in the States. These VFX workers should work where the work is going – Asia & sub-Asia. But they don’t want to move there. Tough.

        1. Too expensive to do VFX in US ? Guess what … London is next up after LA…. then Canada… It’s the studios race to the bottom that is driving vfx budgets down , down.. Asia artists make 20 to 30 dollars a day.. The studio profits on VFX are soaring. Worker exploitation is what needs to be exposed…
          Be proud that the LA VFX crowd is making a stand.

      1. Exactly … Run a credit list – 50 to 65% of the names that you see rolling by – belong to a Union.
        The entertainment business is breathing fine on the profits provided by these entertainment unions.

    2. Yeah! And the tooth fairy is real!
      They can’t use just overseas as they don’t have the talent! The real talent lives and tries to work in L.A., where they have families, homes, kids in school and maybe a wife that works too! Much of what is done overseas has to be “fixed” by the L.a. Artists as it is Nt good enough!

    3. Oh dear, what a load of bollocks. The only thing that unions stand in the way of is even more excessive profits for production companies. As Note to self pointed out unions are a part of capitalism that protect human capital. They are particularly important in the film industry where most people are freelancers and live from one film to the next with no pension or any kind of financial safety net provided by their employer and no guarantee of future employment – every job could be our last in this business. Considering the amount of time and effort most crew members put in (many of us have jobs that involve a lot of heavy lifting and everyone works impossible hours, 6 days a week and sacrifices their personal life and relationships for their career) we should damn well be well paid. If anything I think unions are not strong enough.

  6. Starting a vfx union would be the last thing to help the struggling vfx community in LA. Too many options overseas that are improving year by year.

    One way to improve things would be to eliminate movies and tv shows from Oscar or Emmy contention if they used out of country tax breaks and did vfx work overseas.

    1. Then we would have no awards shows at all. It is nearly impossible to find a movie or TV show that has not used tax breaks or overseas labor. “Runaway Productions” are rampant – this is not just a VFX problem.
      And you are splitting hairs by specifying “out of country” tax breaks. Just because states in the US are finally catching up to the rest of the world by offering them, does not make them any more justifiable. Either tax incentives need to be globally standardized or they need to be eliminated entirely.
      Either way, the studios will pay – the only difference now is that they are letting the world kill themselves to compete for those dollars. Which causes VFX houses to die along the way.

  7. I have absolutely zero experience with Hollywood, the film industry, or special effects, but I’m not understanding how protesting the Oscars is beneficial to their plight. If anything, doesn’t the fact that ‘Life of Pi’ is the clear frontrunner to win the Oscar for special effects shine light on their value and warrant for respect and utility? It just looks like they’re shoving a great notion of respect and prestige back in the Academy’s face, when all the Academy is doing is recognizing their hard work. Can someone please explain this to me? Am I missing something here? Again, I am unfamiliar with how the industry works and mean no disrespect.

    1. The language in the article is a little ambiguous, but I don’t think they’re protesting the Oscars so much as using the event to draw attention to their cause. There will be a lot of eyes directed at the ceremony, so if the VFX crew can establish a presence nearby, they can get a lot of attention too.

    2. To Joethehobo

      Yes Life of Pi is nominated for an academy award but that does’t negate the fact that there are hundreds of artists that are out of work due to the studios greed for money and unwillingness to pay their fair share of taxes. Canada for example offers tax breaks as high as 42% for pictures done with a certain amount work done in their country. Their taxpayers are subsidizing the movie Industry (and losing a lot of money) to poach jobs from the U.S. They have to hire a certain amount of Canadians, and there is a small portion of Americans that go up there. The way it’s done is instead of vxf house quoting a price for services, the studios set their budget and tell the vxf studio how much they have to spend. So what has evolved is that the vxf studios agreed to open branches in Canada(and other countries) and as much as can be done there is and then the talent “fixes” the shots to the studios liking. At a reduced price. It gets very complicated because some of this is political. It’s against the law for let’s say Canada to poach jobs, which the government isn’t enforcing. It’s shameful that the studios like fox get thhe tax breaks as it’s so UNAMERICAN not to pay your fair share of taxes. In addition , CA is losing their taxpayers as they go on unemployment insurance until they can find work.
      And the kicker in all this is that the films with vxf are the biggest money makers for the big studios! Someone has to step in and make this right or the industry in L.A. Will disappear!

  8. I did not organize this protest but the point is not to protest the idea of the Oscars or visual effects. It’s to point out the problems the visual effects industry has and to show the irony of a company that does great work (such as Life of PI) can go out of business because of government influences. The problems with the company involved in Life of Pi (R&H) have been covered in the media so it already has some attention. What is the most watched event of the year for audiences and film producers, crews and media around the world? Which event would be useful to shine a spotlight on a major film industry problem? The Oscars.

    1. No, Scott, you didn’t organize this although you are and were an active blogger on VFX Soldier where it seems this has gotten some traction. The problem is there is no organization or entity or anything with a focus representing the visual effects artists. There are just lots of players pretending and fighting for the bodies like the union which is supporting this plane message. Here are the important issues to know:

      1) It was just thrown together at the last minute by unknown (mostly) folks.

      2) There is no plan or focus on detailed issues although some folks mentioned it might be a good idea to have a plan.

      3) It was a brief online discussion of what the message would be. Obviously, the end result is not exactly a strong focused message. Other than this is a union driven concept.

      4) On VFX Soldier were posts listing email addresses for various nominated artists for the vfx Oscar to send emails telling them to speak out at the show. This is wrong to post these email addresses, and it is wrong to request these artists politicize their industry in this way. And, if it is not wrong…it certainly is in bad taste. The Oscars recognize the artists and should not be a platform for business, political and other types of issues.

      This effort, unfortunately, represents the visual effects industry. It is a rudderless ship going around in circles with everyone running around on deck wanting to be captain while the ship continues to sink.

      I truly feel sorry for the visual effects community, but think this last minute action designed solely for the press by folks wanting to form a union is not a good tactic at all. This is a small group of folks who have designed this and promoted it just for the media attention which so far has produced little and no results.

  9. “If anything, doesn’t the fact that ‘Life of Pi’ is the clear frontrunner to win the Oscar for special effects shine light on their value and warrant for respect and utility?”

    Exactly the irony depicted here. Look at the the top ten highest grossing films of all time.
    The VFX industry structure, business model, and compensation is in a world of it’s own. Visual effects are more prolific and complex than ever in the history of the industry. Yet wages and profit for same are eroding. It is a very complicated enterprise that employs some of the most creative and brilliant individuals in the industry. The work of such talented people is being exploited.

    That’s it in a nutshell.

    1. But is the Oscars the best thing for them to boycott? Why not call for a boycott of the film itself or call out the producers individually? All the Oscars did was try to reward their work.

      1. They are not boycotting the Oscars. Its should be called a demonstration, if anything. It is just meant to bring attention to the issue, specifically at a time when a major vfx company went bankrupt has not one, but two nominations for best vfx. I am sure most are hoping for a Life of Pi win to make it even more poignant

      2. No one said anything about boycott. They’re trying to get the media’s attention to the problems hounding the vfx industry. What better day than the day we celebrate movies?

  10. Rhythm & hues is not the victim here, the artists are. While this doesn’t help rhythm’s current situation, it might help all Vfx artist’s future.

  11. Do any of you know what a VFX artist in the US (particularly in LA) makes? It is quite a lot of money each week. It is well above minimum wage. Are these people rich? By LA standards – no. By the standards of the rest of the country – they would be well above the norm.

    The issue isn’t underbidding (it’s a capitalist system) – the issue is two-fold: 1) that staffs are inflated and management has inflated paychecks at places such as R&H 2) that Americans expect to get paid wages for a job that doesn’t cost as much overseas, with results that are damn near identical.

    So, these FX artists can get paid less and work for a stable company – rather than taking the paycheck and working for a company that will go out of business because of mismanagement or inflated salaries – or they can move overseas.

    To unionize, or cry about it, will be about as effective as a car worker in Detroit bitching about losing their job to a factory overseas. Point being – your competitors are already outdoing you. Working longer hours for less. Stop being the entitled American.

    1. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

      The studios take the work overseas because of the subsidies the governments give them. If it were a level playing field and the governments would let the market dictate then we wouldn’t be in this mess we’re in now.

      No offense to Detroit auto workers, but putting together a Chevy and creating a photorealistic CG tiger are two very different things.

    2. Do any of you know what a Motion Picture Industry executive in the US (particularly in LA) makes ? It is quite a lot of money each week. It is well above minimum wage. Are these people rich ? By LA standards — yes. By the standards of the rest of the country — hell yes!

      The only work done “overseas” that is comparable to that done by LA-based visual effects artists is done in London, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, etc. None of these are low-wages areas. And by comparing a visual effects artist to a Detroit auto worker, it’s obvious you have no idea the kind of hours we put in. For guys like Dave Rand, 60 hours is an easy week. For crunch time on Pi it’s more like 6 or 7 day weeks at 80+ hours each.

    3. You can’t compare the creation of a complex visual effects shot that requires art direction and technical skill to the factory line assembly of a car.

    4. VFX artists need the equivalent of a bachelor degree’s worth of education plus 3-4+ years of experience on top of that in order to be employable. The average salary at a studio like R&H is about $60k. The average Bachelor’s degree full time employed wage in the US is $56k. And then you have 80 hour weeks with high pressure deadlines and lots of times employees are simply “contract” employees who will be fired at the end of the project and you have no benefits. So really their income should be viewed like that of a freelancer.

      Your work then goes on to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for someone else and you end up laid off at the end of it to collect unemployment until the next project starts. You need to make extra to cover the gaps between projects. And you’re probably living in LA with a high cost of living. So per hour you’re most likely making less than most people with an associate’s degree even though you’re highly in demand in a very competitive field.

      Also nobody is doing the job better. You can’t send a movie like Life of Pi to China and expect it be finished at an acceptable quality level. You can send it to Canada or London, but a lot of that isn’t driven by someone doing a better job, it’s because the government’s of Canada and England pay movie studios to hire their employees. It’s not a “Free Market”, it’s a market driven by unfair subsidizes.

  12. reward? the only reward the artists received were pink slips and bankruptcy proceedings….the protest is to show the producers (studios) these conditions can’t continue for vfx artists….

  13. I agree. It’s too expensive to run VFX houses in the States. These VFX workers should work where the work is going – Asia & sub-Asia. But they don’t want to move there. Tough.

  14. Unionizing will only increase the costs (and the hassles) associated with U.S. VFX companies, making even more of them go out of business, or relocated entirely overseas.

    You can’t force studios’ to choose U.S. based VFX companies, so the only alternative is to stay competitive on price and quality.

    The technology related to VFX is only getting cheaper, so the global competition will increase as more and more of the work becomes a commodity.

    As VFX prices drop further, these effects will be used even more in movies as they become accessible even to indie films. More visual effects work, but with decreasing prices thanks to technology, that’s how capitalism works.

    Also, VFX companies can start making their own movies, like Hydraulx did with “Skyline”, instead of complaining about how much money studios’ make on VFX heavy projects.

  15. two quick points —

    1. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m guessing the whole area over Dolby Theater is no-fly zone. If not, people would be doing all sorts of things every year. Just a guess, and like I said, I hope I’m wrong.

    2. More than any protest on the ground or in the air… the best possible thing, WITHOUT QUESTION, who be for (Hopefully) Bill Westenhofer to have a one or two sentence statement that stays tasteful, yet strikes a cord. Strong but respectful. Something like “all of the nominees in this category have made twice as much money for the studios than the 9 best picture nominees combined”

  16. No, the problem is not pay levels. Visual effects artists are by and large freelancers (i.e. we’re not permanent employees ,same as most film workers). But unlike film workers we have no union so that means coverage for health insurance, pensions, etc may come out of our pocket. Even if the company covers part of that they don’t when you’re laid off or between projects. All the normal things you get at most full time jobs are not necessarily provided at all companies. vfx artist put in a lot of hours a week 60-100 hrs. Not all are paid for overtime. All visual effects artists have to live in a large expensive cities, that’s where the work is. And we’re highly skilled, both artistically and technically. We have to keep up on the latest advances and people would be amazed at the details and complexity we have to deal with on a routine basis. So yes, we make more than minimum wage. Of course minimum wage has not even kept up with inflation so minimum wage equals poverty.

    Just to be clear about this other countries (Canada, UK, NZ, etc) are providing subsidies of up to 50-60% to film studios. That’s the choice of governments that is technically against the rules of the WTO. So how does any company compete with another company in another country that is funded by 50% or more? Even if a company is efficient can they cut their costs by 50% and still make a profit? Doubtful. So now good companies have to build branches in other countries and areas that have high subsidies just so they can bid on them. That costs money. And keep in mind the subsidies go to the film studios, not the visual effects companies. The other option is to try to underbid the actual work and to charge less than it actually costs. That forces companies to go out of business. Competition is already strong so margins are low as is. Add underbidding in an attempt to keep crews on just delays going out of business. Even a good company can not compete with a poor company in an area where the government covers 1/2 the costs to the studios.

    Every film you see has visual effects. Many of the shows on tv have visual effects. Try to imagine drawing a line around an actor precisely and try to imaging doing that for moving footage at 24 images a second for most of a 2 hr movie. That cable holding up the actor has to be hand painted frame by frame. The visual effects crew has to create computer models that match the live action exactly. They have to paint them and detail them so you can’t tell the difference. The animators have to move them and others light them just like a cinematographer does on a movie set. Now imagine you have 1000-2000 of those shots to do in a limited amount of time. Hundreds of people working and at the beck and call of the director who may change his/her mind at will. And the company bidding on the work is limited to minimal change orders. So don’t tell us to work for minimum wage.

  17. It about unpaid wages, not low wages or subsidies.

    250 people were laid off without being paid for roughly a month’s worth of work. They’d also accumulated vacation time over years of service. Neither was paid out when they were terminated.

    Others are still working, but were shortchanged for the long nights and weekends they put in on their projects.

    Their coworkers on the same studio funded projects at the companies’s subsidiaries in India, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vancouver were paid.

    US bankruptcy law allows the studios to continue funding these projects moving forward without fully compensating the work done prior to bankruptcy.

    To summarize, you have American employees who have suffered wage theft, and American studios getting a discount on a month’s worth American vfx labor. Penny wise and pound foolish.

  18. It’s simple economics.

    You don’t really get paid based on your value-added or on how necessary your work was; your pay is dictated by supply and demand.

    With such a huge supply of VFX companies and artists, it’s a virtual arms race in the VFX/CGI industry, which is great for us movie-goers… but it’s unfortunate for VFX companies and artists. That gives the employers most/all of the leverage, since the supply seems to outweigh demand.

    It’s not the studio’s fault if a VFX company goes into bankruptcy. It’s no one’s fault, really. I’m guessing that Rhythm & Hues got the gig not just because of their quality work, but based on their competitive (i.e., low, under) bid amongst other bidding competitors.

    1. Yeah, but unfortunately this “simple economics” concept is being distorted by tax breaks (subsidies) given to the studios by other countries’ governments. I agree that the market should dictate but that’s not going to truly happen until it’s a level playing field.

  19. Subsidies, tax breaks, kickbacks. The way it’s being done, in many cases, is technically in violation of the WTO agreement. The problem is that no one has formally challenged the practices yet. That is coming soon. Will the WTO meet that challenge and acknowledge the violations? Will they amend the agreement in favor of fair practice or remove the outsourcing regulations? Either way, it’s not going to happen in a timely manner. When the governments offering generous tax incentives see how it’s costing too much to sustain, their breaks will end abruptly and Hollywood will find itself in a bind. Their choices will be to go with unproven artists or negotiate impotently to those few shops that can deliver the quality an increasingly discerning public has come to expect. Then it will cost them dearly. Until then, it’s sad that so many talented professionals will lose their jobs, their homes and their inspiration to pursue a career creating groundbreaking work.

  20. You are not considering that most all the great non-US work is coming out of countries with higher business costs than us. Canada, the UK, Western Europe, New Zealand, etc. are much more expensive places than here but the subsidies create the illusion of a cheaper market. The countries with cheap labor-India, China, etc. are more difficult to get high end results from. Sometimes impossible. Their labor forces are overworked and have even had to pay their employers a third of their yearly salary to get the job. In the end you get what you pay for. The VFX industry has had a number of catastrophic waves over the past 25 years because the financial AND emotional costs are high no matter where you go. The price of hard work from top talent cannot be hidden for long. We don’t push an effect button. Hardware and software are just tools. The Hollywood esthetic is grown out of living constantly with western cultural influences during an artists formative years. If that didn’t matter, we’d see huge international box office for Bollywood musicals and Thai boxing revenge flicks.

  21. By getting multiple “incentive” (AKA corporate welfare) areas to compete for the work, the studios have encouraged the VFX industry to expand capacity in the face of falling production volumes, leading to collapsing prices. There are also companies in the market (and we all know who they are) willing to provide “golden handshakes” to producers in order to get the work. R&H didn’t fail because of outsourcing – they were outsourcing pioneers – but because of bad behavior by studios overly attentive to pushing down prices in their supply chain so they could preserve their above-the-line budgets. With big shops going down, hopefully capacity will tighten and prices go up. But I wouldn’t hold your breath on that. Prosecuting some if the dirtier elements in the VFX supply chain, particularly on the studio side, would be a good start.

  22. Too true. And why I (facility owner) have resisted joining the stampede to Vancouver, and now other places; the knowledge that were the “incentives” removed, the work would be gone in a hot second, leaving behind a “VFX Ghost Town” full of workers trained for a business that’s no longer viable.

  23. are you the stop frame animator in the UK?
    you know the country protected by european laws from being forced to work to hard and for too long
    the one with the free medical care, free pension, etc
    why don’t you move and see if you like it

  24. let me get this right
    back in the past there was this group of people who were constantly being exploited, who got paid little money, and got no long term benefits for the work they did
    some of them struck for better pay and lost their entire careers
    but now their is SAG and actors get paid living wages

    and your saying SAG and IATSE shouldn’t be helping the people who actually amke them the money in the first place?

    I wonder how many movies will get made if people refused to do effects work, its not like their aren’t huge other industries like games where thse talents could be used

    I’ve got a feeling that without effects people wont be going to movies at all

    Oh and btw its not governments fault nor is it the unions fault that companies underbid each other to get the work – its companies fault – and its the directors of those companies who should pay the price for trasding illegally

    1. Big Kate – it IS the government’s fault for (example) not holding Canada to NAFTA regulations against unfair subsidies. When we’re facing 40% tax rebates in a business that traditionally runs on a 15% margin, blaming the VFX companies for their misfortunes is, well, obnoxious.

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