[pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”center”] Visual effects companies demand “Piece of Pi”[/pullquote1]
Casual viewers of the 85th Annual Academy Awards this past Sunday night at the Dolby (née Kodak) Theater would not have seen anything amiss with the ceremony. Besides a couple lame jokes and one graceful trip, the show went on as it always does. However, ABC’s cameras managed not to pan far enough off the red carpet to show the audience the 400-plus protesters asking for a “Piece of the Pi.” The protest was in reference to the treatment of visual effects houses that are declaring bankruptcy while the movies they helped create go on to earn Oscars and make millions of dollars worldwide. Two otherwise unremarkable moments during the ceremony caught the eye of those current with the mistreatment of visual effects artists.
It began with one of the earlier awards, which was for Best Visual Effects. VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer claimed the award for Life of Pi. Viewers may remember his speech being drowned out by a particularly distasteful Jaws melody (being played off by a popular movie that didn’t use any CGI — rough). To some, it seemed like the typical, get-off-the-stage hint. To others, it seemed like the Academy was making an overt attempt to squash any talk of the delicate subject. The protest was almost 500 strong and happening right outside the theater, but it wasn’t mentioned (comprehensively) once during the ceremony.
Life of Pi went home with three Oscars this year, including Best Director for Ang Lee (Hulk, Brokeback Mountain). His hurried speech was nothing special, except that he forgot to explicitly mention the visual effects team that wholly created the secondary lead, the tiger, not to mention the ocean, which was basically the entire set. Whether or not this was purposeful didn’t matter to the hundreds marching outside. When Lee first thanked “the movie god,” some quick comebacks on Twitter included “He’s referring to the VFX team, right?”
The protest represents a long-standing struggle LA-based visual effects houses have had in the movie industry. The most recent one is sprung from the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues, the VFX house responsible for the lion’s share of Life of Pi. While Pi has made more than $500 million worldwide, local VFX houses have been forced to take such low profit margins that layoffs and closures are all too common. This specific protest was borne from former Digital Domain, which filed bankruptcy last year, Founder Scott Ross. Ross tweeted: “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.” His desires were taken quite literally by almost 500 people who carried signs before and during the ceremony celebrating several box office hits made possible by the digital effects and CGI. Many protesters who didn’t make it to the march have changed their internet profile pictures to a “big-screen square,” which signifies what a movie looks like before effects are put in.
Foreign countries have begun offering subsidies to digital effects houses to foster the market. Some places like the United Kingdom have even gone so far as to offer cash up front. For LA-based houses, this means having to continually lower their profit margins. VFX houses have felt that these subsidies exacerbate the discrepancy between VFX artists and the studios’ paychecks as well as possibly violate several international trade agreements. Rhythm and Hues has not been the first domestic house to close its doors due to bankruptcy.
More and more blockbuster films are being made possible through the ever-expanding field of visual effects. While these films and their stars go on to make millions, the artists are left empty-handed. The next logical step is for these artists to unionize. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has already stated that it would welcome the visual effects community. Whatever happens next, something has to change. It’s unlikely, due to its minor coverage in the news, but hopefully this conflict will be resolved without the expense of the creative minds behind some of the best films of the year.
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