SERIOUS RANT MODE… ENGAGE!
Over the past many years, going back at least as far as the past decade, I have been hearing and seeing the hurt and imminent death throes of the VFX (visual effects) industry and its many great artists that made it the industry that it has become over the past several decades.
Even thought I have not been an actual “artist” (if I ever was one, since I considered myself always more of a “crazy scientist developer annex artist”, which most of us were back in the founding days before there even WAS a VFX “industry” to speak of) in this field since the very late 80’s, or early 90’s at best, I have most certainly not failed to noticed the direction things have been heading in for a very long time. And I am sad to say that many of the things I saw coming have been coming to a pass in a very rapid pace the past 2 to 3 years. It does appear, however, things are in an even more hyper-accelerated way the past year.
The filing of chapter 11 bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues in El Segundo, CA did not at all come as a surprise to me, as many other studios meeting the same fate has not come as a surprise to me, EITHER. And while I could have written this about many other 3D animation and visual effects studios in the same way, I have a personal fondness of Rhythm & Hues because they started their first steps in this industry (which wasn’t an industry at all, at the time) back in 1987, only 2 years before I founded Animagic. I have always held the former wizards of Robert Abel & Associates (who started R&H) in very high regard.
R&H filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago (February 11th 2012) and not because of things one might expect in todays corrupt political and corporate “bail out” climate but because it is yet another casualty of where the entire VFX industry has been headed for the past many years. Having Bill Westernhofer’s Oscar speech for best VFX cut off after he brought up the current piss-poor state of the VFX industry as a whole is very indicative of how the deterioration and decomposition of the industry is being treated.
There was a protest of VFX artists to raise awareness for the visual effects profession that was held 1pm to 4:30pm at Hollywood & Vine. You can see some pictures of the protest on this flickr page. The protest was being held very near to where the Academy Awards ceremony was being held and has been picked up by some shards of ‘mainstream’ media like The Guardian, LA times, Yahoo, and NBC.
The VES (Visual Effects Society) has been putting out a call to action but will any of this make any difference?
In a perfect world you would say you want it to make a difference but I very much doubt it will. That is not to say my former peers in the business should shut up and take it up the rear. Not at all. But it does mean they have to look at the broader scope of what’s been going on for a very long time and how this is only “recently” being recognized as a “bad thing”. Many others have said bad things were going on that were very detrimental to the industry but those weren’t heard or listened to when it mattered. And now there’s a much wider crisis that is affecting many more people at an every day level.
The fact is, many of us “old timers” have had discussions about where things were headed many years ago and we had seen what’s been coming based on what’d been happening. Can anyone remember when fixed-bid contracts for VFX work became the norm? No? Can anyone remember when they first started to become common practice? No? Yes? Those were bad to begin with and really favored the cheapest of the cheap (many times with matching levels of qualitative results, mind you… and then the folks putting money into a movie wonder why nobody goes to see their crap, what a surprise!).
Shortly after the fixed-big contracts we saw the emergence of outsourcing to low wage (i.e. living wage there but otherwise known as “will work for peanuts and a drop of water” elsewhere) countries and various countries providing subsidies to attract film production (and post-production) efforts to the point where no company could even compete with it. Did anyone really think this was going to end any different than the way it’s being played out right f’ing now? Really? Anyone?
And now there’s a walk-out being planned for March 14th. Wow, great. That’s going to raise some awareness in the average 5 minutes of fame. But that’ll be all, I predict, it will accomplish. The real problem is that all of this has been a very lethal and deteriorating factor in the industry for a much longer time and the ‘rot’ has already progressed far enough that simple protests will not help fix it, at all. Asking Governor Brown of California to help fix it… well, let’s say I’m not going to even comment on that because I’d be sitting here until next week trying to explain why that’s more futile than trying to resist the borg.
I consider myself lucky to have shifted from the production side to the development side in the early 90’s and have no regrets doing so, especially as many of my friends and colleagues on the production side found themselves traveling from city to city, state to state and country to country in the years thereafter in pursuit of their art, their carriers and what they loved doing the most. Digital Nomads? While many said they loved being able to see more of the world the reality was more along the lines of trying to follow the jobs. Because let’s face it, anyone who is truly been part of this industry for a while knows the hours are long, the work is intensive and demanding, and there is usually very little time to enjoy time outside of work. Moving from one place to the next, living out of backpacks and suitcases, maybe considered fun and cool when you’re young but you’re not going to be young forever and at some point it just doesn’t work anymore and then what are you going to do with your skills and art? Of course, without naming names, there were countless colleagues and friends who told me they hardly got to see any of the places they had to travel to and stay for months at a time because of their work schedules. Gee what a surprise!
Then the fixed-bid contracts came around at roughly the same time. Then the outsourcing started to take place. Then countries like Canada started actively courting the business by granting insane levels of subsidies (and anyone who understands taxes and government should understand where those come from, if not, go be ashamed of yourself and come back when you’re more aware of how money really works). This was not supposed to be a problem for the large majority of California based studios, how?
Stagnation in the world of Visual Effects, 3D Animations, etc. has been growing at a very rapid pace for a very long time (in part thanks to one company that decided to monopolize on it and ensure no further innovation of any actual value would ever again take place on any of it). Between off the shelf software products and proprietary in-house tools that are the bread and butter of most artists and the logistics of the work involved, the practice, the fact that what started as something that never intended or hoped for to be an industry and yet turned into a very big one, and not in the least the fact that we’re not talking about a simple production process but a very complicated one, at best, with lots of fun problems to solve but without the budgets to solve them properly, all make up the complexities that make it much more harder to “fix” the problems than if it was a “simpler” industry.
What I’m saying here is that I support my former peers in all actions they are undertaking to try and fight the tide. But I’m also saying that I might be a little older and perhaps a cynic since I’ve seen industries come and go (or emerge and disintegrate, if you will) and believe that all the effort may not help create the ultimate desired outcome and result. Staging walk-outs and petitioning politicians… ah, yes, what year are we living in? People still do that? People still believe in that? It’s good people believe in something, I guess. But will it help? I doubt it. Perhaps it’s time to become less conventional and try some different things and perhaps see how your skills can be put to other uses that won’t require you to be dragged around from job to job and town to town while being overworked and underpaid. Except I’m sure most of those won’t work either. But it might be more fun! 🙂