On february 24 2013 Life of Pi won four Oscar awards, out of 10 nominations. The award for ‘Best Visual Effects’ went to the team at Rhythm & Hues. But Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy a month before.
In recent years the biggest box-office successes can be categorized as ‘effects-heavy’ movies (www.boxofficemojo.com). Just in 2016 the top 20 is entirely dominated by movies that feature heavy digital work or are entirely animated. Actually if you look at commercial successes in cinema for the last century, the list is dominated with movies that rely heavily on effects.
At the same time the industry responsible for this work – the visual effects industry – is struggling to keep it’s head above water financially. In the 10 years between 2003 and 2013 over 20 studios closed or filed for bankruptcy (http://www.insidevfx.com/visual-effects-company-list), the contrast became most painfully clear at the 2013 oscars, leading to over 500 vfx workers protesting in front of the venue hosting the Oscars ceremony.
The problems underlying these struggles are many and complex – partially having to do with local and international trade politics. I have listed some of the many articles that paint the picture in more detail at the end of this post.
If all animals are equal…
In summary some countries (the UK, Canada, New Zealand, even Belgium) have been implementing tax constructions that effectively subsidize the work done on film productions. As a result is has been cheaper to make films in London or Vancouver than in Hollywood, and it’s cheaper to take a film to Brussels than finish it in Amsterdam.
Studios have responded to these tax schemes by opening up locations in these locations to be able to still attract the work on big budget movies. Many studios advertise their eligibilitity for tax shelters on their websites.
In the mean time the level of craft in visual effects has reached the point where virtually anything we can imagine can be created and seamlessly integrated into live- action material.
So with a lot of effects work effectively invisible – and your tiger being as good as mine – I’m not surprised that many studios are struggling to negotiate more feasible budgets for digital production.
So where am I in all this, and why do I care?
The truth is that as a visual effects designer I am not directly affected by these issues (yet). I have been working ‘in parallel’ to the more conventional film industry. I have worked on relatively small scale art-house films with directors that specifically choose to work with me. But the next projects will be larger in scale and one of the challenges I will be facing is to scale up – and thus I need to make sure I don’t step into the fire that is burning in the neighbours house so to speak. I have some ideas about the direction I can take – and on this blog I will document the design research I do.
Life After Pi is a short documentary telling the story of the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues, the studio responsible for the Oscar-winning effects on ‘Life of Pi’.
Hollywoods Greatest Trick is another documentary about the problems in the visual effects industry. And the accompanying article can be found here: