The VFX dilemma: It’s not easy being green

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If it weren’t for VFX (visual effects) people, that’s just what Avatar and Lord of the Rings would look like.

There’s a lot of buzz on the internet right now about Bill Westenhofer’s suddenly-interrupted Oscar speech for “The Life of Pi.” Many people are interpreting this as a deliberate sabotage or a snub of VFX workers, but everything I have read seems to indicate that all participants were briefed early on about how much time they would have (one minute) and what would happen if they went overtime (the music from “Jaws”, followed by a cutaway.) It would seem that Mr. Westenhofer was simply not aware of how quickly one minute passes, and instead of jumping straight to his message, he exulted in the moment – which is what Oscar wins are for anyway.

I can’t speak to reality, because I just don’t have enough information. By Occam’s Razor it would indicate more happenstance than malice was at work here. But the more important point is that the event brought the entire issue of VFX studios into the public eye, and that’s a good thing.

Longtime critic and commentator Drew McWeeny published an open letter to Hollywood yesterday, and if you’re a consumer of films, either from Hollywood or independent producers, you would do a lot worse than to read this article – and the following commentary, which is just as enlightening.

The executive summary? Major studios are inserting hard objects into every possible orifice of VFX companies, who in turn are inserting hard objects into every possible orifice of those who work for them. And that’s the polite version. But read the letter, and the commentary, and then branch out and do your own research.

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None of this is new, of course. “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” while a delightful and entertaining film in its own right, is essentially a rant by Mike Jittlov about having hard objects inserted into every possible orifice by the movie studios of his own time… and things have only gotten worse. Now, instead of creative geniuses like Jittlov working on their own and being screwed, we have entire stables of very talented people being worked insane hours without compensation (either not being paid overtime, or not being paid at all beyond their base wages), having no benefits, being classified as independent contractors despite working full-time for their companies, having no representation, simply seeing their jobs eliminated as studios outsource their work to places like India, having their whereabouts monitored, and even being threatened with physical abuse if they don’t perform like gods. Two other good reads are at the VFX Soldier and io9.

Granted, this is the outrage du jour. Public fickleness being what it is, the tempest will calm and people will go back to their lives as soon as yesterday… but for those working in the industry, the intolerable conditions will continue. But it raises a question in my own mind: as a consumer, what’s my responsibility?

Many people are up in arms about genetically modified foods, and consumers right and left are declining to shop at places that sell GMO’s; many people refuse to buy coffee that isn’t Fair Trade; Apple felt the pressure of public outrage and stepped up their game with their Chinese suppliers; even humble quinoa has raised a few eyebrows after it was found that increasing Western demand has so raised prices that local producers can no longer afford their own product. People get mad about stuff, and they do things.

It’s long been known that (with a few notable exceptions in cases of truly ethical companies), the only way to influence an industry is to hit it where it really hurts – in the wallet. Hollywood studios are interested in only one thing – maximizing dollars for themselves, and minimizing dollars spent on other people. Those dollars, however, come from us. You and me. The lovers of Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, you name it. If it were not for these talented people (and the writers, of course, but that’s another essay), I would not have been able to laugh myself silly watching Hulk toss Loki around like a rag doll – best moment in the whole film, if you ask me – these films would be worth less than nothing without the VFX people behind the visual magic.

It’s a tough issue, because good movies are a large part of my entertainment, and a great way to escape the daily grind, or to forget about the douchebaggery and unfairness that pervades 21st-Century society. Giving up all movies until the VFX people have fair and effective representation would be one solution, but would have little effect unless enough people chose this route to cut revenues for Hollywood, and the chances of that are… well, “snowball in Hell” is what comes to mind.

At the very least, I can contribute to raising the awareness of people about the issue. This article is a tiny drop in the ocean, but it’s a lot of tiny drops coming together that create a flood. I can also be more judicious about what I watch and when, and continue to think about the issue from the consumer side. The people who are at the heart of more and more movies at least deserve that much consideration.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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