Hollywoods Greatest Trick
Visual effects artists are responsible for some of the most iconic moments in movie history. The top 10 highest grossing films of 2016 all contained computer generated imagery. But while Hollywood's profits grow, visual effects artists struggle for fair pay, representation and recognition beyond the most prestigious award in film — an Oscar.
Last updated: February 22, 2017
It was one of the most controversial cinematic moments of 2016.
In the final scene of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a figure shrouded in a white cloak turns, extends her hand, faces the camera and utters one word: “Hope.” Audiences everywhere gasped, screamed and cheered.
Nearly 40 years after the first “Star Wars” movie debuted, the character of Princess Leia had returned to the screen without aging a day, even as the actress who portrayed her, Carrie Fisher, went from 19 years old to 60.
The masterpiece of movie magic, combining old footage and recordings with digital effects to turn back time, raised ethical questions about profiting in perpetuity off the likeness of an actor. When Fisher died just a few weeks after the “Rogue One” premiere, Disney executives reportedly considered recreating her digitally in order to include her in future installments of the franchise, before ultimately issuing a statement saying they would not.
But the very fact that an actor’s death might not mean the end of her on-screen career shows how rapidly the visual effects industry is changing.
While Hollywood’s profits rise and visual effects artists continually raise the bar for what’s possible on-screen, its daily workers say they remain underpaid, overworked and without representation.
In practically every modern blockbuster, the visual effects department is the largest group of workers.
More than 700 artists, animators and supervisors were credited with visual effects in “Rogue One,” like the one that brought young Carrie Fisher back to the screen.
“Independence Day: Resurgence,” “The Jungle Book” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” each list more than 1,100 special and visual effects artists in their credits, per IMDB.com. According to some industry insiders, the credits often fail to list up to one-third of those who actually worked on the film.
Yet even with the huge demand for ever-improving visual effects, the life of a visual effects artist can be financially unstable.
The average hourly wage for an American visual effects artist is $30.76, according to May 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But job stability is rare, and most visual effects artists are nomadic, moving around, working under contract for the length of a job, and living paycheck to paycheck, several former artists say. Once one job ends, the pressure to find another job begins.
“When your job is up, you get kicked out and you might find a new job right away and you might not,” said Andreas Jablonka, a visual effects artist from Germany. “So a lot of us, myself included, sign up for unemployment (but) by the time you have the one week waiting period, suddenly you might have a new job. You go on and off.”
Payment can sometimes be delayed for weeks or months. Some people report not getting paid at all, whether the project is a huge film with a massive budget or an independent low-budget flick. Independent contractors rarely receive health insurance or any other benefits, so purchases beyond daily expenses can fall out of reach, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“A VFX guy buying a house, it would be suicide,” said Pierre Grage, a former visual effects artist who wrote a book on the challenges facing the visual effects industry. “You’re going to get fired, you just don’t know when. But your house payments have to go on, you still have to pay for school.”
Even a salaried, stable position does not preclude obstacles. On Reddit threads and message boards, anonymous artists talk about working 20 hours a day, 80 hours a week, sometimes as many as 32 hours straight. Grage says he once rendered a single shot 1,300 times before the filmmakers settled on something they liked.
“One time I worked [in Mexico] three months straight without a day off, and I had to fake an injury to get a day off work,” said Mariana Acuña Acosta, a veteran visual effects artist. “I worked seven days a week, 12-, 14-hour days.”
Unsurprisingly, the rate of burnout among visual effects artists is sky-high, according to Grage, Acuña Acosta and other visual effects artists. The industry takes young, enthusiastic artists and turns them into workaholics that churn out visual effects shots. In order to keep going for as long and as hard as they do, some visual effects artists develop unhealthy habits.
“There’s many stories of people who ended up getting dependent on some sort of substance abuse because they’re working these crazy long hours,” said Daniel Lay, a former visual effects artist who has advocated for artists’ rights on his blog, “VFX Soldier.”
Eric Kohler, a producer with Vitality VFX, got up one day in 2015 and walked out the door at work without his wallet or keys. He stopped answering his phone and went completely off the radar. For a week, he was missing, before authorities finally found him 1,000 miles from home in Mexico.
Kohler later said in a Facebook post that he was suffering from an addiction and that he was checking into rehab.
No one talks about it
Visual effects are more integral than ever to movie magic. But most artists can’t, or won’t, speak openly about their concerns.
The profession is a “young person’s” game, according to Grage, for those who love movies and want to be a part of Hollywood. Early-career artists often feel it is not a big deal to work 80 hours a week, move around the world and have no health insurance.
“If we didn’t have so much passion for it, I don’t think we would put up with all the abuse,” Jablonka said. “That’s cool the first year and the second year and maybe even longer but at some point, especially when you want to have a family … freelance work, it’s just too hard to come by.”
Schools that teach visual effects promise unrealistic wealth and returns for working hard, Grage said. As a result, plenty of young people are encouraged to enter the industry, creating a steady supply of naive, passionate workers always available for companies to hire, undercutting leverage for more experienced and jaded artists.
“They’re very eager and excited to get experience, said Patrick Longstreth, a longtime visual effects artist currently at TruTV. “So a lot of companies are just hiring younger people at a lower rate in hopes of getting more work out of them.”
Older workers say they feel pressured to match the output of younger people, who routinely put in 80 hours a week, or fear being fired, according to Longstreth and Grage.
There have been persistent unconfirmed rumors of blacklisting, and some backlash against the idea. “We don’t live in Darfur and we don’t live in Syria. No one is going to come and put you in prison for speaking your mind,” Acuña Acosta said about the idea. “To me, that is a totally unfounded fear.”
Still, the visual effects industry is also one of the few professions in Hollywood that lacks a union. Writers, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers, teamsters, makeup artists, sound editors, animators, costume designers, composers and porn stars all have guilds, but visual effects artists do not.
Most unions were formed before 1960 and have become fixtures in filmmaking, but visual effects is a relatively new industry beset by change. Hollywood needs visual effects, but a union would be undercut so long as artists are willing to work on a blockbuster for little pay or benefits, Lay said.
“If somebody comes to you and says, ‘You know what, I love mowing your lawn, and I’m going to come to your house every day and make sure it’s going to be perfect, and I’m going to do it for the lowest price possible because I love mowing lawns so much,’ are you going to stop them?” he asked. “No.”
The six major movie studios — Sony, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal — and the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents all six studios, declined to comment or did not respond to questions about their business practices with the visual effects industry. Industrial Light & Magic, a major visual effects studio based in San Francisco, also did not reply to a request for an interview.
Chris DeFaria, the CEO of DreamWorks Feature Animation Group, a subsidiary of Universal, and a former executive at Warner Brothers, said in an interview on Freakonomics Radio that major studios should not be blamed for using legitimate business practices to generate profit.
“Of course I feel bad. Everybody feels bad that people that had a living here right now don’t anymore,” DeFaria said. “But at the same time it did not come unannounced and it did not sneak up, and that I think there are plenty of people that could have intervened at a different point to keep some of this business here. But then you really have to ask yourself in the end of the day would that have been the right thing to do?”
An industry in flux
In 2013, Rhythm and Hues Studios, a respected visual effects company founded in 1987, won an Oscar for its work on the film “Life of Pi,” which famed critic Roger Ebert called a “landmark of visual mastery.”
In his acceptance speech for the award, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer tried to comment on the fact that not long after “Life of Pi” was released, Rhythm and Hues had filed for bankruptcy. His mic was cut off before he could make his point: Visual effects companies struggle to profit despite their industry-changing work.
Since the 1970s, major studios and most visual effects companies have operated under the “fixed bid” system, which hands a visual effects job — a list of shots they need for a movie — to whichever company offers to do it for the least amount of money, according to the Visual Effects Society.
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But inevitably, the director or the studio will want to add new shots or tweak existing ones, often multiple times without paying extra. Instead, visual effects companies are expected to cover the costs, according to The Wrap.
“A good year for a visual effects company, a great year … is five percent profit margin,” according to Lee Berger, the former president of Rhythm and Hues. “For some visual effects companies in my past, when we broke even, that was a good year. When we lived to fight another day, we felt like we had succeeded.”
Rhythm and Hues’ decline, while high-profile and unfortunate, is hardly unique in the American visual effects industry. In the past 20 years, the Oscar for Best Visual Effects has been won just once by an American company that has remained solvent without being bought by a major studio or folded into another company.
It is also common for companies to operate on a boom-and-bust cycle in the financially thin industry. Digiscope, founded in 1995, contributed to some of the most prestigious projects in the industry like “Titanic,” “Independence Day” and “Spider-Man.”
But in 2013, the company seemingly vanished. It stopped posting to its website or social media accounts and phone calls now go unanswered.
On the California secretary of state’s website, Digiscope is still registered as an LLC. Grage said it’s not uncommon for small companies like Digiscope to go dark when work dries up and keep updating paperwork so they can start up again when there’s a need.
Small companies like Digiscope form a key part of an oversaturated market where more and more people can accomplish feats of wizardry with affordable technology. As a result, major film studios are able to cut costs without sacrificing quality as they work with companies desperate to stand out, according to Forbes.
Tax subsidies have also crippled hundreds of U.S. visual effects companies. California offers a tax break for the film industry, but it is dwarfed by the ones provided by Canada, Singapore, New Zealand and London, where studios can save millions.
This dynamic hurts the individual visual effects artist, who must now migrate for work, typically to places where the exchange rate and pay are comparatively weaker. Finally, the benefits of these tax breaks for the local taxpayer are questionable.
The city of Vancouver has spent billions of dollars luring the film industry with a tax break that was once as high as 33 percent. That money, along with the city’s relatively close proximity to California, have lured major film studios north of the border.
Of those billions, the taxpayers recoup half at most, according to Jordan Bateman, the provincial director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. As more and more studios moved, the amount of money the provincial government handed out soared, causing it to eventually cut back, while other tax havens in Canada have been eliminated altogether.
“There is an economics professor from (the University of British Columbia) who actually made the case that it would be cheaper just to get rid of the entire industry and put everyone (in Vancouver) on unemployment insurance,” Bateman said. “You’d actually save a bunch of money that way.”
But now that Canada’s tax breaks are drying up, the industry has increasingly moved to the United Kingdom, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, where labor costs are cheap and tax subsidies are still in place.
So what’s next?
Not long after Rhythm and Hues’ Oscar win, American visual effects artists began to pressure American film studios to keep production in California and stop forcing them to move to other countries for jobs.
More than 500 people showed up to protest the Oscars in 2014, infuriated by the debacle of 2013 and determined to change things. Their color of choice was green, the color of the screens upon which they built their visual effects. The protest garnered attention from international media and industry outlets alike.
“We came out of that day with a common enemy. Everyone was angry and we had riled the troops,” said Scott Ross, a former visual effects executive and activist.
There was no protest in 2015 or 2016, and there is nothing planned for this year’s ceremony. Hollywood continues to churn out massive blockbusters with thousands of visual effects shots crafted by thousands of workers.
“It’s like it’s religious worship,” Lay said. “We have to worship what we’re doing. Even though we know it can hurt us in the end.”
Sources: National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, fxguide.com, Cartoon Brew, Deadspin, MPAA.org, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Government of Canada Job Bank, Animation World Network, The Wrap, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, IMDB.com, Forbes, California’s Secretary of State, The Globe and Mail, NoFilmSchool.com, SFGate.com, RogerEbert.com, Visual Effects Society, Oscars.com, FilmmakerIQ.com, Digiscope, Reddit.com/r/vfx, Facebook, CGSociety.org, CG-Masters.com, cgchannel.com, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, StarWars.com, RentJungle.com, CBC, NPR, The Economist, Valerie Delahaye, Jordan Bateman, Daniel Yocis, Daniel Lay, Pierre Grage, Lee Berger, Scott Ross, Patrick Longstreth, Mariana Acuña Acosta, Andreas Jablonka, Brian Weatherford