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Hollywood's VFX Crisis - Update
Exclusive: Scott Squires on the situation

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Most media coverage of the Oscars focused on Jennifer Lawrence tripping up, Anne Hathaway's scanty top or the quality of Seth MacFarlane's jokes. But there was a bigger story unfolding just off the red carpet: a protest by 450 of Hollywood's visual-effects artists, demanding better treatment within the industry. Key in organising this was Scott Squires, an ex-ILM FX legend who has supervised effects on the likes of The Phantom Menace, The Hunt For The Red October and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon. Empire spoke to him this week...

Hollywood's VFX Crisis - Update

Life Of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, yet Rhythm & Hues, the company responsible, have just gone bankrupt...
Rhythm & Hues was one of the biggest FX companies. They'd been in business for 25 years in Los Angeles. So here they are, doing great work and winning Oscars, and yet they ran out of money! Life Of Pi is a perfect example. Life Of Pi could not have been made without visual effects. People would not have paid ten dollars to see a guy sitting in an empty row-boat with another guy in a tiger suit in a pool in a back yard. But that's overlooked by the studios. They tend to look at all visual effects as just technicians. But if you paint and create all that water, that tiger, every hair on him, and animate him so he's a character and moves like a real tiger, that's artistry. Even Ang Lee said that, but unfortunately he didn't even thank the visual-effects people. He said they were too expensive!

As they tried to talk about the bankruptcy, the Oscar-winner, Bill Westenhofer, and his colleagues were played off-stage by the Jaws theme. Were you annoyed?
When the music came on, I thought they had reached the time limit and hadn't managed to get to the point quite as soon as they should have. But when they cut the mic entirely I thought that was very strict, stricter than it needed to be. And of course the choice of music was poor. You just want to signal to the speaker to wrap it up, not use it as a form of a joke. And you'll notice all other recipients that had the music start up were provided much more time. Any actor or director was typically given a minute and half, twice as much time. Tarantino continued to talk and they stopped the music a couple of times to let him speak. I don't believe they actually cut the mic on anyone else. It seemed tied into making sure there were no political or downer statements.

Why is there so much tension between VFX artists and other parts of the industry at the moment?
"We're working hard hours, doing great work that's making money for somebody, but it's not making money for the visual effects companies."
Filmmakers and studios should be overjoyed that they can get these stories told. A lot of movies in the past - Benjamin Button, Dragonheart - had great scripts but they sat on the shelf, and Life Of Pi and Avengers would have been on that stack. Now they have the option to do anything they want, and most of the time those types of movies make a lot of money. But people are getting very frustrated. We're working hard hours, doing great work that's making money for somebody, but it's not making money for the visual effects companies.

How is that possible?
It's a very labour-intensive job. There are hundreds and hundreds of people working to create these effects, and they take time. Every project is custom-done by hand. We use the computers, but artists have to look at those computers and make adjustments. It's not like we press a button and 500 shots magically get done. Every year we're asked to do more complex effects, and a greater number of them.

There's also the problem that at the moment there's far too much "We'll fix it in post production" which gets added to a company's workload at the last minute, and is just expected as the norm now. Live action shooting can't go for 24 hours because they have union crews that expect to be paid. There's a cost factor and a turnaround time and all the other stuff, with people monitoring them and keeping them on track. But once the live action is done, there's nobody monitoring anymore, so the director and studio are free to change everything. They can ask for anything, and the VFX company has to do it. A director will go to the VFX guys late on and say something like, "Oh, I want to change all these skies. I want blue skies with fluffy clouds now." The problem is, that wasn't part of the original storyboards, so nobody would have predicted that, but the companies are reluctant to bill the studios. The studio might say, "Well, they charged us for this extra thing: we thought that would have been part of the deal!" So the effects companies accept the changes and don't pass the costs on to the client, so now what little profit they had, because they're competing against each other, is even less. Even though a company may bring in $20 million to do the visual effects for something, maybe they only have 5% profit at the end.

We fix props, locations, hair and make-up, all of these things, and it's costly. If the actor doesn't show up with the right contact lenses, you can fix that in post, but man, it would've been much, much cheaper to have got it right on the set. And if they save money and come in under budget on the live action shoot, they certainly never funnel that saving back into the VFX.

What's a typical workload for a VFX employee?
The people working on visual effects typically will start with a 50 or 60-hour week, and that can go up to 90 or 120. There's a limited number of people, and while a company may feel they have a project under control, a director or a studio can then come in at any time and add 500 shots to a film. So you instantly start overtime. So now everybody's working these crazy hours, without which the company would go out of business and there'd be no projects. There was a project I worked on last year where we were putting in 24-hour days. It's just nuts. Many visual effects companies are willing to roll over on some of these issues and the visual effects workers end up taking the brunt.

There's a group, like Apple and the other companies have, that monitors conditions in their facilities in other countries, and we don't currently meet those standards. Nor do we meet their cap on the number of hours that people can work. You're not allowed to work more than 60 hours a week according to their terms. 60 hours is where we start!

What about job security? These are specialised guys doing a seriously specialised job - surely that makes them 'safe'?
Certainly not. In visual effects, once a project's done, you're all laid off instantly. You put in 120 hours last week trying to get this thing done in time because the director made all these last minute changes? Well thanks, but here's your pink slip. You're out the door, you're totally worn out, and now you've got to start looking for another job. Not only that, but now you've got to wait three months until you qualify for your next employer's health care, so now you've got to buy your own, and that costs several hundred dollars a month. All of these things start factoring in. We're now at the point where we're not necessarily encouraging people to go into this life.

VFX artists also have to be willing to be mobile, and move to London or Vancouver or New Zealand: they have to leave their wives and children and houses and travel half way round the world for a job. The choice is to move to a potentially more expensive city, for the same rate, or be laid off. These people who are putting in so many hours and creating such a fantastic end product, they have to be migrant workers if they want to keep earning a living. That's the case even for me. Almost all of my job offers are out of the country. It's like, "Okay, what do I do with my house?" It's incredibly frustrating. And the companies are still all competing with each other when they've moved, and they not only have their LA debts, but the debts of another satellite company. You can do this work from any office: there's no real reason to have to move to a location. The only reason it happens is politics.

Hollywood's VFX Crisis - Update
Scott Squires (second from right) protesting with fellow visual effects artists at this year's Oscars

Is there no FX union, to protect workers from being exploited?
Visual effects is now the only group involved in films that does not have a union. In the pre-digital days, it was all union. I was in the camera union; the matt-painters and model builders were in unions. As soon as computer graphics became available, the experts were in short supply, so those young guys were getting some very lucrative offers, and they weren't concerned about pensions or health care or paying a few hundred dollars a year to be in a union. Now, there's a reason why everybody else in the motion picture industry is in a union. There's a strength in numbers, and you can go and do a commercial, then a gap, then a film for a while, then another gap before the next project, but you keep the same health insurance throughout all that, and you have a pension plan and vacation rights, because you're working as a union member. But VFX people tend to be reluctant to get involved in a trade association, partly because they only have a very few clients and they don't want to tick those people off.

How do politics play into these companies and workers having to be so mobile and flexible?
"The protest was partly just to show solidarity and partly to get some media attention - which obviously worked!"
The problem is government subsidies. A place like Vancouver might say, "Hey, if you've got a $100 million movie, we will pay your studio $40 million. We'll pay 40% of your budget if you do your movie here." When the first Harry Potter film got started, for example, Warners wanted to take advantage of the tax credits in the UK. So 75% of the work had to be done in the UK. The visual effects work on that type of film would typically have taken place in California, but instead it all went to London. For The Hobbit, the studio went to the government of New Zealand and said they were thinking of shooting it in Prague unless they got certain terms, and New Zealand changed their laws to allow that. You have companies popping up in places where they couldn't otherwise survive, and good companies running efficiently in places without subsidies, and they can't compete and they're going under. It's not survival of the fittest: it's survival of who has the subsidy.

Any independent study I've ever seen says these subsidies are bad business, because for every dollar they pay out, they typically only return 70c. You have to understand that a lot of this money isn't going back into the local economy: it's just going to the stars and the studios back in LA. A government might invest in an Avatar that makes a billion dollars, but they won't see a dime out of it, and neither do the visual-effects workers. Subsidies don't create more films. Subsidies merely shift the work that would have been done somewhere else to your location, but the film commission and the studios in those areas put together reports that include things like a half-billion dollars worth of tourism value, so they're throwing in a lot of intangibles, things that cannot be measured, and they're trying to sell that idea.

So what's the solution? What can be done?
The protest was partly just to show solidarity and partly to get some media attention - which obviously worked! Most people had never even imagined the situation was like this.

What can be done? Fundamentally, FX companies have to start operating like real business and stop underbidding each other. In an ideal world, the subsidies all go away, because what you would have then would be regular competition, and companies will get contracts based on the quality of their work, and how efficient they are. You'd end up with a certain number of companies to support the amount of work there is. You reach a balance point, and that's true of most industries. Technically, if you read the rules of the WTO, subsidies aren't even legal.

And in an ideal world, all the visual-effects people in the US and Canada and the UK and all over the world would form a trade association, to have someone protecting them and making sure they are paid for what they do. Visual-effects people would gather as a group and say, "Here's how we want to work: we're going to meet all our estimates but we're going to bill all of your extras," so that if studios make last-minute changes, studios pay for them.

Visual-effects people pride themselves on being individuals, but the fact is that they work on projects and there are times when it's useful for people to gather as an organisation, to say, "No, we won't put up with this." We work really hard on what we do: we'd like to see the studios and the companies do what they're supposed to be doing, operating as good businesses and working in tandem with their employees to reach reasonable solutions.

It's a very complex thing, and it's reaching the point where it might get difficult...

Interview by Owen Williams

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