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Adaptation: VFX Town Hall


From left: Guillaume Rocheron, Bill Westenhofer, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott accept the Oscar for achievement in visual effects for their work on Life of Pi.
From left: Guillaume Rocheron, Bill Westenhofer, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald Elliott accept the Oscar for achievement in visual effects for their work on Life of Pi, just as Rhythm & Hues was filing for bankruptcy.
One of the responses of the visual effects community to the ongoing industry crisis has been to stage a series of meetings and dialogues to forge a consensus on what to do next.

The main manifestation of that crisis is that while we live in the most digitally-saturated age, where even “realistic” or “natural” films contain a lot of digital animation and rendering, making virtual textures, colors and characters seems to pay less than ever. The work that pays well goes to too few shops, leaving the others to underbid on projects, as they compete with offshore companies where wages are lower – or suppressed – unions are non-existent and formerly middle-class film workers must likewise compete with digitally skilled craftsfolk working for “day laborer” wages, leaving the corporate owners to pocket the considerable, and growing, differential.

But you know all this.

The “Hand-me-my-Oscar-while-I’m-drowning” moment experienced by Rhythm & Hues (recently bought at auction by Prana Studios, which has offices in India and L.A.) seems to have served as a tipping point for the VFX community, and a series of meetings, rallies, increased online initiatives ensued. And this was before the news that Pixomondo was closing its Berlin facility, under circumstances similar to Rhythm & Hues’. It shut down while the film they’d just worked on, Oblivion, was still raking in cash at the box office.

So propelled by crisis, one of the early manifestations of the resistance has been digital, with online VFX Town Halls – streamed via YouTube, the VFX Town Hall website, etc., and taking viewer/audience questions via Twitter, Facebook, et al – emerging as a recurring sounding board for the community.

Based on the most recent Town Hall, the VFXers are still trying to figure out a communally-agreed upon goal, while the miserable state of the industry is generally acceded to by all parties, and confirmed in the headlines.

This latest online Town Hall brought people together from California, Canada and London, for various views on where the business is headed, and what might be done to stay in business in the first place.

Though for some of the panelists, there may be no business to stay in, ultimately. That was the view of Paddy Eason, co-owner of Soho-based FX boutique Nvizible. Eason said in his opening statement that he wasn’t sure there’ll be anything like a visual effects company in 10 years.

Tippett Studio president Jules Roman called this a “devastating time” for California’s VFX industry. Tippett is trying to figure out the next step for entertainment platforms and the ostensible digital needs of consumers – in other words, becoming more proactive in helping to develop its own work, for a plethora of screens. At this, moderator Matt Winston chimed in with enthusiastic agreement. It would be great, if not ultimately necessary, to, as Winston put it, “get rid of the middle man and create our own content.”

Eason later elaborated, saying it wasn’t that there wouldn’t be digital work, or that the nature of what was needed would change so profoundly, but that, as rendering tools get cheaper, studios may just build their own departments – like camera departments – and there would be no need for a mother ship anymore.

But not everyone agreed. Phil Feiner, of Burbank’s Pacific Title & Art Studio, admitted the landscape was changing, noting that there used to be a barrier for entry into the FX biz – such as the purchase of room-sized super computers. But the issue, in his view, wasn’t that the technology was becoming more pocket-sized and lower cost, but rather, one of tax incentives and rebates that give certain localities unfair advantage. Take those out, he thought – through an aggressive trade organization – and the playing field could be leveled.

Feiner had even provided union affiliations for his employees, so they would have overtime and pension benefits, but he was never able to get them successfully in a union. “The business agents don’t get it,” he said.

Jeff Barnes, who bears an economic scar as founder of the late Cafe FX, and a veteran of Digital Domain’s recent Florida outpost, agreed that a union isn’t going to help much, and that if one were to go to the trade organization/lobbying route, she would almost need a World Trade Organization in terms of scope. The real problem, Barnes said, is that there are “too many teams playing,” and an eventual correction will take its course.

Neishaw Ali of Toronto’s SpinVFX observed that that “course” is not always easily planned for or navigated, exemplified by how interconnected the entire global economy is. Formerly far-off events now affect stock markets and economies thousands of miles away. That said, Ali noted that Spin had managed by planning ahead and deciding where to compete. This selective competition involved closing a Vancouver facility and coalescing everything back in Toronto.

Eason thought a different model altogether could emerge – aside from visual effects being subsumed into larger entities. He cited all the boutique post houses proliferating in his London neighborhood – and it should be noted that they do so with consistent tax code help from the U.K. government. “All of Soho is one big postproduction facility,” Eason said. If studios had the foresight, he said, large tent-pole projects could be broken up in advance among several mid-sized or smaller houses, rather than given to one large house. Here is where the visual effects supervisor usually has to start subcontracting shots anyway, in order to meet the release date.

But regardless of the model – and even if you manage to successfully license software, like Houdini and Maya, as Ali noted – the FX workforce becomes more itinerant. Especially if the model for a company’s survival is to be “super nimble,” in Winston’s words, or “super mega,” meaning if you’re not employed by one of those in the latter category, you’ll be essentially freelance.

Danny Bergeron of Montreal’s Mokko Studio talked about being nimble in a different way. He said his formerly boutique-sized house would have to scale up since even local audiences aren’t sticking to local films, which would employ his company. Rather audiences are going to see the bigger movie “across the street.” “And we have to be there,” Bergeron said.

And if no specific route or path was agreed to by the panelists, one of the more senior members, Carl Rosendahl, who founded PDI (and helped found the VES), noted that discussions were ongoing and robust, beyond the virtual town hall structure. He cited the recent VES Summit, which was a non-publicized event with just 35 people, including studio reps, etc., all engaged in what he termed “very honest discussion” – which wouldn’t, he said, have happened in public.

But the company failures are happening in public, and one can imagine that the latest Pixomondo log on the fire will increase the pressure on organizational heads, union organizers and lawmakers – especially those in California – to do something; even if it’s not the right something.

However, Rosendahl is in a particularly envious position from which to watch the fall-out: PDI was long ago sold to Dreamworks as a debt-free company, and Rosendahl now co-directs Carnegie Mellon’s entertainment technology satellite campus in Silicon Valley. So when he speaks to Roman’s idea of content creation as a possible way out for struggling companies, he notes there’s a finite market for movies, which are not necessarily an easier business.

Then again, all those that aren’t movie screens are proliferating. Even Pixomondo founder Thilo Kuther talked about his company’s need to find other kinds of digital work, outside the world of feature films, in the wake of the Shanghai shuttering.

But one suspects that Roman’s metrics about the workforce needed at Tippett Studio at any given time – sometimes as many as 200 people, sometimes only 15 – will continue to be the rule, rather than the exception, going forward. All those pocket cinema screens aside.

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