Why is the VFX business failing at its moment of greatest success?

Mark Christiansen
By Mark Christiansen 02.05.13

In less than 3 weeks, something like a billion viewers worldwide will look on as Life of Pi wins the award for Best Visual Effects at the 85th edition of the Academy Awards. I don't mean to ruin the surprise for you, but you don't need The Predictanator to tell you this award is a lead-pipe cinch, despite a strong field that includes the number three grossing film of all-time and what is certainly the best talking biped ever committed to 48 fps (and maybe even lower framerates).

2013 will mark the 37th year in which there has been an award given for Visual Effects, a category necessitated by those harbingers of the relationship between high technology and box office Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, competitors for the 1977 statuette. And just yesterday, it emerged that Rhythm & Hues, creator with Ang Lee of Life of Pi and previous Oscar-winner for (otherwise flop) The Golden Compass "is in dire financial straits and will take an emergency $20 million capital infusion from three major Hollywood studios in order to keep its doors open through April," according to a story circulated by Reuters and now reverbarating throughout the twitterverse (one lively set of discussions is spearheaded by @vfxsolider, who has diligently provided "Commentary On The VFX Industry's March To The Bottom."

If you're even a bit outraged to hear all of this, you should be.

If you're even a bit outraged to hear all of this, you should be. Examine the list of top domestic (or if you prefer, the even starker worldwide) all-time box grosses. Go ahead, I'll wait.

As you work your way down the list, note that you have to get to number 11, The Lion King, before you find a film that is not predominantly a VFX or CG-driven feature. After that, The Passion of the Christ (rather mysteriously) holds position 21, and then guess how far down the list you have to go to find a cluster of actor and director-driven, non-VFX movies? Take a look.

Keep going, past 50. And keep trying to pretend that it's just a question of inflation adjustment. There were, after all way, way fewer things competing for attention with Gone with the Wind, it is, after all, losing its lead, and in any case Hollywood in 1939 may not yet have developed its habit of perpetual claims of victimhood amongst record-setting box-office receipts - although if it had, this would hardly come as a surprise.

If you're a young person contemplating a career in visual effects, it's worth at least asking why ...

If you're a young person contemplating a career in visual effects, it's worth at least asking why, if there's never been a better time for VFX in Hollywood, that it's never been a worse time for the companies (and thus the people) that create VFX for Hollywood feature films, and whether there's anything you can do to meaningfully change that situation, if only for yourself.

You might also ask some other questions, which don't initially seem directly related to the topic at hand:

  • What kind of person makes a great VFX artist, and in what ways, if any, is that personality type at odds with that of the most prosperous VFX clientele?
  • Is what is happening right now in VFX any different than what is happening to any number of industries in the early 21st century western hemisphere?
  • If the problem is one of cash-flow, is there negligence or poor business management on the part of the VFX companies, or is there simply not enough cash for them to survive?
  • Where does the downward pressure on compensation come from? Is it "off-shoring"?
  • What can be done to improve the situation for workers (and do a majority even want that medicine to be administered)?

These are weighly, signicant questions, not easily or glibly addressed, and you no doubt have others of your own. As I type this it's nearing 1 am, or as it is called at a VFX facility, "quitting time."

Yes, I jest, but only a little, and if these questions or others seem worth exploring here at PVC, please respond with your own thoughts and perhaps we'll make a little series out of it.

If not - well, don't say I didn't tell you so.

(Thumbnail image credit: Alex K Poimos via Creative Commons. Some rights reserved)