Hollywood Can No Longer Take VFX for Granted

In Featured, Industry Insights, James Powers by Impact Admin

– By James Powers –

One of the trailers that’s been playing before Avengers: Endgame is for an upcoming sci-fi thriller that stars Will Smith – twice. Ang Lee’s Gemini Man follows an assassin who must fight for his life against a younger version of himself, and Smith plays both characters, one his fifties and the other in his twenties. So basically, the film has to make it look like someone went back in time and yanked 1990 Smith out of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for this. An ambitious VFX stunt, but the trailer by itself shows that the squad at Weta Digital has pulled it off. And actually…it’s not too surprising that we’ve arrived at this moment in the history of movie magic, where one of the lead roles of a live-action film can be the digital recreation of an actor’s younger self. Although we often think of VFX artists as working primarily in the realm of explosions and monsters and fantastical landscapes, they’ve been moving more and more into the human face and body, combining their efforts with those of live action performers to create something entirely new.  

But the thing is, when audiences look at Alita or Thanos or the rejuvenated Princess Leia in Rogue One, they don’t see the artists behind those performances. They see Rosa Salazar, Josh Brolin, Carrie Fisher – who are all invaluable parts of bringing those characters to life, but really only half of the equation. Hint: they didn’t turn Josh Brolin into Thanos with a purple paint job and some prosthetics. It took a lot more than that. Of course, with entire fleets of animators, riggers, texture artists and others working on the digital components of these characters, it’s kind of inevitable that those artists will be anonymous to a degree. But that anonymity is a fitting image for a much deeper neglect that is happening throughout the film industry. Although effects-driven spectaculars are now the bread and butter of Hollywood, the VFX contractors creating those effects have very little leverage, and studios can get away with murder in their dealings with them. As VFX moves out of the business of merely making eye-candy, and into that of actually crafting performances, the need for change in the industry’s structure becomes more obvious than ever.

The problem, statistically speaking, is that VFX artists are willing to do a lot of work for relatively little pay. The demand for VFX in film and TV is enormous, but the labor supply is pretty enormous too. From big-name firms like Weta and ILM, to small boutique effects houses, to individual freelancers bouncing from gig to gig, any production with at least some VFX budget will have plenty of candidates to consider for the job. Consequently, whichever VFX company makes the cheapest bid for that job will typically get it. Per Econ 101, when there’s a large labor force available, the price of said labor gets pushed down. Bummer for the individual worker, but hey, that’s what you sign up for in a free market economy, right?

Kind of. But there’s a little more than just that Econ 101 principle at play here. The weird thing about the VFX scene is that the labor pool is pretty diverse, but the employer pool is really not. You’ve got scads of VFX companies of many different sizes, bidding for scads of different jobs – but the vast majority of those jobs are ultimately coming from a very small group of studios. Namely, the (in)famous Big Six: Disney, Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros, Universal, and…well, not Fox anymore I guess, but Netflix just joined the MPAA, so let’s say still six. Which obviously means that each of these individual employers holds a lot of power, and that their smaller VFX contractors will do a lot to get – and stay – on their good side. Such as playing along with a fixed-rate bidding system that forces them to absorb a lot of unforeseen costs.

What do I mean by “fixed-rate bidding system”? As mentioned above, VFX houses typically work like independent contractors do in any other business. Studio X says “hey I need someone to do a crowd simulation of 3,000 zombies wearing tweed jackets and riding jet skis, in 25 shots total, and I need it done in 10 weeks.” Or whatever. So then VFX Company A is like, “hey we can do that for $25,000” (I have no idea if $25,000 is realistic at all btw). Meanwhile, VFX Company B is like “hey, we’ll do it for $35,000 and get it to you in 8 weeks instead of 10.” Finally, VFX Company C says, “hey we’ll do it for $20,000.” They actually know that Company A’s $25,000 figure is more accurate, but those guys have already stolen enough gigs from them and they need a win. The strategy pays off, and Studio X awards Company C the contract. The elephant in the room that neither party talks about, however, is that the job will probably entail much more in the end than 3,000 tweed-wearing jet-skiing zombies. Both know this from experience. And, lo and behold, at the 7-week mark, Company C has a first pass of this trippy zombie sequence ready to go. But when the director looks at it he says, “ok I like it, but the tweed pattern on their jackets is off. And actually I want a few of them in paisley. Also, it would really punch up the scene if we could have a great white shark leading the charge in front of them. Sound good? Ok great, love you guys.”  

Here’s where the “fixed-rate” thing comes in. The production just asked the artists for a pretty significant alteration to the original work order. At the 7-week mark, Company C is in crunch time, so to get the sequence redone with paisley and a shark by the 10-week deadline is gonna require some serious overtime from their artists. If Company C were working in any other industry, they could probably impose additional charges on Studio X to cover these new costs. Buuuut this being Hollywood, they know that Studio X won’t cough up a cent more than the $20,000 in the original contract. Studio X doesn’t have to, because they know that Company C will do the work regardless. After all, this is Art, and Company C has their Reputation to worry about. So either they’ll have to absorb the cost of paying their artists additional overtime, or their artists will have to put in those extra hours unpaid. Either way, big oof.

Perhaps the most infamous and worrisome example of the dangers of this business model is Rhythm and Hues, a well-established effects house that ironically had to file for bankruptcy in 2013 – mere months after receiving an Academy Award for their work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. That wasn’t the first Oscar they received, and they had been around since 1987 – but apparently that wasn’t enough, which gives you an idea of how difficult it can really be for a VFX company to remain solvent in the current landscape. Honestly, I don’t really understand how it got to be like this. It seems reasonable to expect that a contractor should be able to charge extra when his or her client up and decides to completely change their work order. To borrow an analogy from this documentary on the subject, it’s as if restaurants were expected to completely redo their customers’ orders over and over, at no extra cost. I mean sure, if the burger is underdone, that’s one thing. But if you ordered that burger, then decided twenty minutes later that you’d prefer sushi, I think that’s on you.

Ultimately the problem is that artistic output is very subjective, and therefore hard to quantify and put a price tag on. Artists, hopefully, do what they do because they love it, and not so much for the money. But they still need to eat, even though they sometimes behave like they don’t think they do (I’m looking at you, JPC students who live off of canned chili and cereal. Or VFX artists who pull 80-hour weeks and live off of Monster “because they love it”). For much of film’s history, both visual and practical effects have sort of served as the icing on the cake, a fun gimmick to get audiences to come into the theater, sit down and listen to your story. Now that visual effects form the backbone of so many films, with vast swaths of both setting and character being digitally created, it’s becoming more and more imperative that the people creating them are allowed to make an actual living doing so. Things like Alita’s big anime eyes, or translating Mark Ruffalo’s smile to Professor Hulk’s face, or a recreating the late Paul Walker, show that the talent and labor of VFX artists simply cannot be taken for granted any more.  

I shudder to think what effect the current business model may have on the recent Sonic the Hedgehog debacle. The VFX companies that Paramount has employed for that film are more than likely innocent of any part in Sonic’s janky design, but they’ll bear the brunt of the consequences for it, at least in terms of work-hours and quite possibly in terms of cost as well. Here’s hoping the studio has the good sense to spare them that fate.

About the Author

James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.