Wednesday 27 February 2013

Hashtag Visual Effects Protest

If you have any connection to anyone in the VFX industry you've no doubt seen at least a few green-screen green avatars around lately. If you're reading this you've probably heard a lot about it already, but I want to express my own opinions on the matter, I want to tell you how I feel right now, paying thousands of pounds to a university so that I myself can go work in the VFX industry.
If you're not interested in that, you can read either this article from YaHoo! Movies or this from /Film. They're both great articles that will tell you why people are angry.

First of all, nothing of what is happening now is new, this has been going on for years, at least for as long as I've been paying attention, and likely a lot longer before that. The reason this is coming up now is because BAFTA and Academy Award winning VFX house Rhythm and Hues went bankrupt making one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2012, Life of Pi. VFX houses have done this before, but Rhythm and Hues is a widely respected business, and frankly it was just the last drop in the bucket.

Just two days before Life of Pi won its Academy Award I was lucky enough to be in attendance of Hans Rijpkema's Animex talk on how it was to work at Rhythm and Hues and in particular on how it was to work on Life of Pi. He didn't talk about the state of R&H as is, but he gave a very good talk on exactly how much work went into Life of Pi. First of all, let me just give you a number, the eye catching headline whenever someone writes about VFX. The final render of Life of Pi took a combined 1633 years. This is not including setting up the renders, testing the renders, renders that went wrong, different versions, man hours that went into making the things that were to be rendered, just the final render itself. And you know, if you're doing it well, it takes longer to make the thing that needs rendering than it does to actually render it. One thousand, six hundred and thirty three years. That's a lot of time. It's such an amount of time that people have a hard time comprehending it, if you sent one of R&H's average render computers back in time to render Life of Pi on its own it'd had to be sent back to the year 380(ish) to make sure it was done by Life of Pi's release.

However, the real time spent is not spent rendering, it's the extreme amount of research and development done leading up to a project. In order to create a photorealistic, no, real tiger, R&H has done years of research. Animals is the trademark of R&H, they created the animals for Cats & Dogs, Scooby-Doo (2002) and Aslan himself for Narnia. Creating the famous Richard Parker wasn't something thrown together over night, it's taken years for R&H to at all be able to make him.
You probably weren't surprised when you first heard there was a CG tiger in Life of Pi, but I think that is mostly because you expected it to be. You knew they couldn't have made a tiger act like that on a set, but did you know that there is actually 23 shots of a real tiger in the mix of Life of Pi? I sure didn't before Rijpkema told me. They spent ages fine-tuning every detail of Richard Parker, making every last thing just right. He showed off some test renders, which I wish so hard I could show you, where they had taken a shot of the real tiger and matched the animation. The first shot he showed us I had to comment to the person next to me: "I think he has messed up, obviously he's shown the same shot twice by mistake." And I wasn't the only one, Ang Lee himself had gone past a technician working on a shot and commented "nice reference footage" only to have the technician reply "it isn't a reference, it's a render".

It's really hard to convey to you without the use of actual work-in-progress shots how much time went into every last detail of that film, and I'm far from understanding it fully myself. Hundreds of people around the world spent their entire days for years to make sure this film was made just right, and what did they get back? They lost their jobs. When a VFX artists does her job, you're not supposed to know she was ever there, and because of that they are forgotten. Film studios don't want to pay large amounts of money for something "someone has just made on a computer".

Digital artists can and are being replaced, most of the time we don't really have to be at an office, we can just sit at home, make what we're supposed to and then ship it across the world where some poor bastard lost her job because I, on the other side of the world, was willing to do her job cheaper. VFX houses keep having to underbid themselves to get work, it's not as much about how well they can do a job, it's how cheap they can do it, and now they want us to do the same job even faster, a film has to be made in three years, two! There is no time for preparation, but there is plenty of time for over- and crunchtime.

Nothing of this will change if all we have are words, action has to be taken. If films all of a sudden look like this webpage does now, will the industry get what it's worth? Or will the cheap and willing emerge even more, making it impossible for anyone to work and live in proximity of the film they're supposed to work on? All I know is that in a very short amount of time I'm going to, hopefully, enter this business full-on, and whether or not if I survive will rely on what will happen at the living wake of Rhythm and Hues.

A thing that is scaring me about the next generation of VFX artists is the way we are being educated on the industry. I've been in school studying 3D film production, computer character animation and various other fields for several years now. What software we are taught, how to use them best, what being creative means, it all differs from country to country, from school to school, from teacher to teacher, but a few things remain throughout:

1. Do not expect any recognition.
     - Fair enough, I'm not making pretty pictures on a computer in the pursuit of fame.

2. You will work overtime.
     - I will work overtime? Isn't it just then "time"? Oh, you mean there will be a set schedule when I will work, but it will be broken all the time because people want their films done quicker than we can make them? Great.

3. You will work crunchtime.
     - Crunchtime? How does that differ from oveOH! You want me to work all the day, every day, for months on end? Not just overtime, but basically slavery? I am expected to work till I actually develop psychological problems. At least the pay is good.

4. You will either get paid very little, or nothing at all.
     - Well, that is just dandy, isn't it? You want me to work my ass off for months at the time so that you can pay me barely enough to afford food and rent? Or even better,  you want me to do this for free because, after all, it's such great exposure for me. People will see my work on this one thing in these three shots and they will come throwing money at me. No, they won't, see number 1. I will have to pursue them, I'll have to show them this piece of work, I'll have to tell them I did it for free, and then they'll probably expect me to do a similar thing for free because I've already done it for free once. Brilliant. I think I'm going to like it in this industry.

But as much as we complain, and we do complain (read: making our voices heard) a lot now, we do love what we do. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. No sane, normal person says to herself: "I am going to go paint pixels and drag cursors twenty-odd hours a day!" We grew up watching the same awesome films you did, and we want to make the kids today grow up watching even awesomer films than us! But we can't do that if you won't let us, we can't do that for you, but we will continue to do it for us. We will always do what we do, and some day, some beautiful day, maybe we'll start making our own films from scratch. I think it's time more VFX studios lose the "VFX" from their name. They already make the majority of the film anyway, take it that little step further, hire the screenwriters, hire the directors, hire the actors, make the films yourself.

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