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Just a few weeks before being honored for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for Life of Pi at Sunday’s Oscars, the famed visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was forced to lay off hundreds of employees.
The studio had previously earned Oscars for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for The Golden Compass in 2008 and Babe in 1995, and Sunday’s Oscar broadcast was especially meaningful. Not only did Pi’s stunning visual effects earn it at least one of its Oscars, but they certainly played a role in the film taking in more than $500 million dollars in worldwide ticket sales.
Before and during the ceremony, many of those laid-off R&H employees and their supporters held a protest outside the Dolby Theatre. While the protesters picketed outside, the Academy Awards recognized visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and his team for their work on Life of Pi.
After Westenhofer got through all the customary thank yous and pleasantries, he was unceremoniously cut short by the theme music from Jaws before he had a chance to address an issue that most mainstream moviegoers probably knew nothing about – the fact that many of the people who worked on Life of Pi had just lost their jobs.
Conspiracy theories abounded on Twitter and other social media outlets, especially later in the broadcast, when director Ang Lee didn’t thank the visual effects team by name. (“He thanks the pool team, but not those who turned it into an ocean,” said one Redditor of Lee’s speech.)
While tensions have been brewing for a while between the big Hollywood studios and the visual effects side of the industry, this incident has become a huge deal since the Oscars, with no sign of abating any time soon – The Tumblr “BeforeFX,” which showcases photos (like the above) of film scenes as they were before visual effects (or VFX) got involved, is the hottest new blog on the web today. Effects companies (besides and including Rhythm & Hues), industry supporters, and now movie fans are actively participating in what is being called the “Piece of the Pi Protest” through which they hope to bring attention to the inequities in compensation between the studios who put out the films and the visual effects artists who create so much of the magic on the screen.
In an age when many movie studios outsource their visual effects to other countries, who often subsidize their own film industries, there are many complex issues to untangle here. Should the VFX industry unionize? Should artists demand fair compensation for the long hours and forced overtime required to rush finished effects to movies with impossibly short post-production schedules? Should the Hollywood studio system be encouraged (or required, or incentivized) to keep their effects work domestic?
Although groups on Facebook, Twitter handles, hashtags and Tumblrs continue to attract more attention, a resolution to this conflict seems unlikely without either the intervention of high-profile players (an actor’s strike on behalf of VFX artists isn’t unimaginable, at least on Reddit), a lawsuit, or the involvement of the Executive Branch (no really: there’s a WhiteHouse.gov petition already.)
As more and more individuals, companies, and media outlets get involved, Hollywood could be forced to take some action. We’ll be paying attention.