Visual effects technology has become extremely sophisticated over the past few decades. And yet, the VFX industry itself is in a tough spot. It’s not uncommon for visual effects artists to put in up to 100 hours of work a week to meet a studio’s deadlines and accommodate last-minute changes.
That’s why you may find yourself watching a movie or TV show and thinking: Huh, the CGI in this scene – the computer generated imagery – isn’t as good as it should be. be.
Director Taika Waititi made this observation about his own film in a clip made the rounds last week, courtesy of Vanity Fair. While promoting “Thor: Love and Thunder” with star Tessa Thompson, the couple can be seen staring at a monitor and joking about a scene from the film:
“Does this look real?” Waititi says, pointing to the CGI character he’s playing, a humanoid rock pile named Korg. “In this particular shot – no, actually,” Thompson replies and they both laugh.
If you’re inclined to consider Waititi’s reaction self-deprecating, it’s worth considering that it probably sounded very different from the VFX artists who worked on the film.
Or as a person on Twitter Put the: “To see the millionaire director making fun of your work, him and the producers forcing you to change five times before the deadline with a small salary, it’s insane.”
The challenges faced by VFX artists and the companies that employ them are not well known to most audiences. The studios would probably prefer it to stay that way. But it affects people’s livelihoods – and what we see on screen.
The digital site The Gamer recently compiled several anonymous Reddit comments from people working in the visual effects industry, many of whom were talking about Marvel. One person noted that they had seen “grown men hitting walls and throwing monitors out of stress. I’ve snapped many times and seen the strain it can put on marriages.
Marvel may be one of the worst critics of VFX artists, but it’s far from the only one. It’s an industry-wide problem.
A 2014 documentary titled “Life After Pi” makes that clear.
Directed by director Scott Leberecht, it only lasts 30 minutes. It’s free on Vimeo and well worth your time if you care how the sausage is made. The title is a play on words, referencing the 2012 film “Life of Pi”, director Ang Lee’s story of a teenager struggling to survive on the vast ocean in just a lifeboat, which he shares with a bengal tiger.
The tiger, of course, was not there during filming. Neither does the ocean. Much of what you see on screen is computer generated – and indistinguishable from reality. The visual effects were done by a company called Rhythm & Hues, which won the Oscar for its work on the film.
“As an animator, I just love her creativity,” VFX artist Amanda Dague says in the documentary. “I can take a blank slate and create a performance out of nothing.” This is absolutely the case with the movie’s tiger.
The bitter irony? Rhythm & Hues won the Oscar less than two weeks after declaring bankruptcy. The company had been in business for 25 years, with credits on 145 films including “Babe”, a number of Batman films, “Stuart Little”, “X-Men”, “Elf” and “The Hunger Games”.
When accepting the award for ‘Life of Pi’, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer mentioned the company’s financial difficulties, but he was drowned out by the orchestra, which started playing the ‘Jaws’ theme – or as one of his colleagues put it, he was “Jaws’d” offstage. Adding salt to the wound, neither Lee, who won Best Director, nor Claudio Miranda, who won Best Cinematography, thanked the VFX team in their speeches.
The financial challenges Rhythm & Hues faces are not unique. More than 20 other VFX companies closed or filed for bankruptcy in the 10 years before “Life After Pi” was founded.
Here’s what’s behind it:
Studios pay a flat fee, or fixed offer. Let’s take a house-building analogy, says one VFX artist: A house is built on a fixed supply, “which makes sense because there’s a plan where everything is laid out, down to every screw, every I-beam, every piece of glass. “But if you want to make significant changes, the builder and architect will factor in a cost adjustment.
It doesn’t work that way in visual effects because they’re not paid by the hour, but by the project. And overruns are rarely negotiated.
One of the founders of Rhythm & Hues is called John Hughes and he is soft-spoken and clearly troubled by what he sees happening.
“Filmmaking is now a very fluid situation,” he says. “The shots change radically. Easily half of the shots we bid could disappear and be replaced by other shots.
“The art of filmmaking seems to have changed a bit over the years. It used to be that you had a script, and you scripted it, you had the three acts, and then you went out and shot. But these days they often start shooting without really knowing what act 3 is going to be. And it’s really hard to have a fixed offer and a fixed deadline when the studio and the director haven’t even agreed on act 3 yet . »
A VFX artist named Dave Rand explains how it happens: “When you create these huge fluid dynamic simulations like ‘Life of Pi’, and they want to change that wave from going this way to that way, or make it rain go completely differently, it’s a lot of simulation time just to make the change. And then finally it’s shown to the customer who says something like, “Why is it even raining in this picture, it’s not supposed to be raining.”
This adds hundreds, if not thousands, of man-hours, redoing work or starting from scratch, often with no profit sharing if the movie or show does gangbusters.
Additionally, the director has little to no direct contact with the VFX artists themselves. You can start to see how it’s possible for someone like “Thor” director Waititi to half-jokely ask “does this look real?” as if he was not involved in the process. This is clearly infuriating for VFX artists.
“We understand if you (the studio) have a vision and are moving towards that vision,” says Hughes. “But what we often see is they’re heading towards a vision – and you could be heading towards that vision for six months – and then all of a sudden they turn around and go in an entirely different direction. .”
But the deadline remains unchanged. It’s no wonder that some of the visual effects we see aren’t as impressive as they could be. People try to work at the top of their game, but they are in compromised circumstances.
Here is the dilemma as Hughes saw it at the time: “Our choices were to cut people’s wages. Or to lay off a large number of people. Or making people work overtime without paying them by restructuring their contracts. Any of these changes “would have altered the culture of Rhythm & Hues so much that it would have destroyed Rhythm & Hues”.
He stops, deep in thought. “And, well, you know… instead, we’re bankrupt. So I ended up destroying Rhythm & Hues anyway.
Does it seem obvious that the renowned actors and directors working on these projects have remained silent on this issue?
Unlike other crew members who work in the television and film industry, VFX artists are not unionized. That could change if there was enough undercurrent.
What if enough famous and influential Hollywood gamers decided that this was an issue worth fighting for, especially when visual effects are so central to their jobs.
Nina Metz is a Chicago Tribune critic who covers TV and film.
Copyright 2022 Tribune Content Agency.
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