Usually when I get bored on a weekend, I do a weekly review but this time I was eagerly waiting for the weekly review because this time we actually have some meat to fill the soup. The week was not as boring as I’d expected and here is the proof – Come home to the Oscars (tan…tan…taaaan Jaws music playing in the background)
The week opened with a sizzle, kicking off with the 85th academy awards hosted at the Dolby Theater, LA – giving us a lot of talking points. We can talk about the academy’s “Brave” best animation movie nominations or the choices and results of the big five categories. But no, let’s talk about something that most media, bar a few social networking sites have chosen to happily ignore amongst all the glamour. Let’s talk about how years of super human effort did not manage to get a second’s notice at the big stage. Let’s talk about the protests outside the Dolby theater by all the VFX artists who got sacked without any prior notice. Let’s talk about the green screen revolution – what actually is happening in the real world of Hollywood cinema.
For starters, let us back off a bit and start at the very beginning. What is VFX? Answer – VFX (Visual Effects) are the various processes used to generate or manipulate images outside the context of live action film. (As lifted from Wikipedia) and as understood by normal humans, VFX is the mechanism of creating heavy explosions in die hard, the alien world in Prometheus, the transforming robots in Transformers and the entire of the Harry Potter movie series. So, basically anything that is impossible physically yet exists a movie is VFX. Well, not just in a movie, today everything right from a tooth paste advertisement to a full length feature film is completely dependent on VFX. Though the term VFX is largely associated with CGI industry, I believe it was way way before the first computers came into cinematic use that VFX was born – take matte paintings for instance. Back in the day, we were quite amused with the extra ordinary backgrounds used for Metropolis and did not question the enormous government warehouse that Indie Jones boasted. Matte paintings and Visual Effects on a whole were thought of as great tools to complement great story telling. The one remarkable thing about the film makers of the olden days was how they used their creativity to fit in outworldly effects still maintaining balance with the entire story. Sometimes I wonder if you show a Hitchcock what we’ve done with the technology and cinema today would he have chosen to be born in this era or would he have prayed to be born in any era but this.
It was nice and exciting once to see worlds beyond imagination on screen but somehow they overdid it. It would have been impossible to make master pieces like LOTR or iRobot (don’t judge me) or the recent marvel Life of Pi where VFX has been at the heart of the story, agreed. But the over reliance on artificially generated and manipulated images with little or no focus on the real aspects of film making has becoming an increasingly annoying and worrying trend in the industry. The serious cinematic blunders, instead of being fixed, are being VFXed, if you know what I mean. Movies like Transformers which boasts multi million dollar budgets but lacks real substance at the core have showed how useless even the best of technologies can be without the right cinematic elements. Come on! That last transformer movie did not even have a real story… all pieces of crap put together to show how technically advanced Micheal Bay can be. Hope he doesnot make a mess of Teenage Mutant Alien/Ninja Turtles.
So, how does this connect with the layoffs and the protests? If movies have more and more VFX why are artists being layed off? Well the thing here is movies like Transformers and Life of Pi are indeed rare where artists are kept in work for years together for the project. See it this way… a company spends a fat bunch to setup shop – acquire the ever expensive technology : hardware and software and the skilled man power. It gets a promissing project and the company hires more people to get things done on schedule, bearing no attention to its consequences. What happens when the project ends? Are you telling me that the higher level officials at RnH were unaware of what would happen to the over hired staff once Life of Pi was done and dusted? I refuse to believe that. This mad over hiring unfortunately is also the case with many other VFX studios presently. Hire and Fire that was once a motto of the software industry has now hit the technical side of the artistry behind films and the hammer blow has fallen rather hard in the United States. The second issue – the production houses that hire these VFX studios are so big, so powerful yet so stingy that they try to suck out every penny in the bargain. And with the ever raising technology prices it is harder for VFX companies to hit break even. In this scenario, the only commodity a studio can now compromise on is the one thing morally they shouldn’t compromise on – manual labour. The companies enter a cost cutting mode and look for cheap manual labour across the oceans and causes outsourcing of jobs. This is the one strong issue that resulted in numerous layoffs across many animation / vfx companies across the US. The fact that layoffs in the US are accompanied by hirings in countries like India, China and other Asian countries is no mere coincidence. It is purely based on the market scenario that skilled artistic labour in these countries costs about one third of what it would cost a US company to get it done with their local talent. Unfortunate and sad but true. Till when will this trend continue? Until when will the newly hired artists in India hold their jobs? Well we can only assume the answers – just until these big studios and production houses can find cheaper labour and move on.
So is this how it is? All doom and gloom? Well for now I presume that is how it is. Not until the major production houses that earn form the skin and bone of these VFX studios decide to bail them out or take over them will these problems end. One can only wonder why studios like WB or Paramount do not setup their own VFX studios seeing how each and every of their movies involves a butt load of VFX. I know its way more complicated than that. A way more involving as it deals with the magical thing called MONEY and no one is willing to spend it.
I will end this one here with a quote directly from two time Oscar wining director Mr.Ang Lee as he received his latest honour. When questioned about the state of RnH, he replied – “I would like it to be cheaper…” yes, that was not the full comment but after that part I thought the rest was irrelevant. Because Mr. Lee, I am an artist and so are you… I would not like it be cheaper nor over the hill expensive like your and your actors’ wages, I would only pray that an artist gets what he deserves – the salary and the respect. And if you don’t realize that, then throw away your awards great man coz you don’t know the meaning of being an artist.