Hollywood's Greatest Trick: VFX artists vs. the studios

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/02/23/hollywoods-greatest-trick-v.html

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It’s not unlike how musicians still sell their souls and go into debt to be “signed” to moribund music labels, even after decades of exposure and technological developments which make that whole process redundant. It’s a lottery where a tiny fraction of those who enter are able to overcome their exploitation. WHY go to Hollywood instead of making movies right where you are? Because nobody else is doing it, of course - at least, nobody who matters, or so I am told.


This reminds me of the story of the bunny girl who went to work for Gainax. Different medium, same business practice.

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Very good film. I worked in VFX for a couple years but moved to motion graphics instead (which can also be insane, but less so). After a few years away I remember getting an call from a reputable VFX house; I couldn’t believe the job they were offering was for less than half of what I was making in advertising…

The draw of the industry is the opportunity to take part of the glitz and glamour of the movies… It took me a while to get over that desire… I finally realized that there’s almost no art in it; most likely you will be working on some garbage that will be forgotten in a year. You can not feed and house yourself on the feeling you get when you tell people you work on movies. It’s a prestige job without any of the perks.

I once saw the Digital Domain guy give a talk about how they wanted to take ownership of the IP for the movies going forward. Their first attempt at profit sharing with the studios was on the Tron reboot. The VFX studio actually pitched that to Disney by hiring Jeff Bridges and shooting the trailer before even having a script for a full movie… This seems like the best model to seek, but long story short, it didn’t work out.

Making movies is such a huge gamble that it doesn’t really function like a traditional business; no one can say if more budget/labor = more sales. Thus, it is controlled by those who have the capital to finance the risky endeavors… It’s telling that Laika– the studio who made Coraline and Kubo had to be rescued and kept aloft by Phil Knight– the capital expenses for getting a movie made are just insane. Only the white-rapper son of of a shoe company billionaire could afford to do it.


When those little anti-piracy clips come on, reminding us of all the people who worked on the film, how their livelihoods depend on me not pirating the feature film… yeah, I kinda figured that was bullshit.


Sounds like every article I read about being a Game Dev (at least from my perspective as someone who had the luck to land in enterprise software).

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Yes, absolutely. I think it’s just the same across the entertainment industry. There are a few really talented and lucky people who live the dream and that’s fantastic.

The main downside to working in enterprise/corporate is the pain of having to explain to people what the hell you do for a living :/. The upside are the ridiculous budgets… Movies are actually a joke when compared to what corporations spend on development and advertising. Thank the gods.

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I don’t really bother anymore, haven’t for a long time. I just say, “Programming” and if someone knows enough to ask, “what kind?”, OK fine, I will tell you about it.


Unionize, like every other movie production department.


People often seem to forget that prestige (not unlike glamour) means the art of deceiving people.

1650-60 for an earlier sense; < French (orig. plural): deceits, delusions, juggler’s tricks < Latin praestīgiae juggler’s tricks, variant of praestrīgiae, derivative from base of praestringere to blunt (sight or mind), literally, to tie up so as to constrict, equivalent to prae- pre- + stringere to bind fast; see stringent


For one hour and 29 minutes, I watched the work of nine people who were able to convince hundreds, if not thousands, of other people do to do absurd things things like spend 16 hours a day animating a sausage penis man for less than minimum wage.

I did not pay for that privilege. And now I am 89 minutes closer to death.

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Haha, that’s a great point!

Musicians have been unionized for a very long time, and it hasn’t worked out. Except for a few big name/big budget/prestige productions each year, most contracts with composers will specify non-AFM only. Studios want buy-out contracts (that they own the product and once you’re paid, no back-end payments based on how well the movie does, in exchange for a higher hourly rate up front). Everywhere in the world plus Seattle will give that to them, so in this day and age of global travel and the internet* the number of L.A. musicians working has plummeted. There’s still a small group that gets the good union work, and they like to brag about how much money they make- to the people who are put out of work by the union’s unyielding demand for back-end. They are the union equivalent of the 1%ers, and they have the union wrapped around their finger. To the point where they are allowed to work occasional non-union dark dates and get away with it, while imposing harsh financial penalties and expulsion on other members for doing the same thing.

From what I heard there used to be something like three full orchestras working every week in L.A. Now it’s barely one if that, and the big sound stages where they recorded have closed. Instead of having a thousand musicians making a modest living** you have like 50-100 people making as much as 300k or more a year (Nothing promotes solidarity like someone bragging that they buy a new car every year with their Star Wars check!), all so that people can feel good that those fat cat studios have to pay up. Thanks Union!

*And sample libraries.

**I should say a thousand L.A. musicians, musicians in London, Prague, Seattle, and pretty much anyplace else have taken their place.

Here’s the rub: unlike grips, electricians, makeup artists, truck drivers, forklift operators, focus pullers, camera operators, and assistant directors, CGI animators can do equally effective big-budget feature work from a cheap suburb of Mumbai as they can from an expensive studio in Santa Monica. Their work is entirely digital and 100% portable as long as the internet pipe is fat enough. Labor can be dirt cheap overseas, technology is everywhere, and nowadays so is talent. Unionized VFX houses can’t compete with non-union shops in India, and studios are happy to cut whatever financial corners they can to fatten their own bottom line.

I fear domestic well-paying VFX houses are doomed.


Is the full comic somewhere? I remember trying to read this in one go and finding the link order very confusing.

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What about editors? They’re not on set, but still local and union, aren’t they?

Lots of posts on BB - I think each links to the next.

Sure, to an extent. Typically the producers need physical access to the cutting room. When they’re working on their cut of a movie or TV episode, it’s much more efficient for them to be in the same room as the editor, so they can try things out and guide the editor cut by cut. I worked on a WBTV show for ABC called Traveler. The show was shot in Vancouver, but the writing offices and cutting rooms were at L.A. Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles. Each day’s film was processed in Vancouver, then flown to Los Angeles where it got transferred to tape and digitized into the Avid. There was no need for the editor to even be in the same country as the shooting crew, but it was vital for him to be near the head writer/showrunner.

By way of contrast, VFX shots are more self-contained little projects (each shot being its own thing), and it’s relatively simple for a VFX house to send over individual shots for notes. Usually those notes aren’t terribly complicated (more blood, bigger flames, the orc on the left looks like he’s floating, etc ) but even when they are, a VFX Supervisor can be face-to-face with the producers for notes, and then communicate those notes to the animators over in Transylvania or wherever.

Since most VFX-heavy projects employ an army of animators, there’s no benefit to be gained by having all those people at the show’s fingertips. That’s why they have VFX Supervisors.


He’s supposed to be floating! Uh… A wizard did it!


On another show, one headquartered at WB in Burbank, our VFX were done by Zoic Studios out near Santa Monica. This was almost 10 years ago, and the FTP pipe wasn’t very fat or fast yet, so we had to sneakernet our VFX back and forth on drives, and it was an enormous pain in the ass. Only relatively recently has it become economical to send fairly sizable VFX files over the internet without the throughput taking hours, and with that efficiency have we seen most affordable VFX work outsourced offshore.

It has become possible for producers and directors to edit remotely (and even mix audio) via teleconferencing, but pretty much nobody prefers to do that unless they absolutely have to.

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