As Barack Obama visits DreamWorks Animation today to celebrate the strength and financial clout of the American movie industry, a group of visual-effects artists will be taking to a south Californian park to protest against unfair treatment and wages. Speaking to Deadline, anonymous protest organizer "VFX Soldier" clarified that the protest was not intended to "embarrass DreamWorks Animation," but instead planned to raise awareness of the "the absolute collapse of VFX employment."
Subsidies force VFX artists to move around the world to chase contracts
Visual effects work takes place primarily in post-production, away from the film set itself, meaning contract jobs can be farmed out to studios away from Hollywood. Increasingly, US states and other countries are offering subsidies for this form of work in the hope of attracting their own burgeoning film and digital industries, forcing studios — who have to pitch and compete against each other for work — to shift their offices around the globe and chase short-term contract work. An internet campaign against the use of such subsidies spearheaded by VFX Soldier raised $16,345 earlier this year. The money will be used to challenge subsidies that "violate international trade agreements."
This ecosystem has seen multiple award-winning studios close. Rhythm & Hues — the creators of Life of Pi's Oscar-winning visual effects — went bankrupt earlier this year, its 238 employees forced to sue to reclaim $1 million in owed back pay. Digital Domain, who provided the VFX for Titanic and counted James Cameron among its founders, was declared bankrupt and sold in late 2012. Even DreamWorks itself, dependent on VFX artists to create all of its movies and insulated somewhat from many of the issues that plague smaller VFX studios, was forced to lay off 350 employees earlier this year when Rise of the Guardians under-performed at the box office.
Oscar-winning VFX studio Rhythm & Hues went bankrupt earlier this year
The protest is one of many orchestrated by disgruntled VFX artists. Dave Rand, senior effects artist for Life of Pi, arranged for a plane to fly over the award ceremony bearing the words "BOXOFFICE + BANKRUPT = VISUAL EFFECTS VFXUNION.COM." Inside, his colleague Bill Westerhofer, on stage to accept the award for best visual effects, had his mic cut off as he tried to speak to the troubles the industry was facing. Another protest of 500 VFX workers continued during the ceremony.
Deadline reports that unionizing has been difficult for VFX artists, as subsidies and protectionist policies have dragged studios to new homes around the world. For now, unionizing has to wait for the weakened effects industry to become as strong as President Obama will today say the rest of the entertainment industry is. As VFX Soldier tells Deadline: "Right now there are just no jobs to protect. We have to stop the bleeding first."