NAB: Visual Effects Leaders Urge Colleagues to 'Support the Fight'

LAS VEGAS -- The movement to rescue the troubled visual effects business is gathering momentum with VFX facility leaders planning to meet in May to discuss forming a global trade association, while artists are talking about the possibility of forming a union.

The recent bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues, which was acquired by a subsidiary of Prana Studios on March 29, has served as flashpoint. And industry leaders Scott Ross and Scott Squires addressed the issues surrounding the bankruptcy Tuesday night at the "Super Meet," an annual gathering held in Las Vegas during the NAB Show, which drew a crowd of more than 1,000. 

Ross, co-founder and former CEO of Digital Domain, and Squires, an Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor, argued that Rhythm & Hues' Oscar-winning visual effects made Life of Pi what it was. To make their point, they suggested, facetiously, that without sophisticated visual effects, the filmmakers would have had to resort to a hand puppet or a cat to portray the tiger.

"They could not have brought Life of Pi to the big screen without the people creating the visual effects," Squires said, adding that Fox would not have made the movie gross $600 million worldwide without its VFX.

Underscoring the contribution of visual effects, Ross emphasized that Life of Pi was largely shot in a pool with a bluescreen background. "Claudio Miranda won an Oscar for best cinematography -- this is what Claudio shot," he said.

"[VFX artists] were toiling away in a dark room to change and amplify these images," he continued, noting that the film would have looked very different without digital effects.

Squires -- with the aid of accompanying pictures -- suggested without VFX, one option would have been for a cat to play the tiger, Richard Parker, while a child played Pi. Or, he suggested, maybe a hand puppet could have played the tiger. Images of those possibilities generated laugher from the crowd.

In another image, he showed what might have happened if a live tiger had been used on the boat -- there would not have been much left of Pi -- triggering an explosion of laughter. "We would have needed more than twins for this one," quipped Squires. "And this was shot in a pool. Can you imagine if they shot in the ocean?"

Moving on to make more serious points, the pair discussed issues that are are contributing to the business' problems, such as subsidies and fixed bids.

On subsidies, Ross said, "You're spending $1 to $1.5 million to build a facility [in Vancouver], so the studios get a tax rebate. And the impact is on the digital worker, as well as the companies. [Artists] are uprooting their families, their kids, finding a home, then getting laid off."

Squires addressed work hours, saying, "Most countries have a cap of 60 hours a week. We typically start at 60 and go up from there. ... It can go up to 90 hours or more. It’s not unusual to work seven days a week.“

Ross is urging the formation of a global trade association to give VFX facilities a voice. He reported: "We have a meeting set May 2 in LA, and my hope is get at least 15 major [VFX] companies around the table to investigate forming a trade association.“

He suggested that a trade association could initiate lobbying efforts, set standards, including cancellation clauses, and encourage changing the business model -- perhaps so a VFX company could earn a piece of the back end.

As Ross works to give facilities a voice, Squires is urging that effects artists take the union route. The pair believes both are needed.

Without doing so, Ross warned, "There will continue to be an erosion of visual effects. There is power in numbers. Please continue to support this fight. We have the ability to make this change happen.“

The crowd enthusiastically applauded their remarks, with some in the room giving them a standing ovation.