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A new documentary traces the fall of leading VFX house Rhythm & Hues and is packed with information that explains the problematic VFX business model, and also features some revealing moments that expose how the troubles have impacted those involved.
“We run this company for the people. To have hurt them so badly, it’s really the antithesis what we wanted to do,” says a tearful John Hughes, the company’s beloved founder, in one interview recorded around the time of the bankruptcy.
Rhythm & Hues is the visual effects company that in 2013 filed for bankruptcy roughly two weeks before its work on Life of Pi won last year’s VFX Oscar. “It’s still hard to talk about,” says a choked-up animator as she recalls the layoffs, which started by phone on a Sunday night.
Rhythm & Hues: Life After Pi explains that there’s a bigger problem, as 21 VFX companies closed or filed for bankruptcy between 2003 and 2013. The high profile R&H bankruptcy, however, exposed the industry’s troubled business model to a wider audience and mobilized the global VFX community to try to make it right.
Among the activities of the past year, more than 500 people demonstrated on Hollywood Boulevard on the day of the 2013 Academy Awards, and a similar rally is planned for the day of this year’s Oscars.
Two who will be in attendance at that rally are Scott Leberecht, an art director at R&H; and Christina Lee Storm, an R&H alum who currently serves as executive director of Act One. They are the director and producer, respectively, of the documentary.
Filming occurred as the events were unfolding. “We were blindsided,” Leberecht said. “We wanted to document it so we could maybe understand it some day. Everyone was so traumatized. We wanted to get people’s feelings about what they were going through. I was afraid we would forget the details.”
So the filmmakers let the R&H team know that they wanted to hear from them. “A lot wanted to be interviewed,” Leberecht said. “Some decided not to; I think on an emotional level.”
But a year later, the pair — and the VFX community — are still looking for answers and solutions. “Do I understand this more clearly? Maybe a few things. But I have more questions,” admitted Leberecht.
The 30-minute Life After Pi documentary — funded by the filmmakers and made with the help of many who donated their time — can now be viewed online. “It’s a great tool for discussion,” Storm said, adding that she hopes it will also be used for screenings and evaluation of the business model.
It is also the first chapter in an upcoming feature-length documentary titled Hollywood Ending: Why the Movie Capital of the World Is Forcing Filmmakers to Leave.
Part of Life After Pi recalls last year’s Academy Awards ceremony and the controversy that erupted following the awarding of the VFX Oscar. Accepting the honor, VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer‘s microphone cut off when he started to talk about R&H, and he was played off the stage to the theme from Jaws.
“Ironically I think the fact that the microphone got cut off has done more to get the message to the public than had I got to say it onstage that night,” admitted Westenhofer in the documentary.
The film explains many of the factors contributing to the VFX industry’s “broken business model,” including the impact of production delays, production subsidies/incentives, and fixed bid practices.
In the documentary, Hughes related that he knew R&H needed to raise money in early 2012, and he made multiple trips to various Chinese cities in search of an investor.
“Twenty months of delays at $1.2 million to $1.6 million per month is anywhere from $24 million to $30 million of additional costs that we had to take on,” he said, though the sound bite doesn’t reveal what project or projects he was referring to. (Last year, word on the street was that R&H’s other project that earned a 2013 VFX Oscar nomination, Snow White and the Huntsman, had some delays.)
Hughes said in the documentary, “I was prepared to sell my shares of stock for $1 if somebody would invest the $15 [million]-$20 million we needed.”
Said R&H exec Lee Berger, “Then we had investors standing by who fell out at the last second.”
“Everything was signed,” added former board member Prashant Buyyala. “Then come Monday, the money just didn’t show up.”
Hughes lamented that prior to the bankruptcy, he had considered additional options that would have affected the employees, including laying off the team and altering their employment agreements. “I felt those would have so dramatically altered the culture of R&H, that they would have destroyed R&H. And instead we’re in bankruptcy, so I ended up destroying R&H anyway,” he said.
Looking back, Storm said, “we are still very much a family, despite the devastation. It’s like you have gone through a war together.”
Last March, a wholly owned subsidiary of Prana Studios bought R&H in a bankruptcy auction. Hughes resigned after the sale, and sources say today there are fewer than 100 employees in the Los Angeles base (it also still has an operation in Vancouver). At the time of the bankruptcy, it had an estimated 1,400 employees worldwide.
The documentary concludes with three words: “Change starts now.”
Watch the documentary below.
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