How the VFX industry in the US is being destroyed

Since today is Oscar day, here is another post about films, albeit a downbeat one about the little noticed but important category of Visual Effects or VFX. I have written several times about the way that the special effects film industry in the US is being steadily destroyed. The reasons are fairly complicated but reader Gordon has sent me an excellent article by David Sirota that provides the clearest explanation for what’s going on.

The fight between the studios and the tech wizards who actually make movies possible is not new. Encouraged by ever-rising subsidies available overseas, the movie industry has for years been shipping millions of dollars of digital work outside the U.S. This kind of work is vulnerable to such offshoring because it can be done anywhere, even if logistics demand that much of the physical shooting remain in New York or Los Angeles.

Up until now, there was little the American visual effects industry could do about this. With the studios bankrolling politicians and protecting their political agenda through the $60-million-a-year Motion Picture Association of America, Washington has refused to intervene on behalf of the workers.

As NPR also notes:

[Variety writer David S. Cohen] says part of the problem is that digital effects artists lack unions or guilds. That lack of representation is extremely rare in show business. And while special effects is a major craft in Hollywood, it arose after the age of unionization. So the industry is disorganized, lacks lobbying power, and no one’s counting how many jobs are being lost or what the long-term economic consequences could be.

As a result, the highly creative artists who produce these effects have become nomads, having to move from place to place as they shift from one project to another in different locations, which inflicts a huge amount of stress. But Sirota also discusses one hopeful recent development that may give the VFX workers a way to fight back.

The 30-minute documentary Life After Pi has just been released that tells the story of one major company Rhythm & Hues that went bankrupt just as they were winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects at last year’s award ceremony and while VFX employees were demonstrating in front of the location. The show organizers also rudely cut short the winners’ thank you speech just as they were about to mention the plight of their industry. To make things worse, director Ang Lee in his speech for winning Best Director for Life of Pi thanked just about everybody under the sun except the special effects people, though without them his film would have been nothing, just a boy with some stuffed toys in a row boat in an indoor swimming pool.

VFX demonstrators will be picketing this year’s awards show as well.

Here is the full 30-minute film Life After Pi.

This film is just the first chapter of a larger documentary that is being produced called Hollywood Ending: Why the movie capital of the world is forcing filmmakers to leave.

As Sirota says, in recent years 47 out of the 50 biggest grossing films have been driven by special effects, grossing huge sums. The big Hollywood companies, aided by the US government, are biting the hand that feeds it.


  1. says

    I’m so naive. I’d expect an artist to have a good understanding of what pieces of their accomplishments depend on the contribution of others. But I suppose there are directors, like business executives, who see the people actually doing the stuff as interchangeable grunts. The stars probably don’t help, either.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Slight clarification needed: Special effects and visual effects are two different catagories. Special effects are ‘practical’, ie., the actor can see them, such as gun shot squibs or flame bars. Visual effects are things added in post production, like spaceships.

  3. Mano Singham says


    The documentary suggests that part of the problem is that directors interact very little with the VFX people, with a long chain of intermediaries between them and the artists. So while they are well aware of what is going on with real actors on the set and what a pain and how costly it is to change things and re-shoot scenes, when it comes to visual effects they look at the output and simply order changes from the original with little idea of how much time and effort even small changes require. If you want to (say) shift the direction of the wind, it is not just changing a line of code in a program but requires painstaking work by many people.

  4. says

    Yeah, I follow Cinefex magazine (and have for years) it sounds like a great deal of the “tweening” work is done in N Korea and other places where it’s basically slave labor.

  5. kyoseki says

    Marcus Ranum

    it sounds like a great deal of the “tweening” work is done in N Korea and other places where it’s basically slave labor.

    Visual Effects is one industry that isn’t really getting outsourced to places with cheap labor, because a lot of it is highly skilled work and the expertise doesn’t exist in those countries.

    In CGI, the computer does all of the tweening/interpolation for you, but there are certain labor intensive activities such as tracking (modeling the camera’s movement) and rotoscoping (tracing the outlines of actors or objects in the scene) that are relatively easy to outsource and so those are getting done in India. Stereo Conversion (turning a 2d movie into 3d to charge more for tickets) is another area that’s getting outsourced to low labor cost countries, because it’s relatively easy repetitive work, so you don’t need to spend years training people to do it.

    Most of the really expensive stuff in CG is being outsourced to places like Canada & the UK solely because of taxpayer subsidies in those countries. Sony Pictures Imageworks (based in Los Angeles) recently told all of their staff they would have to move to Vancouver in order to keep their jobs, anyone who wouldn’t or couldn’t move was laid off last week.

    British Columbia subsidizes resident vfx worker’s salaries to the tune of 58% and labor is roughly 70-80% of the cost of Visual Effects (the hardware and software costs haven’t been prohibitive since the 90s).

    It’s these subsidies that the countervailing duties seek to offset, it’s not about slapping tariffs on countries with cheap labor, it’s about trying to level the playing field for California artists.

    The only real alternative is for California to increase it’s own subsidy program to the tune of probably $5-600m a year in order to try to buy the work back.

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