Apparently the Oscars took place in Hollywood last week, which means that we Brits missed the ceremony on account of it taking place in a time zone eight hours behind ours. It seems like it was an amazing event, though, for all the wrong reasons. It turns out there was a set-piece where the host sang a song in which he began naming and shaming the esteemed actresses in presence, highlighting how titillating it was witnessing their breasts in movies; worryingly reeling off several titles that incorporate scenes of their characters being raped. Then there was a hopeless James Bond montage that irked loyal fans. There was also a sequence devoted to celebrating the entire history of musicals in cinema, but scantly showcased three titles, all of which were only made in the last decade. To top it all, some actress even managed to stumble and fall on stage or thereabouts while trying to accept her award.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this year’s Oscars was the award for visual effects which went to Ang Lee’s Life of Pie. When the winners took to the stage and proclaimed their thanks, they were cunningly cut short by the threatening Jaws signature theme music before they could publically lament the current state of their visual effects industry, a sector in which outsourcing and unfair pay rates is resulting in tough times for many concerned. The situation is so bad that there was industrial protest taking place outside the Dolby Theatre, where four hundred visual effects personnel demonstrated against studios exploiting them and not properly redistributing residuals to the very creative technicians that put the magic into modern movies.
What really must have got the visual effects industry angry was when filmmaker Ang Lee, a Buddhist whose bloodline stems from egalitarian China, told reporters after winning the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi that the hard times incurred by the visual effects industry was primarily its own doing. His comments came in light of Rhythm + Hues, the visual effects company that created the impressive digital images in Life of Pi, recently filing for bankruptcy due to the fact that their current business model is unsustainable.
Phillip Broste, a visual effects artist that didn’t work on Life of Pi, took it upon himself to admonish Ang Lee and Hollywood at large, producing an open letter that admiringly argues why his profession is progressively undermined by inequitable practices and scrupulous financial chicanery.
Rhythm + Hues joins Digital Domain as two powerhouse VFX companies that helped define the template of contemporary American cinema, both now filing Chapter 11 bankruptcies and offloading countless jobs. This situation will be more comprehensible if the VFX industry was surplus to requirement, but it’s actually become a cornerstone of American cinema. For the last thirty-five years Hollywood has retained its global hegemony principally because it is the only film industry that has the capital and artistry to develop elements that other countries cannot. The emergence of computer generated visual effects in the late 1970s, for better or worse, finally enabled Hollywood to escape the threat that television posed, realising that audiences will mindlessly flock to watch spectacular digital illusions.
According to Deadline, over 250 employees at Rhythm + Hues have been axed without pay, and those that remain in employment have, allegedly, not received payment in weeks despite them continually working on tentpole features. The employment culture in America is startlingly different to our own, where the attitude seems to suggest that no one is owed a job and that free capitalism unfairly justifies asking its already productive workers what value they are creating. In the case of this particular situation it seems alarmingly apparent exactly what worth the Rhythm + Hues employees contributed, ultimately resulting in them creating a blockbusting movie that pushed the boundaries of visual interpretation and generated colossal amounts of revenue for the studio that hired them. It was their work that piqued the interests of international audiences wanting to watch something that was deemed un-filmable. These artists deserve respect, not pink slips.
American cinema is totally reliant on visual effects in a way that other countries aren’t. Their movies sell themselves on the basis of spectacle and awe, where the digital composites take centre stage and compelling characters come a long way after. Last year saw European films like Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (depiction of an amputee victim) and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible (realisation of the most convincing tsunami ever realised), both virtuoso movies that incorporate state-of-the-art visual effects, yet one would never label them as effects-driven pictures because the visuals are there to serve a story, not the other way around. American commercial cinema is almost artistically bankrupt, however, the only creatively advancing element of their movies is the scope of visual effects that grow ever more complex and demanding. Visual effects is the last bastion of Hollywood’s grandeur, but economic forces and labour exploitation may result in them asphyxiating the remaining element of distinction left its arsenal of cinematic power. If you don’t respect the very people that you’re depending on then the end result will materialise in an industry lacking creative energy and monetary value to make the impossible seem possible.