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Visual Effects and the Oscars. The biggest losers?

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by Ashley Morrison. 

 

The last thing anyone wanted to see at the Academy Awards ceremony last night was another Kate Winslet or Halle Berry sobbing through an acceptance speech. At least Adele had the good sense to dash off stage before the leak in her waterworks got any more gushy during her own acceptance speech for “Ska-faw” and best original song. Whilst in the past the producers of the Oscars have signalled frantically and slowly lowered the volume on the mics if anyone started to ramble on embarrassingly ad nauseam, last night’s ceremony saw the use a brand-new technique of blockbuster proportions to get the blabbers and blubberers off stage.

Only thing is, to rather a lot of people, it was not very funny and just a bit offensive.

Life of Pi is one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time. The book itself, by Yann Martel, is beautifully crafted and was already one of my favourites well before the film was made. As you’ll know even from the trailer if you haven’t seen the movie, filming Pi was a hugely ambitious undertaking because of the scale of the visual effects involved.

Not that I’m taking anything away from the likes of Daniel Day Lewis for what I’m sure was a demanding and perfectly executed role in Lincoln – and a well-deserved and history-making third Oscar – but let’s face it, he is more than generously rewarded for his talent. Unlike, as it happens, the visual effects (VFX) talent that contributes so much to the success of films such as Life of Pi.

Very sadly, the VFX company responsible for the incredibly lifelike Bengal tiger and cascading ocean scenes, Rhythm & Hues, have been declared bankrupt, and over 250 employees have been fired without pay.

And so the Academy Awards producers’ “joke” last night went rather wrong: Bill Westenhofer accepted the award for best visual effects on behalf of the Pi team. When he tried to mention the 400-strong protest outside the Dolby Theatre to bring R&H’s troubles into the public eye, his speech was cut short and eventually drowned out completely…by the theme from Jaws.

Ouch. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to an awards ceremony…

Had it not been Life of Pi, a film based around a young man’s tale of survival on a lifeboat drifting alone on the ocean with a killer Bengal tiger – and had there not been 250 talented VFX experts thrown to the piranhas recently – then perhaps the gag might have not seemed quite so offensive. But Twitter was almost immediately awash with outrage (although equally awash with laughter). Nicole Kidman’s immediate reaction was caught on camera as Westenhofer and his team shuffled off stage: “Oh! Poor thing!”

R&H were also, incidentally, the VFX team that brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Golden Compass. That’s quite a pedigree.

As with many industries, global competition is the problem, with the prices that VFX houses can demand being driven down and down. Ang Lee, Pi’s director, has commented how tough the VFX business is, and publicly acknowledged the debt of gratitude he owes to R&H:

“The tiger, the water – they did wonderful work, so many people, hundreds and hundreds… I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house. They all have good times and hard times, and in the tough times, some may not [survive]."

He continued, “I hope somehow, two things: it gets to be an easier business, cheaper, and more people can put their hands on it. Secondly, I would like to see it be used more of as an artistic form than just effects for action.”

These days, 3D films are very much the norm. Lee, of course, is a big fan, and with Pi he pushed the boundaries ever further, resulting in his receiving honorary awards from the Visual Effects Society and International 3D Society.

Would Pi have been as much of a success if it wasn’t in 3D? Probably not, however beautifully it was shot. But the key point is that it definitely would not have been so successful without the visual effects talent who brought Lee’s (and Martel's) vision to life. And yet here we are with over 250 people from the very same company that made the film being fired without pay.

Did they find the Jaws theme muting Westenhofer’s speech funny? Somehow, I very much doubt it.

 

by Ashley Morrison

Ashley is a blogger, copywriter and editor.

Twitter: @Ashley_Morrison

LinkedIn: Ashley Morrison

 

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