Ang Lee: Vfx Biz ‘Very Hard to Make Money’

Ang Lee: Vfx Biz 'Very Hard

'Life of Pi' helmer adds: 'Their research and development fees are so high'

Ang Lee stayed stuck to his awards season line about vfx, praising the artists but condemning the costs, at a “Life of Pi” Blu-ray press event in New York.

Lee, who incurred the ire of vfx artists by not mentioning the Oscar-winning visual effects on his pic during his acceptance speech for director, had an opportunity to expand on his opinions of the biz but didn’t bite. He didn’t have a lot to say about the travails of the visual effects industry even when prodded, other than pointing out the constant pressure for novelty that’s build into vfx.

“This is a business where it’s very hard to make money,” he said. “Their research and development fees are so high, because when you use visual effects in a movie, you always want to see something you’ve never seen before.”

Film editor Tim Squyres chimed in, “If they can’t make money off this, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the business plan between the studios and the visual effects company.”

Lee, Squyres and scribe David Magee all acknowledged the integral part played by the film’s vfx team. “I think they’re artists,” Lee said and added that vfx studios are often eager to work with him. “Normally they do big explosions, but I want to do visual art with them.”

The director did note that the cost of vfx can be an obstacle to production. “For a movie like this (“Life of Pi”) it’s very common for visual effects to take up half the budget. Some of those segments are so expensive. Millions of dollars have to be spent before the studio can see it. How do they approve that budget?”

The homevideo extras on the “Life of Pi” Blu-ray show the intricacies of the film’s 3D and CGI work, including one extended edit of the shipwreck scene that illustrates the various layers of vfx work involved in the sequence.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 69

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. LinChenDe says:

    You may think that this is not a race issue. Obviously, people in Asia do not agree with. If you are capable of speaking their languages and reading their news you will find out that regarding this news, 100 percent of the followers from at least three Asian countries websites, news, tv interviews which included professionals, film professors, students, businessman, etc. admitted that “race” was part of the reasons that Ang Lee was targeted and attacked.

    English is not director Lee’s native language and cg effect is not his specialty. In 1995 when Lee directed “Sense and sensibility” he hardly spoke one complete English sentence, he only had beautiful images in his mind. So why forced him to do, or say anything regarding the effect business and criticized what he said?

    Those sharp tongue cg artists who thought that Lee was an easy target who could not respond as eloquent as themselves, so they could make him a scapegoat and criticizing his ability and criticizing whatever he said. Those selfish cg artists also tried to exploit Lee’s Oscar fame which was the attention of the world to benefit themselves. What a twisted and desperate mind.

    If effect artists wanted to solve financial problem, why not go to talk with the film studio which is the one that really earning the big money, and effect house such as R&H which definitely needs a better business plan, and make them take the responsibilities? Who makes artists lose their jobs? Who makes the effect company go bankruptcy? Why put the blame on a soft-spoken, a very gentle foreigner film director?

    Most of these Asian people will not welcome these effect artists should they lose their jobs in the US.

    • Bill says:

      Marcus, vfx houses are in a very bad situation right now and no one wants to see elite artists struggling to survive. I understand the anger and the need to take it out on a target. You can’t expect people to do what you want, or what you expect, or would like them to do. Ang Lee has been pretty open about the importance of the work of the vfx artists on the film – if he forgot in his speech or made some blunt offhand (and badly-timed) remarks about the cost of vfxs, I’d like to believe he’d make up for his mistake … that is, unless he got hammered by the vfx community a few hours after his big win. Like it or not, he made the best deal for the film. The film was a major risk – it’s easy now to say it was a gamble worth taking, but I doubt any studio would take on another project like this again. And, the truth is vfx houses don’t take financial risks on projects. You can’t expect studios to give them more if they’re the ones putting up all the money and taking all the risks. No guts, no glory – you can’t have it both ways.

      • Marcus Pun says:

        Bill, we all know that Ang Lee got the best deal for his film. Therein lies part of the problem. It was not the best deal for the people working on the film. You are very wrong about risks. Incredibly wrong. VFX houses have taken huge financial risks by undercutting their competitors to get a job that will keep the doors open another 6 months when you hope to get another project. They also take a risk with their artistry. If it doesn’t play well on the big screen they are toast. Under the current system, playing against a stacked deck set up by the studios has proven to be a recipe for failure. 14% was the R&H gross margin for “Life of Pi”. Add all the other costs it lost money for them and the work they hope to get from a showcase such as Life of Pi only partially materialized. As for studios taking on projects like this again, history says of course they will. The hope many of us have is that the studios, after seeing millions put at risk by the pending R&H bankruptcy, might change the business model of VFX enough to have the companies more than just barely survive. Certainly valuing the VFX work a lot more that just a couple of geeks on a computer would be a good start. As much as Ang Lee may have valued the work on Life of Pi his remark about it being too expensive was an insult to the VFX artsts who worked on that film. He didn’t pay that expense. A lot of that cost was borne by the artists themselves. Let me add this point. Your phrase about elite artists is an insult. A lot of very talented people work on these projects who may not me in an elite category but whose work still shines all the same. By calling them elite you rhetorically try to paint them as less deserving. Please. They are all deserving of good pay, decent hours and a decent set of benefits that should be commiserate with the value of their work. That is not the case now. Why am I so passionate about this? My nightmare is that I am driving along 10th St in Berkeley and seeing a For Lease sign on the Tippet Studios building, that they had close up shop, that Phil has retired and his great work is never to be seen again. Just revisited Starship Troopers two nights ago. VFX not only made that film work, the work done on it 15 years ago holds up extremely well given the technological advancements in the industry. That kind of artistry needs to be nurtured, not stamped out and shipped off to China because some studio has a bottom line management policy that is akin to the management style of Simon Legree.

    • Marcus Pun says:

      LinChenDe Boy are you way off base. In fact what you have created is a straw man to deflect the insensitivity of Ang Lee’s remarks. Well let us burn that straw man to ashes here. ONE. There is nothing about ” oh he’s not a a native speaker so we can take advantage of him” THAT is an insult to not only Ang Lee’s intelligence but to mine (please note last name (Shanghai) and other asians in the visual arts. TWO You basically paint Ang Lee as weak. He is not. He has strong artistic visions and carries them out beautifully. There is a LOT of respect for Ang Lee in the West and especially in the USA. We welcomed Sense and Sensibility and subsequent films with open arms and open wallets and that is why Ang Lee gets the work he gets. How dare you malign not only his abilities but the respect and esteem that we hold his abilities. THREE “soft-spoken, a very gentle foreigner film director? ” Good lord you push THAT Asian stereotype and you accues VFX artists of racism? Hypocrite. Having had that foisted upon me a many times many years ago I would not mind punching you in the face. I almost think you are white and having fun with us. Please note that us asians/eurasions/panasians/LGBTasians/eastasians/whateverasians in the USA do not consider this a race issue. We see the whole picture instead of sensationalize pouting in China Daily and the overseas press. “Oh look there is criticism of Ang Lee that must mean they are racist” What utter simplistic Bullpucky. THere is criticism of Ang Lee because he is behaving like a jerk. Now for the rest of the story. The success of Life of Pi comes not just from Ang Lee. If you cannot see that I suggest you go work for Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Life of Pi works because in large part the VFX make it so visually believable that you can delve into the actual story without the distraction of a puppet Tiger or other SFX alternatives. VFX allows the story to emerge. The reason why so many people are ticked of at Ang Lee is not his race but because he refuses to fully acknowledge the incredible artistry of those who toiled away for months creating this masterpiece. As for business? I think everyone agrees the financial models need to be changed. But the studios are very good at playing one VFX house against another. So what is needed is a more unified VFX business group that can fend of such tactics and in turn, get the money that they deserve. You see, that’s the other thing. Ang Lee complains that the CG was too expensive. Really? What an incredible insult to the work done for him. Given the money he is making, the VFX was actually way too cheap.

  2. Marcus Pun says:

    Ang Lee, in essence, is like all the other studio heads and producers, like Marvel’s Victoria Alonso that devalue VFX and still insist upon a Walmart model of doing business with vendors. You know, the company that keeps asking its vendors for another 10-15% off every year until the vendor goes bankrupt or decides that playing with Walmart is no longer part of a viable business plan. It is painfully obvious that Mr. Lee does not believe that VFX gave Life of Pi the value that many others see. He is oblivious to the hard work of the artists and the many long hours spent away from family and sleep. His Oscar comment should have been that the VFX were very low cost given the high level of artistic realization and that the artists deserve more. Sorry to say this, but people like that have no business making movies that are dependent of VFX for realization. Ang Lee got at least a $20 million dollar break on VFX pricing for Life of Pi and he didn’t thank those that really counted. Next time Ang Lee should be more appreciative of the discounted pricing or go back to making live action films and leave VFX who can pay the real price for it because at some point all the kids in VFX school are going to go WTF – there’s no money and no time for life, and switch to IT security or banking or law school, or, like my brother who had dreams of being an animator, go to medical school.

    • Bill says:

      Try selling a $160 million speciality 3D film to a major studio. C’mon, try it. This was a “reported” $120 million film and it barely got made. Wow, you guys sure want a lot of credit when things go right … but, it’s never your fault when things go wrong.

      • Marcus Pun says:

        Bill Didn’t say it was easy. But you forgot to add millions of books sold world wide. That makes a large difference. Current take 477 million. Not bad for a 120 million movie. Again why don’t you acknowledge the lack of leverage that VFX houses have Tthey undercut themselves to oblivion to be around another month. Is that what you want? So yes, a profit sharing plan would have been nice.Other options should be tried out that includes some kind of revenue sharing for a film that is virtually all, er, virtual. At the VERY least Ang Lee may not owe the VFX artists an extra buck, but he does owe them a lot more respect than what he has given.

      • Bill says:

        Again, Marcus try selling a $160 million specialized 3D film to a major studio. Try it. Use the “no stars, untrained kid actor, international cast, lots of water, religious storyline, ambiguous ending, but great vfxs” angle. Try it. And, while you’re at it Marcus, throw in the profit sharing angle to sweeten the deal. Wow. It’s a miracle the film got made and made any money … and because it’s not a bomb and the film got a discount (the best deal possible), you think Ang Lee owes you his soul. Wow.

      • Marcus Pun says:

        Try having clauses in your contract so that when the film makes serious money the VFX contractor – and its workers, gets a piece of the pie

  3. PurpleRain says:

    Hi CG effect artists,
    If you do not want any director to impede your way and erase your great achievement, the best thing you can do is to make your own CG film. With your superb skillsets, you will create a superior cg film and earn a lot, a lot of money!

    • transformer says:

      What skillsets these cg effect artists have? Without the best computers and equipment which made in Asian countries they cannot do anything!

      • transformer says:

        Hi Vfxchick : What is it that I do? How about a PhD in Computer Graphics, and in cg production for 20 yrs? and, BTW, speaking three international languages…;) ;) ;)

      • Vfxchick says:

        Well, I for one have a very diverse skill set, a degree in Architecture, one in Film, I’ve made eight movies, I’ve been a broadcast designer and college prof in addition to a Vfx artist who’s worked almost all the pipeline. Oh yeah, and I wrote a book about it. I also design and build furniture. What is it that you do?

  4. Jack says:

    VFX artists want to take credit for success stories like “Life of Pi”. Fair enough. How about films like “Jack the Giant Slayer” or “John Carter” or “Battleship” – lots of VFXs, big budget films, and major box-office disappointments. The quality of the VFXs didn’t save “John Carter” and “Battleship”, and it won’t save “Jack the Giant Slayer”. People get fired for these types of failures. “Pi” was a huge risk and a major box-office surprise – I’m pretty sure no one thought it would make more money than “Iron Man” worldwide. Studios take huge financial risks on projects (hence the emphasis on controlling costs) – VFX artists don’t. And, until VFX companies take on the enormous responsibility of producing films and assuming a high level of financial risk themselves (and the very high potential of loss), they’re stuck. The pressures and realities of cost aren’t ever going away.

  5. Its very expensive to do visual fx on a movie like this? I’d like to see how much time and money they spend filming in the middle of the ocean with a boy and real tiger in a boat surrounded by millions of gallons of water under ideal conditions…. GOOD LUCK WITH THAT.

  6. etragedy says:

    “Millions of dollars have to be spent before the studio can see it. How do they approve that budget?”
    As opposed to the millions of dollars that have to be spent on other things before the studio can see it. Really, how is VFX so different from all the other upfront costs of a major motion picture?

  7. Jake says:

    “Normally they do big explosions, but I want to do visual art with them.”

    What an insulting thing to say.

    • transformer says:

      Ang Lee was right. In 2001 when he was given the “Hulk” project which needed many explosions in film. Cg effect was introduced to him by ILM. During the time he stayed in ILM to do the homework, “Star Wars” was wrapping up and he saw a lot of explosions from that film as well.
      Don’t judge a great film director with your twisted eyes.

  8. Blake says:

    gciuhjkbjh, if you think I have an attitude, and that VFX houses in Asia can do comperable work to work done in ‘the west’ then where is the Chinese equivalent to Avatar or the Indian equivalent to Star Wars. It’s not being mean, it’s just not there yet. It will be, but as it stands, it’s getting there, at best.

    • Marcus Pun says:

      Well it would be nice if they were ISO 19770 compliant and used licensed copies of Nuke, Houdini, Maya, Mocha, etc…… Which they won’t unless the software makers start putting pressure on Hollywood. Right now Hollywood is making big bucks off of pirated software by pushing work overseas.

  9. Raven says:

    Then go find the owner of R&H and blame him and make him take the responsibilities.

    • Blake says:

      Probably what would be best is if Ang made a film using only Asian visual effects houses. I’d love to see that hatchet job. Wait, do you think maybe this crossed his mind already? Is it because skilled labour costs money? If it’s that kind of world, maybe you can get doctors to work on MacDonalds wages while you’re at it.

      • VFX Worker says:

        artofnick: It’s nothing to do with race. The amount of ‘moving parts’ in a typical vfx pipeline at the larger facilities is vast, and would have taken a long time to build. It’s very specialised and required to handle the scale of the work required. It’s a lot more involved than just recruiting a few modellers and animators with nice showreels.

        All the big facilities will have junior staff (and often offshore staff in Asia, like R&H) who won’t be earning much. But nobody is making them responsible for delivering Life of Pi. Just like you don’t ask an architect to design a football stadium when he’s only been out of school for two years.

      • artofnick says:

        This isn’t about race or outsourcing or patriotism. It’s about class discrimination. Seriously. Btw, some of the best artists in the world come from South Korea, China and Singapore. Check your Googles bro.

      • gciuhjkbjh says:

        So you think you are the only ones could do the CG effect works? With this kind of attitude, i am not surprised that you lose you job soon. haha :)

  10. JamesP says:

    Blake: If the Asia VFX houses were really not up to scratch, then there wouldn’t be any fear of work being outsourced there. And yet here we are. Sit through the credits of the next VFX laden film you see, and do a count of how many Asian names you can spot. Reality bites.

    • Blake says:

      The ‘biting’ reality is, the easier jobs like tracking and roto work are done in Asia. They are labour intensive and don’t demand as much skill, therefor a lot of people in Asia are hired to do that (a junior skillset). The higher end effects like the Tiger are done usually in North America, London, Vancouver, etc. because it takes years of experience to do that kind of work. This has nothing to do with race or who is more deserving, rather, where in the world is the group of people with 10+ years of high end visual effects experience. Yes, Asia will get there, but it isn’t there right now.

  11. James Short says:

    Usually people who don’t have a good argument or educated opinion on a subject divert it to race or religion. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with race and I think you will find alot of Asian artists working in California most probably on Life of Pi as well. This situation is not being blamed on Ang Lee either. Life of Pi has just come to the front due to the circumstances that surround it and it highlights current issues and attitudes towards the visual effects industry. Had Steven SpeiIberg said the same, he would have gotten the same reaction. I suggest doing some more research before posting ill informed and frankly ignorant comments on the situation

    • VFX Worker says:

      We have a bunch of junior artists, just like the vast majority of those currently working in Asian facilities. They’re required because there’s a load of lower skill, more manual work that has to be done (roto, matchmove etc), and you don’t want to be paying a senior’s wages to do that work.

  12. Pink Sky says:

    It is ridiculous. Shame on those ego-driven effect artists to put blame on Ang Lee.
    They do not understand, their financial problems came from Effect houses, not from film directors.

    Visual Effect includes CG effects and live action or stage effects! A few cg artist thought they were the only ones that did ALL the effects. Shame on you.

    • Lo Budge says:

      Nobody is blaming Any Lee for the plight of VFX houses. But his comments do illustrate the lack of understanding that most people outside of VFX have. That’s okay if you’re working in some other industry … it’s not okay if you are a director who’s most recent success is owed largely to VFX artists.

    • Morten says:

      Wwrong. VFX does NOT include live action or stage effects. That is SFX. Different business, different people, different art. That is not the topic here.

      • Jim Bowers says:

        Miniatures, greenscreen, background plates, motion control, live action elements, … the list goes on. Read Cinefex or something.

    • Blake says:

      This isn’t the only movie with this problem. It is industry wide, and to say ‘a few cg artists’ basically gives away the fact you don’t really know the issue you’re commenting on.

      • Pink Sky says:

        Then don’t blame director Ang Lee. Go to solve the problems by talking with the effect companies that do all knid of effects!

  13. nebu says:

    If you think it’s too expensive to pay for cg artists to make your award-winning movie, it would have been cheaper to just take a film crew out into the ocean with a live tiger and wait for a whale to jump over your boat.

    • Pink Sky says:

      Ang Lee is not stupid, if this film was totally impossible to make, he wouldn’t have done it

    • Steve says:

      Well said Nebu!!!

    • Raven says:

      Go find the owner of R&H and blame him and make him take the responsibilities.
      Making Ang Lee a scapegoat and/or criticizing his talent and ability isn’t going to help anything.

      • Blake says:

        When a director keeps changing his mind, then the pressure is on the VFX house to absorb those costs, then it’s the directors fault. Especially when he complains it’s still too expensive. Here’s an idea, make the film without those costs. Let’s see what kind of Oscar he gets then.

  14. YChang says:

    1) R&H’s bankruptcy has nothing to do with “Life of Pi” or Ang Lee. Their financial problems came long time ago. Long time ago!!
    2) Effect artists should thank directors like Ang Lee, George Lucas, James Cameron who tried to shot films with lots of effects, so CG artist can get a JOB!!!
    3) I worked on “Star Wars”, I never worried that anyone should have said anthing in the Oscar of what I did. It was my job, I got paid.

  15. asanlpj says:

    I see jealousy and intense hostility from those cg effect artists towards an Asian director.

    Film editor Tim Squyres said: “If they can’t make money off this, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the business plan between the studios and the visual effects company.”

    Effect artists need more education and knowledge…

    • VFX Worker says:

      And I see a bunch of people who clearly know nothing about the vfx business complaining because someone dared to criticise their hero.

      • transformer says:

        from what you said, clearly you are a racist. At least those “bunch of people” can speak more than one language. People who can speak many languages would be hard to become a racist, however, a racist must be someone who can only speak single language, using his narrow mind to view things like those effect artists.

    • Blake says:

      It isn’t about whether he’s Asian or not. If anyone is being racist, by obscuring the issue at hand by making pejorative statements, it would be you.

      Why his film is being singled out is because he won for best director. THE ENTIRE FILM has visual effects in it. The cinematographer won for what? His ability to film those fantastic CG skies? There’s some people not getting their due here and race, as much as some of you would dearly love it to be, has absolutely nothing to do with it.

      • Raven says:

        Ang Lee is “singled out is because he won for best director”.

        Then go find the owner of R&H and blame him, Einstein, and make him take the responsibilities.

        Solve the problem at the root.
        Stop complicating things.

        Making Ang Lee a scapegoat and/or criticizing his talent and ability isn’t going to help anything.
        It will only make things worse.

  16. Gondor says:

    It is really sad and frustrating to see that even Mr. Lee obviously still didn’t get it. He should be the first one to know “his” film was realized rather say made only possible by vfx artists.

  17. Raven says:

    Is Ang Lee the owner of FOX?
    Is Ang Lee the owner of R&H?

    Why should he take the blame?
    Because he’s not white?

  18. Blake says:

    Hey Ang, you know what else costs a lot of money? A director who constantly changes his mind mid-production.

  19. efxalumni says:

    Dear Ang Lee,

    You could receive an OSCAR Award by making a film that had no special effect in it, such as”
    Brokeback Mountain.” So, please make more films without CG special effects. Because we all know that “Life of Pi” box office earning mainly came from Asia and Europe (4/5), not from USA(1/5).
    People in Asia and Europe want to see your films ANYWAY with or without effects!

    A few ego-oriented Los Angeles CG artists picked on you ONLY because you ‘re an Asian
    director. You are not a white director like Steven Spielberg whom they would not dare to say any word! I know how racists they could be!

    However, if you really want to use Effects in your future films, you should do like Peter Jackson, who did “Lord of Rings” who is from New Zealand. He was using Weta Digital to do effects! So you should use more Asian digital effect houses too. I would like to recommend you to use Weta, Animal Logic, and some other effects houses in India, Singapore and Taiwan! Even some English studios are good. They could do good works, and the most importantly, you don’t have to deal with a few effect artists who thought they are the ONLY persons could dothe jobs! ! Asia has as good technology as California if not better!

    If those effect artists still do not understand, their financial problems actually came from Effect houses, NOT from film directors, they will soon lose all the directors who are willing to work with them. By then, CG artists will have no future in Los Angeles.

    Sincerely yours.

    • Blake says:

      Aside from your comment being slightly racist, I’m sorry but the skillset in Asia isn’t up to scratch enough to take on a film like Life of Pi, completely, from start to finish yet. Guess who would be picking up the slack? Per usual. Oh, and a lot of the fx artists you speak of at Weta and Animal Logic, migrate from those places in the States that you describe and vice versa.

      • VFX Artist says:

        “You could receive an OSCAR Award by making a film that had no special effect in it, such as”
        Brokeback Mountain.”
        VFX in Brokeback Mountain :

        The tasks done by R&H Malaysia were only very basic and consisted mostly of rendering and roto.

      • VFX Worker says:

        Naju: The oscar wasn’t awarded for that work.

        I don’t know why everyone’s trying to make this into a race issue. It’s nothing to do with race, it’s to do with experience.

        Nobody is doubting that the Asian vfx facilities will improve, they’re just doubting that the high end work could be done there right now. 5-10 years time, maybe.

        Anyone that disagrees, please post a link showing the best of Asian vfx to prove us wrong.

      • Naju says:

        i’m sorry, skillset in Asia isn’t enough to take on a film like Life of Pi? it was the R&H Malaysian Studio team that worked on Life Of Pi vfx

  20. peter says:

    if is so expensive then dont get oscer

    • Billy says:

      And Indian facility too

    • Pink Sky says:

      Visual Effect includes CG effects and live action or stage effects! You cg artists thought you were the only ones that did ALL the effects. Shame on you!!!!

      • VFX Worker says:

        From Wikipedia:

        ‘Visual effects (commonly shortened to Visual F/X or VFX) are the various processes by which imagery is created and/or manipulated outside the context of a live action shoot.’

        Notice the bit ‘outside the context of a live action shoot’.

        Forgive me if I disregard all your hysterical comments when you don’t even know what VFX is.

  21. Mike says:

    You’d think post-oscar Lee would finally stop his grumbling on the costs of what made his film all it was and afforded him an oscar. …He should be the greatest advocate of VFX, petitioning for reform instead of perpetuating the problem. Also he should have thanked his wife within the first 10 minutes of his speech…so one good thing, at least we know he’s been on the couch this past week.

  22. Robert says:

    If it takes up 50% of the budget, it still created 80% of your film.

  23. Blake says:

    Yeah, one idiot sitting at home coming off with a racial slur represents an entire industry. That’s someone trolling.

  24. JackL says:

    Wow. A lot of the posters say it isn’t about race, but when you look at a comment like that …

More Digital News from Variety