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Vfx Angst Comes to a Head at Oscars

Tech community protests to demand more respect for craft

To: Hollywood and the Motion Picture Academy
Re: Oscar’s insults to visual effects

I see that you didn’t take my advice about playing up vfx on the Oscars. Ratings are up anyway. Congrats! But before you pat yourself on the back too much, let me point out that without really trying, you’ve radicalized a swath of the visual effects industry that until now was splintered and chaotic.

How bad was it? Well, if the vfx industry really does reform and organize, this past week may well be remembered as the tipping point that made change inevitable.

And the crucial few hours were Oscar Sunday itself. Let me explain what happened.

Sunday morning hundreds turned out to march in a vfx protest gathering that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. A genuine movement seems to be coalescing. Go on Twitter and search for hashtag #vfx. Notice all the chroma-green avatars you’ll see there and on Facebook. That’s chroma-green, greenscreen green, or as one Sunday protester wrote on his chroma-green picket sign Sunday: “This is your movie without vfx.”

And then, as if to confirm every suspicion and resentment about Hollywood’s attitude toward the artists who work on its most lucrative pictures, the Oscarcast turned into a fiasco for this one craft.

Visual effects artists were already angry prior to Sunday, thanks to the recent bankruptcies of Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues Studios, layoffs at DreamWorks Animation, the closures of two Pixomondo facilities and a other ills afflicting the vfx sector. The Oscars presented an almost perfect storm of slights for visual effects, to the point where conspiracy theories are flying. In chronological order:

  • Cinematography winner Claudio Miranda, honored for “Life of Pi,” in which much of the look of the picture was created digitally, did not acknowledge the digital contributions to the look of the picture at the podium. (Backstage, Miranda said “I would hope that we could really support our vfx companies so they are not just right on the hairy edge of profit. Because these guys did an amazing job on ‘Pi’; that tiger looks amazing and I really feel we should support those people a little bit more if we can.” However his words were not part of the Oscarcast.)
  • The “Avengers” cast, introducing the visual effects category after Miranda accepted, seemed to mangle the script, squabbled on stage about what to read from the teleprompter (“They create worlds…” started Robert Downey Jr., only to be cut off.), and eventually skipped whatever introduction to the category had been planned. Mark Ruffalo, who’d tweeted in support of the protest, later tweeted that the moment was a “planned accident,” whatever that means.
  • Music came up under the acceptance speech of “Life of Pi” vfx supervisor Bill Westenhofer, who is affiliated with Rhythm & Hues, 44 seconds after he started speaking — faster than any other winner. As he tried to address the plight of R&H, his microphone was cut off and the telecast cut to Nicole Kidman. It’s easy to read her lips as she said “Poor thing.” Kidman was sympathetic but vfx artists are already sensitive about being considered the industry’s “poor things.” Especially infuriating: the play-off music was the theme from “Jaws,” an early f/x tentpole.
  • Finally, helmer Ang Lee did not mention the vfx team or Rhythm & Hues in his long list of thank-you’s on receiving the Best Director Oscar, though he mentioned his Taiwan and India crews and his lawyer. (In the backstage interview room, he called vfx “a great, great visual art” and hailed the hundreds of vfx workers on “Life of Pi” as artists.)

These slights, whether intentional or not, were noticed around the business and around the world. One vfx expert said his bosses in Japan told him the Oscars had been “disrespectful” to visual effects.

One should never mistake ineptitude for malice, and I suspect Hollywood is more oblivious than contemptuous toward vfx artists. But that’s a reason, not an excuse. The lack of damage control after the Oscars, even as rage poured forth on the Web, testifies to how very oblivious Hollywood at large is about vfx issues and vfx artists’ raw nerves.

I know. Great movies have been made about Hollywood’s coldness and cruelty. Anybody who works in the business needs a thick skin. Market forces are aligned against vfx artists, so they lack power. But a genuinely angry populace can impose regulation on markets, through legislation or collective bargaining.

Besides, vfx leads your marketing campaigns nowadays. Why insult these people?
If you don’t want a nasty and potentially destructive fight on your hands over the next few years, the least you could do is show some respect to the vfx industry. Just be polite. It’s not just good manners, it’s enlightened self-interest.

Bits & Bytes: 

Vfx house Rhythm & Hues announced last week that it engaged the financial advisory firm Houlihan Lokey. Bank is serving as lead financial advisor in the sale of the company as it emerges from bankruptcy. Houlihan Lokey’s director Peter S. Fishman will work with John Hedge of Scouler & Co., which is acting as the company’s chief restructuring officer. Bob Baradaran and Brian L. Davidoff from Greenberg Glusker continue to serve as legal counsel.

Warner Bros. is expanding Turner Broadcasting‘s Media Camp accelerator program with a new Media Camp Academy that gives early-stage companies with disruptive products the chance to get insight into Warner’s business by working with Warner execs. Event, to be  held in Los Angeles, includes 12 week of mentorship for companies selected to participate.

Academy Award-nominated production designer Laurence Bennett, who worked on “The Artist” and “Crash,” is helming an intensive two-day workshop in London on May 4-5. Class will shed light on how industryites approach film design.

Craig Peterson, topper of VEFXi Corp., is now on the I3DS Board of Governors VEFXi Corp., was invited to join the Intl. 3D Society in late 2012, has its topper.

Post-production company Colorflow, which specializes in color grading for indie pics, has tapped Kent Pritchett as its lead colorist. Pritchett touts nearly 20 years of experience in color grading and A-list creds spanning major motion pics.

SMPTE is gearing up for several events over the calendar year. The Summit on Cinema, produced by SMPTE in partnership with the NAB Show, will be held April 6-7 in Las Vegas. The Entertainment Technology in the Internet Age conference will be June 18-19 at Stanford U. in Palo Alto, Calif. The SMPTE Australia Conference & Exhibition will be July 23-26 at the Sydney Exhibition Center in Darling Harbor.

Kodak may be struggling but it scored big with the Acad this year. Motion pics produced on Kodak stock took home Oscars in 12 of the 19 feature categories, with six of the nine best pic nominees on celluloid: “Argo,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Les Miserables.” … Autodesk also had its usual big year with the Acad, as for the 18th consecutive year all the visual effects Oscar nominees used Autodesk software. This is the 18th consecutive year Autodesk has had that distinction, with the five nominees boasting a combined 7,754 vfx shots. This year, a record-setting 21 animated pics were eligible for the best animated feature category; the five nominees all used Autodesk Maya 3D.

View Factor Studios’ new digital camera, The Novo, is available for rental exclusively at L.A.-based rental house Radiant Images. Key features include a C-mount lens system with back focus adjustment, no fish-eye look or bubble effect, exposure control and an optional auto exposure function. … Broadcast Video Expo will present a spate of new tech this year including Sony’s F-Series large sensor camera line-up and PVM-X300 4K LCD monitor, AC Entertainment Technologies’ new LED pieces from Choma-Q and LedGo and Ianiro’s new G-Force Master camera stabilizing mount, among others.

Rodeo FX has settled on Arnold software for all the company’s rendering needs. Company’s head of CG credits Arnold with improving the company’s look dev.

Fox Berkshire theater in Pennsylvania is the latest to go digital, with the Christie Solaria Series projectors lighting up all eight of its screens.

Display manufacturer Flanders Scientific, Inc. has adopted LightSpace CMS as its calibration system of choice for its range of displays. LightSpace CMS comes from Blighty’s color management specialist Light Illusion. … Systems integrator TSL is upgrading IMG’s new UK Media facility in Stockley Park to enable HD services. … Spain’s indie mastering lab Apuntolapospo has selected SmartJog as its tech provider to deliver digital cinema content. Agreement enables Apuntolapospo to use SmartJog’s delivery platform to distribute content directly to theaters connected in Spain.

Grass Valley has tapped Mike Cronk as senior VP of marketing. Cronk, who boasts more than 20 years of prior experience, will oversee responsibility of the company’s product road map and strategy. … Grass Valley has also tapped Platform PR as its global PR agency. …

David Strohmaier of Cinerama, Inc. is using Boris Continuum Complete’s Flicker Fixer in Adobe After Effects during his film restoration process…. Assimilate is offering a free trial of Scratch v7 … Luxion has released KeyShot 4. … Elemental Technologies has released version 2.0 of its video processing software. Elemental has also announced support for next-generation GPU and CPU architectures in its software-based video processing solutions. … Thinkbox Software released Krakatoa MY, a high-volume particle renderer for the Autodesk Maya 3D software running on Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems. … E-on software announced that its product line for Vue 11 3D Enthusiasts and 3D Artists is localized and readily available in English, French and German. Users can switch the application language at no charge.

Indie developer Axion Logic announced that its action role-playing game “West Legends” is now available in the iTunes store for iPhone and iPad. Manga-art-stylized game costs $2.99 on iTunes.

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