Tuesday, February 26, 2013

VFX Solidarity

....Okay, I know I promised that I was done talking about the Oscars. And I promise, I am done talking about Seth Macfarlane and all of those related topics.


But, but but... this issue with the visual affects artists and the protest that happened during the Oscars which I was totally unaware of until after the fact keeps lingering in my mind. And so, I want to discuss this a little but more. Never fear; you'll be getting two blog posts for the price of one today (well, tonight and tomorrow) as I promised to share the one about fandom identification. I'd apologize for spamming you with all these posts, but honestly I'm kind of enjoying it - and it makes up for the serious down-time I had over the past two months.

If you're unfamiliar with the visual effects situation, I recommend this blog as I did in a previous post. There are also two very good post on Tumblr about the issue: this one and this one (both links lead to the repostings on my blog, not the Tumblrs they came from). In brief, Rhythm and Hue, a prominent visual effects company that worked on Life of Pi recently went bankrupt, leaving their employees high and dry. You will notice in the second Tumblr post about this that someone mentions Samuel L. Jackson's rude behavior about this situation. This confused me at first and the realization of what it might imply hit me like a ton of bricks.

Members of The Avengers cast (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Samuel L. Jackson) presented the awards for cinematography and visual effects. They were really entertaining as they appeared to be acting like their characters from the film (this is a running joke in the fandom, actually, that the entire Avengers cast has lost the ability to stop acting like their characters). This seemed to continue on throughout the presentation, including the award for visual effects. It was a bit awkward, with Samuel L. Jackson trying to present the award and keep Robert Downey Jr. from talking about how awesome the visual effects artists are, but it seemed like their characters from The Avengers. You know, Fury always trying to talk over Stark and Stark being a mouthy smartass... right?

Not this time, ladies and gentlemen. Not this time. Knowing what I know now about the visual effects issues and, with Life of Pi winning and having the two acceptors be unable to finish their speeches due to the orchestra prematurely cutting them off, I don't think this was supposed to happen. This was not Robert Downey Jr. acting like Tony Stark or Samuel L. Jackson acting like Nick Fury. Maybe they were in character the entire time, but what happened wasn't planned. I'm not Robert Downey Jr., and I wasn't there and I don't know exactly what was going on onstage. But knowing what little I know about Downey Jr., he seems like the sort of guy who would be pissed about these visual artists not getting paid and then getting utterly silenced and overlooked by the Academy. So if he had the opportunity to try and bring attention to the situation and do it through the voice of Tony Stark (sort of), do you think he'd do it? Abso-fucking-lutely. In other words, I think Downey Jr. was trying to bring up the issue with the visual artists and Jackson was trying to shut him down.

Did I ever mention that I love Robert Downey Jr.? Like a lot?

This is such an interesting year for all of this to happen, too, with one of the nominees in several categories (Les Miserables) being about uprising and protesting. And while that film was honored, this real-life protest was utterly overlooked. Visual effects are becoming more and more a part of filmmaking, yet when the artists involved get thrown under the bus, the Academy wants nothing to do with it. Why? Are they that afraid of facing the fact that Hollywood is not perfect? Finally recognizing that some people make a ton more money than others because being a "director" has a different constructed idea of authority and respect than "visual effects artist" or "gaffer" or any of the billion jobs on a movie set? (But now we're getting into a realm of media studies that could take up a whole other post on the issues involved with auteur theory. I'll just save that for another time...)

Honestly, I'm pretty angry about this. Sure, the hosting situation and the crass jokes in this year's Oscars made me upset, but it was nothing new. I sort of expected it from McFarlane anyway. I was not expecting this. I was not expecting a serious issue to get utterly ignored by... well, pretty much everything but the internet (God bless you, internet). I can't say I'm surprised (the Academy had overlooked many, many things - and people - before), but I still didn't expect this. We had the First Lady of the United States present the award for Best Picture (read: politics, whether good or bad, you decide) but we can't have a conversation onstage about these artists who aren't getting paid because, "Oh no, that might be political and ruin the mood?" Okay, yes, First Lady appearing versus conversation about the Hollywood system, two separate things, I get it. You don't want to be a buzzkill at an awards ceremony in which you hand out little golden men by mentioning a whole bunch of people are unemployed. Right...


I feel like there is a lot of snark in this post. No, let me rephrase that - there is a lot of snark in this post. I'm not going to apologize for this. I am really upset because it hits close to home. I know several filmmakers and I know people who are interested in video game design and I know people who could be visual effects artists some day. This simply isn't fair. It's just not. I have many issues with Hollywood, despite my love for it anyway, but this is the whole system at one of its biggest lows. It can show the glamor and the splendor all it wants, but we have to know better; it isn't all like that underneath. Visual effects take more than computers to do; it takes highly skilled, highly trained artists. And without them, our films would not be what they are. Filmmaking is more than actors, producers, directors, and screenwriters, and while I'm not always the best at expressing and recognizing this, I do know it. Now I can only hope that more people come to recognize and appreciate these amazing people who "create worlds" (Robert Downey Jr.'s words, not mine).

If you want to keep updated on this issue and show your support, check out VFX Solidarity International; they're on Facebook and on Twitter. In the posts to come, I'll be talking more fandoms getting involved in in social issues and activism. I'd like to be a bigger part of that myself, so I thought I'd start here. Here's for hoping this is a step in the right direction.


  1. This might be a little late to bring up this issue, but I read this blog and it's kind of been bothering me, so here it is.

    This post is taking a microscopic part of the issue and enhancing it. The issue is right now, every special effect studio (except Peter Jackson's), does ONE film, then because having the top notch special effects costs too much to break even, they go under. This includes the film Avatar, that broke box office records, their special effect studio went under, because the cost to make the film effects-wise, far exceeded what they could make.

    This is not Hollywood's fault, it's the companies who cannot budget their money. The only reason Jackson's company hasn't gone under, if when he runs out of money, he stops and then tries different alternatives. It happened for LotRs. He doesn't assume that he'll make the money back, which is what every company seems to do now. Life of Pi didn't do anything wonderful at the box office.

    Not saying anything at the awards, I don't think, was necessary, as this is not the first time this has happened, as I said, they're just making a bigger deal about it. (Even though I think Avatar's company going under is a far bigger surprise). They don't want to cover anything up, they simply don't want to be at fault for the economics of special effects, and the company being a bad business as far as money goes.

    If you want something to complain about, only the sixth tie in history happened- for sound effects editing. For Zero Dark Thirty, who earned for recording sound in a completely new way that's never been done before, but sounded normal (which means it was a success), but tied with Skyfall, as action movies normally get the editing award (for explosions). So there was a schism for the past, what normally gets it, or for something edgy and new that will probably change the sound editing industry. Not that Skyfall's sound didn't deserve it, but it was the status-quo as far as how it was recorded.

    1. Emma,
      Thank you, thank you, thank you for responding to this post. Because while I hear all kinds of stuff about this issue online, I'm not really hearing about their business model. And you're absolutely right; that is a totally crappy business model and makes zero sense. I didn't realize the special effects companies only worked on one film and went broke; I kind of assumed they worked more like the way Pixar does (despite they are different enterprises) where they work on several films for a long period of time, because that seems to be working out for them. But that's what I get for making assumptions :P

      It still totally sucks that these workers are out the money, but I guess working in the industry that's maybe a risk they knowingly take? I'm still finding the way the awards ceremony handled the issue kind of weird, but then again, if it is making a mountain out of a molehill, how else do you really keep from having it take over? Maybe it would have been better to bring some attention to the issue rather than try to avoid it all together, which created awkwardness now has the angry internet (including me...oops :P) out for blood.

      Okay, sound editing - tell me more about this. I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty yet but need to terribly and just saw Skyfall this weekend. And I agree that Skyfall is nothing new and surprising (typical explosions, car sounds, etc). What did Zero Dark Thirty do differently? And why didn't I hear about this before now?!

    2. Well, first of all, Zero Dark Thirty did not use any music to build suspense, which while not new, is pretty uncommon.

      BUT! How sound was designed was different, I'm going to assume you know nothing about movie sound, so I'm just going to have a quick run down, if you know this already, skim by,

      Theaters use, and films design sound by 5:1 surround sound where you have three speakers behind you (back two diagonal from each side), and two on the sides. And five high frequency channels and one low (hence 5:1). We've been using this since 1976.

      Zero Dark Thirty is recorded using mono sound, so not placing sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, meaning it is not directional, like most films. It also used mono sound, as in, not stereo sound-where one sound had many tracks, it only had one. Making it a less complex sound. It also tried to avoid using ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording), which is common in films. Which is, they record dialogue after the fact (after recording room noise from the scene), then place the ADR with the room noise as a replacement for dialogue that was recorded poorly for some reason. ADR is often a crutch for many directors, many depend on it. Tarantino and Bigelow are of a few who try to not use it at all; especially for this film.

      They also went on google maps, figured out where they were supposed to be exactly (like where Bin Laden's compound, what was around it), and figured out what animal life, if there were trains, what kind of material the buildings were made out of, and used that as the background noise. What would be in the noise, and how it would sound against the material it had to bounce off of (if it did at all.) For the background dialogue, they hired natives from Pakistan, who had recently come over to try to get accurate dialects. They used a ton of foley (which is feet, clothing, and then sounds for anything the actors touch), which isn't needed quite as much on music-dependent films, because the music covers up the sounds.

      There is also a stealth helicopter used in the film, and because they could not record one (as they are classified) the designers found a 15-second sound clip, and emulated it using parts of different sounds.

      So mainly what they did differently was the mono sound system, which really hasn't been used since 5:1 was invented, then mono sound was considered inferior and obsolete. But people didn't notice they didn't use 5:1, which made it successful as sound. When sound is off, people notice it. But also the level of authenticity they tried to maintain for even ambient sounds. Skyfall used 96 piece of music, I think I read, so the sound design in there wasn't quite as complex.

      You probably didn't hear about it because sound isn't as 'cool' as say, visual effects, so no one seems to care. It's sad, because I find myself really getting into sound.

    3. THAT IS AWESOME. The use of mono sound (thanks for the description of the difference; I have a minimal understanding of sound in movies, but not super in-depth), the lack of music, the fact that they did all of that research to make the sound authentic - AHH THAT'S JUST SO COOL. And you're probably right, people don't think of sound as being as complicated as visual effects. But sound is complicated - it relies on physics! I think it's awesome, especially given what I know about the human ear and how intricate that all is. Man, now I really need to see Zero Dark Thirty...

    4. Now you'll probably notice the sound differences. xD And sound is a funny thing because if you notice it, then it's considered bad. But brace yourself when you go see it, I cried like a child in the first 5 minutes.