Hard Knock Life of Pi

Life of Pi Poster

Once upon a time I might have stayed up to watch the Oscars live. Living in the UK as I do, however, my clocks are set to GMT and I’m afraid 1:30AM is way past my bedtime. Still, these gong-shows are always a bit ridiculous, so I’m happy simply to wake up to the news about winners Argo, Daniel Day-Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Adele and all the rest of them.

Less cheering is news of the fury being expressed by the visual effects community over the acceptance speech delivered by Ang Lee, who won the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi and who, although he thanked the 3000-plus people who worked on the film, didn’t specifically acknowledge the VFX artists whose work is such an integral part of it.

Not that the mood was good going in. Driven by current concerns over working practices within the VFX industry – and triggered by the recent sad news that Rhythm and Hues, prime VFX vendor on Life of Pi and one of the most respected and longest-established companies in the business, had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – a troupe of several hundred visual effects artists gathered in protest outside the ceremony.

The irony is that Life of Pi walked away not only with the Oscar for Best Director, but the one for Best Visual Effects too.

For what it’s worth, I think the teams at Rhythm and Hues and MPC, along with the other smaller vendors operating under the direction of overall VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer, absolutely deserved their award. But the Oscars aren’t really about who deserves what. Historical trends and previous wins play their part, as do industry politics and box office performance (for a fascinating insight into how these factors specifically weigh on the Best Visual Effects category, check out Todd Vaziri’s Predictinator, which once again got it right by picking Life of Pi as this year’s VFX winner).

As to whether visual effects artists deserve job security, I’m sure there are those who would argue that Hollywood is a castle built on shifting sands, with uncertainty coming as standard. But in an age when some of the biggest box office successes actively market themselves as visual effects extravaganzas – when great visual effects can ‘open’ a movie as powerfully as a big star – and when those effects are so complex and labour-intensive that it takes huge teams of highly trained artists and technicians to bring them to the screen, it seems clear the industry needs a firmer footing … and maybe a little more respect.

3 thoughts on “Hard Knock Life of Pi

  1. I agree with nearly everything in your post, Graham, except when you say that “great visual effects can ‘open’ a movie as powerfully as a big star”.

    In recent times, BATTLESHIP, JOHN CARTER, CLOUD ATLAS, SPEED RACER, SUCKER PUNCH and GREEN LANTERN arrived at our local multiplexes. All had excellent VFX. Yet none of them opened to great, or even reasonable, box-office – even with their marketing departments cherry-picking the best effects shots for the trailers.

    Great visual effects – on their own – are no longer the draw they were. I’d argue that finished around the time of JURASSIC PARK and the subsequent, widespread adoption of pixel-perfect CG effects. There has to be something else on offer to tempt audiences in. A couple of years ago, that was 3D – ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CLASH OF THE TITANS are both good-looking, yet mediocre films that hit box-office gold, thanks to the sudden demand for 3D created by AVATAR.

    Maybe 48fps will be the new 3D?

    1. That’s fair comment, Phil, and perhaps a sign that times are changing … yet again. But there are still plenty of decision-makers out there who believe that megabudget visual effects WILL open their movies. I hope we’re not heading for a backlash in which visual effects become the whipping boy for perceived failure at the box office, but I fear we might.

  2. I wasn’t half as annoyed by Lee’s speech (he did thank the 3000-odd people who worked on the film) as with the brutal playing-off of the FX team during their acceptance, right as they were trying to raise some attention for the precarious financial state of their business.

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