The most successful films in the last 20 years have something in common: visual effects or VFX. From Titanic to Star Wars, Terminator and Mad Max, no film since 1970 has had less than 20 scenes without special effects. What do we know about this topic? Who gave life to unforgettable characters like Gollum, The Hulk, and Roger Rabbit? But, more importantly, why don’t we hear about a Visual Effects Artist? The new documentary Hollywood’s Greatest Trick reveals just how much an average Visual Effects Artist struggles in Hollywood.
Certainly, the world of cinema has had and will always have actors who will stay in our hearts forever, but there are other artists behind all the Hollywood equipment that need our attention and recognition now more than ever.
The visual effects companies, nowadays, have a much more arduous job than any actor. They have to create, from scratch, characters, galaxies, race tracks, cars, animals, and hundreds of ideas that make up the true magic of a film. The sad thing is that many of these visual effects companies, although it’s hard to believe, are almost bankrupt.
Visual Effects Artist: Low wages and No Recognition
Annually, a Visual Effects Artist can make a little more than $30,000, while professional actors and film studios make millions in a matter of weeks. Take, for example, the acclaimed film Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
80% of Gravity are visual effects, even so, the two protagonists charged four times more than any Special Effects Artist; the film’s worldwide profits were exorbitant and achieved seven Oscars and, effectively, they won the category of best visual effects, but according to these Visual Effects Artists, their work was not rewarded properly.
To explain this better: a Visual Effects Artist works about 80 hours a week. Many of these Visual Effects artists end up consuming certain substances that help them stand up and to keep working because the industry never stops. If a film employs, on average, more than 500 Visual Effects Artists, how come they are still exploited, badly paid, and get little to no recognition? The answer is simple: money.
In a good year, a VFX company can achieve up to 5% of the profits obtained from a film. If the staff works 80 hours per week throughout that year, is 5% really a good pay? Not at all.
Visual Effects: A Terrible Business Model
Animation studios must respond to the demands of large movie studios because they are the ones with power and money. That’s why the business model that VFX studies follow is highly unprofitable.
The model implies charging a unit price for the work involved in creating a movie. It can be thousands or millions of dollars, the point is, that they usually have to be paid before starting work and sometimes, they don’t even get paid after the premiere.
Another problem is that films have an initial scheme, so to speak, but that scheme doesn’t necessarily remain static. It usually varies significantly from the original vision. For VFX studios, this means they have to constantly change their work according to the ideas of the director, and they have to do it whenever he wants them to. Because they charge a unit price that doesn’t incorporate additional charges if the client changes his or her mind midway through, they end up working more for the same initial payment.
Basically, this may mean to repeat the job 50 times more often than expected, with the same pay as agreed on in the beginning. Why don’t they renegotiate or charge extra? They are at the mercy of the big production studios, of which there only handful. If you lose even one client, you may as well be executing your business on the spot. If we add to this the fact that the VFX companies also have to pay taxes, the profits are minimal, that year after year they are surviving at a dreary rate.
VFX Studios: The Nomads of the Film Industry
A large part of the film industry is located in California, USA. The support that the VFX companies receive from the state is practically nil. Opposed to that, in countries like Canada, financing is offered to lighten the tax burden because they see it as a way to generate jobs.
The issue of bad pay and taxes have forced entire companies to move from location to location and has also generated massive layoffs of artists, who do not know if they will ever return to work in their own country.
So, members of this industry do not raise their voices? Yes, they do. In 2013 the VFX supervisor of Rhythm and Hues Studios, the company responsible for the effects of “Life of Pi”, won the Oscar for Special Effects. In his speech, he mentioned that shortly after the movie premiered, his company went bankrupt because of bad payments, as a result, he could not continue his speech because the Academy silenced his microphone.
Just a few years ago, in 2014 there was a great movement of protests in the USA. Visual Effects Artists protested in the streets demanding better working conditions and wages… but there was no response. Since then there have been no protests or boycotts. They are a guild that is alone against one of the most powerful industries in the world and they need our help. If we or the movie industry would just care enough.
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