On Sunday Ang Lee took the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi, which also won three other awards, making it the big Oscar winner this year. But what of the more than 400 visual effects employees who spent Sunday protesting business practices that make VFX work a losing proposition for many artists?

The Oscar wins come, ironically, at a very difficult time for one of the companies most directly responsible for the movie’s success: Rhythm & Hues, the effects house that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection just a week ago. Lee didn’t mention the company by name in his speech, or thank the artists who brought his film to life.

That bankruptcy highlights a big issue in Hollywood: films are ever-more dependent upon digital effects, but often treats the process of their creation like the work of a sweatshop. (See the Tumblr Before VFX for many examples of familiar scenes without their effects.) Claudio Miranda won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Life of Pi, but much of what we see in the film is the work of CG artists. Many of the film’s waves, skies, and animals, including the tiger Richard Parker, are digital. Miranda may have broadly overseen the creation of effects, but he didn’t point a camera at some of the film’s signature elements.

The men who oversaw creation of those digital elements did get honored, but also took a heavy backhand from the Oscar producers. Just as Life of Pi VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer was trying to bring up the trouble Rhythm & Hues faces as part of his award acceptance speech, he was rushed off the Oscar stage with the theme from Jaws. His mic was even cut off. That moment was an ugly metaphor for exactly what the VFX industry is angry about: the people who create the elements big-budget movies rely on for success get no voice, and no respect.

(If you see Facebook and Twitter icons going green this week, that’s in support of VFX artists.)

So what’s happening in the visual effects segment of the movie industry, and what was the protest about? After the break we’ll break down the issues facing effects companies, and explain the reason that imposition of the Jaws theme was so ironically ugly.

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