Life of Pi

There’s something ironic about the fact that the better visual effects are, the more difficult it can be to notice them at all. At the top level, talented VFX artists create imagery so seamlessly lifelike that the average moviegoer isn’t even aware that the fantastical creatures and majestic landscapes they’re watching were painstakingly crafted on a computer, not captured in reality.

What’s really unfortunate, though, is that these workers aren’t just overlooked by the audience but also by the industry they work for. About a year ago, the issue reached a boiling point when effects house Rhythm & Hues picked up the Best Visual Effects Oscar for Life of Pi, two weeks after it had filed for bankruptcy.

The new documentary short Life After Pi takes a good hard look at the broken system that sank Rhythm & Hues, even as the film they’d made possible went on to make five times its production budget at the global box office. Life After Pi is now available online, and you can watch it in its entirety after the jump.

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Life of Pi

February 2013 was a bittersweet month for the visual effects house Rhythm & Hues. Due to the increased cost of effects-based work in Hollywood and the competitive nature of the business, they were forced to declare bankruptcy, fire hundreds of people and close up shop. Two weeks later, the company was given the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for their work in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The closing spawned tons of protests around Hollywood. How could the best visual effects house not be making any money?

That question has become a fundamental issue within Hollywood, and Rhythm & Hues employees used the unique and upsetting occasion to make a short documentary called Life After Pi. The trailer is out now and the full length short will be released online February 25. Eventually, it’ll be used in a feature length documentary called Hollywood Ending which explores “why the movie capital of the world is forcing filmmakers to leave.”  Read More »

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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Last night the effects house Rhythm & Hues earned a BAFTA for work on Life of Pi. Today, the company confirmed that it is moving into bankruptcy. It’s not an easy business, Hollywood. The company was previously the object of possible acquisition by Prime Focus, but that deal did not happen, which contributed directly to today’s filing.

This news comes after not only that BAFTA, but multiple Oscar nominations for the company (for Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman) and several Visual Effects Society awards for Pi. Those don’t quickly translate into capital, however, and without a better cash flow, the company has to restructure.

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