Variety and Entertainment use terms like “crisis.” Amongst a round of beers with industry friends, the term is “collapsing.” As a bit of a journeyman in this biz, I find myself explaining the situation to family or friends over and over. I can’t count how many discussions I have had with colleagues. So, forgive my temporary leave of drawing cartoons, I needed to grasp just what is happening.
Here is my five part theory as to why movie visual effects work in Los Angeles, sadly, is leaving for good.
1920’s Hollywood saw legitimate job formations of camera men, grips, editors, actors, producers and writers. These groups banded into their own unions on level playing grounds.
By the time the need to make light sabers and space ships became a real job, most of the unions and legal workings of the system were in place. The Effects sector had to play by the rules that were already set. With no voice, there was nothing they could say about it. And so it went, the guy who put the cheese plate on set, would be ranked higher in the credit scroll than the guy who animated the monster.
In the 1970′s, Star Wars formalized the Special Effects industry, and it matured in the Speilbergian era of the Summer Blockbuster. There were flirts with the computers when we needed light bikes and genesis torpedos. But it was in the mid 1990′s, from out of the T-Rex paddock, came computer generated imagery. The summer big budget films demanded more and more CGI effects and there were very few folks who could do it. Wanted technical artists could commanded more. They drove the rates up.
For 10 years, art and technical schools swelled with the generation raised on E.T. and At-Ats. To meet demand, they pumped out an army of technical artists. A Special Effects department had grown into a booming Visual Effects business… and very expensive one.
In our modern world, technology has become ubiquitous, cheaper, and is taught everywhere. The first digital lens flares took days to program and render, now everybody knows it’s as easy as opening After Effects and clicking Effect – Render – Lens Flare. Software that once ran for thousands of dollars can be downloaded for a free 30 day trial.
Adamant American artists claim that we have a superior sensibility for animation and effects. While at the same time, our media has been globally saturating this sensibility for years. Every VFX skill you could possibly imagine is being standardized, lessons popping up on channels that can be subscribed to on youtube.
Movie top studios used to make movies, they are but a brand now. The average American Joe believes the money is made at the box office. The industry wants Joe to think that.
Box office take accounts for only the tiniest percentage of a modern movie. It’s Star Wars action figures, Buzz Lightyear bedsheets, media buy in’s, and holy christ, the sequels. The real money maker isn’t box office, but intellectual property.
For the smart business man, betting on production will eventually roll a bust, especially when you spend so much on marketing the beast. The sound strategy is to license the idea for the movie, and let someone else worry about the costs of making it. This philosophy sends the means for production reeling to the lowest bidder.
Other states, territories in Canada, and countries around the world are sweetening the pot for the studio heads by offering large tax kick backs. The justification being, that if the multimillion dollar production of a movie comes to their little corner of the world, the scraps that fall off the table will help the local economy. Studios, already looking for the lowest bidder in production, now play locations off each other for the biggest kick back.The proverbial nail in the coffin.
I can’t comment on whether this idea works or not, because I don’t have the data. I do know there are those who really think this subsidy-thing doesn’t work.
So, there we have it. It’s a tough time if you are an American VFX artist. However, if there is a silver lining, I believe there is too large a community of artists and technicians in Southern California for something new not to happen. I believe there will be a migration of these artists to other industries, especially as our content evolves entirely to the internet and incorporates interactive elements. The guys who create monsters and magic and giant floods will be doing something else equally as cool, it’s just most of us haven’t figured out quite what that is yet.
But that’s to think about another time.
Thanks for Reading.
For more information about the VFX industry, and the globalization issues facing movie production, I recommend:
KCRW’s The Business: http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/hb/hb130214vfx_business_in_trou
VFX Soldier: http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/