My Thoughts on the ‘Life After Pi’ Documentary

It’s been a long time since I’ve written an article including my thoughts about something that I’ve seen but I haven’t watched any new films this week but instead concentrating on my video reviews but one thing that I did watch which was recommended by Adam from the YMS YouTube channel was a documentary about the studio that created the special effects for the film, ‘Life of Pi’.

I haven’t seen ‘Life of Pi’ but I knew that the film garnered critical acclaim for its computer generated effects, especially the tiger which was a talking point.

I find it remarkable, especially in this day and age where the majority of shots in a film will contain computer generated effects, that VFX artists aren’t treated like Gods since these people are essentially making most of the movie.

Take the ‘Avengers’ films or any of it’s bastard offspring. There are videos online of certain shots from these films with all the effects stripped away and it’s basically a sea of green.

The Studio in question, ‘Rhythm and Hues’ was founded in 1987 and in the 25 years that they operated, they worked on a lot of high-profile and really visually stunning films like ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, ‘Men in Black II’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’ among others.

But they also worked on ‘Life of Pi’ and this half an hour documentary really showcases how badly not just Rhythm and Hues but VFX studios across the world are treated. Big studios will hire these companies to do their effects for them and give them ‘fixed bids’ which means that the money they get is what they get and not a penny more, no matter how long the project runs or if any additional work needs to be done at the Studio’s instruction.

Tactics like this mean that pay will be delayed for the employees and sometimes not get paid at all. And then come the ‘lay offs’.

In the case of ‘Rhythm and Hues’, three months after Life of Pi was released and achieved $609 Million at the box office against a $120 Million budget for this film of which 80% of the shots were computer generated, Rhythm and Hues filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy of which over 250 staff were let go.

To add further insult to injury, whilst Rhythm and Hues were struggling to pay their own employees who worked tirelessly to put together this effects heavy film, the VFX team were nominated and then won an Oscar for their hard work. By this time, Rhythm and Hues had announced their bankruptcy and in response, almost 500 VFX artists protested outside of the 2013 Academy Awards. That night, Rhythm and Hues won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects but when Visual Effects Supervisor, Bill Westenhofer and a few other R&H employees went up to accept the award, his acceptance speech, which brought up the financial struggles that the company and it’s employees faced, the microphone was cut off and the ‘Jaws’ soundtrack played over him, much to the amusement of the audience.

I know they didn’t expect an ounce of sympathy from a room filled with rich, entitled bastards whose combined worth was enough money to solve all the world’s problems but that wasn’t the point. They wanted to address the mistreatment of the very people who make their movies for them. To add a little bit more fuel to the raging dumpster fire, the director of ‘Life of Pi’, Ang Lee won an Academy Award for Best Director which may have been well deserved (Like I said, I haven’t seen it) but in his acceptance speech, he didn’t acknowledge the VFX who essentially played a massive part in making the film what it was.

The whole documentary is only 30 minutes and can explain the specifics of how a lot of VFX studios are getting shafted a lot better than I can but as a whole, I left the documentary feeling really angry.

I understand that Hollywood and the movie industry is massively important to the US economy but to me, all that money is lining the pockets of the wrong people.

Do you remember ‘Gravity’? That film about Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space? Well, it is reported that Sandra Bullock received a $20 Million upfront salary and that’s not counting all the other bits on top with could have reached as much as $70 Million. That was an especially effects heavy film and had a reported budget of $100 Million but I don’t know how that was divided up and how much the VFX department got.

Take to Google and you’ll find tonnes of examples of relatively small VFX companies getting shafted by big studios.

Just as recent as the last movie that I reviewed, ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’.

The company that did the VFX for Sonic was Moving Picture Company, a London based outfit that was founded in 1970. After the first trailer was released and then heavily bashed due to fans and even Sega not being happy with the design of Sonic, Director, Jeff Fowler delayed the release of the film for three months and the redesign was carried out by Marza Animation Planet, a Japanese Studio who were more than affiliated the Sonic universe as they produced the cutscenes for 9 Sonic Games. Five VFX companies worked on the Sonic Movie and of the five (Moving Picture Company, Marza Animation Planet, Blur Studio, Trixter and Digital Domain), Digital Domain has notoriously suffered problems with bankruptcy and lawsuits and Moving Picture Company closed it’s doors in December 2019. Their last project was ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’.

This problem isn’t just limited to the film industry. There are countless of allegations of how Rockstar Games treats their employees, long hours for low pay whilst working on the biggest Rockstar titles you can think of.

I could go on and mention companies like Halo VFX whose employees went unpaid even after working on high profile and multi award-winning films like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

I know I’m guilty of appreciating the effects in a film but not the artists who created them. These days, better and more realistic graphics are not only standard but expected. The industry has changed a lot on the last 30 years, new technology and techniques are a constant and the whole industry is an ever-changing landscape.

I find it really annoying when female actresses complain about not getting paid the same as their male co-stars and yet the men and women who make their films for them lose their jobs. Is that fair? I don’t think so. Did Sandra Bullock really need $20 Million plus for ‘Gravity’?

I understand that the people in the industry didn’t go in for the money, but money is necessary to live. How about the studio knocks a few zeros off the main cast’s salaries and appease the hard-working people behind the scenes? Now that I’ve seen this documentary, I find rich people moaning about rich people problems all the more insufferable.

To close, I’m fully in support of better treatment for VFX artists in the industry. They have as much of a right to make a decent life for themselves in Hollywood as the big stars making all the money and getting all the attention. This ended up “preachier” than I intended but you get the idea. ‘Life After Pi’ was a shocking expose on how VFX artists are treated and if you choose to watch it, it will make you look differently at effects heavy films. It did for me.

Life After Pi Documentary



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