VFX Crossroads: Causes & Effects Of An Industry Crisis

Creative COW by Debra Kaufman

Let me tell you the story of a visual effects company that was iconic among its peers. It had worked on a long list of A list movies, kept a stable of talented artists, and was known for its superb technology. Then, one day, seemingly out of the blue, it closed its doors.

No, not Rhythm & Hues. I'm referring to Pacific Title & Art, founded in 1919, which began its life as a film-titling lab (The Jazz Singer to Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur and onward) and later worked in digital visual effects, closed its doors in 2009 after 90 years of business.

But the anecdote could have just as easily been about Digital Domain, Boss Films, Apogee or Cafe FX. Those are all companies on a list compiled by Phil Feiner, who was CEO of Pacific Title for 30 years. For him, Rhythm & Hues' demise was a painful reminder. "It's multiple deja vu for me," he says.

The exquisite irony of Rhythm & Hues declaring bankruptcy just before its work on Life of Pi won the venerable visual effects company an Oscar for Best Visual Effects defines a visual effects industry that finds itself at a crossroads. The blowback to Rhythm & Hues' bankruptcy - the 500-strong march on the evening of the Academy Awards, R&H VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer's attempt to call attention to the fact on national broadcast, and the blank green screen icon on many Facebook pages - is a reflection of frustration and anger among VFX artists.

Many of these frustrated artists are focused on outsourcing and subsidies as the culprits in wreaking havoc in the industry. While it's true that this has been a significant challenge to the VFX industry, its problems go much deeper and further back in time. The three original digital pioneers -- Digital Productions, Omnibus, and Robert Abel Associates -went out of business within short order, leaving only the acronym DOA. Of the four big VFX companies in the late 1970s - Boss Films, ILM, Dream Quest Images and Apogee - only one remains, and it's become a possession of a studio. "The whole business went poof," says Feiner. read more...

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