Being Sharked: Bitten by Rhythm And Hues

Summary: A blog entry regarding support in bringing change to the VFX industry, to help shed light on the unsustainable financial structures that VFX companies work in.

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Note: If you don’t watch all of the documentary below, “Being sharked” is the term used by Bill Westenhofer (Visual Effects Supervisor at Rhythm And Hues) to describe the moment at the BAFTA ceremonies where the award-winners go over their allotted time, cause the orchestra to play the Jaws theme as a warning, and ultimately ends with the stage microphones being cut.

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I grew up with the hunger for Visual Effects. It was a strange passion to have as a 10-year-old, but it drove me to the right places. At 18 years old I left my friends and family and moved 500 miles to get a job in VFX. Although I didn’t end up doing the job 10-year-old me thought I really wanted (seriously, at school I was telling my Careers Advisor I wanted to be “A Compositor“. They had no idea what I was talking about), that decision still crafted the career I have now, as a freelancer behind-the-scenes in the Film and TV industry.

Back in the day, as a kid, when I’d research how movies were made I’d come across companies and individuals whom I knew were key to the industry. Their names would come up time and time again. Twenty five years later some of those names still come up, but unfortunately some don’t. And it wasn’t till I found out about this finance issue that I understood what was happening;

If a VFX House bids to do 500 shots for a feature film at a fixed price, but then the storyboards and script changes cause a series of dramatic edits to be made (several months later, and after the agreed “fixed bid” payment), the VFX House is still expected to create those “final” 500 shots no matter how far over the Production may have run and how much work they may have already done. The simple fact of spending $1 million per month on freelancers for ten months on those shots but then being asked to work for another 3 months without any change to the “fixed bid” payment clearly means that companies might not make any profit at all. Yet that’s how the industry works!

Rhythm And Hues is a VFX House well-known around the world. There’s no doubt you’ll have seen the work created by their teams of incredible freelance artists in the hundreds of movies they’ve been part of (Lord Of The Rings, The Green Mile, Babe, X-Men, The Hunger Games, Men In Black, Life Of Pi, and over 140 others). They are big hitters in the VFX industry. Yet in 2013, 11 days after winning the BAFTA for Best Visual Effects for Life Of Pi, the company filed for bankruptcy…

They’re not the first company to suffer at the hands of what’s now understood to be quite an unfair industry, but they’re the first one to document their financial demise in such a way that the message has been globally recognised.

Much more eloquently than I can write, the financial impact comes across in the Rhythm And Hues documentary “Life After Pi”:

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I love my job. I love the people I work with, I love the studios I get to work in, and I love the things I get to do, being part of something that brings me such joy. If that was to be taken away, I’d be devastated. Understanding how much they love their jobs too, it’s therefore difficult to watch the documentary and not put myself in their shoes.

There’s something fundamentally understood between humans when one of us looks upon another at a point when they are at their most vulnerable, most honest and open. Seeing John Hughes, one of the founders of Rhythm And Hues,  20 min 7 sec in to their story is one of those moments…

When Cinema Succeeds

I’m a fan of photography, of DSLR in cinematography, of time-lapse and slow motion. Having seen a trailer for a documentary which used all these techniques I ended up booking tickets and heading into the heart of Central London to the Institute Of Contemporary Arts, one of only two places in London showing the feature. The Chasing Ice documentary follows the progression of the Extreme Ice Surveyors over a period of years. And what it shows is spectacular:

Their pioneering work of constructing a way to photograph icebergs and landscapes over a period of years is something the world hasn’t seen before. What they achieve is a way of showing that our world doesn’t follow the pattern we expect throughout our four seasons. The icebergs and poles don’t “grow, shrink, grow, shrink” as you’d expect. It’s more “shrink, shrink, shrink, shrink“. This documentary clearly shows it. And just for reference, that rock of ice that breaks and churns in the opening of the trailer is about half the size of Manhattan.

However, this blog isn’t a piece for or against the argument of “climate change”. What I actually wanted to write about is something far more basic, and less of a political storm. A few days ago I wrote on the failures of the local Odeon Cinema to reach the basic standard I expected from such a chain, citing poor upkeep and baffling design to their screening rooms. In order to accommodate more screens (and in turn take more money) it appears they’re sacrificing the real cinema experience for profit. I still await their reply. Less “Fanatical About Film“, more “Fanatical About Profit, Less So On The Customer“. But that’d probably be too long for their billboards.

But the Institute Of Contemporary Arts succeeded where Odeon Cinema clearly failed. The ICA has only two screens, they have old fashioned movie theatre chairs (in sensible solid rows), their prices were good, their employees were great, the screen was clear and bright, the sound was perfect and it was packed to the rafters (literally).

So take note, Odeon! Some people like the idea of running their own pub or hotel. I might just run my own cinema just to be your competition…