We've Got Hollywood Covered

Plea to Directors: Speak Out for the Visual-Effects Artists

Guest blog: We, the visual-effects artists, are the invisible ones — you would know this if you could make a habit of speaking with us

Abuse of artists is a 500-year-old story dating back to the Renaissance.

If Pope Julius was aware of how he’d be remembered, I wonder if he’d have treated Michelangelo better. Paid him on time, allowed him solace and stability, and not threatened him with blindness and damnation.

After all, Michelangelo’s works went on to be priceless and lasting, bringing revenue to Rome and the world’s museums for nearly an eternity.

People write their own history. This is more pronounced today than in any other time in history. The popes of the first renaissance have been replaced by suits in this second one, that’s all. The rest literally is history repeating itself under the microscope of social media.

How do you want to be remembered?

Also read: Why the Bidding Process is Killing the Visual Effects Industry

Maslow pointed it out so well. It’s that psych 101 stuff they made us read right along with that Steinbeck stuff in high school. A foundation.

Basic needs first, then safety and security, then social and family needs, then self-esteem. Only after these needs are met can you reach the level of self actualization and be creative. Without them, we are building our billion-dollar skyscrapers on foundations of muck.

We forget that the most valuable software we have in the visual-effects industry is not the new way to make everything splashing in hundreds of thousands of gallons of digital water … it’s the minds of the visual-effects artists.

Those prize racehorses, them golden gooses. So why are you allowing them to be beaten to death? What? Because they’ll form a union, self heal and give you more than you ever dreamed?

We work on virtually all of the most profitable movies. Visual effects are telling so much of the story, filling up most of the screen, yet the artists are treated like an after-thought by so many or simply forgotten completely because no one really interacts with them.

The artists feel like the child in the fable that screams, "The emperor is not wearing any clothes!" Sadly, we, the visual effects artists, are actually the invisible ones. You would know this if you could make a habit of speaking with them.

Also read: Why Videoconferencing Is Killing the VFX Industry

In conclusion, is "Avatar vs. Aliens" a go picture? Have we gone over the edge? Do we really have to jump the shark to get it? Can Morgan Freeman have just one day off? Just one?

The illusion of profits can hide you from profits lost and impending collapse. The fable of the old-timer panning for gold in a river lush with the shiny stuff repeatedly stumbles and spills most of his catch then breaks the back of his horse by over-burdening it. Hailed as the greatest miner of all time for a bit in town but quickly replaced by more efficient younger men who saw what he was actually doing.

Studios used to hire and manage their own visual-effects artists.

Some still do, the feature animation studios, focus is often great, bidding is replaced by budgets.

Outsourcing and chasing subsidies is being attempted but not depended on — not yet, anyway. All the large feature production studios, however, abandoned the in-­house team completely for an outsourcing model. They may have given the appearance of managing risk, but they’ve abandoned so much of what was working.

Maybe it’s time to take a look at what has evolved and how it has effected this great resource that they all still depend on. Was it worth the trade off to protect your small farm while turning the entire town into a creative dust bowl? One that will eventually swallow the very crops you sought to protect?

It would make more sense to open up “…WOODS” around the globe than to scatter creativity over wires and glass and take advantage of local direction and visual effects talent. Or at least move one person, the director, instead of one thousand artists, like numb cattle from place to place.

Tap into local stories and culture. Try new stuff on for size made by real humans working in real space, sharing real creativity with daily direction from a real person. Get the politicians off the take and out of our religion. Allow our sister nations to build their own foundations again rather than disguising subsidies as something other than what it really is — a tool to keep the fences up and the newcomers out.

Maybe a few of us will even settle down, buy a home, raise a family and hit that coveted top notch in the hierarchy of basic human needs. The one that invokes maximum creativity. Giving you all we’ve got creatively in return.

We could spend time expanding our knowledge base rather than learning a new one every time a visual-effects vendor goes bankrupt, because some politician pushed a button, or some careless executive felt he was not doing his job unless he put at least one VFX shop out of business while making his picture. Carelessly wiping years of collective work off the table like a sand painting.

It would be better if we can all live enriched lives. It’s a far better model for all of our futures. The studios that have given us such great adventures can continue doing so. No one should be afraid and implode over fear. All of us need to support the home team, and the world team, and their home teams.

I’ve been on teams and organized teams where the director is present on a daily basis as some of our directors really get this, and the ones that do are the most successful. The difference is astounding. It does not take much effort.

I’ve organized the visual-effects crews for successful shows with one of your great directors that came in at one half of the lowest bidder from subsidized areas while working without subsidies on billable hours, director present — not all day, but every day, walking amongst the artists, even sitting besides them working on shots, just for the sheer fun of it.

You do not have to sit there “watching paint dry” but if you do not personally witness the creation on a daily basis with the actual artists making it, you will be witness to money, value, creativity and profits burning. The visual-effects industry does not need on­line math lessons to heal — addition, maybe — but they’ve got subtraction down to a sad science in your absence.

We need you, the director, present in body and mind, and we need that meter running again. Live and in real time, creative humans face to face, eye to eye, mind to mind.

This is how I’m trying to give back, submitting my observations for review. My two cents. I want to write my little part of history in this second Renaissance. All I really have is my experience. I hope some of these thoughts ring true.

Most of the visual-effects artists and vendors seldom speak out because we live in fear rather than creativity.

If you agree with these insights, even some of them, we need you, the director, to tell the studios you currently work for that there’s a better way to work. They’ll listen to you. Shooting green screens from dumb scripts is easy and safe, hanging that eye candy piñata — safe.

We can do so much better. We all desperately need your help and direction.


Dave Rand is a senior visual effects artist or 20 years. He has been a spokesperson for his industry for several years and helped recover funds for many unpaid artists, mostly outside the USA. He has helped develop successful alternative business models (cost plus productions) and worked on many profitable shows because of them. Currently a member of the Animation Guild, he has worked for union and non-union shops, internationally and domestically. He was worked for a many shops and studios and was on the staff of five major effects companies that have suffered failure. He has created VFX content and often supervised such films as "Life of Pi," "Seventh Son," "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," "The Matrix" and "Fantastic Four."

He will be speaking at SIGGRAPH along with some of his colleagues on July 25.