Tuesday, March 28News For London

Behind the Green Screen: a look at visual effects working practices today

Visual effects have become an essential part of filmmaking today, but the artists responsible for creating those effects find themselves underappreciated and undercompensated.

Visual effects have been used in films since the inception of cinema, evolving from practical effects like the use of model miniatures and paintings on glass, to the fantastical computer-generated worlds we see in films and TV today.

‘Visual effects’ (or ‘VFX’) is the integration of computer-generated imagery into live action shots. VFX are used to create elements that would otherwise be impossible, expensive or difficult to film in real life, and can be seen in a wide range of movies.

Digital artists train for years to be able to work in the visual effects industry, and it takes teams of dozens of artists months (sometimes even years) to take Spider-Man to space, or tell the stories of an indigenous 3-metre tall blue alien race, or digitally build a dinosaur park from the ground up. Without their work, many of the films we watch would just be a sequence of shots of actors against a green screen.

Before and after of a shot featured in the 2013 film Life of Pi. VFX by Rhythm and Hues.

Yet many artists working in VFX industry are plagued with problems like low pay, unpaid overtime and arduous periods of “crunch” (a belief that employees should put their work all else, including stress, fatigue and mental health), a lack of workers’ rights, unstable contracts and migratory lifestyles. Despite the international nature of the industry, there is no worldwide VFX union to protect the rights of these workers.

In the radio documentary Behind the Green Screen, I examine an incident where a renowned visual effects studio went bankrupt just two weeks before they won the Best Visual Effects Oscar for their work on the film Life of Pi.

The tragic tale of Rhythm and Hues sparked outrage in the international VFX community and was a catalyst for later discussions about what could be done to fix working conditions. Shortly after the incident Scott Ross, the founder and former CEO of visual effects company Digital Domain, spearheaded a movement to unionise the industry that failed to yield decisive results. In his interview, he chalks this failure to bring about unanimous change down to the existence of a “broken business model” within the industry.

I also talked to artists employed in the industry who chose to come forward with their thoughts and experiences. Given the controversial nature of the topic at hand and the risk posed to their jobs, they chose to remain anonymous. Additionally, the program features comments from a representative of the UK-based Animation and Visual Effects Union, on the topic of a recent studio incident that led to the loss of over 200 jobs in London.

Producer: Veronica Sofia Nitu