Charlie Jane Anders at io9 wrote a piece about how we're in a golden age of visual magic in movies. She's right, many movies are just eye-poppingly gorgeous in the visual effects department, and, in my opinion if the filmmaker use a blend of practical effects and CGI, the potential for bringing fantasy to beautiful life is practically limitless.
However, like everything else in Hollywood, there's a dark side.
Even though VFX are more important than ever before, the VFX industry itself is in deep shit.
A classic example is the VFX company Rhythm & Hues. The company had been at or near the top of the VFX racket for about 20 years, producing consistently top notch work in lots of huge hit movies.
Yet, on the eve of winning the Academy Award for their work on Life of Pi, they were declaring bankruptcy and laying off pretty much all of the people whose work was winning Hollywood's highest honour.
They're not the only ones. Between 2003-2013 over 21 VFX companies, companies that were supposed to be successful, went bankrupt or went completely out of business.
Why did this happen?
Because the studios, though dependent on VFX companies, love to screw them over financially because they can get away with it.
It works like this.
In movie making the budgets pay for time.
Cast, crew, are all paid for the time it takes for them to make the movie.
That's the fundamental of budgets.
The studio makes a deal with a VFX company to do a specific number of special effects shots for a specific amount of money. They are giving the VFX people money to pay dozens, if not hundreds, of artists and technicians for their time to work on the effects for these shots.
This is all worked out in the pre-production phase, the problem is that what is worked out and agreed to, often isn't what the final project turns out to be.
Scripts get rewritten, reshoots are ordered, roles are recast, and all that stuff creates delays, and in many cases the VFX shots have to be either radically adjusted, or redone completely from scratch.
However the studios insist that they do all this new work within the money they were paid during pre-production. The problem comes from the fact that the VFX company still have to pay those artists and technicians for the new work. Which means that the VFX companies have to take millions in losses for every job.
To top it all off, the VFX companies don't get any profit participation. That's because profit participation is solely for the stars, the director, and the producers. That doesn't mean those people see a dime, Hollywood accounting is a moral/mathematical morass.
The studios think they can get away with it because a lot of VFX artists and technicians are driven first by a love of the art form than by a desire for money. They also know that if one falls there are hundreds willing to take their place.
Then comes to what I suspect is the biggest reason the studios feel they can get away with it, and it's not financial, it's social.
The studios will waste fortunes in up front fees and "dollar one" deals on actors who dropped more bombs than the Luftwaffe before they'd drop one red cent on making sure the VFX people get paid enough to stay afloat.
Because certain actors, even certified box office poison, hold a lot of sway within the Hollywood community, and that's what matters. These "stars" that I call "media appealers" can get an executive a good seat at the fashionable fundraiser, a nice mention in the press via their publicists, and ways into the hottest social spots that practically drip with glamour.
They have nothing to do with business, the audience, or getting films made, but they have EVERYTHING to do with living in the upper echelons of Hollywood. They are also things that VFX people cannot deliver, hence leaving them not just second class citizens, but literally serfs in the eyes of the studios. They have no standing, no clout, and henceforth don't deserve to be treated with anything resembling human decency or even good business sense.
This can't go on forever. Eventually the laws of nature and economics will kick in, and the costs of getting VFX are going to skyrocket.
It's just another one of Hollywood's self-fulfilling idiocies.