And the award for Best Visual Effects goes to…who cares?

You never hear about which film got the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. If you do, it’s because you accidentally unmuted the TV at the beginning of the ceremony where they hand out the awards for smaller accomplishments before announcing the accolades that most viewers tuned in to see: Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture. The invisibility of VFX companies in Hollywood today is surprising, especially considering the abundance of CGI-heavy films, including some of the most popular franchises like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Transformers.

Visual effects didn’t start out with such grand projects. In the late 1940s, military organizations like the US Army began utilizing electronic computer systems like ENIAC and Whirlwind for tactical research purposes (Prince 13). The art world took notice and soon, creative types were scrambling to find ways to capitalize on the convergence of science and art. Ivan Sutherland’s SketchPad project, which allowed users to “draw” on a special GUI, launched a series of projects that propelled computer effects into the age of wireframes and advanced visualization (Prince 17). It wasn’t long before such developments evolved into the idea of animation; Utah graduate Edwin Catmull made major strides in the industry with his 3D movie Hand (1973), long before Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas stepped in to truly digitize Hollywood.


Interested in simplifying VFX labor and extending the “creative possibilities of filmmaking,” the directors used their combined clout (and money) to fund computer research, searching specifically for new approaches to nonlinear editing, sound mixing, and film printing that could employ digital technologies (Prince 20). Lucas’s experiments especially led to the growth of the CGI industry, one that would later influence the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking film Jurassic Park, which skillfully combined CGI, animatronics, and puppetry to bring its dinosaur story to life (29). Though the villainous raptors demonstrated the level of expressiveness that new effects technology permitted, it wasn’t until Peter Jackson’s unveiling of Smeagol, the hobbit-turned-creature featured in the director’s Lord of the Rings franchise, did audiences and filmmakers realize that “special” effects could be used to effectively recreate human emotion and, by extension, be used to create identifiable characters. Smeagol’s popularity, though, did not benefit the artists who created him. For a character so beloved in popular culture, its creators receive hardly any credit for their efforts.

Apparently, they also receive hardly any work. At least, that’s what’s become the case recently. In the days after the 2013 Academy Awards, thousands of film professionals opened their newsfeeds to find them flooded with green little squares. The VFX company behind the 20th Century Fox film Life of Pi, which collected a number of trophies at the ceremony, had filed bankruptcy, causing thousands of VFX workers to switch out their profile pictures for bright green squares. Representative of Hollywood green screens (used to insert digital effects into a film in post-production), the squares symbolized the VFX industry’s under-representation in the film world.

The “Piece of the Pi” protests aimed to raise awareness for a problem that continues to plague the world of production artists: the outsourcing of VFX labor to other countries or cities that provide enticing government subsidies. As The Verge writer Rich McCormick explained: “Increasingly, US states and other countries are offering subsidies for this form of work in the hope of attracting their own burgeoning film and digital industries, forcing studios — who have to pitch and compete against each other for work — to shift their offices around the globe and chase short-term contract work.” As studios pursue cheaper VFX options, local artists are forced to seek other work opportunities or move to areas with such government incentives.


But you wouldn’t know this in looking at the news. Though Digital Domain (the VFX company behind Titanic) and Rhythm & Hues both declared bankruptcy in the past decade, the media paints a different story, celebrating the industry’s thriving work force. Barack Obama even complimented the industry’s growth in a visit to DreamWorks Animation in 2013, a claim that was met with protests outside the studio and uproar across the Internet. As one VFX blogger pointed out: “Given the relative stability at DreamWorks as opposed to VFX vendors who don’t own the intellectual property they work on, it was no surprise our plight was ignored by many workers there.” Companies like DreamWorks who own most of the intellectual property they churn out remain relatively protected from such blows to the VFX industry, perpetuating a false image of VFX’s future.

In reality, VFX artists at smaller companies are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated, even by industry professionals. Niklas Jacobson, co-founder of Looking Pirates AB, perfectly summed up the lack of respect his work receives: “The most profitable movies in history are all VFX-based and our work ensures that production companies can earn billions of dollars…Yet VFX-artists are often in the bottom of the closing credits, below stuff like catering.”

While film experts like Stephen Prince, author of Digital Effects in Visual Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, defend the industry’s growing influence in our culture, the future of VFX remains bleak as the studios continue to do what they do best: take drastic measures to save money and enhance their own profits.

Additional resources:


Grundberg, Sven. “Visual Effects Industry Takes Protest to Twitter, Facebook.” Wall Street Journal. 16 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <;.

McCormick, Rich. “Visual effects artists use Obama’s trip to DreamWorks to protest ‘bleeding’ industry.” The Verge. N.p., 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <;.

Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. 232: Rutgers University Press, 2011. Print.

VFX Soldier. “The Irony As DreamWorks Closes PDI & Sheds 500 Jobs.” VFX Soldier. N.p., 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <;.

Featured image via YouTube.


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