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Even though nearly every big budget Hollywood film requires the hard work of a visual effects studio, the industry in California is in trouble. The community hoped that whoever won the Oscar for visual effects might bring it up at the Oscars, which is exactly what Rhythm & Hues’ Bill Westenhofer tried to do Sunday when Life of Pi won the award.
However, the ominous Jaws theme was played to cut his speech short, a move that has angered the industry.
On Feb. 13, Rhythm & Hues was forced to file for bankruptcy, despite its acclaimed work on Ang Lee’s film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it was forced to lay off at least 250 employees, partly because of studios using overseas VFX houses more often than those based here.
Prior to the Oscars on Sunday, VFX workers protested in Hollywood. “What you are seeing today is a lot of anger, I think directed at studio execs who have been forcing independent [VFX companies] to go overseas,” R&H’s Paul Van Camp told THR. “I have heard cases where studios specifically told visual effects companies that they need to open a branch in [a city with subsidies] or they wouldn’t continue to get business. And that puts a strain on VFX facilities. They don't usually have deep pockets, and it costs a lot of money to open these [branches].”
The community was angered again when Westenhofer’s speech was cut off, notes The Los Angeles Times.
“People were outraged and angry,” David Rand, a senior VFX artist at R&H, told the LA Times. “They played the theme song to 'Jaws' and cut him off...It wasn't funny to us.”
“People are really upset...It's just another indication of how the film industry thinks about VFX!” Digital Domain co-founder Scott Ross added. His company is another that won an Oscar (for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but was put in financial straits. Last year, it was purchased by Reliance MediaWorks in India and China’s Galloping Horse.
Westenhofer did get to speak to the press after the Oscars and explained that he hoped to point out how VFX studios are suffering, even while the biggest blockbusters out there need them. “And I wanted to point out that we aren't technicians,” he added. “Visual effects is not just a commodity that's being done by people pushing buttons. We're artists, and if we don't find a way to fix the business model, we start to lose the artistry. If anything, Life of Pi shows that we're artists and not just technicians.”
Life of Pi won a total of four Oscars, the most for any single movie Sunday. Lee also won Best Director.