Christina Lee Storm and Scott Leberecht question the future of digital moviemaking in L.A. with a film chronicling the bankruptcy of a Westside special effects house on the eve of Oscar glory
By Michael Aushenker
The success of the $600-million global blockbuster “Life of Pi” hinged on dazzling visual effects epitomized by Richard Parker, the nearly 100% computer-animated but hyper realistic Bengal tiger stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
But on Feb. 11, 2013 — two weeks before winning an Academy Award for that work — the venerable special effects house Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy and abruptly terminated 256 employees.
The crash and burn of an industry leader that had once employed 700 people in a three-building campus near Playa Vista rippled through the visual effects community, which expressed anger and frustration with demonstrations on social media and outside the Oscar ceremony.
“Life of Pi,” which had gone on hiatus mid-production, was accused of contributing to R&H’s bankruptcy.
Ang Lee, who had publicly censured the visual effects industry for being too expensive, didn’t mention R&H while accepting the award for best director for “Life of Pi.” Adding insult to injury, when R&H Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer tried to bring up the industry’s troubles in his Oscar acceptance speech, the orchestra drowned him out with John Williams’ ominous “Jaws” theme.
During its heyday in the late 1990s, R&H had ruled alongside Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain Media Group as one of the visual effects industry’s “Big Three.” At a time when more movies than ever rely on complicated visual effects, how could R&H have been so unceremoniously dethroned?
In short, Hollywood’s visual effects houses have succumbed to two long-brewing undercurrents.
One is “the fixed bid,” in which the visual effects house, instead of the studio, winds up incurring costs on additional work and payroll expenditures caused by unexpected studio delays in production and significant overhauls to scripts midstream.
“We can weather one project being delayed, but so many projects were delayed so close to one another. You can shuffle, but if everything is delayed, you’re in trouble,” R&H founder Keith Goldfarb said.
The other issue involves lucrative subsidies that encourage studios to outsource visual effects work to other states or countries.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, who represents Westside communities, helped a film and television production tax credit bill make its way into law despite state budget troubles during the recession.
As chair of the California Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Arts, Lieu is working to increase tax credits by $100 million “because clearly it has not been enough to stop runaway production,” he said.
But Dan Lay, a veteran special effects supervisor who formed the trade group Association of Digital Artists, Professionals and Technicians (ADAPT), doesn’t believe tax credits are the answer. The subsidies race is a fool’s game of one-upmanship, he said, in which “even if California offers more, sooner or later someone will offer even more. There’s no long-term solution and there’s no end for this.”
Moreover, said Lay, “Why does this film industry want taxpayers to bail them out even though the studios are doing fine?”
“We think the whole paradigm is broken, but what can we do about it?” Goldfarb said. “We’re not fond of being the poster child.”