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VFX Artsy-Nerds or Invisible Stars?

I’m going to take some time tonight again away from video games, to blog again about the plight of the VFX and CG industry right after watching a friend and colleague, Bill Westenhofer get snubbed during the Academy Awards while making an acceptance speech. An obvious snub by the Academy when Bill was on the verge of talking about the plight of VFX studios who do not share in the profits of films that often make $500,000 dollars or a billion dollars. Yes, say it again, often these films make up to a billion dollars while the VFX studios flounder.

These films are Visual Effects extravaganzas. They are feasts and although we all love to see Robert Downey Jr, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman deliver the characters for these magical films, the magic (and there is a great deal of magic today – yes even in films like Australia but also The Golden Compass) is delivered by a host of artists who work long grueling hours under tight constraints to deliver beautiful shots. We create cities. We take you back in time. We make you believe that the world you are in is real. VFX artists are the invisible “Stars” of the films but never get a star credit or a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, or the star residuals and paycheck for just showing up.

Additionally, it isn’t just the artists themselves who put in long hours. What people often fail to see (and a big reason I left the industry) is that the artist’s entire family is there too. As Bill Westenhofer said, the family sacrifices too. No, they aren’t at the studio literally, they are in fact miles away. Wives and husbands taking care of children by themselves while their partners are engaged in making movie magic. Children get up and go to school but their VFX parent is usually already on the road (because let’s face it traffic in Los Angeles adds more hours to the daily grind), they are asleep when they VFX parent gets home. Seven day weeks during crunches means there may literally be months during the year when you rarely see your family. What one of us has not walked outside and realized whole seasons have passed while we worked in our cubicles to deliver the shots for these films.

The unsung support team for these films are not just the VFX artists but their entire families. They too are the invisible stars who slog through long days, temper tantrums with children and every other task that has to be taken care of. They sacrifice time with their parents, spouses, and significant others and not but a few relationships have suffered for the industry lifestyle.

Now did Bill Westenhofer get snubbed? How long did he speak? Bill spoke for 60 seconds before the Jaws theme started playing ominously chasing him off the stage. After all, he’s just a nerd, an artist, a freak like the rest of us in the midst of the Hollywood elite. (No Bill, I don’t really think that of you).

Bill’s Acceptance Speech: : Life of Pi : 60 seconds, chased off by the sharks.

Would anyone have dreamed of cutting off Natalie Portman for her acceptance speech? She spoke for close to three minutes, tearfully thanking people.

Natalie Portman : Acceptance Speech : Shy of 3 minutes.

What do I think? I think for starters the Academy has to cut the song and dance, let’s face it, it’s bullshit.

Can we review the scenes, and honor the artists without throwing a narcissistic back-slapping party for a select few yet again? Lets give the artists and nerds an extra 60 seconds, because we too have worked a lifetime to reach this achievement, and you know what we didn’t use steroids, get any plastic surgery, take EPO or get a multi-million dollar deal. Oh there is lots of free caffeine and sugar… and I can talk about how the industry in general encourages addictive behavior to pump out those shots, but I won’t talk about that sacrifice tonight. The sacrificing of health.

What else can the Academy do? Face the fact that without the stunning visual effects and the growing host of digital actors and creatures on film, these films wouldn’t get made. The Academy should recognize that the artists that are helping in no small way to create the industry instead of snubbing them. It’s like celebrating the king and queen of the prom and then doing something to embarrass the artsy/nerd, like you know cutting them off after sixty seconds.

The bottom line is that the artists deserve just as much screen time at the Academy awards for our hard work, ANYTHING ELSE IS A SNUB.

It’s having your head dunked in the toilet time, as evidenced by the Huffington Post, which claims that the Jaws theme was played because Bill went past his allotted time. Sixty seconds. True he went beyond that, but you know what? Bill actually had something important to say, the VFX industry is collapsing in this country, the bottom is falling out and going over seas due to tax incentives from other countries and tax incentives here to go out elsewhere. At Rhythm and Hues that meant over 250 jobs lost this month, but there have been others before like Digital Domain and The Orphanage who often gets forgotten in the list which goes on and on.

Bill represented all of us, even those of us who have left the industry behind because we could see how this was going all along. But Bill has stayed in there like many of you and you deserve your time on stage.

And yet, the Huffington Post thinks it was “awkward”. They didn’t see what really happened or bother to investigate what the average acceptance speech is… just that it was awkward, dunk…flush!

Apparently America is only interested in the “royalty” at these events, not the people behind the scenes that make all that magic possible. The fact that everyone commented on what the “Stars” were wearing and didn’t notice close to 500 visual effects artists protesting outside is a remarkable comment on the state of the industry, and the unconscious way we treat people in this country. It’s yet another terrible mirror to hold up for our children and aspiring artists and programmers. The idea is that if you are in the royalty, what you have to say is important, and if you’re not (which is frankly the rest of us) then we don’t want to really hear it and we’ll drown you out while thinking we’re being funny.

Ha ha, thanks, dunk-flush! Message received.

Charlize Theron : Acceptance for Monster : 2min 10 seconds

Ann Hathaway : Acceptance Speech : 2min 30 seconds

I’m sure I could go through youtube and add to this list of long speeches made at the Oscars, but I’m betting any of you could post dozens of long tearful speeches that never get less than the respect they deserve, as Bill Westenhofer, Rhythm and Hues and VFX should have received last night.

Why I went to the Metaphorical Woods

My wife Sheryl, a counselor for people in transitions reminds me that so often what people share in blogs and on Facebook are superficial or false representations of ourselves. I think so much of this comes from always having to look like we have things under control, we have our game on. Every post is like an addition to our resume, our “permanent record”.

This blog is not meant to be that, but rather a posting about my journey to live a life that I want to live that includes doing more personal work, and being with my family in a meaningful way. Yes, ultimately I’m still trying to find out who I am, and what I’ll be when I grow up.

The truth is that I didn’t want to wake up one day and realize I didn’t know my children and the most I could boast in my life was having done lots of great furry animals for films.

So today I’m going to post about my doubts, and the strange direction that my career has taken since I left Hollywood and working in Visual Effects. The truth is that even working in Visual Effects, has a false glamour around it. It is a difficult industry to be in, with long hours, and crunches that mean working seven day weeks, 12 hours a day to deliver a show. It means getting home when your children are in bed, and leaving the house before they wake up.

The money was good, the artists and people I knew were exceptional in the industry and leaving friends behind was not easy. Leaving all this was a bummer, except when I realized I was giving up my time with my family for a big paycheck and a film credit.

I decided to leave Los Angeles in 2006, after working at Sony Imageworks. Having left my friends and familiar environment of R&H where I had been for over a decade, I worked long hours at Sony and yet, the new environment amplified a feeling of being isolated and alone. The plan had been to work for years and save money, but I realized too much was slipping away quickly, so we packed up with a job offer to teach in Colorado.

I came to Colorado not because of the great field in Visual Effects, Video Games and Animation. The truth is there isn’t much here, and the market here has not been kind to me. Having arrived I began teaching for little pay, and long hours. Small companies snubbed me when I tried to find work locally. I found small jobs here and there as a freelancer, and when money grew tighter I took on freelance jobs out of state which was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do to a small son and pregnant wife that I left behind in Colorado.

A friend recently asked me to tell him how I made the transition from Los Angeles to Colorado and I found myself writing all of this and more. I wrote about my rocky journey here, the ups and downs, and the fact that there have been a lot of downs. I hope I didn’t discourage him too much because I don’t regret my decisions.

I’ve spent the last two and half years creating the Game Art department for Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, while working on my own games and work on the side. I felt proud of the work I had done at RMCAD building their fledgling department up. The truth is that teaching really leaves little room for personal work, especially when dealing with a technical industry, such as making video games. As I usually do, I threw myself into the job, dedicating long hours to creating demos and notes for students. In the end the college wanted more of me, more hours, more meetings, more, more, more. This didn’t work for me. After all having turned down lots of money and prestigious companies in California, why would I say yes to low pay and long hours now? I made the decision again to leave my job and pursue my own work flying solo.

So now I split my time between my studio and raising our two sons who we home school. My wife counsels and on studio days I am in my studio either painting, or working on video games and interactive books of my own design, more of which I’ll soon post to my blog.

I am at the start of my journey again it seems. I enjoy this some days, I feel challenged by it and stressed on others. There are some days I pound my fists when I can’t get a piece of code to work and there are some days when things flow. Overall trying to make a full video game alone is daunting most days. I have thousands of assets to create and texture. I have characters to design and sculpt. There are stories to write, and gameplay to programmed and tested. It’s a confusing mass of feelings trying to do this solo. It is both exhilarating and sometimes isolating, as I’m sure many indie artists and indie game developers feel.

On top of that is the doubt, that the long hours dedicated will result in a game that quickly vanishes or fails. That’s part of the journey though, to experiment and try something personal and see what happens. It’s a journey that means failure is based on my own actions, not on a studio producing a game or film, just me. This of course is preferable to me right now in my life.

So yes, failure is an option.

I left Los Angeles where I was making six figures and working on great visual effects, to my small studio in Colorado, where in January I earned a mighty $24 dollars off of my first interactive children’s book that I published to the iPad. I’m grateful that my wife is now earning enough to carry us, as I work on these things. I’m grateful too that even at it’s most difficult times I traded in my cubicle for time with my sons who often work in my studio with me now. I believe that my sons being able to experience what I do for my art and work are important and lost things in our culture where once family and work were side by side. It may mean nothing to them now, they just expect that dad is always around but someday they’ll understand that I chose to be here in a culture that demands that we separate.

What’s odd is that I feel that it is a both a low point and a high point for me. Financially, I’m bringing in nothing right now, but I am in a more creative space than I have ever been, and that is part of the reason I’m on this journey.

That’s why I went to the metaphorical woods.