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Ben Stiller being chased by a T rex in the CGI-rich movie Night at the Museum.

Rhythm & Hues

Under the cover of darkness in the dusty desert night, a team of hand-selected Navy SEALs climbs aboard two Stealth Hawk helicopters, propellers whirling. The top-secret choppers fly through dark, lush valleys toward Abbottabad, Pakistan, where one ultimately crash lands. It's the most important U.S. military mission in recent memory and a key sequence in the year's most controversial film. It had to be done exactly right: no hint of sentimentality, and certainly no hint of the visual effects that were integral to Zero Dark Thirty's tense climax.

Now imagine that scene without those helicopters – because they weren't there. The scenes were shot with actual helicopters such as simple Black Hawks or Hueys – a close match for the Stealth Hawks – but then the real helicopters were removed from the photography and replaced in every instance with digital helicopters created by a visual-effects team at Vancouver studio Image Engine.

While audience members delight at the CGI delights of films such as Life of Pi or The Hobbit, Zero Dark Thirty also tells the story of how integral visual effects have become in contemporary filmmaking: Even this classic lo-fi procedural would have been impossible without them. Long before the helicopter scenes, there are some 200 visual-effects shots audience members would have seen, but not likely noticed.

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Yet the artists and editors who power the increasingly crucial CGI industry find themselves in crisis: Unable to monetize their talents fully (one of the studios behind Life of Pi recently declared bankruptcy) and, up to now, often unable to convince either the public at large or the industry they serve that they are artists, not mere technicians.

In an escalating protest that has gained traction since the Oscars, visual-effects professionals are demanding a new deal. The protest is centred on recent financial troubles at Rhythm & Hues. The California-based company (which has a studio in Vancouver) filed for bankruptcy protection in February, and laid off workers. On Oscar night, with Life of Pi up for a visual-effects award, hundreds of industry workers protested outside the theatre, carrying signs such as "I Want A Piece Of The Pi Too." Inside, when the Life of Pi team (including Vancouver-based Guillaume Rocheron) won the Academy Award, supervisor Bill Westenhofer was cut off – by the ominous strains of the theme from Jaws – when he began talking about the financial troubles of Rhythm & Hues.

Backstage, Westenhofer was able to finish his thought. "What I was trying to say up there is that it is ironic at a time when visual-effects movies are dominating the box office that visual-effects companies are struggling," he told reporters. "I wanted to point out that we aren't technicians.… We're artists, and if we don't find a way to fix the business model, we may start to lose some of the artistry. If anything, Life of Pi shows that we are artists and not just technicians."

It's a race to the bottom, some workers say, with studios outbidding each other for projects and cutting corners where they can. Working conditions have been compared to sweatshops, with burdensome overtime demands, and slashed benefits. Work has been contracted out to lower-paying markets. (In L.A., they're also upset about jurisdictions such as British Columbia luring visual-effects work outside of Hollywood with attractive tax incentives, such as B.C.'s Digital Animation and Visual Effects tax credit, 17.5 per cent for eligible labour.) Companies are struggling.

Rhythm & Hues, which also worked on Django Unchained and The Hunger Games, isn't the only studio suffering. Digital Domain (X Men: First Class, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) which also has a Vancouver office, filed for bankruptcy protection last year, and last week word emerged that German VFX house Pixomondo (Hugo, Game of Thrones) had closed its London operation.

An anonymous blogger, VFX Soldier, has been carrying on the fight in cyberspace. On Twitter and Facebook, visual-effects artists have replaced their avatars with a green box, representing the blank green screen moviegoers would be stuck with without the artistry of visual effects.

There's talk of organizing a union. And talk of a one-day, global walk-out, with the proposed date of March 14 (3/14), or Life of Pi Day.

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Life of Pi director Ang Lee found himself in hot water after failing to thank the visual-effects team in his Oscar speech, and remarking, in response to a question about Rhythm & Hues, that "I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for visual-effects vendors]." The lead compositor on the film, Phillip Broste, wrote an open letter to Lee, which has been circulated online, in which he took Lee to task for those "cheaper" comments. "Mr. Lee, I do believe that you are a thoughtful and brilliant man. And a gifted filmmaker. But I also believe that you and everyone in your tier of our business is fabulously ignorant to the pain and turmoil you are putting artists through."

So what is preventing these companies from prospering when they're such a core part of these enormous box-office successes?

Warren Franklin, chair of the Vancouver chapter of the Visual Effects Society, says it's not necessarily about fixing the business model, but about creating one for a rapidly developing industry where effects are becoming ever more important in the filmmaking process. Perhaps, he suggests, visual-effects studios will become production companies as well, making their own movies, as well as doing service work – putting up some financial risk but also reaping the financial rewards.

"I think it's evolving and obviously what's going on with the bigger companies having trouble, it needs work," he said. "But given the context of the market and the visual-effects business right now, it definitely needs to be developed and [companies need to] come up with some new ways to do some of the process that can work. I just don't see the pressures of cost ever going away. I think it's only going to get worse."

As anyone who sticks around for a credit roll knows, the number of people who work on a film's visual effects is staggering (many more can go uncredited). With huge teams required to do the work, costs escalate – even while entry-level workers earn maybe $15 an hour, not quite a living wage in Vancouver these days.

But these are hardly unskilled workers, as Westenhofer was saying backstage. Shawn Walsh, visual-effects executive producer and partner with Image Engine, stresses they are artists.

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"We don't have enough chat in general about how creative an endeavour this is and how deep the roots of visual effects are in the arts," says Walsh. "The technical side is there [for] functionality, but when it gets right down to it, the creative side has to prevail."

Visual-effects veteran Marianne O'Reilly says that everyone involved in the production pipeline, as it's called, needs to have a clear understanding of the story and context, and beyond the technical skills, requires creativity to execute the effect properly.

"It's not just about blowing things up. It's about what makes that believable," says O'Reilly, who has been around since the early days of visual-effects work in Vancouver, initially with Rainmaker, and now runs the 3D Animation & Visual Effects Department at Vancouver Film School.

Everyone on that large team, she says – from the entry-level animator engaging in repetitive rotoscoping (creating a matte or cut-out from live-action footage for use as an element in a digitally enhanced scene) or Roto paint/plate clean-up (where the artist might paint out, say, power lines in the sky for a period piece) to the compositor (who integrates the various live-action and digital elements) to the modeller (who creates the character or environment) to the rigger (who digitally creates a rig within the model for movement) to the animator (who moves and animates the characters) to the lighter (who lights the shots) – has input that matters, not just the visual-effects supervisors and producers.

So let's say your job is replacing physical helicopters with digital ones – and creating all the digital dust and debris that interacts with those digital choppers: that is the work of highly creative technicians and artists, not just button-pushers with mad computer skills.

"Some people might say it's a purely technical exercise because all you're doing is replacing real helicopters," says Walsh. "But the reality is that behind the scenes, there's a huge amount of creative dialogue and creative decision-making that goes into replicating reality."

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