Visual-Effects Firms Having Trouble Seeing Green Life of Pi won four Oscars, including one for visual effects. But the company that did much of its work, Rhythm & Hues, is bankrupt and up for auction. At a time when movies are increasingly depending on computer effects, why are the economics not holding up?

Visual-Effects Firms Having Trouble Seeing Green

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The film "Life of Pi" earned four Oscars this year, including one for its computer-generated imagery. But the company responsible for the movie's visual effects - Rhythm & Hues - is now bankrupt. It's going up for auction in court today.

As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, Rhythm & Hues' troubles point to problems facing the entire visual effects industry.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer tried to bring up Rhythm & Hues when he accepted his Oscar award for "Life of Pi."


BILL WESTENHOFER: (Talking over band) Sadly, Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now. It...


DEL BARCO: He didn't get very far with the speech. And some took the "Jaws" theme slap-down as an insult to the army of more than 600 visual effects artists around the world that toiled for years to create the film's vivid, CG Bengal tiger, orangutan and meerkats, as well as the ocean.


SURAJ SHARMA: (as Pi Patel) I am on a lifeboat alone with a tiger. Please, send help.

DEL BARCO: Now, it's Rhythm & Hues hoping to be rescued - even while "Life of Pi" has earned nearly $600 million at the box office worldwide. Lee Berger is president of the company's feature film division.

LEE BERGER: We're like a big mom-and-pop shop so, you know, we can go to the edge of the cliff so many times, when it comes to finances, but you can only go over once. And that's what happened when we had to, you know, go into bankruptcy.

DEL BARCO: Visual effects artists say the business paradigm for their entire industry is flawed. Here's how it works: The six major movie studios contract with effects companies on a fixed-fee model. That means there's a set price for creating shots for a movie, no matter how many months or years it takes; no matter how many changes the director asks for.

DAVID RAND: Pretty soon, you see the visual effects shop is paying for the movie.

DEL BARCO: David Rand is a senior visual effects artist at Rhythm & Hues.

RAND: And then we watch the movie go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.

DEL BARCO: Rand says another problem is that Hollywood studios are constantly chasing tax subsidies offered by other countries. Visual effects companies end up losing work to international firms, or have to cut their fees. To try to compete, Rhythm & Hues opened production offices in Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur and Taiwan. But the company still had to lay off hundreds of artists in its L.A. studios.

Universal, Fox and Legendary studios, which refused to talk to NPR for this story, loaned Rhythm & Hues $20 million to finish movies they contracted for. Now, the company is frantically trying to wrap up those projects.

RAND: This little spirally gag that marries into this gag here...

DEL BARCO: In a small, dark room at Rhythm & Hues, Rand works at his computer, trying to perfect a sequence for the upcoming movie "The Seventh Son."

RAND: You just saw a girl that's got some evil spirits coming out of her.

DEL BARCO: Rand has worked for five other visual effects companies that folded - almost all of them still owing the artists money. He says a union for the artists, and trade associations for the companies, may be the solution. He and other visual artists have been posting green screens on social media sites, to protest their grueling conditions - countless all-nighters with no overtime, no benefits or retirement plans. Visual effects veteran Scott Ross says it's an often thankless, profitless pursuit.

SCOTT ROSS: There are these incredible artists that are digital gypsies; that fly around the world, that really mess with their families, where they wind up working, you know, in sweatshop environments; and ultimately, the companies that they work for are going out of business.

DEL BARCO: In the 1980s, Ross ran Industrial Light and Magic to produce the "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" and "Terminator" blockbusters. Ross also founded and was CEO of Digital Domain, responsible for "Titanic," among other movies.

After Ross left, Digital Domain went bankrupt, and it's now owned by a Chinese company. Ross says in the past 30 years, movie visual effects have grown into a global enterprise while still operating like a small, cottage industry.

ROSS: I don't want to make the studios out to be the big, bad ogres 'cause they're really not. They're just running a business - I want to buy the best product I can possibly buy, for the least amount of money. Unfortunately, the visual effects industry is not running a business. What it's been doing is saying, oh, gosh, do I get to work on "Star Wars"? Gosh, I get to work on "Avatar." So the people that run these companies are really not business people.

DEL BARCO: Rhythm & Hues is now hoping for a new owner, possibly a South Korean company who promised to continue operations.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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