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By maxdennison, Feb 6 2014 04:44PM

Yesterday, I was sent a link by a colleague to an online petition on behalf of BECTU - The Actors Union. Apparently they are attempting to take up the cry of the UK VFX Artist in an effort to help them fight the good fight against long working hours, no overtime and, in some cases, intimidating or oppressive working conditions. I was considering these issues as I read through their proposal and as I did so, I found myself reflecting back on my own past and some of the 'harder' hours which I've worked whilst in this industry and I tried to decide if I should show solidarity and sign my name to this petition or not.

Admitedly, this issue is a very serious and contentious one and one which affects all VFX Artists - whether here in the UK or abroad. It is a conundrum to be sure, and I choose the word 'conundrum' with care as, in essence, I genuinely don't believe this problem can ever be truly solved.

The problem is inherantly a global one. Films have become multi billion dollar international business ventures, and are no longer the exclusive products of the USA and Hollywood. With the advent of international subsidies, tax breaks, transglobal skill bases, and currency exchange rates, it has never been easier for producers to source the most economic routes to get their films to market. And this is where, I believe, the true issue lies. The ratio of major tent-pole films coming here to be made from abroad has never been greater. Thor, Avengers etc to name only a few. On paper, it would seem times are good here in the UK! And why are they so good? Well the UK offers generous and competitive tax breaks, has hugely experienced, talented and skilled pools of technicians and actors, has a long and established tradition of film making shooting in successful and modern film studios (Pinewood, Shepperton etc), and has National Lottery funding.

But what does that mean for the humble VFX Artist here in the UK and why are VFX facilities struggling? Well, to try and answer this question, it is important to recognise that we are all part of an extensive and complex global food chain. Just as in the animal kingdom, without the one, the other cannot survive. In order to understand this properly, it is important to take notice of what's going on around the globe. Last year, the Visual Effects Society published a white paper entitled "The State of the Global VFX Industry 2013" ostensibly off the back of the demise of Rhythm & Hues and the problems at Digital Domain. The downfall of Rhythm & Hues took many, especially after its Academy success with 'The Life of Pi", by complete surprise with many artists subsequently being told to leave their desks, unpaid, after hundreds of hours of work. The VES saw this as a stout wake up call for the VFX industry and a rallying cry for industry practitioners and leaders to audit their best practices. Something was clearly wrong.

The reasons for Rhythm and Hues' failure are undoubtedly varied and many but with a certain degree of hindsight and reason, it is possible to argue that Rhythm was in serious trouble long before "The Life of Pi" and the VES white paper subsequently identified four 'complex independent drivers' which could have been contributary factors leading to the companies demise: 1) growing international competition, 2) regional tax incentives, 3) external market pricing and internal bidding structures, and 4) counterproductive non-business motivations affecting best practices (or in other words - bad practices.)

While the VES is the only professional body worldwide currently representing the interests of the Visual Effects community as a whole, it is perhaps way too nieve to think that they on their own, along with their white paper, can produce a silver bullet to solve the problems of the industry globally. Although their remit will always remain biased towards the US industry where the majority of their members live and work, any move to level the playing field internationally would require a strenuous effort and a serious commitment from foreign governments which would thereby destroy competition. Something which is unlikely to happen. Here in the UK, BECTU has also taken up the rallying cry but on a much more intimate and personalised level on behalf of the individual artist, but, again, it is foolish to believe that they can remedy anyone's personal situation in the long term. Having little, if any, influence over where, how and by whom films are made, BECTU's remit remains incredibly limited.

So how do you improve the lot of the VFX Artist? Well, I think the VES has made some valid and pertinant points. While a consensus agreement to 'pay more' for a film's VFX budget seems equally unlikely, it is possible for VFX companies to individually clean up their own shop and become 'better' businesses. Regular audits of best practices seems an obvious point to make, but one which might be hard for some companies to accept as being necessary. Best Practices should include intelligently and carefully planned scheduals to avoid long and unpaid overtime working hours, sound business models which serve to protect the company from adverse market forces and thereby strengthening staff loyalty, a regular audit of the skill base which a company employs leading to better job satisfaction and appreciation. Ultimately, the VFX industry here in the UK needs to recognize that in order to survive, it must be better able to adapt to the fluctuations in the growing global market. This requires humility, introspection, perseverence and much dedication.

I cannot see any reason whatsoever why it should be necessary for a company in this country to compell members of it's own team, by inference, intimidation or otherwise to work so far above and beyond the call of duty, and for free.

So, did I sign the petition?


By maxdennison, Feb 1 2014 05:27PM

I was at an awards screening of 'Tim's Vermeer' last night at BAFTA, a candidate for this years Best Documentary category . I had been waiting for the chance to go and see this ever since I first heard about it some months ago and I was delighted to finally have the opportunity. It was produced and directed by the famous magicians Penn & Teller, which ordinarily wouldn't quite offer the usual gravitas for a subject concerning classical painting, but nevertheless, for them to be involved in a documentary of this type certainly gave it a thick glaze of intrigue. This feature length documentary is about a 'technologists' quest to try to fathom and unravel the mysteries of how Johannes Vermeer managed to attain such photographic realism in his paintings.

Johannes Vermeer (b1632 - d1675) was a Dutch painter living and working in Delft who specialised in interior scenes and is possibly most noted for his 'Girl with a Pearl Earing'. His work, famous for soft light entering through a window from the left and falling onto an everyday middle class domestic scene became, in essence, an historic document describing life at the time. He differed from his contemporaries by the quantitive level of detail he added and his qualitative use and understanding of light.

As a Matte Artist, I have often admired Vermeer's work. It's adherence to the art of photographic visual representation is one which has a striking resonance with the work which I, along with many others, do to this day. Indeed, one could easily argue that he was one of the very first 'matte artists' to have emerged and that matte artists such as Poppa Day, Ellenshaw, and Pangrazio etc. were merely standing on his shoulders. Of course, there have been many other photographic artists in history, and since Vermeer, who have demonstrated this incredible, and some might say - supernatural ability to accurately describe what they see in oils (not an easy medium at the best of times). Artists such as Caravaggio, and later - Albert Bierstadt and Peder Monstead were notables who, I believe, were absolute masters of this genre.

So the question remains - how on earth did he do it?

The Documentary follows Tim Jenison, a technologist, entrepreneur, software manufacturer and inventor who developed a deep fascination for Vermeer's work. Like many fans of Vermeer, he had a ringing question in his ears - how on earth did Vermeer managed to capture such incredible detail and such accurate lighting? Indeed, if you study a Vermeer very closely, and I mean very closely, you will see firstly, that there are no lines or underlying sketches beneath the paintings. Secondly, you would see the incomprehensible level of detail. And thirdly, the more observant of you would notice the incredibly complex and accurate perspective. Now, as an artist myself, I know just how difficult this is to achieve, and I can have all the modern day techniques and materials at my disposal. Vermeer lived 350 years ago!!

Tim set himself a challenge: discover if Vermeer was indeed superhuman, or did he use 'tricks'?

We follow Tim over about 4 years on his quest to find the answer. Gaining the endorsement and support of David Hockney who himself had written about the Camera Obscura and the use of 'optics' in early painting, he develops an hypothesis to show how Vermeer 'could have' done it. With his background in technology and problem solving, he builds a painting rig which, surprising, works! Tim admits to us that he has never done a painting before and that he is not a painter, but using his technique, he challenges himself to reproduce, faithfully, The Music Lesson by Vermeer. And he does it!!

What this film demonstrates more than anything else is the use of and help that technology has played in the development of art and painting over the centuries. Painting has never been about exclusivity, inhabited only by the rich and 'knowledgeable'. It is about exploration, trickery, experimentation, invention and creativity. As David Hockney says in the film (and I paraphrase here) - the use of technology and trickery in art is only winged and criticised about by the people who write about Art, and not by the artist.