On February 24th 2013, Rhythm & Hues Studios received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, in recognition of their groundbreaking work on Life of Pi.
In an ironic twist of fate, just two weeks earlier, the LA-based company had declared bankruptcy and, in the space of three hours, laid off 254 employees.
Directed and edited by Scott Leberecht, Life After Pi is a documentary chronicling not only this extraordinary chain of events, but also its effects on the visual effects industry as a whole. In addition, it outlines with masterful clarity the complex issue of government subsidies, the economic effects of which have forced many visual effects artists to adopt a migrant lifestyle.
Life After Pi does all this in a calm and measured way, telling a tragic story without once resorting to sensationalism. Its poignant message is all the more powerful for the restraint with which it is delivered.
The film’s real triumph lies in its extensive use of first-hand interviews. A range of staff from Rhythm & Hues – from animators and visual effects artists to the company’s founders – talk candidly about their experiences during the company’s collapse. Less than two minutes in, Animation Layout Supervisor Lulu Simons sets the tone by saying, “What do I love about Rhythm & Hues? Mostly the people.”
Those people are the reason to watch this film.
By all means, watch it to witness the last sad days of one of the truly great LA visual effects companies. And yes, watch it to learn exactly how an on-stage debacle at the Oscars led to an international campaign in which social media icons turned green overnight, spreading the message: “This is what your movie would look like without visual effects.”
Watch it also if you want to appreciate the nomadic life of a “pixel gypsy” living out of hotel rooms in the rootless pursuit of employment, chasing visual effects work as it circles the globe in search of the next cheapest place to set up shop.
Do all that. But above all, watch Life After Pi for the faces on the screen.
The “Go Green” campaign for better working practice in visual effects is in part driven by anger. That’s understandable. Anger is a natural reaction to the human “fight or flight” response to threat. And what is the visual effects industry facing currently if not threat?
However, if misdirected, anger is a destructive force. Only last week I was dismayed to read a torrent of abuse unleashed in the comments stream of an industry blog against a well-respected visual effects professional, all triggered by an out-of-context quote in a British newspaper. The anger represented in those comments may be real, but it depresses me to see it turned against the very industry it wants to save.
That’s why Life After Pi is essential viewing, not just for visual effects professionals around the world, but for everybody in the film industry. It spells out clearly and concisely the state of play in the world of visual effects – and does so with a dignified strength that’s simultaneously calm and irresistible.
More importantly, it reminds us that visual effects is not about pixels, but people. You’ll find no clearer evidence of this than in Rhythm & Hues founder Keith Goldfarb’s simple assertion that, “My best friends in my life are people that I’ve met here.”
That’s why, when you watch Life After Pi, I urge you not to see the people on the screen as fellow professionals fighting against overwhelming odds.
Instead, see them as friends.
Here’s what Don Shay, founder and publisher of Cinefex, had to say about the film:
Frank, but not inflammatory, Life After Pi takes us behind the scenes of the ironically-timed demise of Rhythm & Hues, and puts a very human face on an industry-wide tragedy that finds award-winning visual effects companies struggling to survive and talented effects artists leading migrant lives in search of gainful employment – all in crucial support of movies that make billions at the boxoffice.
All of the artists and Rhythm & Hues executives interviewed for the film were well-chosen, thoughtful and articulate, with views ranging from sadness to anger to resignation. In particular, I found much of what the company’s soft-spoken founder, John Hughes, had to say quietly heartbreaking.
Life After Pi presents its case and calls for change, but offers little in way of solutions – or even hope. And should it? Possibly not. Why, after all, would film studios, which hold all the cards, change a terribly flawed business model that works so obviously in their favor, unless they are, quite literally, left with no one to make their tentpole extravaganzas?”
For up-to-the minute reporting on the continuing campaign for a better deal for visual effects artists, start here: