‘Life After Pi’ Documentary Exposes Flawed VFX Business Model

The 30-minute film Life After Pi documents last year’s financial collapse of vfx house Rhythm & Hues. Directed and edited by Rhythm & Hues employee Scott Leberecht, the documentary does a great job of explaining the current realities of the visual effects business model and why the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues is part of a much broader issue in Hollywood that has led to the shutdown of dozens of studios over the past decade.

In one of the documentary’s most poignant moments, which was filmed as the events were unfolding, R&H co-founder John Hughes reflected on the lose-lose scenario that he was confronted with as he tried to save the company he’d run for twenty-five years:

“Our choices were to cut people’s salaries or to lay off a significant number of people or to work people overtime without paying them for overtime by restructuring their contracts. So those kinds of changes are very difficult changes to make and I felt that any one of those would have so dramatically altered the culture of Rhythm & Hues that they would have destroyed Rhythm & Hues. And, well, instead we’re in bankruptcy, so I ended up destroying Rhythm & Hues anyways. Maybe I should have done something along those lines in order to have tried to preserve Rhythm & Hues.”


  • JWLane

    Many years ago I was visiting a friend at R&H, while he was working on an Olympics graphics package. During a tour around the facility I could feel the confidence that came with these people knowing this was exactly what they wanted to be doing with their careers. Conversations were brief because ‘everyone’ was busy and seemed challenged to do something unique with their assignments. Less than a decade later the global off-shoring of tech and labor, driven by the gross consolidation of capitol made for some very shaky ground – unless you were a one percenter. After another 7 1/2 years nothing seems surprising.

  • Chris

    Documentary is not as compelling as it needs to be if the intent is to open people’s eyes to the problems. Also it is hard to argue against outsourcing vfx work if the talent is just as good overseas but cheaper.

    • the stranger

      The documentary does the job and tells the story. Life of Pi was a major breakthrough in terms of vfx. It was possible because the company had built up a pipeline specializing in CG creatures over the past 15 years (and talented artists) or so starting with the Polar bears from the Coke commercial. They broke a technical and realism barrier next with Aslan in Narnia. Life of Pi was the next break through. It was accumulative and based on proprietary software and previous experience with cg creatures. Could you tell which was real and CG tiger in life of Pi ? There is no other company outside the US that could come close, Weta would have been closest, but looking at Planet of the apes its questionable if they could have nailed the realism. Now all of that resource has been lost. So its not as simple as the talent overseas being just as good.

      • Doug

        In business, there used to be (and sometimes still is) loyalty to the people who continue to prove themselves over and over again. In my over 25 years of business experience I’ve seen this model change and not always for the better. No where is the current paradigm better exemplified than in the case of R&H. In the U.S. we have a consumption attitude and rarely do we ever think where our consumables come from. Artists, farmers, businesses are expendable to us – so long as what we want is cheap for us. Congratulations to the filmmaker for this documentary. Very fair and compelling.

    • timmyelliot

      I personally was emotionally moved… but, I agree, I wondered if it would compelling to the general population.

      I’m not sure if anyone believes “there’d just be green screens without us”… or even… “the industry will die.”

      No matter now bad the industry is treated, it will stay alive. It’s too necessary.

      It’d just become another minimum wage mac-industry (or even crawl down into the dank sweatshop industry).

      I read a funny blog by American who worked at a Japanese anime studio that outsourced some of their animation to Chinese prisoners.

      … so I guess, as long as there are prisoners in our world… the industry will survive! yea!

      • pingrava

        Non-animator here. But I sympathize because the engineering business is seeing its share of this type of behavior.
        I work as a machine designer. I was laid off from my previous job at a nuclear company run by an Indian who made his millions off the ingenuity and hard work of Americans. Slowly but surely, he began replacing us with 22-24 year old green card workers who made half our salaries. Since they had no lives here, they worked – for the sake of pleasing Dear Leader and to spend time with others from India.
        Over time, a workplace I looked forward to every morning began to resemble a prison camp – managers standing by the door with a watch, cubicle checks after 5 PM, cameras in all the halls.
        Does creativity suffer under these types of conditions? Of course. But management didn’t care – because management was comprised of people who managed to stick it out in this environment and oddly, treated us the same way they were treated when they first arrived.
        On the other hand, thanks to e-mail, CAD software, etc. I can’t even compete on freelance work. There are several sites where you can bid on design jobs. It’s easy to see who the Americans are – they’re the one’s posting hourly rates of 30-45 dollars an hour. An hour later there they are – posts from Deepak, Sanjay and a handful of Patels living in India posting bids at 5 bucks per hour – some as little as 3 per.
        I’m not being racist here – just stating the realities. Those places overseas are sh*holes – with employees getting beaten and the women treated like trash – or worse. Nebulous pay. The problem is not with their culture – it’s us. As long as Hollywood fills the coffers of these scumbags the beatings will continue until quality improves.
        I’ve had to deal with work sent us from our office in India. Trust me when I tell you they are not rocket scientists.

      • wgan

        about that funny prisoners speculation, no it is not true, maybe China’s still got some prisoner labors, no they don’t do bloody animations, that costs too much, and you need really skilled prisoners, even its just inbetweens.

  • https://vimeo.com/channels/wharton Brett Wharton

    This documentary blew me away – props to the filmmakers for capturing this and explaining the business part of it so clearly.

  • Bill “Danger” Robinson

    Market forces work the way they always have. If you have too many suppliers, the costs go down and suppliers go out of business. Sad but true. Stay away from Hollywood if you have any interest in being an artist. It doesn’t happen there.

    • SomeGuy

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    • Tim

      The free market doesn’t have much to do with this story. (1) because studios are chasing rebates from foreign governments. This creates inefficiencies in the market at large — taxpayer money is funneling into the pockets of Hollywood studios. Not exactly a simple story of supply and demand.

      (2) because these bankruptcies are the result of bad business practices in the industry. If every VFX company refused to do fixed bids and pinned their budgets to hourly labor, then the free market would absolutely be healthy for these companies. The problem here is cultural, it’s not a problem with the market.

    • Jason

      Cool story but you’re completely ignoring the elephant in the room that is subsidies.

      • Bill “Danger” Robinson

        The subsidies might be the nail in the coffin but hasn’t the vfx market been crowded and floundering for years?

      • Cathy

        I would say that there’s a second elephant. If a studio earns 6x the cost of a film, why not kick back some thick bonuses to the fx studios that were instrumental in making the success happen? I’ve had ppl pay me more when they realized they themselves received more $$ than expected. Course, that was in Germany, not the US where greed replaces God.

  • Pedro Nakama

    The 2 main points of the movie(or the entire industry) are at 14:26 and 15:51.