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Artist RightsDocumentaryVFX

Watch ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Trick,’ A 24-Minute Documentary on The Unsustainable VFX Industry

All of the highest-grossing live-action Hollywood films last year were heavily reliant on computer generated visual effects.

And yet, the key creative talents who make these films possible—visual effects artists—are one of the only groups of talent in Hollywood that lacks union representation. As a result, many of the artists are underpaid, overworked, uncredited, mentally abused, and generally work under conditions that would be considered inhumane by any other group of Hollywood craftspeople.

Debuting today, Hollywood’s Greatest Trick, a new 24-minute documentary on the plight of contemporary vfx artists, is an excellent introduction to the scope and scale of the problem.

Watch the entire film below:

(If you have trouble viewing the embed, the video can be viewed on this page.)

The video is accompanied by a richly detailed article that adds more depth to the documentary. If there’s any question about why Hollywood is dead set against the unionization of vfx artists, the following graphic from the article will answer the question: vfx artists comprise the biggest portion of the crew on most Hollywood blockbusters.


And as the documentary makes clear, the problem doesn’t end with vfx artists. Taxpayers in many regions of the United States, as well as other countries, help subsidize Hollywood filmmaking through tax credits and rebates, while receiving nothing in return.

It’s a system that is, as one person puts it in the documentary, “unsustainable.” Notably, all six major entertainment conglomerates that are responsible for creating this situation—Sony, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Universal—either declined to speak with the filmmakers or didn’t respond to their interview requests. The Motion Picture Association of America, the lobbying group that represents these corporations in Washington D.C., also declined to speak on the issue of Hollywood’s vfx practices.

Hollywood’s Greatest Trick was produced by Sohail Al-Jamea and Ali Rizvi for McClatchy Video Lab, a division of the McClatchy media organization that owns dozens of newspapers around the United States. The reporting for the piece was’ done by Greg Hadley and Elizabeth Koh.

  • ike

    Somehow my browser does not display the whole controls properly, so if the same thing happens to you, here’s the link for the video:



    • cuco

      thanks friend!

  • RickyButler89

    well done to those who unionized in London. Just a shame MPC’s response has been to shift more jobs to Bangalore and Montreal.

    • Aydellon “Dr.” Beltran

      why do say Bangalore India? do most visual effects go there?

      • LC

        Yes, MPC has offices there as well as The Mill.

      • Josh Evans

        Yes. Sadly.

    • Chris

      We just need to keep making unions, wherever they shift the jobs.

    • noIMspartacus

      Ah yes… always copy America – one of the “benefits” of the “special relationship”.
      Oh the irony of it all! Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I remember correctly it was the US VFX houses (and corporate america long before them) that first started to ‘out source’ work to “cheaper alternatives”!
      Well, as they are so fond of saying in the “united” states, what goes round….

      • cw

        Well…kind of. When Harry Potter was co produced in LA and London, the UK work proved to the VFX houses in the US that they could get the same quality work but for a substantial rebate due to UK tax incentives. Then the US studios were bidding against studios on an uneven playing field. To land the work, they had to lower their bids even though they knew it couldn’t support their infrastructure. As the Potter movies progress and the talent pool rose, more studios were available for the work, and for the studios to bid against.

        But yeah…it is interesting how the US loves capitalism until…well…they don’t because someone else is at their expense…

    • Josh Swanson

      What did people think was going to happen?

  • Matt shep

    Its time to evolve with the landscape. Tired of hearing the rhythm and hues story as a platform for whats wrong with the industry and how a uniom will solve all the great problems impacting the workers.

    Seems like those that are big enough or savy enough to leverage the subsidies are doing well. Merging efforts and finding viable solutions to the ever changing environment (mercury merger with cartoon saloon) DHX purchase of nercorp, chrome cast buying dwa. Disney, pixar, ilm seem to be business as usual. Bardel selling to italian company.

    Top talent will always find a way. How many artists “at the top of their game” do not have work? I cant think of any…adapt or dont..

    • David

      So nobody matters except “top talent”.

    • Pedro Nakama

      One thing that is always left out of the Rhythm and Hughes story is the big building they bought before they went under. That had a lot to do with how bad the company was run.

    • Jack Rabbit

      That may be fine for you, but that only supports the companies that are causing the problem to hire people who look for ways to cause more problems. That leaves most out of the running for the jobs. In an of it-self, the animation industry does not support the education system that swelled by accruing endless numbers of fools to 6 figure student loans on the hope that they too can get a job and keep steady employment. See how THAT landscape changes in within the next decade or two.
      Animation is not what it seems to be, and the result of what this is all about is the last 30 years of loading the cable channels with sticky-sweet garbage that these kids were raised on.
      Who’s the fool now? They, who dreamed that it was an easy and viable profession to learn into because what they saw was so enticing and entertaining? My God, the colors and shapes and sounds and varieties? They just keep coming and coming! Season after season! And the best thing of all: you really don’t have to know how to draw!!! Sign me up!

    • Taco

      There’s always a bigger fish out there Matt Shep, with their own agenda to undermine the need to employ you as FTE or pay you at full award wages or contribute to your pension fund. If they can sidestep legally having to do so, then they won’t. This is done for THEIR benefit & budget at your expense. So curtail your hubris. Having more unions for any industry is never a bad thing. Unions are your colleagues organizing to help keep your collective benefits & pay rates & negotiate as a group. Think you can negotiate a better deal solo as a “rockstar” artist or animator? Be my guest. Here’s hoping you have nine lives & always land on your feet.

    • theCGDude

      Hey don’t you work in Vancouver. Where you don’t have to worry about healthcare benefits, which allow you to bounce around freely? Didn’t you work at Nitrogen when the free labor issues arose? Shouldn’t you be more concerned with the situation and trying to find a means to resolve it? Instead of begrudging the people who are taking the time to speak out about the world we work in? Also, I believe you meant Comcast instead of chrome cast.

    • MSD3000

      Top talent does find a way, as do the top brass. It’s the masses of people that support them that get thrown under the bus. And while I do believe that best and brightest should always be held high, it should never come at the expense of those beneath them.
      Which I realize flies in the face of most business practices today.

    • Mark Mayerson

      The majority of your examples are all TV or feature animation and have nothing to do with visual effects.

    • yono09

      I can’t tell you how many times major studios have tried to talk me into relocating to India, China or Singapore, so they can save a few bucks. Not to mention the Canadian dollars costs them 30% less, and tax payers pick up the tab for Studio’ getting subsidizes.

      • ike

        The tax payers ‘picking up the tab for Studios getting subsidizes’ is an argument that I keep reading more and more. And while it is true, these very same people are paying their taxes as well, and I assume the studios might be doing the same thing too. Plus lots of Canadians (and people all over the world; it seems it is easier to get a working visa for Canada than for the US) can have the opportunity to work on major titles:

        “Go back to 2002: there were 25 people working here in the field. Today: 2,500,” he says. “That’s fantastic.”

        […] In 2004, there were only a few companies in Vancouver—like Rainmaker and Toybox—that were “dabbling” (Dowdeswell’s word) in computer-generated effects for Hollywood features. Today there are more than 50, including such players as London-based MPC, Method Studios Vancouver, and the legendary Industrial Light & Magic. “Basically, every major company in the world is set up here,” Franklin says. […]


        As someone that is not from the United States and ended up here working I cannot ignore that that ‘race to the bottom’ gives new people a chance to jump on the VFX/animation train. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, as they say…

        • Leonardo Pinheiro

          Ike, I agree. Probably the studio and people in the vfx industry pays more taxes a year, than they got back from the government. And I don’t understand, people in the video doesn’t seem to understand much of economy. Do they think the government is good and is giving money for free for vfx studio? No, it’s an investment. Do they have any Idea of how a movie of 200m will be good for an economy where it is been produced? It’s an investment of the government and probably bring outcomes bigger than it’s is invested. It’s a bit of a contradiction saying you’re speaking up for artists and criticizing the only economy fully working and giving them a better environment to work!

        • J

          There will always be pros and cons. The issue is stability. The subsidies introduce more instability into an already unstable industry.

    • cw

      Sorry you are tired of the Rhythm story..but it’s a perfect point to raise when explaining how messed up this has all become. I don’t think a union would have helped it though. Maybe a union rep can weigh in, but I seem to remember Tom Sito being Union pres while Space Jam, a show he worked on, was outsourced to Toronto. I mean…that’s a problem right there, right? I like the fact that unionizing gives the artists more leverage, but keeping the jobs where they are feels like it’s completely out of reach…

  • H

    “They feel like there isn’t enough food on the table”.
    Yup. That’s an issue with humans in general. There’s enough wealth in the world to feed everyone, but those that are paranoid have trillions stored away in tax havens. It’s a sad state of affairs.
    But companies are adapting. As long as there’s a demand for the work it will get done at some level. Just maybe not at the quality we’d like.

  • Troy

    I feel that just doing a comment for this article isn’t doing justice for the video efforts, so I’ll be doing a full deep thought observation comment in the later days as a reply attached to this comment as it is going to be long and I want to seriously put effort on this. In the meantime, my first impression of this video are as follows: Disgusted, All over the place, Arrogant, Ignorant, Bitter, and Disconnected towards both studios and the artists (YES, I am also pointing the finger at the affected artists).

    • Troy

      After much time from my last comment, here are some thoughts from the video. At the time I was writing this, the article was updated to add a detailed article so I appended a few areas to reflect that. I’m also appending my previous comment to add the word: Sheer Disappointment. Do note that because of the nature of this video there are plenty of instances of conflicting argument, so I’ve appropriately placed them on the times for context. I’m also going to apologies ahead if my comments offend you in any way as this criticism is mainly aimed at the video’s content. For people that didn’t want to read a wall of text here are two short summaries for your convenience:

      Overall: So which is it? Do we want to expand the industry or have it focused in one place? You’re giving off a mixed message here.
      tl;dr – Catch 22 amped up to 11 with a side order of generation gap hypocrisy.

      1:40-3:00 I remember the whole Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy incident as people parade it around like theres no tomorrow. I didn’t see the oscar awards video in question prior to this video at the time, but people harp on that issue a lot so I got a gist of what it is about. I was even around when people start using the color green for their Facebook icons. The problem was that no one knows what that suppose to mean in the general public. Sure there were plenty of people that actually did ask the question of what it is or those that follow suit, but those people have someone they know in the industry to explain it properly. I’ve observed a sample of my friend’s friends and those that I know that changed to a green icon of their friends. The result was not promising to say the least. Heck before the news of the bankruptcy, I didn’t even know Rhythm and Hues or cared enough about Life of Pi to bat an eye. The major reason why I care about this issue was due to a class session I had, that skimmed about the definition of outsourcing at the same time when the bankruptcy news came out. Whether it was a coincidence or not was hard to say, but during the time I was in class not once did the teacher mentioned the actual real time issue with the outsource. However just because the teacher didn’t stated it, doesn’t give me the excuse to not see the bigger problem as it will affect the animation industry also, based on the patterns that I have seen.
      4:27-6:07 I find it funny this video didn’t throw in Andy Serkis as another example of the listed actors, if we’re throwing mud about whether actors are relevant in a vfx film (though I suppose a cameo will do if you actually know what part he did play as). I don’t know about how the whole using dead celebrities thing is going to pan out, but I do know that someone is going to lose at the end of this argument.
      6:41-7:58 I find it less believable that there are only six studios that contracted in the same lone vfx house, but not impossible to happen. So what this is saying to me is that there are, for example over 50 vfx houses to serve the only 6 studios? So what would happen if say there is 1 less of those 6? Are we going to expect a power struggle in trying to appeal those 5? Or are we going to do a scapegoat on which production houses caused the downfall of that studio? What happens if the other studios know the inside out of what the houses can do? As far as I can tell those who are left in the game need to stop trying get ahead of everyone if you can’t even keep up your own expenses.
      8:52-10:24 Pixel ****? Really? I can think of a few number of reasons how those picky directors ended up that way, but overall my opinion of them actually was impressed of how bored you must be of seeing the same scene if the VFX expert sees there was nothing wrong. Next I suppose you’re going to nitpick on a scene that wasn’t vfx made and fire the vfx artist who refused to fix it when he had nothing to do with that shot, fire the guy who handed it to you.
      10:33-11:35 Lovely introduction shot. But really? because I must be looking at the wrong place if you people are willing to be ignorant to the issue. So it basically amounts to “my way or the highway”. So if California isn’t willing to corporate those here in the US states, are we going to assume that if European Countries or Eastern nations joins in, you’re going to do a heel-face turn and say that it is our duty to unite under the pretense that we are the best here in the US? Also in the other article mentioned “relatively close proximity to California” for Canada. Exactly what measurements they’re using to get that result?
      11:41-12:09 I dunno what was Canada’s tax history or economy, but I doubt VFX subsidies was part of their plans to make their job outcomes competitive, it was more of an afterthought. Unfortunate casualty at the very least.
      12:40- 13:04 What happen with the Amazing Spider-Man 2 is something that I’m personally pointing the finger at Sony, but are you people REALLY thinking of what would happen if you went along with this?
      13:05-13:30 Speaking of the hack, did you people even bothered to ask each other how much you made? Because clearly people have no idea how much they’re making if everyone is flinging random prices that isn’t average. Based on the workforce charts provided by this and the other article, are we sure that the VFX artists aren’t masquerading as animators? I wonder how the recent ruling of the wage fixing lawsuit will affect VFX.
      13:54-14:10 I’m pretty sure the industry raising eyebrows about this problem is the least of your worries if the general public will immediately view the field as unemployed lazy hacks.
      14:35-15:47 With such a jaded attitude of your job situation you chose to enter the field convinced me that you people deserved to be loners. If the model is the same in New Mexico compared to the US, we clearly see which options to choose if we’re deciding which location to work at.
      15:52- 16:28 I’m all for people deserving credit when it is due, but if that is a sole reason of working with well known people, you’re better off with the internet, at least there will be someone who will appreciate your work.
      16:29-16:42 If you ask me it is most likely due to self-centered artists who aren’t willing to help newcomers breaking in the industry, convinced them to throw their self worth out the window.
      16:44-17:43 Oh so NOW we’re having issues with the schools, sorry but public schools are taking priority what with tight job employment outcomes and what not. And although it was immoral of what happened to those students compared to the current situation right now at least they’re able to work in a studio during their school time.
      17:44-18:34 If the studios weren’t desperate to find talent, you can bet that they would fire people with those health issues first chance they get. If what happens to a producer reflects the industry no one is safe, VFX or not.
      18:35-19:03 In case you people forgot, this is an ongoing problem that has now came to light.
      19:18-19:32 Oh good for a moment there I assume people forgot what they’re doing is part of their jobs. At least they know the reason why they’re doing this.
      19:33-19:58 There is a discrepancy of being blacklisted. I almost mistaken this part of the segment as being “getting blacklisted is a myth” before I had to remind myself that this video is a documentary of people stating their experiences and views. The way Daniel Lay worded it (or whoever edited this) made it seem like he supports the idea of getting blacklisted is nonexistent, I suppose the of people being blacklisted as a VFX Soldier blogger in VFX soldier blog post “A Soldier’s Story“ on December 2, 2013 (https://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/a-soldiers-story/) covered by various sources, one of which by this site, didn’t happen and was just a form of causality to gain sympathy, but I guess it is more a studio by studio basis if you want to really think blacklist didn’t exist. What is clear in this segment however, proves to me is that you people are arrogant enough to think the world revolves around you to warrant an excuse to step over newcomers to have the industry die with you.
      20:00-22:18 I don’t recall VFX nor Animation doing anything close to political matters, besides snark. If anything its pretty much implicating how you people want to separate from Hollywood, who to a certain extent represented you. As indicated later in this video, due to leverage for London against studios compared to here in the U.S. they of course they would have a better result to unionize. Asking to form an international union from all countries is effective as protesters opposing Trump as our president. I find it ironic that they show off the whole Disney strike clips where they have been for long months picket while the VFX artists took one coordinated event that ended up as a failed day as a sign to not continuing the protest.
      22:19-23:35 As this video closes out about why people wanted to be in this line of work, I would normally give them sympathy and support, unfortunately in my eyes they’re going have to earn it, because all I’m getting is disorganized, arrogant, jaded, bitter artists. As a human of course they have my sympathy, but as an artist I’m disappointed to the point of disgust that they should move on with everyone else instead of having a bitter defeatist attitude.
      23:36 This is just me but asking the offending six for an interview where we plainly slander their business model is laughable, so of course they’re not going to grant your request.

      -Really? You interview people that are former or known people that have issues with vfx industry? I’m guessing people still take the whole blacklisted thing seriously.
      -I don’t know if this is cartoonbrew’s way of showing headlines or not but having sausage party picture is pretty misleading but it is apples to oranges basically.
      -Complains about people speeding off credits > also speeds up credits, way to prove your point.
      -Exactly who is the video’s target audience? Are we going to see this on tv? I see no merit in censoring words, so I have to ask is there a director’s cut somewhere that we can order? Preferably one including subtitles due to hard to hear audio.
      -If this was on Youtube, this is either gonna get copyrighted strike or censored as slander.

      Message to those who view:
      VFX: The industry has my condolences and I wish them luck to turn the situation around.
      Studios: I encourage small studios to step up against bigger studios. Don’t do it to become a big shot, do it to change the path we’re in. The big six already declared war a long time ago. This isn’t the time haphazardly accept every job just to scrap on by. If you don’t want to make life difficult I suggest you put more thought on your future employees.
      General: There is nothing more horrible than seeing these artist, who gave their all towards their passion and shared it with everyone only to end up thrown out to die. They may have better artistic skills than you, but there are plenty of those who didn’t have the talent to work hard without thinking of who they’re doing it for. It is understandable that these artists aren’t like celebrities if they’re always shut in, but that doesn’t mean we can straight up ignore issues that affects their lives and those around them. It is forgivable to not know who crafted your movies, but it is absolute despeciable to allow any human being accept these conditions as the norm.
      Upcoming Artists: What you’re seeing is the reality of part of the industry. I suggest you rethink your choice. Going forward with the reason of “I love doing VFX” is still a valid reason in my book. But you have to account to the many things in life that you will face. Popular example would be entering a school to further your education of VFX. It won’t mean anything if you are unable to land a job under 3 months after graduation. If you can’t even have a stable job prior to going to school, don’t even bother entering this field period.
      Veterans: Get. Off. Your. High. Horse. You guys are also part of the frontline of paving the path of the industry. This isn’t the time to act smug to newcomers just because of skill difference. I find it less likely that newcomers wanted to follow your fine role model examples if it didn’t appeal to your liking. As veterans you guys do deserve respect and recognition, but at the rate you guys are handling the situation, the VFX industry are better off without you guys involved.

  • dsideb

    In the end credits (24:00), What is “Narraration” ? ;)

    • Michał Leszczyński

      At the begging of the documentary there is a narrator.

  • Hugh Gaanus

    Great video! I worked in VFX for 15 years before I got out in 2005. It was the same then. I miss the people and the creativity bit that’s about it :/

    • Dave

      What do you do now?

  • Bhaumik Mukesh Mehta

    ” You Reap What you Sow ” . Artists Themselves Exploit the Liberties and Freedom given to Them by the Studios to Indulge in unethical Malpractices in the Name of Increasing their ” Creativity ” . Artists Wouldn’t Go Home even When they can Just Because they don’t have as many means of Entertainment as They have in the Studios . They’d Do Night Shifts and Spend their Time Watching Movies or Playing Games and Also for Free Redeemable Food Funded for Them Doing Work Overnight .

    I do Not Blame the studios Management Alone because they Hired the Artists with Their Commitment to Deliver but Some Seniors Themselves are so Full of Ego and Machismo that They’d Unnecessarily Elongate the Process of the Delivery by Giving changes which The Client could Either have Ignored or Avoided .

    I blame the Management for not Setting up Guidelines and Enough Disciplinary Actions to be taken if the Artists behaves Irrationally and they should have proper Contracts Made with their Clients for Recovering all the Money Spent for the Additional Operational Cost which was Incurred because of the Unforeseen Changes which were Out of the Approved Script . I blame some Artists for taking the undue Advantage of their Creative Freedom and Causing harm to Themselves and their Respective Studios by Misusing their Resources and Overworking where it’s not necessary .