Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Role of the Artist


The reality is, most people who work behind the scenes in Hollywood get crapped on, unless you're the director and the producer. Screenwriters have been working thankless, poorly paying jobs for decades. - Allison M. Dickson on Facebook. 

Jack Kirby created things on paper that could only be
dreamed of on film 

There's some hooraw over the treatment of video effects (vfx) artists because the house that provided visuals for the film The Life of Pi (which won an Oscar for both its cinematographer and director) is in financial trouble. Director Ang Lee failed to mention the house (Rhythm & Hues) and was quoted earlier in the week as wishing that the process of vfx were cheaper. The cinematographer also failed to mention the ruckus. A lot of people were upset further that during the presentation for vfx, the cast of (Marvel's) The Avengers made light of the award despite the fact that a protest was going on at the awards and at least two of the cast were CGI animated characters for a good deal of the film they're associated with.

That's the short version, believe it or not.

I have a friend or two who work in vfx out in Hollywood. They freelance like comic book artists. They don't have a union, they get paid a flat rate, work insane hours (sometimes double what I do), weekends and days upon days in a row, and have few - if any, really no - benefits. And yet, they contribute to the enjoyment of films that do hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars at the box office.

And Ang Lee wants the process to be cheaper.

Okay.

So, stories that were previously 'unfilmable' (the Star Wars prequels, AvatarLife of PiCloud Atlas) because technology hadn't caught up to the filmmakers' vision are now able to be put on screen. And yes, that should cost money. And it should take time. And because it's a work-for-hire, the artists involved don't own anything of the film; they don't get any of those hundreds of millions or billions of box-office dollars. By the time the film they worked on comes out they're already on to the next project for a flat rate, no benefits, and insane hours.

And filmmakers want the process to be cheaper. And studios want the process to be faster.

I see a problem.

But it's not a new problem. This kind of behavior by corporations has always gone on. I'm most familiar with it regarding comics. DC's lawsuits against the creators of Superman for one. Jack Kirby's fight with Marvel Comics for the return of his original art for another. In both cases, the publisher made tons and tons of money off the characters and stories created by the artists (called properties by the corporation). Kirby's fight, in particular, led to slightly better conditions for artists who were guaranteed at least the return of their original artwork which allowed for them to sell the artwork and realize some small portion of recompense from collectors. However, as part of the work-for-hire contract, neither Kirby nor his heirs receive any further compensation for his creations.

And the cast of (Marvel's) The Avengers, 4 out of 5 who portrayed a character created or co-created by Jack Kirby, made light of the award they were giving for vfx. These actors, artists, are compensated a great deal more than the creator (and his family) of the character they play and a great deal more than the artists who take the vision of the creator and see it realized on screen. The artists on screen could show a little solidarity with the folks who did the legwork.

The studios could allow a little more time for art. And compensate accordingly.

It's not just money I'm talking about though. Look, working 80 hours in a week is just plain dumb. There are studies that show that after 9 hours in a workday, people become more and more useless. A little patience on the part of the studios makes sense. This isn't fast food, it's art. It's popular art, to be sure, but art, nonetheless.

The intersection of business and art is what we're really talking about here. Business builds unrealistic expectations and then punishes those who point out those unrealistic expectations. Guess who owns Marvel Comics and ABC, the network that broadcast the Academy Awards. Go ahead.

Disney.

Of course that doesn't excuse the business practices of Rhythm & Hues, which I know nothing about. I do know, however, that business practices and poor planning are what lead to a business failing. You see it all the time if you pay attention. I'm not drawing any connection between Disney and Ryhthm & Hues, but one would think that the studios would understand that they need to work with sub-contractors to produce the best work possible on a reasonable schedule. One would think that Disney would understand the intersection of business and art.

Ask the families of the creators of Superman and The Avengers if they understand how business and art can work together so that everyone can profit from the work that was commissioned. That's all they want. When a character or story (or property) is successful everyone should share in the profits. When the adaptation of said property is successful in another medium the profit should be shared.

Artists should not compromise their art for the sake of a buck. Businesses should not come with unreasonable expectations and an attitude that the work can be done cheaper elsewhere. Meetings should be taken between parties that respect one another and the people who work for them.

It's really not that difficult. Is it?