By Sohail Al-Jamea, Senior Motion Graphics Producer, McClatchy Video Lab
The unsettling plight of visual effect artists is exposed in, “Hollywood’s Greatest Trick,” a 24-minute award-winning documentary that is an official selection at the Beverly Hills Film Festival. In this film, my colleagues and I document the dark side of the film industry and its abuse of some of its most imaginative creators who toil for low pay and long hours, while living in fear of being blacklisted if they speak out.
This project is personal to me. Films like Jurassic Park and Titanic fired my imagination as a kid, and helped inspire me to enroll in the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in hopes of becoming a professional visual effects artist. After graduating with a BA in Computer Animation, I envisioned securing a 9–5 job with good benefits. Instead, I became a freelance visual effects artist working in challenging conditions for studios who often refused to offer a fair wage.
My experience was typical. My first gig paid an hourly wage that was lower than the $8.25 per hour I earned scooping ice cream in college. The subsequent gigs didn’t pay significantly more. I often worked 100 hours a week, bounced from one job to the next with no guarantee of even being paid. Then came a deluge of health problems from anxiety to chronic back pain as a result of long hours of work and financial insecurity.
The industry is laden with nomadic visual effects shops operating in a flawed, fixed-bid pricing system mandated by an oligopoly of a few Hollywood studios that control over 85 percent of the U.S. film industry. In this fixed-bid system, the movie studio pays one fixed price to a visual effects shop for work on a film. When the film director or film studio add new visual effects shots or revise existing ones, the financial burden of the added work often falls on the visual effects shop. In order for them to eke out a small profit or just try to break even, it is typically freelance visual effects artists who suffer as they must work longer hours, often without overtime pay.
When I made a career shift to journalism, I figured I was in a unique position to tell this story. So together with my colleague Ali Rizvi, who had experienced similar conditions while working in post-production, we set out to tell this story.
Ali and I initially had a hard time finding visual effects artists active in the industry who would even agree to speak in front of a camera. The fear of backlash from the industry loomed large. Fortunately, we were still able to conduct several compelling interviews that became the heart of the documentary. Regrettably, neither the big six movies studios nor the Motion Picture Association of America would comment on these working conditions despite our attempts to get their side of the story.
When filming concluded, Ali and I faced the daunting task of condensing nearly 30 hours of interview footage into a film that would run close to 25 minutes. Fortunately, we used an online transcription software called Trint that not only transcribed the interviews but synced them with the original timecode.
We printed out hundreds of pages of interviews and combed through them with a highlighter pen. Our goal was to complete our project prior to the 2017 Academy Awards because that’s when we felt the topic would generate the most interest. What made it especially relevant was a reference to the awards at the top of the documentary featuring a 2013 archival clip of visual effects studio Rhythm and Hues collecting an Oscar statuette for their work on Life of Pi while announcing they were in the midst of a bankruptcy. The last few weeks before our target publishing date as we raced to make our deadline, I worked with Ali and our editor Jon Forsythe as we willingly put in long hours much like the freelance visual effects artist we were spotlighting. The irony was not lost on us.
Once published, the overall reception of the film exceeded our expectations. The film was embraced with open arms by visual effects artists around the globe, and it revived a discussion in the industry on the topic of worker rights, including paid overtime, sick leave, family leave, and proper accreditation in films.
Hollywood’s Greatest Trick was a collaborative effort which included members of the McClatchy Video Lab, McClatchy DC, and The Sacramento Bee. Watch it here
Director of Editorial Video, Jon Forsythe Executive Producer
Senior Podcast Producer, Davin Coburn Narration
Pulitzer-Winning Cartoonist, Jack Ohman Illustration
Motion Graphics Producer, Patrick Gleason Animation
Video Journalist, Brittany Peterson Production assistant
Video Producer, Alexa Ard Production assistant
Video Producer, John Albert Production assistant