By DEBRA KAUFMAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By DEBRA KAUFMAN
“Artists want validation from the production, but the studio executives are stymied by rules and regulations. We have a good collaborative response from people in legal and production, but I think the rules surrounding credits in VFX are fairly immovable. We have tried for years and years.”
—Matt Fox, Global Joint Managing Director, Film, Framestore
The 85th Academy Awards was a watershed moment for the visual effects industry. While 500 VFX artists protested outside the Kodak theater, inside, Rhythm & Hues Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer received the VFX Oscar® for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. What audiences at home (and in the theater) didn’t know was that Rhythm & Hues, founded in 1987, was shutting its doors even as Westenhofer accepted the award. He didn’t have the chance to share that news with the global audience as he had run out his allotted time at the microphone and it went dead.
The moment was emblematic of what many in the industry believe: that VFX doesn’t have a voice nor does it get sufficient respect for the artistry of its contribution, which touches nearly every film and, in some, provides a majority of the on-screen imagery. Many others in the VFX industry simply want to know why their credits come so late in the end crawl, long after the last of the other creative credits.
To understand why VFX credits are where they are, context is crucial. “Credits have always been contested,” says UCLA Film and Television Archive director Jan-Christopher Horak, who wrote Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design. “It’s always a political skirmish and a skirmish about power.” Horak reports that, in the early days of silent films, credits consisted of a single title card that would name the film and the production company. In particular, producers were careful not to identify the actors since they might have to pay them more money if they became popular. But, very quickly, the public identified individuals anyway and, says Horak, “clamored to find out who they were.” As producers feared, the actors began to demand more money.
Visual effects were credited early on, says Jonathan Erland, VES, who points to director F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise, which won inaugural Academy Awards for best actress, cinematography and “best unique and artistic picture,” the latter of which refers to the movie’s exquisite compositing. But credits were still a haphazard affair. That began to change as actors formed the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. The story that people like to tell is that studio boss Irving Thalberg swore he would die before accepting the Guild; when he died in 1936, the studios signed a contract with the fledgling Guild. In fact, after the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act, producers agreed to negotiate in 1937. By then, the directors and writers had banded together into their own guilds, all of them with collective bargaining rights and under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Not so visual effects, which was in-camera work that, when it was credited, was usually listed near the cinematographer or camera department.
The studios still called the shots, standardizing many aspects of filmmaking, but, as the Hollywood guilds exercised their collective muscle, opening credits became more elaborate and recognized more people. To be sure, some of the credits were political considerations and many names in a department didn’t make it in the screen credits. “Even in the 1930s and 1940s, there were always feuds about credits within the guilds,” says Horak. “The big studios had no qualms about having 20 different writers work on a film, and then when it came to credits, there would be arbitration.”
Credits were less standardized however when it came to in-camera visual effects, which were often – but not always – listed as special photographic effects. In 1933, King Kong recognized Willis H. O’Brien in the opening credits as “Chief Technician,” although today he would be credited as the film’s visual effects supervisor; Linwood Dunn, ASC’s contribution as optical photographer, however, was not credited. The 1939 Wizard of Oz gave an opening “special effects” credit to Arnold Gillespie, and the 1939 Gone With the Wind credited Jack Cosgrove for “special photographic effects” in bigger typeface and before cinematographer Ernest Haller, ASC’s credit. Although cinematographers had their own honorary society, the ASC, the camera guilds were local until the national Local 600 formed in 1996.
The Paramount Consent Decree of 1948, also known as the Hollywood Antitrust Case, changed the movie industry in a profound way that impacted the importance of credits. The Consent Decree was aimed at breaking up the studios’ vertical monopoly over production and distribution of the content and the theaters where the content was exhibited. Through some twists and turns, the Supreme Court finally decided for the Consent Decree in 1948, essentially breaking the studio system that had existed for decades.
The result was the birth of independent features – and independent actors who now craved prominent credits sometimes more than money. Credit on the screen kept them in the public eye and increased their value. Among visual effects, however, credits for special effects photography continued to be unreliable, sometimes at the movie’s opening and other times completely missing. For example, Arnold Gillespie was again credited for special photographic effects for his work on the 1959 Ben Hur, and Ray Harryhausen got quite prominent credit on the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts, as Associate Producer and Creator of Special Effects. But not everyone got the credit they deserved. On the 1952 High Noon, for example, Willis Cook was not credited for special effects; he likewise did not get a credit as special effects supervisor on the 1957 A Farewell to Arms, the 1960 All the Young Men, or even the 1970 The Molly Maguires. There were still numerous movies that barely credited anyone who worked on them.
Although a movie might only list 40 people or so, this was the era in which we first hear loud complaints about “excessive” credits and credits that were too complicated to properly enact. In 1947, the Los Angeles Times reported on all the lawsuits provoked by credits listed on marquees, posters and all printed
advertisements. “Most of these ticklish provisions are set forth exhaustively in studio contracts,” it said. “But the burden of carrying them out falls heavily on the sagging shoulders of the poor exhibitors.” A 1962 Variety article lamented “the downgrading of values of recent years” with regard to screen credits that “literally list the entire cast.” “Featured” billing, the publication argued, lost its significance.
Screen actors publicly warred in the 1940s and 1950s over top billing, sometimes resolved in Solomonic fashion. In 1947, Irene Dunne and William Powell tussled over top billing in Warner’s Bros.’ Life with Father. The solution? Two first reels were made, one giving Powell’s name top billing, the second with Dunne’s on top, and exhibitors alternated these two first reels day-by-day. The solution was identical for Rita Hayworth and Deborah Kerr’s struggle over credits in the 1958 Separate Tables. Agents for Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable warred over which would get top billing in the 1953 How to Marry a Millionaire. The solution there was to give Monroe first billing in the ad art and Grable top screen billing on all the prints. Producers, meanwhile, saw credits as “an unbelievable nuisance,” says Horak. “They can also be an expense,” he says. As the number of credits grew, so did the gradual move to putting them all at the end. As early as 1941, Citizen Kane drew attention by putting all the credits at the end, but Horak says that the 1956 Around the World in 80 Days was a turning point for placing credits at the end.
Perhaps the industry’s biggest feud over credits was that for “possessory credit,” or who had the right to an opening credit of “a film by” or a “screenplay by.” D.W. Griffith got the first such credit in 1915 on Birth of a Nation, and Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and many others followed his path. The debate began in 1966 when the WGA and AMPTP negotiated a deal that limited the ability of the director to get possessory credit unless he was a writer on the movie or the author of the original source material. When the DGA learned of the deal in 1968, things quickly devolved, with the directors threatening to “withhold services” after April 30, 1968. Dozens of articles followed the serpentine struggle between the two powerful guilds that wasn’t resolved, according to the DGA website, until 2004, nearly 40 years after it began.
During this era, however, a perusal of the pages of major Los Angeles newspapers and trade publications turns up no stories on the struggles of visual effects artists for recognition of their contributions. In fact, visual effects-heavy movies were in the trades for other reasons, such as George Lucas famously leaving the DGA in 1981 when the guild attempted to fine Lucasfilm $250,000 for putting director Irvin Kershner’s card at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, in defiance of the DGA’s regulation that the director’s credit must be in the opening credits. Lucas and Kershner had applied for a waiver “explaining that creatively the credits only worked at the end,” but the DGA wouldn’t budge. Lucas paid Kershner’s fine.
“VFX now plays a role throughout the filmmaking process. The natural progression would see visual effects moving up in the order of credits, which is often not the case.”
—Gill Howe, Executive Producer, Rising Sun Pictures
Other VFX-heavy films also struggled over credits that had nothing to do with the visual effects. The tussle over Mars Attacks! was about WGA sole screen credit to original writer Jonathan Gems (which left out script doctors); When New Line submitted four producer names for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the ruling was that they were limited to three (Tim Sanders got cut). In 2003, writer Tad Friend wrote an in-depth piece in The New Yorker about Hollywood screen credits that focused exclusively on writers.
While writers, directors and actors fought their wars over credits, the visual effects industry was undergoing its massive shift from analog to digital, with the founding of such companies as Industrial Light + Magic, Boss Films, Robert Abel & Associates and Digital Productions. Increasingly, the visual effects in movies evolved from special camera effects – something that people could understand – to CGI, which was a puzzling acronym for most of the public. The top grossing films of the 1990s were all VFX-centric movies, from Titanic to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Men in Black and Toy Story 2, but the conversation about VFX was relegated to “how they did it” stories, with no conversation about how to properly credit the work being done.
In fact, many films continued to give VFX credit for “special photographic effects.” In 1982, Douglas Trumbull, VES’s credit on Blade Runner was for Special Photographic Effects Supervisor, the same credit he got on the 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. These were halcyon days for visual effects artists, who reveled in the work pioneering the use of computers to accurately represent everything from fur to faces. The Visual Effects Society was formed in 1997 as a “non-profit, professional honorary society” to recognize, advance and honor “visual effects as an art form, promoting the interests of its Membership.” Concern over credits was not on the minds of most visual effects artists in those early days, buoyed as they were by the challenges of pushing technology forward and creating stunning images.
As the movies got bigger and took more advantage of digital visual effects, so the list of VFX credits grew, and lots of people noticed. On Nov. 8, 1982, The New York Times’ Aljean Harmetz reported that “some Hollywood movies today have technical credits six or eight times as large as their casts.” She pointed out Star Trek II, with 20 actors who get their names and 127 behind-the-scenes people; Raiders of the Lost Ark that credited 232 “technicians … with computer engineering and electronic systems design”; and Tron, which has 44 actors and “nearly 300 people whose faces do not appear on the screen.” She did not mean this in a good way.
Although everyone from assistant cooks to secretaries now gets credit, says Harmetz, “the chief reason for the length of credits are the requirements of the sophisticated special effects movies that have poured out since Star Wars … all recognition of the computer-generated imagery that will increasingly be a part of moviemaking.” The visual effects community didn’t answer the charge of excessive credits – and were not covered in the press as seeking more significant placement of their credits. A keyword search of “credits” at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library produces not a single article on VFX credits during this era.
The visual effects community believes it’s time for a change. “As technology and the art of visual effects has evolved, VFX now plays a role throughout the filmmaking process,” says Rising Sun Pictures Executive Producer Gill Howe. “The natural progression would see visual effects moving up in the order of credits, which is often not the case.” Howe points out that some VFX-heavy films spend half their budgets on visual effects, which also isn’t reflected in the credits.
“The horse is out of the barn. We have over-population of the business with super talent. I try in my way to right the ship, but we’re fighting with studios that have 100 years of experience in negotiating deals.”
—Richard Edlund, VES and Founder/President of former Boss Films Studios
VFX credits are currently an opaque process. On a film-by-film basis, each VFX facility head negotiates with the studio executive in charge of VFX for credits, but regardless of the compromise they come to, each studio’s credits executive has to sign off – and at times simply scotches whatever deal was struck, sometimes with a Catch-22 explanation. For example, former VES Chair Jeffrey A. Okun, VES recalls that one now-defunct VFX facility made a deal with the studio’s VFX executive to halve their rate for shots that had to be created and delivered over a weekend, in exchange for a single card company credit in the end crawl. When the movie opened, however, the VFX company was shocked to find it didn’t get that promised credit, because the studio’s vice president of credit and title administration explained that the dollar amount was less than the threshold required to get a credit.
For Framestore Global Joint Managing Director, Film, Matt Fox, credits are crucial for the crew, which wants recognition as well as a salary. “Artists want validation from the production,” he says, “but the studio executives are stymied by rules and regulations.” Instead, he has to map out everyone working on the project and eventually determine who gets credit and who doesn’t. “We have a good collaborative response from people in legal and production, but I think the rules surrounding credits in VFX are fairly immovable,” says Fox. “We have tried for years and years.”
Some more highly placed VFX professionals have tried to enable change on their own. Richard Edlund, VES, ASC reports that 20 years ago he went to the DGA to try to get creative credits for VFX supervisors, “thereby taking VFX supervisors into the DGA as such, maybe even as VFX directors.” Edlund says that initially the DGA seemed open to the idea, with the suggestion that VFX supervisors could be considered 2nd unit directors, but the pitch languished. “I talked to all the visual effects supervisors and they were all excited about the concept,” says Edlund. “But the studios wouldn’t like it because they don’t want to pay what a 2nd unit director makes, and there is no union or guild on the side of VFX supervisors.”
Visual effects supervisors can occasionally get screen credit in the title block with the cinematographer and production designer: John Knoll; John Dykstra, ASC; Dennis Muren, VES, ASC, among a handful of others, have done so. But each and every picture requires the DGA to issue a waiver, which are not given out freely. Edlund recalls litigating against the DGA to get that credit on Fright Night, after he had successfully negotiated a waiver for Ghostbusters and 2010. The sticking point was that the DGA considered VFX to be a technical, not creative credit, says Edlund, who also had constant credit issues as head of Boss Films. “I spent tens of thousands of dollars negotiating credit issues,” he says. “Every movie, I had to go and fight for 120 credits. Every contract would end up costing me $50,000 to negotiate.”
Because visual effects are a complex process that often goes on for many months at multiple facilities, the total number of VFX credits is a moving target. “VFX teams tend to grow as the movie goes through the post process,” says Fox. At the same time, says ILM Chief Creative Officer/Senior Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll, the studios are pushing for fewer names “at least relative to the sizes of the crews. The restrictions get tighter as the crews get bigger,” he says. “I oppose that. I don’t think it’s fair or equitable to do to our department, especially considering the contribution we make.” VFX credits listed at the end, he adds, is “an anachronism” from the earlier days when visual effects consisted of dissolves and wipes, “with the occasional use of miniatures and matte paintings.”
Knoll also notes that the cycle time for a feature film at ILM is a year and a half, with 300 to 400 people working on a movie for that time. “We out-number and outlast the live-action crews by a pretty substantial margin,” he says. Fox notes that, even when VFX does get the go-ahead to list all or most of the artists, the names are listed in small type in several columns that roll so quickly that it’s impossible to see individual names. Fox believes this stress might be alleviated if the studios were to support an IMDb-type official list. “Artists want to know that, for all their efforts, they can point to the fact they got a de facto credit,” he says.
What can be done? Most people in the VFX industry would like to have collective bargaining power, with or without the structure of a union, but forming one now would face several challenges: because the VFX industry is now international, most think it is impossible to standardize rates and working conditions globally. Others say that a union would also drive up the costs of creating VFX, an anathema to the studios and producers.
Some experts, like Edlund, think “the horse is out of the barn. We have over-population of the business with super talent,” he says. “I try in my way to right the ship, but we’re fighting with studios that have 100 years of experience in negotiating deals.”
Horak, further from the battle, draws a softer conclusion: that we are still in the transition from analog to digital. “Hollywood and its modus operandi is extremely conservative and only changes very slowly, as we know,” he says. “The actual fact of moviemaking is far ahead of what’s in the heads of those who have the say. It may just take a little bit longer.”
If there is a real desire to influence practices that dictate credits for those in the craft, there is ample Hollywood history to draw from, as virtually every job category has had to fight for recognition and rights. In addition to lawyers, funding and persistence, successful efforts made their case as visible as possible to help build industry support.
So far, the VFX industry has fought its battles with studio executives as companies and individuals in private. In bringing renewed attention to this complex and critical issue, a next step towards workable solutions might be to continue the conversation while spreading the dilemmas facing VFX facilities to the wider Hollywood community. Problems can’t be resolved if they’re only talked about in hushed tones, out of the spotlight.