The Lion King was an incredible work of artistry by everyone involved, from the talented animators whose fingerprints were on every frame, to the iconic music, voice acting, writing, and direction that brought classic characters and an epic story to life. But that was 1994.
2019’s The Lion King was a cash grab in just about every sense of the word, a soulless rehash of the original movie that aped just about everything from the creative team’s hard work from 25 years ago without bringing much new to the tale. Most of those writers and storyboard artists will get no credit (nor residuals) from the new movie’s $1.66+ billion take. The movie rubbed some of the original animators the wrong way, though others are resigned to the fact that, most of the time, animation is a service provided to a creator who owns the rights, not a “creation” in and of itself. Even Elton John was “disappointed.” Pretty much the only winners from this remake are the folks who stand to make big bucks on the backend of its success, even as the VFX teams who actually made every frame in the picture are about to lose their livelihood.
The credit and residuals aspect of the animation industry is an absolute mess. SAG-AFTRA voice actors and WGA writers, both of whom continue to fight for representation and revenue rights, actually have it pretty good in this regard as they get residuals for animation projects. TAG (The Animation Guild) writers do not. That’s mostly due to politics and past precedents that say stories are shaped by credited writers and directors, even if story ideas come from a variety of storyboard artists and other creatives. That’s bad enough, but VFX artists have it worse.
First of all, VFX artists have traditionally been employed to work on scene-specific tasks, green-screen clean-ups throughout a movie or TV show, and, y’know “visual effects” that couldn’t be provided in-camera or on-set, or would be prohibitively expensive to do so. Demand for their work has gone up exponentially over the last few decades; a few hundred VFX shots used to be standard where now that numbers in the thousands. With this workload comes incredible opportunity for VFX artists and studios, but also encourages rather vicious competition. Movie studios shop out the heavy VFX work to multiple shops, each of which normally has a relatively small in-house crew and an ability to farm out work to freelance artists as the duties ramp up and as need demands. Under normal circumstances, the system should work to the benefit of all, meaning that both full-time and freelance VFX artists should be paid well for big-budget projects requiring lots of work. But because it’s such a competitive space, VFX studios are in the position of low-balling offers in order to secure the work in the first place. Movie studios win, VFX studio executives win, but the artists who actually have to do the work (and don’t have a union to represent him, despite some efforts by the IATSE to do so) ultimately lose out; that workload is translated into long hours, forced overtime, and, in the case of the Vancouver VFX shop, MPC, shutdown.
Secondly, The Lion King is not a live-action movie that needed a few thousand VFX shots to clean it up; it’s an animated movie using photorealistic animals as the characters. That’s the work of animators, not VFX artists alone. Disney chose to go with MCP for some of the workload–and they did an incredible awards-worthy job–but why? Well, I’m speculating, but I’d imagine it was to take advantage of some of the things I just mentioned, like VFX artists not being unionized or getting screen credit/residuals, and the VFX studios themselves undercutting the competition financially, forcing them to overwork their existing employees and freelancers. So even though The Lion King took in over $1.66 billion, the Vancouver office of MPC is shutting down the same year that its flagship film was released. CartoonBrew reports that the Motion Picture Company studio that employed up to 800 artists at one point, likely during the height of production, will shut down, citing “increasing external market pressures in Vancouver and more attractive opportunities in other locations.” Someone stands to make a nice buck here, but it’s probably not the artists themselves. Technicolor owns MPC and will still operate VFX studios in Montreal, Paris, Adelaide, LA, and Toronto, for now at least.
That’s all a little insane, but not uncommon. Variety had a great write-up on the state of the VFX industry in the busy TV and movie season of Summer 2018. How can so much available work force so many artists into ridiculous hours and untenable working conditions, and still result in studios shuttering their doors? Simple: Unchecked greed and capitalism run amok. There’s no reason everyone involved shouldn’t be buoyed by this unprecedented opportunity but instead, the rewards are going to a few suits while the folks doing the hard work are paying the price; that’s all just speculation, of course…
Vancouver may currently be a hotbed of VFX production, but it’s also clear that the competition there is forcing its artists into unsafe working conditions. But as long as those artists lack a union to fight for them, studios, executive, and the powers that be will continue to take advantage of the situation that vastly benefits them at the expense of those toiling away. That’s a tale as old as time and one we’ll likely be seeing for years to come. Remember that the next time you go to yet another blockbuster picture.