WSJ: Oscar nominee (Beasts) had 85 of its 120 VFX shots created with free labor


Miles from the glitz of the 85th Academy Awards, a group of university students will be waiting, with crossed fingers, to learn if multiple Oscar-nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild” wins.

Not just because of an Oscar pool. Thirty-three students from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University worked for months to craft most of the post-production visual-effects for the independent feature.

Staged in a poverty-stricken Louisiana bayou, “Beasts” is up for four Oscars, including Best Picture – a coup for a film made on a shoestring $1.5 million budget, “without name actors and relying on baby pigs to be our monsters,” said the film’s producer Josh Penn.

The fantasy drama, narrated by an imaginative 6-year-old called Hushpuppy (played by Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis), was no easy visual feat, encompassing explosions, relentless flooding and stampedes of pig-like creatures called aurochs.

Students worked from 10 to 40 hours a week as part of the academy’s “Compositing in Production” class dubbed Studio 400A, an advanced elective wherein students offer free visual-effects work for low-budget films.

“Finding out about this class was a revelation in an industry geared towards ‘Iron Man 3′ and ‘The Avengers’,” said Mr. Penn. Big-name visual-effects houses didn’t even want to talk to us, he said, let alone offer a price quote. The film was funded by a series of grants from non-profit group Cinereach and the San Francisco Film Society before being picked up by Fox Searchlight for distribution.

“Every filmmaker we work with has no money. We aren’t getting offers to work on ‘Transformers’ and we wouldn’t take them on even if we did,” said Catherine Tate, visual-effects instructor at the academy.



So, they are ahead of John Textor? :smiley:


Oooooooh, well in that case it’s perfectly OK.



No one would be paying any attention to this if Beasts of the Southern Wild didn’t become a festival hit and get the oscar nomination.

This was a low-budget indie film, that students voluntarily worked on to get experience and work with quality material. As Catherine pointed out - it isn’t a moneymaking property like Iron Man or Transformers.

My only question is: Now that it’s gaining attention and will bring in some money for the creators, do the students that worked on it get some sort of additional compensation? (Even if it wasn’t discussed with the filmmakers beforehand?)


So it’s okay, as long as the film doesn’t make money? What kind of logic is that? Who can guess if a film will be profitable (even though most aren’t)? And isn’t a movie that cost under $2 million and got picked up by Fox Searchlight bound to become profitable?

I can guess with near 100% certainty that all of those students signed waivers saying all the work they did was part of their curriculum and that they are entitled to nothing. This sets another terrible precedent. They are actively contributing to the downfall of the industry they seem to be so anxious to “break into.”


I think they should.


It helped to build their portfolio. “It’ll be a great demo reel piece”


Yes, it IS ok. The students weren’t forced into it. It wasn’t a required part of their curriculum. It wasn’t treated like a job where they’d be ‘fired’ if they didn’t complete X number of shots on time. They volunteered to help this indie filmmaker complete a project of passion, and get some school credit towards their education while they were at it.

If I volunteer to help my buddy out with some VFX on his film because i’m itching to try some new tool I’m learning in a real-world scenario, that’s my business, and it doesn’t devalue the industry because there was no money at stake to begin with.

The real issue at hand is: If my buddy’s film ends up unexpectedly bring him in a few million dollars - does he have any obligation to give me some of that money since I helped him?


But it’s not about you helping out a buddy (and unless you had some prior contract, he owes you nothing if his little indie becomes a hit). It’s about schools offering organized services for free to filmmakers under the guise that it’s all being done for the sake of the students. Did we learn nothing from the enormous DD thread where all of this was discussed?

Who knows, maybe it is for the students’ sake. I’m sure some of the school’s staff have the students’ best career interests at heart, but I’m also sure they would love for them to win an Oscar to help validate their vfx program, too. But nothing erases the reality that it’s professional or near-professional level work for free.


But see, this is NOT like the Digital Domain School thread AT ALL.

DD was trying to open a school where students paid tuition to work on DD animated feature films. These films would then be heavily marketed and be expected to do well in the wide release box office and DVD sales. Generating a main source of income for DD.

This was an no-name independent filmmaker with no money to afford professional vfx work.
No one could have guessed the film would become as successful as it has been.


I think for a school-organized pre-professional service geared towards education and training, the students should at least be entitled to a minimum wage.

This is comparable to the co-op structure of other disciplines like engineering… or even medical training of internship -> residency etc.

Even if the directors have “no money” they should at least be able to offer minimum wage.


This would be nice as they continue into the future - now that the curriculum has proven itself.


So, you’re saying it’s totally different because a filmmaker with no money went to them for free labor vs a high-budget filmmaker going to them for free labor? How is that any different from the students’ or schools’ perspective? Do you see it as some kind of entitlement of the school when a production has a higher budget? Exactly what is the cut-off budget amount to make it allowable for these students to work on a film?

Regardless of which, each school has set up a departmental program to offer free vfx work. Looks exactly the same to me. Art Academy is just putting lipstick on a pig by saying they are just trying to “help out indie productions.”


Yes, there IS a difference - if a filmmaker with a high-budget is looking for free VFX work then there’s obviously something shady and immoral going on.

I understand what you’re saying - it’s obviously a fine line to walk - and I personally despise any attempts to exploit free labor from talented VFX artists… but I really do believe there is a difference between this situation and a situation like what DD was trying to setup.

Like I said, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Beasts didn’t explode like it did.
We would (and did) be having this conversation with the Digital Domain school situation.

Let me put it this way: Should VFX students and Film students be allowed collaborate with each other to work on making a film? Even if there is no money involved? Or is it devaluing the industry and no VFX student should lift a wacom pen without being paid for their work?


in the end, it is better for a student to work on real world projects with real world problems and real world deadlines versus the academic standard protocol.

This is likely something in-between. It’s a real world project and on an indie film, instead of a real world project on a commercial film with commercial distribution. Students are still going to have limitations over seasoned professionals. If that is not the case, then VFX work is an industry that a trained monkey can handle and will likely collapse on itself.

As a fortune cookie once revealed, where one door closes, another opens. Maybe VFX is headed towards the avenue of the low wage assembly line worker.


Nobody is profiting off a student film, and if they do end up profiting, everyone involved probably splits the money.

I don’t care what the budget of a movie is, it’s making money and a portion of people who worked on it aren’t making anything.

Can I start a new company and tell my contractors and IT folks and etc. that they aren’t going to be paid cause I figure my business will probably fail within the month?


Nobody would be profiting off of Beasts of the Southern Wild if it didn’t explode like it did.

Now that it did profit - the only question in play is what happens with that profit… do the VFX students get any of it for their labors?


Just know that the Academy of Art University isn’t the only institution who’s doing it…


But the intention of the movie was to make a profit. Among other things, sure, but I’m willing to bet the people involved wanted to make money. This isn’t a non-profit, it’s a business venture. A small chance of success means nothing.

You’re whole logic of intention is flawed. I’m not free of the obligation to pay someone for their labor if I think the product will fail.


No. Lets use the business analogy you brought up:

Can I start a new company and tell my contractors and IT folks and etc. that they aren’t going to be paid cause I figure my business will probably fail within the month?

You can tell your contractors and IT folks that you have an idea for a product - something you believe in, that may or may not be successful when it’s finished. You don’t have money to pay them for their labors right now.

Now those people have the choice to decline and find paying work with other people / go off an work on their own projects / etc. But if some of those people believe in your product, and want to help you realize it, then that’s their choice and they become investors of the product.

If the product is a failure, everyone walks away and goes off to try something else… knowledge and experience is earned, and some will no doubt use that to open new opportunities.

If the product becomes a hit, then the question comes up on how you compensate those people that believed and invested in your product in the beginning. (Hopefully this is all laid out in a contract beforehand)

The issue here ISN’T that the Students volunteered to work on the project.
It’s whether or not that project - which is now a hit - gives them compensation for their investment.

Which I personally believe it should.