One of the most controversial arguments made by this blog has been my routine skepticism of the commonly accepted narrative that VFX was “all going to India”. In fact when I started this blog, I was the only one in the VFX world that made the bold prediction over 3 years ago that VFX in India wouldn’t succeed. I fought like hell against people who said I was wrong and at times I wondered when I could officially say I was correct.
Today is that day as Variety’s David S. Cohen broke news that it was over:
Sony Pictures Imageworks will not renew its lease in Chennai, India when it expires in March. This facility made significant contributions to such productions as ‘MIB3′ and the upcoming ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2.’ Imageworks is committed to its headquarters in Culver City and facility in Vancouver, BC.
Sad news for those affected but for those who used Indian VFX work to ruthlessly impose fear against artists who were trying to improve VFX labor conditions over the years: You failed miserably and the fact that many of you are publicly quiet about this news shows how foolish you people were. The VFX Boogeyman is dead.
I’ve always said if India could produce top quality VFX for better prices then more power to them. That’s why Imageworks India was important to me: Imageworks had one of the best pipelines out of all the places I worked and the company was run by some of the smartest people in the business.
If anyone could send work to India it was them and the fact they were owned by one of the major studios hungry for cheaper VFX put further pressure on the need to make India work. Lastly, the recent needs by Sony to make drastic financial cuts meant more, not less work would have to be done in India. Instead of doing any of that, it all shut down after six short years. So why is VFX in India failing?
Mistaking VFX for Manufacturing
VFX is nothing like manufacturing. There’s a huge difference. It is a highly collaborative, technical, creative, and labor intensive process. Take two iPhone 5s and place them next to each other. What’s the difference? Nothing. While their design is complex, they have one design spec and production process that allows for millions of reproductions. VFX isn’t like that.
Take two shots from the same film, even the same sequence. What’s the difference? Lots of things! Each shot is it’s own unique process and set of problems. In order to send that to a low labor cost area like India, there would need to be significant simplifications and even with today’s off-the-shelf programs, that process is still very complicated. At the same time, costs were rising, and the quality was stagnant.
Saving Face Culture
While I was born in the US, I think I have a pretty good understanding of the culture: My parents came from this region of the world and I have traveled there 3 times: 1989, 2003, and 2012. I love the region but there is a strong culture of saving face that is woefully bad for VFX. There were times growing up with my parents where simple problems turned into near-disasters because opportunities for communication and prevention were avoided to save face.
The same can occur in VFX. There were cases where workers in India were reluctant to give answers like “I don’t know.” or “who can help me?” Instead it’s “Yes.” even though the work is not done. Constructive criticism is an important part of VFX. Everyday my supervisor and I would bash our heads against each other on VFX solutions. We would challenge each other’s decisions all the time but at the same time we were able to put our difference in opinions aside and joke around at lunch.
Fraudulent Education & Inability to Keep Rising Stars
India’s VFX schools are certificate mills meant to take students savings and give little to no useful education. So many end up with skills that lack the basic competency to allow for an actual industry of talented VFX pros to scale and do big VFX work. That’s not to say there isn’t talented Indian VFX pros. There are many and I know them personally and have had the pleasure to work with them side-by-side here in the US. People like my colleagues from India and my parents from Burma are hard working and talented people that want to race to the top. Maybe if more US business people stopped looking at the region as a cheap place to do work maybe then you’ll actually see a thriving and sustainable VFX industry there.