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'Life After Pi,' doc on fall of visual effects house, to debut

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Pioneering visual effects house Rhythm & Hues stunned Hollywood last year when it filed for bankruptcy protection and laid off more than 250 employees.

The announcement came as the Los Angeles company was enjoying its crowning achievement: the Ang Lee film “Life of Pi,” whose dazzling digital effects would land Rhythm & Hues its third Academy Award just a few weeks later.

For Rhythm & Hues veterans Christina Lee Storm and Scott Leberecht, the juxtaposition was both devastating and traumatic.

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They coped the only way they knew how: They picked up a camera and began interviewing their colleagues to document the fallout and help explain the forces that led to the near-demise of one of the industry’s most storied effects firms.

The result is “Life After Pi,” a 30-minute documentary filmed at the company’s former El Segundo headquarters during the weeks that followed the bankruptcy.

The film debuts Feb. 25 on YouTube, where the trailer has garnered 63,721 hits since its debut last week.

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Storm, a former manager of digital production for Rhythm & Hues, produced the film.  Leberecht, who remains at the studio as an art director, served as director. They donated their services for the project and are seeking financing and distribution for a feature-length documentary on why L.A. is losing its place as the movie capital of the world.

The film explores rapidly changing forces buffeting the global VFX community, and the film industry as whole, including the growing influence of foreign subsidies, especially those offered in Canada and the UK.

“We realized we were in the eye of the storm,” said Leberecht, a former visual effects art director at Industrial Light & Magic whose credits include "Flubber" and Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." “We felt this was so important that maybe somebody could better understand it if we picked up a camera and started recording.”

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The documentary struck a personal note for Storm, who had to give pink slips to many of her colleagues.

“For me, it’s the stories of these individuals and these people who may seem faceless,” she said. “Their lives and their families are completely shattered because of this.”

The documentary was filmed over a two-week period following the bankruptcy announcement on Feb. 11, 2013.

That posed some logistical challenges. Subjects had to be interviewed on lunch breaks or after work hours because the studio was frantically finishing projects for clients, including work on  “Seventh Son,” “Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters,” “R.I.P.D.” and the recently released “Winter’s Tale.” 

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“There were definitely difficult moments for us,” Leberecht said. "There were sensitive things going on as people were saying goodbye to each other after they had worked together for 15 years. Even though our camera was intrusive, they felt what we were doing was important.”

Founded in 1987, Rhythm & Hues became one of the industry’s most respected effects shops, garnering an Academy Award in 1996 for the movie "Babe," in 2008 for  "The Golden Compass," and in 2013 for “Life of Pi.”  The company was sold last year in a bankruptcy auction to an affiliate of L.A.-based Prana Studios and now has fewer than 100 employees, down from more than 700.

Beyond documenting the toll of the bankruptcy on the studio’s employees, the film’s broader agenda is to raise awareness about the plight of California’s visual effects industry.

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Among the sobering statistics highlighted in the film is that 21 visual effects companies have filed for bankruptcy or closed in the last decade.

In the documentary, Rhythm & Hues executives cite the damaging effect of foreign subsidies that made it increasingly difficult for the company to bid on projects -- and still make a profit. They also point to a flawed business model, where effects shops are paid a fixed amount by studios, often without regard to extra costs they have to absorb as a result of project delays or last-minute changes that occur in post-production on big budget movies.

John Hughes, co-founder of Rhythm & Hues, describes a desperate effort to find investors who would be willing to inject some cash into the company and keep creditors at bay.

“I was prepared to sell my shares of stock for a dollar if somebody would invest the $15 [million] to $20 million that we needed,” he said. “Even with that kind of offer, people weren’t willing to do it. So, it was odd.”

The filmmakers are using social media to promote the film, asking colleagues to turn their profile picture on Facebook and other sites to green, a reference to the green screens used in visual effects.

The film's website also urges supporters to join a pre-Oscar protest in Hollywood on March 2. A similar protest was held outside the Academy Awards last year.

[For the record: an earlier version of this post incorrectly said Rhythm & Hues won an Academy Award for 'Babe' in 1985. The film was released in 1995.]

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Visual effects artists will wear green during Obama's visit

Follow me on Twitter: @rverrier
richard.verrier@latimes.com

 

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