Lately, a short film has been making some headlines and the reaction from Hollywood has made me a little perplexed. No, it’s not my own beloved UPLDR (not yet!) but a CG short created by a German film student, Kaleb Lechowski, called R’ha. It’s a well-done short that can be viewed at the end of this post. I highly recommend watching in full-screen and HD.
The intent of this post is not to criticize the short but to work through some thoughts about the irony of flying in a young arts student from Germany to Los Angeles and the media hype behind it, while the same media ignores the actions of the studios and the general fragile nature of the visual effects business as a whole within the city .
Lechowski attends Berlin’s Mediadesign Hochschule, where he is studying film and animation. He had no money for actors or live sets but was able to use a computer to, over a period of seven months, create a fully realized world. The short popped up on Vimeo earlier today but already has an exec or two talking about it.
Lechowski is repped by managers Scott Glassgold and Raymond Brothers at IAM Entertainment and is expected to arrive in Los Angeles later this month.
Personally, I think it’s rather myopic to think that skills in one area translates exactly to skills in another. Hell, I’ve known some excellent digital artists who are barely literate. This was created in an environment where the artist had complete control over all the elements and provided a very specific, if somewhat generic, scenario. It means that he could have a great future as a digital artist / supervisor but not necessarily a great writer or director.
As previously stated, I don’t mean to slam Kaleb or the current or potential skills he may possess, who very well could be our next Gareth Edwards or John Lasseter (with less Hawai’ian shirts one hopes) only the irony of a media that is hyping this one short and the actions of executives while ignoring how the same system acts in Hollywood when it involves the day-to-day labor of visual effects artists. If the powers that be did a little looking they would see that the artists that work on their mega-blockbusters tend to have equally good or better portfolio projects out there. They might not have completed a short but you only have to sift through the reels on Vimeo and YouTube to get an idea of talent that exists in this town.
Well, used to exist. You see, the other thing that I find laughable about executives flying out a student from Germany is that, on the whole, they’ve been shipping visual effects out of Hollywood to anywhere that whispers of a tax credit — to Vancouver, Singapore, London, and yes, even Germany. The studios have not only destroyed the business of visual effects in Los Angeles by seeking tax benefits elsewhere but on utilizing a ridiculous bidding model to fund our blockbuster spectacles.
Maybe that’s why they were so impressed with his work — usually the lowest bidder, operating on slim margins or going into debt, will win a project. The project might be split among many other companies and put on an extremely tight deadline. The quality ends up not being as good as it could be due to the tight deadlines, as well as the general disorganization of post-production and the whims of directors, producers, and whoever else wants to exert their power by making changes. R’ha’s creator spent seven months producing a polished product – most of your studio features are done in much less time.
You only have to look at the Green Lantern debacle, now forgotten, to see how tenuous is the string on which the studios float their hopes. Ok, not a string, but the hunched backs of hundreds of artists working insane hours, debilitating their bodies and home lives, to make another crappy superhero movie rise up for single weekend domination. Those artists are allowed a short window of time in which to be excited and proud of their work then it’s to hoping that after the release the company they work for doesn’t go under, that they can line up another job, and maybe be able to pay for health insurance or see daylight at some point. I don’t have the clout, or experience, or scars as many that I worked with but I kept my eyes open and ears to the ground. I saw enough to be worried about the people involved in it and am curious to see if one day that string might break, the machine will stop rolling, and there will be a big, industry-altering crash.
Enough with the bleakness, it’s warm outside today.
If you are a student of visual effects, either at a school or self-taught, and the realities of the job don’t scare you off, take a note from what’s been done in R’ha. Utilize the resources of your school and the mentors it would provide, or the many resources online, to find a way to create and tell your own story. There really is no excuse – in a digital environment, you don’t have to worry about actors, unions, locations, or daylight. You’re free to create anything you want, and make it look good, if you’ll put the time and effort into it.
So, I wish all the best to the creator of R’ha and that he is able to get something out of it. Most of us create for the love of the story and the opportunity to be able to live to tell more stories in the future. As a German, the creator is probably familiar with Faust. I think it’s a very applicable tale to whatever he might run into once he hits the ground at LAX. He has managers, hopefully good ones, that should take care of him.
I also wish to point out a caveat to the other side of the table:
A short film is to a feature as a short story is to a novel. Some can be expanded and some are perfect the way they are. It’s been fun, if trying, to get UPLDR shot and finished, and I learned a lot as a writer and producer, but we worked hard to make it an excellent short. Though I have ideas about expanding it and its world, I would rather spend time working on the features and tv spec pilots that I already have coalescing in my cranium and putting them on the page.
I think whatever this young guy, or the next that comes along, is hired for, use the creativity and imagination that propelled this project to have him work something equally unique and creative, and not just a retread of either his short or another ‘reboot’ of something dredged up from the vault.
 Minor revisions to opening paragraph as it was pointed out it might be misunderstood that I was attacking Kaleb and the quality of the short rather the institutions that were my aim.
 It was also pointed out that that this might be misleading. There are many talents visual effects artists, in Los Angeles and around the world, but even less than have created a compelling short film. The word ‘projects’ in this instant is key as there are some wide-ranging, very cool personal projects that don’t quite provide the narrative of a short but do display the creative abilities of talent artists.
 This era could be coming to an end: