Oscar-nominated visual effects company behind Life of Pi files for bankruptcy protection

Rhythm & Hues Studios, one of America's best known effects companies, has worked on 145 films from Babe to Django Unchained

The visual effects company that wowed audiences with its creation of a 450-pound Bengal tiger in Life of Pi was hailed by the British Academy on Sunday, winning a Bafta for its work. By the following day, Rhythm & Hues Studios (R&H) had filed for bankruptcy protection.

On the Royal Opera House podium Bill Westenhofer, the film’s visual effects supervisor, gave a rousing clarion call for his craft after winning the Bafta for special visual effects. “For those of us who do visual effects, you all laud us for our science at times but we’re also artists, and we thank Life Of Pi for giving us the opportunity to show that if you give us the opportunity we will make art with you,” he said. 

Other effects companies praised R&H with Sir William Sargent, chief executive of UK company Framestore, calling Life of Pi “an astonishing piece of work," adding: "These are good people whose work has been exemplary.”

Yet a year after celebrating its 25th anniversary, the company that is up for two Oscars later this month for work on Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman, has been forced to seek Chapter 11 protection. The bankruptcy documents were posted online yesterday.

Another visual effects head who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “Everyone was in awe of what they achieved” before adding: “It is a sad day when such a respected company faces issues like this. Many will be thinking: ‘There but for the grace of God’.”

R&H, which has a workforce of 1,400, hit difficulties after several film projects were cancelled and delayed, while it is believed that its competitive pitching rates, and decision to move into co-production left it financially stretched. “It was not one single event but a culmination of many that brought them to this point,” one source familiar with the situation said.

Hopes were high last week that R&H would be saved, but a deal tabled by Indian rival Prime Focus fell through. Founder John Hughes called workers into a meeting on Monday to outline the perilous financial position.

The fall from grace of one of the America’s best known effects companies, which was credited on over 145 films from Babe in 1995 to this year’s Django Unchained, have left question marks over the state of the industry.

This follows news that DreamWorks Animation was looking to slash costs, possibly culminating in a string of job losses. Companies face a tough economic climate, small profit margins, and competition from across the globe.

Sir William said: “The industry is in a tough place because studios slowed down in 2012 and didn’t shoot much. Margins are tight, which is a cycle that happens every few years. It calls for careful navigation.”

R&H has started laying off staff, while others continue to work on existing projects. The president of the company’s film division Lee Berger said R&H was “seeking to secure financing for future growth” adding it would “come out of this situation stronger”.

Life of Pi was widely praised for its stunning visual effects from the tiger Richard Parker, to a hail of flying fish, a phosphorescent whale and the island of meerkats. Mr Westenhofer and his team created three-quarters of the final film’s visuals, building the majority from scratch. Ang Lee called R&H’s work “impeccable”.

In his Bafta acceptance speech Mr Westenhofer said: “One of the central themes of Life Of Pi is asking the audience to question what they believe is real and not real, so how appropriate that was our job in visual effects,” to ask audiences to believe the tiger they had created digitally was real. He added: “If we’re holding this I guess we did OK.”

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