Source: Sonic Movie VFX Team Endured Crunch on Redesign

Source: Sonic Movie VFX Team Endured Crunch on Redesign

by December 16, 2019

A source who claims to be a former employee of MPC Vancouver from two years ago with an alleged number of recent ties to the studio tells TSSZ that while working on Sonic’s redesign for his upcoming movie, studio members endured working conditions known in several industries as “crunch,” a term used to describe a high pressure environment in the lead-up to a product’s delivery that often results in long working hours over extended periods of time.

“Overtime and crunch was absolutely a part of the delivery of the project,” the source said.

TSSZ cannot verify the source’s identity.

“Massive amounts of work went on hold after the trailer hit,” the source said, referring to the first Sonic trailer with his original design that debuted in April. “The notion that a show like this with a major change wouldn’t have crunch is deluded.”

The source estimated to TSSZ that after the redesign’s reveal, artists working on the Sonic movie, on average, may have worked between 10 to 12 hours a weekday, as part of up to a 70-hour week, and as much as up to 16-hour weekdays as project delivery drew closer. The source explained to TSSZ that for a period of “around 6 weeks,” a supervisor on the project regularly finished their work day at 2AM local time. The source said that the work day at MPC Vancouver began for most between 9 and 10AM local time.

“This one seemed a little worse than others, but not as bad as a typical Marvel movie can be,” the source said.

For context and comparison, our source claimed he worked on one Marvel-branded project that involved 100-hour work weeks over a period of seven weeks, and a second that involved “closer to” 70-hour weeks over two months.

“The crunch on the [Sonic] project was pretty bad but not the worst the studio has experienced,” the source added.

In addition, the source said team members may have also regularly worked an 8-hour 6th day during the Sonic movie redesign–with one exception.

“The last week [of production] was almost assuredly a 7 day week for the crew,” the source said.

Sonic movie director Jeff Fowler announced on May 24th that the team would be “taking a little more time to make Sonic just right,” adding a hashtag indicating “#novfxartistswereharmedinthemakingofthismovie.” The new trailer with Sonic’s new look debuted November 12th.

Our source did not know if Fowler visited MPC Vancouver during the course of implementing the redesign in the film, and said they heard “no specific complaints” about Fowler from those involved with production. In most instances, our source says, a director is “partially insulated” from on-the-ground processes at vendors.

“But usually they know,” the source added.

When TSSZ asked our source the time a project of this scope typically demands, they conceded it’s a difficult question to answer without knowing two factors: when the new design–headed up by community-grown artist Tyson Hesse–was finalized, and knowing when the original trailer, which debuted in April, landed relative to the project’s original delivery date. The Sonic movie’s original release date was November 8th, which is not the same as a delivery date for a production house to send assets to the movie studio. Our source said he knew neither of those conditions.

“I’m typically on a project for 8-12 months, which is the long haul,” the source said. “Usually you start the show in assets with a modest sized crew. After 2 months you’d ramp your shot team, which would be everything from camera solving to layout and initial animation. At 4-6 months you’d start to ramp those teams up even more and begin to bring in lighting/comp/fx. Usually when there’s 12 weeks left you’ll see a massive spike in crew. An asset redesign like this would mean that everything from layout would need to be redone, it might not be from scratch, but there’s likely a 50% efficiency cost.”

MPC Vancouver shut down with little external warning last week. Our source says the redesign was completed and delivered prior to the studio closure, which he believes was in the works for some time.

“Sonic was the nail in the coffin, but I have it on good authority that Technicolor wanted to close this office for a while, but had given no indication that this was the case to core staff,” the source said.

Our source says the studio had to give overtime pay to non-supervisory employees for the extra effort, in accordance with local laws. The source explained MPC Vancouver was the only division to offer overtime.

When asked who or what was responsible for such long hours allegedly endured, the source explained there were multiple contributors.

“The nature of the industry creates these situations, the redesign didn’t help, and MPC specifically configures itself to work in this way,” the source said, explaining further how MPC tries to balance its production pipeline –and balance sheet–with client demands.

“MPC as a company tries to protect their bottom lines by not working on a majority of a feature until the edit and key designs are locked. Studios also won’t turn over work until they’re clear that they won’t get hit by tons of cost to date charges for work already done,” the source explained. “There would’ve been an extension fee that came along with it, but having experienced this at MPC on numerous projects , client studios will always find a way to make some part of the extensions the vendor’s fault so that they don’t have to pay the full cost. That means you’re trying to get work done without sufficient revenue, meaning there’s a lot of optimistic expectations about crewing until everything goes to Hell.”

Crunch, though accepted by many working in the film industry, has come under increasing public scrutiny for the impact it ultimately has on workers, many of them considered at-will, contracted, or otherwise non-unionized employees that can be terminated at any time. Fear of being replaced by younger, greener talent eager to have their name attached to a blockbuster film, or retaliation up to and including the dissolution of entire teams who fight for better working conditions, keeps the cycle largely intact.  As an example, our source explained that MPC allegedly shut down a compositing division in London after the team there formed a union. Work done in London, according to the source, was shifted to another division.

“Crunch is a reality in the industry, so nobody walks into a project without that expectation, it’s more rare that a project runs without crunch than runs with crunch,” the source explained. “Crunch is a regular part of our industry and to claim it wouldn’t happen on a project with a major redesign is either [….] spin, or delusion.”

Two emails sent Thursday evening requesting comment on this story – one sent directly to both an press inquiry email maintained by MPC and a general, still active address to the now dissolved Vancouver division, and a second email sent via a form found on MPC parent company Technicolor’s website meant for press inquiries – were not returned as of the time of this article’s publication.