It was a little weird that Jaws music interrupted the speech by the Best Visual Effects winners for Life of Pi at the Oscars on Sunday, later cutting off their microphone, but most people didn't think much of it. It was early in the evening, and many likely wrote it off as an unusually aggressive policy on the length of acceptance speeches. While the orchestra may have been hewing to the Academy's strict standards (the winners were cut off after a minute, and nominees are usually told to wrap it up within 45 seconds), this graph from the 2011 Oscars shows that the rule is inconsistently applied, with music only sometimes playing once they reach that mark. It does seem uncharacteristically severe to play music (and an ominous tune at that), and then follow up by cutting off a microphone.
What the music covered up was a speech that intended to recognize that there were visual effects protesters outside who were upset over being squeezed in an industry that has unionized protection for most of its workers, including writers (WGA) and actors (SAG), but not the VFX houses. I get that political speeches about off-topic subjects, while a part of Oscar history, are often in poor taste. But this seemed like the industry closing ranks to exclude members of its own. Rhythm + Hues, which did the VFX for Life of Pi, is in fact in bankruptcy, along with the U.K. office of Hugo VFX house Pixomondo, which many are using as proof that the current model is unsustainable. Big studios like Disney, which just bought Lucasfilm and thus effects house ILM, gain efficiencies by doing their visual effects in-house. Outside those models, it seems that the savings comes from forcing workers to do unpaid overtime and other less-than-savory employment practices.
I do think that it's unfair that in an industry that gives profit participation to many members of the cast and crew, something as pivotal as visual effects doesn't pass muster. When you realize just how many shots use green screens, the scope of visual effects is stunning. People expect there to be visual effects in a movie like The Avengers; what's surprising is that TV shows and movies use them for scenes when people are walking down the street, to fill in the windows behind a house, or to show someone gazing as they walk through Times Square. Audiences don't know to look for these type of set extensions or replacements, so they don't see them. Plus, they look that good. VFX companies and artists likely have a difficult battle in front of them, but gaining the support of the public will be an important first step.