In the past couple of weeks, an animator and tech director from two different studios came into the office to complain.
The animator, despite stellar work reviews, had been offered a rollback in wages for the privilege of continuing at the studio that told him at the same time his animation was topflight. He wasn't pleased.
The tech director? After a decade busting his hump at another big studio, he'd been told that his work was suddenly sub-par. And he found himself brusquely dismissed.
"They said things weren't working out and they wanted to move in a different direction, so goodbye. I was so angry I couldn't see straight. I told them they were making a big mistake and walked out."
We live in an era of fragility and fear, friends and neighbors. Every big conglomerate I know about has grabbed the current recession and used it like a Louisville Slugger to beat employees over the head. "Don't you know we're in tough times?!" goes the refrain. "Everybody is taking pay cuts!"
Everybody, that is, except the wonderful folks who have the initials C,E, and O after their names in those glossy annual reports.
So today I get an e-mail from a visual effects artist who, in a fit of despair or perhaps insanity, has started a blog. It goes like this:
... I have worked in the Hollywood Visual Effects industry creating imagery and animation for a good number of blockbuster films. While the journey here was tough, it was driven by a simple idea portrayed by a quote in an old film The Flamingo Kid:
There are only two important things in living . . .
Finding out what you do well, and finding out what makes you happy.
And if God is smiling on you, they’re both the same thing ...
... Isn’t it ironic that the visual effects industry is one of the worst businesses to be in? Each facility operates on a flawed business model by losing or making no money at all on the blockbuster films they conduct work on. On a good year they will make a profit margin as small as 3-5%. How can this be possible? The reason why is Hollywood studio conglomerates effectively leverage their position by pitting vfx facilities so strongly against each other that eventually one company ends up taking the project for a loss. In fact, one producer was so bold as to state in an article that:
If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job.
The reality of visual effects shops operating on paper-thin profit margins is not new. In 1997, in the hallway of Disney's Feature Animation Northside (anybody remember the Northside facility? I thought not.) a c.g. supervisor and I mused how visual effects houses made no money, even as experienced c.g. tech directors and animators did. There was at the time, lots of work but relatively few people with a lot of production experience. Hence, high salaries.
Thirteen years later, visual effects studios still make minimal money. But visual effects artists, now that the supply of talent has caught up with demand, are also eating it.
And so here we are, in a time of arrogant management that knows it can easily replace you if you look at a production manager funny, and lower salaries and independent contractors paying their own payroll taxes. And outsourcing that gets shipped to Timbucktoo. No wonder James Cameron says:
"Fundamentally, visual effects is a crappy business ..."
But just because it's crappy now, doesn't mean it has to be crappy forever. Go read the Soldier's blog and help him (and maybe us) make it better.