Digital Domain has partnered with Florida State University and started the Digital Domain Institute. According to their own explanation, the institute "sets a new standard in digital media education through an unprecedented public-private partnership with The Florida State University".
Mr. Textor explains it this way:
What’s interesting is the relationship between the digital studio and the college. 30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, its going to be [student] labor that’s actually paying us for the priviledge of working on our films.
I know what you're thinking, how is that possible? There are laws that protect such things from happening, right?. Mr. Textor begins to answer that:
We were able to persuade even the academic community, if we don’t do something to dramatically reduce costs in our industry, then we’re going to lose these industries .. we’re going to lose these jobs.
So, if 30% of our labor can be free, actually paying tuition, but by [the] Junior and Senior year at the college, [students are] working on real films, as part of the professional workflow, and [they] graduate with a resume that has five major films, [their] name in the credits, and more than just an intership level of experience, then that’s the perfect kind of trade off.
Is This Legal?
DDI's Course Catalog page has a class called Internship. Its easy to assume this will be the class that students register for to obtain the "privileged" work, even though Mr. Textor has already claimed the work to be above intership level experience. USDOL has a fact sheet that defines internship programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act. While the whole document answers the question, this paragraph punctuates it perfectly:
Similar To An Education Environment And The Primary Beneficiary Of The Activity
In general, the more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience. [...] If the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work, then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.
Calls in to the Florida Department of Education haven't been returned yet. One can guess there are loopholes that are being exploited there as well. The FLSA documents seems to claim that in order for DDI to be compliant, all they have to do is pay their students minimum wage and overtime. Is that enough?
The Broken VFX Business Model
This isn't the first time we've run into a school attempting to exploit students. In the summer in which I was hired, we discovered that Gnomon proudly boasted about their students working on feature films and popular television shows. These days, the big scam is getting tax payers to offset production costs.
Its been pointed out many times, the whole visual effects business has to be restructured. Studios have turned to visual effects as a means to get people to purchase tickets and see their movies. Since the workers aren't unionized, it was only a matter of time before those seeking profits worked to get us where we are today.
Fixing it, will take courage and determination. Its a waste of time to vilify the entertainment producers for doing what good business does. Its time to start being accountable and use the leverage that's inherent in the skills and talent that the artists bring to the table.
Its time, to unionize.
Animation Guild Representation Card