Monday, May 24, 2010

VFX Soldiers

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.


Anonymous said...

Since WHEN is vfx "ART?"

Since never.

Technicians. Some good ones, but that's all. They serve the story and designs, they don't create them.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I wish I knew what the majority of my VFX co-workers wanted. Many hate the unpaid overtime, the 16-hour days, the seven-day weeks and paying their employer's taxes. Many wish they had portable health and retirement benefits.

However, many others claim all the employers need to do is pay artists enough so that each individual can look after his own health care and retirement. This second group often skates by without health insurance, their optimism alone shielding them from cancer and car accidents.

If the majority of VFX artists want to stay in the gutter, then the gutter is where we will stay.


Since WHEN is vfx "ART?"

Since never.

Technicians. Some good ones, but that's all. They serve the story and designs, they don't create them.

Wow. Y'know, we have character animators, too. They animate the dragons and CGI characters in VFX films. They deliver genuine performances, which some might call "ART."

We also have lighters, texture painters and compositors who make subjective and aesthetic calls everyday.

If you want to dismiss their work as "technical" and not "ART," fine. Go get your VFX done for the lowest possible bidder in India, since apparently all you need are "technicians" and not "artists" to make VFX that Americans will pay to see at the box office.


Even if we lowly and miserable VFX dogs did not create "ART" in your what? Why does "ART" matter to fair workplace practices? Why can't VFX lighters enjoy union protection like live-action gaffers? Why can't our character animators get union protection like the unionized actors?

Sneer and jeer at our work all you please. Just let us live like civilized human beings.

Anonymous said...

Dont feed the trolls. People who think VFX isnt art are antiquated.

Regarding the animator who was told his work was topflight and then asked to reduce his pay, I wonder if
that is a result of his reviewer doing him an injustice by giving him dishonest stellar reviews. Ive seen time and time again artists who think they are doing a great job, all the while they are middle-low on the rung. Thats why its super-important to be your own worst critic.

Anonymous said...

Well, is The Animation Guild more of a technical union or a creative one?

Next to SAG and WGA, they negotiate just like a technical one. TAG does not promote protecting creative interests as much as it promotes protecting more traditional day-to-day labor protections. It is also IATSE.

This guild has been the beneficiary of one of Hollywood's few bright spots, animation, and in the last twenty years,the opportunity to embrace the leverage of the creative membership was missed. It just did not position itself as being indispensable to the above-the-line creative process, and because of this does not benefit from having in their ranks the same kind of leverage that comes with individual high profile WGA animation members or SAG animation members. Feature animation directors are not guild, a large part of the equation that is missing.

The Animation Guild membership is more and more positioned as a below-the-line, technical union representing members that tend to be more easily replaced without collective bargaining.

VFX studios seem to be the best way to mine for future ranks for the guild, a good fit.

If it acts like a duck....

Anonymous said...

ie, changing the acronym to TAG from the Cartoonists Union, while more 21st century, was purely window dressing. Guild sounds less techical than union, further confusing the issue. Political theater. Political bullshit.

Steve Hulett said...

the opportunity to embrace the leverage of the creative membership was missed. It just did not position itself as being indispensable to the above-the-line creative process

A few points:

The writers in the Animation Guild make up 8% of membership. Sadly, not a critical mass for leverage. (And WGA writers being heavily involved in animation occurred mostly in the 1990s. This was a producer-driven phenomenon, when a WGA card became de rigueur.)

The structure of the union has been oriented to Below-the-Line, by nature of its membership and being part of the IATSE.

The WGA is now interested in repping animation, but it's shackled by history and contract language in its CBA that blocks the Guild's newer aspirations. If it had organized animation writing (storyboarders and writers) in the 1930s or early 1950s, before the IATSE moved in, the landscape now would be different.

At the time, the WGA had little interest. And here we are.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting about the Mission.

I think debating the symantecs of the guild and whether or not vfx is an art or just a technician is besides the point.

The focus should be on the bread and butter issues and how a guild can help in solving these problems.

There is a discussion about vfx artists creating a guild and what they would like here:

The animation guild has a set of standards that already overlap many of those needs. However there are other concerns that would be worth addressing.

I strongly suggest Lee Stranahan hold a townhall meeting with Steve and fxdag to create a consensus.

Anonymous said...

>The writers in the Animation Guild make up 8% of membership.

If you included the the number of directors who end up contributing a large amount to the creative voice of a film or tv show, plus add the number of board artists that actually write material, you would find the 8% figure way low.

If you also throw in the fact that story and animation artists do a great deal of acting to give the characters and situations life, I think you might find that a very large amount of material created by 'The Animation Guild' that ends up on film and in television is decidedly not technical. Again, it's about how the guild chooses to position its future. It is a choice. Nothing is permanent.

Steven (not Steve) said...

You are confusing reality with perception and political leverage. That was Steve's point, in a way.

The reality is that creative contributions are made on several levels, not just limited to the "official" creative categories, and the productions' over all quality and success benefits from this.

However, the producers will only officially recognize and negotiate with the formal and recognized creative categories because that's what precedent dictates. It will stay that way until we take action.

Anonymous said...

There's other factors that can lead to good people being backstabbed: not schmoozing enough, not going to company parties, softball games ect. when you're exhausted. Just having your own opinions (on anything) can make a cranky supervisor write that bad review.

And talking about a union at a non-union shop...

Anonymous said...

>You are confusing reality with perception and political leverage.

No confusion. The leadership chooses which battles to fight and which direction serves their best interests. They should be held accountable for those choices. Not deciding to do anything is a decision also. This guild has not decided to do anything on most occasions.

Anonymous said...

I love the philosophical malcontents, like the one above. Nothing ever makes them happy, but just try asking them for a specific, concrete suggestion with an executable action plan. You get more hot air.

I'll wager the person above made the choice to never be involved in membership meetings, to never be involved in setting the agenda for negotiations, to never be involved in organizing when they were at a nonunion studio. But, oh, does he have all the answers.

Anonymous said...

Don't hold your breath waiting for a meaningful response from the troll. That guy knows as much about leadership and leverage as he can learn sitting on his ass surfing the internet.

Site Meter