Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Last Bastion

The American motion picture industry is an anomaly. Movies from the U.S. are one of the country's biggest exports, and dominate around the world. But unlike other U.S. exports, they are heavily unionized.

One of the last citadels with minimal unionization in Movieland is digital visual effects. The reason most of the sector is without union representation is simple: When union strength was at its peak and the movie industry aggressively organized, digital effects didn't exist. ...

In the digital age, visual effects have become a lower cost add-on to high-budget (and unionized) motion pictures. Many movies studios -- from Disney to Warner Bros. to Sony -- tried launching their own in-house effects divisions, but all that Sony have shuttered their units. Why? Because studio overheads drove up their expenses way beyond the non-studio competition.

Low cost and lower cost is what's on the visual effects industry's mind these days, so it isn't surprising to see this:

Digital Domain, a leading visual effects house partly owned by director Michael Bay, is bulking up -- but not in California.

The parent company of the Venice-based studio said Thursday that it was acquiring Westlake Village-based In-Three Inc., and that it planned to move most of the 3-D conversion company's 70 employees to Florida.

... "I'd rather keep the jobs in California,” but Florida is “more economical than California, I'm sorry to say,'' said Cliff Plumer, Digital Domain's chief executive.

The current theme is "Deep discounts, now and forever." But TAG member Dave Rand (and long-time visual effects artist) disagrees with the concept:

Funny how in every non or partially unionized industry, each time unions are mentioned, the same tired arguments begin to fly about and yet lasting companies that evolved with unions have the greatest respect for their employees and those employees have a better life as a result, become more creative/productive and giving more to the employer.

In our case, If the artists can no longer take the fall, maybe studios will adopt smarter business plans, instead of the laughable bidding process now in place and the wasted time I've witnessed over the years by keeping the decision-maker (client, director, studio exec) at bay rather than having them participate in the day to day evolution of the post production. Directors need to direct the fx portion of the film as if it were the live portion instead of sitting around waiting for the black box to call them with some new stuff to be spoon fed to them by endless creative hierarchies and reems of clipboard people.

By making fx work a cost-plus model rather than bidding, I've found the the average fx shot takes 1/10 the time and money. It creates an environment where the client would be happy to be on site and get the whole thing to the point quickly and economically as it's now their dime, much like on the production side. Decision makers would not direct a film from their iPhone so why do they go remote and only get scheduled peaks at the progress in post?

Fx artists make their living in North America, New Zealand, London, and Australia because of entertainment unions that sprung [up] in Los Angeles; its their presence and growth that has elevated all fx artists' positions, union or not. Because of this, right now the only incentive in California is to seek cheap fx work elsewhere in less organized talent pools. If this tide were to begin to shift, a more even landscape should develop.

If and when viz effects become organized, business models will go through changes. Over the years, I've listened to studio executives piss and moan about the cost of unionized labor, only to come back later and say what a fine idea having a union contract was ... after they signed one.

So what made the difference? Studio chieftans discovered that

A) They couldn't get the work done without union artists.

B) Having somebody around who knew what they were doing was pretty cost efficient after all, even if they had to pay higher wages. (It doesn't do a lot of good to your bottom line if you ship the work to the low-cost provider, only to find out that the work stinks and you have to do it over.)

Further, if unions control most or all of the work force, then companies pay the union freight because they have few options; directors work under a pricey DGA contract, actors emote under the umbrella of SAG, writers create under the protective wing of the WGA, residuals and all. As I've heard over and over through the years: "It's the cost of doing business."

Case in point: I once sat in Gabor Csupo's office listening to him rail against the Animation Guild, and in the next breath extol the wonderfulness of the Screen Actors Guild. Why did Mr. Csupo hate one union, but love the other? Because with SAG, he had no option other than to sign their contract. He couldn't get the work done without them because they had leverage, so of course he claimed to love them. He was affiliated with them, like it or not, therefore making nice made perfect sense.

With luck, also hard work, one day TAG and the IATSE will get the same generous reaction from Digital Domain, Rhythm and Hues, Sony Imagworks and most of the other visual effects houses in the U.S. of A. ...


Anonymous said...

One can only hope... :]

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Just read a letter on the Visual Effects Society website that the IATSE has hired someone to organize the effects industry. What do people thing about this? Will it be successful?

densje said...

Unionizing the VFX industry seems to be having a bit of an upsurge at the moment and the concept is being treated as something brand new. It's not new. At one time, there was a quite substantial union presence in VFX. It was at ILM and we were represented by IATSE Local 16 and I was one of the stewards. I believe that we negotiated three or four CG contracts, but Lucasfilm *really* wanted to be rid of the union and the membership didn't really understand what it meant to be union and frankly, the membership listened more to the Company's line than to their stewards and officers and over the course of a few contracts we lost more and more power and influence until LFL drove the union off the premises. I was there, as were officers of TAG. It wasn't pretty. And it won't be pretty until the impression that CG workers have that unions are only there to take their money is overcome by education. That and the feeling that unions are a vestige of an older, more blue collar time is replaced by one that is more realistic and friendly to organized labor. I'd be happy to share my experiences with the officers of TAG as they move forward with this plan. I fully support a VFX union, but I would caution anyone involved to understand that it will be a long and difficult process...

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