Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A few months later .. Steven Wright responds

To refresh your memory, noted vfx tutor and artist Steven Wright wrote a fear-mongering op-ed note to the visual effects community some four months back. I read it, my bile rose, and I responded in this blog post.

Mr. Wright has now found the time to respond. After all, he has just returned from Mumbai where he was teaching the artists of Prime Focus how to use Nuke. His response was in the form of a comment to my original post. I'll paste it here for ease of read:

Steve Wright said...

Mr. Kaplan - Your summary of my essay was stellar. Your rebuttal, less so.

FUD-free commentary

As a promoter of unionization, your motives are obvious. My motives are the health of the employment in Los Angeles for VFX artists. I do not want to see the last remnants of VFX work driven out of L.A. which is exactly what I believe will happen. I don't Fear it, I am not Uncertain, and have no Doubt.

Self-referencing your own blogs and writings hardly constitutes compelling evidence to support your case. Citing a few articles about the occasional opening of a studio here hardly reverses the overall trend to leave the L.A. area. DD opened their big new facility not in L.A. but in Florida. You know why? Major tax advantages, plus Florida is a right to work state (non-union). Now why would the wise owners of DD move to a right to work state?

I noticed that you failed to mention to your fair readers that IATSE used to have a union at ILM, Local 16, which is now defunct. If unionizing is so good for VFX artists why was IATSE driven from ILM?

I suppose the most glaring fault in your defense of unionization for VFX artists is the portability problem. When unionizing automobile workers, cel animators, or electricians there is no threat of the business picking up and leaving town. With VFX, the work is utterly portable, so if the costs get too high the work simply goes elsewhere. End of analysis. And end of your job. Excuse me - not your job. You are the union guy. You get to keep your job. It is the VFX artists that will loose their jobs.

I can't help but note the irony of his claims to be motivated by "the health of the employment in Los Angeles for VFX artists" after just returning to the United States from India where he was training Prime Focus artists on the use of The Foundry's Nuke. He then has the chutzpah to say I'M helping bring down the vfx trade in Los Angeles!

In his comments, Mr. Wright further exposes his ignorance of the issues at hand as well as his lack of research into the discussions that have taken place within the last year. After making some tangential points, he provides the crux of his argument: unionizing and the introduction of portable benefits is unfeasible because of costs.

We've stated multiple times that costs are certainly a factor, but signing a union contract could be a cost benefit to a visual effects studio depending on the benefits that are currently being offered. At studios doing tent-pole feature film work, artists could be provided benefits that could save the studios money through the scale at which the IATSE can offer participation in the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan. Simply, for clarification, the contributions to MPI Health Plan could be cheaper because the IATSE contracts a lower amount due to the number of participants it has.

Secondly, the viability of participation in MPI has been discussed as the IATSE is attempting to form a national local that would provide coverage across the United States and Canada. For artists inside the US, the better choice would be participation in the IATSE National Benefit Plan. This has the added ability to tailor the cost of participation based on the operational needs of the studio. A vfx studio that is just starting out and has a lower operational budget than say a DD or Imageworks can negotiate different contribution amounts based on their needs.

All of this will be hashed out when a contract with a studio is reached. All of this still provides vfx artists, both here in Los Angeles and across the country, the ability to have a collectively bargained contract that stipulates no only standard and minimum workplace conditions, but provides portable health and pension benefits that are equal to what the rest of the entertainment industry enjoys. Further, it shows that we (TAG and the IATSE) are not interested in anything more that seeing those benefits and protections provided to the artists of visual effects and have found ways to work amicably with studios to do so.

To his other points:

  • Digital Domain opened the Florida facility because they were paid by the state to do so. Not in the form of tax incentives, which would be made available if their goal of becoming a film studio comes to fruition. But in the form of direct payments and for the promise of opening an education facility. Claiming Florida's right to work status was a motivator predicates that DD felt threatened by unionization. A claim I would love to see substantiated.
  • ILM did indeed hold a contract with the IATSE at one time. Local 16 was indeed the local that was tasked with representing the artists at ILM. My attempts at getting specific information about what transpired between Local 16 and ILM have been met with little reply. Luckily, I'm having lunch with Scott Ross today who may be able to shed some light on the subject.
  • To claim that the traditional animation field has not felt the effects of the globalization of the industry just shows his gross ignorance of the craft and its tribulations.

I look forward to further clarification on his position.


Scott Squires said...

Since Scott Ross left before IA folded at ILM so he may not be able to provide much insight. It was still there when I left (a number of years after Scott) but there had been a push to entice cg artists to sign up for non-union benefits.

Marcus said...

What a flashback to a year ago in the discussion, indeed.

Anonymous said...

DD opened their big new facility not in L.A. but in Florida. ... Now why would the wise owners of DD move to a right to work state?

That's what the Disney company and Fleischer before them thought. Funny how that worked out.

The old saw about California workers being too expensive has proven false many times. The cost of staffing and training artists and techs for start-up studios in places with no animation industry has been underestimated again and again. And the constant chant that 'it's all going to [fill in the blank with the developing country du jour]' has been chanted for decades.

What does it mean when, after a good ten years of hearing that 'it's all going to India' we see Indian studios closing, top Indian talent emigrating the moment they get to a decent skill level, and their studios still have to import the Steven Wrights to fly over and train them on things like Nuke?

Anonymous said...

Wright's stunning arrogance is only exceeded by the shallowness of his argument. So he can dismiss anything Steve Kaplan has to say because he's a paid union organizer. On a superficial level, I guess that makes sense, except that Kaplan worked in VFX for years, and has publicly stated he took this job because he wanted to help strengthen the VFX industry.

Meanwhile, Wright complains about VFX jobs leaving while he's earning money helping those jobs leave faster. Hey Mr. Wright, now that you earn your living helping destroy the LA VFX industry, why should anyone listen to you about what we need to do to keep the industry here?

Anonymous said...

So what if our work gets a bit more expensive as a result? People pay a premium to do the work here in LA...you can drive a shitty ass Honda or you can drive a Benz. It's all about choice, quality, service, and personal comfort...

Hope Steve Wright stays in India, he won't be getting a gig here in LA if he keeps it up...

Anonymous said...

Steven Wright should have stuck to comedy.

Sad thing is, the Union cant do anything about work going to India either.

vfxsoldier said...

we will remember not the words of Steve Wright, but the silence of our members.

Anonymous said...

Sad thing is, the Union cant do anything about work going to India either.

It couldn't do anything about work going to Mexico, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines before India became the country that would destroy the industry here. Read back though the press clippings, and you'll see there's always some country taking the work, and the end is always just around the corner.

I'm not saying low-end work doesn't go to India, but that's another matter. Low end work has always gone where labor is cheap. Now the 'conventional wisdom is already shifting to 'all the work is going to China!' When that doesn't happen, it'll be Viet Nam or some other country.

rufus said...

I agree that people going to asia to teach things like Nuke or Maya, like mr. Wright did,does more damage than trying to unionize stusios in the US. These greedy CEO's only care about themselves, and their big paychecks,trophy wives, fancy mansions and expensive toys...
At some point, the middle class will wake up.

Anonymous said...

-> At some point, the middle class will wake up.

That point will only be when they have suddenly become the bottom class, which is very soon indeed.

Anonymous said...

I just read Steven Wright's op-ed piece (yeah, I'm late to the party). I'm amazed that anyone with any experience can give him the slightest credence. Almost every single sentence, from the first paragraph to the last, contains a distortion, an assumption, or an outright falsehood.

You know he's seeking to manipulate and mislead from all the statements that begin "All of us know ..." or "There are well-known basic causes ..." This mix of false consensus and made-up statistics reveals his piece for what it really is - propaganda of the worst sort. You don't need to know how far he's misrepresented unions to know he's a self-serving fear monger.

Anonymous said...

Since when did the 16 leave ILM?

Personal Blog for Local 800 Organizer said...

Well enough said about Steve and his argument about driving work away. I, too am a union organizer who worked in the Vfx industry from analog, computers, ADO, Kadenzas to first Flame and Infernos, it was the good old days, 6 figure pay checks, overtime, Benifits and lotsnof perks ( how about 10 % of the room Gross $1500 per hour plus I come up to 5 weeks paid vacation. Yet i personally organized 2 facilities and gotbfiredbfor trying to do the same.
Now, I work for the IATSE, local 800, represebting Artist, I make a quarter of my old salary, I work long hours and put up with a lot of *hit. Why? Maybe it's because I grew up in a Union town. Maybe it's because I from the flower generation. Just maybe, ii saw this industry start to abuse workers, places which I thought were the most "progressive" Vfx houses, ended up giving us " comp" time in lieu of OT, of course you never had time to use it. Many places took to hiring young workers with no families. Why, because they could work them 18 hours a day, since they had no life. At one non-union place, whose owner happen to belong to a union and he got his Benifits. The young Asian cg guys would stay for hours because they were working on a big hit Hollywood show, it's the only place I had to request weekends off, one of their top talents had worked 7 months without a day off. That's 7 months. We are artist, any good artist wants they're work to be perfect, heck I'm plenty guilty of doing the same as a union member,
Unions are not in the business of putting companies out of work, why would they? Thet work with employers to make sure they will stay profitable. But they are they there to represent and protect the worker.
One last point, any good size union place has a shop steward, he's comparable to management, he/ she is the one who a worker first goes to talk to, he talks to management, if they can't resolve it, they call the local to enlist help and advice, last resort union officials come in to resolve the issue. I have been a shop steward, in almost every case but 2 we the workers resolved the problem ourselves. Unions are you, they don't happen by signing a card, they happen when you unite, you speack up for your rights, YOU have to be involved. It's solidarity. It's a union, it's in your hands not the IA ornany other group. When I organized, I had no union person talk to me first, I did it because it was right and fair,
Look for me soon, I'll be organizing Previs artist, I'm alrady on the Previs owners "don't talk to this guy"
Why are they so afraid on giving workers rights? It's as old as the first organizing of the Lowekl Mills in the late 1700's, same owners scare tatics. Stand up for yourself, your families, your future and most impotent your fellow sisters and brothers, your not alone.
End or the beginning.

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