The High Cost of Working in Visual Effects Animation

There’s a price to pay for working in visual effects, and we’re not talking about the money that students need to pay John Textor to work at Digital Domain. Many artists are faced with paying the ultimate price–a matter of life and death.

The LA Times published an important article yesterday by Richard Verrier about the health problems faced by visual effects artists and how they’re fighting back. The stories aren’t pretty:

After midnight, when the coffee and Red Bull had worn off, Sari Gennis and her co-workers would take a brisk stroll to make it through their graveyard shift. For four months straight, often seven days a week, a team of visual effects artists worked 12-hour shifts to complete the 3-D conversion of movie blockbuster Titanic. Gennis said the long hours aggravated a severe arthritis condition. She’d already had both knees replaced, and needed a third surgery, but couldn’t afford to take time off for the operation.

or:

The matte painter, who asked not to be identified for fear of damaging his career, said he nearly died when he fell asleep at the wheel after working 75 consecutive days, up to 17 hours a day, doing visual effects work on National Treasure: Book of Secrets. The money was good – $1,000 a day – but the long hours were taking a toll. Three months after his car accident, he began experiencing chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. He said emergency room nurses initially didn’t believe he was having a heart attack because he was only 37. As a freelancer, he didn’t qualify for the company insurance plan to cover his $100,000 in medical bills. His employer, the now-defunct Asylum Visual Effects, refused to hire him back.

Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, union representatives hosted an information session for Sony Pictures Imageworks artists who are pushing to unionize the studio, a story that we covered last week on Cartoon Brew. The Animation Guild reported that the meeting was a success with over 75 Imageworks employees attending.

So will this turn out to be the VFX Spring as some are suggesting? There’s a lot of positive sentiment right now, but no one is under the illusion that working conditions will improve overnight. Animation Guild rep Steve Hulett noted on his blog that the Imageworks meeting was “only the first few steps of a long hike, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to reach out and get visual effects artists and technical directors under the big union tent.”


  • Pedro Nakama

    ILM is a union shop. They seem to be doing pretty good.

    • http://stupix.com/ Jonathan Lyons

      Incorrect. They are not a union shop.

  • wever

    This is exactly why employers should think twice about having visual effects artists be denied health plans, or pay THEM.

  • Pro Union

    Its a shame, because both those films you mention are Shit. Its too bad that they’re breaking the backs of hard working VFX animators to crap out Schlocky crap like “National Treasure”

  • http://www.animationinsider.net/ Aaron B.

    What really sucks is that there are plenty of stories like these, of varying scale, up and down the business. Animators working over their cyntiqs for hours on end can develop severe retinal problems; artists working late shifts who can’t get home for a decent meal are prone to unnatural and unhealthy weight gain; and as has been mentioned, arthritis and tendinitis are common as well.

  • bones

    I don’t feel sorry for them.

    Your employer cannot legally make you work for free. Get to work on time, work, and go home on time.

    People harming themselves like this are justifying the studios illegal behavior.

    • Someguy

      Bravo.

      It takes real courage to stand up and denounce people who have to work for a living under conditions that are not of their choosing.

      Sure…go home on time…no one’s got a gun to your head…I mean the streets are just lined with good-paying animation jobs…I’m sure there’s no pressure to hit deadlines no matter what, I’m sure there’s never any talk of possible layoffs or budget demands that hang over the heads of artists like the sword of Damocles…nope…silly artists just don’t know when to go home…I mean it’s not like they have rent, or mortgages, or medical bills or tuition to pay back, or children to feed…they can just quit. It’s just that easy. Refuse to be exploited…who cares if you are one of the first to be laid off? I’m sure that there aren’t literally hundreds of animation school grads across the country drowning in debt from over-valued animation courses who would do anything to be in a studio just to stay alive regardless of the conditions. I mean if the Chinese don’t want to be worked to death in ipad factories, they should just quit. Don’t want to get exploited in an animation studio?

      Just go home.

      If they force you out, it’s okay. You can just go get a job being a race car driver or an astronaut or a princess. I mean life is full of choices, right?

      People harming THEMSELVES are really the ones to blame, because THEY justify the studio’s ILLEGAL behaviour. Someday I want to be a slumlord, then I can listen to people tell me how the tenants’ refusal to move into mansions JUSTIFIES my illegal behaviour towards THEM.

      Bravo.

      Sigh…

      SG.

      • akira

        WTF? so you need a union to stand up for yourself? if the studio can easily replace you with someone else that is eager for the job and you’re not happy doing it, it’s time to start looking for another line of work. and you don’t NEED to live in LA, or San Fran or New York. there are lots of other places in this country where you can survive on a regular (target, grocery store, mcdonalds etc.) 40 hour job…
        one of those sob stories was a dude who got 1k per day, for gods’ sakes! if he worked half as much for $500 per day then there is more work for others.

      • http://www.toonocity.com fremgen

        Soooo, entertainment employers can force their employees to do anything they want? Is that your point? Is that same advance you’d give to textile workers from the 1900′s? Suck it up or quit and find a better job? Seriously? That’s your plan?

      • bones

        @Someguy

        You’re all sarcasm & no solution. What’s the answer to this dilemma? Go work for a different studio that’s gonna kill you before you’re 40?

        …or maybe sit around doe-eyed hoping the animation gods will shine down on you and drop a bag of money in your lap?

        If you don’t stand up for yourself, who will? Certainly not the studio heads. All they are concerned about is their BMW’s.

        Don’t work for them. Anyone who damages their health for these companies are idiots & to reiterate my original comment, I don’t feel sorry for them.

        “Don’t spend your entire life making someone else’s dreams come true” – some really smart person

  • Mac

    If VFX is not given more investment in terms of mitigating the mental and physical costs to its human capital, it will just disappear from the earth. Even chasing lower costs around the globe won’t change the ultimate fate of sweatshop type labor practices.

  • Scarabim

    Tell you what, reading of the abuses some of the VX artists go through has given me a different attitude towards movies in general, and it’s not a warm fuzzy one. It seems to me that artists have GOT to stand together, and to warn the fresh young kids out of tech and art schools NOT to let themselves be exploited and to knock some of the stars out of their eyes. Robert Iger and his ilk can sit on their butts and collect fat bonuses while the artists that support their salaries injure themselves for peanuts. Makes me sick.

  • http://animatedlane.com JWLane

    I once worked at a shop where the partners would hire people form out of town. Once the new hires had left their old job and were in a city where they had no connections, the partners would reconfigure the terms. If the employee protested, one of the bosses would hold up a stack of resumes and say “all these people want your job. Now get back to work”. Back to work meant 50-70 hour weeks with pay based on 40 hours. I sometimes pulled back to back 100 hour weeks as a ‘team leader’.

    I worked an a cable network where my boss created situations where I went 3 days without sleep, more than once. Most of the time, however, I worked my extra hours by going home at 6, feeding the dogs, and going to regular Aikido training. At the end of training, I would be sitting in the dojo covered in sweat, with the feeling of all the pent up stress removed – a huge difference. I would then go home and take a good nap, get up at 3 or 4 AM and go back to work. I got more done between 4 and 9 than the rest of the day, for obvious reason.

    My training regime put me at odds with the fat, total consumerist, candy ass company culture. But, that’s OK. I was and am healthier, and tougher when it comes to stress. I know I’m going to get a lot of silly comments, but it’s a survival tactic, and it works.

  • http://wskibski.blogspot.com wouter bruneel

    This is what unions are for. Isn’t every production job in Hollywood unionized. Camera men, cinematographers, editors,.. Why not VFX artists.

    I do agree that someone who makes 1K a day and can’t handle the workload should be smart and find one talented fellow artist, split the cash and take a break.

  • Professor Widebottom

    This is a good field to be in for a while but watch out. It doesn’t typically deliver you anywhere but back on your ass when the gig is over. The sedentary, intensive computer work isn’t healthy or giving you much security once you reach middle-age. You can be replaced very easily and then what do you do?

    Better to be a corporate suit, quietly move up the chain, secure your future and benefits…. and infiltrate your subversive bad-ass artist self on the mainstream when you get your hands on the levers of power –if you have any original thoughts left in your head.

  • http://www.youtube.com/MrCromartie1989 A.C.

    And to think I’m pulling these hours on myself for free right now (or rather the dollars a day YT partnership pays)-I’m gonna lay back while I have a choice. O_o

  • Milo

    The reason the guy worked for $1000 bucks a day is because he didn’t know when the next job would be! He might be blacklisted from that studio next time because he didn’t hit his impossible quota every day, or he might not be called back simply because someone didn’t ‘like’ him. Or maybe he was too old. Yep, we have ‘ageism’ in our business too. Lot’s of it.
    Ours is not a steady business, but you probably don’t know that because you’re either 21 or not in the business yourself.

    The animation industry is filled with horror stories. It’s quite probably the worst run business there is. For all the smartass know-it-alls out there who feel that we should just ‘go home’ or ‘get another job’… what exactly should we do other than that job we TRAINED years for? Paid student loans for? Won awards for?

    Go try and get a job in another field with an art degree IF you even have one and you’ll quickly see that you didn’t learn shit to do anything in the real world, except doing chalk art at Trader Joes. Maybe.

    Everyone requires a college degree in haberdashery, lawyerism and metallurgy these days and you have to have worked for 20 years in that field AND be an A-Lister. Oh AND bring clients and a rolodex too.

    Even if you DID get an interview most interviewers look at your resume, scratch their heads and ask ‘Why would you want to leave such a fabulous job?”
    You need a resume so you can’t just keep it blank or you might as well just say:
    “Uh I’m 30 and I never worked a day in my life.”
    It’s not as easy as you think.
    “I’m not going to hire you because you’ll leave us to go back.” is what they usually say.
    And they’re right.

    So how about you think before you post something like “Why don’t they go home?”

  • hateakira

    akira. what are you doing on animation website? this is the business that we are in and you obviously have no idea how things work. people need to work and we are not going to live in some place in middle of bumfuck nowhere at mcdonalds. Depending on the line of work you do, you need to be in either of those central creative hubs to either work on movies or animated show. there are other shops that are not in the big cities but most of the big projects are done in those cities since that is where the talent is