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Artist RightsIdeas/Commentary

“We are at a tipping point in our industry”

A commentary worth reading by Jeffrey A. Okun, Chair of the Visual Effects Society:

“We are at a tipping point in our industry – no matter where you live or work. It has become painfully obvious that while profits abound for producers and distributors, our budgets are being squeezed to the point of jeopardizing our jobs and the quest for a reasonable life style for VFX artists.”

  • Anon

    “One does not earn respect. One commands it.”

    VFX houses are now commodities. Until there is Unionization, or everyone in the community agrees to stop underbidding each other, the cycle of low budgets and bankruptcies will continue.

    • Yeah, something certainly needs to be done. The problems going have have not been the result of poor company management, they’d been the result of a major problem with the industry.

      I hope these protests and commentaries can get some mainstream media attention. I think it might help for other people to know about this. A lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into creating these effects. They think it’s just pushing buttons on computers, or see it as a video game where they just control things with a keyboard. (granted, even if Richard Parker was a video game character, someone still had to do the programming, but you get my point) It won’t solve the problem but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

      Do you think a strike could work? I’m thinking, if all the studios and VFX workers went on strike, it could force Hollywood to really recognize how much they need these people. So many movies today rely on computer effects, it would halt the production of a lot of films, including the really big ones. Granted, the point would be moot if the film makers could get cheaper work overseas at the same quality, so that’s why I’m asking if a strike would be effective.

    • My Ocean

      But it’s a good thing that this is beginning to get some outside attention, which will make the studios look like the jerks they are. Pleading poverty while squeezing the shops into bankruptcy isn’t a great way to keep the movie money flowing in.

    • Vincent Tilghman

      Then lets come together and do stuff for ourselves

    • Elf

      Not entirely sure how union helps because aren’t Disney artists under unions too? But they still get laid off a ton. What are the benefits? They pay a LOT upon starting to work at Disney, and have no protection over job loss still and the insane work hours from what I heard.

  • D. Harry

    At least they are making more noise about their importance and the fact that they would like a piece of the pie than it seems Character Animators do. My neighbor played violin in the orchestra on the same Disney film I worked on and she continues to get residual checks for her work, while I got my 9 – 5 pay. I happen to think that an animators contribution would be AT LEAST worth as much as hers, but the Producers obviously have never thought so.

  • Unions are fine, but don’t expect any sort of retirement package ( that’s a concept that is quickly going the way of the dodo )

    • Jason

      Record breaking profits and a growing public distrust of corporations say you might be wrong about that.

  • If you’re worried that someone who has no idea what a union is about calling you a commie then you’re still as governed by other people and their misinformed opinions as you were before. Unions have helped every other facet of film making maintain a livable lifestyle and with each one of those they said it would sink the industry, and they didn’t. This is no time to worry about what other people think, but to do what’s best for ourselves and our community.

    • pingrava

      People associate unions with communism (actually socialism) because at some point it goes beyond worker’s rights and winds up knee deep in entitlements. You rarely – if ever – hear anyone complain about unions for cops and firefighters. also – they rarely go on strike. They don’t make outrageous demands or resort to violence.
      But look at the sort of jobs that protect hordes of worthless, incompetent and unskilled workers. These are the militants because they now full well that they’ll never have it so good if their unions go bust. NYC has a “rubber room” for dangerous teachers (violent history, pedophelia, racists) where they show up every day do nothing and collect close to 100K a year. THIS is what the public has an issue with, not unions meant to simply protect workers and re-negotiate reasonable terms for a new contract.
      Unions – in concept are fine. But they fall into the category of “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” category.
      I love movies and animation. I wish I fraction of the talent possessed by a marginally skilled artist. You guys rule. Really. I don’t know what the wage scale for your industry. But if your helping to make movies that gross a hundred mil and your paid 25K, then yes – something is wrong.

  • Eric

    I kind of laughed when I first saw the website about the cover up at the Oscars regarding the VFX artists. This type of exploitation has been rampant in the video game industry for YEARS!!!! Artists and engineers work round the clock for months to make ridiculous deadlines and to get a quality product out the door. Then the publishers take all the credit and all the profits. “Rewards” to the teams are generally limited to a couple days off (which often never materialize) or a few hundred dollars extra in their paycheck when in reality the extra hours would take THOUSANDS to compensate. And no game artist or engineer ever sees a residual check, even if the premise for a hit game was THEIR idea. And how many times have we seen a team get laid off or a studio close after the completion of a hit title? While the employee’s often show loyalty to their employers and projects, it’s never the other way round. Shrinking studios, greater responsibility and tighter budgets are becoming the norm, as is moving operations overseas to remain competitive.

  • Vincent Tilghman

    Unless you are rich or no somebody that knows somebody who’s a somebody.. you are screwed.. Applications are just legalities.

  • pingrava

    I’m not a bg fan of unions. However I approve of them when it comes to firefighters, cops, linemen – jobs that are dangerous.

    The issues with unions is the union leaders. They collect dues and pay themselves ridiculous salaries. Unions resort to violence and intimidation when it comes to building contracts (look at what’s happening in philadelphia). If a union shop is 25-35% higher than a reputable non-union shop, why do I have to give in? Longshoreman make well over 100K a year. Why?

    I’m not an artist. I’m an engineer (aerospace). Whenever we tried to get something done there was always a shop steward slowing us down (and it’s the union guys who cut the wires on the Boeing helicopters – out of spite – putting the lives of American pilots at risk).

    Go for it. Just remember that at some point, you’ll start to expect things instead of earning them. Like teachers you’ll expect pay raises and shut down studios (or schools in the case of teachers) and go on strike when 10% of the population is unemployed. In this case unions should stand back and say, “you know what? This is really not a good idea”.

    If you guys can keep your perspective, go for it. Nothig wrong with having someone in your corner waiting to beat down some a**hole boss. If your industry is as bad as you say it is, the go for it. Just remember to be realistic – I’m sure there are lots of studios overseas who will do the same job for slave wages.

    I wish you all well.

  • Purist

    It’s hard to sympathize with the VFX industry. This “crisis” exemplifies how incredibly unnecessary and excessive VFX have become, especially the use of CGI. Despite how primitive Jaws looks today, it’s more terrifying than any CGI shark could ever be. Remember when movies were shot on location or in physical sets? Yeah, I do. I also remember real tigers. And they’re a heck of a lot cooler than CGI ones.

  • pingrava

    All well and good. But I’ve dealt with union workers all my life and I found that none of them ever go above and beyond what it takes to get a job done. Oddly enough it’s the enthusiast newbies who are always willing to stay a few extra minutes and help out.
    That is until one of the older union guys comes over and tell them to clock out.
    I like unions because they represent workers. It’s when they start going off the straight and narrow – like forcing developers to put in 25 miles of unused plumbing just so they can pad OT and bring extra people on board (The Comcast building, Philadelphia, PA).
    But the worst is an apparent lack of meritocracy. The screw-ups get the same amount as the craftsman. My raise is higher than the guy down the hall because I got more done and did it better. Unions discourage innovation..they look down upon motivated individuals looking to get ahead. They need their numbers because that’s where their power is.
    Tell me why – Philly bus drivers and mechanics -were caught on tape – charging three/four hours a night OT when all they did was sleep. Why aredidn’t they get fired?

    • OtherDan

      I agree on your second point that corruption-unionized or other isn’t right. Nobody should put pressure on someone to exploit. That sounds like a mafia. On the other hand, if that pipe example was because a company was acting illegally and cutting corners, than I think it’s alright for a union to impose or act. If it’s the law in question, then that’s where the contempt should lie. On your first point: it’s true that newbie employees (especially young and single) are more eager to learn and grow, and work for free. The sooner they grow, the more they can compete with the seasoned veterans. It’s in their interest and I don’t find that odd at all. I was there once too. Having a veteran point out that you should be paid for your overtime is fair. It’s also common sense that free labor hurts the industry and everyone else who works normal hours and have responsibilities like a family. It’s in the union’s interest to keep that under control. Nobody can compete with free labor. Essentially all these VFX companies are competing with ‘free labor’ if you make the wage and cost of living comparisons. Where I really disagree is the generalization that because you’re a union employee and have certain ‘guarantees’ you’ll be lazy and entitled. I think that human characteristic is true whether it’s union or non-union labor. Some people will always strive and raise the bar, others will always be lazy, and there will always be those who actually undermine everybody’s effort by cheating the system. I don’t think being non-union would change that at all. But, the non-union bosses would definitely be more than happy to exploit people who ache to go the extra mile and work for free, or work extra fast carelessly as long as they can get away with it. I know at least one department head with that mindset which surly put her in to that position. The result was poor quality across the board because quality wasn’t her priority. In the long run that hurt everyone. The product was less than it could have been and the value lost is hard to quantify.

      • pingrava

        Other Dan, I think the biggest problem with the arts is free labor. For example: Engineering interns usually get paid about 13-17 dollars working in a mid-to large firm. We don’t use them as gophers. They do real work. They learn. It’s a win win. The lower level work gets done at a reduced overhead rate and the interns learn – A LOT. We train them I believe the same goes for business interns and those involved in the scientists. If they worked out, chances are they were offered a job upon graduation.
        We all know the scam that goes on in the world of art and media. 4 years out of college and your still an unpaid intern, going for the bosses coffee and picking up laundry. But this is the fault of the students. At one time people were so desperate to get an internship with a major magazine that they would pay the magazine for a shot at working for free.
        Let that sink in for a minute. a result, when Caleb the whimsical Brooklyn hipster demands his boss start paying him after 3 years of fetching hummus and pita chips, the boss shows him the door because he knows full well there are 50 people inline waiting for a chance to work for free.
        And what;s worse is, they’ve learned nothing. if anything, their skills (and motivation) have badly deteriorated.
        I’ve mentored interns. I always treated them as equals. I listened to their problems. I tried to be somewhat of a father figure to them
        I knew they would make mistakes, come in late half the time, goof off a bit. But I also knew what they were cacpable of. I woudl gradually make the assignments more challenging, teach them stuff they no longer teach in school. And if they insisted on acting like children, we would go out to lunch and I would gently tell them to get their sh*t together. I would not tell the boss. Some were beyond help but the majority of them appreciated and understood – I did what their parents should have done a long time ago.
        I served an internship that involved board drafting with part of the week spent in the machine shop. It was hell. I was abused, yelled at and sometimes smacked around.
        That’s not the tact I take. I worked with people who on treating interns like punching bags because that’s what they went through.
        Uh uh. my experience has been – abuse works once – after that people become immune to it.
        Sorrt for the long (and rambling) post.

        • OtherDan

          I have to correct you on how internships and trainees are treated-at least in CA. Interns are college aged and they don’t get paid. They are exposed to many things and learn a lot, but aren’t (or shouldn’t be) working on production. Where I work, a fair percentage get jobs (every term), which naturally drives wages down and probably displaces people over time. It’s a good opportunity for them, but even they-once they’ve put in their time and have matured might look at the never ending waves of interns as an issue to contend with. I haven’t seen any unpaid interns that stick around for more than one term – certainly not 3 yrs. Though, many interns have multiple internships at various companies, and in different sectors. Trainees are different. They are paid a lower wage like the ones you talked about. They also get exposure to different aspects of the productions like interns. But, they are being groomed to fill positions. And, they do work on production work. All that mentoring happens in animation too. People generally are happy to share and teach young interns who show potential or are amicable. A lot of the other stuff, the way you said people are treated in your profession is unfamiliar to me. The main point of me talking back, was to defend unionization. I think it’s a good thing that should help protect people from abuses that happen.

  • Vincent Tilghman

    but why would you remove the rich v poor thing? Its a difference maker.

    • I think for me its more that there are two issues, R&H and a vFX union. There are many reasons why R&H could have gone under, if someone can elaborate further I am sure that would be interesting.

  • pingrava

    My gripe is that studios give millions to talentless actors for a movie that boms.Even at US rates, i don’t think paying good wage would do much harm to the budget. Home much do VFX guys make, anyway – here and abroad?

    • Yes. However its their name and reputation that get associated with the film, the lead actors and directors assume the majority of risk. I am sure the vFX artists on Battleship are doing fine though it didn’t help Liam Neeson’s career. I saw this morning in a local crap paper a pic of the Croods, did it say made by the director of Lilo and Stitch, not it just listed the voice talent. Entertainment is an unfair business. vFx artists will never make what the actors make or get the same recognition, though better treatment is always a good thing.

  • OtherDan

    @Robert, and that’s why unions are weak. All the deriding in the media and in politics has taken a toll. Obviously, if they win then unionization will fail and be stigmatized like the word, “communism”-which it isn’t. They’d very much like you to think it is, because they already won that battle. Unions protect workers. The more solidarity there is among the workforce, the more effective unions can be. It’s true that outsourcing is an option. And, business can and do use that as leverage against their workforce. I don’t think the problem lies among artists who believe they should “do it for less or even free”. Honestly, who really thinks that way? You can’t live without compensation for your time. The bigger problem is outsourcing and the incentives to do that. It’s a policy problem. A political one. You guys are wrong to direct the anger at the relatively few aspiring artists who are just trying to get ahead. It’s the people cutting the deals and being greedy. The ones who decide that cutting costs is more important than putting Americans out of work. Or, it’s a larger corporate pressure of increasing profits at all costs. I don’t think Rhythm & Hues is the kind of conglomerate focused on shareholder return. I don’t even know if it’s a public company. I think you guys have to look more broadly and not demonize unions. All that does is play in to the hand of those who want to exploit workers.