EXCLUSIVE: Interview With The Artists Who Demand Better Working Conditions At Sony Pictures Imageworks

Hotel Transylvania

At first glance, the incendiary comments about free labor by Digital Domain CEO John Textor may appear to be an isolated issue, but many artists working in the visual effects industry see it as emblematic of the type of abuses they’ve been suffering for years. These labor violations have simply become more public thanks to a vocal online community and watchdog sites like VFX Soldier. The growing awareness is also part of the maturing of the vfx industry, which is still a relatively young art form compared to feature animation. In the past decade, most of the highest-grossing films at the global box office have been visual effects-driven, yet there has been no trickle-down benefit to the artists who have helped these media conglomerates make hundreds of millions of dollars.

A group of artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks is leading a push for change at their studio that could have big ramifications for the rest of the vfx industry in Los Angeles. Their goal is to unionize Imageworks, and they are promoting their cause publicly through the SpiUnion blog, as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts.

What makes the plight of Sony’s artists particularly urgent is that there are different standards of treatment for LA-based artists working on the same films: Sony Pictures Animation artists enjoy union benefits, whereas Sony Pictures Imageworks artists don’t. In other words, if you’re storyboarding and designing films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania, you get treated better than if you animate on those same films in Los Angeles. This divide-and-conquer tactic that Sony uses is distinct from other Los Angeles feature animation studios like DreamWorks and Disney Feature Animation that extend union benefits to all their artists, including the animators.

To learn more about the situation, Cartoon Brew conducted an interview with the Imageworks artists who are leading the effort to unionize the studio. For obvious reasons (i.e. not being fired), they have chosen to remain anonymous.

CARTOON BREW: As an outsider, I struggle to understand the mindset of the vfx industry and why it’s so difficult to organize those within it. Can you shed some light into why the vfx field has been so reluctant to organize in LA, especially considering the working conditions, which involve ridiculously long hours. It seems that union representation like your counterparts in CG feature animation would be a benefit.

Artists of SpiUnion: Yes, you would think so right? It’s just as difficult for us to understand as well. We can’t speak to the economics of other companies, but we feel Sony is in a unique situation as opposed to other purely vfx facilties. We produce our own content (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Smurfs), we produce the 3D content our parent company depends on to sell 3D Blu-ray players and televisions, we’re partially unionized (SPA) already, we produce vfx for other studios, we have offices in multiple countries, and we’re owned by one of the major studios.

The LA vfx industry seems to based on FUD (Fear , Uncertainty, and Doubt). There is the prevailing opinion that if any artist dares to stand up and make any noise, the entire company/industry will closeup shop and leave town. Companies are not in LA out of the kindness of their hearts, they are here because there is a large talent base here. (See VFX Soldier’s post on the Animation Guild’s membership and agglomeration.)

People need to ask why are the directors, producers, actors, cameramen, grips, best boys, are all union, but not us? We certainly don’t dare stand up and say anything for fear of angering the mothership right? In the last year we have made multiple projects that either our parent company is making (Men in Black 3,  The Amazing Spider-man) or projects where we are outright the content owners of (Hotel Transylvania, Smurfs 2). How are we not a feature animation company these days?

CARTOON BREW: Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI) isn’t union while Sony Pictures Animation (SPA) is. There may be some people confused as to the distinctions between these two arms of Sony so can you explain what films you work on versus what the unionized SPA works on.

The 38 union employees of SPA do all the “pre-production” work for Sony animated features. Storyboards, concept art, character design, etc. Once the movie is ready to start going into the actual shot production process, the “client” (SPA) will then give the project to the “vendor” (SPI) who will then make the finished project. It’s similar to our relationship with the late ImageMovers. It’s an odd distinction, since we are right next to each other, and in some cases work in the same building. So we work on the same films. Five percent of the residual revenue from the movies we make goes to the unionized part of the company to pay their pension benefits. The rest of us get nothing. This is seen as not only fair, but essential to the business of the company. This is not an attack on SPA in any way; they were the smart ones, and voted to unionize when they had the chance.

CARTOON BREW: By going union, what benefits do artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks stand to gain which aren’t currently provided by the company itself?

The biggest gains are portable benefits that travel with you. Many artists will work a short term (five months or less) on a show, and then be unemployed. Many longer term artists will also be let go with no warning at all by the whim of company management.

(Our apologies to your foreign readers, but some of the following is very US specific.) If the project you are on ends on a Friday, if you want health insurance, you need to pay the $1000+ for COBRA benefits in the following 30 days, and then every month thereafter. Dropping COBRA is not advised, since then you will have to try to find individual coverage as opposed to being under the group COBRA coverage. This excludes anyone with a pre-existing health condition.  Under the TAG plan, when you lose your job,  you now have six months of health insurance (and up to 18 months depending on your hours worked in the previous year) for yourself, your partner, and your dependents. You can go work on a non-union commercial for 4 weeks, while you wait for Sony to call you back.

There are also several retirement and pension plans offered. This is in addition to guaranteed paid overtime (the amounts of “free”, “voluntary”, and off-the-books OT worked is unbelievable), vacation days, sick days, guaranteed wage minimums, and a voice in the contract that we all work under. Many staff hires receive zero benefits beyond an HMO that ends as soon as you are layed off. No retirement plan, no sick days, no vacation days.

It’s absolutely puzzling why an artist wouldn’t want these benefits, and will vocally campaign that they don’t want them. The public sees movies for the hard work the vfx artists put into the films, but we receive less benefits than nearly everyone else on the film. This is seen as not only equitable but essential to the business of the film industry. At what point do people wake up? Our work provides billions of dollars in profit to Hollywood.

How sad a statement is it about ourselves that portable health insurance and a retirement pension is seen as some kind of major extravagance that we don’t deserve?

CARTOON BREW: SPI tried to organize a union drive in 2003 and the employees at the time voted overwhelmingly against that proposal. What has changed at SPI in the past ten years, and why do you feel the employees today will be more receptive to the union proposal.

Staff employees at the time received a nice benefits package, it had profit sharing amongst other things. No one seemed to want to admit that those benefits could all be taken away at a moments notice, and they all eventually were. A matching 401k, and poor health insurance are about the only major benefits they have left, and this could be removed at any time as well. Since that time there has been a steady erosion of benefits for all employees.

Imageworks employees have lost 10 years of pension and benefit contributions that they could have been earning. We should all ask ourselves: Have we seen our workplace conditions improve or degrade in the last ten years? How many of those conditions did we have any say in at all?

People that were here for 15 years were summarily dismissed, everyone feels like their jobs could be gone at any moment, and many are afraid to “rock the boat” and feel lucky “to just have a job at all”. The makeup of the company is now mostly people that are hired for one show, and then immediately let go when its over. This is exactly the group of people that needs portable benefits most. We have many ex-Disney, Dreamworks, and ImageMovers artists working here still enjoying their medical benefits they earned while working at those union companies.

Ten years ago we didn’t have a central resource for information and people felt TAG was not involved enough at the time. We have a resource now at spiunion.wordpress.com. Steve Kaplan, the Animation Guild organizer, has been great helping us answer people’s questions. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, where we post people’s questions anonymously if they don’t want to be identified.

CARTOON BREW: My understanding is that in the past, Imageworks’ treatment of permanent staff was much more generous than production hires who received little health/retirement benefits. Is this still the case? Also, approximately how many of SPI staff are “permanent” and how many are short-term production hires?

Yes, it is still the case that “staff” artists receive more benefits than production artists. But, to the best of our knowledge, no one is “staff” anymore, just who is more or less likely to be laid off the instant your last shot is done on a show. The failed union vote of ten years ago actually caused show/production hires to get more benefits. There has been a serious erosion in benefits from the meager benefits the company once provided to people. Many show hires receive zero benefits beyond an HMO that ends as soon as you are laid off. No retirement plan, no sick days, no vacation days. This is occurring as the company rakes in Smurf money that we helped make.

The exact employee numbers are always in a state of flux. According to the Animation Guild, there are 38 SPA employees. There are somewhere between 400-500 Imageworks artists in LA, and another 100+ in Vancouver, soon to be 250+. There are 30-40 artists in Albuquerque, with an unknown number of those to be relocated between LA and Vancouver.

CARTOON BREW: Besides its LA studio, SPI also has facilities in New Mexico and Vancouver. It was recently announced that the New Mexico studio would close (after less than five years of operation) and the Vancouver studio would expand. What is there that prevents Sony from moving its entire operation to Vancouver? Do you fear that unionization in LA would make Sony push more of its production up north?

This is the argument that is most repeated and makes no sense to us. If the company were capable of moving all the work to Vancouver (or anywhere else in the world), they absolutely 100% would. The agglomeration of people in LA is the why the company is still here. If you look at it from a different point of view, if the company gets a 30% rebate on its work, why in the world would they have ANY artists at all in another location? The answer is that there are key people and departments who won’t move. This is leverage in action. By all accounts, Albuquerque was a profitable division.

Someplace else offered more incentives, so the company is chasing the free government handouts. Don’t be surprised in the future to see Vancouver divisions shutting down and opening up in other locations as every company chases incentives to the next hot location. Our opinion has always been that as an individual artist you have no control over what another country decides to do economically. You have no control over any other business decision that happens way over your head. What you can control is that you will accrue pension and health benefits while you are working. These will continue after you are unemployed for yourself and your family.

We are not trailblazing a new idea and fighting to set up a new organization. TAG has existed for every seventy years, and has served the employees of Disney, Dreamworks, Nickelodeon, SPA and many others.  Why would anyone not want to have the same benefits? All anyone at any studio in the US or Canada need to do is sign and mail a rep card to get the process started.


  • Bud

    There has been antagonism between the artists who create and direct the films and the vfx service part of the company since Sony opened. There was very little cooperation between the two halves of the same company, but the vfx division felt they were the dominant division. This wasn’t necessarily the technicians faults–it was propagated by the former head of Imageworks quite vocally. The problem was, as it is with Digital Domain, that Sony Imageworks had never created content (and still hasn’t). Once the story and artwork (content) were created by Sony Animation, Imageworks took over, and there was no interaction or input allowed from the very people who knew most why story and design decisions were made and the technicians putting it into the computer. This led to MUCH antagonism. And it was the primary reason Robert Zemeckis left Sony for Disney. Making an animated feature is NOT like doing a VFX job. Neither is easy, but they are not the same.

    This has changed somewhat with new management at both Imageworks and Animation-but not yet for the better (the long problematic Hotel Transylvania–with its runaway costs, multiple directors and writers). The sooner Imageworks can unionize, and the sooner Sony encourages the divisions to realize neither is in charge, but they’re on the same team, the better things will be.

    • Devil’s Advocate

      Do you think perhaps this ‘antagonism’ you speak of is somehow related to the perception by SPA of the animators, modelers, and digital artists at SPI as “technicians”?

      If you think that the animators on Cloudy were simply ‘putting other people’s ideas into a computer’, you clearly haven’t framed through the film.

      Tell me these are the words of a mindless technician: http://davidanthonygibson.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/cloudy-with-a-chance-of-eyeballs/

      • Daniel

        it still sucks compared to sleeping beauty!

        you don’t need a lot of talent to be a animator and even less for a modeler, or digital artist in CG~

        I have yet to find a modeler in this industry I can truly call as a artist! .. yes I would call them mindless technicians, because it ALWAYS gets worse when designs go in to that department..

      • Daniel is inaccruate

        Thats a terrible perception to have. I admit I used to think CG was mindless and easy, that is until I learned the process and how to animate using maya.

        For me, I still approach cg the same way I do with traditional animation. All the aspects required to create animation on paper are the same in cg.

        We’re applying a trade to different mediums. We’re taking knowledge of animation and using this to create motion.

        I think you mean to present the argument that cg artists are not good draftsman. Which is still not accurate to say.

        However this is off topic.

      • Bud

        First off, I honestly don’t think there are just “technicians” and just “artists.” I meant to say that’s how the studio management chose to classify them. Believe me, I know what you mean!

        And Daniel’s response is ignorant, childish, and of course, amateurish.

      • http://jelly-brains.blogspot.com Christina Skyles

        Thank you, Daniel, for showing exactly why CG artists/technicians get such crap treatment in the industry. :\

      • Daniel

        the day a modeler makes a design better then the original drawing I won’t have anything to say.. (without being hand-held through the whole process by another artist)..

        I’m sorry that CG artist get crap treatment, but to call modelers “artists”, it degrades the meaning of what that really means..

      • Glen

        Often, CG models are FAR better than the drawings they are based on? But you are ignorant to the fact that no one cares. The film is the thing.

        You should post some of your drawings here.

      • David Gibson

        Figured I’d jump in on this with my 2 cents, since my cloudy blog post was linked up there. (thanks btw!)

        After working at Sony for a few years I got to know a lot of the people in the SPA building and I never got the feeling that we on the Imageworks side were seen as technicians. There was always mutual admiration and respect between both departments knowing that we needed each other to be successful.

        I support the idea of the union over there, but to be honest…really honest, thats not the problem. The problems are numerous, but its two key issues that are really holding that studio and its employees back.

        Sony. Its a company with its hands in so many different things it doesn’t know what its doing anymore. The same company that produces movies manufactures speakers, camcorders, cameras, tvs, video games, hardware, software, etc. When you’re spread that thin across so many markets there’s no way to stay focused and produce quality films while treating your employees fair.

        Management. Specifically at Imageworks, in my experience, its the management thats really failed the artists and hundreds of employees there. The hire/fire mentality and zero loyalty to their employees creates such a toxic environment that nothing good can come of it.

        Sony Imageworks does whatever will make or save them the most money. But in the end, can you blame them? They’re a business not a happy fun smile factory.

        Goodluck over there guys, keep fighting the good fight.

        (also, real quick, these comments about CG taking no talent…you got a f*$%ing dart in your neck. you’re crazy, you’re crazy man. I like you, but you’re crazy.)

      • http://www.animationguild.org Steve Kaplan

        For all my long winded posts about the reasons for unionization at Imageworks, there’s nothing I could have written better than that.

      • daniel

        Glen- If it’s so often, name one.. I can rattle off a list for you where that is not the case.. The real problem is that most modeler’s can’t sculpt.. and can’t DRAW.. or even OBSERVE life around them.. this problem shows in their work.. and that’s what separates a real artist from a technician.. any real sculptor would know Rodan and Bernini were excellent draftsman as well as sculptors.. even Kent Milton can draw and paint.. yet it baffles me that they have the confidence to translate drawings in to dimensions when they themselves can’t pick up a pencil..

        Theoretically, the modeler should be the BEST draftsman/designer/animator/artist in the pipeline, but if you had any artistic talent at all, you wouldn’t be modelling you would be designing.. and the ones that do focus on modeling are usually the ones who have failed at drawing or animating..

        Modeling is so integral to the artistic quality of a CG film, since an animator, rigger, lighter, and layout can only do so much with sloppy geometry..

        The film is the thing, and it disgusts me when I see sloppy puppets being moved around in a video game quality setting with half-baked lighting.. Compare a film still of any CG movie with Sleeping Beauty or Tarkovsky’s Andre Rublev..(or even a stop motion film like Coraline) and I guess I have a dart in my head if I say it doesn’t come close to it’s artistry..

        I used to think that being called an artist meant something.. but since the bar is set so low on what is an artist, I can understand how many people can see being a wall painter is as artistic as being the architect who designed the building..

  • TV Cartoons

    Nickelodeon is currently structured the same way – 2D artists are union, CG are not.

    :(

  • animatorz

    i worry that this very important discussion that is happening in the industry at the moment is in danger of becoming skewed slightly.

    The animation and VFX industries are not solely based in LA. Although healthcare is an important issue, if you work in Sony Vancouver, not so much. What’s important is how we are treated in general.

    Try speaking to some of those people working in Canada and they have been treated as “professionals”

    • LeFrou

      Vancouver studios can also organize and unionize if they so desire, no? Gotta start somewhere..

      • animatorz

        It’s just that it seems there’s a slightly different mind set in LA, where there are actually still people who have been in the same job for 10 years. It would be great if we could all sit down and discuss getting a union started.
        The reality is that most of us are busy looking for a new job every 6 months.

      • LeFrou
      • beamish13

        Come to Vancouver, folks. It’s pricey, but the weather’s nice and you’ll encounter nicer people than you will in L.A.

      • Jason Campbell

        I’m sure the folks who uprooted and relocated their family to New Mexico ran into some nice people, hopefully some of those nice people will be in a position to purchase their houses so they can uproot and relocate their family again.

    • jewboy0117

      Unfortunately we are stuck since a lot of studios are moving else where due to tax incentives or cheaper labor. If we demand better compensation then there there is nothing stopping these profit driven companies to move elsewhere. I do wish that there were bonuses and more staff positions and less low paying contract work.

      • LeFrou

        If these companies could move out of LA entirely they would’ve already done so, union or not. There is too much talent in LA for them just to leave. Also, directors and producers like to work with a local team. Sure, the teams in LA have been getting smaller, but as the New Mexico Sony studio showed us, as soon as those incentives are go, they probably will close shop. Then the artists just have to move. Again.

        At least with the union we’d get portable healthcare in between jobs. I hope this goes through for them.

  • http://www.toonocity.com fremgen

    I hope they can get their union- too many greedy SOBs in this biz.

  • http://artnote.blog.com Stephen

    Thanks for this story. Being informed is the best defense.

  • Stephen M. Levinson

    Uh Oh! If you say anything, you may get put on the blacklist and you’ll never work in the industry again!

    haha…just kidding, there is no black list! … Can’t believe people think there actually is one!

    • realitycheck

      No blacklist? Seriously? Ask your HR department about that one – they will admit it in a rare moment of honesty.

  • http://animationguild.org/organizing/ Chris Simmons

    It’s a pretty straight forward process, but it takes the artists making the first move. Cards are available to anyone who wants to fill one out and the process is totally anonymous. 70% of the artists willing to sign cards and commit is the magic number to help make sure that a facility can get through the organizing process. If that many artists are willing to stand up for themselves, then they can make the Union a reality for any facility in Los Angeles.

    Being a Guild member is a great thing, the benefits include Health Care, Pension, and 401K.

    Local 839 is a small local with a staff of 6 in the office and a board of about a dozen members. The office staff and board members are very approachable and happy to help. We want to see all artists covered by health care, protected from labor abuses, and having a better quality of life. We have meetings every other month at the Union Hall in Burbank, and they are open to the public.

    http://animationguild.org/organizing/

    The Organizer, Steve Kaplan can be contacted on FB as well:

    https://www.facebook.com/animationguild

    Good luck, and have courage. The risk is worth the reward!

    Chris Simmons
    Local 839 Board Member

  • http://www.joealter.com joe alter

    “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.” – Griffin Mill

  • FX Grunt

    I was at Imageworks in 2003 when the whole Union fiasco occurred.

    From my perspective at the time, it seemed like the union didn’t care one bit about our concerns, our future, or anything else. They simply wanted bodies paying dues to fill their coffers being drained by retiring traditional animators. They weren’t getting any new people from the traditional animation industry because it was in serious decline at the time (and there was no mention of residuals – how could there be when the fx company itself doesn’t get residuals).

    There were also people IN the union at the time telling us about how that union in particular despised digital artists and would not fight for them. This was because most of the people in the union’s management were from traditional animation who hated us because they saw us as destroying their industry.

    In the end, the union presented us with a stuffed shirt with no personality, that didn’t dispel any of the above beliefs be they true or not, and who had nothing to sell except lower pay and fewer benefits than what we were getting. If we got laid off, there was nothing the union could do to help us get a job elsewhere because they had no presence anywhere else.

    From my experience at ILM previously, where I had to take a pay cut to work at because of how depressed union salaries were, and saw first hand the antagonistic relationship between the union and the company, I felt as many others that bringing that relationship to Imageworks at that time was not in our best interests.

    Imageworks didn’t gradually reduce benefits, it came quite quickly when Bob Osher came into power. He basically cleaned house and gutted the company as it was, rebuilding it the way he wanted to run things. Maybe he made the company more profitable, maybe not, I don’t know and don’t really care as I was culled near the beginning of the great purge.

    You don’t form unions when you’re being treated well, you form them when you’re being treated badly and have no other options available to you. Has the industry turned a corner? Possibly. It may be time to unionize the fx industry, but it’s something that would have to happen across the board in order to be effective and that may still be beyond the realm of possibility.

    A major underlying problem is that fx companies themselves don’t make enormous sums of money off our labors and they don’t have the power to stand up to the studios. They struggle to stay in business because it’s the producers of the movies that make all the money. There are no residuals for the companies and so like us, they struggle to find the next gig.

    In Imageworks’ case, there is an argument for getting a piece of the pie that SPA is generating. Most FX houses have not been very successful in creating their own content though. Who knows what bringing the company/union antagonism into the rest will do to our job prospects.

    Foreign subsidies, cheap labor, and poor profit margins are already driving a lot of our jobs out of the country as it is. It might be like holding a mutiny on a ship that’s already sinking.

    It sucks our jobs are going elsewhere but I don’t see a union being able to do much about it unless every fx artist in the industry is a part of it, and even then I have doubts.

  • skeptical

    “From my perspective at the time, it seemed like the union didn’t care one bit about our concerns, our future, or anything else.”

    I was at a couple of the meetings between Imageworks staff and union reps. Some of the key Sony employees were so hostile, they turned every meeting into a hatefest. The union reps couldn’t make a point without being attacked.

    “They weren’t getting any new people from the traditional animation industry because it was in serious decline at the time”

    In fact, the union membership was in a major growth phase. The TAG blog has shown the union membership numbers year by year if you doubt this.

    “(and there was no mention of residuals – how could there be when the fx company itself doesn’t get residuals).”

    Yes, this issue WAS brought up, as an explanation for how the union’s superior health plan was financed without costing Sony more money. People just didn’t understand the concept.

    “There were also people IN the union at the time telling us about how that union in particular despised digital artists and would not fight for them.”

    I know there were a few former union members in supervisory positions at Sony who were anti-union because they feared losing their personal bonuses (which a few years later they lost anyway). There were also former union members who were pro-union, but who were afraid to say anything. The hostility within Sony towards the union at the time so frightening.

    “This was because most of the people in the union’s management were from traditional animation who hated us because they saw us as destroying their industry.”

    This was a false perception, and an excuse for voting the wrong way 9 years ago. The crazy thing is that, within other parts of the union, the union leaders at the time were accused of being too pro-CG. Regardless, it was misinformed Imageworks employees who voted down going union, not the union leadership.

    • DW

      I’m not sure we were misinformed necessarily. I’m sure there were some who were..but there were two predominant issues that hurt the union’s position. First was the fact that most of the Imageworks employees were going to take a step back with their benefits. It’s tough to come in and say that you will lose 401k matching, vacation days, profit sharing and expect to win over the group. Yes..I know..the healthcare is great an portable. But what’s portable if you can’t get the next gig at a union house? And I know that ‘those benefits could be gone tomorrow’..and they are now. Looking back it’s easy to say I told you so..but it’s not like anything is guaranteed these days. Who’s to say the union will be able to keep their current benefits at current levels? You never know.

      The bigger issue for me was how the union came to Sony. That is…through SPA. By only needing a percentage of SPA employees to sign cards (was it 60%?), they only needed say 10 people because SPA had so few employees. Plus, SPA had begun to lure union folks over for positions in story. So it felt to a lot of us that the union was looking to benefit from very favorable conditions to land a bridgehead. I’m not sure I blame them, but when you are working at a place, you’re pretty happy, and suddenly small number new hires come over and start shaking things up for hundreds..well it got a lot of feathers ruffled and set the partnership between Sony and the Union off on the wrong foot.

      The time is right now though….Now the union can really help. Hope it works out.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Better working conditions? They actually need better management and producers.

  • irritated

    I would just like to correct a few things about what the person in the article stated.

    ‘(the amounts of “free”, “voluntary”, and off-the-books OT worked is unbelievable)’

    Imageworks pays you OT. It is one of the few companies that I know of that does so and according to state law. It is also one of the few companies that makes an effort to tell artists to not work for free. I hear this on a weekly basis, do not work OT unless approved, do not work beyond your approved hours. If artists are staying beyond those hours, it is by their own accord and not from pressure from the productions. If artists do this, they are hurting us all. It skews the amount of time that production thinks takes to do a certain task. All hours should be reported properly. I don’t work for free and neither should anyone else, especially at a company like SPI that will pay you for your hours.

    Also, every artist is presented with some form of healthcare when employed at SPI. Longer contracts get better benefits than shorter ones, but no artist gets the shaft in regards to healthcare. Many small companies won’t even offer you a basic HMO.

    The concept of portable health benefits are great, but I keep hearing this as the main reason to unionize. I don’t believe it is. This industry is too global for that to be the main reason to unionize. The portable benefits do me no good in another country. Hell they don’t even do me that good in a state other than CA. We should be wanting to unionize to set wage standards, yearly wage increases, credits, OT, max weekly and daily hours worked, how about no Sunday work as well and time off including vacation, holiday(man I would love to have normal holidays off like most people) and sick. Present me a package that includes all that and I would become more interested. Also I would want to hear how we get other facilities to unionize, because if all I get is being able to work at Disney and Dreamworks, I am not interested. I don’t do feature animation.

    Regarding when the union came in before, it was rejected for many reasons, but one of the reasons that a lot of people disliked was that the artists had no say in the contract. They came in and ask for a vote with a proposed contract based on the one that SPA had already agreed upon and at that time it was only about 12 people. This contract did not have any input from SPI artists and if we approved the union it could not be changed to suit our needs. The contract included less sick days and less vacation than what Sony was offering. It didn’t have a 401k at the time either with a matching contribution. It also included a no strike clause, which was hugely disliked. Why would we except a no strike clause, that eliminates the power of the artists. They also told us that most of us would have to change our current doctors in the new health plan. No one likes to have to do that. I would hope that a lot of this has changed.

    I also have concerns about what the Hollywood Reporter talked about a couple weeks ago concering a $500 million shortfall in the health and pension plans… you can read that here:
    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/iatse-amptp-pension-health-304491

    Sounds like healthcare through the union is not necessarily a guarantee either.

    What fx grunt says is right on, in that unions form under bad conditions. Conditions at Imageworks are not bad. Yes sometimes the hours suck, but I am and have been treated very well at Imageworks. I am treated way better than any small company has done and I am guaranteed to be paid for my work. Gee what a concept.

    Let’s talk about what is really important for this industry to change for the better and that is overall better working conditions and ways to get all vfx artists involved, not just one company.

    • http://animationguild.org Steve Kaplan

      “Imageworks pays you OT. It is one of the few companies that I know of that does so and according to state law.” “I hear [regularly], do not work OT unless approved, do not work beyond your approved hours. If artists are staying beyond those hours, it is by their own accord and not from pressure from the productions. If artists do this, they are hurting us all.”

      The issue of uncomp’d OT is a much bigger than this topic. It happens everywhere and is pretty much up to the artists to police. Hulett posts about it regularly on the TAG Blog and always gets a large response with many opposing viewpoints.

      “The concept of portable health benefits are great, but I keep hearing this as the main reason to unionize. I don’t believe it is.”

      Damn right it isn’t. The MPI benefits are an incredible fringe benefit to union membership. They are also an excellent example of what the focused leverage of a workforce can achieve.

      “We should be wanting to unionize to set wage standards, yearly wage increases, credits, OT, max weekly and daily hours worked, how about no Sunday work as well and time off including vacation, holiday(man I would love to have normal holidays off like most people) and sick. Present me a package that includes all that and I would become more interested.”

      Done and can be done. Union contracts are made up of proposals just like those that are negotiated against proposals from the employer. Leverage is used and concessions are made. Your suggestions aren’t out of the norm or should be considered unattainable with an employer.

      “Also I would want to hear how we get other facilities to unionize”

      You’re looking at it. Organization has to stem from the artists within. Your points about how you felt back in 2003 when the IA was going to walk in and impose a contract on you that you had no input on is exactly the reason why the union can only help facilitate the organization process going forward. Its the onus of the union to educate and inform the community of visual effects artists on unionization so they can make the choice for themselves to stand and be counted as a supporter.

      “It also included a no strike clause, which was hugely disliked. Why would we except a no strike clause, that eliminates the power of the artists.”

      Hardly. Offering a “No Strike – No Lockout” clause in the contract is one of the biggest pieces of leverage there is. A strike is the last resort to get an employer to change their position on one or many proposals in negotiations. With a clause in the contract that states “With this contract in effect, both sides agree that the employees will not strike the company, and the employer will not lock out the employees”, both sides agree to find solutions to problems that may arise without hindering the business which would hurt both parties.

      “Sounds like healthcare through the union is not necessarily a guarantee either.”

      Wrong. Those figures and the meetings that were held before negotiations began were designed to inform the membership about the size of the possible shortfall the health plan was facing over the course of the next three year contract cycle if all contributions remained the same. The IATSE president and bargaining committee held those meetings to inform the membership of a worst case scenario and then asked for input on how to approach the producers in order to bridge that gap.

      Both the union members and producers participate in the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan. Its no secret that the costs of health care in this country are astronomical. However, both sides have a vested interest in maintaining the viability of the plan. While there may be some changes to come, the plan will remain.

      “Unions form under bad conditions”

      Maybe, but only because people tend to be myopic about the real benefits of unionization and would rather be satisfied with what they have right now. Their bird in the hand is certainly better than the two in the bush. Well, for vfx artists, that’s just wrong. Sure, Imageworks is treating you well. You get your decent wage and treatment. But, as history has shown, you can’t count on that. The only way to guarantee yourselves some input in the way you’re treated, is to secure your voice in the establishment of a enforceable vehicle that sets workplace standards and conditions that are acceptable to you.

      “Let’s talk about what is really important for this industry to change for the better and that is overall better working conditions and ways to get all vfx artists involved, not just one company.”

      100% agree. However, it has to be company by company. You can educate the artists as a whole, but each workforce has to stand and demand to be unionized. That’s the law. However, achieve the former and it could be possible to effect the latter instantaneously across the city.

      Certainly a bit of a stretch, but that’s a goal I wouldn’t mind working on.

      - Steve K
      Organizer – IATSE Local 839

      • Dave G

        I will always vote against having a union where I work.
        As Thomas Sowell says, the minimum wage is always zero.

        Unions are so last-century.
        http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/261536/union-myths-thomas-sowell

        “The most famous labor union leader, the legendary John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960, secured rising wages and job benefits for the coal miners, far beyond what they could have gotten out of a free market based on supply and demand.

        But there is no free lunch.

        An economist at the University of Chicago called John L. Lewis “the world’s greatest oil salesman.”

        His strikes that interrupted the supply of coal, as well as the resulting wage increases that raised its price, caused many individuals and businesses to switch from using coal to using oil, leading to reduced employment of coal miners. The higher wage rates also led coal companies to replace many miners with machines.

        The net result was a huge decline in employment in the coal-mining industry, leaving many mining areas virtually ghost towns by the 1960s. There is no free lunch.”

    • skeptical

      “Regarding when the union came in before, it was rejected for many reasons, but one of the reasons that a lot of people disliked was that the artists had no say in the contract.”

      This is untrue. Several Imageworks artists were involved in negotiating the terms of the SPA contract from day one. Their role was to communicate the issues and needs of Imageworks artists to the negotiating committee, and to be a conduit for the Imageworks crew. I think Sean Mullen was one of these three people, and there were one or two others. If they didn’t communicate effictively, that’s on them, but my understanding is that the needs of Imageworks crew was very much a part of the contract negotiation process.

      “The contract included less sick days and less vacation than what Sony was offering. It didn’t have a 401k at the time either with a matching contribution.”

      These are examples of how poorly many people understood the proposed contract. The union contracts are for MINIMUMS, and do not mandate that vacation days would be cut. Before the union contract, Sony could eliminate sick days/vacation/401(k) at will. After the union contract, there would have been a bottom limit set on vacation (the union contract mandates a minimum of 2-3 weeks vacation per year for everyone, depending on seniority, and not just for staff. Artists are encouraged to negotiate for more if they have the clout). The three union pension plans would have been locked in and actually have been a step up from the Sony 401(k) match (and those pensions would have been for every Imageworks employee, not just staff after they’d worked there for five years).

      “It also included a no strike clause, which was hugely disliked.”

      Were Imageworks people really thinking of striking at any time before or after the union contract was proposed? Seriously? Of course not. And you misunderstand the no-strike/no-lockout clause anyway. This anger at a contract clause you didn’t understand is typical of the misunderstanding and free-floating anger that greeted the union contract effort.

      “They also told us that most of us would have to change our current doctors in the new health plan. No one likes to have to do that.”

      This is untrue. Both the deluxe Sony health plan (the one staffers got, not the lesser one project hires got) and the main union health plan were Blue Cross plans at the time (the union plan also gave the option of two HMOs if those were preferred), and so doctors wouldn’t have changed except in rare cases. The difference was the the union health plan, which is substantially funded by residuals, would not have required the payroll deductions that the Sony plan did.

      I know several former Imageworkers who were dead set against the union effort, who later went to DreamWorks or Disney. They were all surprised to find that the union benefits were substantially better than what they had believed when they voted ‘no.’ I think the bottom line is that Imageworkers were annoyed and confused at the union ‘intrusion’ into a functional studio environment, and they looked for excuses to focus those negative feelings. The whole union effort at the time was mishandled, and instead of light there was a lot of heat. Hopefully this time it will be the opposite.

  • http://cartoonatics.blogspot.com/ Tom Ruegger

    Excellent and important piece, Amid. I’m very glad you are on this.

    Since this area of the motion picture industry — animated feature films — has proven to be the most profitable sector at the box office in recent years, it would seem logical and appropriate that the majors should share their bounty with the people who work so hard to make these successful films.

    I’m always amazed these studios don’t have a genuine profit sharing arrangement with their workers. All the other major creative crafts in the industry — live action directors, live action writers, actors — get a taste of the studios’ profit windfalls.

    But not the animation people.

    This is an ongoing oversight that need to be corrected.

    I suspect the first major animated feature studio to announce a decent profit participation with its workers will be inundated with job applications by the best talent in the industry.

  • FX Grunt

    “The union reps couldn’t make a point without being attacked.”

    It’s true the meetings typically devolved into a hatefest, but it was not entirely undeserved. The reps had nothing substantial to offer, and lots to take away. It’s not a good platform on which to sell to an audience and they got shot down for it.

    In my opinion, if they can’t make a convincing argument to a group of seriously skeptical potential members, why would I let them bargain on my behalf with a company that’s hostile to them and will fight tooth and claw for everything.

    They came across as impotent when faced with real opposition, and that did nothing to instill my confidence in their bargaining ability. I expect a large number of the 90+% that voted it down felt the same way.

    They needed better reps that had more of a backbone, and actually showed us a little bit of the fire they’d back us with instead of the stammering, dejected wimps they stuck in front of us. It was a very poor showing regardless of the issues at hand.

    “as an explanation for how the union’s superior health plan was financed without costing Sony more money”

    Superior health plan? I recall was less robust than what Sony was offering at the time. I don’t remember residuals being a factor at all but it was a long time ago and obviously this is another area where the reps failed to instill in us the benefits of the union – if there were any.

    “I know there were a few former union members in supervisory positions at Sony who were anti-union because they feared losing their personal bonuses”

    We all got bonuses, even grunts like me that were participating in their 401k. I’m not sure you can tack the downfall on them. Besides, why would they be “former” union members if being in the union was so great? Makes me wonder a bit at that.

    But regardless, it’s all hearsay anyway and it was the union reps’ jobs to present a convincing argument, and they simply weren’t able to do it.

    “This was a false perception, and an excuse for voting the wrong way 9 years ago.”

    False perception or not, I don’t think it was the wrong decision at the time – at least for me. The union still has no real presence or power in the fx industry and would not have been able to do anything significant for me in the years between then and now except drain my bank account with dues.

    Whether things today would be better or worse had they been voted in, who’s to say? Maybe by now Sony might have been forced to close their doors had they gone union at the time, or maybe now it would be a wonderland filled with pink ponies as union members who’ve drunk the kool-aid might like to believe. It’s all speculation, but I doubt much would be different today.

    All I can say is they’re still around and still providing jobs for a fair number of artists, so it at least could be said that voting the union down did not result in the worst possible outcome.

    I will always be skeptical of any organizations that promise the world, deliver lackluster results, and who’s membership is mandatory.

    • skeptical

      “The reps had nothing substantial to offer, and lots to take away.”

      I know that was the perception. It was a false perception, but it was pervasive.

      “They came across as impotent when faced with real opposition, and that did nothing to instill my confidence in their bargaining ability.”

      I agree that the IATSE guys who ran the organizing effort did a piss-poor job. It should have been handled by the Animation Guild leadership, who actually understand the industry and the issues.

      “Superior health plan? I recall was less robust than what Sony was offering at the time.”

      I know this was also the perception. I remember at one meeting a female Imageworks artist said she read up on the union health plan and concluded it didn’t cover pregnancy. She was completely wrong, but as I recall the IA reps, and the health plan rep, gave spectacularly inept responses to her assertion, and so many people left the meeting thinking her misconceptions were correct.

      “We all got bonuses, even grunts like me that were participating in their 401k.”

      I’m referring to the profit sharing bonuses that leads and supervisors got. Most ‘grunts’ didn’t even know about those bonuses. Those leads and supes were afraid that if they went union, Sony management might eliminate those bonuses. Management remained mum on the issue, so the leads assumed the worst, and were the most vehement in being anti-union.

      Regarding the 401(k), this isn’t a ‘bonus,’ and most project hires were not eligible for the 401(k). For those who were, it took 5 years for the match to vest, so anyone staying just a few years at Sony got little or nothing in the way of 401(k) match.

      But regardless, it’s all hearsay anywa”y and it was the union reps’ jobs to present a convincing argument, and they simply weren’t able to do it.”

      You’re right, but emotions were so high I don’t think it was possible to convince most people of anything. Kind of like going to a political rally and looking for a thoughtful give-and-take discussion of different political positions.

      “The union still has no real presence or power in the fx industry and would not have been able to do anything significant for me in the years between then and now except drain my bank account with dues.”

      In fact your pension gains would have vastly outpaced your yearly dues. I wonder if you’re even aware of how small those dues would have been. I know a lot of crazy numbers about dues were thrown around. In reality, the dues at that time ranged from around $200 to $380/year.

      “Whether things today would be better or worse had they been voted in, who’s to say? Maybe by now Sony might have been forced to close their doors had they gone union at the time,”

      You mean like DreamWorks and Disney have been forced to do?

      “or maybe now it would be a wonderland filled with pink ponies as union members who’ve drunk the kool-aid might like to believe…I will always be skeptical of any organizations that promise the world, deliver lackluster results, and who’s membership is mandatory. ”

      Ah, the straw-man argument. What you’re alluding to goes like this: “If the union can’t solve all of my problems, and all of the industry problems, then it sucks.” Has anyone every suggested that union studios are ‘wonderlands’ or that TAG provides ponies? Of course not, but that’s what you choose to project onto the union. Imageworks people voted down going union, and over the intervening years, the profit sharing bonuses have been cut, and jobs have been outsourced to New Mexico and now Vancouver. A lot of people who thought they had long-term jobs have been let go. If the vote back in the day had been yes, then you’d be the first to blame all that on the union vote. Funny how that works. Meanwhile, people at union studios under the union contract, like Disney and DreamWorks, have 9 more years of pension benefits built up, and those studies actually have more employees locally than they did in 2003.

  • Trip

    While I would love to see artists treated better there’s a side of the story that pro union folks aren’t recognizing. Many artists are not interested in sticking with one company or waiting around for “Sony to call them back.” We follow the projects that interest us artistically regardless of which studio has it.

    The problem with a shop going union when most other are not is that you won’t be back to that facility but only every other year at the most, every few years more realistically. Those benefits do not float that long and are just as useless to us as a 4-5 month HMO. If I’ve been working at Pixomondo and then DD and a show comes to Sony that I’d like to work on, but I have to pay multiple thousands of dollars in an initiation fee just to work on a project for 4-5 months, I wouldn’t even try to come on board. That is a major turn off for those of us who follow exciting projects and don’t wish to stick with a single company.

    This reality makes staffing difficult when you tell someone they have to pay thousands of dollars just to come work for them. I’m not saying some good can’t come out of unionization, but I never hear people consider it from all sides. Everyone who is pro union seems to have rose colored glasses on and haven’t taken the time to weigh the negatives as well. Sure, it may work out well for those who wish to stick within a facility or small group of them, but a lot of us are not like that and you need to consider that when considering your course of action and before you essentially berate people for their opposing opinions.

    • Jason

      What you say makes sense except that unions did well during the Warner and Disney heyday so your artists floating around studios theory doesn’t really hold weight.

      No one has ‘berated’ you for your opinions despite what you want to think.

    • http://animationguild.org Steve Kaplan

      “Those benefits do not float that long and are just as useless to us as a 4-5 month HMO.”

      Once you get into the Health Plan, participation can be carried for upwards of 14 months after leaving a union studio. I’d say that’s pretty long, even using your hypothetical scenarios.

      “If I’ve been working at Pixomondo and then DD and a show comes to Sony that I’d like to work on, but I have to pay multiple thousands of dollars in an initiation fee just to work on a project for 4-5 months, I wouldn’t even try to come on board.”

      Initiation fees are a one-time, lifetime charge to a member. They are equal to two weeks of the contracted minimum for your job category with Local 839. Our highest paid artists are animators, and their initiation fees equal around $3400. Those fees go towards the operational maintenance of the local. That means salaries, bills, repairs, etc.

      Those fees are not due up front. We regularly work with artists to spread payments out over large amounts of time in order to pay those fees. Our office manager will always work with someone who is making regular payments to come to an arrangement that suits the individuals needs.

      It is common that anytime a facility goes union, the union will waive initiation fees for all new members to eliminate the cost barrier of entry. With Imageworks artists numbering around 500-600 right now, that’s quite a lot of fees that are being eliminated.

      “you need to consider that when considering your course of action and before you essentially berate people for their opposing opinions.”

      Haven’t yet seen you berated, but I would offer a counter to your above point. You should consider the fact that you don’t have all the facts about unionization and seek some answers to questions and concerns like these. I’m always willing to meet and chat with those who are interested in just that. In fact, I even am willing to buy lunch for the privilege.

      [email protected]

  • Hopping around

    Trip makes a good point. With the work patterns of many animators, it would be a huge turn off to have to pay thousands of dollars to join a union for a 4-6 month project. If every studio was thinking about joining the union, then I wouldn’t mind so much paying the initial fee, but otherwise it would be a major financial hit.
    And it’s not just that some artists just aren’t interested in staying with one studio. It’s not like many have a choice. Especially when first starting out. You are hired, project ends, you are fired. That’s the reality for a lot of people.

    • HoopsAndLoops

      If you are at the studio at the time of unionising, they waive the fee for all current employees. Also, some studios like Disney and DWA pay for the initial union fee when a new hire comes in (or so I’ve heard. Correct me if I’m wrong).

      • fats

        I’ve heard that before, but I think it is a thing of the past. Didn’t happen for me and alot of others.

    • skeptical

      You’re not required to join the union till you’ve been employed a full month. By the time you get your initiation fee bill, you’ll be six weeks into the job at a minimum (I know people who didn’t get the bill until 3 or even 6 months into their work). Then all you have to do is set up a payment plan, which is typically around $400 a month. I know of one artist who knew his job was only going to last 3 or 4 months, and the union agreed to defer any initiation fee payment until he’d been there at least four months. When the job ended on schedule, he ended up not paying the initiation fee. The account was just ‘suspended,’ which meant that it was a dead issue until and unless he ever got another union job.

      All this stuff about a ‘huge’ initiation fee is a red herring. Those same people who stress about this will have no problem working though a payroll company that completely rapes them financially, and which offers absolutely no benefits. People accept doing two week long animation tests, for no pay, but they freak over paying an initiation fee that is actually less of a financial hit. Go figure.

      Of course, all this is not relevant to Imageworks going union. If there is a vote, and the studio goes union, every Imageworks employee will have their initiation fee waived (and that’s for life – at the last Imageworks union vote, many people falsely believed that if they later went to Disney or DreamWorks that they’d have to pay the initiation fee at that point. Not true. Once the fee is either paid or waived, it’s for life.)

  • just an animator

    I’ve worked on a few shows at Imageworks and here’s the thing. If you’re an animator, you’re not a gaffer. Literally, animation can be done from anywhere at anytime around the world.

    Welcome to the future. Maybe you’re good at your job but you’re always replaceable. Eventually, when CG lessens the barriers you have to overcome to translate what’s in your head and what gets through to the computer your job will be more and more useless and you’ll be less and less special. And when people are just taught to animate and not the art of animation, film, storytelling (animation mentor anyone?) we have to face the future…

    People forget Dreamworks and Sony have ticker symbols for a reason, it’s a business.

    • another animator

      And this relates to unionizing how? Besides being an incredibly pessimistic way of viewing the industry?

    • AS

      Right on time, another “animation mentor, animschool, ianimate, animation schools are ruining the industry post.”

      I’m sorry but you guys don’t get to dictate who can and can’t be in this industry. If you’re worried about no longer being special, all the more reason to be unionized.

      • DW

        It’s about showing respect for the industry AS…not the number of schools. If you work for free, you are disrespecting your peers fighting for a descent wage. You are undermining your supervisor fighting to get the right number of bid days for your shot. Go to school, earn your stripes, and get onto a feature with a good reel. Paying for that opportunity, when so many folks have made sacrifices to earn it, just isn’t cool in my books.

    • skeptical

      “Eventually, when CG lessens the barriers you have to overcome to translate what’s in your head and what gets through to the computer your job will be more and more useless and you’ll be less and less special.”

      The history of every field affected by improving technology shows that the opposite happens. As the technology gets easier, the artistry and talent of being an animator only becomes MORE important. Right now the skill barriers to becoming a competent animator are the ability to master the software/pipeline/tools, and the talent to produce convincing performances with an understanding of acting/storytelling/staging/comedy/etc. Most people can be taught the former, but relatively few really master the latter. Right now a fair number of people are so strong on the first set of skills that their weaknesses on the second set are partly covered up (much as there used to be some animators who made up for mediocre animation skills with tremendous drawing ability).

      Audiences will forgive technical issues if the animated film is entertaining enough. Improving technology won’t change that.

      “Literally, animation can be done from anywhere at anytime around the world. ”

      If you’re referring to having remote, distributed crews, I disagree. There are tremendous inefficiencies that go with not having an in-house crew, and I’m skeptical it will ever come close to being the industry standard (I’ve been on both sides of this equation). If you’re referring to the idea that a studio can be set up anywhere, and staffed with local and imported talent, well, studios have been trying to do this for decades, and it’s almost always been more expensive and less effective than anticipated.

      But you’re right, it IS a business, and we animators (and animators in training) need to act like professionals, and not hobbyists.

  • http://Www.anomalyanimation.com Brent

    Not true that Disney extends union benefits to all its studios or at least not in the past. I worked at Disney’s Canadian studio in Vancouver until they shut it down because IATSE was trying to unionize the studio to match the studios in the US. Disney said the closure was due to soft Home Video sales in a year they made something like $24 billion profit worldwide across all divisions. That after the Canadian govt put up $8 million to set them up. On the last day of their five year commitment they had one guy sitting in an empty studio in Toronto. When I started as an inbetweener at Disney I made less money than when I packed groceries at Safeway ten years earlier when I was in high school. Their exodus from Canada was followed within five years by closures of the US, Japan and France Studios, leaving only Australia and we know what happened to them not long ago. Thank goodness for the low cost Asian studios or our kids would have nothing to watch on Cartoon Network… And yes you detect a hint of bitterness here.

  • Dave G

    Question for union cheerleaders: Does the union tell you who to vote for for President, etc?

    Is declaring for a union also declaring a political affiliation?
    “The individual who has visited the Obama White House the most: SEIU President Andy Stern, who has visited 53 times.”

    Does that make anyone else uncomfortable?

    • Jason

      Union cheerleaders? Haha wow. Might as well throw a few ‘SOCIALIZM’ and ‘BIG GOVMENT’ while you’re at it if you’re going to be a jerk about it.

      The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is your hatred for workers’ rights.

      • Dave G

        Hatred for workers’ rights? Wow, you’re very ready to ascribe terrible motives to me.

        The question about politics and labor is an honest one.

  • http://www.bigdaddyanimation.com Big Daddy

    Maybe this will cause the effects people to unionize or perhaps become a part of an existing local.