John Textor’s “Free Student Labor” Comments Have Staying Power

Outrage over comments by Digital Domain CEO John Textor continues to grow and has now spread across all corners of the animation community, from Motionographer to Canadian Animation Resources.

Textor’s comments, which were made last November but leaked online last week, center around Textor telling investors that 30% of Digital Domain’s workforce would be comprised of “student labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.” Artist Scott Benson dubbed it the Reverse Paid Internship. Today the story gained renewed momentum when the LA Times published a story about the controversy surrounding Digital Domain’s plans.

In the LA Times, Textor claims that his earlier comments were taken out of context and says, “Find me another visual effects company that is as committed to growing jobs in North America as Digital Domain. If this is taking advantage of kids, I wish somebody would have taken advantage of me when I was in school…. For $28,000 a year, you get an FSU degree and get to work at one of the leading visual effects companies in the world.”

The anonymous blogger at VFX Soldier rebutted those statements, pointing out that plenty of other vfx houses are building jobs in North America: “Sony, Rhythm & Hues, Zoic Studios, Image Engine, and many other companies have opened shop in Vancouver where there has been a huge growth in VFX jobs.” Furthermore, even with $132 million in cash, land, tax credits and financing from the state and the cities of Port St. Lucie and West Palm Beach, Digital Domain is still aggressively pushing forward on building studios in India and China. So much for North America.

Textor is clearly on the defensive, going so far as posting a comment on VFX Soldier, the site that initially broke the news about his comments. His rambling and combative commentary (“I was probably a 3D programmer before you were born.”) doesn’t address the ethical and legal issues raised by his pay-to-work idea. Instead, Textor claims that, “The VFX business model, as a pure services model, is broken,” and somehow that justifies students paying him to work at Digital Domain. Textor also states, “I cannot fix the VFX industry. I am definitely not smart enough for that.” That is something becoming increasingly clear to anybody who’s been following the story.

(Photo of Debbie and John Trextor via TCPalm.com)


  • Jason H

    I’m glad the community is aware of what’s happening and I only hope that John Textor and company continue to communicate as it’s clear they’re out of touch with the actual animation industry.

  • akira

    until they actually produce a film, this is all irrelevant

    it sounds like the solyndra of animation to me

    my prediction: i bet a lot of people and taxpayers will and have lost a lot of money on DD, and a lot of people who make the move to Florida to join this thing will be filing for unemployment when the whole thing collapses (probably before the first student’s 4-year degree is completed)

  • Adam

    I wonder if any other industry attracts as many conniving, dirtbag executives as animation?

    • http://carolwyatt.blogspot.com Cwyatt

      Politics

    • http://www.frankpanucci.com Frank Panucci

      EVERY other industry.

    • JMatte

      Finances?

    • Schultz!!!!!

      Yeah, comics. People will line up to do comic art for much less than minimum wage. Only at the highest level is there a real professional standard – and professional result.

      I take it if Textor’s school weren’t allowing the students to work on actual production work, then nobody would be upset, correct? It’s just like all the other art/animation schools. So I surmise that the big upset is that it’s taking animation jobs off the market.

      Okay, get upset about that, but please stop with the slave labor narrative.

      • Work&Fair Labor Vs Slave Labor

        Non Autonomy in a task is akin to diligently preforming a service as directed to the very letter of instruction. Preforming such a task can be done as either voluntary, or done in return for some kind of compensation [usually monetary/goods etc] or in return for some form of preferential treatment. A task preformed without ample compensation relative to a its level of importance or, more importantly, the TIME invested, is akin to a form of slavery… especially if it occurs under some for of unequal & hierarchical levels of distribution of the gains aquited as a result that task.

        Are they preforming the task out of a self liable necessity to do so & might they become less than stable dependant on what the relative gains of preforming that task are/[what it provides them]. Therefore there might be a certain level of duress for the task preformer, who may only be a participating due to certain factors. IE: The common money & finances, the nessisary food & shelter, the classical survival over death or even to avoid some form of punishment. This is the self created demand for survival & living conditions that drives the economy. And at the same time it creates a supply of participants and task performers the world over for those who wish to utilise them.

        On the other hand…

        Autonomy in a task is akin to scientific process, self fulfilment & discovery and encapsulates a lot of “creative work” and problem solving. The greatest freedom is really the freedom of the mind and autonomy in preforming, creating, documenting or achieving anything. Unfortunately those positions & vocations [on a salary] are relatively few & far between. And that’s where the magical & vague “ladder” or business & career progression comes in somehow. From working in the mail room to CEO, eh? Think this might still happen today? We all hope it could.

        Yes, there is a terribly lost & blurred line in there somewhere & yes there is a point to be made about acquiring ones own personal necessities in order to survive [such is life]. But the defining difference is CHOICE, and my main point is that Work [ie:being made to preform someone elses tasks] without rational, fair & accountable compensation is basically a form of slavery. A harsh analytical assessment perhaps, but both the leverage of your position/wealth & the return that you get for your services is damn important in distinguishing where things sit on a scale of “modern” Work -–through to– “classic” slavery.

        And so, with that I conclude this comment in stating that John Textor is a grade A+ A-Hole and should be know as such should he choose not to relinquish his ways & reassess his morals.

  • animac

    “The VFX business model, as a pure services model, is broken,”

    This is VERY true. Unfortunately, the people who have the power to make the changes that are needed, don’t understand the problems,or just don’t care.

    • Jason H

      More like they’re part of the reason why it’s broken as studios lowball each other to point of starvation.

      • Tak

        Companies low-balling, underbidding & undercutting each other seems to be a major problem in a lot of industries. It also leads to less money/profit for the guys doing the damn work, less enthusiasm & less time relating to doing the actual work (because they’re preoccupied looking for more work simply to stay afloat)… and therefore the resulting work being done is often shoddy, in need of revisions, take more time & cost more $ than if they were simply payed well for the job & it was done in a reasonable time frame. People Want to do GOOD work, whatever it is they do! Fffk this corporate grovelling & trying to under bid rivals just to get the Job mentality, it’s the clients who should be trying to outbid/overbid each other to get the best talent on their task. Set Industry Standard & Minimum Commission Rates for projects by type & scale. This is not just a problem in animation, it’s a problem in Business everywhere!

      • Chris

        When will VFX artists form a union?

      • animac

        how do you Unionise a global workforce who has to relocate to a different country every 6 months?

      • ShouldBeWorkin’

        Indeed. I am totally sympathetic to the principle of a union but the world is a much smaller place and manufacturing and production are set-up and occuring in many places globally. All it takes to bust a union is to passive-agressively pull up stakes; much cleaner that using goons as in the 1920s & 30. Do you think media or the we the public would care; the same public that almost 100% of our consumption is foreign?
        Unfortunately, IMHO unions work best in services that HAVE TO be present and immediate in our lives;teachers,doctors,trades, etc. That’s where the magic box the computer and cyberspace have been a blessing and a curse to animation. Animation is so easy to do anywhere to anywhere.

  • William

    Bravo to Scott Benson for so eloquently explaining what many, many animation artists don’t seem to get.

    That 30% should be directed to his response PDQ.

  • Van

    It’s like pouring salt on an open wound. Thanks John Textor. Thanks for being a saint amongst men in trying to “save” the vfx industry. *This just in* The Legend of Tembo will be built on the blood and sweat of starry-eyed and impressionable students.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Not only that but it looks like his woman there has 2 right hands!

  • http://www.sweetposer.tk/urbmn/ Cameron A.

    The entire VFX industry for features is maybe only $2.3 billion per year. Military simulation is $26 billion. Surgical simulation could be $10 billion within three to five years. The people on this site work in an industry that puts more passion, art, creativity and technology into a matinee movie than we would dedicate to the doctors that heal us and the soldiers that defend us…and I am the ignorant one?

    Well, yes. Military and surgical simulations aren’t meant to be sold to the general public, as entertainment. Textor pulls the “soldiers and doctors aren’t as honoured as artists” card, which deflects from his pay-to-play business model…a business model he could adapt for military and/or surgical simulations.

  • Tak

    All I can do is applaud the community & our flood of online articles & comments for really putting the wind up these A-Holes. Well Done.

  • Rick Farmiloe

    Some business plan, you jerk! Having students PAY for the ‘privilege’ of working on films and helping to make you rich is exploitative and sick! I have never rooted so hard for a studio to FAIL! This is why unions were started in the first place.

  • http://909pop.com Mike Scott

    That photo is awesome. Cartoon Brew’s good at finding awesome photos.

  • wgan

    I understand its politically correct going that way on cartoonbrew, but VFX soldier is still a bigot joke, he once posted a very offensive image towards Indian outsourcing, please be aware of that.

    • http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com VFX Soldier

      Someone forwarded me this comment which I had to respond.

      I wrote a post a long time ago criticizing producers who go to India simply for the reason of attaining cheap labor. I intended to make that joke that if they could get a bunch of monkeys to do the work, they would which I put up a photo of a monkey. I never intended it to be racist or derogatory towards any ethnic group. It was a poorly executed attempt to make fun of certain producers and I quickly took it down once I realized people were offended.

      Now given that, I find it offensive that DreamWorks Animation’s first CG feature to be worked on entirely in India is called: Monkeys In Mumbai.

  • Toonio

    This situation has only one fix of two syllables: BOYCOTT.

    Let’s stop going to any movies where digital domain worked and this will be over more soon than anything.

    And we could try for this scumbag of CEO to step down but guess the bile investors or directors of Digital Domain wouldn’t allow it.

    It’s this crap from Corporate America that got us where we are and it will continue if you accept it.

  • BOYCOTT DD, TRADITION STUDIOS

    Boycott Digital Domain films, and “Tradition Studios” Films. Dollars seem to be the only thing Mr Textor respects and listens to. The absence of those dollars from the box office will speak volumes.

    The Balls on this douche. He never addresses the fact that he’s charging naive students for the ‘privilege’ of working on his films. He turns it around and makes it sound like he’s saving the US economy by keeping jobs here in the US. Newsflash. If somebody is PAYING YOU to work for them….thats not a Job. Thats practically rape.

    The more this guy speaks, the clearer it is how much a deluded man he is.

    Dont go see their films. Dont pay your hard earned money to go to FSU for Animation. Dont be fooled into Paying to Work for someone. There are PLENTY of other opportunities in Animation, where you can at the very least work for FREE….which is one step better than what Mr Textor is offering you.

    • DW

      No…working for free is not ok. Not in the least. Want to track how we got here? At some point, you’ll discover a bunch of folks working off the clock because they never got enough time to do the work, or they aren’t fast enough..or whatever. Ghosting hours is never cool, and as someone that bid out projects, I can tell you that it has screwed all of us. Something that should take 10 days was done in 7 because an animator ghosted 3 hours. Then I go to bid something and they only give me 7. It’s a vicious cycle. And lets’ not forget the sup that thinks ghosting hours is a sign of commitment and rewards his team with better work if they do it. It stinks. Want to make a difference here?…how about boycotting the school itself. If the students say no, then it can’t happen.

      • BOYCOTT DD, TRADITION STUDIOS

        Absolutely BOYCOTT the whole incestuous mess they’ve got breeding over there.
        Its disgusting.

      • Tak

        Liveable wages & Liveable hours.
        People need to go home.
        People need to take showers.

        - A poem from the non-existent book “A VFX Soldier” by some Theodor Seuss Geise knock off.

  • Bud

    Talking to friends in Florida–they’re actively trying to undo any tax incentives DD got, knowing full well if they fold the taxpayers will be left holding the very expensive bag.

  • A Writer

    damn, the animation bizness is really popular these days. lots of these kids want to be animators and such. I mean you can go to Full Sail and pay 80,000 dollars for 2 years and get a bachelors or go to animation mentor and pay 18,000 for 18 months for a diploma. you can go to SVA and pay 45,000 for 4 years and get a bachelors or go to animschool and pay 500 a month for about 18 months and get a diploma and probably a guaranteed internship at Blue Sky studios

    correct me if i’m wrong but isn’t the animation business built on talent as is every business of art? In that it doesn’t matter what school you go to the job goes to the most talented individual? I remember this girl that went to animation mentor and got a job at Pixar RIGHT after she graduated while this other guy, a full sail student, paid 80,000 and got a job at Disney animation. Now one has to pay back 18,000 while the other pays 80,000 and they both get paid the same. These schools are booming with these hungry students that love animation but i just don’t think people really take in consideration that talent is the most important key in that business. not a piece of paper.

    thank god i’m a writer lol. A while ago i was THIS close to going to full sail for animation and become 75G’s in debt. WHEW! This business has a bright future. lets hope no one tries to take advantage of it.

    • Real World Concerns

      I think the real concern is what does that mean for our future globally. The world simply cannot run on Animators alone. We need to diversify & think about how to use our skill set & thoughts progressively for all. I mean, what about all the basic utilities & industries necessary for retaining the social veneer of society (ie: crappy simplistic labour jobs). Do we really wanna try outsourcing all those to India & China as well? Only if you want to see Millions upon Millions of Justifiably Angry & hostile Chinese & Indian folk in our 1st world yards with torches & pitchforks…

      Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame did a great presentation speech at TED (of all places}, talking about such things to all the wanked up Silicon Valley Tech Yuppies. It was great to watch & good food for thought.

  • Skip

    I wonder how many members a “Boycott The Legend of Tembo FaceBook page” would get?

  • Animation professional

    I wish people would be smart enough to separate this digital domain school business and the actual film studio. Textor states that Digital Domain will be doing more than just working on films in Florida–what makes you think that all of the students will be working on Tembo? They will likely be the ones working on military simulation or VFX films, not their high grossing, high risk animated films. Please don’t be foolish enough not to support the well-paid artists who DID work on the film.

    And, aside from that, I still fail to see how everyone thinks this program is illegal. From where I am standing, it looks like a 4-year degree-granting program that includes an internship in the curriculum. If you look at what a company is required to pay a student for an internship, school credit is a legally acceptable form of payment. Remember, it’s a credit through FSU, not an invented Digital Domain school (unlike the Gnomon fiasco a few years back.) Nickelodeon has been doing this for years. In fact, they’ll even take recent grads, tell them to pay for a course in a community college (when the credit means nothing & they already have a degree), and then allow them to run errands in the studio. The main difference is that since Florida is not union, students are allowed to touch production, and will likely be given screen credit.

    Don’t be angry about Digital Domain. At the end of the day, all they’re doing is assisting a student toward a degree and offering them a for-credit internship. If you’re going to be mad at anything, be mad that for-credit no-pay internships are legal.

    • http://philauanimation.blogspot.com Geoff Beatty

      Although students derive great value from internships (including college credit, for which they pay), and although many internships are unpaid (and therefore they are “paying to work”), the measure of whether an internship is exploitative actually depends on how it does or does not contribute to the employer’s bottom line. Essentially, employers are not allowed to receive a net financial gain from the intern. In fact, internships, if they are to embody the academic role they purport to fill, should end up costing the employer in terms of time, if not money.

      That doesn’t mean that students can’t work on real projects, but the employer can’t be getting real work for free from interns. This probably invalidates a lot of internships, but unfortunately it’s the lax enforcement of these very clear labor laws that allow this sort of abuse to continue. I wouldn’t look to Nickelodeon as an example of “what’s legal” much less “what’s ethical.”

      And another point – how could a partnership like this DD/FSU program ever truly teach students the value of their time (preparing them for a future as a freelancer) when they’ve basically made their time worthless through this venture? Sounds like the program is so desperate for industry partners that they have basically ceded their own value as an educational institution.

  • Jody Morgan

    I’m guessing John Textor didn’t earn his $16 million compensation for his PR skills.

  • Sam

    This situation can be interpreted so many ways. From the idiotic Business man’s perspective, they think they are helping the industry by keeping jobs in USA, they think they are the heroes for giving students a chance to work in a feature, but what it boils down to is just money. You do not become a hero when all these stuff is actually you trying to make big money. It’s just business. And this business plan is an idiotic one.

    I just hope the smarter students don’t go for these, they are a LOT better than that. I mean come on, someone who EARNS his way into the industry, versus someone who PAYS his way into the industry. It tells a lot about the student and what kind of people they are.

  • http://www.pavelsokov.com Pavel Sokov

    This is ridiculous.
    Why do people in creative fields consistently get shafted and become legal slaves.

    Since when did the decades of artistic experience these ladies and gentlemen have start amounting to nothing?

    I am really tired of this crap. I am always faced with artists being offered to work for free, from companies to friends.

    The entire attitude of humans towards the creative field is garbage. It is INSANE.

    You don’t hear a lot of people asking accountants to do their end of fiscal year accounting for the privilege of it? And believe me, because I studied accounting as part of my business degree, it is not very hard. Painting is a much broader and expansive challenge with a much higher learning curve.

    Then why do artists get treated like that all the time. This HAS to stop.

  • http://canadiananimationresources.ca Rebecca David

    Amid pointed out in the last part of his article that for everything we’ve talked about, John Textor has failed to address the moral/legal quandaries in any of the comments he’s been leaving on VFXsoldier’s post.

    http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/la-times-report-on-digital-domain-institute/#comment-5752

    He has left contact information in the comment thread. If there is anyone around who is able to talk to him, he is claiming that he is willing to talk with us. Someone who is able should do so.

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    Who the hell wants inexperienced students working on a production as they learn? Producers and clients who are too visually stupid to tell the difference, that’s who.

  • John

    I must say Animation jobs are leaving the US faster than it takes you to blink. Especially VFX jobs. So while DD will be giving students the opportunity to get on the job training…almost like a Co-OP, they are also trying to keep lots more jobs in the US at a time when there are more and more students entering the job market and many more jobs leaving the US. I don’t think this is free labor they are just staying competitive. When you hear “We are doing so and so to stay competitive” from the current VFX houses like Sony and R&H it means they are opening new studios in other countries…like Canada and Asia to stay competitive. So I give them some credit up-front until I see the rest of this play out.

    • ShouldBeWorkin’

      Then there should be some rebate in tuition based on hourly work input towards the commercial production. But it still leaves a bad taste with me of exploitation; any way they can do it cheaper; farm it out internationally or get “students” to pay to work on production. I don’t think this is an effort to keep jobs in the U.S.; just another means to do it cheaper.

    • Jason H

      Maybe this country doesn’t deserve those jobs then if people are forced to pay to work.

    • vee-eff-ex

      The problem with this being “competitive” is it indirectly will cause artist rates to decline. Even though we are having hard enough time as it is to keep up with student loans. These kids will graduate with tuition alone of $110k into an industry that is difficult to land a position as it is, regardless of low pay, especially if you have companies starting to adapt to 30% of their workforce is free labor.

      • John

        You think these students will get anything above an associate or even junior positions leaving plenty of room…70%…for Entry, Mid and Sr. positions. Regardless studios are going to need higher level of artists to get a project done especially in Film.

  • Jessica Lohse

    The students should put their money instead into making a film about the Digital Domain Betty Crocker Oven machine…