Artist RightsIdeas/Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Life of an Indian Visual Effects Artist

Within the last 6 months, two of the biggest U.S. visual effects houses—Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues—have declared bankruptcy. Among the culprits responsible for their downfall is outsourcing and offshoring of VFX work to countries like India, China and Malaysia. This goes hand in hand with other reasons like foreign government tax subsidies and credits, corporate mismanagement, and Hollywood studio economics.

But what exactly does it mean when work is sent to one of those other countries? Work isn’t sent overseas simply because it’s cheaper. The cold, hard reality is that work goes overseas because developing countries have lax labor laws that offer minimum worker rights and maximum opportunity for worker exploitation. It amounts to sweatshop labor, and in some cases, indentured servitude.

We hear a lot about the perspective of Western artists affected by the outsourcing and offshoring, but nothing from the overseas artists who are the supposed beneficiaries of the work. It turns out, they’re not exactly enjoying it either.

This commentary piece was submitted by Bhaumik Mehta, an artist who spent 7 years working in the rendering and lighting departments of many top Indian animation and effects houses. He has now left the industry to work as a freelance 3D artist for interior designers and architects, a field that he says is much less exploitative. Per Mehta’s request, I have removed the names of the studios he listed in his original piece to protect colleagues who may still be working at those places.

Commentary by Bhaumik Mehta

I read your story of recent layoffs happening at studios like DreamWorks and Rhythm & Hues. I wish to express my deep sorrow and concern for all those artists who have had to put aside their families, friends and health to finish the tasks that were assigned to them by the studios.

Many bad things happen at studios in India, too. At one studio, artists are asked to work without salary for at least four months, at which point the studio can ask them to leave if they didn’t find their performance “good” enough. At another studio, they reduced their staff in the 3D animation department from 150 people to a mere 5 people. One studio takes Rs 30,000 (approximately $550) as a deposit from artists and only returns to the artist (without interest) once they complete two years employment at the studio. [Note: An average MONTHLY salary might be Rs 7,500 ($138 month) so the deposit is equivalent to nearly 4 months salary.]

Every studio has adopted a hire-and-fire policy in which artists are asked to sign a contract of six months after which the studio has a right to either keep the artist or remove them according to the project’s requirement. One studio has laid off their most senior artists and shifted their base from Mumbai to Banglore; another studio will either delay an artist’s salary by two months or won’t pay at all; and yet another studio requires their artists to come to work on Sundays as well as on public holidays. All the while, animation institutes are taking fees like Rs 450,000 (approx. $8,300) but providing education and equipment that isn’t even worth Rs 4,500.

It would be nice to raise this issue and let everyone know the condition that Indian artists have to endure. They are sacrificing their lives for their passion, but they are exploited by people who have no interest in art and whose only motivation is earning as much as possible by spending as little as they can.

I left the industry two years ago. I am glad to have done so and have started working as a freelance 3D artist for interior designers and architects. I am not earning as much as I used to when I was in the studios, but I have no fear of someone asking me to leave their office once their project is completed. I choose to live with dignity and honor as well as giving time to my family, friends and health.

I hope that by making others aware of these issue, I can save my artist friends from further exploitation.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

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