Working For Nothin’ And Getting The VFX For Free

Gnomon School of Visual Effects recently announced that they are starting a division called Gnomon Studios. Students will get to work on feature films in the hopes that the experience will give them a competitive edge in finding a job.

It sounds like a noble idea at first, but then you hear stories about the students like this:

… I talked to the intern who works here. He is no longer a student and did work on X for about 10 weeks. He said the students didn’t like it because they had to PAY to work on the show.

I told him that there might be a case for them to get paid but he was hesitant because he doesn’t want to burn bridges. He said it would be awesome to get paid for the work he did. He thinks it would be alot of money. …

Situations like these are nothing new in our industry. There is a whole market of businesses that prey upon naive students to do free work. Hell, at Meteor Studios, they preyed upon experienced artists and got them all to work for free by getting them to fall for the cult-like allure of the project. Even Yair Landau, former Sony Pictures Digital president, has caught on to this idea getting people to competitively work for free.

It’s one thing to have money stolen from you, it’s another thing to have it stolen from you before you even get paid. What pisses me off even more about this is that the students at Gnomon had to PAY to work for free while taking other classes. It’s a system so nice they get to steal money from you twice.

Do people think artists and technicians in the vfx industry are that fucking stupid?

Well those students ultimately agreed to work for free right? Sure. The problem is that it’s ILLEGAL. Worst of all, billion dollar corporations like Sony got involved in this. It’s almost like organized crime.

Alex Alvarez should be embarrassed for backing this kind of crap. He knows better. Couldn’t a compromise have been made to pay the students while they worked on the project? Couldn’t Sony offer their proprietary tools for the students to work on their own projects and learn?

This is why I started this blog. I want to send a message to every vfx facility that thinks they can get away with this:

I am on to your ass. If I work at a facility and find out you are getting students to work for free I am going to make you famous.

Fellow artists should support this cause and do the same. The following artists worked on Fringe for Gnomon Studios:

If you know any of these artists tell them to contact  The Animation Guild and read the whole post.

It’s times like these that help me answer skeptics who ask “what does the guild do anyway?” So I tell them:

They fight for you so you don’t have to.

Soldier On.

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32 Responses to Working For Nothin’ And Getting The VFX For Free

  1. Winston Smith says:

    I’m thinking that I should just open my own non-union shop in a third-world country that offers generous film production subsidies and have all the work done by unpaid interns (preferably refugee orphans).

    On a slightly more serious note, I propose a “Day Without VFX Artists” type event. On the appointed day, say, May 25 (in honor of the original Star Wars opening day in 1977 – which, let’s face it, started the ball rolling on the big VFX/box-office thang), VFX artists world-wide, en masse, call-in sick to work. VFX production grinds to a halt for one day. Threaten VFX workers who participate? Fuck’em, call-in sick for the rest of the week. No paid sick days you say? Dude, that’s THE very reason why we need to unite and fight. Don’t need a union to do this or set this up. Just spread the word and be willing to act.

    I also propose the creation of what I will call the VFX Resistance. The purpose of the Resistance is to subvert, harass, expose, and embarrass those who would seek to exploit VFX artists world-wide.

    The Resistance could establish an International Minimum Wage and Labour Standards creed that members would agree to work for. Any production facility that did not agree to these minimum terms would be publicly exposed on a web-based database. Resistance members would pledge to subvert that facility to the best of their abilities by spreading the word that anyone who works there will be shunned by members of the Resistance. Resistance members agree to not work at that facility.

    Becoming a member of the Resistance is easy. Any VFX artist can be part of the Resistance by simply deciding for themselves that they are committed to the cause. The power of the Resistance comes from two things. One, It’s members are anonymous but it’s goals are public. Two, If enough artists, members of the Resistance or not, adhere to the Resistance Wage and Labour Standards, then we will ALL win the war.

    Here’s an example of how this can work. John Doe VFX artist interviews for a job with VFX facility XXX. John asks the person who hires if facility XXX adheres to the minimum standards as established by the Resistance. If the hiring person asks if John is a member of the Resistance, John simply denies that he is and just says that these are questions that ANY prospective employee of facility XXX should ask. If facility XXX tell John that they do not adhere to the Resistance minimum standards, then John turns-down the job and posts the info about facility XXX on the Resistance web. Members of the Resistance as well as the general public, now know that facility XXX is to be avoided and do so. Facility XXX gradually finds itself hiring the more desperate/less capable artists and soon their business runs into the ground.

    No unions or government intervention is necessary to win this war. Simply collective action by individuals who agree not to work for any facility that does not adhere to the minimum standards.

  2. I love Winston’s idea. Band together, form a collective with one strong voice, make a change in the workplace that benefits the worker. The collective can then stand together against vfx facilities who exploit and take advantage of the talented collective to ensure fair treatment, fair wages and an acceptable work environment.

    These sound like the reasons I joined the Guild and elected to become its Organizer. It also sounds a lot like what a labor organization (ie. Union) is.

    I would therefore submit a correction to his very valid points .. A union is necessary and is available. The Animation Guild has a strong history of representing the best interests of its members through such things as legal action, collective bargaining, health and retirement benefits, and more. What we need is a group of people dedicated to change their working conditions and notification.

    skaplan@animationguild.org

  3. steve hulett says:

    No unions or government intervention, but “collective action?”

    That’s what unionism is. Collective action.

  4. John C says:

    By organizing, you’re STEALING from the Studios. It’s like piracy. And the studios are considered part of the bedrock of the US economy. The Department of Homeland Security said so yesterday.

    (JOHN C ADJUSTS TINFOIL HAT FOR MAXIMUM COVERAGE)

    A worldwide strike by VFX artists would be considered an act of terrorism and punishable by, uh, imprisonment in a dark room and forced labor for 12-18 hours a day for 4-5 months! That would be….

    Nothing new.

  5. Winston Smith says:

    The “Resistance” does not need to be a sanctioned labor organization per the NLRA (or any other nations labor organization laws for that matter).

    The “Resistance” does not need to be a formal organization. There is no office space, no officers, no reps, no files, no paperwork, no collective bargaining, no contracts with facilities and/or studios. There can be a public list of minimum wages and standards for all nations and all job categories that each individual artist simply decides for him/herself to honor. Basically, the Resistance can throw down the gauntlet by making a unilateral, multi-national, simultaneous, all-encompassing set of demands. There can be a public list with gory details of all facilities who do not abide by the demands of the Resistance. Expose and embarrass those who exploit artists.

    The power of the Resistance comes from the willingness of each individual artist to honor the demands of the Resistance.

    The power of the Resistance comes from the anonymity and plausible deniability of its followers egs. “The Resistance? I’ve heard of the Resistance. And yes, I’ve heard of their demands. Me? No, I’m not in the Resistance.”

    The power of the Resistance comes from enough critical mass being generated by individuals willing to honor the demands of the Resistance and to subvert, harass, expose, and embarrass those companies and individuals who would seek to exploit artists.

    The Resistance does not require the cooperation of any company, government, or organization. It only requires the cooperation and courage of each individual artist to honor the demands of the Resistance.

    If company XXX or production YYY does not want to accept the demands of the Resistance, fine. With enough critical mass, XXX and YYY may find that no artists will work there. Even the threat of staffing difficulties would be enough to get them to change. Any artist tempted to work at XXX or YYY may find more, well, resistance as they advance in their career. Again, even the threat of this occurring may make an artist think twice about not honoring the demands of the Resistance., egs. ” Hmm, I didn’t get that job at facility AAA. Maybe a member of the Resistance there knows that I took a job at XXX.”

    Government sanctioned unions have some distinct disadvantages compared to any ad-hoc, informal Resistance movement. They have to play by government sanctioned rules and regulations. TAG members cannot strike while the CBA is in effect. A facility has to be legally/formally organized before its artists are protected by the union. TAG has to sit-down and NEGOTIATE with it’s opposite members the studios and producers. The Resistance can DEMAND what it wants by simply getting enough critical mass of individual artists with the courage to honor the demands of the Resistance. The Resistance is not a formal organization. It is not bound by ANY labor laws. Union power usually ends at the border. The Resistance can be EVERYWHERE. The power of the Resistance can begin IMMEDIATELY for ALL artists in ALL nations if each individual artist finds the courage to honor the demands of the Resistance.

    What are the demands of the Resistance? How can these demands be determined? Who decides? How do these demands translate across all nations? How does it address national and international wage, cost-of-living, currency, and subsidy differences?

    I dunno. Well, not yet anyways. Perhaps interested parties can ruminate on these issues and contribute their suggestions to the discussion in future posts to this and other related blogs.

    Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But every plan begins as a wish or a dream…

    “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    • Winston –

      I wouldn’t call your view of resistance “Pie in the Sky” as much as I would want to don a Guy Fawkes mask and espouse the evils of our dystopian society. I would also draw comparisons to Anonymous and the power they wield when it comes to protest and “revolution”.

      However, I would conclude by asking what kind of changes have they made and the effectiveness of their revolt over the issues they protest against. While they make progress through sheer numbers, without central ideas and organization, they suffer from disjointed efforts and lack-luster results.

      But, you’re actual request and desire is absolute power. One of the allures of Anonymous is the ability to “strike” (attack, exersize its power and authority) at any given moment and for any reason. There is no law or order that can contain Anonymous, therefore it is to be feared. However, without law or fairness, there can be no progress. As enticing as absolute power can be, it will never result in cooperation. Nobody should allow an organization to be unaccountable for its actions. Absolute power will be fought at every turn and any progress would be stained and ridiculed.

      When it comes to the plight of the vfx artist here in Los Angeles, using the resources of an organization like The Animation Guild is the quickest and most effective method of making the changes I believe are necessary. Any group that uses our resources to organize, makes the decisions on what goes into a working contract when we sit down with an employer. We bring to bear the resources of the IATSE, certainly a strong and opinioned organization, but never so much that the group that is trying to improve their working conditions is force-fed rhetoric and stipulations they must compromise to. We also bring the experience of years of organizing and representing workers offers. Our goal is not the increase of power, but the balancing of power in the workplace. Our end result is to give the employee a voice in the decisions that shape his/her work life,

      I couldn’t agree more with Dr. King and the quotation that you used. I therefore stand every day in protest of the conditions of visual effects today. I have begun the process of making changes that will benefit my friends and those who chose the craft that I practiced. I will continue to do this as long as I can.

      Steven Kaplan
      Labor Organizer – The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839
      skaplan@animationguild.org

      • Winston Smith says:

        There are simply too many limitations to traditional union organizations because they have to play by a set of rules that do not necessarily protect the artists:

        Here is a good example of what I’m taking about:

        http://animationguildblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/quick-education-about-union-grievances.html

        For good reasons, the aggrieved union artist is afraid to publicly identify him/herself for fear of retaliation and black-balling. All the union rep head-shaking and tsk-tsk’ing will not overcome artists’ legitimate fears of retaliation and black-balling.

        Here’s where the Resistance can be better than any union. The aggrieved artist(s) ANONYMOUSLY post the name and circumstances of the company and managers engaging in these practices. All vfx artists who honor the goals of the Resistance do what they can to subvert that company. No vfx artist who honors the goals of the Resistance agrees to work for that company or those managers ever again until they change their business practices. In a world where a majority of vfx artists support the Resistance, how long would it take before such companies submit to the will of the Resistance? The Resistance puts the onus of retaliation and black-balling on the companies and productions who would seek to exploit vfx artist, NOT on the artists. This is a complete shift in the paradigm.

  6. Joe says:

    I think you are a very stupid. I’ll pay to work at Gnomon Studios, I only wish I was living in L.A. to go to that school.

    • vfxsoldier says:

      You’ve got this business all figured out, you’re hired!

      But seriously, I can’t stop people who want to work for free. I can only document the march to the bottom.

      • mc says:

        That’s just hilarious.

        I think Joe is the idiot for thinking that PAYING to work at Gnomon Studios would pave roads to a great future.

        What’s preventing people like Joe from emailing local studios about internships? I’ve done it on numerous occasions and made contacts through that and even took on several internships that way (unpaid and for credit of course).

      • Joe says:

        Exactly! I’m not saying that I’ll work for free my entire life!!! I’ll do that first of all for credits of course and PUBLIC RELATIONS! You will not go no where if you don’t know the right people that a fact in my opinion.

      • Winston Smith says:

        I agree, you can’t stop people who want to work for free, or worse, people who will pay to work for free. But you can make them out-casts in the VFX industry. You can shame them, embarrass them, and subvert their careers by not helping them, not recommending them, and not hiring them.

        vfxsoldier, if you are ever in the position where someone asks you about any of these students as a potential hire, what will you say/do?

        Your blog post regarding Gnomon is already an important step to realizing the power of the Resistance movement. As you say:

        “I am on to your ass. If I work at a facility and find out you are getting students to work for free I am going to make you famous.”

        I will join you on this. If I am ever in the position to undermine and subvert the business of Gnomon and the vfx careers of these students who you list – I will do so. If I ever see a resume come across my desk with “Gnomon” on it, I will put it at the bottom of the stack or throw it away. Until they publicly renounce and change their business practices, I hope that all vfx artists will join the Resistance in making an example of Gnomon and any would-be artists who would essentially pay to work for free.

        If Gnomon would like to dispute and/or clarify this issue, then they can simply post a press release to the web for all to read. The eyes and ears of the Resistance are already EVERYWHERE, so if in fact they have not changed their business practices, the World will find-out and expose them. If the students listed want to dispute and/or clarify this issue, then they too can post a statement to the web and let each vfx artist decide for themselves where they stand.

  7. Joe says:

    Exactly! I’m not saying that I’ll work for free my entire life!!! I’ll do that first of all for credits of course and PUBLIC RELATIONS! You will not go no where if you don’t know the right people that a fact in my opinion.

  8. vfxsoldier says:

    @Winston Smith July 6, 2010 at 2:10 pm:

    I think instead of punishing students for trying to get a job we should be holding companies accountable to engaging in illegal practices.

    How hard is it to just pay people to work?

    • Winston Smith says:

      It seems the only legal/union way to hold these companies legally accountable is to have an aggrieved individual file a formal complaint with the union and/or department of labor (state or federale). Per Steve’s TAG Blog, artist’s are often/usually reluctant to do this for fear of being black-balled by the companies.

      The goal of the Resistance is not to punish students for trying to get a job, it is to stop them from shooting themselves in the foot and under-cutting their fellow artist already working in the biz. For intelligent, ethical people, the carrot works very well. For stupid, unethical people the threat of the stick works wonders.

      Also this:

      http://animationguildblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/we-have-met-enemy.html

      “Anonymous said…

      I was looking into taking classes at Gnomon. Thanks to this blog post, I’ll be taking classes somewhere else ( the least I can do as an employed artist/guild member ).

      Monday, July 12, 2010 5:40:00 PM”

      Ahhhh, The Resistance IS everywhere…

  9. vfx artist says:

    I’ve done plenty of unpaid internships on major projects in and out of the vfx industry. These are internships and legal and I received credit from them. Many colleges do this and those internships on my resume helped me get a job I am very happy with. The connections I made through those internships also continue to help as a young person entering this field. Are you saying all unpaid internships should be thrown out? Experience is valuable and that along with Credit is what I gained.

    • vfxsoldier says:

      Internships are great but are companies so poor that they can’t pay you? It doesn’t have to be an either or. DreamWorks Animation has a great internship program and the guild mandates they be paid $23 and hour. It’s not like it would go away.

  10. vfx artist says:

    Well, I’ve also been in charge of interns before at a studio. I must say that the speed, level of work, and the need for constant supervision does not amount to 23 an hour. It is a time consuming and at times frustrating experience to work with interns. They cannot compete with a professional, so it is always a learning experience that requires constant patience from the supervisor. This means not getting upset that an asset takes quadruple the time or that it isn’t perfect, or clean or done in the most effective way, or at times even finished. Because of this, I think an unpaid internship is fine. These things would not fly in a paid job setting. These settings really help the student to get a job after wards, already having learned enough. I don’t think that the trade of an internship for money is always justifiable. How much did it help the production? Did it just slow it down? Was the work good enough? All these things factor into the situation.

  11. Winston Smith says:

    The guvmint has strict rules regarding what is a trainee/intern. Here is an example from the US Dept of Labor:

    http://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/attach/TEGL/TEGL12-09acc.pdf

    “The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has developed the six factors below to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the FLSA:

    1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
    2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
    3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
    5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
    6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

    If all of the factors listed above are met, then the worker is a “trainee”, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the worker.”

    Factors #3 and #4 seem to be particularly relevant in the case of Gnomon. Can somebody do some digging and find the name of their compliance officer? I’d love to hear what they about factors #3 and #4.

    I too have worked with interns. We let them watch what we did, ask questions, let them play with all the tools, even let them take a stab at working with the real elements for real shots. But we never ever used or intended to use their work for getting the actual job done. THIS I think is where the line is drawn between what an intern is or is not, what they can or can not do.

  12. […] posts on our blog and posts on CG Society’s forum we were able to draw the attention of other artist advocates like VFX Soldier. Together, we forced Alex Alvarez, owner and CEO of Gnomon School, to not only explain how it came […]

  13. I have to comment on this, mostly because I am that young artist in that situation. In fact, my entire team is. 15 people, some students, some alumni, working on a short film for a college. As a “class”. That we pay for. And work 50+ hours a week on.

    Okay, so I get paid, because I’m the rigging lead and apparently, I’m needed enough to justify paying $300 a week for. Yup, that’s it. $300 a week for 50 hours, sometimes more, of industry standard rigging, sims, tech stuff, scripting, you name it. Take that, plus student loans, rent, and the general cost of living in the SF Bay Area…yeah. It’s quite crappy.

    If only I could find a real job somewhere…

    That’s the kicker, right there. Most everyone who was on the last production is in the industry right now – we have people at Rhythm and Hues, Nickelodeon, EA, etc., doing various things. However, they were in the same boat I and my coworkers are right now. Most of us are doing this because simply, we can’t find anything else. I’ve applied to nearly a hundred studios, and while I don’t consider myself a rigging genius by any means, I do think I could hold my own in the industry, especially after being on this current production for almost a year. But right now, the job market sucks so much, I’m happy to have this so that I can at least keep my skills sharp.

    So yes, I agree entirely that this is poor treatment of young artists, interns, etc., alike. But at least they are getting the experience – a poor excuse, but it’s better than nothing.

    • Igor says:

      The problem with people is that as long as they can cling to something (hope to get to know someone, get the next gig, etc) they will always sacrifice something (free time, payment, etc). The problem arises when you not only have to care for yourself, but a family. With no salary, there is no living.
      And at some point some people are still happy, cause they are not exploited like those artists in china e.g., but truth is, you already are. Companies just found a clever way that we bend the truth for ourselves.

  14. […] become a reality. One of my first articles was criticism of a similar program being offered by Gnomon. I also wrote about how some companies capitalize on the allure of prestige starry-eyed prospects […]

  15. aj says:

    Just came across this blog and the post about the “Resistance”. It’s almost 2013 and that post was in 2010. It hasn’t gotten any traction. With the DD debacle and the consolidation of Disney/Lucas, things seem to be getting worse, not better. Can this Animation Guild be global? The trend is for outsourcing and that works because companies can take advantage (in a bad way) of lack of labor conditions and education.

    • skaplan839 says:

      Not gotten any traction? Since you’re just finding this blog, I’m going to assume you’re just starting your research into the unionization drive for vfx. The notion of unionizing has reached more people in the two years this blog has been active than it ever has. More vfx artists are aware of the concept of unionizing and are considering how it would impact their lives than ever before. So, I believe saying it hasn’t “gotten any traction” is a bit of an understatement.

      Could TAG be global? We are a local of the IATSE who covers workers in the USA and Canada. We could not be a global local, but that’s not to say there aren’t options for artists interested in being in a union around the globe. Canada and the UK both have unions ready to represent visual effects artists.

      • skaplan839 says:

        Check out http://vfxunion.com for more IATSE information.

      • aj says:

        I meant no disrespect. I guess what I was trying to get across is that for myself, I’m pretty “connected” and have former coworkers in multiple countries, I have not had any discussions about this issue beyond the stories of what happened at Imageworks. I would say there is a lot more communication needed if you say there is an active unionization drive happening.

      • skaplan839 says:

        No disrespect inferred from your previous comment. Apologies if I came across overly emboldened.

        You make a good point that highlights the biggest hurdle in the process: regular, consistent and reaching communication with the artists as a whole. For someone such as yourself who is connected with friends and colleagues around the globe, just finding this information points to the need to find more avenues of outreach and communication.

        However, there also needs to be a desire from the artist community for change. Unionization isn’t the single answer to solving the woes of the visual effects industry. It is the first step in bringing some sanity and security to the lives of artists looking for longevity in the field.

  16. Crism says:

    I think that any student will do anything to get into a job after his/her graduation. They don’t care (at least for now) that they work for free because in many cases mummy pays the bill. It is also in many cases down to poor education at HE institutions: with a awful looking reel its hard to get a job, isn’t it? But then money factor comes to play: we’ll turn a blind eye if your reel looks awful, only if you’ll take a pay cut so in other words work half price (or for free) than other fellow artist working in the same facility. Students think that it’s just for now, somewhat a ‘part of their studies’. I remember when I was a student so many people were saying: well I can do any type of work for free to get some experience – and they did. Now some of them are in the industry complaining about other students doing work for free….. Maybe its just down to the fact that they are fckin hypocrites ?……
    As a matter of fact if you are a good artist with a good reel and good knowledge/interest in the VFX industry then you won’t have to work for free.
    I think its down to peoples mentality, and fact if they care to be ripped off by a corporation. If they are not – well it’s up to them and their moral values; in the end someone else will take it up their ass..

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