The Price Of Prestige In The VFX Industry

Corporal Upham fails to save his comrade in battle.

The visual effects business is one of the most bizarre professional industries to work in because some of the most prestigious and successful companies in our industry are the ones that pay the lowest.

In my last article I wrote about vfx salaries at many facilities and how I found it a bit odd that companies like Pixar Animation paid salaries sometimes 20-30% lower than other facilities.

I also wrote about how many new artists in the industry work unpaid internships and some are even willing to pay to work and get some experience. Some vfx facilities prey on that notion while others prey on the notion that they are the most prestigious place to work and therefore you should take a pay cut for the honor.

I call this the price of prestige.

Everyone Pays The Price, Even Senior Artists

This phenomenon does not apply just to new artists, it applies to many senior artists as well. One very talented senior artist I knew had three offers for his services. Two of them paid very well while the third from Pixar offered 30% less than the other two. Pixar management also mentioned that it was their final offer.

To my surprise he took the Pixar offer. It was a pay cut from his current job which he was voluntarily leaving. He said the reason why was because it was a prestigious place to work. When I mentioned this to a junior artist who was already being underpaid, he gave me a confused look and said:

I would gladly take a 30% pay cut to work for Pixar.

This notion of taking a pay cut to work for prestige doesn’t apply upstream at Disney where CEO Robert Iger routinely makes the list of highest paid CEOs. Instead you hear quotes like these from Pixar employees:

If Pixar let me get coffee for them, I’d be happy,

The Millennial Problem: How Taking Lower Pay Early In Your Career Hurts You In The Long Run

I was perplexed at this new generation of workers coming into the market. They are willing to essentially pay to work for companies without correctly assessing that earnings today could be used as a down payment for a future home, retirement, or college tuition for future children.

I read an article that mentioned some studies about our new workers:

Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’” Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

I can understand the idea behind this: Young artists eager to get their big break undercut other artists to get into the industry in the hopes the will make it big. However, they are just paying for the illusion of prestige. The terrible truth is how studies show that this hurts their careers in the long run:

what’s truly remarkable is the persistence of the earnings gap. Five, 10, 15 years after graduation, after untold promotions and career changes spanning booms and busts, the unlucky graduates never closed the gap. Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. When you add up all the earnings losses over the years, Kahn says, it’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.

Fake Studios’ Fake Pay

These days the price of prestige doesn’t apply to just prestigious projects. It applies to dubious projects also. Last year there was an uproar over a Montreal studio that failed to pay artists towards the end of work on Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Now almost one year later Variety’s David Cohen reports that the same thing has occurred at another Montreal studio for the film Piranha 3D. These were senior artists who continued to work without pay:

One of the unpaid artists, Manny Wong, told Variety that with the Meteor incident in mind, he negotiated a payment-in-advance deal, but upon arrival in Montreal, he liked the atmosphere at Fake enough to forego advance payment. He says the producer was “very upfront” with him about the pic’s financial difficulties through two crises that threatened to shut down the picture.

Now the facility owner is playing hardball according to David Cohen’s twitter page:

Marc Cote of Fake Studio is trying to intimidate his unpaid #vfx artists into silence. Artists & others: We can only help if you speak up.

Upham’s Conflict

It’s moments like these that remind me of Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan. Please watch the clip of the famous scene above at the 6:40 mark.

I’m not comparing our plight to WWII nor am I comparing shady vfx facility owners to Nazis. However, every generation has a moment to take a stand no matter how uncomfortable the situation is. For many, the price of prestige can be a price that you pay for the rest of your life.

Will you look back and find yourself being compared to Corporal Upham? Or will you be a VFX Soldier?

Soldier On.

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22 Responses to The Price Of Prestige In The VFX Industry

  1. MC says:

    These are great articles, and I thank you for taking the time to write so honestly and openly. As an artist in the entertainment biz I feel one of the major shifts in recent years is the celebrity culture that now runs within the movie and vfx industries. Its deemed to be a glamorous job, which infact it isn’t. People are cueing to give money and their time, just to learn that golden secret that’ll make them great, or get ahead.

    It upsets and worries me that considering historically so many have fought for the right to fair pay and equal opportunities –there are many who willingly allow themselves to be exploited for the ‘prestige’. I feel this is partly rooted in education, our early development as artists. We are indoctrinated to believe that unless you work at studios like Pixar – our work doesn’t mean a thing, and unless you are at a top studio what we produce is almost worthless, this isn’t the fault of Pixar – but the education mafia instead. Yet, all I can see is sub-par generic Hollywood movies… one after another (not all of course, but more than there should be). Is that really worth selling out for – does it really mean that much to you to animate a hair on Luke Skywalker just so that you can point to a big screen and say ‘I did that’? If only more people could find a sense of self-worth in their own work and lives rather than seeking validation and approval from studio X, or celebrity artist Y and allowing themselves to willingly be taken for a ride…. and here is the crazy thing, its frowned upon to speak openly and honestly like this (otherwise why remain anonymous?). This is the truth, the uncomfortable, dirty and disappointing truth – but there is hope…because everyone who chooses to pursue movie making as a career has the power to change it. Just make that choice!

    • Winston Smith says:

      Excellent post soldier! Keep it coming – gives me more opportunities to post replies ;)

      It’s funny. I’ve worked with Manny, and he’s a good guy and a good artist. He’s also been in the biz long enough to know better. Based on what is written in the article, he has no excuse for getting himself into that crappy situation.

      I too have encountered many artists who are or have been willing to work for less at the “prestige” vfx shops. Compared to other industries, this really is an odd thing isn’t it. I mean if you go to work for a software company like Oracle, or a major accounting firm like Ernst & Young, not only do you make top dollar for your industry, but you’ll have benefits up your ying-yang. I’d say that in general, in most other industries, the best companies also pay the best in order to attract and keep the best workers.

      But not in vfx.

      I’d say there are some significant economic ramifications because of this phenomenon:

      (1) The “prestige” companies paying the least causes increasing downward pressure on all wages at all levels of experience at all facilities.

      (2) At some point, artists either accept the decline in income or they change jobs and/or careers.

      (3) At some point, enough experienced/senior artists leave (quit or laid-off) a facility and/or the business, that quality and productivity decline (I have personally observed this happening where I work, and have observed this by watching the work of the so-called “B” team productions at ILM).

      (4) At some point, quality and productivity decline to such an extent that something breaks. Or perhaps a show fails to deliver (I have seen this happen to many smaller facilities and think that some large facilities have come very close to this on recent high-profile projects).

      Ultimately, the answer to this problem is that a critical mass of artists have to be willing to not work for lower wages.

      What would happen if over 50% of current Pixar artists demanded a 10-15% raise? What’s Pixar going to do, fire them all?

      By most accounts, Pixar is a great place to work and most of the artists are quite happy (or, at least, happy enough). But the sad thing is that these artists are not being fairly compensated for their work given just how much money Pixar movies have made over the years, and given that it would appear Pixar artist make about 10-15% less than the industry average.

      Is there a profit sharing benefit at Pixar? There sure as hell should be. That would be the only thing that would compensate for being paid less.

  2. AB says:

    “If only more people could find a sense of self-worth in their own work and lives rather than seeking validation and approval from studio X, or celebrity artist Y and allowing themselves to willingly be taken for a ride…. and here is the crazy thing, its frowned upon to speak openly and honestly like this (otherwise why remain anonymous?). This is the truth, the uncomfortable, dirty and disappointing truth – ”

    Sadly i was going to repost this link on my facebook, but decided not to due to my fear of being seen as a negative person and being blacklisted by Pixar.

    • MC says:

      I understand completely – and ive been burned for my honesty because anything that’s spoken out against the current state of affairs is deemed as a negative thing. But these words are not negative (and neither are the ones of this blog), they mean to help and push forward the industry to a better place by recognising the pitfalls – which is exactly how artists develop within themselves, learning from their mistakes. Yet somehow this entire industry is ignoring that fact and is now founded on denial.

      Try to recognise the people around you who you can trust, and are open minded enough for you to communicate with on an honest level. There are artists out there who are so devout to their studio that they are blinded by the reality of the situation – and to these people – just smile politely and be thankful you’re not living in a box like they are. If you can find that sense of creative fulfilment in your own way, and be truly happy in your own skin – it doesn’t mean a thing what studio X may think.

    • Ceekay says:

      Quote:
      but decided not to due to my fear of being seen as a negative person and being blacklisted by Pixar….

      As long as people (artists, if you will) continue with this unwarranted ‘FEAR’ of internet exposure, you award the beast the upper hand. Pixar are wonderful manipulators. They also happen to have submersed themselves of late (ten years) into the happy situation of inciting febrile support from the ‘weitz’s, goldbergs, ‘steins community in Hollywood.
      Interestingly, that particular (ahem)machine has entered a stylistic downturn of late. (too many cooks – or too many snorting execs?) Paradise lost!
      A great shame, really…. as artists from the ‘roots’ provide all of the cash for their ill-gotten mortgages, ugly relationships and idiotic ‘marriages’, yet their blindness and nihilism remains to be exorcised as not only their own enemy, but that of the general public also ;)
      ‘IP address not provided ;)

  3. Soldier fan says:

    I don’t know about today, but back when I worked for Pixar, we got bonuses as well as stock options that many of us did quite well with, and which aren’t reflected in your salary figures. There are also a lot of “intangible benefits” that many think are worth more than salary — work from the Bay Area; nearly all of the films you work on be really good, instead of hit-or-miss; some of the best long-term job security in the industry; they’ve never had large-scale layoffs; they are not converting permanent staff to show hires or losing US positions in favor of developing countries; they have perhaps the single highest concentration of extremely talented people you’ll ever see; etc.

    I hate to find myself defending Pixar because I don’t like them much and would never go back, but they are nowhere near the top of the list of houses that screw people, and in particular the fact that their salaries are a bit lower than elsewhere is, for most people, more than compensated by the other intangibles I mentioned above and are irrelevant to the bigger problems of the rest of the VFX industry. You should direct your efforts to more egregious offenders — places that are not providing any long-term job security, have worse benefits, are in less pleasant locations, actively lay off, outsource, or find ways to drop permanent staff, etc.

  4. Capn-Canuck says:

    I am certainly not going to defend the low salaries of big places ( especially PIXAR since they own their content and keep the profits) but it must be getting tougher to keep any profit margin these days.
    The budgets have gone down and the schedules are tighter. The number of shots has not decreased though so they need to do the same amount in a shorter time with more people. That isn’t going to work with the salaries of the “salad days”

    I wonder if PIXAR Vancouver is paying less then the other studios opening up there?

    • ark says:

      “I wonder if PIXAR Vancouver is paying less then the other studios opening up there?”

      Of course they are ! The pay is even lower than there US office.

  5. Capn-Canuck says:

    Having just re-read my own post I realize duh , this is why so many shots are being sent to sweatshops . Thanks everybody , I will wake up now.

    Lots of my friends in features seem to be nearly permanently on 6 day weeks as well. Whats the deal with that?! Surely it must be costing them lot sin OT pay?

  6. Deke Kincaid says:

    I have to disagree with the article. It is unfortunate but prestige does pay off in the long run in higher pay and higher positions in the industry. Not always in a good way but it occurs all the time.

    Ever since I added some large facility experience it has made getting jobs much easier. Countless times I see the producer looking through resumes and the ILM/Pixar/ any large facility experience goes to the top of the list for hiring. Also large companies often have a bias against Senior and Supervisor artists who haven’t worked at large companies.

    The bad is I have worked for many places where some yutz from ILM or Pixar was a mediocre artist who worked their way up from an intern. They leave and get hired as a supervisor at a smaller company at a very high rate just because they worked on fill in the blank big movie. Ends up they don’t know BS about anything except their specialized niche(animation or modeling, etc…). They end up having zero management skills.

  7. Capn-Canuck says:

    Deke , having the high profile experience DOES help you in future job hunts, No argument there. As for always getting jobs that pay higher each time i find that a much trickier part, especially if you don’t want to traverse around the globe . I have taken large pay cuts by being settled in one spot as I am at the mercy of the local market , but on the other hand my family has stability and we don’t have constant huge moving bills.

    As for the “yutz” factor is does usually catch them at some point as they start to run out of good references for themselves. . I have seen a few of these firings myself. Some times i have been glad while other times I felt a tiny bit sorry for them as they are never taught any management skills as they are filed up through the ranks. I have seen great people become horrible managers and vice-versa. When the companies don’t train them you are just kinda rolling the dice and hoping for the best.

    SOLDIER FAN mentioned the PIXAR bonuses which I know some years were quite lucrative. Those crews do great work and I hope they still get them but like the term states, it is a bonus and not a guaranteed addition to your salary. How many people on this list have had the ‘bonus’ carrot dangled in front of them that does not pay off year after year? probably too many…..

  8. [...] I’ve written a bit on how some employers in the industry capitalize off the perceived prestige of their work. I call it the price of prestige. [...]

  9. dave says:

    I was recently offered a job in Waterloo Ontario to work on a feature film. Although I have 10 years in the industry, 5 films on IMDB, and and many senior positions on my resume, they offered me the generous sum of $18/hr. Awesome!

    • AB/CD says:

      They probably underbid a bunch of other small places to get the job and thats all their budget can now afford to pay. it is just so mental right now …..

  10. [...] a similar program being offered by Gnomon. I also wrote about how some companies capitalize on the allure of prestige starry-eyed prospects get. I pointed out instances in Montreal, and Michigan where rich US studios took advantage of [...]

  11. […] I’ve posted about other instances where Montreal VFX pros were left unpaid. In 2010 there was Fake Studios. Then there was Lumiere. At the same time, Discovery Communications CEO which was sending work to […]

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