VFX Soldier Is On The March

My name is VFX Soldier.

For many years, I have worked in the Hollywood Visual Effects industry creating imagery and animation for a good number of blockbuster films. While the journey here was tough,  it was driven by a simple idea portrayed by a quote in an old film The Flamingo Kid:

There are only two important things in living . . .
Finding out what you do well, and finding out what makes you happy.
And if God is smiling on you, they’re both the same thing.

I loved creating art when I was young and it became the fundamental driving force in my education. I tried so hard and learned to do it so well that after college I was blessed to end up working with incredible people of different talents from all over the world on awesome films. However, as satisfying as my career has been, I’ve labored long enough in our industry to notice huge problems that are affecting me, my friends, and the companies we work for.

The Success Of The Industry

The visual effects industry is relatively young but the imagery we create each year for these films have taken center stage since it’s inception. The top box office grossing films of the last 30 years were driven by an abundant amount of visual effects and so were the top 100 films of all time which made a combined amount of $56 Billion dollars. If you were new to this industry, you would suspect that the companies that administer visual effects for the Hollywood conglomerates would be fortune 500 companies with stock prices that rival Apple or Google.

Industry Problems

Isn’t it ironic that the visual effects industry is one of the worst businesses to be in? Each facility operates on a flawed business model by losing or making no money at all on the blockbuster films they conduct work on. On a good year they will make a profit margin as small as 3-5%. How can this be possible? The reason why is Hollywood studio conglomerates effectively leverage their position by pitting vfx facilities so strongly against each other that eventually one company ends up taking the project for a loss. In fact, one producer was so bold as to state in an article that:

If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job.

You are probably thinking that the ability to get the lion share of companies to compete for your business is great, and indeed for the studios it has been a total blowout. They have made billions of dollars from these movies while visual effects facilities compete to make the best work for the lowest price and thats where the problems snowball.

Our Problems

Unfortunately this one-sided affair is compounding problems for my colleagues and I. In an attempt slash costs the vfx facilities have eliminated benefits such as sick days, health insurance, and retirement accounts. Many are forced to work under illegal conditions with unpaid overtime and 1099 tax statuses where we are responsible for paying the employer’s portion of social security. The projects have become more volatile as the vfx facilities try to please the demands of the director put in place by the studio.

For example, famous director Jon Favreau during reviews at one vfx facility was ever so bold as to stuff his mouth with donuts and wipe his hands clean using the sides of expensive leather seats provided for him to sit on. Constantly months of work can be thrown away by last minute changes by directors with zero consequences. This in turn leads to extended crunch times to update the changes where artists work day and night with 70-100 hour weeks.

The problems are further compounded by countries that hope to generate economic activity by offering subsidies that essentially pay studios to have the vfx work done there. Vfx facilities are now becoming “rent seekers” where they move from country to country, state to state to take advantage of free government money. This has led many vfx artists to become permanent nomads where some are forced to leave their partners and newborn children to find temporary work in the far reaches of the world. I know of senior colleagues who purchased homes with a false sense of job security only to end up being laid off months later and forced to foreclose when they could only find work in another country.

However, one would naively think the subsidies are a great solution to the problem since the facilities can begin to make a profit, and countries can make a huge investment returns in economic and tourist activity. But even that is not the case as studios expect even lower bids for their unprofitable work. With the recent decline in the economy, governments are finding themselves in deep debt due to dwindling tax revenues. Many of them are starting to take a hard look at the economic returns they are receiving  for the subsidization of studio welfare. One study concluded that for every dollar spent to lure film industry work, there was a 14 cent return in economic activity.

My Problems

Many of you are probably reading this and thinking why doesn’t the person who wrote this stop being a crybaby, after all it’s competition and if you want to get paid you better play. But of course, why don’t I just shut up and live with the fact of being a vfx nomad and that having a retirement plan, health insurance are only reserved for those who can afford to fund it themselves. I have always known that there are many people out there that have it worse than me but after being witness to all these problems it causes me to reflect on the very idea that drove to do this in the first place.

The idea of finding out that one special thing about myself that I did well and made me happy ultimately became a part of my soul. You might think it’s ridiculous to think this but why the hell should we sell our souls at the lowest price? This contemplation has led me to re-think things and jokingly fantasize with others how nice it would be to work a steady job in the insurance industry. These thoughts come across many of my colleagues who are in turn seeking careers elsewhere. These issues are slowly getting the attention of the national media in the Huffington Post and Time Magazine. They elude to the many problems we are facing and that it may lead to a huge billion dollar industry collapsing. Simply put the incentive for many of us to do great work is going away.

The Mission

I’m not going to leave this industry without attempting to help fix the issues that are facing my friends, colleagues, and their families.

  • The vfx facilities need to stand up and  organize to ensure that the work they accept from Hollywood studios lead to sustainable profits.
  • The artists that work for the facilities need to educate themselves about organization and agree to a set of standards that ensure they can continue to work. It’s easier than you think. Just anonymously sign a rep card.
  • Artists need to be vocal about vfx facilities that engage in abusive and illegal behavior. One site has cleverly created a way to review your experience with various facilities. Take the time to comment on the facilities you work for here.
  • These problems are ultimately solvable by engaging in communication and conducting townhall meetings.

This blog will post and reflect on issues that are facing the people we work for and the people we work with.

I Need Soldiers

I’ve never served in the military but I call myself VFX Soldier. I have and will continue to battle along side many of you in the trenches to conduct work  for many vfx, commercial, and animation facilities. Given the problems we are facing, the current reaction is trending towards a slow march to the bottom.

In a race to the bottom the only ones left standing are biggest losers.

The big hollywood corporations have always been the same. Are they greedy and bad? duh. Are they highly organized? Of course. What compounds the problem is that we accept the fate they hand to us because we are un-organized . The irony is that they stand to lose the most in this. So why are we losing so badly? It’s because we let them win. I always hear the term used to describe vfx artists as “geeks” and given the situation and the results this is rightfully so. We let the big Hollywood corporations bully us without saying anything.

You are probably a vfx artist sitting there reading this as you wait on your render of the 78th iteration of a  shot that was due two weeks ago. Have you bothered to take the time to speak to some of your colleagues about the things going on in the industry? Many of you roll your eyes and accept it but what if you could do something simple that could echo in changes for your career and make things better for you, your retirement, your future partner, your future kids and their education, and your future families’ health. For you, VFX Soldier is commited to help you understand about the importance of providing for your future in retirement and finance. For others, you may be reading this and think that I am finaly a person in the industry you have been waiting for. Actually, I have to admit that you have been the person I have been waiting for. Soldiers are commited to a mission to defend an idea. They sacrifice themselves for the greater good and that is ultimately what our industry needs. VFX Soldier is on the march and I don’t need geeks, I need soldiers. Contact me and let me hear your story.

23 Responses to VFX Soldier Is On The March

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Heusser, VFX Haiku, Kert Gartner, Kert Gartner, Jeff Schmidt and others. Jeff Schmidt said: RT @neonmarg: VFX Soldier – Commentary On The Visual Effects Industry's March To The Bottom http://bit.ly/bNUXUL (found via @alba) […]

  2. Dragon says:

    I’m not in the industry, but I wish you good fortune in your quest. It makes me sick the way non-talent treats talent in ANY industry. I’m not a huge union enthusiast, but it’s clear to me nonetheless that unions may be the only way to make sure artists are treated decently. I hope you win your fight.

  3. bobby nobody says:

    Its about time we stand up and talk openly about the state of the vfx industry and the mass exploitation of so many hard working artists. For many years I had worked to refine my artistic skills in the hope that someday I would make it to a top vfx house. After almost a decade working in games I finally made it. I packed up my comfortable life and shifted everything to X-location. While I was new to film I wasn’t new to working as a professional animator. I was used to last minute changes, crunch times, project cancellations, office politics…etc. I kinda had an idea of what I was heading into, taking quite a sizable pay cut. – all for the purposes of achieving my ‘dream job’

    It started off reasonably well, nothing outstanding… yet intime the cracks began to show. I witnessed incidents where the client decided months worth of work were suddenly all wrong and needed to be redone in the matter of weeks. Okay, I accept change happens – but what surprised me most is how easily the supervisors would bow down to the client, without any consideration to the vfx’s teams and simply agree that all our hard work was rubbish and needed to be changed. The result: many young vfx artists having to bust their balls day, night and weekends due to the failing of the director and studio supervisors. There was absolutely no protest – no one said a thing, it was as if this kind of decision making was okay?!?! In protest, this combined with being underpaid – I decided to leave.

    The disappointment I felt was immense, for so long I had dreamed of working at such a studio only to discover the reality was far from something I would ever dream about.

    What I feel contributes towards the problem is working in movies is now seen as a ‘glamorous’ career, and because of this view the vfx teams seem to willingly be exploited all for the privilege of working in the movies…. This is wrong! – very very wrong! Whereas artists in the games industry are seen as second rate, the industry is viewed as second rate and so there are less egos, and less big-shot movie directors. So when a problem occurs, or a massive change needs to be made.. people speak up.. they are not afraid, and their voices are heard and usually listened to. This wasn’t always the case of course, and all studios still have their problems but ever since the ‘spouses email’ incident at EA Vancouver, (the exploitation of games artists) the games industry has began maturing.

    This is what needs to happen to the film industry, people need to be prepared to stand up against this absurd willingness to be exploited, and this can only happen if the entire industry works together… and we need to educate the students / employees of tomorrow that bleeding for a studio is not ethical. I love making movies, but I refuse to be exploited for it… and quite honestly I would rather have time for my family and my life than bust my balls for the next generic Hollywood pap.

    “be the change you want to see in the world!”

    • James says:

      Well, not much is gonna change. The vfx studio offer a service. The studios are the clients, they request something and if the vfx guys don’t deliver, of course the studio/director aren’t gonna be happy.

      If you hire a painter to paint your house and he doesn’t do it the right way, would you tell him?

  4. Burning Fight says:

    A thousand thanks mate for putting this up, I hope this will put an end to the actual snobbery even the actual VFX artists have towards organized workers, because that’s what we also are beside being artists.

    Step up! Stand up! Make a change!

  5. PixelKing says:

    Our day will come.

  6. Veronica says:

    Thank you so much for doing this! I am completely fed up. I’ve worked for 10 years in this business. I had the privilege of working for some top places and had a good run for a while. I, like many people didn’t get in this business so I can live like a qypsy and have no benefits and no life. I thought I would be able to live in one place, buy a house and have a family. There was a time I actually thought this was possible. But I, like many people lost my steady gig to India outsourcing. I was forced to become freelance. I now live from gig to gig. My belongings are all in storage and I make half the amount I used to make per year. I have no health benefits and haven’t been to a doctor in over 2 years. I have no retirement, no savings – I don’t have anything I thought I would have by now with my Senior level experience. If people with 10-20 years experience are taking jobs for 2 weeks at a time and leaving their families to take gigs where ever – what future is there for the new people just starting out?
    I am taking a stand by refusing to take jobs that require me to work 12 hour days, 6 days a week. I am tired of not having a life. It is not my fault that they bid the job too low or don’t hire enough people to complete the job in a reasonable time. More people need to take a stand and speak up. I am ready to leave this business all together. But it would be a shame. All my hard work and expertise down the drain. I have a feeling more experienced people are going to do the same if things don’t change. I am willing to take a stand and do whatever I can to make a change. I know other people feel the same way – we need to unite! Count me in as a soldier for VFX!!
    VFX UNion now!!!!!

    • FedUp says:

      I’m with you Victoria. Most of the complaints that I hear about the industry involve unpaid overtime and 1099 status. Both important topics and ones that have affected me as well. But my major problem in this industry is that I have NO LIFE. I am tired of coming into a facility, having a few weeks of 8-9 hour days to get acclimated and then, just when I start to feel human again, we get the Friday e-mail that we are going to 10-12 hour days + Saturdays starting.. hey, tomorrow! I can’t plan anything in my life. I haven’t had more than a day or 2 off for Christmas or Thanksgiving in 4 years (and I’ve only been in the industry for 5)! I get paid well, I get paid OT, I have benefits (where I am now) but in return, the company owns me and quite frankly, I’m too old for this. Am I seriously going to be 60 years old and still working 6-7 days a week? And I agree, it’s all because projects are not planned well. Everybody wants more for less and we’re the ones who end up paying for it. It’s just not worth it to me anymore. Everyone I know in the industry has a “Plan B” because you just can’t do these kinds of hours forever. It’s not healthy – mentally or physically. I am in the process of putting my Plan B into action – I’m done.

      • FedUp says:

        Veronica, not Victoria! Sorry, I’ve been on “crunch time” for months now. Brain fried.

  7. Delta Nile says:

    M WITH U

  8. Erica says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but the salad days of the 90s aren’t coming back. My job too has gone to India, I get paid less than I did when i started in the industry 12 years ago, no retirement, etc etc. Complaining about it won’t help though. Kids are coming out of school with the ability to push the correct buttons and willing to work for peanuts… the time when VFX money grew on trees just isn’t coming back. The sooner we get our minds wrapped around this, accept it, we can move on to make a better day.

    • vfxsoldier says:

      That attitude is defeatism. My blog isn’t spent complaining, it’s spent going over the problems of our industry and how to solve them.

      It’s true that some jobs have gone to India for lower prices, but most jobs are going overseas not because it is cheaper, but because of subsidies given to US studios by those governments.

  9. Ivan DeWolf says:

    as an artist and as a VFX facility owner, I can tell you the artists have it better than the facility owners.

    I for one don’t mind aspects of globalization; I hate LA (can’t stand the weather, I’m a skiier) and I am so grateful that I got to move to Vancouver (sure hope I can go back there soon… once this freelance gig in LA is over…)

    A soldier to help fight the good fight? as an artist, count me in.

    as a facility owner, I gotta tell you, I am far too beleaguered and starving to fight, I’ll gladly take whatever scraps fall onto my floor.

    Please, artists. you make a far more convincing case. fight this one, the facilities cannot do it for you. you’ve never met them, but this is between you and the studios, it has little to do with your boss.

    I’ve been in this industry since ’93. I have no other career options. but believe me, I am looking. maybe I’ll go to school to become a dentist.

  10. A. Veteran says:

    I guess I don’t understand how “organizing” and sticking it to the vfx houses is going to change the behavior of the movie studios. It’s simply going to hasten the work going elsewhere.

    As I see it, our industry (as we know it) has about 10 years left for TD-types and about 15-17 years left for creatives. “Organizing” will cut those years by 2/3. (Were unionized cell animators able to keep the same thing from happening to them?)

    I get that it’s not fair that we work too many hours, that we don’t get dates (Hint: It might be the Star Wars/Harry Potter obsession), or that our credits come after the caterers.

    I just don’t see that organizing against our employers puts any pressure at all on the movie studios. Oh, and guess what? It’s not just the movie studios. It’s the ad agencies, the game developers, the networks and the entire client structure for CGI.

    Most VFX houses are just trying to stay afloat. And you have to admit that even now we *still* make ridiculous sums of money for the work we do. I continue to see plenty of animators buying German roadsters. I drive a cheap car, invest everything, and hope to retire out of this very silly business early before it inevitably collapses.

    • vfxsoldier says:

      I don’t think organizing would be considered “sticking it” to the vfx houses.

      VFX Artists are generally paid well so organization for vfx workers would encompass 2 things: portable retirement benefits, portable health benefits. This would probably save the vfx facilities money. How?

      Well the IATSE encompasses 120,000 workers in the US and CANADA. According to them, 60% of those benefits are paid through residuals from movies produced by the STUDIOS. The 40% is paid by various employers that employ those 120k workers.

      While I don’t know how much it costs for a vfx facility to administer healthcare and retirement benefits, it’s a considerable overhead cost that could be reduced by having the studios share in the funding, and the guild take over the administration. The amount the facilities would pay would probably be less.

      As far as work going away, organization is not what is speeding up or slowing down work going overseas, it’s overseas government subsidies. While I personally am against subsidies, the IATSE is the only existing body that has and will lobby for some sort of competing subsidies.

      It’s not about “sticking it”, its about sticking together.

      • A. Veteran says:

        Portable benefits would be lovely. But given the rather dismal profit margins for vfx houses, I can’t help but wonder how many will go out of business trying to pay for them.

        It’s unlikely that we would have anything approaching IATSE’s leverage since the CG work is *already* heading overseas. If American VFX houses were the only source for visual effects, that would be one thing. But that’s hardly the case, so I’m highly skeptical that a union will be able to extract 60% of benefits costs from the movie studios.

        At my company, the rough figure for health care and retirement benefits would floor you: about 50% of the artist’s salary. Given the extremely high salaries already paid to CG professionals, we’re talking about some *very* large numbers here.

        Unless the VFX houses have a way to extract more profit from the studios, it’s simply not possible for them to meet all of the artists’ financial wants and desires. Organizing and demanding that they do so is pointless. You’re simply picketing the middleman.

        And overseas subsidies are a fact of life. A fledgling union isn’t going to have the clout to change that.

      • CD says:

        I am sorry, but I have been watching this for years. It doesn’t matter who is to blame, although I have my opinions on that. The only obvious way to save the profession, if you want to call it that, is to unionize. Any studios who don’t use unions for VFX we pull out the rat, go to the press, make a big stink.
        The benefits of a union would not only help the workers, but the shop owners would also benefit. What it would mean is no more undercutting each other. No more exploitation of employees, no more 24 hour days, and if this does happen, the shops have to pay us all real OT. It would put us all on an even playing field, shops would have to bid honestly for jobs because they would have to pay employees for the hours. It should have been done years ago and all of this mess wouldn’t be such a crisis.

    • Ivan DeWolf says:

      you’re absolutely right, your “boss” is rarely doing well, the VFX shops are NOT living fat while the artists starve. the studios are. your bosses CLIENT is living large. The artists need to “stick it to” the STUDIOS, not the vfx houses. The artists are *still* making ridiculous sums of money, but it’s getting worse by the hour. The industry won’t collapse; it’ll eventually unionize. Either the artists will insist, and win an amenable system of living, or they’ll wallow around until the studios wise up (after quality has collapsed) and force the unions in to organize the miasma and we’ll suck whatever swill the studios deign to toss our direction. My guess? it’ll be the second option. whee.

  11. I am a solider!!! This is a great article and something that needs to be discussed and should not be ignored. I really like to see that a lot of people are commenting and putting some serious thought in to the state of the industry. I work for a VFX studio in Montreal Canada. I know there have been some comments about outsourcing to Canada but we are going through a similar situation here. We have had a lot of studios close down in the last couple of months.

    At Boogie Studio, We try to put most of our focus on advertising. We create some pretty high end stuff and we don’t have to deal with the same kind of pressures and underbidding wars that are going on in the motion picture industry. We currently have some of the top artists working on our projects and we like to pride ourselves on listening to our clients’ artistic direction and using a creative approach.

    We are not trying to grow too much as that seems to be when problems start. I think studios are going to have to ban together and make some kind of stand. Artists need to be sought after and hired for a reason, Studios need to find a way to not underbid and outsource to other countries for cheaper prices and also a cheaper overall product.

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