Scott Ross Vs. Scott Ross

Scott Ross needs to have a debate with himself.

I want to thank Jeff Heusser for giving my blog a shout out on fxguide today. I was really excited to hear that he conducted another interview with vfx industry vet Scott Ross. He was general manager of ILM and founded Digital Domain and he has recently been involved in an effort to help create a trade union to organize the VFX facilities.

If you have a moment please take the time to listen to the podcast. While I found myself agreeing with alot of points, I almost crashed my car when I heard Jeff and Scott completely contradict themselves on a labor organization to represent the artists. According to Jeff Heusser:

Everybody I talk to, what they are interested in is not what you would normally think of for a union. What they are interested in is portable benefits, help with enforcement of labor laws because there are a lot of people who are not following the labor laws, and retirement plans. Those seem to be the three things that I hear most from the artists. Seems like an odd time for a union to be discussed.

Okay. That’s like complaining of  stomach pain, headaches, and vomiting and then coming to the contradictory conclusion that going to the doctor would be a bad idea. Here is some news, while VFX facilities and Scott Ross have talked the talk about giving artists portable benefits, respecting labor laws, and creating retirement plans, The Animation Guild has walked the walk for almost the past 60 years.

What makes things worse is how Scott Ross piles it on. He essentially uses every argument to validate the creation of his trade organization to invalidate artists joining a guild. It’s unbelievable.

If a union was to organize the workers, particularly here in the United States, what it would do is it would make the cost of business considerably higher to the employers which would therefore:

A) Lower the margins even greater therefore forcing those companies out of business.

B) (They would) Not being able to compete at all because, face it, there is no union in India and there is not going to be a union in India and the Indian artist is making probably 40% of what a US artists is making already.

How can someone so successful be so misinformed? A labor organization would put vfx facilities out of business? I don’t know what planet Scott Ross has been on but it’s the studios and some of his business partners that have been putting vfx facilities out of business, and they have done so with complete glee as famously mentioned in a Variety article by an unnamed producer:

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

Scott Ross alluded to his famous feud with Digital Domain co-founder James Cameron which is well summarized in this Forbes article of how Cameron almost put DD out of business during Titanic. The feud became so heated that at one point James Cameron said the following through his lawyer:

Ross professes to be unconcerned and vows to stick to his ambition of becoming the next Pixar. “There’s a huge growth opportunity,”he says. “Studios are making movies that ultimately don’t make money, so what’s the problem?The problem is they don’t run it like a business. They make cans of Coke for $10 a can. Can you make that can of Coke for a dollar? The answer is yes.”

Yes, that’s right James Cameron thinks VFX is the equivalent of making a can of Coke. I wonder how quickly and easily that can of Coke would be made elsewhere if the whole vfx crew at Weta Digital walked out on Avatar during crunch time? If Scott Ross agrees with that kind of statement and that VFX is already being made for 40% less in countries like India and China then why do they keep doing business here? Why is ILM Singapore recruiting artists here to go work there? Couldn’t the cheap locals create VFX instead?

I’ve pointed out that this is essentially the VFX outsourcing boogeyman argument used to scare VFX artists. The jury is coming back in on doing visual effects in developing countries and the quality has not improved and the cost advantage is quickly dwindling. VFX facilities continue to stay here because the talent resides here, not because of some charitable donation.

And then there is the costs associated with the guild. Scott Ross argues that the guild would make the costs of doing business higher for VFX facilities. At the same time he argues that VFX facilities need to write him a check to help start a trade union. Does Scott Ross realize how much its going to cost to hire lawyers and lobbyists to create a global organization that works with all VFX facilities and state, local, and federal governments? What’s to stop studios from awarding vfx work to shops who avoid Scott Ross altogether?

While a trade union will add extra overhead costs for vfx facilties, the guild would most likely replace costs that are already being administered in the forms of health insurance, and retirement benefits. Best of all the costs for these benefits are shared by the big 6 studios in the form of residuals and thousands of members in various locals that are part of the greater IATSE labor organization. In 2005, $347 million dollars in residuals funded the healthcare and retirement plans and we VFX artists are sitting around wondering why we can’t get any benefits when every other discipline in the Hollywood industry ranging from actors, directors, truck drivers, and caterers are receiving those benefits. All you have to do is sign a rep card which is pretty easy.

What got me steaming mad at Scott was when he eluded to the wage minimums as if they were maximums:

I can’t imagine having a conversation with Dennis Muren and saying okay well Dennis you know the rate now for the VFX Supervisors is X and so were going to lower (your salary).

Simply outrageous. That is completely WRONG. The wage minimums set by the guild are just that – minimums. There are no maximums, however employers love to use it as a way to smear the guild and it needs to stop. It’s wrong. In fact, many of the top talent that Scott Ross employed at Digital Domain left to go work for DreamWorks Animation which is under a TAG contract. If it were so true that TAG was lowering talent wages then why are so many going there? Maybe because it was a better deal?

It’s moments like these that remind me of an email sent to me by an owner of a small VFX shop which contained the following:

Occasionally there’s the rant “UNIONIZE!!!” ….a thought just occurred to me; unionization could be good for VFX shops. If the shops could somehow step aside, and let the angry artists directly insist on humane treatment from the studios, it’s politically easier; visibility is important. Right now, the struggling VFX shop owners have to go into a studio office and argue that a larger check should be cut to them so some peon that the decisionmaker never sees can feed his children. If that peon could argue his own case directly to the studios, there’s a way better chance of getting heard.

we are too deperate to fight. the workers should do it for themselves.

This begs the question to me and it’s a question I would like to pose to you Mr. Scott Ross:

What purpose do VFX facilities serve?

  • They fund vfx I think, but no, the studios do that.
  • They create a pipeline for vfx to get done, but no, the software engineers and TDs do that.
  • They create vfx, but no, the artists do that.

At the end of the day I can’t find a reason why VFX facilities should stay in business. They are unable to earn a profit. They are unable to provide job stability and benefits to their workers. We are essentially freelancers working for a poor middleman. Maybe if those really skinny cats die and get out of the way we could all join a guild and start negotiating directly with the big fat cat studios.

meow.. um I mean.. Soldier On.

11 Responses to Scott Ross Vs. Scott Ross

  1. Excellent points. I especially like how you highlight how Scott’s points against the union were nothing more that lies and misinformation. This is exactly the kind of thing I come up against from most management when faced with the “threat of the evil union”.

    Its sad, but all too common.

  2. Careful Reader says:

    Sorry to nit-pick, but “elude” means “escape from,” whereas “allude” means “refer to.”

  3. annonymous says:

    I agree the facilities will only pay what we demand and those at the top of these facilities get paid way to much money just to be the point man for our talent and hard work.
    Then they have the audacity to tell us we are to expensive and lay us off for cheap labor. Only to find the cheap labor couldn’t do the work. They call us back in for a couple months to finish the work, repeat cycle cause they never learn. Those negotiating with the big 6 for the vfx houses are the problem. I hardly see how they will ever offer a solution, they fail upwards. They don’t get laid off and they retain their salary never taking a hit. They are not in this with us. They are in it with their selves.

  4. […] I posted a lengthy response on the TAG blog, which you can read here. VFX Soldier did a much more eloquent job with his response which can be found here. […]

  5. RazorX says:

    I think the VFX artistic community cannot just sit back and hope the industry will fix itself, because it doesn’t look like it ever will. All VFX artists need to be handed some sort of Expectation Sheet with average “per hour” or “estimated salary” figures so they know what they SHOULD be getting paid and what reasonable benefits they SHOULD be getting.

    Unfortunately the artists themselves are part of the problem, because they are more than willing to work for cheap pay, endure horrible conditions, and accept little to no benefits.

    The effort to push the industry needs to start at the artist level, where each artist stands up for themselves, or negotiates better pay and working conditions up front.

    After the artists start resisting low pay and terrible working conditions THEN let the facilities and studios figure out how to negotiate the money to pay their resistant and stubborn artists who are now demanding more. We need to educate and take care of the VFX artist first. The starting resistance needs to come from the artists whom the studio heavily relies upon.

    No artistic talent means no movie. If the studios want to hire cheaper artists from abroad, then let them. But we know the resultant quality won’t be at the same level and the public WILL take notice.

    • Winston Smith says:

      Dear RazorX,

      There IS a Resistance movement – your comments reveal that YOU are already a part of it!

      Please consider my previous comments on this blog:

      Spread the word. The seeds of the Resistance have already been widely sowed. Artists sympathetic to and actively supporting the Resistance already exist in every vfx facility in every nation in the world. The tools for disseminating and sharing information, and collaborating and coordinating action already exist but are scattered on the net. Your and my response to this blog are examples of what I am talking about.

      The means, methods, and goals of the Resistance – it’s scope and shape are already being formed by these kinds of public forums.

      More to come…

  6. Martin says:

    I’m pretty sure you’re miss-attributing the Coke comment to Cameron when it was Ross:

    ‘Ross professes to be unconcerned and vows to stick to his ambition of becoming the next Pixar. “There’s a huge growth opportunity,”he says. “Studios are making movies that ultimately don’t make money, so what’s the problem?The problem is they don’t run it like a business. They make cans of Coke for $10 a can. Can you make that can of Coke for a dollar?The answer is yes.”‘

  7. […] Manager and Digital Domain Founder Scott Ross recently gave a speech about the VFX industry. I’ve written posts agreeing and disagreeing with Mr. Ross and this post will be no […]

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