I’ve created a spreadsheet containing wage information collected from 2002-2009 at various vfx, animation, and games companies in the United States. You can access the spreadsheet here.
The Animation Guild conducts a voluntary wage survey every year. There is also a website called VFX Wages that also encourages artists to voluntarily submit their wage information. My information comes directly from the facilities. It does not include bonuses, stock options, or weekly guarantees.
I feel this information is useful to get a better understanding of what artists and technical directors can expect to be paid when they are negotiating their next deal at facilities such as DreamWorks, or ILM, etc.
The more information you have about salaries, the more leverage you have during negotiations. Producers have access to this information and so should you. If you feel that there should be a company to add on the list email me and I’ll add it if I can get the information.
Why do we need to join a guild?
Many artists and technical directors in the vfx and animation industry are making well over $100,000. Which begs the question: Why do they need to join a guild?
The reason why is that while professionals in the industry are paid well, many of them work project-to-project and go from facility-to-facility with little or no health and retirement benefits that are made further futile through long vesting periods.
Having each facility sign a collective bargaining agreement would bring portability to their benefits and cover their families when they are out of work. They would also receive residuals from film, dvd, and television that fund these benefits that many in the film industry already get.
If I could also mention, even the super rich need to join organizations. For example, the studios are a part of a trade organization. The MPAA advances the business interests of the studios around the world.They even have the AMPTP which represents them during negotiations.
There is even a producer’s guild that provides health and pension benefits to some of the very producers who might be against the same idea for artists.
However, this is not just unique to the film industry. Some of the richest people in the world are professional athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez, and Drew Brees. These are people who are uniquely talented and paid an abundant amount of money.
Yet they are part of a players union which provides pension and licensing agreements for the players they represent. Some things have to be negotiated on a collective level and an organization is needed to facilitate that process. Its not some Bolshevik revolution as some individuals wildly accuse.
Pixar’s Low Pay
I always thought Pixar would pay the highest since they create some great stuff but apparently not. Their wages generally are a good 20-30% lower than most facilities. I assume this has to do with the prestige of working for the place. I guess managers expect that an artist be willing to “pay” to work for Pixar by accepting lower pay.
It’s interesting that this guideline doesn’t apply upstream where Disney CEO Robert Iger is one of the highest paid CEOs in the nation. He took a little tumble this year after falling from #2 to #9 in the nation. However, with the closing of ImageMovers, slowdown at Disney, and exceptional performance of Toy Story 3, he’ll hopefully climb back to the top in 2011!
PDI And DreamWorks Glendale: Non-union And Union
I deliberately separated PDI and DreamWorks Glendale so it’s a little easier to compare wages. DreamWorks has two facilities, one in Glendale, and PDI in Redwood City. The Glendale facility is under a contract with The Animation Guild while PDI is not. The wages are generally higher in Glendale which begs the question:
If unionization is so costly, why doesn’t DreamWorks send more of it’s work to PDI? It’s only a few hundred miles up north.
You always hear the argument that if a place goes union they’ll just send the work elsewhere but the irony here is that the Glendale facility is massively expanding and has been doing about 2 out of the 3 films DreamWorks produces each year.
Conducting Your Own Departmental Wage Survey
I once had a friend in the industry who worked for a vfx facility for 5 years. He was a great worker: Finished shots on time, good reviews, technically competent, got along well with others, and incredibly loyal to the company. He was content with his wages and loved the projects he worked on so he didn’t fuss when his manager refused to give him a good raise after glowing reviews each year. All that changed one day when the artists in his department decided to conduct an anonymous wage survey.
Each of them wrote their hourly rate on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. After that, a list was posted with all the wages for everyone to see.
It turns out he was the lowest paid artist in the department and it wasn’t even close. The next wage above him was a good $10 an hour more!
He had an epiphany: For all the years and loyalty he gave to the company, they gave him verbal and written praise, but they paid newer artists from other companies substantially more money even though his work was on par if not better than them. He left the company for a better offer and while he was uncomfortable for doing it at the time, he is very happy for it now.
The Bizzaro World Of The VFX Industry
The vfx industry is sort of the bizzaro world of business. You would think they reward the workers with the longest tenure, best work, or technical prowess. However at the end of the day, it’s not about what you did, it’s about how much leverage you have. Usually that means leaving to go to another company.
A penny-pinching manager knows a cheap loyal worker wouldn’t like to leave, so they rarely bother negotiating knowing that. Usually the reason why newer artists get paid more is because they had a tight schedule and needed to lure artists to leave another employer. Unless you’re a legitimate show-stopper, meaning the show you are on will probably shut down if you leave, you’ll probably have to leave the company to get the raise you want.
Now there are probably going to be the naysayers or cgtalk trolls who feel a 6-figure income is way too much for an artist to be making and they would gladly do it for half the price (or free). In fact I worked with one such individual. He knew the director of a film that we were working on and was able to get on the show. He worked hard and even offered to come in on weekends. He was a huge fanboy of the film but was offered very little in compensation and no benefits. He was okay with that.
After a few months that eagerness turned into disgruntled behavior after the company thoroughly disrespected him with nothing to offer during renegotiation. It’s a shitty situation when you are working harder than everyone else on something you love and the people around you are being rewarded more than you. That’s when you stop being an artist, and start being a business person.