Stranahan’s Letter, One Year Later

This past weekend was the one year anniversary of Lee Stranahan’s Open Letter To James Cameron: Fairness For VFX Artists. For those unfamiliar, it was an article on the Huffington Post written by a former VFX artist about the relatively unfair position those of us who work in the industry are in. For the VFX industry it was the “shot heard around the world.” It finally got the ball rolling on a local and worldwide conversation about the business and the people who work in it.

What made Stranahan’s letter so effective was the timing. It was released right before the Oscars after James Cameron released the VFX blockbuster Avatar. While Avatar went on to break record after record, it solidified a trend that VFX artists have known for a long time: Year after year the top films were significantly driven by VFX.

So why do so many VFX artists have their credits listed after the caterers? Why do many of them work with no health insurance, unpaid OT, no sick or vacation days, and get illegally misclassified as independent contractors?

For the artists who work for the good vfx shops that offer those benefits, many of them work job to job at various facilities like many other film industry workers. Yet while Producers, Directors, Actors, Cinematographers, Editors, Grips, and Caterers are all part of unions that provide them and their families with portable benefits that cover them in between projects, VFX artists are one of the only groups in the film industry without a union.

What Stranahan’s article did was touch upon the fact that for all the value in the work vfx artists do, they were relatively undervalued and this was unfair. It also motivated people like former VFX artist Steve Kaplan to join The Animation Guild as an organizer. For me it was a catalyst to start this blog. It was a moment for many of us that caused us to pause and think:

Is this what I dreamed this to be? Is this the way it should be? What if I did something to try to make it better?

So one year later what has changed?

Anecdotally speaking, I can say that I’ve seen the crazy hours and weekend work go down significantly. If facilities have become more sensitive the long hours I thank them. Facilities are trying to get involved in productions early on to save money and prevent the crazy hours.

Lee and I have had our fair share of strong disagreements but one thing we all agree upon is VFX artists looking out for each other and joining a union. One year later we now have an organizing campaign by the IATSE that is blazing a trail from bars in LA to picnics in Santa Monica! I’d provide a link to the event IF THEY HAD A WEBSITE!

All jokes aside I know the media has reported that because we are in a recession that this is a bad time to unionize. However, if you look at it historically, most unions started during the Depression.

Membership in SAG didn’t become popular until it was revealed that Producers were colluding with each other to keep wages down. Coincidentially,  Lee reports about collusion between two of the biggest  companies in the industry.

The point is historically speaking we are actually making incredible progress but I’m still betting on the long game. Who knows when things will get to where they need to be. There are always spurts in this industry where things are great but you know you’re an industry vet when you find comfort as an uncomfortable thing. I know we all love this industry dearly, all I’m asking is that we give it some tough love.

Regardless, Lee I thank you for soldiering on and doing what you did.

Soldier On.

2 Responses to Stranahan’s Letter, One Year Later

  1. Lee Stranahan says:

    It’s been kind of a depressing year, as far as this issue goes. I guess I feel like the artists aren’t being served well by their institutions.

    Thanks for doing what you do, too.

  2. skaplan839 says:

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    I see more artists discussing and contemplating organization than ever before. Regardless of their opinions of a union, artists are realizing they have options and avenues on how they can take some control over improving their quality of life in the industry they’ve chosen.

    I credit your letter with my involvement as have many artists and individuals I’ve spoken with. I’d say that albeit a small step in the journey to unionization of the industry, its a measurable and palpable one.

    You are most definitely owed a debt of gratitude and I thank you.

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

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