VFX artist and teacher Steve Wright recently sounded off on unionization and he has a strong warning for all you VFX artists in California:
Unionize and it will be the “final nail in the coffin” for VFX.
Got it? Don’t you even think about it! All this talk about death by Mr. Wright reminds me of an eery resemblance to the WWE’s Paul Bearer. In fact, I will now dub him “The Pallbearer of the VFX Industry”!
Now all jokes aside, I think Paul is a good guy who just has it all wrong. In fact, he contradicts himself to the point of silliness.
It’s All Going To India, No.. Wait It’s All Leaving India!?
Throughout his piece he talks about VFX going to places where labor is cheaper. Yet in a previous op ed, he proclaimed that VFX work would leave places like India because the costs were rising and the quality was still subpar:
The Indian digital artists may have learned the “button pushing” but they usually lack the depth of knowledge to put together a real visual effects shot. Knowing how to operate Maya does not make you a character animator.
Of course, the obvious advantage of the Indian talent pool is their low cost. You may be interested to hear that they are rapidly losing that advantage. Here’s why; since setting up visual effects in India has become the “hot new thing,” everybody is setting up a visual effects operation there because there is no shortage of investors. There are now more VFX studio workstations than artists. As a result, they are poaching each others’ staff.
In fact, I pointed out that “commoditized” work such as roto has made a come back here in the US. There are regular job postings daily for roto artists. Why aren’t they all just going to India if it’s so cheap? Quality and talent matters. Whether you are an Indian or an American, if you are talented you will demand high pay. I recieved an email from an artist in India who talks about similar problems there.
VFX Is Easy. You Don’t Need Talent.
He then mentions an example of how software has become cheaper and more available. He draws an incredible conclusion that you need “no talent” in this example:
It used to be that if you wanted 50,000 Orks stampeding across the screen you had to write very sophisticated “crowd behavior” software. Now you can just buy Massive for $18,000, a tiny fraction of what cost to write, and requiring no talent. You still need talented animators to make it look good, of course.
I love how he just glances over the fact you need talented animators to make it look good. Steve have you even used Massive? I know a few Massive TDs and they are incredibly talented and hard to find. You think anyone can do the complicated brainwork and motion editing to get it to work right? I saw a job postings by Hydraulx looking for Massive TDs for the last month. I doubt that position has been filled. Would you like to volunteer to help Steve?
California Artists Are The Most Expensive?
He wrongly accuses Californian VFX artists of being too expensive as if the labor is cheap in thriving markets like the UK and NZ. What he forgets to tell you is that artists at Weta Digital, where much of the vfx work has gone, are some of the highest paid artists in the industry. One of the big reasons is because the government subsidizes their salaries to lure US studios to do the work there. Trade Law experts contend these subsidies are illegal.
Unions Don’t Stifle Innovation
Here is the thing that bothers me the most about Mr. Wright’s piece. In the same newsletter he emailed out with his op ed I saw this tidbit:
Steve Returns To Disney! Steve has a return engagement to the Walt Disney Animation studios in Burbank in the fourth week of March for some more of that good Shake to Nuke transition training – one of Steve’s specialties – that they loved so much in February! Steve always likes doing Disney because the commissary food is so good.
Disney Animation is a unionized facility under The Animation Guild yet he says the union would stifle innovation because it would prevent lighters from doing compositing.
Steve, did TAG call you about your class to make sure you are only allowed to teach Nuke to compositors only? Nope. You pulled that accusation out of thin air and owe TAG an apology. The fact that you are teaching Nuke there shows they are allowed to be innovative by learning new software.
The Triple OT Lie
You also owe them an apology for your accusation that they mandate triple pay in overtime. Wrong again. There is nothing in the union contract that mandates that.
However given that other countries don’t have OT laws, and California VFX has to compete with those markets, are you advocating gutting OT laws? Are you saying we should get rid of labor laws because other countries don’t have them?
There are companies overseas that used pirated software. Steve are you now an advocate of digital piracy because someone else can do it cheaper by doing it illegally? It’s all a stretch but with the wild accusations your recent article makes it just really opens the door to anything.
Unionization Is So Expensive?
Mr. Wright goes off about how expensive unionization is, yet Disney is able to provide non-essentials such as free food for Steve Wright to enjoy. The same is true for DreamWorks Animation which is also unionized. I bet the minute Mr. Wright’s free lunch is taken away he’ll cry murder and blame it on the union!
Remote Collaboration Provides Many Obstacles
Speaking of DreamWorks, Steve Wright talks a bit about remote collaboration that allows people to work with each other across the globe. So easy right? DreamWorks has 2 facilities, PDI in Northern CA which is non-union and a union facility in Glendale. The company has state of the art remote collaboration tools including a video wall for face to face interaction with people hundreds of miles away. Yet artists will tell you how cumbersome it is to have to schedule a booking for teleconferencing and the lag times involved. This is part of the reason why many of the productions are kept separate until near the end of the show.
Remote collaboration has it’s extra overhead costs. You now need redundant systems and production personnel to serve both sides: That more money spent on overhead, and less on artists that actually produce the work.
The VFX facilities are spending all this money for extra infrastructure so their clients can obtain a government subsidy. Well at least you save on labor right? Well not if the same poaching wars occur that happened in India as Mr Wright reports.
Furthermore, if unionization is so expensive, you’d think DreamWorks would do everything they could to move the work to PDI. The reality is the Glendale campus works on more films and has even expanded capacity to crew more talent.
I’ve actually seen the costs of fringe benefits for a non-union worker and a union worker at one facility and the union fringe benefits were actually cheaper. Why? Because 50% of the health and pension benefits are funded by studio residuals.
So here’s the thing Steve, I thought your Indian Exodus piece was great because you spoke about your experience teaching VFX in India. As far as unionization is concerned, The Pallbearer of the VFX Industry needs to do his homework.
I spend so much time trying to get myself and my readers the facts on unionization. Yet someone with no knowledge at all can just put up a piece that will probably influence many VFX artists to be against unionization. It’s wrong but what are YOU going to do about it?