Variety Live Chat On VFX Unionization

Variety’s David S. Cohen will be holding a live chat this with VFX artists who are for and against unionization. The panel will be with Scott Squires, Lee Stranahan, Dave Rand, and Joe Harkins.

The panel will take place on Variety’s tech blog site, Thursday at 10am PDT:

Update: Here is a link to a text version of the chat. I’ll post more on this.


57 Responses to Variety Live Chat On VFX Unionization

  1. Mike says:

    Interesting chat. I do have to say that Joe Harking is an incredibly ignorant individual. Thanks for the last words you had about high-end cars and five dollar lattes.
    The typical mindset that as long as he is doing well, screw the rest. Very sad.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Yeah I was pretty disappointed by the last statement he made. I’ll have more about this in a post.

      • Gertrude says:

        Really ?

      • ElZorro says:

        Parking lots filled with high-end cars (I have to see this to believe it)? And he posts pictures of himself and a Ferrari on his IMDB..?

        No wonder he doesn’t want a union, he’s getting top dollar. I guess he thinks all of us get similar paychecks and are not getting screwed over.

        Anyone know how it is working at Hydraulx? Does everyone drive a 100k car there? (That’s dollars..not miles) 😉

  2. maple leaf eh says:

    Thanks for informing us of the live chat and also keeping us informed of various issues within our industry.

  3. beeper says:

    When I was at Hydraulx, only the brothers had 100K plus cars there. If Joe can get a great paycheck, thats good for him. For his sake it better last. The unioning of business or some kind of enforced standards would be great, but I feel its 10-15 years too late. The fact is where where the DGA, Art Director Unions, SAGa, etc to come together to help us back in the day. Never. This business is going to go through worse before it gets better. I dont see Los Angeles being the same in production in general in 5 years. Its just going to be regular city with nice weather and more foreigners buying up real estate. I’d suggest some people find a new line of work.

  4. Paul says:

    The ultimate douchebag, the whole package is there…3 full face photos of ugly him with a Ferrari on IMDB no less [lol!?] and arrogant attitude during the chat. Talent is not discriminatory that’s for sure.

  5. Dave Rand says:

    I praise Joe for speaking his mind. He’s actually a very open minded individual as were the other panel members. Lee just came with a new letter today.

    I don’t agree with some it but again if we don’t speak up, and preferably with our real names attached, we give up the right to control of our own futures without fear.

    I feel a strongly led union effort from an organization with clout and existing communication with the studios leverages some real power. As Lee and Joe state without individuals taking the reigns no one organization can solve our problems. I agree with that. A union is no cure all that’s why I used the phrase :

    “We knew you were not the only solution, but a we hoped your were a great turn on the race to the bottom ……and then ….nothing happened.”

    in my open letter to IATSE

    I say we listen kindly to all that have the courage to put their name behind their ideas at least we know who’s talking. Joes ideas on branding are spot on I believe as are lee’s ideas on individualism….but the worst idea is doing nothing or, doing it half ass, or bashing individuals for expressing their ideas openly and without fear.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      I actually agree with alot of Joe’s points. I don’t think anyone has an issue with free expression. Hell I even put a link to his blog.

      I and many of the commenters and emails I got expressed dissapointment in the parting statement about vfx artists basically being spoiled because of “lattes and foreign cars” which he reiterated on his blog.

      I’ll have more on this.

      • occlude says:

        What was wrong with my last statement? It’s a fact that most of us make good money from this job, have nice cars, and can afford to go to Starbucks when we want.

        My point was that there are other people out there who are less fortunate, and to remember that even with our own problems, to be grateful for everything we’ve been given and remember how lucky we are to be doing this type of work. WTF is wrong with that?!

        I’m not ashamed to show my success, but at the same time, I try to remember just how lucky I am at the opportunities I’ve had and not take it for granted.


    • tk1099 says:

      I couldn’t agree more.

      Right now, the most important thing from my POV is dialog. IATSE, VES 2.0 or some other alphabet org – who knows where things will end up. I know I don’t. We need to talk about it, get these discussions happening and getting a pulse read on where people not only feel things are trending, but what we are willing to invest in and whom we’re willing to rally behind.

      We’re dead in the water if we can’t engage vfx crews who consider themselves ‘safe’. Staff or perma-lance positions at the big faculties, including the TAG rep’d ones, are the the backbone of the California industry and most of my peers working in them are o-so-quiet on this.

      I know that personally, I’ve been putting more effort into my ‘GTFO of VFX’ plan than on trying to fix what I see as broken. I’d be interested to hear how many others also consider themselves only partially invested in the longterm health of the industry. Its extremely rare that I’ve met anyone who has a longterm goal where they sees themselves doing VFX for the run of their film/TV careers. That self perception is just going to fuel our problems.

      Some days it feels like the entire VFX industry sees itself as a place where we ‘pay our dues’ before we transition into the Hollywood establishment.

  6. VFX Soldier says:

    @Joe I it merits a post. I’ll respond Monday.

    • occlude says:

      I don’t get it. Should I not be grateful? Or should I not buy exotic cars and go to Starbucks? Which part of that last statement is possibly offensive?!

      Would you prefer I drive an old beater and pretend to be broke? Or is Starbucks the enemy too? (you know they aren’t union either).


      • tk1099 says:

        Married? Any kids?

        That tends to change the financial picture and outlook quite a bit.

        A lot of us were you at one point – then reality came crashing in.

    • occlude says:

      tk1099, I’m married, no kids, wife works, own home, no debt, good investments (a few lucky ones along the way), live below means. Cars is a hobby, I buy wholesale, drive awhile, upgrade, sell for more or small loss. Also have good accountant and lawyers giving advice, and that’s been critical. Also have side business that generated income writing, speaking, etc. Also used to teach for extra money to save at places like Gnomon and Academy of Art. Key is saving, investing, living below means.

      • tk1099 says:

        Kinda figured that was your situation.

        Dual Income, No Kids.

        Factor in some kids and remove your wife’s income and now figure in the support a second adult’s expenses. Money isn’t going so far – and its pretty typical for the industry. Though most likely, your wife would work – unless you like sending the kids to an LA unified school. More likely, you’ve moved to the Valley though… Welcome to the middle class, film production workforce.

        Is your insurance through her job?

  7. Lee Stranahan says:


    Lots of people in lots of industries drive nice car and drink lattes — and have benefits. Every other discipline in film does.

    So, don’t compare working in VFX to being homeless. That’s a pretty low bar.

    Compare it to motion graphics artists working on a union show — I was one for 5 years after doing / working around VFX for 20. Guess what? It’s better. Overtime is paid, there’s a 401k, health insurance and when I needed to get out, they helped me.

    So the benefits are obvious. It’s a matter of how to get them.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Agreed. You know I was a vfx artist who was against unionization until I joined The Animation Guild:

      I had 3 retirement accounts, 2 of them I didn’t pay a dime to fund.

      I had health insurance that had no premiums, no deductibles, and no extra costs to cover a spouse or children.

      Best of all I had a bank of hours that provided 18 months of coverage for when I was either unemployed or doing non-union work.

      All this for 400 bucks a year in membership dues. Premiums for health insurance at the good facilities can charge 400 bucks a month for that… and Joe you might have an issue with this: those premiums you pay at ILM, Sony, DD etc, those are taken from your paycheck.

      • occlude says:

        I would gladly pay $400 a year (actually I would pay more if I had to) for portable benefits and retirement, etc. Why can’t we just setup a guild that has that voluntarily? That same guild could sick lawyers on these shops that misclassified employees or whatever they’re doing illegal. Is there some legal reason we can’t? What would that take?

        If I could join a guild that actually offered me a lawyer to talk to in case I had employment questions (besides my own), and if I could get discounted health care and portable retirement, I’d be on board!

  8. Dave Rand says:

    I was not directing comments at one in particular just felt Joe was getting a bit of the anonymous digital tar and feathering, I have an issue with that and probably should not. It’s great to have so many people speak out, I’m all for that, better anonymous than not also.

    Joe should post his open letter, there was a lot of good stuff in there.

    I’ve had the same union experience as Lee and Soldier (who will always get a pass from me for being anonymous for putting up and maintaining this blog btw)

  9. tk1099 says:

    Joe.. In my time working under union contracts, the union did exactly that – plus a WHOLE lot more.

    • occlude says:

      tk1099, if it’s so great, why is it not happening?

      Why aren’t shops like ILM union that once were?

      Why is there no website that clearly outlines how a union for VFX would work, who would pay, and what it would cost?

      Why aren’t people running to sign up?

      I’m feeling that you guys are the minority here. I ask around, most of my friends are like “no way, not interested” or they say “I don’t need it” or the apathetic “I don’t care, man”. I haven’t had one person say to me “I want to be in a union!”

      So, what gives?

      • tk1099 says:

        I think its really a lack of exposure to what the union has to offer and, to be honest, a reflection on the age range of many of our artists.

        24 and single? Its sportscars, xboxes and expensive hobbies for a lot of us.

        Get married – hit early 30s – priorities change. That money isn’t going as far anymore.

        Mid 30s – weekend activities that you’d ‘walk off’ on monday now have you hobbling around. Health isn’t what it used to be. Kids in school? House payments… we make just enough to eek by as a single income family in LA and still live pretty well… extended downtime between shows? Oops.. that income isn’t as steady as it looked but the bills sure are.

        40’s – Now the kids want the toys you used to decorate your desk with. Health definitely isn’t what it used to be… and those 100+ hour weeks really take a toll. Hows that marriage going? How often do you see your kids? Got time for those side projects that are going to advance your career/get you out of the seat?

        50’s… this is a young man’s game… if you were union the whole time, you’re starting to eye up retirement. Kids prepping for college. $$$ pulled in all directions.

        60’s – VFX? If you’re not running a facility or department, you’re a dinosaur. How’s that liver after a few decades of ‘friday lunches’ and happy hours? Feeling healthy after 30-40 years in that once comfortable Herman Miller chair? Ready for a 100+ hour week?

        Try to tell a guy in his late 20’s, with a Ferrari, that signing a rep card is in his and all of our best interests.

  10. VFX Soldier says:

    “I would gladly pay $400 a year (actually I would pay more if I had to) for portable benefits and retirement, etc. Why can’t we just setup a guild that has that voluntarily? That same guild could sick lawyers on these shops that misclassified employees or whatever they’re doing illegal. Is there some legal reason we can’t? What would that take?”

    @Joe The Animation Guild is able to offer all those things because of the leverage it has: strength in numbers. Over 100,000 film workers are repped by their parent union.

    With that leverage you also get economics of scale. Their benefits are better and cheaper. VES is smaller, their health insurance is costly.

    In a perfect world I’d be all for us voluntarily choosing what we want, but we lose leverage that way. In a union we vote to have a consensus.

    If we all sign rep cards and a union negotiates a bad deal, fine vote against it. I know I would. However if a majority votes yes there is a consensus. Even if you are unhappy you can go to membership meetings, vote for boardmembers you agree with. You could even run to be a part of the board.

    The problem is not many people know the details. Did you honestly know all this before you wrote your letter? That’s why I write this blog. Thats why we are having this dialogue.

    Opinions are made, facts presented, a consensus develops.

    Look the IATSE deserves criticism. At the same time I loved being in TAG. It’s like I love the xbox, but have issues with microsoft. I love the iphone, but have issues with at&t

    We need clarity from the IATSE. Go to TAG’s website and you can see they present the info, not cookies.

    At the same time when Scott Ross called for a trade organization where were the facilities? They didn’t even respond.

    • occlude says:

      I see that TAG represents mostly content generating studios, who are able to profit from the IP in addition to their work. Why hasn’t it spilled over to any VFX houses besides Dreamworks and Disney? I have to be honest and say my friends at Disney/Dreamworks never say anything good or bad about TAG, but they never really talk about it either.

      I’ve been through parts of the IMD contract, and I am trying to learn even more about specifics and how it could work, but in general, the idea of forcing everyone into involuntary union membership once a majority vote is reached, is in my opinion wrong. I feel like people should have the right to choose not to be union and keep their jobs. I think a voluntary guild or other method would be much more effective here…

      • occlude says:

        *did not mean Disney/Dreamworks are VFX houses- what I meant was alot of VFX people work there and bounce around and I don’t get why people that have been in TAG haven’t brought it with them to other places…

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I think most artists are just apathetic. You start talking about 401k, pensions, etc and they doze off.

        TAG Rep Steve Hulett even wrote a blog post about it:

        I’ve said that VFX artists subscribe to the freight train mentality: They won’t deal with problem until the freight train is right in their face about to hit them. Hell thats how this industry is run.

        How about we engage in a little prevention? Start looking out for each other. It’s not healthy to see artists I compete with just be okay going without insurance or ot.

      • VFX Soldier says:

        btw just as an example. An artist I know never cared for the union. Then he was given his notice about being laid off and about to lose his health insurance.

        Guess what? He started asking me about how to join the union.

        The freight train mentality.

      • tk1099 says:

        Content producing or not, its sort of irrelevant. The question is, ‘who writes the checks?’

        The answer to that: The Major Studios or producers spending other people’s money – which, at the end of the day = AMPTP.

        IATSE exists as a counterpoint to the AMPTP for film craftspeople. The DGA exists to negotiate with them for the Directors.. WGA for the Writers – ADG for the Art Directors, etc.

        We could roll our own – the question is, Why?

        We’re going to need to build an infrastructure as it is. Do we want a building? There will be an infrastructure that’ll need to be build, if we want to actually provide any services.. or we can buy into IATSE’s and only build the pieces necessary to fund and operate our own local.

        I’m looking at it this way – a small number of us, in an effort to enact change, are probably going to have to hang up our current careers and go into the business of dealing with the studios. This is regardless if we go IATSE or roll our own org. Watching SAG/DGA/IATSE/WGA, etc – wrestling with the studios will be a fulltime job for someone.

        Until those individuals begin to stand out from the crowd, we’ve got a lot of talking to do about what kind of industry we’d like to build for ourselves – and for our kids really.

        I spend a lot of time on set. Hollywood is a family business at the end of the day. There is no reason VFX should be fundamentally different from the rest.

        I keep saying its time to ‘join Hollywood’. We’ll do that once we leave the service industry hole we’ve dug ourselves into.

  11. occlude says:

    The only way I’m on board with an agreement with AMPTP is if they sign some kind of agreement that requires a certain percentage of work to go to the unionized labor (is that even legal?). Otherwise it’s the same fate, we make demands, we go on strike, and meanwhile our overseas counterparts get more work, grow, and thrive…

    • occlude says:

      I just read this whole document:

      So, someone please explain to me how page 61, regarding subcontracting out work, does not completely F us? I mean, if you take into account subsidies being offered around the world, how would this not bite us in the ass in VFX?

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I would LOVE to have an agreement where the studios are required to keep a % of work here.

        As I read from the info, it seems TAG has had issues with runaway production in the 70’s, 80’s etc. What else is new?

        It’s always been cheaper to send work overseas. Yet we are all still working. If TAG was such a backbreaking cost then why didnt all that work go away in the 70’s?

        Read the TAG blog. You saw the membership #s at an all time high. You can even see Hulett mention that TV 2D animation is up (cross your fingers).

        I just don’t buy this unionization will be the straw that breaks the camels back. There is ebb and flow in the industry no doubt, but everyone else in the industry is a part of a union to dampen those blows: ie health coverage for 18 months.

  12. maple leaf eh says:

    Artists in Vancouver are fearful of unionizing because the work will go elsewhere.

    Artists in LA are fearful of unionizing because the work will go elsewhere.

    Its a common theme and we need to stop using that excuse.

    The fear of work going elsewhere due to unionizing is BS. Subsidies is the real concern, I’m a Vancouver/Toronto artist BTW.

    I don’t really come across many artists that are excited to work in Singapore/India/China. But they are excited to work at Weta or some of the London facilities that treat them well.

    Artists that have a choice will work at facilities that treat them well. Its plain and simple. Some of these “overseas” facilities are producing Oscar worthy VFX.

    From my personal experience, any individual that is against unionizing is usually doing really well for themselves (usually someone in a Senior, Lead or Supervising role).

    IATSE needs to fix some of their internal issues before they come riding in their white horse to save us vfx artists and they need to stop hiding in the dark.

    At least these issues are out in the open and we are openly discussing the issues. I’m in my mid 20’s and I’m trying to work in VFX for the next 40 years.

    • maple leaf eh says:

      Also I want to add, that IATSE had promoted the chat on their website but yet declined to participate?

      • VFX Soldier says:

        All great points. Let me address your last comment.

        We need to clarify the distinction here between the locals and the IATSE.

        The locals like 891 in Vancouver and 839 in Los Angeles are fantastic. They have had a strong web presence and have taken active involvement in organizing vfx artists.

        The IATSE, the international parent organization has stepped in and for many of us, has basically gotten in the way of this organizing process. They should have left it to the locals.

        I go back to my analogy: We love the xbox, but have issues with Microsoft. We love the iphone, but have issues with AT&T. We love the locals, but are having issues with the IATSE leadership.

  13. postTHis says:

    I think you have to look at detroit and see what the unions have done in a global market. There are good things and there are bad things. I hope the union gets so large and powerful that they can demand 98% of the employee’s pay for their retirement.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Why not look at The Animation Guild instead? They’ve repped vfx artists for more than a decade.

      Under your logic I could argue that we should all avoid working for corporations because of what Enron did.

  14. postTHis says:

    my logic. Enron collapsed on its own. How many vfx artists do they rep? I know they are trying to increase their numbers, spread the word and that is why they are here. Would our union dues go the Gambino crime family once the union leaders get cozy with them to finance their own movie?

    • VFX Soldier says:

      When you say something like that does that help unions or hurt them?

      If you look at most of this whole thread it’s been mostly talking about facts.

      Then you come in with the auto industry and mafia stuff. I get it, you want nothing to do with it but then you defeat yourself by saying those things.

      You think someone on the fence is going to read all the stuff that was talked about on the thread and have his mind changed by reading what you said?

      How’s New Mexico real estate these days? Are you going to be able to find someone to rent the place now that Sony won’t have work there for the next 4 months?

      I love my trolls.

    • Dave Rand says:

      Actually there is a history there and it is fact. Many believe it’s a thing of the past but up until the mid 90’s ethics were fairly sketchy. I used this article as a link to the word “sinister” in the Open Letter to IATSE. I’ve had several emails with the author, the well known entertainment labor writer David Robb, and it his work and is valid according to him. My point in posting it was to simply to show that it is possible that IATSE’s top brass has other motives aligned with their complete inactivity and concerted silence when it comes to real promotion or responding to our pleas. Like Solider has stated my personal experience with the Animation Guilde (local 839) was fantastic and the two Steve’s are absolutely upright guys.

      It does not hurt to know history though and if there are plans to dash our hopes in favor of studio pay offs, there’s no reason not to begin inviting some of the other unions to take a look at us, good old north american competition may be helpful here. This is a project I’m working very hard on now.

      We are the most powerful money making force in motion picture history and that kind of power can turn the best of men.

      Click on the hyperlink on the word “sinister” in the letter and gain an education.

  15. […] In case you missed it, Variety report David S. Cohen  had a live chat with Scott Squires, Lee Stranahan, Dave Rand, and Joe Harkins. You can view a log of it here.  It also spurred a new open letter from Lee Stranahan. Variety also published another article reporting on Joe Harkins comments about unionization which is echoed in his own open letter to VFX artists. There was also a very good dialogue on my last post which you should read. […]

  16. anon says:

    I want to thank the hollywood VFX egos for talking so openly about the problems they face in america
    Is the concept of collective bargaining the antithesis of the founding principles of america? Maybe it sounds a bit too much like Socialism? (We all know what americans think of evil commies!)
    It’s obvious that hollywood (and the business model it promotes) will become a victim of it’s own individualistic greed.
    “Nothing can replace having the director in the same breathing space as the vfx artists…” except maybe the profit motive. Why else did Jackson have five crews shooting simultaneously on LOTR hooked up to a satellite feed?

    • Dave Rand says:

      Satellite is still not a replacement for being face to face, nothing is, however clear and crisp high rez feeds can certainly be a powerful tool, no doubt. I’m just out of a meeting this morning with a director on a six inch speaker while we viewed dailies for this blockbuster film on what looked like a webcam. It was a joke, talking about color, timing, and lighting.

      In a very profitable shop I ran we used a one button uplink of our dailies when the director was unable to be on site for a day or two. He was able to interact with each artist directly through this system.

      The real waste comes from a creative hierarchy that filters everything through the taste of 4 or more different people before it gets tossed back by the director. These endless loops are often hidden away from being the cause of overages….one reason is so that several people can get paid for their magic eyeballs….when really it has to come down to the taste of one person to be efficient.

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