The Most Expensive Places To Live In The VFX Industry

VFX Artist Aruna Inversin has a great post on Vancouver’s skyrocketing real estate prices:

Making a decision to move up north is not a small feat, especially in this rough and tumble world of the quick buck, cheap labor, and inadequate contracts. Here’s one reason to think twice.

Demographia, a property-affordability survey published by Illinois-based consultant Wendell Cox, estimates that median real-estate prices in Vancouver are 9.5 times median household income. Only Hong Kong and Sydney are less affordable by that measure. (New York comes in at 5.1.)

I’ve written a few posts on how Vancouver’s real estate market is the most unaffordable in the world.

However, even if real estate is affordable, I’ve written that VFX artists shouldn’t buy a home because the nature of the industry is project based. Even if you had gainful employment in Los Angeles, bouncing between Imageworks, Disney, DreamWorks, Digital Domain, and Rhythm & Hues are still long commutes from the suburbs. A mortgage is for 30 years, nobody had been at the same vfx company for that long… unless you’re George Lucas.

The Cost Of Living

Furthermore, even if you were just renting, you are subject to huge costs of living. There is a cost of living index taken every year by Mercer which helps companies measure the cost of living for employees about to make a move. It’s based off measuring housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment. You can view the whole list here. I’ve listed cities where major VFX facilities reside below:

  • 8 – Singapore
  • 14 – Sydney
  • 18 – London
  • 65 – Vancouver
  • 77 – Los Angeles
  • 95 – Mumbai
  • 106 – San Francisco
  • 136 – Wellington

What’s crazy about this list is that Vancouver, Singapore, and London which are commonly known to pay lower rates than Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Wellington rank way up in the cost of living index. But there is one more huge burden we are forgetting when we choose to make the jump:

TAXES!!

I’ll bet not many VFX artists based in the US know this but if you chose to go work in another country, you still have to pay taxes on foreign income, even if you paid foreign taxes. A co-worker recently asked his CPA about moving to Vancouver and basically gave him this advice:

You need to make sure to stay out of the US for 18 or more months to not pay any US or CA state taxes. You can deduct the taxes you pay in Canada but will still owe money to the US fed if you stay out less than a year. You will still be taxed as a CA resident unless you stay out of CA for more than 18 months.

Obviously I’m hearing this from one person so if you know differently please comment below.

I’m always intrigued by colleagues who are in London one project, then bounce to Vancouver for another project. How does anyone save money doing that? If you’re one of those people feel free to comment. What’s your savings percentage? Whats your total tax percentage after deductions?

Soldier On.

44 Responses to The Most Expensive Places To Live In The VFX Industry

  1. Dave Rand says:

    I like to call this quote as the spark, “If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job.”

    I have yet to meet a vfx artist that does not remember that quote from David Cohen’s article from May of 2007.

    I’ve been on the staff of five major VFX houses that have closed. I have storage lockers in a triangle between Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Montreal. I’m currently am living full time in a the hotel I cam to stay in short therm while I looked for yet another cheap apartment.

    A newer trend is developing…several friends of mine just finished a tour of duty at ILM where they now hire for 2-3 months knowing it takes 6 months to become proficient at their software. This is an effort to be competitive and build a database. It’s like a Navy Seals program, I just wonder if they know how many babies they are throwing out with the bathwater. I wonder if the industry knows how creatively inefficient this is, how they’ve taken the most valuable software on the planet, the minds of the artists, and moved it to the trash can and hit delete.

    In a letter to his father, who had written from Florence asking for money, he wrote: “I lead a miserable existence. I live wearied by stupendous labours and beset by a thousand anxieties. And thus have I lived for some fifteen years [as an artist] and never an hour’s happiness have I had.” From “Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling.” One may argue, but hey look at the great art he produced. I’d offer, we’ll never see all the great work he did not do, and in the end he did not see it either..he went blind from it all.

    Creative beings don’t do well when the basic needs of living can not be met, yet through the ages this atmosphere has been concocted by those in power, those I call the talentless. Maybe it’s time they found their place.

    • rant says:

      I’ve brought this up with every studio I’ve worked at, and those who answered the question candidly did full well understand that it’s unsustainable and frankly exploitive. But people do it, so the practice continues. Projects are bid based around the idea that people will simply accept only working a few months out of the year and wait around until their company of choice calls them up and brings them back for the same salary as before.

      This is how a VFX artist calculates his/her yearly salary:
      X months of 100+ hour weeks plus X months of unemployment minus X months of vacation as to not crash and burn.

      Buying a house is a bit of a joke – try explaining your income to a bank!

      The bottom line is that the time to organize as a labor force is NOW or things will only get worse. You might be still making enough to get by but schedules and budgets will only continue to get squeezed.

      To me, though, the worst part about it is that we are not given the opportunity to live ‘fifteen years as an artist’, we only get tiny windows of opportunity to grow and learn. When I first got to the industry, the people at the top were incredibly talented and full of genuine artistic spark. What I see now is a lot of people with enthusiasm to work on Big Movies but very little creative merit. The system benefits the easily-exploited star-struck automatons. Most everyone who didn’t move off the box and join the system is long gone.

      I’m angry. Not because I’m relatively poor despite a decade’s worth of incredibly hard work, but because I am being deprived of the opportunity to even TRY to contribute to an industry with such a long history of innovation and beauty.

      At times I would love to suffer for my art, but it seems I can only do that when the schedule deems it so. I have a day to light and comp this shot? Sweet, that’ll go straight on my reel.

      • David Breaux says:

        I wish I could agree with you more…but I’m already 100% in agreement… I have managed to purchase a home, only because my fiance is steadily employed in a completely different industry. I am constantly…even when employed as I am currently distraught at where things will be in 3 or 6 or 8 months… All of my dreams when I decided to go to college and become a commercial artist hang in the balance. Yet I find many of the best opportunities are to move into teaching…I can only hope people open their eyes, at least the ones who aren’t dug in at a studio for life. Open their eyes and really think about where this industry is going as a whole.

  2. I work in Singapore and one of the main draws to me here is the low tax rate. Yes, the cost of living “can be high” but it doesn’t have to be here. The Mercer study makes a few assumptions that simply don’t add up here.

    1. It assumes you will get a car. A Car in Singapore is a luxury that in all honesty is a big waste of money. The public transportation system here is world class, cheap and fast. If you take out the cost of owning a car here (140K USD to buy a Honda Accord, plus parking, insurance, fuel ect. ect. ) the cost of living goes way down.

    2. Mercer picks a staple of food items to put in the basket that they compare prices with. Singapore taxes imported western food very heavily. While not taxing local foods to help local suppliers and restauranteurs. An Italian pasta dinner might cost you $25 a person here. But, if you get local chicken and rice dishes, it’ll only cost you $2-3 a person.

    3. Taxation. I’m not sure how they calculated taxation in Singapore in the study. If they assumed that you are a multi-national corporation. Maybe they also assume that you will be here less than 6 months. If so, the tax rate for a non-resident is a flat 15% for the most part. However, if you are here more than 6 months. Then you are taxed as a tax resident. Which is a sliding scale based on what you earn.

    http://www.guidemesingapore.com/taxation/topics/singapore-tax-calculator

    As a round number I put in $100K USD and as a tax resident here in Singapore you would pay around 8.5% tax.

    In the US It’s saying that the tax rate would be around 21.7% And if you’re a freelancer, that rate goes even higher.

    I’m not saying it’s cheap to live here. It’s quite expensive. But, it’s not as bad as the Mercer survey makes it out to be.

  3. Reff says:

    actually there are people 30 years at the same company, you can find them at ILM….best paid workexperience I had so far.
    London is the most terrible one, you hardly get good money and you dont get paid overtime, every hour you stay longer is basicly for free, so that the company can undercut the bidding for the jobs they want…and you wont get a good appartment under 1300 pounds, so you just work for your room and food…totally stupid.

  4. David Breaux says:

    If you want to stay in Singapore your probably fine…what happens if you want to move back to the states…..Or have a significant other that has to stay in the states… I had an opportunity to go there and had to turn it down because the financial situation it would cause for US was worse than me staying here short of fining absolutely no work here. The cost even of air travel to visit family even once a year or have them visit you is insane….those things have to be included in your budget as well…unless your the last living person in your family tree.

  5. vfxguy says:

    I’m in complete agreement with comments posted by “rant”. Maintaining employment in this industry is like being a FEDEX package with all the brokerage fee covered by the artist.
    What a joke this industry as become. Living out of suitcase has such dire consequences with ruining families and unable to build any foundation. Buying house yeah right more like buying a storage facility is probably a better option so you can throw all shit to go work on “Transformers”
    Unfortunately the notion of doing something to change seems like not a high priority to most in this industry but rather prefer to continue this path. Its amazing how many don’t become fighting mad. Artist have more leverage then they think not as individuals but as a group.
    Amazing what we tolerant for the “the art”
    Seems like every man for himself mentality.
    Only solution seem for some is changing careers which is definitely easier said then done but to me seems like the most logical.

    it be better to start talking about an escape package or plan for artist who had enough of that lifestyle.

    cheers

  6. Every artist I know has some sort of escape plan, myself included (little restaurant somewhere). I do love to travel but Im mad at companys not giving me the same job in the same city. One shop refused to open spots in LA but gives you the slot in Vancouver. I refused and got passed, now they are in a dire need and suddenly the LA spots are available. Too bad because im not available now because I had to leave LA to work somewhere else.

    Singapore sounds doable if your smart BUT i want to CHOSE where I work, not just find a way to make ends meet. I doubt all engineers get pawned off to sony in japan just because they could. No they design at apple in sunny CA🙂

  7. Paul says:

    The home owner argument is becoming tedious, owning a house is, for the vast majority and whatever your field is, very expensive and not very rewarding unless you have a sizable steady income that allows you not to ever worry about it. If you’re not paying more than $2000/month for rent then you’re not “wasting” money either as some people tend to think. And you’re never gonna own anything ever unless you buy something in Ecuador!

    On taxes I think you’d have to earn quite a lot overseas to ever feel the pinch. If I go back to Europe I’d have to earn something like $250k before it becomes sizable. Double check the IRS but if you make let’s say $100k outside the US your taxes are gonna be very low. Only the rich are bothered with that.

    • andreas jablonka says:

      Sorry what? If I make 100k$ then I care if I get taxed 21% in the us or 35% in Canada or 15% in Singapore. It’s the combination of higher rent, higher cost of food, lower wages and higher tax that makes Vancouver complicated I find!

      • Paul says:

        OK I’m confused by your words as well. I was talking about being double taxed and was referring to what you owe to the US government [if you’re a US citizen] no matter where you are and not what you actually owe to the country you’re working in. So unless you make a lot of dough your US tax amount is almost nothing.

        But then again a % of tax doesn’t mean shit as oppose to cost of living and benefits a country or city offers, ie $100k is fine in LA but not that great in NYC etc…

    • I agree. The US Govt has a tax waiver. (credit? subsidy? I can’t remember what it’s called) so if you’re working outside of the US for an entire year, you don’t have to pay any taxes on the first 88K USD you make. So if you end up making $100K you’ll pay:

      US Govt.
      21% of 12K. or about $2,600 USD
      plus
      Singapore Govt.
      8.5% of 100K or $8,500 USD

      Which equals around 11K USD a year or 11% tax. Still way lower than being a freelancer in the US. I think at one point I was paying 30% tax in the US while I was freelancing.

  8. Dave Rand says:

    Some key points from my experience. Canada is a beautiful place to live and the people are amazing. One day I hope that all the infrastructure sparks some serious Canadian investment in films with high quality VFX. Right now there is an imbalance, I think like most vacuums it will be filled.

    1. Talk to a professional tax advisor before making a decision.
    For Canada, here’s good one. Montreal based and registered in the US as well, this should be current. If he can’t help you he’ll recommend someone who can. Tell him I sent you please. petertsarouhas@bellnet.ca 5147454645
    2. When they tell you at the border your up there stealing Canadian jobs because the US messed up their economy…don’t remind them your working for an USA Company on a USA project. They hate that. (to be fair here the US border guards treat Canadians just as harshly)
    3. Your an unsecured creditor working in Canada as are all employees..meaning if you thought being at the bottom of the credit list kinda sucked, wait till your at the bottom of the creditor’s list. http://playbackonline.ca/2008/07/21/meteor-20080721/
    4. The US/Can dollar will most likely return to it’s historical exchange rate average of about 75cents to the dollar. If you’re paid in Canadian this can be a substantial loss.
    5. The mail system between US and Canada is horrible. For example, If you use Amazon.com you’ll notice Amazon.ca is very limited and expensive as you’ll find most retail is. Open a PO box in Bellingham Washington for purchases you plan on being your own or for mail you want to receive that’s bigger than a letter from the US. PacMail is a great one for this in Bellingham it is only 1 hour away from Vancouver if the border is not busy. Unpack everything and put it in your luggage, they are mostly concerned with people smuggling stuff to sell in original boxes, but if it’s yours it’s none of their business. Another great mail forward service based in Texas is http://www.usglobalmail.com/ They will forward your mail to anywhere on the planet and allow you to check your inbox online.
    6. Consider investing in Nexus border crossing if it makes sense for you http://www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/prog/nexus/menu-eng.html
    7. Pandora won’t work and you can’t gift someone a song in Canada from a US itunes account.
    8. Lastly, if it’s game day, and you find yourself in a public area and you’re the only one not wearing a Canucks jersy, never, ever, under any circumstance say your from New England.

    • LG says:

      2. I’ve never been hassled by Canadian border officers about “taking jobs”, and don’t know anybody else who was. With one exception (not related to jobs), they’ve been nothing but extremely friendly.

      4. Hmmm… I guess it depends on if and when the US dollar will get stronger. Maybe it won’t.

      5. Get the PO box in Point Roberts, not Bellingham — less than 45 minutes away.

      7. Get a VPN like Witopia, StrongVPN, or TunnelBear, you can make it look like you are connecting from practically anywhere in the world, and thus get your US Netflix, iTunes, Pandora, Comedy Central, Hulu, and all the other things that are blocked based on geography. Plus, it gives you secure connections even when using open WiFi in cafes and whatnot.

  9. vfxguy says:

    A lot of you are failing to factor one big component with vfx employment in today’s market. The actually physical move just to work ! Think what that involves a specially if you have a family not too mention all the paper work, bank account wrangling, permits etc. Making a move say to Singapore you have to factor in how many other studio or jobs are available to me should the one I’m currently working at ends laying off artist. Not easy if you need work permit once again.
    All that for a short contract in a foreign part of the world. 20 years ago when I did my first move the company paid for all the expenses as it should be. Now a flight and a night at hotel.
    Imagine you have to think twice before owning a family pet or have any outside hobby’s.
    Not to mention having to deal with studio who are always find creative “illegal” ways to use your skills as cheap as possible.
    Its just not the cost of living or taxes. All HR cares about is filling those seats. Just like a cop needing to write his monthly traffic ticket quota. Some HR departments are the used car salesman for vfx.
    The constant nomadic existence is what prevents many from ever considering owning a house but just live with the constant stress of wondering when the next job will be after your 6 month contract is up .

    These are thing among many others that needs to change in the industry. We don’t have control over cost of living or taxes.
    We have control of effort make a change.

  10. xengineer says:

    Personally, I like to compare costs using Expatistan. You can judge prices by category and decide how accurate you think the specific costs are. http://www.expatistan.com/cost-of-living

  11. Gregory Duncan says:

    I have worked in LA for years and I just moved to Singapore. Here is what I have learned so far.

    First off my monthly Pay is the same to what I was making in the US with the conversion rate and everything. So I get the same amount in my pocket every month. I also luck out I don’t have a family or house back in LA to take care. So the only person I need to worry about is me. So to how much it costs to live out here.

    Yes Rent is crazy out here. I’m paying twice as much as I was in LA. I also get half as much space and I’m living with a family. Now most people would mind that and If you want to live on your own its going to cost you even more.

    But here is where I save money. I drove every where in LA. I don’t drive any where in Singapore and yes you would be crazy to own a car out here. My $20,000 Mazda 3 in the States. Would cost you $130,000 out here and you only get to own it for 10 years. But where Singapore is better than LA for public transportion I can take the train or bus for cheap. Even taxis are way cheaper. So I’m not Paying Gas, Maintenance, Parking,Tickets,Insurace. All that addes up. You know its nice not almost getting hit by another car everyday and getting some walking in and feeling better about myself.

    Food is also way cheaper yes you can go to a nice restaurant and It would cost you a ton of money. But I have found that the same is true with living in LA. But what I found is better you want to eat a cheap meal. All you can get in the States is fast food if you want to eat out and a meal will still cost you $8-10usd. You can eat for $5sgd or less if you wanted to in Singapore. My lunch today cost me $3sgd that is about $2.38usd. So I found that eating here is going to save me a lot of money. But the other side Drinking out here is taxed crazy like a car is. So if your like me you go out on a friday night a pitcher of beer will cost you $60sgd. But you can do it cheap too if you look for the 2-1 deals most places run or you go to a hawker center and buy some cheap beer. If you know where to look it can be cheaper.

    Also yes you do have to Pay US taxes when you work out of the country and you still pay the tax in the country your living in too. From what I hear we are only 1 of 3 countries in the whole world that make you do that. I heard the other 2 are Russia and North Korea. But that is just what I heard. But If you been doing VFX for some time. You have learned to make yourself a Business now pay the fees file the proper paperwork to set up and become a Corp or a LLC or whatever works for you. It will make your tax life so much easier at the end of the day. So yes I’ll pay Singapore Tax next year but the counts that for me in the US and I’ll just have to pay the other % they want to tack on. So yes Taxes are going to suck next year but hey I’ll save up so I’m ready for them.

    The reason why I think the company is in Singapore. I hear the bussiness taxes out here are great and sure I bet its easy for them to set up shop. Here I think is the real reasons from being here a couple of months. For starters Singapore doesn’t have a minimum wage. So they can really pay people whatever they want. Also they don’t pay OT during the week but you do get paid for a Saturday in Pay or in a Vacation Day. Also unlike China and India everyone out here speaks english. So its easier to get your point across about fixes. Also people out here work really hard it is just in their nature to do that. So people will put in the extra hours that they are not getting paid for just to get a shot done. It really wants to make you want to work harder to just to prove yourself.

    Also another upside. It costs you nothing to travel. I’ve already seen 3 other countries and next month I’m planning weekend trips to Vietnam and Thailand.

    Sorry I was so long winded but its not as expensive as you would think working in Singapore. Figure this is one thing that I do know something about.

  12. Dave Rand says:

    Free trade is a policy by which a government does not discriminate against imports or interfere with exports by applying tariffs (to imports) or subsidies (to exports). According to the law of comparative advantage the policy permits trading partners mutual gains from trade of goods and services. http://chn.ge/w95KDo

  13. Toby says:

    I think everything has already been said. And you are all correct. Everyone gets it. Here’s what bugs me the most: This is the gawldarn USA!! Our family members died for us to live this dream! I don’t want to move to Singapore, Vancouver, London, or anywhere else. I love this country. I love Los Angeles. I love the movies and Hollywood so much! VFX is the most creative and fascinating aspect of the film industry. I want to learn and grow as an artist. I want to make an impact. Also, I want to have a family in this country! I want to own a home. Truly, a dream! Sadly though, if things in the VFX industry keep going as they are, my American dream will not come true.

  14. Matt Moses says:

    All of these comments – they mark a need to show/learn/define how important vfx’ers REALLY are. We need our own Arab Spring, etc…Call it “Operation- Poke You in the Eye!” – Get on Twitter/Facebook and WALK OUT for 2 WEEKS*… EVERY FILM, EVERY PROJECT… No need to strike (Strikes take too long to begin)… just the quiet hum of workstations with no people at them… Just make sure that the two weeks we choose fall somewhere around March – May – imagine that!? Those 14 days would set back all films 3 months… absolutely ruin launch dates and returns – costing hundreds of millions $ – And then , without notice , repeat..RANDOMLY – all it takes is 24hrs notice.

    Look at it this way, this lifestyle is not sustainable anyway, most of you are all fired in 3 months anyway.

    * I am talking about U.S. owned companies, China would probably imprison you for such an inharmonious act.

  15. analog2pixels says:

    Well, here is what I did. I took a job up north for two years. They housed me for 6 months. I then looked for a place to live in Blaine WA on the border. I got a house on a golf course that was brand new. I got a nexus card to cross the border daily, even though you dont really need one, but the nexus card lets you bypass all the bs and you go through the fast lane, and drove to Vancouver every day. Its cheaper, it nicer, and you get all the taxes back that you pay to vancouver.

    And in general, things in the states are just cheaper than they are in Vancouver. Nice place to visit. But not to live. If it wasnt for the VFX industry, it wouldnt be what it is today. Vancouver that is.

  16. vfxguy says:

    How does today’s artist deal with the lack of sufficient relocation support and funding by your future employer’s ?

    US employer’s working in Canada are entitled to certain tax benefits etc. under the Free Trade Act NAFTA

  17. […] The narrative in the trades is that VFX is going to cheap locations like India and China. That actually isn’t what’s happening. It’s going to expensive places like Vancouver, London, New Zealand, Sydney, and Singapore. Some of these places are the most expensive places to live in the world. […]

  18. dave says:

    Work going to Sydney ?!?! please don’t make me laugh, 2 tiny firms to speak of that do film vfx work both of which are privately owned and none players really in the global game. Its the big players like Sony, MPC, DD, Dneg which are in the driving seat by opening new shops in Singapore and Vancouver . They are doing it to lower costs.

  19. […] The Most Expensive Places To Live In The VFX Industry Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tagged linkspam […]

  20. […] The Most Expensive Places To Live In The VFX Industry Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tagged linkspam, movies, vfx […]

  21. Sam says:

    Globalization IS happening already and becoming more wide spread. With DreamWorks recently announcing their plans to expand to China, one has to realize that Hollywoood jobs just aren’t going to stay in Hollywood alone anymore with the crazy taxes and lack of incentives. The American Dream used to be one where people have a stable job, cars, own their house and have Television sets, comfortable living condition compared to places that have leaking roofs and all back in the days. And as time progresses, people around the world has access to the same technology and infrastructure. The same can be said to the VFX and animation industry. People are having their ‘American Dream’ in their very own country!

    • VFX Soldier says:

      You do realize that the facility is opening in Shanghai correct? The cost of living there is higher than any US city, even New York: http://www.mercer.com/press-releases/1420615

      You also mention crazy taxes as the reason for driving Hollywood away. Have you had a chance to look at Dreamworks financial statement? They probably pay a lower rate in taxes that you do. The CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg also probably pays a lower rate. Can I have some commenters that base their opinions on facts?

  22. vfxguy says:

    putting focus on the most expensive city to live in is a bit of a mute point.
    Again the focus need to be directed to how highly skilled artist are being compensated and treated. Short term work and constant relocation is far more expensive not just your pocket book but you psychological well being.

    Reading all these different post and blogs and it seems the one thing no one has been able to do is have everyone on the same page.
    Some parts of the industry have this thinking of complete “entitlement” regarding where the jobs should stay and how studios should be managed.
    How about we start focus on trying to focus on enforcing the basic labor laws that supposedly protect us from basic employment acts.
    Imagine a 20 year veteran lawyer has told me the worst business they ever encountered to date is the “vfx and animation”.
    Now that pretty bad😉

  23. […]  —–End of mail Related posts: The Most Expensive Places To Live In The VFX Industry Vancouver’s High Costs Hurting Youth Prospects The VFX View From Vancouver Soldier On. Like […]

  24. singapore commercial real estate index

    The Most Expensive Places To Live In The VFX Industry | VFX Soldier

  25. lazy mouth loosers says:

    make a video depicting ramming up the poop shoot for all the bads and eveals.

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