Is The US VFX Industry Dead?

Self-proclaimed Ex-VFX Labor advocate David Stripinis tweeted that he was amused that I didn’t respond to his latest post. Sorry I couldn’t respond but I was a little busy. However, as you can see his post is getting a lot of feedback.

When Stripinis was pro-VFX labor he routinely chastised those in the US for fighting a “lost war” as he called it because it’s over for US VFX and its all going to India and China:

It’s not that I don’t think the time has come.  I think the time has come and gone.  The boat has sailed.  Elvis has left the building.  Pick your metaphor.

The labor market for VFX has only gotten worse in the past year.

While we are all entitled to an opinion based on personal observations, but it best if we base that opinion on the facts. Has the US VFX industry been injured? Yes, but it’s far from dead.

National Employment for Multimedia Artists and Animators in the Motion Picture Industry

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics collects national employment data for the US. In 2002 they started to collecting occupational wage and employment data by industry.

Here is what national employment for Multimedia Artists and Animators in the Motion Picture Industry has looked like for the last 10 years:

Here is hourly wage data for that same group over the same period broken up by various percentages. These have not been adjusted for inflation.

If you subscribe to the idea of VFX commoditization, the idea that VFX can now be done by anyone anywhere and the only thing that matters is price, then you would certainly believe like Mr. Stripinis that it’s over for unsubsidized and expensively priced VFX locations like California and that work will go to cheap locations like India and China.

Over the last 10 years we’ve seen Rhythm & Hues build 2 facilities in India and 1 in Malaysia. Imageworks has also built one facility in India. Yet we haven’t seen the bottom fall out as far as employment is concerned.

Yet with all the global subsidies and low cost labor locations a tremendous amount of work is still done in the US VFX industry. However I’m not saying the industry hasn’t been injured, it soldiers on but it is far from being dead.

The subsidies have stunted growth and have demolished profits for US VFX studios as they have had to open facilities in Vancouver. Gone are the days of staff positions. If you aren’t on a project at the company you work for, you were laid off. Smaller companies have transitioned to offering no benefits and employee misclassification. This is why I advocate for a union: Portability of benefits so they can get health insurance coverage for their families in between projects and enforcement of basic labor laws with wage minimums.

As I’ve said before, what makes the VFX industry in California unique and it’s ability to weather the storm is agglomeration. There is a huge talent pool that is based close to not only the big 6 studios, but a thriving games, commercial, tv, and animation industry.

I didn’t post the employment numbers of multimedia artists and animators in other industries but there is something else to consider: BLS employment numbers don’t count self employed independent contractors.

Below are BLS projections for the next 10 years in that occupation. In 2010 it estimated that 58.8% of professionals in that category were “self-employed” independent contractors:

So is the US VFX industry dead? I’m sorry to say it’s not. If any of my readers can point me to government data research in their own country that has estimates for VFX workers in the films industry let me know and I’ll post it up.

Soldier On.


44 Responses to Is The US VFX Industry Dead?

  1. Awesome says:

    Guy whose paycheck depends on a company in London proclaims VFX in the US is dead? Weird. No conflict of interest there, sounds totally legit.

    I say don’t feed the trolls. We know what needs to be done, everyone with any sense agrees. All it takes is a little piece of paperwork and a vote and we can all stop bitching and get back to making good work and feeding our families.

    • VFXVFXVFX says:

      Read the article, he says precisely the opposite. The title is a question, and he answers the question with some data.

      • David Stripinis says:

        I believe he was referring to me.

        Problem is, if you know me, you would know I would love an end to subsidies, and a fair playing field in VFX.

  2. Abhishek says:

    When I started my VFX studies I never knew these issues, the only dream was to work in world class feature films in a top notch VFX studio.

    As an Indian all i can say is that i personally have a lot of respect for the VFX work and talent that USA has, i see it everyday and its amazing , i have met people from USA and they are amazing and extremely knowledgeable . I have learned from them (fxphd,cmivfx DT,others) and i love working with them ,
    I work in Rhythm and Hues

  3. Well done soldier. I loved the use of data.

  4. David Stripinis says:

    Couple problems with your stats.

    First, they are ( as stated in the original report ) estimates. And, as with any statistical estimation, prone to error. I do not see a variance stated.

    Second, the report states the numbers are for the motion picture and video industry, including games, commercials, music videos. Just like many of us don’t want to work in Digital Domains medical visualization and military simulation plans, many of us don’t want to work in video games, feature animation, tv or commercials. We are feature film VFX artists.

    Lastly, I am using anecdotal evidence for sure, but the number of friends in the film VFX industry who have either left the country for work ( as I did ) or have left the industry for an ancillary one, or left altogether is more than its ever been. These are senior people, averaging 10+ years experience.

    You also seem to miss the point of my entire post. We can’t argue for better conditions that benefit only American artists. The fast majority of the industry is overseas. So making the argument about portable health benefits falls on deaf ears

    The fight to make is over minimum wages and maximum hours. That’s a universal argument everyone can get behind.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Those are not estimates. Employers must report those numbers to the bls. The last pieces data is an estimate.

      I specifically stated that I’m using data for the motion picture industry and excluded games industry software publishers where there are about 3000 workers in that category.

      • David Stripinis says:

        This includes film and video. In their view, the guy who puts “Ethel & Bob’s 50th Anniversary” in Comic Sans pink chrome type at the head of a video and Ken Ralston have the same job.

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I think that’s more of an exception. Look at the wages. Those sure smell like vfx wages. And if the guy who put the pink chrome type up still has a job in the us then what does that say about your “it’s all going to india” argument?

    • David Rand says:

      I’m glad for posts like this and for posts like Textor’s. They get people talking.. Thanks David and thanks for using your name. Shows that we should not be afraid to speak our minds. As for Soldier, anonymity is important as this website needs to stay up.

      It’s all about four main points in my book. Talent (limited and can’t be taught) Demand for content (expanding dramatically and globally) Leverage…. (we have very little and it’s NEVER too late to work towards getting more). As Soldier has pointed out and many of us have witness .. Agglomeration (can’t disconnect the creative process without disconnecting creative communication, quality, and profits.

      Portable health care and pensions are not the main reasons to join a union in the entertainment business.

      The main reason is to begin to behave like a business person and not a victim that moans like Droopy the dog. The entities that fund our projects have PLENTLY of good sound business sense and plenty of leverage derived from CONTINUING efforts to adapt and build more of it, it never slows down and it should not for us. They have even managed to stall IATSE’s efforts.

      There are so many arguments against workers uniting, the same tired arguments that SAG heard in the 30’s, yet they changed history and even yielded a president of the USA…….and just improved their leverage dramatically just last week by completing their merger with AFTRA.

      And guess what the studios did not fold they flurished as at the business relationship became balanced.

      As I’ve said many times I’ve been told by upper management of that normally fine outfit that our might had the AMPTP so panicked after the “drive” was announced 1.5 yrs ago that they offered a sweetheart deal to delay our organization until they could scatter us a bit more…. The majority of IATSE is in NOT in agreement with that bullshit plan, the majority are warriors. Stay tuned and get pissed because the next thing I was told we’d hear would come from a campaign to lead us to believe that we just don’t give a fuck. This will come in a variety of ways but will backfire as they are not our only choice, and that is not how we really feel.

      As for apathy.. that is definitely on the decline thanks to the written word and those working behind the scenes harder that ever as I’m typing this.

      • Caleb R. Owens says:

        So, what are the concrete tangible things going on that we should know about? A lot of people, including my self have been voicing the need for a union going on 10+ years! Of course it fell on deaf ears. I stay in touch, but I got burnt out on all the talking and no action. If I thought for one second I could be a conduit for change in this industry, I would do it in a heart beat, but I am smart enough to know that my diplomatic skills leave something to be desired.

        It is refreshing to see people coming out of the wood work FINALLY, but the time for talking is 10 years over, it’s time to move while the iron is hot.

        So, who, what and when is taking place to move forward?


        20 year vet with one foot out the door.

    • scott says:

      I agree with David. We need better conditions for all vfx artists, not just ones in specific studios.

      I am tired of hearing the only valid point to unionise is portable healthcare. Portable healthcare does me no good in another country and also it sometimes doesn’t do me much good in other states either.

      I am sorry, but protable healthcare is not the best reason to unionise. The best reason to unionise would be to have standards in hours and wages and even credits. It would be nice to have more of life in this business.

      All of us artists need to stand together as a whole, so those artists working at a small studios don’t get screwed when that company goes under. That practice hurts us all.

  5. vfxguy says:

    “The fight to make is over minimum wages and maximum hours. That’s a universal argument everyone can get behind.”

    these are issue’s most should be fighting mad about.
    Basic labor laws which have continuously have gross violations.
    Canada, US, England etc all have labor law protections. They need to be enforced.
    I say again. There is not platform to move forward with to start improvements …. nothing
    just stats, blogs, twits.

    need to get organized so others can take the necessary steps for change.

    Studio’s film production is not dead they make profit.
    A life / career in vfx is definitely dead or a lifestyle most can not sustain.

  6. fizz says:

    I’ve read and re-read David Stripinis’s blog posting and I can’t see where you’re getting “US VFX is dead” from. What he does appear to be saying is that the situation for US VFX workers has gotten worse, the disruption to established staff at Imageworks Albuquerque and DD’s pay-to-work gambit being offered up as examples. I’d go further and add the various OT payment violations, the misclassification of tax codes for fulltime staff, employer of record companies etc etc. It’s hard to see how things have gotten better – or even held position – for US-based VFX workers. He appears to be only stating the facts.

    His position on organized labor does seem to be less ardent than it was. Perhaps this is perspective gained from working outside the bubble of LA? He does have a point – why would anyone in a subsidized territory with national healthcare want to endanger what they have on behalf of anyone else, especially when the only solutions being offered substantially erode their position? Given that the purchasers of VFX services – the studios – have turned this into a global industry through the deliberate promotion of VFX production centers outside of the US in places like Canada, NZ, Australia and the UK it does seem that any response from the industry itself needs to be equally global in scale. And by “industry” I mean the workers as much as I do the facilities that employ them. At the moment all the suggestions – or at least the ones with the loudest voices – seem to be coming from an almost-exclusively southern-Californian point of view.

  7. LMP says:

    Data is only that, data… You can interpret the numbers as religions interpret the bible to their convenience.
    I interpret it like this: Multimedia is growing in the States exponentially because of smart phone, tablets applications explosion… mixing multimedia with animation is not giving the right picture.
    Self employment data: same as above. A lot of people are developing apps ( I am). As Stripinis suggests in his post, the only way to prosper is to diversify. I believe this applies to both VFX houses and individuals..
    It’s well known that salaries in VFX in the US at least have been in decline. Yes there are a lot of established artists that are doing well still, but for new comers it is low wages and living on a suitcase.
    I am sorry but that is not a life.
    That is why I tend to agree more with David Stripinis that Soldier on this post… I myself know a lot of people that don’t care that they are being abused and even feel “grateful and honored” to work 70 or more hrs straight in such task as a 3D conversion!!
    People in the US have been indoctrinated against unions and social responsible government by decades of corporate ruling.
    So yes, Elvis has left the building…

    • David Rand says:

      Your argument starts out by discounting most of modern science and then goes on to present none of your own, but rather replaces that which you critique with opinion and pure conjecture, and does so anonymously…..which actually helps make the most important point of all.. Thank you for that.

  8. WTF says:

    Can someone explain why I should be concerned about this guy’s opinion?

    This looks like a whole post about how much people care about what he says, it’s a mess of narcissistic navel-gazing.

    He’s in VFX, ok, but from his website it looks like he’d rather be a director or a writer or a comedian or something?

    “You shouldn’t beat a dead horse. It’s amazing how much worse that phrase becomes if you put the word ‘off’ in just the right place.”
    “Anyone want to help me start a charity to help those that can’t afford abortions pay for them? Some of these women are barely scraping by.”

    Maybe he shouldn’t quit his day job just yet…

    David, if you’re reading this, and since I’m talking about you surely you are, the fight *should have* been about getting more credit than the caterers. That ship has sailed for sure. The fight for US-based VFX artists to, I dunno, make a living wage without moving away from our families isn’t going to hurt your bottom line, so if you have nothing helpful to say than please stick to rants about episodic television and ipad apps. Thx.

    • David Stripinis says:

      Seeing as its a post about my blog, I am reading the comments yes.

      It’s my blog and my opinion. I get to say what I want. I had some people asking me on Twitter why I had changed my views from last year, so I wrote that post to do so.

      I find criticism of the fact I do stuff in my free time, something we repeatedly hear VFX people claiming they want more of, kind of silly.

      You have a family, from the sounds of it. Something I have absolutely no interest in. You have your interests, I have mine.

      And if you’re offended by my comedy, don’t read it.

    • monkeywithatoolbelt says:

      It is remarkably unfair and counter-productive to start ranting against an individuals personal blog beyond the context of the article up for discussion.

      Personally, I agree with a lot of David’s points and I am thankful that this discussion has yielded as much numerical evidence as it has.

      But this fight is not just about US vfx artists. It’s about all vfx artists getting their due proportional to their contribution to the projects they work on.

    • mattwbp says:

      I honestly don’t see what a personal attack on David brings to this conversation. I’ve no problems with attaching my real name to my post in order to say that.

  9. Anonwife says:

    You know, I have been read this site for a while now, and other VFX sites as well. And I’m getting disheartened by all of them. After a while when reading I start to hear the Python PepperPot ladies.

    The reality is you can go back and forth, showing statistics and using big words like agglomeration and subsidies. Digital artists like my husband, who was a bellwether in this industry, have NOTHING to show for his work except credits. We have no savings, because we never had enough to save. And no health insurance, because we can’t afford it living paycheck to paycheck.

    I don’t know much about the politics of this, but it seems to me that if the big studios gave a shit about the VFX artists who literally kill themselves to make their movies look good they would actually back a union. I don’t see them doing that. If I’m wrong show me.

    • JTJR says:

      Your husband was a “bellwether” of the industry and you have absolutely no savings? That is incredibly hard to believe. That is unless you both are hugely irresponsible with your money and have taken no responsibility for yourselves in terms of planning for the future.

      Since you are anonymous, care to tell us what his salary was being such a key player for so long?

      • Anonwife says:

        Excuse me? You don’t even know us or our situation and are judging us? Way to be a dick.

      • Anonymizer says:

        @JTJR, before you know the said person’s full plight, please don’t come to quick conclusion and accuse the other person irresponsible.

        There may have been certain circumstances that occurred in anyone’s life, through no fault of their own, that their situations are difficult.

        Please be a little more considerate, even if it’s an anonymous posting.

      • Don’t assume everyone in the industry is getting paid huge sums of money. There are quite a few people who don’t make a lot even having worked it for years, especially if they’re at a smaller company or things like motion graphics and other areas that have an even wider range of wages. Also consider that not everyone is constantly working months or years of unemployment tends to eat up a lot of saved money. Most of us work and live in expensive cities. The salaries usually don’t increase with even the cost of living.

        it’s easy for a young single person to look at the pay and think that it’s just flowing in and that by the time they retire they’ll be incredibly rich. It doesn’t work like that. Family, house, life and work tends to prevent that from happening.

        Also consider that many aren’t paid overtime and may have minimal or no health care coverage. No union means your health care doesn’t move with you. One health issue and you can be wiped out. Pension plans and many of the things offered by traditional jobs are not offered to most visual effects workers.

        Look at those who are retiring after working on Star Wars and other projects. None of them would be considered really rich. Some are doing better than reasonable but you’ll likely also find some that have had stumbles just due to what life throws at you.

        And no, the studios don’t want to see a visual effects union. Yes, it could be in their interest and the interest of the people who work for them but currently profits are the only motivation.

  10. Caleb R. Owens says:

    The combative nature you see here is a microcosm of this industry. The lack of community, reciprocity, passive aggressive attitudes, high school like gossip and just general lack of respect in this biz undermines all of us and in part is why we are here at this point.

    I have my theory on why the digital vfx culture is this way, but it is very clear that if it doesn’t change, and change fast, our long term health is in jeopardy. My wife is in a union and 5 years younger than me. In 5 years she will be vested, when she retires she will have full health care and a small pension. I’ve dedicated 20 years of my life to this career, what do I have? OOooo, my name is in the credits.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      I agree but it’s a bit hard when people keep saying the industry is dead and that it’s all going to India.

      I carefully put together a post with stats showing that is not true and it gets disregarded. If we can’t base opinion on facts then I dunno.

      • Caleb R. Owens says:

        Totally agree soldier, I was trying to make a broader point. I think it is clear that Dave S, tone, no offense to Dave, is a bit combative. I took it as an opportunity to make a broader point.

        No disrespect to either party. The blog is fantastic and I think giving the circumstances, it is timely and you are doing a great job. I hope for some tangible action soon.


    • JTJR says:

      That is totally unrealistic. 20 years? What have you been doing with your money? What have you been doing for 20 years that you don’t make enough to save? What kind of car do you drive? You seriously are looking for sympathy?

      • Caleb R. Owens says:

        Are you kidding? Sympathy? What kind of car do I drive? I was making reference to a union, had nothing to do with my personal finances over 20 years.

        Read my earlier post, you are a perfect example of why this industry is in trouble. Why you would take this opportunity and slight someone is indicative of the juvenile behavior permeating this biz. My guess is that you are under 30 and would never say anything like this to me in person, and your hobbies are probably trolling the forums to piss people off. You are an example of why I rarely get involved.

        Go out and do something other than playing video games all day.

        Caleb R. Owens is my real name, I’m very easy to find if you’d like to discuss it further.

  11. antman says:

    I couldn’t read all these posts because they were too long, KISS (Keep it simple stupid) I’ve been in VFX since the invention of it, and a couple of things stood out in these posts; Yes jobs are going to other country’s; in the beginning maybe they struggled, but like in the case of India, they completely have mastered the skill, and you can no longer ever even fathom a criticism against them, they actually have a better work ethic than us Americans, they live for their work, and we live to play! 😉

  12. Doubting_Thomas says:

    Not to put too fine a point on it but anyone who takes David Stripinis opinions too seriously may need to further their education. While the industry faces challenges it is not dead nor dying – it is however changing – just like it always has over its long history. I suspect that David is working here in the UK not because he wants to but rather that he cannot land a solid gig there in the States. If that is indeed the case then his writings needed to be taken with more than a dash of bitter salt.

  13. Andreas Jablonka says:

    I can tell you from first hand experience that getting a job offer from london for 6-12 months is very easy for a seasoned artist but try get ting a 5 month contract in LA is very very hard and often luck or serious connections to upper management in some cases. I can understand he resents that.If he does, I dont know. I enjoy traveling for work, been all over the world but I dont like HAVING to travel and not being able to choose to work in my home LA if I decide too.

  14. cm says:

    OMG! Have you guys seen the work that comes out of China and India? Horrible…and it is always sent back here to clean up the freakin’ mess they create. THEY are NOT up to pare in their skills and will remain under. Stop sending our top people over there to train them for free! And what else is funny, China and India are getting smarter and eventually will ask for more money (it’s actually already happening). I personally will make sure a few thousand of my family and friends will boycott anything coming from Digital Domain. It’s amazing how many times I have gone to comment on Digital Domain in the last three days and they have been not posted or I was told it was spam. REALLY…are you serious! And for the guy that said, “Keep it simple stupid”…Maybe discussions need to be simplified for you but certainly not for me…the more in-depth the conversation the more insight! I am so glad to come across this site and be able to post and read!

  15. Luna Shaman says:

    As far as the title of this…Its already dead…Thats what money and corprorate greed did to its true luster a long time ago. Rebirth my friends…

  16. olivier says:

    ” Just like many of us don’t want to work in Digital Domains medical visualization and military simulation plans, many of us don’t want to work in video games, feature animation, tv or commercials. We are feature film VFX artists.”

    … what a mistake … human tools hypnotized by the idea of working for a “feature film” … boring crap most of the time … but full of FX
    Big confusion between being an “artist ” or a “technician”
    You’re involved in this mess, you want to be “stars” in you domain
    You’re just tools … hello, reality is coming back:
    Ther’s no Art here, only entertainment and big money

    • Doesn’t sound like you work on features then. Doesn’t even sound like you do visual effects.
      We’re not looking to become stars, we want to balance the vfx industry. And yes, there is a combination of artists, technicians and craftspeople who make up the work force. We don’t have fixed specs to simply duplicate. Nor can a technician animate and breath life into CG creature simply by stepping through steps. Even the in roto the ones that treat it as an artform and look at it and revise are artists in the sense of completing something unique.

  17. olivier says:

    Thanks for a so polite and calm response after my words which can be shocking … You’re a true gentleman.
    I decides to send my opinion, because it’s a point of vue
    far away from your world and his codes.
    Codes wich have been messed a long time ago (in our galaxy)

    “in the sense of completing something unique”

    Your last sentence define what sould be called an “artisan”,
    not an “artist”. And thats the point were many in this job got mistaken an dropped in the trap of “feature”, as public drop in the trap of “glamour”. The “marketing of glory” was invented in the early years of big Hollywood studios … to sell their movies,
    to fill up pages of magazines, … to keep their power…
    We all know that actors are just tools wich can be trown away
    if they dont follow rules and break the lines.
    (recent examples of an actress playing with 3d robots …)
    So everyone go working there, as a “technical artist”,
    hopping for a piece of this fake glory, ready to work 75 hours a week or more …
    It’s an individual project of succes, not a artistic project
    This why it’s gonna be so difficult to regroup and argue for your rights.
    Sorry for you, you dicovered this a little late.

    In the mind of a big studio, you’re expandable. Why ?
    Because even the best skilled technician (artisan), devoted to do the best, can be replaced as soon as another gets close to his skill,
    never mind he is indian or chinese … or under paid american
    Only the “very” best will go on, may be some among them can be called “artists”, not because they complete something unique,
    because they break the model.
    Hollywood is a so conservative (and money interressed) system,
    i doubt there’s many space for this difference.

    a crappy movie is a crappy movie, even if the vfx are awesome.
    Where is creativity, difference, genuis in a movie like Real Steel..
    it’s just an infinite hole of “cliches”.
    and i could write a long list (vey long indeed)
    Most of blockbuster “do the job”, only a few surprise me.

    Thas why young people are right : download it, look at it eating pizzas, trash it and forget it. That’s why they ignored 3d Starwars
    Video games are more creative,
    TV series are more creative, indies movies are more creative.
    Hollywood is a big machine, sometime creative … but i will trash
    you as soon as it can find less expensive artisan.

    To conclude : your fight is absolutely right, more, it’s socialy necessary, for the respect of rules …
    Who cares, if roto,matchmove,modeling, compositing was
    made by underpaid chineses workers.
    I care, i was 12 in 77 when Star wars came on screen,
    i thanks every first ones involved in ILM.
    They were mad dreamer at this time
    Now VFX is just a business …
    as new Star Wars… rich and empty.
    I just want to see new dreamers, assisted by the combination
    of “artists, technicians and craftspeople who make up the work force”, and a conscience of where they are and what they do.
    But May be cinema is not the place anymore …
    Good luck anyway.

  18. […] of VFX work done on animated blockbusters. However as important as VFX is, the industry is still incredibly small for even the […]

  19. […] sentiment is apathy. While one interviewee claims an average drop of 20% in VFX wages from the peak my research doesn’t seem to show that. The good news is it seems the trade association is getting some positive traction with various […]

  20. […] know who else disagrees? The Bureau of Labor Statistics. They estimate that the VFX industry will experience marked growth over the next decade, climbing from 66,500 jobs in 2010 to 72,000 jobs in 2020. Of course, I should point out that this […]

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