My name is VFX Soldier.
For many years, I have worked in the Hollywood Visual Effects industry creating imagery and animation for a good number of blockbuster films. While the journey here was tough, it was driven by a simple idea portrayed by a quote in an old film The Flamingo Kid:
There are only two important things in living . . .
Finding out what you do well, and finding out what makes you happy.
And if God is smiling on you, they’re both the same thing.
I loved creating art when I was young and it became the fundamental driving force in my education. I tried so hard and learned to do it so well that after college I was blessed to end up working with incredible people of different talents from all over the world on awesome films. However, as satisfying as my career has been, I’ve labored long enough in our industry to notice huge problems that are affecting me, my friends, and the companies we work for.
The Success Of The Industry
The visual effects industry is relatively young but the imagery we create each year for these films have taken center stage since it’s inception. The top box office grossing films of the last 30 years were driven by an abundant amount of visual effects and so were the top 100 films of all time which made a combined amount of $56 Billion dollars. If you were new to this industry, you would suspect that the companies that administer visual effects for the Hollywood conglomerates would be fortune 500 companies with stock prices that rival Apple or Google.
Isn’t it ironic that the visual effects industry is one of the worst businesses to be in? Each facility operates on a flawed business model by losing or making no money at all on the blockbuster films they conduct work on. On a good year they will make a profit margin as small as 3-5%. How can this be possible? The reason why is Hollywood studio conglomerates effectively leverage their position by pitting vfx facilities so strongly against each other that eventually one company ends up taking the project for a loss. In fact, one producer was so bold as to state in an article that:
You are probably thinking that the ability to get the lion share of companies to compete for your business is great, and indeed for the studios it has been a total blowout. They have made billions of dollars from these movies while visual effects facilities compete to make the best work for the lowest price and thats where the problems snowball.
Unfortunately this one-sided affair is compounding problems for my colleagues and I. In an attempt slash costs the vfx facilities have eliminated benefits such as sick days, health insurance, and retirement accounts. Many are forced to work under illegal conditions with unpaid overtime and 1099 tax statuses where we are responsible for paying the employer’s portion of social security. The projects have become more volatile as the vfx facilities try to please the demands of the director put in place by the studio.
For example, famous director Jon Favreau during reviews at one vfx facility was ever so bold as to stuff his mouth with donuts and wipe his hands clean using the sides of expensive leather seats provided for him to sit on. Constantly months of work can be thrown away by last minute changes by directors with zero consequences. This in turn leads to extended crunch times to update the changes where artists work day and night with 70-100 hour weeks.
The problems are further compounded by countries that hope to generate economic activity by offering subsidies that essentially pay studios to have the vfx work done there. Vfx facilities are now becoming “rent seekers” where they move from country to country, state to state to take advantage of free government money. This has led many vfx artists to become permanent nomads where some are forced to leave their partners and newborn children to find temporary work in the far reaches of the world. I know of senior colleagues who purchased homes with a false sense of job security only to end up being laid off months later and forced to foreclose when they could only find work in another country.
However, one would naively think the subsidies are a great solution to the problem since the facilities can begin to make a profit, and countries can make a huge investment returns in economic and tourist activity. But even that is not the case as studios expect even lower bids for their unprofitable work. With the recent decline in the economy, governments are finding themselves in deep debt due to dwindling tax revenues. Many of them are starting to take a hard look at the economic returns they are receiving for the subsidization of studio welfare. One study concluded that for every dollar spent to lure film industry work, there was a 14 cent return in economic activity.
Many of you are probably reading this and thinking why doesn’t the person who wrote this stop being a crybaby, after all it’s competition and if you want to get paid you better play. But of course, why don’t I just shut up and live with the fact of being a vfx nomad and that having a retirement plan, health insurance are only reserved for those who can afford to fund it themselves. I have always known that there are many people out there that have it worse than me but after being witness to all these problems it causes me to reflect on the very idea that drove to do this in the first place.
The idea of finding out that one special thing about myself that I did well and made me happy ultimately became a part of my soul. You might think it’s ridiculous to think this but why the hell should we sell our souls at the lowest price? This contemplation has led me to re-think things and jokingly fantasize with others how nice it would be to work a steady job in the insurance industry. These thoughts come across many of my colleagues who are in turn seeking careers elsewhere. These issues are slowly getting the attention of the national media in the Huffington Post and Time Magazine. They allude to the many problems we are facing and that it may lead to a huge billion dollar industry collapsing. Simply put the incentive for many of us to do great work is going away.
I’m not going to leave this industry without attempting to help fix the issues that are facing my friends, colleagues, and their families.
- The vfx facilities need to stand up and organize to ensure that the work they accept from Hollywood studios lead to sustainable profits.
- The artists that work for the facilities need to educate themselves about organization and agree to a set of standards that ensure they can continue to work. It’s easier than you think. Just anonymously sign a rep card.
- Artists need to be vocal about vfx facilities that engage in abusive and illegal behavior. One site has cleverly created a way to review your experience with various facilities. Take the time to comment on the facilities you work for here (update 3-11-2012: Link taken down as it seems the site has been hit by a nasty virus. Makes ya wonder dunit?).
- These problems are ultimately solvable by engaging in communication and conducting townhall meetings.
This blog will post and reflect on issues that are facing the people we work for and the people we work with.
I Need Soldiers
I’ve never served in the military but I call myself VFX Soldier. I have and will continue to battle along side many of you in the trenches to conduct work for many vfx, commercial, and animation facilities. Given the problems we are facing, the current reaction is trending towards a slow march to the bottom.
In a race to the bottom the only ones left standing are biggest losers.
The big hollywood corporations have always been the same. Are they greedy and bad? duh. Are they highly organized? Of course. What compounds the problem is that we accept the fate they hand to us because we are un-organized . The irony is that they stand to lose the most in this. So why are we losing so badly? It’s because we let them win. I always hear the term used to describe vfx artists as “geeks” and given the situation and the results this is rightfully so. We let the big Hollywood corporations bully us without saying anything.
You are probably a vfx artist sitting there reading this as you wait on your render of the 78th iteration of a shot that was due two weeks ago. Have you bothered to take the time to speak to some of your colleagues about the things going on in the industry? Many of you roll your eyes and accept it but what if you could do something simple that could echo in changes for your career and make things better for you, your retirement, your future partner, your future kids and their education, and your future families’ health. For you, VFX Soldier is commited to help you understand about the importance of providing for your future in retirement and finance. For others, you may be reading this and think that I am finaly a person in the industry you have been waiting for. Actually, I have to admit that you have been the person I have been waiting for. Soldiers are commited to a mission to defend an idea. They sacrifice themselves for the greater good and that is ultimately what our industry needs. VFX Soldier is on the march and I don’t need geeks, I need soldiers. Contact me and let me hear your story.