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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Response

There have been some good comments regarding some of my posts.

As Steve Molin commented: “I think the heart of your post is that the relationships between artist, VFX company and studio are fundamentally flawed. I don't think we'll have a healthy industry until we find better ways to work together.”

And that’s exactly it. We can try to patch here or there but what we really need to do is revamp the basic structure and balance.

The VFX industry is like a tire that has gotten out of alignment and is getting more out of balance all the time. Toward the end of the optical era and the beginning of the digital age most projects ran reasonably smoothly, at least at ILM. There was still the sprint at the very end but it wasn’t super crazy. ILM was powerful enough to let the studios know how much time was involved.

With film you had to make sure you finished your shot in time to make the lab run. Once you made the lab run at 7pm or 8pm that was it. That was the end of the day for most vfx artists. Working after that cut off time was only worth it if there was a late lab run, which was only arranged in the final sprint. The next morning you’d see the dailies and would reshoot. Even if it was a small change you’d still have to wait until the next morning unless you sent the film as a daylight run (more expense). When digital came in, the render took the place of the lab run. Sometimes it took longer time to render than to process the film. You’d get your render prepped for 7pm or so and the CG supe would allocate procs in the render farm. And you still have dailies in the mornings. However now it was possible to actually see composites and other things during the day so turn around time for some tasks was much less. As computers became faster the internal deadlines became more flexible.

Certainly in the early days of digital the studios would at least discuss how much time would be required to do the vfx for a large film. The studios would use that information to determine the release date. As more projects were being done digitally the studios realized how much flexibility was available. Both studios and directors started pushing the limits not just creatively but technically and time wise. And we, the eager and hard working vfx artists, jumped to meet those goals. While we were wiping our brows afterwards, amazed at what we had accomplished, the studios and directors now used this as the new standard. Directors on their next show would say, “You guys say you need clean plates and markers. But remember that last film where we had one shot that we didn’t do any of that and you still made it work? Well that’s what we’ll do for all these shots. That was much faster and easier to shoot”. The studios were now saying “You did the last project in 6 months and we made changes two weeks before the release and you still did it. This time you’ll have 4 months and we’ll be making changes 1 week from release.” Some of them like to brag about this type of thing.

From the studio standpoint they want to get a film out as quickly as possible. They take out loans to make the film so their interest payments accumulate the longer it takes to make the film. They also know there is overhead at any vfx company so the longer the project is in post-production, the more that costs them. What they don’t reliably calculate is the compressed time schedules mean there will be large amounts of overtime that is likely a bigger loss than the gains from the short schedule. The studios also have specific target release dates they like and yet they at times may drag their feet waiting to make a decision to greenlight the picture. Now with this new reduced schedule (1 year? 9 months?) to make the film they review the project schedule with the director, producer and 1st asst director. And of course the shooting time will remain the same as it always does. X number of shoot days. So where do they make up for all the lost time? In the post–production phase. Their goal is to complete it in less time than the last show. Multiple vfx companies working a lot of overtime is now normal in their thinking. It’s now standard practice. With the various tax breaks and globalization the typical vfx company doesn’t have a lot of leverage. The studio has the money and may have several projects looming. The vfx company needs to keep some type of cash flow going if they are to remain open. Since there are now a number of worldwide companies for vfx, most of which are willing to charge less just to keep afloat, it’s a downward spiral. The squeeze on the vfx company in turn causes a squeeze on the artists.

The ironic thing is the studio, who originally pleaded poverty when bids were coming in, is more than willing to throw money at the problem to make it finish on time. It bears repeating they would have gotten better quality shots for less money if a reasonable schedule had been used. But the studios sometimes tend to take away a different lesson. “VFX are expensive and we should do anything we can to find the lowest price company that will do it good enough on the next one. And let’s reduce the post time even more. That overhead was killing us.”

With all the extras shots being tossed into the vfx mix along the way of the production, the number of changes and even more processes such as 3D post work, there comes a time when it will be impossible to shove any more into that time. At some point there will be a major project that misses it’s theatrical release date due to vfx not having enough time. And that will not be pretty.

The flexibility of the digital process also causes some directors and studios to delay making decisions as long as possible. “We’re shooting it this way. I’m sure you guys will figure out how to make it work later. “ And we do. You try to setup target dates that decisions have to be made by working the schedule backwards. We need the design for this model approved by date x so we have the time to build it and render it. We need the turnovers for sequence y to be locked and delivered by date x for us to complete the sequence. But unless these dates are built into a contract and have consequences they may likely be ignored.

As discussed in the Special Effects Service posting there is now a disconnect with regard to the studios and the vfx artists. The vfx company is a black box they push stuff in and out it comes when demanded. There’s very little connection to the actual people doing the work. This can hurt both the creative process and the budget process. The current incentives the studios typically have in place for producers and asst directors can be problematic. Their main target is to complete the shooting on schedule, even if it means pushing more work on the vfx list. This can cost the studio more money but there is a disconnect between the production process and the entire budget of the film.

Solutions?
I don’t have any solutions but I do know the studios and the vfx companies are going to have to start taking this seriously and to start looking further than the current film. With the amount of money being spent in vfx, the amount of money being made by vfx films and the sheer volume of vfx in many films, it’s madness not to review the situation.

If the studios go to a vfx company they may find it’s gone out of business. There’s little incentive to develop talent and techniques if there’s no money in it. If the studios focus all of their efforts on places where tax incentives allow them to get work cheap, what will they do when those incentives go away? What will the vfx companies that are located there do? All companies have to realize they’re in the same field and whatever happens elsewhere is likely to happen to their location at some point in the future. Your country may be the least expensive today but as we’ve seen things can change rapidly in a global economy. What happens if you’re not the lowest priced country or company? Are the studios going to jump from place to place trying save a dollar? Does the quality of work and working relationships enter in to these equations?

The studios should start taking a look at their schedules and the decision process. Preplanning and some discipline would result in better work for less money. The same can be said of the vfx companies.


Question responses

Q: I'm of the camp that creating a vfx union would just drive the nail in the coffin of the US vfx market, or at least that within the circle of union influence, namely, Los Angeles.

A: I think it’s a myth that a union will cause all expenses at a vfx company to go up. Most vfx artists in the US, at least at the larger shops, are reasonably paid. And likewise many are already receiving some type of benefits. It’s not like everyone is being paid minimum wage and want several times that amount. I think what most people want is for there to be a little more balance in terms of hours and other issues. Part of what might come into play is limits on crazy over time or at least paying people higher wages in overtime. Many vfx companies have managers at different levels. Most of those in management came up through the ranks, which is good since they understand the process. The bad news is some of those people get moved into positions that are beyond their real skill set. Leading people, managing people, dealing with business decisions, etc is not easy and not everyone can do it. A vfx company may always be doing crisis management. This project is running over schedule or budget so we’re going to steal people from this other project. This usually causes a ripple to each following project and the problem doesn’t stop until there’s a dry spell. Management may under-staff to keep costs down but with the low number of artist means they have to work them very long hours to make up for the fact they don’t have enough people to begin with. And this is where one of the many false economies comes into play for the companies. In trying to save money it can easily cost them much more. A higher cost to work people overtime would compel them and the studios to rethink that approach.

Q: I'm not even sure how that would work internationally, or interstate, as many states are 'right to work' states.


A: That’s why we’re discussing this and that’s why we should think out of the box. That’s why I made my suggestions regarding universal rates.

Q: It would be nice to have some form of group that at least made sure companies complied with safe and respectable working conditions, but not be involved in setting rates.

A; That was the first suggestion on my list. A Code of Standards, Seal of Approval, whatever it may be called. Wasn’t there a standard put in place for companies that outsourced shoes and clothing to other countries? We’re not at that level (hopefully) but that’s the idea.

Q: We only have to look as far as the auto industry to see how that ultimately pans out.

A; The auto industry created their own problems by not making the cars people wanted or needed. They also made too wide of selection of vehicles. Once again, it will be up to the vfx companies to rethink where they are and where they’re going and to work with their customer, the studios, to make sure they’re in sync.

Q: Very interesting stuff, although in my opinion kind of depicts unions in a too idyllic light.

A; I would agree. I’m sure I’ve painted the union as being too good. However I get the impression most people have a lack of knowledge about unions. In an ideal world the company you work for would take the well being of their employees into consideration and try to establish a balance of profit with a balance of the people who work for them. In that case unions would not be needed. The problems are that many companies are so focused on profits for their shareholders or management is so removed from their employees that decisions are made because they seemed right on paper. As a result they pull in one direction. The unions typically pull in the other direction to try to establish some type of balance. For those who aren’t unions you should realize one of the reasons why you’re likely paid the wages you are is because the unions made some headway decades ago. Believe me, any company would love to pay everyone minimum wage. In the film industry studios could charge people to work for them (and they might if it were legal)

The union is another group of management that you may not agree with. Look at the WGA. Not all of their members agreed to what management there was doing. With a union you still have to put in so many hours every 6 months in order to qualify for health care. =The camera union has restrictions on who can operate the camera and they may require an operator to be employed even if the DP will do most of the operating.


Q: The only serious observation with the article is the recommendation at the end for Michael Moore. The guys is the most unreliable "documentary" film maker I've seen, totally subjective and set from the start to prove his agenda. I don't think someone can make an *informed* opinion by watching a Michael Moore film.

A: I would be the first to say none of Michael Moore’s films are non-biased. And he does as well. But it does provide some glimmer in several areas that are documented by others. It certainly seems strange to have a college educated jet pilot flying hundreds of people full time and still having to apply for food stamps to make ends meet. And I think that’s part of the issue is the imbalance valuation of people.

9 comments:

  1. Regarding the auto industry, it's also important to note that the auto companies consistently offered expanded benefits packages to the unions when the unions tried to negotiate for wages. The companies were obsessed with the short term benefits of not paying higher wages primarily because the people making the agreements assumed they would not be in power when the future costs of health care, etc., ultimately exploded in their faces. Likewise with choosing not to do real R+D, etc. Blame the collapse of Detroit on management that thought in the short term, not the unions. That type of management would have collapsed the US auto industry, even if they were exploiting every worker at minimum wage.

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  2. Colin CampbellApril 04, 2010

    Can anyone say for certainty that the studios wouldn't behave in the exact way Detroit did? We all heard about crazy situations like job banks where workers were paid to stay home. I don't know if that was a plan offered by management or asked for by the unions, but the fact of the matter was a lot of 'pork' had eventually entered to system to cause its ultimate collapse. Everyone was complicit while the goose was laying the golden eggs. Foreign auto plants are still cranking out cars here in the US. They are non-union. I have no information as to whether their employees are being mistreated or not. Meanwhile, the last auto plant in Fremont, CA closed it's doors a few days ago.
    One major effects facility in CA in recent years has successfully removed or seriously declawed the union in it's ranks. Another union animation facility is in the process of closing. It's obvious the studios see unions adversely affecting business. Hence, my belief that unionizing the vfx industry will further drive work either to 'right to work' states (if it stays here in the US), or continued out of the country.

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  3. I think it's important to distinguish the studios from the vfx studios. These are not the same in terms of business practices. The studios use union personnel. Even when shooting overseas the DP, Director, Production Designer, etc are likely to US based and in a Guild or Union.

    I don't see people being paid to sit at home regardless. The auto industry was a much different thing. The shear number of people involved and the detachment of management was on a much wider scale.

    I'm not necessarily pushing union/non-union but that needs to be considered in this equation.

    The other thing is it's 2010. Everyone thinks of unions and think of a structure from 80 years ago. Don't be stuck in that mind set. Making foregone conclusions based on other industries 60+ years ago is not the intention or desired. I think everyone involved in this has to be open and not dwell on the worst possible thing they can imagine based on distant histories. Nothing would ever get done if that's the approach. Obviously anything developed now would have to take a number of things in to account and would likely be a very different arrangement. Businesses have constantly been changing their tactics as time progresses, I don't see the problem with doing so with related groups.

    It is important to realize that if a vfx company is treating their crews poorly then they will continue to do so even more, if there's not something motivating them to do otherwise. A single artist is very unlikely to change the mind of management.

    If people are so eager to work massive overtime for free and not see their families then there's nothing to be done. It does seem odd that people would rather cling to a system that is broken and live a substandard life rather than attempt to make something better.

    I know a lot of people also feel they owe they the company or expect the company to do the right thing for all the individuals have done for the company over a long period of time. Word of advice - the company doesn't feel the same way about them. A change in bottom line request, sales or of management and any sense of taking care of their employees vanishes. Instantly.

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  4. There are lots of problems that I see with the unions (I accept I can be biased, coming from an ex-communist country and seeing unions constantly destroying the economy even now), but two are the most obvious: they interfere with the normal work marketplace and they are political.
    Adding this layer of "companies only work with union members, members only work with union companies" adds an unacceptable (to me) layer of market manipulation.
    The political side means the unions will (and they always do) use their member base force to pursue an agenda which most of the time has nothing to do with the interests of said members. Strikes are called for because some union leader has something to prove for the next election. Or because there's an alliance with some other union I don't care for. Lots of times you can find yourself asked to do stuff completely against your will and threatened to be thrown away of the union and thus out of work. They become blackmail instruments, both for companies and for their own members.
    Everybody seems to value what he/she does not have :) . In "strong" capitalist countries (eg US), Europe's way, which is generally with a more socialist side, is seen as a great thing (and sometimes it is). However, a closer view reveals some unpleasant facts. Look at Greece and how unions will do anything to prevent reforms which are mandatory for the survival of the country itself. Look at France to see how there is always some union striking for something and blocking some aspect of economic life. Look at what's happening to British Airways, where the best paid people in the industry would rather bankrupt the company than accept some restrictions in time of crisis. Look at Eastern European countries (all left with very strong unions) to see countries paralyzed by decreasing pensions age, blocked restructuring, huge state enterprises put in the impossibility of laying people off to become efficient etc (all the work of unions).
    There was an excellent article in New Yorker few months ago about the power of unions (ab)used in a very bad way, which made it basically impossible to lay off proven incompetent people. A summary is at the link below, but the whole article is a nice read:
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2009/08/back-issues-teachers-and-unions.html

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  5. Oh, and one more thing :) unions are very resistant to change. VFX industry is a dynamic field (maybe that's why it hasn't been unionized yet. For camera operators and film crews in general, things have been the same in the last 50 years. It would be interesting to see what would happen with the arrival of digital cinema, diversified workflow and lots of outside people getting involved).
    Being resistant to change means that if something new, useful or interesting might happen, it has lots of chances of being blocked by unions because it changes the status quo.
    A nice article (somehow relevant to the whole discussion, but with an particularly interesting part about this):
    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/
    quotes: "In spring of 2007, the web video comedy In the Motherhood made the move to TV. In the Motherhood started online as a series of short videos, with viewers contributing funny stories from their own lives and voting on their favorites."[...]"when ABC launched the public forum for the new TV version, they told users their input “might just become inspiration for a story by the writers.” Or it might not. Once the show moved to television, the Writers Guild of America got involved. They were OK with For and About Moms, but By Moms violated Guild rules. The producers tried to negotiate, to no avail, so the idea of audience engagement was canned."[...]"At no point did the negotiation about audience involvement hinge on the question “Would this be an interesting thing to try?” "

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  6. I've been promoting the idea of a guild or union for years now. Needless to say I was one of very, very few. The culture of our business needs to change in order for it to survive. There is no "community", it is to much of " I got mine." Some of the responses regarding this issue is evidence of that.
    I have some ideas on what that is, but it isn't clear on how that can change. No doubt this will take years to develop, and or there just wont be an industry here in the US any more.

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  7. You can post ideas here or one of the other sites that's covering this. How long it takes depends on the solution and if people are willing to roll up their sleeves.

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  8. I have to agree with Dragos Stefan regarding how a union would be debilitating in the dynamic and still-changing industry of vfx. I find it interesting that many conversations concerning this topic clearly recognize the impact of a global economy, yet suggest a union solution from a very western point of view.

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  9. "a union would be debilitating in the dynamic and still-changing industry of vfx."

    There have been independent vfx companies for well over 50 years. Digital vfx have been in use to some extent for over 25 years now.

    Many, if not most of the vfx companies pre-digital were union.
    Close Encounters vfx crew - union
    Star Wars vfx crew - union

    So no, I don't think we have to look at vfx as a 'new' industry that needs to be coddled as if it's in its first 2 years of existence. It will always be changing and not always for the better.

    "union solution from a very western point of view."
    If by this you mean those who live in the U.S. want such things as getting continuous health care they can afford then it's true. The companies can't provide that. As I've said before if you're in a country who has universal health care this isn't an issues but in the U.S. if you work in a short term, freelance industry (such as vfx) no such thing exists except to those in unions. Heaven forbid that 'continuous health care' should be considered a 'western' way of thinking about things.

    Now the rest of the motion picture industry does get continuous health care precisely because of the union. And what's more, it's funded to a large extent by profits made from DVDs and other revenue streams that come into the studio. Do you think most workers could request and get that on their own?

    If you mean some type of protection of workers such as getting paid overtime and not being forced to come in 4 hours after a shift, once again guilty as charged.

    So what are you as an individual worker able to do?
    Talk to your boss who will fix everything?
    Quit and then try another company only to find they have the same practices because they have to compete with the same company you just left?

    Last year General Electric made over $14 billion in profit. They not only paid no taxes, they received a tax refund of $3.2 billion dollars. And so you think they'd be happy but no, they're asking all of their workers to take pay cuts. Obviously vfx companies do not make record profits but the studios haven't been doing too bad considering the billions in revenues. End result is almost all companies will try to pay their workers as little as they can even when they're making large profits. Who is there to help balance that so the workers wages and benefits don't continue to be cut year after year? The individual? The government? The union?

    You have companies pulling in one direction and without any type of control or counter force they'd be more than happy to force it to meet their pure profit desires. The union is about the only form of counter force unless your government has protections for the individuals (which are being stripped away in the U.S)
    If either the union or the companies get too much power then that will be bad in the long run. A true balance is what we're interested in.

    As always if people have solutions please post them. If you have an idea or plan that will improve the vfx industry or the help the vfx worker please go ahead and post them.

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