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Monday, April 25, 2011

VFX Union Chat

On April 21, 2011 I was invited as a guest on Variety's tech live chat.
David S. Cohen, from Variety, was the moderator.  Also on the chat were Lee Stranahan, Joe Harkin and Dave Rand.  I'd like to thank David and Variety for putting this on and I would like to thank the other panelists: Lee, Joe and Dave.

The topic was vfx unionization and the chat was lively with selected comments being added from readers.

I know there's a lot of young vfx people who are apathetic to this whole thing but whatever will be happening the next few years will have a large impact on your life.

As always I urge vfx workers to get the information and make informed decisions based on facts, not based on something you've heard third hand.

I've written more below this text of the chat.




Joe was implying that since most vfx artists he knows are well paid we have no need for a union. No need for health insurance or any benefits. No need for overtime protection.  Evidently he and the vfx crew he works with drink lattes and drive sport cars.

You can alway come up with people who are worse off than you are.  Does that mean full time workers who get paid minimum wage shouldn't get benefits of any kind because there are people out of work?

But I don't think all vfx people are working constantly.  The last 2-3 years have been tough in Los Angeles at least.  So average the actual paid work over the last 5 years, especially calculated based on the numbers of overtime hours truly worked for the income. I think you'll see a different picture. Now add in a full family, college costs, etc and health insurance and retirement benefits and yes, we may still be making more that the 'average' person but it's not as much for the typical or starting vfx worker as seems to be implied.

One commentor said: "the median income in Los Angeles in 2009 was $48,617. I don't know anybody who makes even remotely that little in this industry. "

I do know people in this field making that type of wage.  Not everything starts out as a high level CG lighter.  There are still a number of people starting out and doing roto or paint work.

And to be clear I do very well myself.  But I know what it's like to be working under some of the conditions that people work under and I don't think we should sell ourselves short simply because we're being paid.

But pay rate for vfx is not an issue and that's not the intention of the union.

Let's take a look at non-vfx full time workers.  Most of them get some form of health care insurance and some other benefits (401k, etc) Even part time Apple store employees now get some benefits.  Do you think when any of these workers are given raises they're told "you're now making a very good wage so we're canceling your benefits"? Do you think the average CEO in the U.S. who makes $11 million dollars, is told, "Sorry, no benefits for you"?

So why are vfx workers considered second rate to employees in other industries?
Why do we have to accept the fact because we're paid reasonably well we don't qualify for what other workers get?

And remember for most full time employees they typically measure their employment in terms of years.  Many vfx workers measure their employment with a company in terms of months. Even if you work for a large company such as ILM you may have stretches of 3-6 months of no employment between projects. If you go to work for another company for a few months it likely takes another 3 months simply to qualify for health care insurance.  Then once you finish that project you're back to square one.  If there are gaps then you can go on cobra for a time period but having to try to juggle keeping coverage can be a problem.  If you're a vfx supervisor or producer working for the production you're unlikely to get any coverage or benefits.

And that's one of the key points to the union in motion pictures.  Consistent and continuous Health care coverage even as you work project to project.  Just about everyone in motion pictures has this type of coverage from grips to directors.  It's even paid into and supported by the studios.  The people who work in movies, television and commercials get paid reasonably well precisely since they're working on a project to project basis. There's no guarantee when the next project will be. So why are vfx workers considered second rate to all of the others who work in these fields?

From Joe: " I think VFX artists want to be union because they think it's cool since the DGA, SAG, and WGA exist..."

Really? That must be it cause it can't be for the benefits or overtime pay or anything else.  The cool factor. That's it. I'll have to remind my hard working vfx friends.

Joe posted a follow up to the chat here.


The key issues for vfx people in the U.S. are outsourcing, continuous health care, getting paid overtime and working too much overtime.  If you're elsewhere in the world your key issues are likely getting paid overtime and working too much overtime. (Assuming your health care is covered to some extent by the government.)


David says "You'd be surprised about the working hours of young development execs at a level comparable to vfx artists. They work punishing hours and have no lives."

My reply would be, yes, but are they still doing it 20-30 years later like vfx workers?

Also from David: "I don't know what kind of hours Jeff Katzenberg still works, but he was famous for his relentless work schedule, where he's only see his kids on Sunday mornings for brunch."

Hey I worked with Jeff years ago on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and he was putting in a lot of time them as well.  But at this point I think it's his choice and he's the exception.  Those in vfx are unlikely to be given the choice. 


A few of the commentors have said that overtime wasn't really much of an issue and that it's only for a brief time at the end of the project.  I would say that there are quite a few places and projects these people haven't worked at.  I'm not saying everyone has these problems all the time but even if you don't have the issue doesn't mean it doesn't exist and may exist for a majority of workers.

From today's Variety article on VFX: "at least one vfx studio has gone to seven-day weeks, 12 hours a day, and canceled the Easter Sunday holiday for its vfx artists."  So 2-3 months of 7 day weeks, 12 hr das, no holidays.  Sounds like more than a brief time and sounds like overtime is an issue.  Remember that's time away from your family.  Time away from your hobbies/sports and the balance of your life.

The union itself can't solve outsourcing. They can lobby for incentives in the state or federal government but that's questionable.  The union can help the other issues.

The union also can't fix bad business models or poor management but they can try to protect their workers.  I think these things have to be addressed as well but that's a different topic.

The IA unions are only for the U.S. and Canada.  The unions aren't perfect.  They're made up of a group of elected officials.  Things like health care insurance require working so many hours every 6 months for a union company.  There is a grace period depending on how many hours you have put in.

How feasible it is for a union to be world wide I couldn't say.  Certainly setting up any form of group, especially a structured one world wide, is not an easy or quick process.

For those working outside union areas consider my posting on Global VFX Workers.


Lee   wrote a followup response  here.

Lee implies that the VES has some type of internal strife.  As a member of the board of directors I don't see it.  There are different viewpoints of course with any group but I don't see any major conflicts.  I feel like people are playing the telephone game where what's being repeated has already gone through ten alterations.

Please be aware the VES has been hearing the feedback regarding these issues. As mentioned here before the VES can't become a union but being the largest group of professional vfx artists it's important for the VES to discuss the present situation. Whether this results in anything will remain to be seen.

Lee is right though in saying that all of those interested should step forward and lend a hand.  Because if you want to make a real difference you're going to have to do it as a group.


IA Union - I did contact Jimmy Goodman, who is heading up the IA VFX union push, soon after the chat.  My points to him: Regardless of when they get an official web site up and running they need to create content NOW. These documents could be posted on other blogs or locations for the time being but need to orginate from the IA. They need to list the top ten union benefits for vfx workers.  They need a FAQ covering the standard questions. They need to come up with a list of benefits to the vfx companies and benefits to the studios.  They need to do a cost comparison of a typical vfx company regarding benefits with and without being unionized. They should make their plan clear and provide some rough time estimates. I think they have to be able to provide facts and figures if they hope to win over enough workers and eliminate the stereotypes. Jimmy indicated he would get to work on it.  Guess we will see.


VFX Soldier has also been writing about the chat here.

Full write up of what visual effects guild could mean:
Visual Effects Guilds

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Scott for your continous reports about the situation. I am a vfx worker living in Germany, and i am following the whole discussion with great interest. Most of the problems mentioned like unpayed OT or unregulated working hours also apply to shops i have worked for here.
    Thanks again for your efforts.

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