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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

What happened?


What happened?

A week or two ago the LA Time ran an article on some of the problems of the visual effects industry. It covered someone who had been in visual effects for awhile and wanted things as bold as health care insurance (you know, that thing that comes with most full time jobs). The amount of overtime, it’s difficulty on workers physically and the need to keep finding work to help pay for things (like health care) were also among the topics.

And anytime someone who has been working in this industry for awhile speaks out there are always detractors. In forums where this issue was discussed young people who are in this industry always asked “what happened to all the money this experienced person had been paid?”  "Why don't they just quit?" And I’ve talked to a few of these people. They think, ‘wow, visual effects pay is nice. Anybody who works a long time has got to be rolling in money. Rich, rich, rich. As in taking a personal helicopter to their yacht to go to their private island where their pet pandas eat caviar out of golden bowl, rich’. Well maybe not that rich but certainly the feeling is these people should have been able to stash away millions and be able to retire with no cares.

Young people myths
1. You will create, discover or invent the next Facebook and be a multi-billionaire by the time you’re 30. It was a million when I started but hey, inflation.
2. You will be a rock legend playing to millions of fans.
3. You will always be in high demand for your visual effects skills and always be offered work. Certainly aways able to work as much as you like.
4. Companies will have bidding wars just to have you join their projects.
5. You will have your choice of projects and will be able to pick the coolest ones.
6. You will always be paid more on each project.
7. The expenses you have at 23 will be the same expenses throughout your life.
8. You will have perfect health for your entire life.
9. You’ll never make any bad decisions.
10. It’s easy to save and hey, you’ll start saving more as soon as you buy the latest xbox game and your new car and that other thing you just have to have.

Expenses
When you start out you’re single and have little needs and certainly minimal commitments. I was surveyed when working on Close Encounters about how much I spent on groceries per week. I answered less than $10. 1 gallon of milk and a box of cereal and I was set for breakfast and dinner. Fast food for lunch. I took a bus to work for little transportation costs. (2 hrs bus to travel what would have taken 20 minute by car) Later I bought a bike and then later a car. Unfurnished apartments saw a bed, chair, basic desk and tv. These days you’d probably add in a computer and video game box. You can always have roommates. So to a young person with very modest real expenses, the pay of visual effects is fantastic. They can buy and indulge in whatever they want. After all, they’ll be doing this for years.

It’s easy to get in the mindset that the work will always continue and to spend it as if you’re a full time staff employee. You’ve worked hard for your money and see no problem with splurging at times on the things you want. You can’t even wrap your head around the idea of retirement plans since that seems so distant. At 23 you’re fine making work the highest priority.

But then you grow up. Maybe get married. The desire to get a little nicer place and actually buy furniture and framed pictures along with real dishes and silverware. All this stuff starts to add up quickly, especially if you’ve never priced it. Maybe move up from a few pairs of jeans and show t-shirts to real clothing.

You may have children and before you know it you have a couple of cars to pay for along with a house mortgage and other expenses. You now have a lot of bills to pay per month. Don’t forget that costs (housing, food, clothing, etc) tend to rise faster than your wages actually do so it will cost you more. And there’s always added unexpected expenses. Your car breaks down and needs repairs, your house needs some work done, your child needs braces.  If you have children you’ll probably want them to attend college. It currently costs around $100,000 or so to send one child to college. How much will it cost 20 years from now? What if you have three children? But of course you’ll be so rich by then  money will be no object.

Jobs
Right now you may be easily going from project to project. You’re moving up through the ranks. You’re the hot shot guy or gal. But that winning streak will not last forever. That 9 month project you’ve signed on for just got yanked by the client. You turned down a job last week because you had this project lined up. Now that job you had turned down is gone as well. You find yourself without a project for 6 months. Do you take a lavish vacation during this downtime? How’s your high wages looking now that they’ve been cut in half?

You have a buddy at another company but that company has gone out of business so now there are even more people like you looking for work. The studios have cut back on making films. The tax incentives in your area are cut back. The tax incentives have increased elsewhere. The studios and companies have discovered yet a new location with lower labor costs. The works drying up at least for the time being.

A company tells you they can’t pay your going rate.They underbid a project and can’t afford to make the project they have agreed to do for the price they agreed on. Company management decision. Sorry. Take it or leave it. You have years of experience and can make it worth their while but they’re offering you 1/2 of what you’ve been paid. Oh and they require 80 hours weeks, no overtime. Can you wait it out and find other work nearby? Are you willing to leave your family and move around the world to work?

You interview at another company. They’re looking for someone who has experience in this new thing that was just announced yesterday and they require people who’ve already done 5 projects in it. Impossible but they persist. You’re experienced in a lot of things but they think this is so new how could you possibly grasp this new concept. They say they can get 2 young people for your cost and simply have the department head guide them. And these hip new people will obviously have lots of great ideas. The idea that they will be making a lot of mistakes and lack the experience never dawns on the company since many of them have been moved into management positions without experience or knowledge.

Your career, like your job, will likely be feast or famine. You will have lows and you will have highs. One thing you likely won’t have is consistency. I know people who worked at ILM over 20 years that are laid off for 6 months or more at a time with no definitive date to restart. All because the sales people and management there couldn’t get projects in. And that happens at every visual effects company.

And that money you’ve been saving? Now you have to start spending it to cover all of your expenses since they don’t stop.

Life happens
You make a lot of plans and have set a course for your future but something always comes up. Many things are out of your control. Many times due to random issues or small minded management. If you saw the movie UP (spoiler alert) you saw how their plans for a family changed. You saw how their plans for the ultimate trip were always thwarted by one thing after another. The time flies by.  Real life is like that. To quote John Lennon “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

What seems to be crystal clear black and white issues to the young turn into shades of gray with multiple view points for those experienced in living life.

Your time
You like to boast of the number of hours you worked the week before. Shows just how tough and how committed you are. You and your friends compare number of hours worked like bikers compare scars. That’s what makes you great. The number of hours you worked. And certainly the company will respect you and rehire you since you worked so many extra hours for them. Oops. Turns out the company doesn’t care. They now require everyone to work extra hours. Well those older workers complaining are just whiners. You’re much tougher than that. Besides in a few years you’ll be so rich by then money will be no object.

As time marches on you actually want to spend some time now at home. And you realize that your children only grow up once and most of that happens while you’re at work. That 4 or more extra hours you spend working per day more than your neighbor and those weekends may not be so wonderful then. Maybe you get overtime pay but that doesn’t begin to pay for the loss of seeing your spouse or children at a certain point. Your priorities change and you want to balance work and life.

Do you think your company will be willing to employ you for normal (non-vfx) hours? What leverage would you have to work less hours? After all, the rest of the crew is being forced to put in 60-80+ hr weeks so you feel compelled to do the same. Well it was a good idea while it lasted. And your spouse can always take photos at your daughters birthday party you missed (again).

Health care
Most young people don’t understand the big deal about health care. The astronomical costs of the care and insurance have little bearing on them because at that point they’re in perfect health. Believe me, that can change in a moment. You slip off your skateboard or have some strange pain in the middle of the night. An overnight stay in the hospital can set you back over $20,000. An appendicitis could cost you $135,000. Do you have enough money saved to cover those types of emergencies? Even if you have insurance you have to cover at least 20% and have deductibles. The insurance companies know the odds and they always win. You could be diagnosed with a chronic illness (even in your 20's) and forever be labeled as an existing condition. Your health insurance costs will skyrocket at that point, if you can find coverage. What if you hurt your hand and can’t work for 6 months? Many insurance plans don’t cover disabilities or job loss.

And if you have a family any of these things could happen to someone you love. Most of the foreclosures in this country happen due to medical expenses. And most of those are by people who were covered by insurance or thought they were covered more than they were. The insurance companies have plenty of outs to minimize their payouts.

But hey, it’s you. You’ll never have these problems.

What about your parents and siblings? Are they going to remain in perfect health and do they have enough saved to cover themselves? What about retirement homes at some point for your parents or someone you love? Currently they run $3,000 to $6,000 a month in LA. They can be over $10,000 a month for skilled nursing. How much will it be when that happens? But of course you’ll be so rich by then money will be no object.

Pensions
Many jobs have pension funds. Visual effects do not. How much money will you have saved for retirement? Will your social security cover you in your retirement? The average person doesn’t save much for retirement since other things were always a priority and used up the money. Can you live the manner you are now for the next 30 years without working or being paid?

Joe Harkin had an issue with joining the union originally since he didn’t think he should contribute into a pension pool that others would be using. That process is similar to any type of insurance. You pay money in every month for health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, etc. Rates are based on the number of people paying in. The insurance companies have done the math and it’s simply a matter of the odds that something will happen to any of these people. If you’re fortunate never having to need it you may think why should I bother. The day you’re hospitalized is the day you will be thankful that so many have contributed as well that it will help cover those who drew the short straw through no fault of their own. If you pay into the pension the idea is you will be able to access the funds set aside for you if the fund has been properly managed and the corporations don’t force it to be closed so they can make even more profits.

But you’re tough and smart. You’re going to go it alone. Skip that insurance and pension stuff. That’s for suckers. It's a dog eat dog world and you're not about to contribute to something that may benefit someone else and you certainly wouldn't want people to contribute to help you. People should not be banding together to help each other. You should grow all your own food, build your own roads and learn medicine so you don't need any health care.

You’ll be loaded with so much money from all your savings that it will cover anything that could possibly happen.

Decisions and savings
It’s certainly easy enough to make bad decisions in life. Some seem like good decisions at the time. Things change. Many things out of your control. That house you bought and still owe money on is now worth less than half because of the housing bust but you still have to pay the entire amount to the bank.

For those who made solid investments in stocks, bonds and other instruments that have long been reliable investments - the tech bubble happened in 2000 and wiped out a number of retirement funds and other savings. In 2008 the Wall Street bankers directly caused the destruction of the world economy. That wasn’t your fault but you’re the one that will be paying for it the rest of your life. So 75% of this careful scrimping and saving is gone in an instant. Was that part of your plan? What will happen when the next one happens and how much will you lose? But of course you’ll be so rich by then money will be no object.  For more info on the current economy and why this happened click here.

Unions
Unions are made up of communists and caused the downfall of the American auto industry, which has to be true because you read that somewhere on the internet. Hey, you’re an artist, not a mechanic. You can look after yourself and don’t need a union. Unions are for slackers, whiners and old-timers who can’t make the grade.  If they don’t like it they can quit. Switching to a different career is easy. After all there must be a large call for Maya animators or Nuke compositors in other industries. Those people working next to you who have been doing this for years? Their problems aren’t your problems. (not yet) You’ll be immune to all of those problems. All those others union members working in the film industry (directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, etc) are all suckers. You’ll show them by working unpaid overtime, going without continuous health insurance, no pension plan, and no profit participation. Yeah, you’ll show them how it should be done. You’re obviously a lot smarter than all of those people combined.

If you don’t like what a company offers or what they’re doing you’ll tell them and they will simply bow to your suggestion. If that doesn’t work, and why wouldn’t it, then you can always quit. There’s plenty of work always out there. What’s the big deal? And of course you’ll be so rich by then money will be no object.

Starting in visual effects
Anyone considering going into visual effects should understand what it involves and what the trade-offs you’re making. You will have to go from project to project, company to company. This is a world of freelance. There are no guarantees. There will be times where you will be unemployed. You will have to work hard. You will be asked to work ridiculous hours at times. You may or may not have health insurance where you work. You may or may not be paid overtime. You’re the only one looking out for yourself. The company will not be looking out for you.

Many young people graduate from some schools with the entire notion that they now deserve a job, no matter how good they actually are. They expect their professors to set up their interviews and help them get their job. They feel a sense of entitlement. They did the school and now it should simply rain money and fun projects. Some students focus on the notion that they will graduate and fill a visual effects supervisor role without the mess of having to do that hands on stuff. They’re busy looking up wages of visual effects supervisors on the internet without considering what the job actually entails. They think whatever they’ve learned and where ever they learned it will be more than sufficient to jump in the deep end on a show in full speed mode. They consider many job categories as being beneath them. These people will be very disappointed. School cannot teach you experience. You will learn an enormous amount on each project you work on and that experience is what helps you become a better visual effects artist.

If you’re doing this for the money you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t love doing visual effects and being interested in absorbing the experience and knowledge of working on different projects you should consider going into some other industry.

But hey, it’s you. The world will recognize your genius and none of any of this will affect you.

Summary
Life happens. Sh*t happens. It happens to one and all. The world is not a video game. You control what you can and you do the best you can with life as it comes. Don’t judge others based on your ignorance. You don’t know their story or what they’ve had to deal with. Show some compassion.

Really think about your future. Pensions, 401k, health care, family time, etc are not things that should be considered 10 years from now. Do you plan to work at just one company for your entire life? Will they be able to keep you busy and not have to lay you off for 6 months or more at a time? Will they even be in business for the next 40 years? Will all companies you are going to work for going to be well organized and only make smart decisions? Are all companies you work for going to  consider your needs? How are you going to have health care coverage as you go from company to company? How are you going to have a pension plan as you move from company to company? How are you going to make sure you’re paid overtime when you are working?

At some point you’re going to have to seriously look at a union and what it offers. Oh that’s right, you’ll be so rich by then money will be no object.


[Update: Just to be clear some of the this was meant as obvious tongue and cheek. Humorous exaggeration to make a point. It seems it may not have been obvious to a few people and they're taking some of this as a personal attack on them personally or think that others may take offense(?!) A sense of humor is very useful in visual effects.]

Related
Forbes article 20 things for 20 year olds