(I’m not a lawyer or a representative for a union so take this with the grain of virtual salt. As always I’m trying to provide a point of reference and possible ideas to discuss.)
There’s been a lot of talk recently regarding having a visual effects union.
I’m in the International Photographers Guild as Director of Photography. There is no VFX Supervisor category. When I started on Close Encounters all the vfx jobs were union. All cameras in the facility were operated by someone in the camera union. This included the motion control cameras, optical printer, animation stand, matte painting camera, and included the line up people. (The line up crew prepped the film for the optical printer along with work forms for the work). Animators and roto people were in the animation union. (There wasn’t a lot of roto in those days since it was such a time consuming task to trace, paint and shoot) The modelers were covered by the props/models union. And even the matte paintings were covered by an art union.
When we started Dream Quest all co-owners, including myself, were union but we didn’t initially set it up to be union. For a small shop it was difficult to deal with the paperwork and requirements of the union. However most of the studios were unable to source out large work to non-union companies since they themselves were signatories to the unions. So we setup Dream Quest Images as a union shop and hired all union people.
When I went to ILM it was all union as well. Local 16 in that area handled everything. Stagehands working in the opera in San Francisco or model builders at ILM were all covered. With the introduction of computer graphics the positions and union requirements became a gray area. Those CG people who were new to the business didn’t see much point in joining a union. Why did they need to pay the union a few hundred dollars a year in dues? They were working and the sky was the limit. Besides the company was making very attractive offers to not be a union employee and other CG companies weren’t union either. And thus began the backslide.
In the early days of computer graphics there were a limited number of animated and others so they tended to be offer great packages. Those days are over.
What a Union Offers
A union represents a number of skilled artists or crafts people working in a particular field or industry. It has strength in numbers that single artists do not have. Look at the writers strike from a couple of years ago. The majority of writers voted for the strike and most new film and television work shut down. Many shows on TV went into re-runs. The writer’s union negotiated with the studios to try to get better wages.
During the vfx work for Journey to the Center of the Earth the main company stopped paying people at a certain point toward the end with the promise that the payroll checks would be coming soon. They never did. Many artists took great losses and the Canadian government stepped in as I recall and the artists received a percentage of their back wages (but far from what they were owed). Had that been a union shop the union shop steward or anyone of the employees could have called the union and informed them a payroll had not been met. The union would then contact the company and tell them they were in violation and would need to pay the employees within a day or the union would request all union workers to stop. That’s how you get a businesses attention. I’m sure there were artists who went to management and complained but unless you can say that the entire company will be shut down, a lone voice is usually ignored by company management. The union has leverage.
VFX companies can try many tactics to avoid paying people, reduce their taxes or to avoid local restrictions. A supervisor and vfx producer are usually deemed as management along with any leads or dept heads. This avoids these people qualifying as standard employees under the state law. This allows the companies to consider their pay to be a salary and to not pay overtime when working late or on weekends. The theory being that we controlled how much we worked. The reality is the vfx company determined the amount of overtime required, many time out of the hands of the vfx supervisor or producer. The studio may have major changes or another show in the vfx company caused a delay, which now requires overtime to make up on this show. A company may request you sign on as an independent contractor. This avoids them having to deal with many tax and employee issues required by the law.
A union allows a freelance employee (as are most film people) to work at different companies and know that he or she will receive the same working conditions and wages. Look at camera assistants. They may be on a commercial shoot for a day on Thursday and the following week be on a different spot or a feature film.
When you work at a company you may have a health care package and a 401k. The problem is if you’re freelancing (i.e. when they lay you off) and you move to another company now you have to start all over again with a different health care company and 401k package (assuming the company offers any of that). With the union that’s all taken care of. The companies pay into the union funds so the union members have health care and pension.
The union spells out the different job types and levels along with the wages for those. In the camera union there’s film loader, 2nd assistant, 1st assistant, etc. Remember these are the minimum wages that a union signatory can pay. A skilled union artist can receive more than union scale. In the vfx industry there is no minimum and no standard of wages. The person who just started next to you with no experience may be making twice as much as you just because they were a better negotiator and the company was in a pinch. Certainly those just out of school are more than happy to make any type of money in a field of interest to them. Some companies hire less experienced and less expensive people just to cut corners. They lay off people who may have been working for years simply because they could hire three new comers for the price of a skilled person. The quality of work will suffer but they make the department leads take up any slack and try to get the new employees up as quickly as possible. These new employees will be fine with working the coming weekend, possibly without pay. Hey it’s new, it’s fun and they’re single so no real issues. Just a few years later they’re making better money and starting a family. Whoops, you’ve been laid off because the company just hired some cheaper people. There tend to be minimal lays about these types of tactics. Once again the union tries to keep this more consistent.
The union calls out working conditions and wage increases. (I haven’t confirmed these numbers so use as a guide only) After 8 hours it’s 1 ½ times. After 12 hours it may be double time. At a certain point it becomes double golden time. This cost increase prevents companies from making a habit of working people long hours for little money.
Companies need to provide meals and ½ hour mealtime or need to provide sufficient time to get a meal elsewhere (1 hr). This is to happen every 6 hours.
Workings conditions, safety conditions and turn around time (time you get off to sleep and rest before you have to work again) are covered in the union agreement.
The union worker agrees not to work for a non-union company. After all, why would union company A pay you a certain amount if you’re fine going across the street and working for a non-union company for less money?
I know some people are concerned a union will cause studios to leave the area and go elsewhere. Hey, it’s already happening without being a union and if you’re working under poor conditions or getting substandard pay it does it really matter if they leave?
One thing unions can’t do, which I know is a concern, is to deal with runaway production. Many films and tv series that would have shot here in Los Angeles in the past are now going to Canada or other places. Some of the key spots such as the Director, DP, and VFX Supervisor may travel to where ever that work is but the average film worker is left behind here in LA with no work even though they’re union.
Unions tend to have limited jurisdiction so how does this work in the now global scheme of things?
A few ideas to help level the field and provide better working conditions-
Have a Code of Practices or some sort of seal of approval. This would spell out the working conditions, but not the wages. If there were 4 vfx companies in town and 3 were officially in the program, then artists would know which company to avoid. Even better is if the studios were convinced to support the program. If a company knew they couldn’t get a piece of a studio project unless they agreed to be part of the program, they would join and clean up their act. This would also help put the companies and more level ground as apposed to cutting corners on working conditions in an effort to underbid the competition.
Establish pay rates that use universal numbers. If you go to a different city to shoot, the US Tax group has different figures calculated for working per diem per day in major cities throughout the world. You might get $150 in London and $75 dollars in Atlanta. If you sell an iPhone app you don’t set the price, you set the price tier level. A price level 1 may mean 99 cents in the US, .69 pounds in England, etc. A universal price listing could then be used no matter where you worked and actual rate would be based on standard of living, exchange rates, etc. (I’m no economist but after the last couple years I don’t think anyone else is either)
A co-op or employee owned company. I’m not sure how useful this is (having done it) but thought it should be noted. Most vfx companies started as being employee owned. And the fluctuation of workload and temp workers doesn’t tend to make this as feasible as a normal company with a more even workload and employees.
Some vfx artists, such as matte painters, are already working independently. They’re in some other part of the country or world and simply logon to pass images back and forth and to get feedback. This will likely happen more and more in the future although the speed of transferring large data and working truly with others would be a loss. This needs to accounted for in any future plans and the hope would be there would be some types of minimums so you there’s not a rush to the bottom. See all the 99 cent iPhone apps as an example when a large number of people are fighting strictly on a price basis.
The vfx companies could work with the studios in such a way the studio leases part of the company and pays the people directly. Now they have a stake in successfully getting the work done and helping to balance the changes.
None of these provide a secure future but they may help the discussion.
I also urge everyone to see Capitalism: A Love Story by Michael Moore.
Very scary look at some union and company issues but includes a few things such as co-ops.