Friday, April 02, 2010


(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.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing all of your insight on the matter! It's great to hear someones take on it who has been in the industry for so long.

  2. Scott: Thank you so much for this post and for your reaction to the VFX Townhalls. It's a huge help to working artists who are experiencing all of this in their own careers – especially coming from someone like you. I will continue posting on this issue at Motionographer, thanks again for the advice and insight.

  3. Great description of a Union BUT. How can a Union offer these promises when increasingly we are competing in a shrinking "WORLD" economy? It only works if it is recognized world wide, otherwise no good. As it stands work in VFX is being done on major features from as far as England to Australia and New Zealand, China and India. Good luck there. The whole reason many of the "named" vfx shops setup in India was specifically to "AVOID" what was perceived as high wages and tax base.

  4. I'm not offering solutions here. just trying to get people think about different approaches. What these named companies don't understand is if all their work is now in India or elsewhere are they really a US company doing work or simply a PO box for the company in India when it comes down to it? Have they helped to accelerate the problem by setting up, training and making this seem normal? Has this increased the quality of their work? Will they end up competing with their other side of the company? If they can do it for a fraction of the price will they close their US doors?

  5. Colin CampbellApril 02, 2010

    Hi Scott-
    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. I'm not even sure how that would work internationally, or interstate, as many states are 'right to work' states.
    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. We only have to look as far as the auto industry to see how that ultimately pans out.
    What would be beneficial for all artists would be a form of 'Pirates Code'. Following the Code, we can keep each other informed as to which companies treat their employees with respect, honor their agreements, pay overtime, clean the bathrooms, etc. Just as companies don't like to work with a disgruntled employee, word of mouth will get around as to which companies are good to work for and which are not. Of course, artists must 'honor the Code'. :-)

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

  7. The main problem with VFX is that the industry is far more volatile than we like to admit. We are doing bespoke/custom vfx engineering on projects which go out for sale. There can be huge gains or losses on that product (movie) when it hits the market, but we all want to be part of that potential success, so we let outselves be exploited to be part of movie magic. It's been the era of VFXPLOITATION, and now we have woken up the painful hangover.

  8. a hard working VFX animatorApril 04, 2010

    A thousand thanks for talking about that, it's such a breath of fresh air in that claustrophobic Industry.

    There's a culture among vfx people and artist that think they are above these problems and they don't want to compromise their talents with some "leftist propaganda", who could believe that young and creative lads in their 20's and 30's would have such a conservative stance toward social progress.

    I could hear people talking about strikers in other Industries as "wankers" or lazy people... just because they fought against job cuts... WTF? we're in 2K not in the 50's under McCarthy... !!!

    I worked in animation companies, games and vfx shops in Europe, the mood was the same, and when a bunch of people were laid off (I was in the batch more than once) no solidarity was shown, I would hear co-workers telling me than it's not worth fighting because they were afraid of HR picking some of them as an example(it happened in a big French game cie).

    People are afraid of standing for their rights seeing outsourcing in India or China as a threat. By working in big movies, their popularity and the growth of their IMDB page was worth giving away their overtime and week end payments, more than what I believed told me the same thing:
    "Isn't it awesome to work in big movies? why are you complaining? you're not screwing caps in a toothpaste factory..."

    Well, I did work between 11 and 12 hours a day, 6 days a week thanks to clients pressure to finish the animation shots on a shortened deadline... all that for 1800$ a month, and you know what ? I still loved doing it,
    and recently got laid off... Woohooo!

    Wishing deeply for an Union makes me a lazy wanker? well... to some extend just talking about that made me sound like a commie. I'm pretty young and try not to make a fuss about it at the workplace.

    Just cowardly enough to talk about it on the internet, not making a change at all, like a sheep staring at his imdb page, wishing to add some more lines, pumping his reel and tightening the leash... beeeeehhhh.

    Dragos > And yes, the latest M.Moore movie was great, biased?
    just like 99% of the mainstream capitalist medias, did this bothered you?
    well... not enough to bash on Mr Moore, should I recommend you Chomsky? too brilliant for you, I don't think you could even make an *informed* opinion about his work... maybe that's why he ain't that popular.
    The part of the documentary about the Co-operative was worth the buck, so eye opening about this economic alternative, why not applying to animation and vfx?
    So give MM a break if there's nothing you can add...

    let's name a few others :
    Naomi Klein, Kurt Vonnegut, Karl Marx, John Reed...

    Good luck and good night.

  9. Down boy, learn to actually write in a polite manner and maybe someone will listen to your blurb.
    And go to a communist country and experience the co-operative first hand. Something tells me you won't like it. It's easy to come on internet forums and spit silliness when your knowledge is based on movies.

  10. Let's all try to keep this civil. Lots of different ideas and experiences to share. Hopefully all are open minded. Thanks.

  11. Scott, Thanks so much for posting this. I don't think I know of a single VFX artist that doesn't have a lot of respect for you. People listen when you speak your mind and I can already see a large number of people on twitter saying "Scott Squires recommends/spoke about".

    I posted some of my thoughts and recommendations on my own blog:

    With the exception of one item, I agree entirely with your post.

    One thing in this blog post that really stuck out to me is your assumptions about matte painters.

    "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."

    Could you possibly cite some references or sources for this part?

    I have said before to other VFX artists that I believe that this is an assumption that is just not true.

    I know of only 3 feature matte painters who work remotely/from home. I can name them. Rick Rische, Ron Crabb, Kelvin McilWain.

    Speaking with matte painters who came off last year's big Thanksgiving & Christmas films, they've said that even the big names have to be physically located in the facility and that they've never met in person a single matte painter who works remotely/from home.

    I hope this changes though.

  12. Hi Matthew,

    It's been awhile so I'm not sure of the current status but both Eric Chauvin and Mark Sullivan were working from home. Eric was in Oregon or Washington and Mark was in Ohio. They started with companies but the advent of digital allowed them more flexibility. Since matte ptgs didn't need to be checked daily and didn't involve a lot of other people it was reasonable in some cases to have that done externally.

  13. I agree and embrace all the positive points mentioned about the union but it would be nice to think about some negative reactions that could arise too.

    Like it is already quite difficult for freshers to get a job in CG industry and union could make it even worse.

    So unions could also as mentoring and guiding organisations to avoid those issues.

    Just a thought...


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