Thursday, August 19, 2010

VFX artists don't need to be taken advantage of

I wrote this post nearly 3 years ago yet here's another Montreal studio that has not paid their visual effects workers.

Here's another Variety article just today:  Trouble at Newbreed VFX Cementing Montreal’s Bad Rep

 I think that's at least 4 studios in Montreal that have pulled the same stunt and at least 2 of these companies were management by the same guy.  What is it about Montreal that makes people want to work for free? That people are unwilling to unite? That people would rather work for free for someone making profits than to demand pay and to walk out? I know those of us in visual effects are an optimistic bunch but come on. Either unite or you will repeat history.

Original post

Variety had an article about another VFX company in Montreal not paying their vfx artists:

“The latest bad news from the vfx biz comes from Montreal's Fake Studio, part of the Camera e-Motion Group. A handful of artists who worked for Fake on the 3D vfx for Dimension's "Piranha 3D" have yet to receive payments due in April.”

I know vfx people love what they do but they don’t have to scr*wed in the process. Besides having to deal with art and technology, vfx artists have to know some common business sense.

So let’s review a few things:
1. Get it in writing.  Get it in writing. Get it in writing.           
When you are hired you should have a signed  basic agreement regarding your pay rate and hours. You don’t want to find out that what you thought you were hired for and what the company thought you were hired for are two different things.  Nor do you want to find out they expect an extra 48 hours of overtime for free.

If someone makes a promise to you, get it in writing.  If they don’t want to put it in writing then it’s likely not as valuable as a sheet of paper.

A document won’t prevent a problem but the potential is there for legal follow through (usually you’d pay more for a lawyer so that’s not a great option).  The main advantage is there’s no discussion needed with management if something comes up.  It’s there in black and white.
[Related: VFX Deal Memo post]

2. If you don’t get paid for the previous week you worked, then stop working there.  Here’s the thing, if a business doesn’t have enough money for their employees, especially when they have a project, then they are poor business people and the chances to ever get paid are slim to none.  Someone mentioned getting paid a week in advance. If you don’t trust the company enough to pay you correctly from the start, then why would you want to work there?

When we had Dream Quest, the vfx company I co-founded years ago, there were times when things were tight.  When that was the case, we as the owners would skip our pay in order to pay the workers.  If a company has started a project they should have a startup payment and payments to be made during production. I’ll cover starting a vfx company in a future post but suffice it to say any company has to have at least 6 months of funding with no money coming in.

As pointed out in the article most vfx companies are started by artists who don’t know business. At Dream Quest we didn’t release the final product until we were paid.  Once we had to forced a client to provide a cashiers check because they had made the bad decision to not be paid until the end of their job, which of course was after we finished our portion.

3. If the employees didn’t get paid the previous week then they should consider going to management as a group to politely request payment or the option of all of the group leaving.  That’s when you have leverage to make things happen.  If you go one by one the company can dismiss you.  If you wait until the project is over and wonder why you’re not being paid for the past 3 months, it’s too late.  You have no leverage at that point. This is part of the reason there are unions.  This type of stuff was pulled by companies a fair bit at one time.  Once the workers decided they were tired of working for free they grouped together.  

4. A vfx company can be very pressured by their clients for non-realistic bids.  There's also pressure for not turning in change orders even when it's a clear client change. As a worker there, that's not your fault.

5. Somebody is making money and it’s not you.  Some how the company has money for leasing a building, paying for power, paying management, etc.  Someone is hiring them (i.e paying them) to do the vfx work.

6. Don’t assume the company will do right for you because you put in those extra hours for free and came through and saved their necks on project.  Management changes, business reasons or poor decisions are all likely to cause the poor treatment or payment of workers.  

7. You will need to be paid.  Just because you might not need the money today, you will if you hope to continue to do vfx as more than a hobby. The good companies are looking for professionals, not hobbyists.

8 It’s not the VFX artist responsibility to work for free so others can make money.  Nor is it to work for free to make up for a management mistake.

9. Respect yourself.  Respect your job.  VFX is a demanding art-form requiring gifted and knowledgeable people.

10. Your target should be to get a job at a great company doing great work and getting paid for it.  Even if you're starting out (after learning vfx from where ever or whatever (big school, online school, no school, doesn’t matter)). If it’s a shady company, the work they’re producing is poor, you’re not getting paid for it or you’re not having fun, then it’s time to move on.

Only work for free if:
1. It’s a true cause you wish to donate your time to. (i.e Save the Whales PSA)
2. It’s your own passion project (short film, music video, etc)
3. It’s your best friend’s project and you owe him one. (Even then, keep it short)

If you’re in school, sure, work on other people projects. That’s a way to learn and network.

Craig’s list is full of opportunities for vfx people who want to work for free. They offer credit and something for your reel.  Here’s the thing: No employer will care about a long list of never seen projects directed by someone they’ve never heard of.  So the credit being offered has as much value as the money they’re offering.

The item for the reel is only of value if it’s very good.  The experience is only good if you’re going to actually learn something of value (and I don’t mean learning not to be taken advantage of).

Be aware the client with the least money will be the most demanding.

 Internships are also something to be wary of - link to article

At the end of the day you have to be the one looking after yourself.  Don’t let companies take advantage of you just because you love what you do.

Bonus: Should I work for free chart


  1. I think this post is very useful and points out the harsh, but true, realities of the industry. But I do want to pick your brain even further if you don't mind...

    I know you mentioned writing a future post about starting a VFX company, but I can't wait because I am in the planning process to do just that. After running a design firm that failed after 2 years due to financial hardships and never really getting that "big break", I could really use some experienced advice. This is especially true because of my location (Indianapolis) where the amount of successful/larger VFX companies is slim-to-none and their pipelines are nothing like the real industry, so my work experiences with them offered no insight into how to run a successful firm.

    Some questions I have are:
    How does a VFX startup gather 6 months of funding to support itself, considering projects are smaller and it is hard to get a loan at all, let alone before 2 years of being in business?

    The administrative inner-workings of the industry seems to be such a tightly-kept secret... How much should a company be charging a client for a project? I know this is too general to answer, but some insight into different tiers of projects and pricing would really help to budget appropriately (to prevent sucking up the the client so much initially by promising the world for nothing in return). Things like a logo animation, 30 second promotional animation for use on the web, a music video, titles for a short film (or feature film), a 15-second broadcast commercial. Let's just assume it is all digital (no live video) doing a mix of 3D and 2D the whole time for each of those types of projects.

    How do you promote yourself to clients without the big name projects while just starting out (no matter how talented, without the right portfolio it is hard to pitch...)? Also, how do you attract great talent to work for you (same situation)?

    I'd really appreciate your insight on these. Thanks for the great write-up!

  2. Very nice Scott! This is a well thought-out list of points every VFX artist can take to heart.

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  4. Keep in mind that even with a written and signed contract, reviewed by lawyers you may be cheated out of money owed. To reiterate Scott's comment, if you're not paid for a week of work -- walk! I have friends who lost their homes in the dotcom boom and sadly, I have friends who retired at 40 from the same failed company.

  5. That's the Case of ArsenalFx in Santa Monica, CA I interviewed witht the people there and they were a Joke, especially the Exec Producer Ashley. At the time of the interview she was pushing do hard the fact that there were going to be overtime hours involved, she mentioned everything you pointed on this article, gain experience on the field, working with Talented Artists, I had never heard or ArsenalFX or the owner of that shop before in my life. I know I'm just starting but people like that make me sick they promised me a bunch of crap as you said mean nothing without a piece of paper. the Owner said things like I will be able to keep my clients and when I left they will leave with me and I thought "am I wearing an I'm a sucker shirt". but anyways that's my two cents... and prologue was crap too

  6. Scott, I would like to add this - "never work for future promises", or "we have awesome projects coming later, do us a favor!"


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