Monday, February 28, 2011

How do these things tie together?

Early last week I posted about what was going on in Wisconsin and how that tied into Unions, the Middle Class and Visual Effects.  A couple of posters took issue with my posting so let’s review a few things.

I started this blog and podcast to cover visual effects issues that weren’t covered elsewhere.  I wanted to provide the full spectrum of vfx knowledge based on my experience.  I had no interest in yet another blog about setting key frames in Maya.  To that end I’ve covered budgeting, careers, creative choices, technical concepts, business and other issues.

One of the larger issues that Visual Effects workers have to deal with is quality of life and benefits. I think these are important issues to those involved professionally in visual effects and those planning to get involved in vfx as a career.  Many things have been changing both locally and globally that need to be addressed.  So that’s why I’ve written a number of posts about these issues and will continue to do so if I think there is something new to report or discuss. You may be with a company or in a country such that you’re not directly impacted by any of this and just want to ignore it.  But at the end of the day this is all interconnected, like it or not.  The fact you may not seeing it first hand doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Visual Effects has always been a field that has had its ups and downs based on the amount of work available.  In the last several years many countries and states have been offering various incentives to productions.  That combined with emerging vfx globalization has caused a number of vfx companies in the U.S. and more specifically California, to close.  Many vfx artists have had to travel to other locations around the world to keep working. The visual effects work done around the world have helped US studios make record profits and yet vfx artists are often considered as secondary to many of the other groups in filmmaking.

VFX are the last link before a film is released and as such most vfx artist put in a lot of hours, especially toward the end of the production.  90+ hrs is fairly common at times. So what happens to those people who put in all that time? Most are laid off at the end of the project unless the company has another film or tv project lined up. And when they are laid off any benefits they had soon go away as well.  VFX is one of the few areas in motion pictures not covered by unions. Many vfx companies are in a race to be the cheapest supplier of vfx so they can compete with 20-40% tax incentives.  One of the ways this is done by forcing artists to be independents contractors with no benefits who then have to pay all taxes and benefits themselves. At the end of the day in many parts of the world, and certainly in the US, it’s the employees that are being squeezed between the studios and vfx companies.

Last year Lee Stranahan wrote an article in the Huffington Post addressed to James Cameron regarding fairness to vfx artists.

This started the ball rolling to finally have vfx artists speaking about some of the issues that they face.

Lucasfilm and Pixar, two of the most successful vfx and animation companies, have been charged with collusion by the Department of Justice in order to avoid competing for animators and to avoid increasing wages for these artists.
Who’s looking after the artists?  Currently only the artists are looking after themselves and most don’t.

One of the problems has been those of us in vfx enjoy the creation process so much and are so focused on the actual work we often lose sight of reality with the rest of our lives. Having a balanced family life and being continually covered for such things as health care and retirement at time seems like a pipedream.  Some of those who worked on Star Wars are now closing in on retirement without a lot to show for it.  Many of the digital age are being burned out or being left behind by productions going elsewhere.

So what can be done to help the state of vfx artists?  How do we help ourselves and the business we love to work in? There is the Visual Effects Society (VES) which provides a worldwide professional organization that helps to raise awareness of VFX, provides education and standardization.  Many in the vfx community have looked to the VES to handle all of these other problems but the VES is not a union or a trade organization.  For it to become either of these would akin to the Academy of Motion Pictures and Television to become a union.  That’s not its role.

There are many in vfx that say the VES should do this or that.  The VES is a non-profit involving primarily volunteers.  (I’m on the board of Directors of the VES and as such volunteer my time as I did with the VES Handbook.) And here is the issue that is repeated here.  If you want something then please step forward and lend a hand.

We are now at a crossroads. This fall 2 unions (IATSE, IBEW) stepped forward and have offered to represent vfx artists.  This is a moment of time that won’t last forever.  In a year or two the window will be closed and that will be that, so it’s important that everyone involved with visual effects get educated about these issues and what it means to their future.  Some of the vfx companies have also been meeting regarding setting up a trade organization.  I think both of these would be beneficial to raise the level of vfx production and balance it for the artists and companies.

There are some people saying a VFX Union will be the nail in the coffin for vfx in the US.  We’ve already been non-union and that hasn’t stopped jobs from going elsewhere for the last 10-15 years.  (The unions can’t stop jobs from going elsewhere either.)  So what do these people propose?  Please, post a working solution.  I don’t think ignoring it is going to help. Just how far do you want your benefits and wages to fall before it’s enough?  If low compensation is the only thing keeping vfx in the US then we’d all better be ready to drop our compensation in half to compete with government incentives elsewhere.

This is a note from the Oscars:

ABC News' Chris Marderosian reports:

At the Academy Awards tonight, best cinematography winner Wally Pfister made a point during his acceptance speech of thanking his union crew on “Inception.”

Backstage he went further, expressing shock at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal, which would limit union’s collective bargaining powers. Opponents of the plan have been protesting at the state capitol for 21 days.

“I think that what is going on in Wisconsin is kind of madness right now,” Pfister says. “I have been a union member for 30 years and what the union has given to me is security for my family. They have given me health care in a country that doesn’t provide health care and I think unions are a very important part of the middle class in America all we are trying to do is get a decent wage and have medical care.”

Shouldn’t vfx artists be able to get the same benefits as everyone else in movie and television production?  Just about everyone on stage giving and receiving awards were in unions.  Directors, writers, cinematographers, actors, etc.  Or should we simply try to ignore the situation and continue to have people working as independent contractors with no benefits since that seems to be working so well.  This is not your father's union.  It is up to those in vfx to step up and help make it what they want.  The Animation Union has a posting with related information.

So what does this have to do with Wisconsin and the middle class?  One of the comments was that I was making a big deal about nothing.  There was a similar comment when I discussed health care where the commenter thought I had been exaggerating the issues and costs.  Yet the costs I quoted for health care are what I had to pay in real life. These are facts.  My daughter is in her mid 20’s.  Her insurance increased 19% last October.  She just received a notice that it will now be increased another 19%.  This goes into effect just 6 months since the last increase.  I wish I was exaggerating but this is happening in real life.  If you’re in a location or situation you don’t have to deal with these issues then consider yourself lucky but don’t dismiss them as exaggerations of others.

Middle class – newsflash: vfx artists are the middle class.  We work for a living.  We work long hours trying to make a reasonable living for ourselves and our families. We’re not kicking back and making multimillion dollars off of investments nor are we on the street (although some are coming close).  In case you hadn’t noticed the world economy tanked a couple of years ago.  This was caused by bankers and those on Wall Street.  The rich.  And who exactly has had to pay the price for that problem?  Us.  The workers.  The middle class.  Higher costs, home foreclosures, less jobs, less benefits.  Many laws were broken and incredibly bad decisions were made but the rich aren’t being fired nor is there even consideration to prosecute any of them.  Many received bonuses for driving the companies into the ground. Do you think you'd get a bonus for doing bad work in vfx? Bonuses were in the billions on Wall Street.  What was your last bonus? (Bernie Madoff was a fluke and the only one to get into trouble.) There is still no form of regulation.  This will happen again.  Even though the pay of CEO’s has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, most working wages have been much slower to rise and in fact most workers compensation hasn’t kept up with the cost of health care and other costs.

The unions have helped to provide some standards for working that has lead to the middle class.  The workweek, vacation, etc can be traced back to many of the issues the unions have fought for.  You’ve already benefited from the unions even if you didn’t know it.  Guess which way things will shift if the unions and any type of worker groups are denied? Do you really think companies are going to be jumping in and adding benefits even after the economy gets back on track?

One of the commenter’s thought I had made this into a us versus them type of argument.  I didn’t create the situation but when you actually take the time to read the facts and figures it’s hard to ignore the reality.  There are people focused on specific agendas and improving the world for everyone is not on their list.

What’s happened in Wisconsin and has been happening in other parts of the world is that at some point those working in the trenches finally say enough is enough.   Will that ever happen to you?   Will people be willing to take a stand for themselves and their future?  Should that be happening in visual effects? Are you willing to step forward if you don’t think something is right? Or will you stand on the sidelines?    Related: VFX Solder posting

Wisconsin – On the surface it sounds simple enough.  To help balance their budget the state is asking the people who work for the state to reduce their wages and their benefits, because after all, we all have to tighten our belts.  In visual effects there’s the term “smoke and mirrors” to create an illusion.  And in this case it’s “smoke and mirrors” to be used for its dirtiest deed: propaganda without any truth.

Here are some of the Wisconsin issues in a nutshell for those that don’t like to follow links. For those interested I have a number of links at the end covering all this and more in great detail. Amazing and appalling.

Historical info:
In 2008 Scott Walker was chief executive of the Milwaukee County Board. He was trying to slash union positions and yet at the same time he was trying to get increases for his aides of 11-26%.  He attempted to bypass the county supervisors and make it so.

In early 2010 he wanted to fire 26 union security guards that worked for the county to ‘save money’.  The county board rejected the idea.  He then ignored the board and fired 26 union security guards.  He claimed it was a budget emergency.  Now instead of hiring a local company to provide security (and jobs) Walker hired the non-US security company Wackenhut, the same company that had major problems with their employees in Kabal. (Drunk and naked among other things).  The person who was put in charge of this security team was an ex-convict.  In January of this year a state arbitrator deemed there was no such budget emergency and that Walker had over stepped his bounds of authority.  The county is required to rehire the guards that had been fired and pay them their back pay.  Cost to the county: over $400,000.  Walker would have been fired at most companies.

So what about the current budget woes and emergency?
From the February 18 New York Times editorial, "Just last month, he [Walker] and the Legislature gave away $117 million in tax breaks, mostly for businesses that expand and for private health savings accounts. That was a choice lawmakers made, and had it not been for those decisions and a few others, according to the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state would have had a surplus."

Odd, for someone who wants to balance his budget he’s put the state in even more red.  I wonder who he can get to make up for these trumped up budget woes?  Who should he blame as the reason for the budget problems?  Why the state union workers of course.  He’ll blame them for causing the financial troubles in Wisconsin and appeal to non-union workers that these union workers are getting way more benefits and aren’t willing to tighten their belts like everyone else.

Many state workers in Wisconsin are covered by unions. Nurses, teachers, firemen, policemen, etc.  They had worked out contracts with the state to be paid at a lower wage rate than most private workers but with higher benefits.  As the years have progressed wages and benefits for private sector workers slowed and in some cases started going backwards.  So now the state workers, who have been doing their jobs and have contracts, are being asked to make up for the Wall Streets melt down and the politician’s self created financial problems.  Note here that some of the unions are being targeted and others, who supported Walker’s election, are not. And so the unions said they were willing to cut back on both wages and their benefits to help out but the governor has refused. He wants to end any type of collective bargaining.  So the main thing he claims to want to do, balance the budget, is not really want he wants to do.  Eliminating collective bargaining itself doesn’t save the state anything.  The latest information is it will likely cost the state almost $47 million in loss of Federal transit aid.  Wow, he’s saving the taxpayers money right and left.
Workers: -1  Wall Street: Bonuses

Among the gems folded into the current Wisconsin budget proposal:
The ability of the state to sell any power plants without bids and without input.
Full control over Medicare by a small committee with no public input.

While the middle class is being shaken down and all public projects are being eliminated it’s mind boggling when you find out that much of this could be eliminated if the government simply closed the tax loopholes for the rich and companies.

One thing that’s currently happening in the UK is some people have realized all of the things that are being slashed to save money (Children’s hospitals, etc) would be fully paid for if companies and the rich were actually taxed.

Warren Buffett discovered he was paying a lower tax rate than his secretary and has spoken about how unbalanced the tax structure is.

“As he [Carl Gibson] says, if you have “one dollar” in your wallet, you’re paying more than the “combined income tax liability of GE, ExxonMobil, Citibank, and the Bank of America“”

So should workers have any rights?  Should the working middle class shoulder even more? Should VFX artists have rights?  I hope this has provided at least a little more insight to how these issues interconnect.

(I have some specific VFX postings in the works but in the meantime feel free to check out some of these links).

Original links
Wisconsin Power Play

Rachel Maddow

Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute

Why am I here?

Scott Walker Padded Salary Increases for Cronies During Budgetary Distress

Money Won’t Buy You Health Insurance

Top 5: Why Wisconsin Matters To You

Rachel Maddow 1
Rachel Maddow 2

Are These People Overpaid?

Walker’s Budget Plan

The Last Time Scott Walker Went Union Busting, He Was Overruled And Wasted Taxpayer Dollars

Gov. Walker Informed That Bill Targeting Unions May Cost State $46 Million In Federal Funds

Lessons for Wisconsin from Flint 1936-1937

Who 'Contributes' to Public Workers' Pensions?

Shock Doctrine, U.S.A. 

Scott Walker's Plan To Take Control Of Medicaid Decisions In Wisconsin

Public Unions In Wisconsin, Elsewhere Are Scapegoats

Bigger Picture
Our Economic Pain Is Coming from Big Industry CEOs, Not Public Employees' Unions

Plutocracy Now: What Wisconsin Is Really About

It's the Inequality, Stupid.  How Rich are the SuperRich? Graphics

Gov. Chris Christie: The Biggest Sham In American Politics

Koch funnels money to govenors fighting unions

What the Right-wing Assault on Women, Unions, the Environment, Health Care and PBS Is All About

Unions and the Rich

The Liquidation of Society versus the Global Labor Revival

Union-Busting Is Theft -- a Weapon of Class Warfare from Above

Budget cuts to cost 700,000 jobs

Wall Street
Why isn't Wall Street going to Jail (Excellent article)

How to Build a Progressive Tea Party - How people in the UK are fighting back (Excellent article)

You Have More Money In Your Wallet Than Bank Of America Pays In Federal Taxes

Warren Buffett:  Raise My Taxes  (Warren Buffett’s tax rate is 16-18%)

US Uncut

UK Uncut

10 step guide to launching US uncut  


  1. and there is this

  2. Has anyone responded to Steve Wright?

    Unions as the final nail in the L.A. VFX coffin

  3. Well said, Scott.

    I am in a similar situation when it comes to health care and portability of benefits. The vfx money that once covered my expensive toys and 'bachelor' existance, doesn't translate to raising a family. This is compounded when you attempt a healty reduction in hours to actually spend time with them!

    Thanks for taking your blog in this direction and getting the word out - it is being heard and talked about.

  4. The client is more important than the employees, so to satisfy the ridiculous whims of clients artists are "asked" to stay late for weeks on end. Time away from their family will be made up when they're out of work.

    Then -- when there is a chance to actually unionize -- the short-sighted and possibly ignorant employees of Sony voted the union down. Not too long after that, Sony performed a massive restructuring and left many of those who voted "No" wondering what happened to them.

    Unionization will not be enough if you want to save jobs in America. Organization AND a quick massive strike across the industry in the US will do it.

    While some stiked jobs will go overseas, the rest of the world cannot handle the volume of work in the US at the drop of a hat.

    The investments made by film production companies will suddenly be brought into focus when they realize their films will not be delivered, and the profits for the entire summer will be diverted.

    That is the only leverage VFX folks have. You've got to do it fast, get your demands met, stick together or it's all for naught and things will only get worse.

    The biggest problem is that you'll never get the younger folks to strike. They still don;t get it -- and they won't until its too late.


  5. Fully agree with all of that. How to make it happen in a uniquely global part of the film industry? I speak from the UK, which is now the #2 global centre for vfx (maybe #1?). The uk vfx biz is dominated by 4 huge companies. If you can get them onboard for a union that also comprises US companies, then you would really have something. Do international unions exist, that can tailor to the needs of workers in different countries (eg in the UK health care is not an issue, due to our rather wonderful National Health Service). How would this work? Central to the whole debate has to be competitiveness. If companies can enhance their competitiveness by having loyal, committed, unionised workers, then, yes, let's have a vfx union. But if it means that work goes elsewhere, and companies die, then that's clearly no good. A challenge!

  6. After reading "How do these things tie together?", I have to say that this blog is a great service to your colleagues and I want to say thanks, and may this seed of open eyed analyses and common sense thrive.

  7. Steve Wright
    The Animation Guild and VFXSolider both responded to this. Link above but here it is again
    Animation Guild responds to Steve Wright

    Striking is certainly a big stick and in 30's actually made things happen. Just to clarify though for a union strike to occur there would have to be a union to begin with and a union only strikes if the majority of the members votes for the strike, it's not dependent on the union management. Non-union workers could have a walkout for a strike.

    Global Union - I'll see about writing a full post regarding this. In a nutshell the official unions IATSE, IBEW can only cover workers in the U.S. There is a branch(?) of IATSE that covers Canada.


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