Tuesday, September 27, 2011

VES Visual Effects Bill of Rights – Now what?

VES Visual Effects Bill of Rights – Now what?

By now most of you have heard and hopefully read the VES Bill of Rights. If not check it out here.

This first step was to try to define where we want to go in terms of working experience for visual effects workers worldwide.  The next step is to try to implement what we can and to encourage steps to make it possible. The details are still being worked out. I’m hoping we end up with more concrete approaches and specific working conditions guidelines.

As always if you have input, feedback on the Bill of Rights or have suggestions and solutions, please send email to VES Leadership.  You can post here in addition to emailing if you wish to open it to discussion by all.

The VES Membership meeting is October 20 in Los Angeles and most of the world wide sections can be linked in. The Bill of Rights will be covered. See the VES website for info.

Most people seemed to be positive about the VES making these issues more public and to at least start the ball rolling. As some have pointed out the VES doesn’t have Collective Bargaining, nor is it a union or a trade organization. Yes, that’s true, which can make it tricky but we are the largest organization of visual effects workers. The VES has been in discussions with all 3 groups of players in this industry: studios, visual effect companies and the artists themselves. Hopefully we can help broker some arrangements that will help our industry based on the bill of rights.

A few have suggested it’s a distraction. From what? The VES stand does not preclude a real union or a real trade organization. If anything, the bill of rights should make some issues clearer for everyone. As always I’m hoping by providing information and inspiration here people will join in to help find solutions.

There have been a few that suggest the VES is an elite group made of elite members. The VES is an honorary society. You need to be working in visual effects for 5 years to be a member of the VES and need 2 members to submit letters for you. I don’t think of that as elite. It does mean that VES members are experienced professionals. The main reason the VES has gotten involved in these types of issues is because there are problems in the industry and members were asking the organization to get involved and help find solutions. No other group seemed to be making progress in this area. And the approach for the VES is to try to make solutions apply to all visual effects workers.

IA Union of visual effects artists – The IA would certainly be the natural fit for visual effects workers since they cover most of the crafts in motion pictures, including the camera crew. The IA spent a year ‘researching’ visual effects industry and has now spent almost another year with someone spearheading the effort to unionize the industry. Unfortunately that has yet to result in anything. You would think they would like to get the word out to as many visual effects workers as possible and that they would try to sell the idea of the union with a clear and concise guide of the benefits and costs. They should have also been selling the idea to the visual effects companies as well. But to date most of that hasn’t happened and it hasn’t seemed like the IA has put much into this process. Many visual effects workers have either not heard of the effort or now assume it’s not happening.  For more info on the IA check out their blog here.

Meanwhile the Art Directors Guild (union) has taken a definitive stand to bring in previs artists as part of their union. See their website here.  And the Vancouver IA has a good website and info here. There’s also a movement for the motionographers union.

Will the IA get going or should there be an independent group that forms a new type of union?

David Rand wrote a response to the VES Bill of Rights here.
Dave is correct that the current bidding process is broken. For more info on some of the business models in visual effects check out a previous post here.
To fix this process will require many visual effects companies to get on the same page because ultimately only they can control the situation. Most visual effects companies are very competitive and fiercely independent. The VES has been encouraging the companies to meet and discuss.  Many of the companies are in as much denial about issues as the workers and studios. Those doing well (especially if they’re in a location with tax incentives) see no reason to change. Why should they bother fixing the leaking roof when it’s sunny out? And of course once it’s starts raining it will be too late. The days of milk and honey will not last forever for any location. Scott Ross points out that if 4-5 of the major visual effects companies got together they could lay out some basic guidelines or requirements with their clients.

Currently there’s also been discussion among Indian visual effects workers about their situation that doesn’t sound too far off from the ones in the U.S. As I’ve said before many of these are global issues and do in fact affect you no matter where you are. And they of course make some of the same errors and false ideas as other here do.

1. Unions are only for laborers. We’re artists.
Guess what? The director’s are covered by the DGA (union). The Writers are covered by the WGA (union). The actors are covered by SAG (union). The Cinematographers are covered under the ICG (union). And so on for just about every position in motion pictures except visual effects. Are none of those other people artists? Do you gain anything by being a starving artist? Do you gain anything by not having health care insurance? Do you gain anything by not having a united group of similar artists? Can you change things by yourself and will the company change at your lone request?

2. Unions? Look at what happened to American automobile industry.
Stereotyping everything certain is not a solution nor is ignoring details of history.
Please see this previous post Using the Nail

3. Producing good work is the solution
Producing good work will certainly help you get work but it alone will not guarantee employment nor will it guarantee you fair treatment.

4. Working for free
Many starting out in this business thinks that they’ll work for free to prove themselves and then the companies will hire them.  You’ve already devalued yourself when you choose to work for free. Do you think the company that hires free labor will suddenly start paying people what they’re worth and stop the practice of hiring more free labor? Each wave of new workers comes in and is willing to work for free which means those with experience now will either have to continue to work for free or will have to move on. Some visual effects companies are run by people without the passion for visual effects.  Some can’t grasp the simple business solution that by hiring experienced and qualified people, treating them properly and paying them properly, they will have a true business that grows and can increase productivity and profits. Providing a quality product is of value. By simply hiring free labor they have forever tied themselves to the mediocre and will just continue being in a race to be the cheapest provider. And that’s a game that cannot be won. There will always be somewhere else cheaper, either by cost of living or incentives.

5. Working as independent contractors
One of the notions expressed is to be a remote freelancer for a visual effects company in another country.  Why would a visual effects company in another country hire someone directly in another country? What experience would they have had with that person directly? Most of the major films are covered by restrictions and guidelines so images and other movie data aren’t leaked out. Can you set up to qualify? Can you do an entre shot yourself (animation, lighting, composting, roto) or will they be sending just one step of a shot to an independent worker in another country every day or every few hours? If that were to work there will be websites where artist bid on how much to do a shot. The lowest bid would likely get selected. Every independent contractor is now in a race to the bottom themselves.

As always if you have input, feedback on the Bill of Rights or have suggestions and solutions, please send email to VES Leadership.  You can post here in addition to emailing if you wish to open it to discussion by all. Personally I’d prefer suggestions and solutions over complaints and reasons why none of this will work.


  1. I think if the vfx industry is going to unionize it should be a new union and NOT part of IATSE. IATSE seems out of touch and unable to even get the word out to the right people. It will do nothing to solve the main issue of outsoucing to cheap labor in countries that don't have worker rights, nor will it address the tax incentive problems.

    For a union to work, what will have to happen is for SONY, ILM, DD, R&H, DNeg, WETA, etc. to get together and come to an agreement about how the vfx industry will bid projects. As an industry we need to bring the studios to their knees and give them no options. No more playing one place against another with ridiculously low bids. If work is going to cost around $20mil, no more underbidding to $10mil to get a job in at a lost. Bids should be close to each other not miles a part.

    If the studios try to go to another place, then the vfx house need to shut to door in their faces and say "sorry, we can knock like $100k off our bid, but not $5mil."

    Of course, none of the above will happen because, as Scott has pointed out, the vfx houses benefiting by the tax incentives or no labor rights see no reason why they should change anything.

    A union will not work as long as we don't have any power with a strike. As of right, every vfx house in the US could go on strike and it would not affect a studio in anyway. We need to have a union that can command global strikes as well as publicly listing studio and people who screw over artists and vfx house with late or no payments.

    Until we have the above, a union is just going to be filled with people who can't even find a job.

  2. There's still enough work done in the US (look at what the larger vfx companies have been doing and look at the tv work being done) that if all VFX were stopped here it would certainly impact some productions/studios.

  3. The other question of course is who's going to start this 'new' union? Who's going to step forward with the time and commitment to make it happen? Will workers join in and gather signatures and raise enough money for the various legal documents and other things necessary?

    Joe Harkin had previously discussed the VFXFoundation concept. As noted in the post there's the effort for a motion graphic artists union (I don't know any more than the webpage)

    Setting up a new union is an uphill battle. It will be difficult and take time. Getting visual effects workers to get involved is tough. Many see the problems but few are willing to put in the effort to help. They expect someone else to solve the problem.

    None of this works if people aren't ready and willing to put in time and effort.

    And many in visual effects have tunnel vision and focus solely on what in front of them now as what they see as important. And at times when you're putting in 90+ hr weeks that's the way it is. But that's also why I sometimes tweet political things. I'm not a political person but there are insights and realities beyond our workstations that people need to pay attention to and how it relates to their future.

  4. I think that the next step for getting the VES BofR incorporated in the industry is for the VES to write up some template contracts that incorporate these elements in them. That way we, the artists and facilities, can use them as a standard to build from for future projects.

  5. First, why do people insist that the big vfx houses are doing well? Not all of them are! As anyone who works at most of the large places will tell you they are NOT secure in their jobs and are worried about lay offs. The vfx houses are sending huge chunks of their work out of the US.

    Second, the vfx houses themselves need to come together and start a new union. The CEO and Presidents of the the big vfx houses need to sit down and draw something up and then require all staff people and freelancers to join. They then need to all agree to a bidding process.

    That is the only way I can see a union forming. The artist have no pull and no power to form a union.

    Sorry to sound so pessimistic about it, but I seriously can't see IATSE actually getting anything done and knowing how they run things I don't know if it's even a good union to join.

    I am NOT against the idea of a union, but it need to be something that will help vfx artists, not something that cause death of the US vfx industry.

  6. I'm not saying all US houses are doing great. There are many VFX films and a limited number of places that can do the quantity and quality of work required in the time required. If a number of the large vfx companies (where ever) were unavailable then that would impact the studios. The London companies were backed up for 2 years and that caused studios to go elsewhere or put projects on the back burner. Not all studios will want to wait years to get key projects in the vfx pipeline.

    The vfx companies don't seem to be in a rush to join together as a trade organization or other group. I can't see them getting together to set up a union for workers. Most of them enjoy the freedom of doing what they want to do without anyone (union included) suggesting they might do otherwise. Typically a union is to help balance out the power of the company with the needs of the workers.

  7. I agree that traditional unions helped balance power, but that won't work in the vfx industry. We have a different dynamic, the artist, the vfx house, and the studio.

    The problem I have with IATSE is that they are trying to only solve the vfx house and artist issues. Most of those issue are not caused by the vfx house not wanting to pay, but by the studios not paying what they should. Most vfx houses would love to pay all overtime and give full benefits, but they can't afford to based on what the studios are willing pay. And if the vfx houses try to get more money the show is pulled and brought to a place with tax incentives or super cheap labor.

    That, in a nut shell, is the basic problem in the vfx industry. IATSE, in my opinion, has not presented a plan on how to solve the studio issue. They are basing their strategy on the old studio model where there's no real middleman, in the case, the vfx house. The vfx houses are vendors, not employees of the studio.

  8. I don't understand what the point of the VES Bill of Rights is. It is unenforceable. Why would any company voluntarily give in to this stuff? They have no reason to do so.

    If I was a movie studio head and someone brought this up to me, I would probably laugh in their face.

    Does anyone really believe this "bill of rights" is going to have an effect on anything?

  9. As stated this is the first step. Not the finished step.
    I can't speak of the next steps but indications have been encouraging. There are reasons for companies and studios getting involved and some of them understand that even now.

  10. Scott, can you tell us what the studios response has been?

  11. Not at this time. Others have been meeting with the studios so I don't have full information yet. Some things have been encouraging. It's also up to the VES board and leadership to determine when and how to present their information. It may be better once some of the specific issues are more finalized and we have firm, consistent responses.

  12. There are limitation to how much Vfx houses can coordinate on price bidding, it could be illegal, it's called price fixing.

    Part of the reason why VFX houses are getting screwed today, in general, is because there were no unions and they were able to pass the buck down to their employees. Vfx have allowed themselves into this position where they are the least respected part of the chain which is willing and able to bend over as much as the studios want. There is always a painful first step of standing up to the studios, which would've been easier ten or fifteen years ago, but the Vfx shops always had a less painful road to take i.e. screw their employees. Had there been unions to force some spine growth within the Vfx industry and prevent the crooks from operating, the shops would've enjoyed a much more favorable position now and these huge differences between bids would not have been possible.

    The only question is can the union now achieve it's intended purpose for the vfx artists in the western hemisphere when there is a growing pool of talent in the developing world. Or should we start looking for a more global entity, because I can tell you, vfx workers in eastern Europe or India are not much happier then here.

  13. Just to be clear we're not talking about price fixing. Even if there were a trade organization there wouldn't be price fixing.

    The idea would be to lay down some basic agreements such as the Commercial producers do. This could require all vfx companies not to bid below their actual estimated costs. Many companies do this but they tend to fool themselves and result in stretching out the real result, which is your luck will run out. This approach forces a race to the bottom.

    The AICP also spells out fixed bid or bid plus costs budgeting so all the companies (and their clients) are dealing with the same basic budget form so there's no confusion.

    Also if companies agreed to all treat their employees in a similar manor and if those companies were hilited, good artists would want to work there. Artists would want to avoid companies that don't follow the bill of rights.

    Standing up to the studio could be done if a number of vfx companies agree to do it together. if the companies were on the same page and talked honestly with clients then it's possible to work out a balance.

    And yes, it's unfortunately that all this didn't happen earlier but those days have now past. That doesn't mean it can't happen now but will take more work. And the surprising thing is how many companies are sticking their head in the sand.

  14. Well said Scott. I remember bring up unions about 15 years ago and no one seemed interested. I did point out to people that in about 10 years when they are ready to settle down and start a family they will probably feel differently. Most people laughed at me. Now, those same people are some of he most pro-union people I know.

    However, as I mentioned in previous posts. There's really not much artists can do at this point. The vfx houses are the ones that need to get together and do this. The studios are literary asking for work NOT to be done in the US and point to specific countries to try and get the tax incentives. If a US house says no, the studios pull the film from them. It's that simple.

    Also, 10 to 15 years ago, most houses were not "screwing" their employees. The OT paid, the parties, the extra benefits were great. As the studios squeezed them, the vfx houses had to cut back. Most effect houses do not make hug profits nor are they sitting on a big pile of money. I'm not sure why people don't seem to grasp this.

    The studios have the money, the vfx houses do not. Tell the vfx houses to pay more when they have no money is not going to help the situation. We need the studios to pay up first.

  15. Well what artists can do is let the visual effects companies and studios know that we all think these are real problems. The artists can be united in that aspect and want to see something happen in regard to this. We can respect ourselves. Right now the studios and vfx companies want to ignore the issues and if no artists speak up then they will continue to think there are no issues. The VES is trying to bring these issues to the front so everyone involved can see the issues.

    Look at Occupy Wall Street. The media, politicians, bankers and companies were all trying to ignore the obvious. It's taken people uniting and becoming visible to help wake things up.

    This also isn't just about U.S. versus other countries. There are a number of issues that do affect all companies and the countries living it up today may be the ones on the bottom tomorrow so they better pay attention now. Or in 10 years artist will be saying "Hey, we should have done something 10 years ago when we could have".

    Artists are so focused on the work that they're doing they tend to have blinders on for what's happening around them. Family, health, and the world are all things get ignored. Artists should be able to live balanced lives. And not only do they tend to have blinders on for what's around them they tend to ignore what the future will be. They assume everything will continue as it has and their job and the industry will remain the same. That was the thought here in the US 10 years ago and why people didn't consider unions or other things. In 10 years will England and the other countries be saying the same thing? Will India be saying the same thing when the jobs move to some other country with even lower wages?

    Look at where the current pricing trend is heading. Look at things like the trend of short post schedules and massive overtime. What are the things that can be done to try to make this industry more balanced? What can be done to make it sustainable?

    Will the quality of visual effects be worse in 10 years and will all vfx artists be scraping by, working long hours and be forever moving to keep employed, no matter where they started?

    Now is the time for the collection of visual effects artists to harness their minds and try to provide or suggest potential solutions. We can't sit around waiting until the companies and studios come up with solutions. That day may never happen by itself. The time for complaining and feeling sorry for missed opportunities is over. The time to start making a difference is today.

  16. Well, in a way it is the US vs. other countries. Until the other countries stop with unfair, and possibly illegal, tax incentives, the US industry is screwed.

    That's the basic problem in a nut shell. The studios are not interested in anything more than taking the work to the cheapest place they can find. So, until that problem is addressed, unions can form in the US all they want and it won't help out people. If there aren't jobs, the union isn't much use.

    Personally, I just think we should form a guild, focus on things like group healthcare plans so people can get coverage without getting turned down for pre-exsisting conditions. Create a BBB for vfx houses so artist can lookup the track record of houses and see who has abused artist and who hasn't.

  17. Outsourcing is only one of the problems in the industry. And yes, currently that is U.S. centric but I suspect you'll find that same issue affecting other countries as time goes on.

    The other issues (overtime, short schedules, not paying workers, etc) are global issues.

    And no, unions by themselves can not solve the outsourcing problem. Note that studios aren't basing decisions purely on price. Otherwise every project would be done 100% in India, China or other areas today. They also need to know that there is a reliable structure and quality available. They're naming tradeoffs between quality, pricing, location, ease of working, etc. In some cases they may choose to do the work in the U.S. based on having people relatively close.

    Healthcare - The unfortunate thing is it's very difficult to setup a healthcare group in the U.S. today. I've been involved a little bit in this but the VES business committee has been exploring in more detail. At one time (80's, 90's) it was possible to setup a health care insurance program that could involve multiple companies in a similar industry or with some related ties. The companies would pool their employees (larger number, wider range, better rates than any one company could do) and each would contribute based on number of employees they had. Sounds perfect for vfx industry. The problem was some of the plan administration groups were corrupt and not regulated. While it's still possible to do so in some states (and doing well), here in California it's now illegal. There's a required threshold to even get a group discount and that number these days is more than VES has members worldwide. Trying to get the majority of vfx workers to sign up would be tough to do. But as I say the VES is still investigating a number of options.

    Companies - As I mentioned here before there could be a directory of companies and information about them. This would provide basics and coule relate to how they adhere to the bill of rights.

    I know some people have suggested setting up a website ratings program for the company with workers rating the companies. (I suspect this may already exist, at least privately) The problem with that is the same problem you see in other ratings systems. The companies themselves could be adding 5 star ratings. A poor worker who was laid off could give them a 1 star ratings. The company competition could be giving them 1 star ratings. And of course people would be unlikely to leave their real names. Look at Yelp, Amazon and the Apple App store for ratings problems.


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