Thursday, April 05, 2012

Digital Domain plans to have paying students make up 30% of workforce

[Update: 9/15/2012 DD has now closed their Florida facility. Some of the classes have been put on hold and certainly students won't be working at the DD facility as planned. But the post is still useful read since it clarifies some of the attempts to take advantage of workers, students and the visual effects industry]

In case you haven’t already been made aware of this Digital Domain (DD) is starting up a school in Florida which is funded by the Florida State government. I won't do a detailed recap here since that's already more than well covered on other sites. And thanks to VXFSoldier from bringing this up.

For more info and to see an extraordinary video: (I urge you to read the comments as well since most commentors make valid points. Check out Dave Rand’s comments as well.)

DD "Free labor is much better than cheap labor"  - VFXSoldier
"Paying to work for free" business model  - VFXSoldier
Questions and Reactions  - VFXSoldier
LA Times on DD Institute  - VFXSoldier
Paying to work for free - Motionographer
CEO brags about exploiting animation students - CartoonBrew
Free labor! - TAG, Animation Guild
Working = money, right? - Canadian Animation Resources

DD will be making money off of the students ($105k tuition) in a for profit school (as other most for profits- turning out more visual effects graduates than there are openings). But the additional kicker is they setup a studio in Florida where 30% of the workforce will be made up of students.

For those who might think that would be good for the students and don’t see the harm:
1. it is against Federal law to have interns and others working for free doing work that is productive (i.e actually paying positions).

2. The reason this is a law because any business could simply staff up with non-paying positions (interns, students, experienced… doesn’t matter). There are enough people hungry for certain types of jobs that would be happy doing them for nothing. Businesses would be more than happy having free labor, even if it meant more poverty. That’s why there are also minimum wage laws. (unfortunately they’re still below the poverty line). In a perfect world businesses would be a balance of making great products or services, making money and treating people fairly. In the real world today the name is greed. In days past a mom and pop store tried to be responsible and to consider the consequences. Today most companies are owned by stock holders and investors who’s one and only focus is squeezing more of a return out of company. The CEOs and others in management fall in line so they can get their slice of the pie too. They take no responsibility for these types of actions and simply blame it on the shareholders.

3. These students are paying a lot of money to work there. So they’re not just working for free, they’re paying to work. Double bonus for Digital Domain to get paid by clients and workers.

4. Once it becomes possible for a visual effects company to staff up to 30% of their labor with students paying to do so, it’s possible for not only other visual effects companies to do so, but any other company to do so.

5. If 30% of the work force are students paying to work, why would companies hire people? Why should they hire you, an experienced visual effects worker, when they can get someone better than free?

6. This leads to the question of where all these graduates will be working. They’ve paid$105,000 to do this and likely taken out loans to do so. They expect to be hired since they’ve be taught specifically in visual effects. DD in Florida will already be staffed up. They have a steady stream of students paying every year so there will be little need for them to hire these graduates.

7. DD can now offer a 30% discount on any work done in Florida. Actually more than a 30% discount since they’re getting money from the students. How will other visual effects companies compete? Why starting their own students paying workforce of course!

In the end this means more imbalanced competion for both companies and workers.
This means lower of rates for all companies and all visual effects workers and actually creates less opportunities for new graduates. The only one to profit from this is DD and only in the short term. Florida will gain little and spent a great deal of tax money that could have been used productively.

To potential students:
There are much cheaper ways to become educated in visual effects if that’s what you want. There are online classes, books, DVD’s, etc. There’s no need to go 10’s of thousands of dollars in debt if all you want is visual effects education. If you want to get a college diploma that’s fine and serves it’s purpose but beware of those offering it.

Getting into visual effects is hard. The visual effects industry is going through some rough transitions currently. Be ready to move elsewhere. No school can guarantee employment.

All that stuff about getting credit on films, etc. - Forget it. These days politicians, CEOs and Hollywood produce far more BS than the world needs. Those of us who have been working for a while have seen far too many examples of unkept promises and sugar coating. Don’t be suckered for these.

The CEO is surprised that more visual effects workers aren’t jumping at the chance to pickup and move to Florida. They’re not jumping because most of us know the drill. The lure of working in another place with an unknown future. Sure, we’ll be more than happy to sell our homes, uproot our family, say goodbye to friends and move. And at the end of that project when they don’t have much work you’re laid off. And without many other visual effects companies in the area you’re forced to return to where you moved from. No thanks.
[Update: 9/10/2012 Unfortunately this came true. The DD studio in Florida has closed down and the workers there were laid off without warning and without severance pay. From what I gather most had moved there from other locations, many selling their homes. These unfortunate workers are now in a location without other similar jobs so they will likely have to move back to where they were or to another location. Moving is not cheap, especially if you have a house of furniture and possessions. And trying to find a new job in this industry is not easy. ]

The CEO actually talks about VFX being a dying industry and is expecting you to work on military or medical projects after graduating. This comes after they’ve sold you on the dream of working on Hollywood movies. Most of us got into visual effects because we wanted to create content and work on films and tv projects. While I applaud the use of visual effects technology to help with medical causes, you should be aware of the distinction. For an animator who wants to bring characters to life it’s a much different job if you’re animating a heart or military aircraft. The CEO makes the mistake that labor is simply a commodity. If you went to school to be a painter of fine art, would you be happy when the school says at the end: “Sorry, there’s not much call for fine artists but there is a large need for house painters. Enjoy it.”

Those who live in other countries may think this has nothing to do with them. As I’ve said before, we’re all connected at this stage. If there’s a major change in pay or working conditions somewhere in the world regarding visual effects, then it will likely affect you sooner than you think. That 30% discount that DD can now offer is on par with many tax incentives. That alone could shift the balance. 30% of labor that pays to work will cause a downward spiral in pay. And the company you work for and the studios will point that out and say that you will have to follow suit. “After all, we have to remain competitive”. And around it goes.

I urge all visual effects workers to step away from their workstations for a moment and check in with the rest of the world. There’s a lot going on. I know it’s great focusing on what you’re doing but there are large changes in progress throughout the world that will affect you and your future. You can’t simply ignore it all and hope it never affects you.

You should also educate yourself on unions and trade associations. Please don’t fall prey to the stereotypes or the paid for misinformation. There are pros and cons of each of these and you should be aware each has different goals.

Some of the things that are happening to the industry you work in, hopefully doing what you love, should make you angry. It should make you sit up and take notice. If that’s the case, make yourself heard. If you have thoughts, opinions, solutions, make yourself heard. If you know of problems let yourself be heard. The internet and social media has opened up and connected us in ways not possible before.

For those you would like to speak out about what DD is doing in Florida, contact and tell them what you think.

Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education:
Wage & Hour division of the Department Of Labor:

Bonus: Should I work for free chart

Other sites of interest:
ImageWorks artists in support of a better VFX Industry - SPiUnion - info about unions and other things

Game of Aeron Chairs: A song of beer and pixels - tk1099 on vfx unions and movement

Supermodel sets up an Alliance with Bill of Rights and push for health care and better working conditions.
Initial story
Alliance site

In the last few months car washes, sandwich places and now supermodels are either unionizing or creating a group to at least represent them and help improve their situation.
What about us?


  1. As is the norm with your posts, Scott, you've shared some important points.

    We've attempted to contact the Whage and Hour Division in Florida regarding this matter, and were given the runaround. We're preparing a letter to go to the Division Chairperson in Washington DC imploring for an investigation into the matter.

    We've yet to hear back from the Department of Education, either in Florida or in DC with regulations that pertain to this situation. We assume they'll be similar to what the DOL has .. in that its not supposed to happen this way and DDI is blatantly ignoring the rules for their own gain.

    Scott Ross made an important comment in one of Soldier's posts that bears repeating:

    "Visual Effects Facilities are unable to make money because they underbid each other for the pleasure of working in the film industry whilst the Motion Picture Studios make record bank on the backs of the VFX facility and its workers. If the VFX facilities were not in this untenable situation, I believe many of the current ills of our industry would be relieved. Subsidy chasing, tax incentive hoarding, third world work forces and now students [...] VFX facilities are trying to fix their “heroin problem” with “methadone"

    Its painfully obvious that not only do the workers in VFX need to organize, so do the vfx studios. Both groups need to work in concert to get the production studios to understand that this business model is unacceptable and will be changed, or the work will not be done.

    Mr. Ross has tried and tried to get the studios to sit together to form a Trade Organization, to no avail. I know a great way to motivate them .. get the artists to unionize. Nothing will bring them together faster than the common threat of unionization.

  2. The other option is of course working directly for the studios. Part of the problem here is you have vfx companies between the studios (making the money and making the decisions) and the workers, who are the ones at the end of the day that have to deal with the arrangements made between the companies and studios.

    The companies are choosing to place their heads in the sand. They know there are only a hand full of clients and want to avoid causing waves. They would rather lose money than to consider getting organized.

    I think at this point the workers have a better chance of getting organized.

  3. It would be interesting for the production studios to have their own VFX teams/shops. Its my understanding that they don't want the financial burden .. or to risk having another contract to negotiate. ;)

  4. I don't understand any VFX artist who isn't extremely concerned about this. Maybe I'm more concerned as someone new to the industry. I want to be a Compositor, but of course, I have to put my time in as a roto artist first. Now, maybe I've gotten into this game early enough, but if DD get away with this and every other studio starts the same idea, then you're going to have a MASSIVE amount of juniors with no jobs! And add to that the financial benefit of using several students in place of one more experienced artist. Sure, it takes more of them but so what? Why pay a VFX experienced artists when you can have people pay to do the same job?

    It's a slippery slope! Like it's stated in the article, DD will get short term benefits until everyone else follows the same idea. At that point you can expect wages to go down to barely meeting minimum wage amounts as competition offers more and more ridiculously low bids. VFX artists absolutely cannot survive on minimum wage. It's impossible! VFX studio are mostly in expensive living areas. LA, London, Vancouver. And with VFX studio work hours and requirements, you couldn't hold a 2nd job. I get tired enough after a 40-50 hr week! Being able to do overtime could make the difference between whether or not you're offered a job too!

    This, more than anything is a reason to unionise RIGHT NOW! I'm sick of people just talking about it. Let's get someone who can make it happen and let's get rules set in place starting with making it against rules for unpaid, underpaid or PAYING individuals to work on any professional project!

    What about the insult to our abilities. They think 30% of their workforce can be made up of students. Is our work really that easy?

    Why would anyone do more than a one year intensive course? School teaches the basics and work fine tunes you. Spending more than a year in school is a waste of time and money. These students are being taken for a ride! They'll probably get that intense year and spend the rest of the time in work that they're paying to do!

    This is, in my opinion, a life or death situation for VFX artists and if we don't take it seriously now, we will all suffer the consequences!

  5. I agree with what Scott says about working directly for the studios. The problem I see right now with unionization is that it doesn't appear to be a global effort among all vfx artists. It seems to be an effort of artists only at certain studios. I see real problems with this scenario. We need leverage over more than just one company as well as the flexibility to move to and from multiple facilities for work for a union like everyone wants to succeed, but how do we get there?

    I think if we could get something working with the studios, then we could mandate that film post production would have to be done at a union facility similar to the way stage and actors unions work. The middle man/vfx studios are the ones that have all the power right now.

    This situation with DD is appalling. But even if there was a union, they would have to get DD to unionize and then DD FL. Also, the whole separate company in a separate state is really problematic in the efforts to unionize. Then there are the other companies that have facilities in other countries. Do you unionize each location separately. That alone sounds extremely difficult. Let's cut these middle men out and negotiate with the studios to help bring the vfx facilities in line.

  6. There are advantages to working directly for the studios but it's unlikely the studios would be interested.

    Yes, the union is likely to be US only but if it were established the basic guidelines could be used by others as well. The writer's guild contract rates and other definitions are used by many that aren't in the writers unions.

    If a company signs with the union then it's likely any satellite locations in the US woudl be covered by the same requirements, just as the other film workers are covered even when working in other states.

  7. Students aren't professionals.
    They are among other things undependable.

    Botton line: You get what you pay for.........
    or don't pay for.

  8. Scott, it's probably pointless to try to warn people who are falling for the DD paradigm that all they will be doing is giving up their future for a very unfulfilling present. As you remember from our own early days in the business, the contribution of VFX to a movie has increased easily a hundredfold, and yet it's more difficult to make a living in the business now than it was then. I find myself unemployed 65% of the year, and when I do work it's for half of what I was making even 10 years ago. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of VFX technicians are being trained in the Far East. Will DD really hire their "graduates" to do jobs that people in Third World countries will do for a quarter of the price?

  9. I have been following this story over at vfxsoldier and am really appaled that DD took that step. I almost couldnt believe what i was reading, but it seems we are going downhill faster than expected.
    On the other hand, maybe that has a positive effect too. Only when the pressure becomes unbearable, people will finally stand up and do something.
    Thanks for bringing this up in your blog Scott. I hope this will help create some more noise to make other artists aware.

  10. Myself and other recent grads I've spoken to look at this as indentured servitude. To us, it's slavery. Like Running for a VFX facility only without the minimum wage. These demanding facilities don't recognize the cost of living in the area they operate. Juniors can't live on air and water. We are so badly treated and poorly trained to the point where we have to suffer indignities to break in to the industry. The only thing the industry is succeeding at with junior talent is scaring them off. Maybe that's the idea?

  11. "In Quebec, Ubisoft did something similar to this a few years ago. They created a “Ubisoft School” in Montreal and the Government Of Quebec subsidized that school. In a very similar situation to what is going on at the DD, the institute was making money and generating more students than the number of job openings that were available in the company. Ubisoft also received about a 35% subsidy for the salaries of their employees. These were for all employees of Ubisoft, including juniors, interns and senior staff."

    Check out the whole story here

  12. Just a thought.. But has anyone gone to I.A.T.S.E and requested them to
    advertise union organizing via radio and television? I bet you could get all the free labor necessary to build some kick ass spots that would be real eye candy to the new and up coming workers. And give free membership
    while they are in school as an incentive. If you want people to join
    your going to need a sales force behind the idea in order to sell it.

    Ross thinks he has a good idea , but talking to the wolves will only make them join together for the flesh feast on their terms. You need a union leader to fight for what you want. That’s what it's all about. A train professional in the business of
    organizing labor as a business.

  13. TV and radio adds are expensive, especially if you're trying to reach a niche market. The union is unlikely to request free labor (you can't do what you don't want others to do) Now some members may create something themselves asa volunteer effort like the Vancouver people who setup the website there.

    Students- Sicne the union is specific to working it would be difficult to enrtol students in a union. (Not that you shouldn't make them aware.)

    The main people the union haas to sell is current uS visual effects professionals. Once that happens it can become a full union. And once that has happened that becomes the standard for anyone entering the field in the future.

  14. Dear Scott and others
    The reason I suggest advertising on Radio and TV is not a difficult thing to do
    if one goes about it in a news worthy manor. Thinking outside box is often the way
    to get what you want across to the public.

    I can talk on the subject with some expertise as I once worked for ILM years ago
    the same as your self and many others.. The union is gone from Large FX companies because it was simple to freeze the workers out of a job by simply not hiring , and laying off those that would normally be like staff workers in CG or the model shops and stage.

    When I caught wind of this some years back I contacted the Local in SF and asked if anything could be done about the problem. The bottom line was that the local large CG shop in the city held a vote with what was left of it’s membership and they opted to
    go none union because the writing on the wall was very simple with respect to where they worked. A privately owned FX company can either make money or it can be dormant for a while and simply show the labor force that “they” are going to slow the labor profits going out and not do much work in the FX company for a while It’s perfectly legal to do.

    It’s not rocket science if you want to get rid of the union labor, or discourage the membership from
    being unionized All the big FX business have to do , is divide and destroy the labor force unity . History holds this as the example that divided the labor force at the company Scott and I worked at back in the 1990’s . CG had one contract; stage , film and model-shop labor in the same union but with a different contract .

    I watched the company deliberately keep the two groups of workers divided by simply
    using that which was with in the power of any company. Simply mention the fact that work is slowing down and the obvious fear of no work means no paychecks to any labor working individual . What better way to convince your labor force and the Union
    to act now and have two separate contracts with two different endings dated years apart.



    And lets not forget the Department Of Justice Suit filed against a Large FX company in SF along with others , for in my simple words “Labor Tampering” by trying to make deals with other CG oriented companies in the bay area who agreed not to bid against each other labor force so they could all try an keep “control on their own labor force” and at the same time keep a lid on anybody who wanted to leave and go work else where in one of these other
    giants of the CG world. I called the Local Union in SF and I asked them if they were going to do anything for the Union members at the old company I used to work for.
    I was told with sad news to my ears, that the union was no longer a part of the labor force
    at the company I used to work for. Because the discouraged CG people voted down the contract because of the dwindling work at the company and they the workers were running out of savings money in the bank and the lack of paychecks for just part time work.
    Is there a story and a lesson to be learned. And you didn’t hear about on the six-oclock news . Everything just sort of went un noticed for the most part by the poor CG sheep led to slaughter. They say it’s hard to put the Geni back in the bottle. It’s even harder to
    get the “So called College Educated CG worker “ to realize that if they don’t unionize pretty soon, It will be High school kids taking their jobs in the future and the dream of owning a home some day will only be accomplished by them looking at the one they designed in a 3D program on their computer at home as a dream they once had.
    Think I’m joking? Think again. This is your history in the making.
    Get together and make your own CG commercials for unionizing on your own, and post them on Youtube and Vimeo. Give the local Union copies of them to show and voice
    what you need and ask them to help you. Think about it! You can start a movement
    of your own. Look at what people did in the Middle East with just using “Twitter”
    as a communication tool. You guys have Video skills and can make movies for God sake!

    That doesn’t cost in advertising , and the News media will pick up on it , if you tell them about it. You want a revolution in the CG labor movement to keep your jobs in the United States and some day be able to buy a home . Your going to have to Fight
    with the tools you know how to use. Get creative … Advertise the problem with a solution …Get Unionized. Put it on Youtube and Vimeo. The power of the
    Media is at you finger tips. Belonging to a union also looks good when you apply for a home loan. Oh … I forgot , your not going to be living in this country and having a home life anymore.. You will be to busy hopping country to country chasseing that CG job you didn’t want to fight for here in The United States .

    If this last bit of info sounded like a slap in the face to anyone… It was deliberately worded speaking from having seen the writing on the wall and watching
    those friends I had in the CG industry back in the day loose their jobs to outsourcing and corporate greed. If you have any droughts about what I have brought up it’s all
    history you can contact the local 16 union in SF about ,or you can look up the Court case at the U S Governments web site of The DOJ. about the labor issue regarding CG labor
    and the bay are businesses it affected. They all got away with a slap on the wrist
    and fell on their own swards instead of risking being exposed in court any worse then they had already been.

    Now lets all join in and sing the Singapore National Anthem while your banking those frequent flyer miles heading for your new job as a CG trainer designed to displace
    jobs at home , and your very own job as well.. Are you starting to see the bigger picture!


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