Saturday, April 21, 2012

Visual Effects Union, take 2

(Update 4/23/2012 fixed missing BECTU link)

Yesterday there was an IA Union meeting with a number of visual effects artists. Most were from Sony Imageworks but there were others attending to get information firsthand regarding a possible visual effects union. The visual effects community received a fair bit of press regarding this including the Los Angeles Times articles here and here (retweeted by Roger Ebert), Hollywood Reporter, Deadline Hollywood, Cartoon Brew and VFXSoldier here and here.  The Animation Guild has posts related to this here, here and here.

Well now that the Visual Effects union is ramping up again, what’s next?

It looks like the IA is taking this more seriously now. (And don’t count IBEW out).  Evidently the IA has a website in progress but they will likely setup a temp site/blog regarding the visual effects union in the meantime.  [ IATSE Visual Effect Union website is now up ] They seem to realize the need to get with the new millennium and provide information on a website. They’ll even have a twitter account [ @vfxunion ] and likely do a visual effects podcast interview. [ podcast is here ]  They’ve asked the Animation Guild to help out in this process since they’re the closest specific union to visual effects and understand some of the issues better. The Animation Guild already covers animators at Disney and Dreamworks along with compositors and other artists.

I’ll cover a few things here but none of this is official, which is why a union website straight from the organizers would be a good thing. I had listed suggestions for the union here which they have reviewed along with a number of other blogs and input from artists directly.

A few artists from Sony Imageworks got the ball rolling and created their own website, SpiUnion. They actually have a number of questions and answers there which everyone should read. Sony Imageworks is somewhat unique in they are owned by a studio so indirectly at least they are connected to the decision makers and profit makers. Sony Pictures and Sony Animation are both union based but Imageworks (visual effects) is not. The IA will continue to have meetings with those interested from Imageworks. The notion is to be able to provide information and to help educate visual effects workers regarding what a union is, how it works and what the potential benefits are. This would be Union 101 because most visual effects workers have no direct knowledge or experience with unions.

The IA will likely have meetings around Los Angeles for visual effects workers who want information and have questions. These would cover many of the same issues as above.

I’ve covered much of this already in other posts but suspect I should repeat a few things here. I’m not a union rep so take these with a grain of salt. I urge those in the US to talk to a union rep to get clear answers about these and other questions you might have.

Visual effects was in fact covered by unions once upon a time. 
This simple statement still draws puzzling looks from workers and management. Suffice to say that until digital there was a fair bit of union coverage. Close Encounters and others shows were union. Union camera for models, optical printers, motion control, etc. Matte painters, model builders, animators, etc were all union. ILM was union. The transition of digital effects and the proliferation of companies resulted in non-union as the new normal.

‘This will be the nail in the coffin’ of the US visual effects industry. 
This old chestnut still lingers and is often repeated without considering what’s actually going on. The union knows there’s no point in going through this and burdening the visual effects companies with huge union costs. If added costs were to cause a company to close then it would be of no benefit to the union or workers. The union expects to work with each company and negotiate an arrangement that makes sense. It’s like SAG (actor’s union) which has different actor minimums depending on the type of project. Small, low budget short films have different rates than large studio productions.

There are a number of factors that go into deciding where the work goes including quality, availability, price, artists, and communication among others.

What does a union mean to a US visual effects worker?
The union should be able to provide reasonable health care coverage that is continuous when you move from one union company to another as you work on projects.  You still have to put in so many hours to qualify for health care but you don’t have to start from scratch with each company. In addition you get a pension, vacation and a few other benefits.

The union would enforce some basics such as working conditions and minimum wages for given categories. Misclassifications, payroll scams that charge workers, unpaid interns, uncompensated overtime, missing payroll and other problems would be dealt with.

As a union member you would vote on who represents you just like other unions. This means visual effects people would be involved in overseeing the union.

As an individual you have very little power. If you don’t like something or aren’t paid (such as some in Montreal experienced) there’s not much you can do by yourself. You can talk to management or quit. As a union member you would have collective bargaining. If you’re part of a union there’s strength in numbers to ask for reasonable things. If a shop misses payments then the threat of the entire crew leaving gives the company an incentive to correct their problems.

Standardization of titles would also be likely to happen.  People would be less likely to be given fictional titles (higher or lower than their true involvement).

Visual effects workers would at least achieve some parity with the rest of those working in movies and television. Which may help to gain some respect.

How can the union deal with all the different jobs involved in visual effects?
The current notion is this would be a visual effects union which would cover the entire range of work and which would allow flexibility. Since the guidelines and contracts will be written up with visual effects people, these are areas that would be fleshed out.

How much does it cost to be in the union? 
The IA has stated that if you’re with a company that becomes union then they will wave the initiation fees. Most dues are a few hundred dollars a year. Check the SPiUnion site for some of the specifics. In any case the dues are a very tiny fraction of your pay and the benefit obtained by being in the union vastly outweigh the costs. Compare the cost of individual health care with the cost of union dues and that will become very clear.

What about profit sharing?
The IA already shares some of the profits from the studios. The studios have to put in a percentage of profits into the health and welfare fund. It’s the basis for much of the Hollywood unions health coverage.  And visual effects is one of the few groups working on films and television that get no profit sharing currently.

What about outsourcing?
The union can’t stop outsourcing. Most outsourcing is based on tax incentives of different countries and areas. One of the best things that could happen to the visual effects industry is for all tax incentives to go away so all companies are competing based on quality, efficiencies, cost and other factors they control, not a politician. The union can lobby the US or state government to provide tax incentives or they can lobby the WTO to stop tax incentives but those are difficult battles.  In the end as long as politicians can convince the right people and those being taxed don't complain, incentives will continue.

What about a small company with no benefits and no overtime compensation?
Well there would obviously be some costs involved for the company. Right now you as a worker at this type of company are absorbing all of those costs directly. Anytime you’re misclassified, working free overtime or having to pay all your own health insurance you’re absorbing more than many people are in other jobs. Why should you bear the brunt of poor management? Is there a reason you wish to fund the company by personally paying for what most jobs pay for? It may simply be a matter of balancing the company pay rates and what they contribute.

What does a visual effects union mean to those in other countries?
There’s been some suggestion for a worldwide union for visual effects workers but the complexities and differences in laws and regulation across multiple countries makes a true international union unworkable. The IA does have a presence in Canada and there is a visual effects union there as well. (IA891)  In this case there may be some type of mutual agreements for those who move between areas that some of the coverage might be able to continue. In the UK there is an entertainment union called BECTU. I don’t know anything about it but those interested could investigate.

One impact on even those in another country is a visual effects union here in the US would provide at least a frame of reference in terms of working conditions and other factors. You can always ask for some of these same types of things in your deal memos or at least know where you stand.

What does it mean for the companies?
If a company already has health care for employees this may prove to be less expensive since it’s funded in part by studio profits and the union has thousands of members so the insurance rates are likely less than a medium shop with 100 people. As noted previously the union will want to avoid being a financial burden on companies.

The union would also likely provide some reassurance regarding the ability of the people in the union. The International Cinematographers Guild has classes and certifications as new equipment and positions start up. A visual effects union could do something along the same lines.

Given a choice between working on similar projects at a union company (with continuous benefits and known working conditions) and a nonunion company, most workers would prefer to work at the union company. That’s an incentive to get and keep good people.

What does it mean for the studios?
The majority of people working on movies and television are already union based. From directors and writers to the grips and wardrobe department. So this shouldn’t be out of the ordinary for them. Again if the union adds an unreasonably cost of doing business to the companies or studios then it will be unlikely to be successful. But the studios are used to negotiating and certainly aware of all the various unions and what’s required.

What about a visual effects trade association?
A trade organization is meant for companies, not workers.
The union does nothing to prevent a trade association from forming. In some ways it may encourage the companies to form an association so they can negotiate as a group with the union. Rather than continuing to wait for a visual effects associate to form, visual effects workers can take control over their situation and proceed if they wish to support a union.

What about the VES?
The VES is an honorary society to help educate and honor visual effects. Part of what it’s been attempting to do the last year or so is to make up for the fact there is no union or trade association. If either of these existed then the VES would focus on it’s origin mandate and help as necessary in other areas.

[ More info: IATSE Visual Effect Union website ]

[Update 12/3/2012  There was a VES sponsored event regarding VFX Union with a panel of people both pro/con union, including a representitive from the union.  fxGuide has a write up of the meeting. Video should be available at some time in future at the VES website for members. And yes, the auto industry was mentioned.]

[Update: Film Unions info ]

Related post with more details:
Visual Effects Guilds


  1. Great post Scott. One thing left out was how DreamQuest Images was also doing live action vfx under a union contract for several year when the merger with Disney and formation of The Secret Lab happened.

  2. Couldn't say. I had left Dream Quest by that time.

  3. Would love to see this happen. Although it's been years since I worked at DQI and ILM, I still mourn the fact that IATSE dropped the ball on this. Thanks for the update.

  4. Scott thanks for posting this. The studio"s new mantra will become "well, we'll just have to outsource more". I believe our answer should be "well then our reach willl have to become further is well". Although a global VFX union may be difficult nothing is impossible. There are many ways VFX's reach can exceed it's grasp.

  5. Stuart RobertsonApril 24, 2012

    Very good and balanced overview, Scott. I remember back when VFX workers were routinely covered by IATSE. Didn't seem to be any problems for any of the companies then, either in NY or California. And I still receive a small but useful pension check from Local 13 every month.

  6. A great and informative post. I totally agree with most of your points. If you don't mind, I have a bit of a historical review to let you be aware of. It might be something of interest.

    I live in poor old Greece. The country that, supposedly, has ruined the world’s economy within the last 2 years.
    I don't know if this is true or not, but I work in the Greek VFX industry (it should be Hellenic VFX industry but who cares right?) as a compositor for 15 years. I am, or tend to say that I am, a VFX artist. I never had any real education (except the Art School I graduated) since VFX education started only a decade ago.
    Editors, Directors, DOPs and all the on-set crew had Unions and in fact one of the strongest Union in Greece. They got paid OT, every 15days of shooting, they got special medical benefits, and they got all the credits. In other words, they had what anyone in this industry deserves.
    We, the computer geeks, were labeled Office Employes, since the State didn't have any other, more appropriate, work-permit. No Union was formed and since we had State medical care, we where fine.
    And that could be ok back in the 90s. We had an emerging economy and we could work in more than 300 TVCs/year. So none of the Union/work-permit stuff really mattered. If we worked hard, and we were good at what we do, we could make tons of money and a descent name for ourselves, in order to land the next job.
    The key thing here is that we couldn't care less about Unions since we knew (or falsely believed) that everyone within any kind of union, is corrupted.
    And now, we see/read in the papers or in the internet how Unions could be formed and save a piece of the industry and we started jumping like kids full of joy.
    But the painful truth is that nobody is giving a damn about us.
    We have become outcasts.
    More than 20 VFX companies in Athens have closed in the past 2 years.
    Those were the companies that taught me what I know today. And they all went bankrupt.
    Now the rest of us (me included) are trying to connect and get work from the rest of the EU, by outsource, only to find closed doors and disbelief.
    And of course, I hear from yours and VFX Soldier posts/twits, and a lot of other VFX blogs, talking about the India and China outsourcing problem, and I start to think that, for your countries, for your VFX industry, for all the VFX artists out there, I am a problem. I am a virus. So I don’t really get a chance to prove that I am equal in both skills and art with the rest of the VFX world.
    I am not bringing the prices down, I am not using small children to roto/key/match-move (unless you count us, VFX artists that still love robots and spacecrafts), I am not trying to steal anyone’s work. I am trying to get a couple of gigs/month to get the motor running, in order to hire more people, from all over the world, like we did for the last 10+ years.
    I need to find a Union for me and my co-workers that deals with this new world order, that represents not only the US or UK or CA or NZ workers, but the world as a whole.
    I would really love to be a VES member, I would love to have something spectacular to show to the world, in order to be a VES member, and so does my colleagues and my co-workers. But I cannot participate. We have no-one to back us up. And we cannot prove to anyone that we are worthy of it. An endless loop, don’t you think?
    I will surely try to be a part of this Union-centric community, even from a distance, until the rest of the world, let us in. But until then, I’ll keep charging with UK/US rates, I’ll keep delivering astonishing shots in record-breaking times, and I’ll keep paying for my employee's medical insurance and lay-off compensation, even if he/she is from another part of the planet, hell even if he/she is from another part of the Galaxy!! (wouldn’t that be cool?). Exactly like I did until now.
    I hope I helped a little, or at least made you think from a different perspective, this Union conversation, everyone’s been talking about.

  7. Thank you for another perspective.

    People tend to look at things and take the path of least resistance. They say "there's no point in fixing a leaky roof when it's sunny" and when it's raining " it's too late to fix it". And should it become sunny again they will soon forget the leak until the next time it rains.

    You're in a similar boat as a lot of other countries, including the US and the UK. Your banking system and government made major mistakes and the ones who bear the entire burden are those who have been working hard.

    And as you point out I suspect companies are reluctant to send work to a country that is supposed to be having major problems. All I can suggest is you get your demo reels and factual information up where people can see them.

    In regard to the VES- The VES has members around the world, even in some remote areas. There's actually a program to help areas with few members who wish to ramp up. If you're interested send an email into the VES with information (see their website). I think the VES is a good professional organization but I caution anyone that it's not an instant access to extra jobs or projects. It's not some hidden world with an abundance of everything visual effects related. It's a professional organization that does what it can to help members and tries to foster educational events and interaction with members.

  8. Thanks for the reply. It's an honnor to be able to have a conversation with you.

    I know and respect the work of VES. It's not an instant access to work, that we seek. I, or better yet, we, need to win the VES membership. And not only the VES membership, but also a Worldwide Union membership, if and when that happens.

    But in order to get there, we will have to work harder, and we're ok with that. We also need to keep our empoees happy, since they are the ones producing astonishing results. We need to provide them with the tools, knowledge, and benefits, while at the same time have competetive prices.
    For us (Greeks) it's easy, since the cost of living has dropped within the last 2 years.
    The hard part is to not annoy the rest of the industry workers around the world.

    I know we'll find a way, eventually, but I am afraid of the compromises. We were living in a separate universe, a detached reality that happened only in Greece, for more than 20 years. For a long time we were unaware of what was happening to the rest of the world and it's our personal fault, not as a country or as a banking system.
    We need to get back on the train that Teo Angelopoulos and Melina Merkouri (2 of our most precious artists) started back in the 70s.
    With a little help, and a lot of work, we'll be on our feet. And be sure that, I personally, and we as Greek VFX artists, will help this industry in any way we can.

    Again thank you for your prevous reply. It gives us hope that not everything around this industry revolves around money.

    Nikos Pittas


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