Sunday, August 12, 2012

Visual Effects Trade Association

At SIGGRAPH John Textor announced he was giving Scott Ross $100,000 to help start a visual effects trade association.

This is probably a good thing.

What is a trade association?
It's a group of companies in a specific industry that organize together to achieve common  goals. The MPAA  is a trade association of motion picture studios that negotiates as a group with the guilds and unions of hollywood. They standardize and provide film ratings. They are also involved in anti-piracy protection.

There's trade associations in quite a few industries. International Dairy Foods Association  covers the nation and Dairy Institute of California is made up of dairy farmers in California.  Because they cover a specific area they then lobby the state or federal government for or  against specific bills that would affect them. Some trade organizations do group advertising as well or set standards for their industry.

TechAmerica is made up of  high tech companies.
Wiki coverage of trade associations 

As you can see these groups are able to leverage their strength in numbers to their advantage. In many ways a trade associate is like a union or guild for companies. The companies pay dues and they are working as an organized group.

Scott Ross originally estimated the association would require $3 million a year to operate. He's since cut that figure in half so the $100,000 he is receiving is seed money. And the company dues will be significant compared to a few hundred dollars most guilds charge their workers. Dues in the trade association could dwarf the cost of a company unionizing.

What could the trade association do?
They could agree on standards and practices such as visual effects bidding forms or even things like model interchange formats. The Association of Independent Commercial producers (AICP)  has standardized bidding forms and bidding processes among other things. Although my understanding now is that this may not have truly benefited the producers in the long run.

They could agree to working conditions for their workers. They could use their strength in numbers to make deals with software or hardware vendors. They could review basic business models and work as an organization with the studios to negotiate common issues.

If there were a visual effects union the trade association could be the ones to negotiate with the union compared to each each company having to do it individually.

What they have to be very careful of
Collusion. This is where companies get together to decide on financial or hiring practices that are illegal. ILM and Pixar colluded to not hire each others animators. That was illegal as per the justice department. They won't be able to set rates or agree to match pricing. Because it's planned as an international association it will have to abide by laws that affect all nations.

What it can't do
The association is currently planned as an international group. You'll notice most trade associations are region based where they can lobby for specific things. With an international group they won't be able to lobby any specific government because that would be detrimental to other members of the association. So that means things like visual effects tax incentives will likely not be addressed or dealt with.

There will also be a question as to how many companies and what size of companies signup. So far visual effects companies have been reluctant to start a trade association on their own. Will they be willing to join one if someone else starts it? Will it provide a balance for very small companies and the largest visual effects companies? In some ways it can help provide the smaller companies with more leverage but only if that's the leverage the smaller company wants. Will companies who aren't members benefit from the improvements the association makes? Will studios seek out associate member companies or avoid them? Will the the studios take umbrage with companies looking to join the association as some companies do to workers who are looking to join a guild? That all depends on the associations agreed upon agenda. It's also very dependent on which companies and how many are in the association. If all the largest companies are members then there may not be much option for the clients.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes to build a trade association and come to agreement on key issues. This is likely to be a very time consuming process (at least a year or more).

As mentioned a trade association in some ways is like a union or guild for the companies. By organizing together they provide a strength in numbers and solidarity that independent companies don't have. Same thing applies to unions and guilds. They provide a strength in numbers and solidarity to individual workers that they don't have by themselves.

The distinction is a trade organization has  different goals than a guild. The trade organization's goal would be actions that are  beneficial to the companies. A guild's goal is actions beneficial to the workers. More profitable and balanced companies would be good for the visual effects industry as a whole but doesn't necessarily result in benefits for the workers. The trickle down effect does not work. A more profitable company will tend to pass the additional profits on to investors, executive management and possible long term investments. None of this may address hiring and layoff practices and it's unlikely to provide things like continuous health care or limited overtime.

In fact a trade association could make decisions on practices that are detrimental to visual effects artists. (Amount of overtime, overtime pay, employment agreements, etc) Only time will tell how this plays out. If that's the case then individuals who quit specific companies because of certain practices may find that most other companies are now doing the same thing. Individuals have very little power when dealing with a single company and will have much less with an organized group of companies. A trade association may be even more of a reason to look at a guild as a way to keep some balance.

A visual effects trade association could be a good thing for the visual effects industry if it actually materializes and takes the necessary steps. It won't deal with tax incentives and some of the other ills of the industry. It doesn't  and shouldn't preclude a guild for visual effects artists.

[Update: DD closed operations in Florida and the company has been sold. The $100,000 being offered to help start the Trade Association didn't happen. Scott Ross had obtained a number of yeses and at least a couple of Nos. Not sure how likely it will proceed at this point.]


  1. So, a trade association would deal mostly with unions that we don't have and software/hardware vendors that already slash their prices for studios? I think Im not really getting the point?

    1. I think Scott Ross's goal is to rethink the business model and get cOmpanies on board.

  2. Thanks Scott really great piece. Clarifying this is a great start. I've written in as many ways as I can how the broken bidding model has crushed the vendors, turned the industry into a creative dustbowl. The studios have short sheeted their own beds by enforcing it.

    Next we need to get directors to actually direct their movies....meaning the VFX...of course this would have happened a long time ago if they were paying us on billable hours like most of the names in the credit list above ours. Then maybe we can stop hundreds of unnecessary versions, the real culprit in driving up costs. This bidding gets even worse by scattering the work as far as possible from the decision makers that count. A diminishing return in money and quality.

  3. Hi Scott,

    I have worked in another industry that has no union or trade association and the rights of its workers and suffered because of this.

    I am scared that just commenting on your blog will get me blacklisted throughout the FX industry. Such the power of the Tier 1 FX houses have, including the studios.

    Passing on Tweening, Matchmove, Roto onto the Third World is a good business idea, its cheap quick and is a trainable skill set.

    However 3d Modelling, Texturing, Matte Painting and software development has to be recogised as a artisan skillset.

    We have had situations in the past that FX houses were set up by film makers to shoot the films they wanted to do.

    The amount of FX work increased so further "Sub FX houses" grew out of the demand to do the work. As work decreased these closed. Also the amount of money becomes more frugal as it passes down the chain.

    This has created the problem that T1 FX house charges $x amount for their work. However T2 FX house charges a lower $x amount for doing the same standard and development as T1 FX house. So who takes the hit? VFX Artists.

    Hope this has not blacklisted me!

  4. Blacklisting - for those concerned they can post anonymous, which most do, but I certainly hope a simple discourse and information on what's actually going is not seen as something that would blacklist people. Certainly in my case I'm providing information and if places are small minded enough to be offended by actual information, I'd rather not work there.

    Roto, etc. Yes there can be a cost savings to send large volumes of very labor intensive. However there is a need for real quality. It does no good to have to redo work.

    I would also suggest that most vfx companies require a full range of people. There are times where you will need to interact with the people doing roto and paint. There will be times where there are last minute changes or additions. Are the actual cost savings really worth it by the time you add in the overhead to manage shipping, receiving, scheduling and QA required to outsource the work and also keep at least a few people on site that have the ability to do it as well?

    I think some companies and certainly accountants at companies are too eager and simplify the problems so much they don't recognize the actual costs involved. The studios send their subtitling out to India and other places now to save $600 on making the DVD for a $100 million movie. By the time you add the coordinating and checking and other aspects did they really save $600? Aren't there many more workflow aspects that could be targeted that would result in much bigger savings than $600? Yes but outsourcing is acceptable by executives and doesn't cause problems for managers. They can just list the relative wage difference and sell the idea without actually running real numbers or verifying.

    The other thing that roto, paint and other functions provide is a stepping stone for many people getting into the business. Without that stepping stone will there be enough qualified people that the company trusts?

    I also think it's a very good task for everyone to have experience doing these types of things from the compositors to vfx supervisors. With hands on experience with these types of processes you recognize just how difficult it actually is, you appreciate the art, work and people doing it more. You'll tend to think twice about how to solve problems and will make sure to try to shoot it correctly. Without that experience it's just a black box to call for. No different than directors and vfx.

    Don't assume all the other visual effects jobs will remain local. Once outsourcing starts it becomes that much easier for management to say hey, why don't we outsource this as well. These same areas doing roto and other work are being trained on all higher end functions as well. Wouldn't surprise me to learn that a piece of concept art is sent to an outsource place to be built, painted and rigged as an animation model.

    There are no clean lines of division between what can be outsourced and what can't be outsourced. Many large non-vfx companies are already sending R&D overseas. Artistic and very high jobs will also be up for grabs in the near future. The boundaries are falling and the work is flowing based on money and corporate thinking, not based on artistic merit.

  5. Scott, thank you for taking the time to reply to me. I am at the Junior level and will be one of the ones to suffer. I really would like to be able to work somewhere where meritocracy is a reward for hard work. Also I would like to work somewhere that has traditional apprenticeship and training in place.

    As for the accountants I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. Without a association in this global village it is a slippery path to artistic purgatory.

    One thing that is good for the industry is that the internet has created a void that is being filled with the creative efforts of people such as Freddie Wong, and the Bammo crowd.

    I can see accountancy based film making being slowly overtaken by creative passionate individuals. With an association in place it would be easier to network, share ideas and increase work for us VFX artists away from the mainstream.

    It happened in 1920. 1960s, and the 1970s. Think of all the independant film makers that were born of this period.

    At the moment I am considering my options as a film maker and VFX artist, and the mainstream has become almost to negative a workspace to operate in. If you had a Association in place I would not have to worry about options.

    The job requires a solid foundation to work from, The only models accountants understand are fiscal models. Disney famously fired one junior animator for being creative...

  6. Hi Scott I'm student and I'm just going to shoot a question that is apart from the subject but it will help me with taking a good decision about my future. I'm studying 3D and have to pick a specialization between Modeling, Animation and VFX. Everybody tells me to pick the one I most like but I like them all. I been leaning towards VFX. What would your advise would be for me to pick the one that will get let me get as high as possible in the Industry. I appreciate your time
    Thank You

  7. This is probably better under careers.

    Which do you want to do for 8-12 hrs a day?
    Which is your passion?
    Which are you the best at?
    Note that you can also move positions so you're not locked into one for the rest of your career.

    >the one that will get let me get as high as possible in the Industry

    You can go far with any of those. Hands on is the best for most people to enjoy their work. You can move up to lead and then on to supervisor of that area and then on to vfx supervisor if that's your intent after you've gotten a few years experience.

    I'm assuming by VFX you mean a Technical Director/Lighter.

  8. HiScott,

    I'm an avid reader of your blog and have learned so much and agree on many points of view you have... however, you got me this time.

    Can you give me your take on the union/Guild we DO have available to us - isn't it the Animation or ADG?

    My question is simply why do we need a trade union when the unions are the ones that give us a place at the negotiations table to decide our vewry futures while--to paraphrase what you said in your blog, work on behalf of the workers themselves. Shouldn't we be unifying there rather than stand behind a new organization based on the corporate interests? Maybe I am being naive, but I come froma union family and have always been taught that it's the way to go to ensure retirement. Especially in this climate and the on-going tale of "no SS" by the time I am ready to collect it? I'm 27so have some time to decide...or do I? I wanmt to stand behind the best option as a previs artist and I really don't know which way is the best at this point.

    Your thoughts are appreciated.

  9. We have all the IA unions as potential options. Animation covers animation and compositing. Lighters and supervisors could be under camera guild and art and précis might be under adg. That's the current thinking and then when enough people are involved there would be a transition to a Vfx union to cover all the aspect.

    As I think I pointed out the union effort and goal is independent of the trade association. Those interesting in a union should check and sign a rep card. If you get enough people at your company to agree it becomes a union company.


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