Sunday, September 09, 2012

What to do when you're laid off

@saldivar_vfx  on Twitter suggested a blog post on What do you do when your company closes

Being laid off is similar whether planned or not planned so I'll cover that here. I'll probably be doing another post regarding DD and some of the other recent closures in the near future.

Most jobs in the visual effects industry are project to project. That means there's a good chance you will be laid off after completing the current project. Many companies of course try to get projects in but it's difficult to get awarded projects, let alone projects that conform to a schedule.

Even staff positions, management and support positions may disappear without much notice. Please don't think you're immune from this because you've worked there x years or they're nice people. As we've seen many companies have closed or had to lay off hundreds of people due to a number of reasons.

If you're working for a reputable and established visual effects company they will usually give you an idea at the start how long you'll be needed. Usually they can give you a reasonable assessment of when they expect you'll be working till (i.e. April of next year). Schedules for visual effects tend to fluctuate a bit so they should be keeping you informed. If not, you need to be responsible and request an update from someone reliable in management as your deadline approaches.

The first task when you're winding down or hear that there will be layoffs is to confirm with someone from management. Rumors, gossip and pure assumptions is not something to base your status on.  In some cases you may be asked to stay longer to work on a new sequence or further changes. Best to be certain before jumping ship. A good company should tell you when something is up but many times management is overly optimistic and expect a big project or in some cases they have the rug pulled from them by production. Take info from management with a grain of salt and use your gut instincts as well.

If this is not a company closing then they may expect a new project in a few months time. Perhaps they actually have been awarded a project that won't start for several months. You'll have to determine how valid any of that is. Ultimately though you probably can't count too much on it for planning you're future.

Avoid burning bridges with the company and people there if it continues to operate. You may need to work there again in the future or someone there may become your new boss in the future.

Check to see if and when you will be getting your last payment. Once again if this is a reputable company with a standard layoff this shouldn't be a  problem. If this is a company closing that's another issue. Employees are the last in the line of creditors so if the company has filed for bankruptcy you may never see any moneys owed.

Hopefully you haven't continued to work at a company that has already missed paying the previous week or two. If the company you work for doesn't pay everyone one week then all of you need to go to management as a group and get it straightened out and get your payment now. If they miss a payment someone at the company messed up and you're taking the brunt of it and may find you're financing their company yourself. If you continue to work there for future promised money don't be surprised if it never happens. A union would prevent that type of thing. For more on this see my posting VFX Artists don't need to be taken advantage of

Check to see when your health care stops. (Assuming of course the the place you work for has health care) There may be a ramp down period or it may simply stop immediately. Previous to the new health care plan, Affordable Health Care Act, in the US you had 60 days to become enrolled in another health care program. After that it became much, much more difficult to get coverage. Yes, health insurance is expensive but not having health care is even more expensive. You could have an accident or medical problem with no warning so be sure to get coverage for you and your family as quickly as possible. Another issue that a union helps to resolve is getting continuous health care and pension.  If you worked as a union person for enough hours at a union company you would be covered by health insurance and that health insurance coverage would just continue at a new union shop. This avoids the issue of 3 months gap in insurance while you re-qualify at another company. Union health care also banks your hours so if you work a lot you'll have an even larger buffer of coverage time.

Talk to your friends at your current place of employment. They may have leads on jobs. They may already be scheduled on another project elsewhere. The flip side is they're likely to be scrambling as well and worried that there are only so many openings so may view you as competition.

If your company was closed or the layoffs were unplanned there there may be quite a few people at the same time looking for jobs so it's important to start immediately getting the word out and checking for jobs. If you're being laid off after a long, hard project then you may want to consider taking a short time off if possible but better to start the process even if you don't want to work immediately.

Update your resume if necessary. Update your reel if necessary (and time permits).

Ideally your resume and reel would be available online as well in hard copy forms. Consider having a simple website with your resume and video (links) and contact info. Having any or all of these online allows companies to check out your work quickly. Include IMDB links.

Evaluate your situation. Are you willing and able to move to another city? State? Country? For how long? Do you have a house, spouse, family, etc? No point in submitting to a company half way around the world if you wouldn't be willing to work on a project there.

Send out emails to your friends in the business. Just let them know you're available or will be available after x date. If this is a planned layoff let  them know a few weeks in advance. Remember if you've been good at what you do and work well with others they will likely remember and feel good about suggesting you to the company or project they're on. In many cases companies check first with their crews to see if they know people before putting the word out. And if you're being recommended by good people working there you're in a better position than a random resume coming in.

Go to visual effects company websites and check their job listings. You can get listings from the Visual Effects Society website if you're a member, IMDB, Cinefex, Google search, etc. Read the listings carefully and see if you qualify.  You can apply even if you don't match 100% of their criterial but realize it's less likely the further you are from their listing. Get all the information regarding where and who to contact, what format they want your information, etc.

Check the various visual effects job sites for potential jobs that match your position and qualifications.

Smooth Devil
Creative Planet
Creative Heads
Creative Cow

Keep track of all of the ones you're interested in with details. Note specific person who you might be in contact with, date you contacted them, how you contacted them, etc. This will avoid confusion later so you don't miss a company or send duplicate information.

Prioritize the jobs based on matches, location, company name, project types, length of project, wages, overtime coverage, etc.  Send out to any and all that fall within your acceptance criteria. Don't be too picky at this stage. Send out a batch of inquires based on the specifics of each job posting. Simultaneous submitting to multiple companies is fine.

Send word out via social media that you're available with link to your website or info. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, VES Forums, etc. are all possible avenues. Don't be ashamed since most jobs are project to project.

Most job postings are a 'we'll call you if needed' so you don't need to follow up to see if they got your email.

Get your information out there but don't pester people via email, twitter, Facebook, etc. by repeatedly sending the same message through the same channel.

Hopefully you'll get some responses and some interviews. Gather info about the company with a clear understanding of the types of projects and work they do.  They're looking for people who are good at what they do and eager to work on the company projects. Let them sell you on why you should work there and you need to sell yourself to them,  why they should hire you. This is a careful line so go easy on the hype. Don't  hurt yourself patting yourself on the back but also don't be afraid to mention what you've accomplished on the last project(s) and your strengths. Keep it factual. They don't want to hire a BS Artist, they want a visual effects artist.

Have a list of questions for them in any interview.  Confirm the basics as outlined in the job postings such as title and duties. You'll want to inquire regarding the wage rate, benefits, overtime situation (how much expected, is there overtime pay, etc) Is this a staff position or project position? When will this job start and when will it last until? How locked is the project they're discussing? It's not unusual for companies to be working on contracts well into the project. You have to determine how solid the company is.

If it requires moving then consider the housing and other costs associated with living there. Can you get the required visa or work permits (if in another country) and does the company handle that? Do they cover any moving expenses? Do they cover any travel or housing expenses? What are the tax implications? (You'll need to research on your own probably). Make sure you won't be losing money when it's all said and done.

Is there a guaranteed amount of work? If you're going to incur a number of expenses (such as to moving a long distance) or turning down other work you want some type of minimum amount of paid work guarantee if at all possible. Usually measured in weeks or months or some type of cancelation fee if the work never happens or is shorter than expected.

How many other visual effects companies are in the same city? If this is the only company in the area then you will have to expect moving when you're laid off.

Don't expect a response from all companies and don't expect that they'll respond quickly. They may have hundreds of applications to sift through. Most likely you will only hear from them if they're interested. (It would be nice if HR departments had their acts together and sent out notices once they made an evaluation.)

If you get a job offer you will have to evaluate it.   When a job offer comes in you have no way of knowing if this is the only one you'll be getting for a year. Or you may accept it only to get a better offer tomorrow from another company. Since you don't know it's best with any response to see when they need a response from you of yes or no. Ideally you'd be able to sleep on it to consider the details or longer to see if other options might be available. If possible you want to avoid grabbing the first one and then canceling right before you're to start or quitting soon after starting. You can quit if there is a real issue as  contract dictates but avoid burning bridges if possible. You never know who or where your jobs may come from.

A valid job offer is worth more than a promised 'sometime in the future' job offer.

Get all of this (details of employment, rate, guarantees, etc) in writing. See my post on Deal memos. Without a legal document from the company you have no official offer and could find yourself without an actual job. Feel free to take another job offer if the first company is unwilling to put it all in writing. Don't be suckered into 'potential' projects coming in. If the company has done their work correctly they too will have some type of memo of understanding if not a full contract with a studio and they should have a minimum requirement. You don't have to take the brunt of a companies poor negotiation or contract skills.  If a project you're hired for never materializes at the company that's not your fault.

Do not become distressed about being unable to get a response or offer right away. There are quite a few criteria that companies use to judge applicants and frequently choices are made out of your control.

Keep trying. The number of visual effects jobs available fluctuate quite a bit since there's a cycle when large projects are worked on and when   different types of positions are hired. So continue to check job availability and postings at least weekly. Sign up for twitter feeds from companies and visual effects job sites so you can be up to date on new jobs.

Consider reviewing your own criteria if prospects don't look good. You may have to widen the range of companies you're interested in working for, the locations you're willing to work at or be willing to step down a notch in positions for the next project. As you move higher and higher up visual effects positions there are less jobs available. Moving down a level may increase the number of jobs you could take.

Use the down time to improve yourself. Review the various job postings you've seen. Are there certain skills or software packages listed related to your position that you don't have? Would those improve your abilities of doing your job? If so it's likely it will also improve your chances of getting a job or help you to stand out from a stack of other resumes.  You may want to consider expanding your horizons to another position so you can work in multiple positions.
Most vendors have trial versions of their software and there may be online tutorials (free and paid) and books to learn from.

You may or may not qualify for unemployment benefits depending on the details of your employment and the various government agencies when you live and work.

When a company fails it emphasizes just how fragile the visual effects eco system is. It also shows just how little control an individual worker has. Even with a signed contract a company that folds may never live up to their obligations to an individual.
A union can't stop a company from going out of business but it can provide the workers at least some protections they don't have as individuals.

When you're hard at work on a visual effects project you are very focused on it to the exclusion of many other things. Use the down time to become reacquainted with your family.

Also use this time to consider your future and get educated on what's happening both in the industry and world. Is visual effects still a viable choice for you? Is there anything you can do to help the situation? Things like the Affordable Health Care Act, pension plans and corporate responsibility are many of the items being discussed here in the US. Be sure to vote in the national election or you may be in for a rude awaking the next time you're laid off.

[Update: Bank in Port St. Lucie is helping DD workers there after their quick closure. Not sure if outsiders can contribute. ]

Reference posts:
VFX Artists don't need to be taken advantage of 
VFX Deal Memo

Related posts:
Getting a Visual Effects job
What makes a good visual effects artist?
Visual Effects Union, Take 2

Other resources:
Check the right side of this blog under VFX Industry State of the Industry
vfxsoldier blog
vfx union

[Update: VFX union points out what the union could do in a situation like DD workers in florida were left stranded when they closed their doors. ]


  1. What do you do if the previous VFX studio you work for will not release your work (like roto mattes) so you can so in your resume? Since being laid off for 4 months, I am having a problem getting a job without retrieving my previous work from my former studio. I cant produce a reel without my previous work. IMBD credits dont really count. What do I do? Sue? Recreate tons of work? What do I do?

  2. When possible try to get that in a deal memo if you have a deal memo. This is an area that hopefully the VES and the Trade Association (if it forms) will address.

    There are a few problems here - the vfx companies are restricted by their clients (the studios) from releasing anything until the movie is released. And frequently even that is limited. That means the companies themselves can't use material until it's out and in some cases may not show anything until months after the film comes out and with real restrictions on what they can show and for how long.

    Visual Effect companies also make the mistake on not putting in coverage language in their contracts . I know one film that was shelved and the new vfx company was unable to show any their work for 2-3 years until the film was finally released.

    And of course that means that all of their employees are restricted as well. Some vfx companies don't allow employees (or ex-employees) any materials, even if the company themselves can show material. That's just wrong and would be an area for the trade association to address.

    Some employees may try to copy off material while they're working but that will; break any employment agreement and certainly will be reason for them to fire you. The studio itself could also go after you for legal issues. I know in this case they're mattes but studios of course are sensitive to any information or images getting out without their permission.

    So what to do:
    Realize most others are in the same boat so vfx companies understand that you may not be able to show your most recent work.

    Simply note that on your CV or resume that you worked on project x but it's not in your reel because it hasn't been released for you to use yet.

    A credit listing on IMDB should be reasonable (although not always accurate). Better yet would be a reference from your former employee. Once again they should be open to acknowledging your work on the project. They may not be open to giving a good or bad reference for your work since that can lead to possible legal issues but simply confirming you worked on the project should not be an issue.

    Contact the company once the film is released and request the material. Obviously it's more likely when you're still working there.

    When the film comes out on DVD extract a small amount of the final shots you worked on and add to your demo material.

    If this is the only project you've worked on or if this is your first company and they're unwilling to release any materials then I would consider doing a short shot example showing splines in a trial version of the app (or full app if you actually own it) and show the mattes. This should help convince prospective companies that you know what you're doing. This would have been required at some companies for you first job so it's not a waste.

    You can also offer to sit down at a machine with the software at the company. Note that this is not to do work but to simply confirm to them you know the software and the concepts of roto. For roto you could do that in 15 minutes.

  3. Good post Scott, do you mind if I post the link on my FB so people can read it?

    Reynold Tagore

  4. You can post a link on FB and elsewhere. I do ask people to link instead of copying the entire contents since I tend to update even past posts from time to time.

  5. Good one Scott.It was worth useful for all VFX manics like me.


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