Tuesday, November 12, 2013

VFX and Animation school and work exploitation

I'm doing some basic research on 2 things:

Visual effects and animation students or graduates who feel they were misled by the school they went to regarding vfx and animation jobs, their ability, learning, etc.  This is global so whether you're in US or India or other location if you think the school took advantage of you please let me know.

I'd also like to hear about vfx and animation exploitation in the work place. Once again this is global. US, Canada, UK, India, China, etc. are all welcome to be heard. If you're being mistreated or working in harsh conditions let me know.

I did the survey months awhile ago but I think there were many who didn't respond, especially in places where vfx/animation are now being developed.  There was a Facebook page just for Indian Animation workers that is now down. If there are still issues let me know.

Email me at squiresstudios at gmail and spread the word. If you have something to say regarding these issues and wish it to get attention, then please let me know.  Thanks.

You can leave comments below instead if you wish (even anonymously) but emailing me gives me a contact to follow up with, especially if this gets traction.

[Update 11/23/2013
I'm getting a number of depressing stories about poor vfx management around the world. Please go ahead and send me your story. All writers will be anonymous unless they wish otherwise. Like let me know which details I can make public or not.

Remember this is world wide.

I'd also suggest that anyone emailing me should consider rating these companies at http://thevfxwatchers.com anonymously. That way you can alert others to what you have found and maybe these things will help the better companies and to cause the problematic companies to improve.

VFX and animation schools - I still haven't received much about vfx or animation schools. If you feel you've been misled about the cost, quality or value of this type of education or about the job opportunities then please write in.

[Update 12/21/2013
Indian  vfx and Animation students being exploited

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Underbidding Visual Effects

Underbidding Visual Effects

One of the most problematic issues in the VFX industry, besides subsidies, is underbidding

This is where a company knowingly underbids what the company  estimates it will actually cost to do the proposed work.  It's also known as 'buying a project'.

This isn't done by just up and coming companies. Large, well established companies even in subsidized areas underbid frequently.

It doesn't take a financial wizard to see intentionally losing money on a project is not a good long term plan. In fact it's not even a good short term plan.

Why do companies underbid?

1. Subsidies
If a company in a location with no subsidies is bidding against a company located in an area with a subsidy (paid by a government) then they will likely have to underbid just to have a competitive bid to make up for the 20-60% difference. It's not like there's a 40-60% markup so that reduction has to come from the actual costs. Even companies in subsidized areas have to compete against other companies in more subsidized areas. That 20% subsidy looks good until you need to compete against a company with a 40% subsidy.

2. Competition 
Currently there are too many VFX companies for the amount of work available. If there weren't then most would be busy most of the time and would have no need to underbid. That's why the notion a lot of people have about starting a VFX company because they're not working, is flawed. And too many VFX companies in turn means that there are too many VFX professionals. Those considering a career in VFX should rethink because the odds are very much against you, despite what the for profit school ads may say.

3. Poor management
Many running VFX companies have no business training or background so will make these types of decisions based on a feeling of desperation. They'd rather be bailing water rather than considering fixing the leak. Rather than try to make decisions based on long term issues they are making rash decisions.

The thinking
Companies think they need to underbid the work to make sure they have work. They look at the dozens or hundreds of people at their company and the large cost that incurs. Larger companies can be burning through $1 million dollars a week in payroll costs alone. So the thinking is even if they lose a few million on the project it's better than losing even more by not doing so. The money offsets a large portion of the losses.

And underneath the decision to underbid is the notion that somehow they can make up for it. The crews can work a bit harder, they can be a bit more efficient and that things will go well on this one project to turn an underbid project into a break even project. That never happens. Directors do not stop changing or adding shots until someone with authority (the client) tells them they can't due to time or money. What ever budget and time allowed will be filled.

The hope is also that even though they are losing on this one they can make it up on the next one. That type of thinking can work in some industries where there are very big hits to offset some losses (films, products), but in visual effects there are no big hits. A company may be in the black on the next project but the tight margins in visual effects are hardly enough to fund that one project, impossible to make up for losses on one or more other projects. And that means any profits that might be made on the current project have already been spent on the previous project just to cover the losses.

And unlike some industries (contractors to the government) it's impossible to make up for the loss from underbidding with change orders and extras. Most vfx companies are reluctant to even submit valid change orders, the fear being if a client feels they were charged more than they expected, that company will never get work again from that client.

Impact of Underbidding

No company can continue to lose money indefinitely. While underbidding may seem like it's slowing the bankruptcy of the company, it is still going bankrupt. At some point the investors or the creditors will have enough and make radical changes or will simply close the company.

Some people think that's up to each company and if they wish to underbid where's the harm in it other than the company that goes out of business. But it certainly affects more than just the one company.

When a company goes out of business it likely will mean the workers will not only lose an employer, they will likely lose at least one pay period, possibly more. Any accrued health care, vacation or other benefits will be instantly gone.

When a company goes out of business because its been operating in the red it is likely do so at a very inopportune time such as the middle of a project or even worse on the major crunch period right before completion.

We've seen this scenario played out and affecting both workers and clients a few times just in the last year or so and it's a painful process for the workers.

When companies underbid it not only affects that company, it affects all other companies and the people who work for them. A company that underbids erodes good companies who are attempting to operate a visual effects company as a real business instead of a lemonade stand. A company that is bidding using actual numbers is now losing business not due to true competition but because a business is choosing to commit long term bankruptcy. A good company can only lose business for so long before they close.

And that's when other companies start jumping in with the same idea. Now instead of one desperate company, underbidding may be creating a half dozen companies that are getting anxious. Once they start doing the same thing, which some are, the quicker the race to the bottom happens not only for those companies but the entire industry.

Clients also get a very skewed sense of what the actual cost of doing visual effects is when companies underbid. Some clients will assume the company knows what's its doing and others will be aware but will feel compelled to take full advantage of the situation while they can. Money is a compelling substance and can cause loss of reasonable thinking on both sides.

What can be done
1. Don't underbid. Even Kansas arborists have a code of ethics that prevents them from learning other bids from clients and underbidding each other. No such ethics exists in the visual effects business. It's been said some companies have a 'we'll beat any bid' agreement with the studios. If managers can not operate a company morally then they should not be running a company.

2. Operate the company as a real business. Any idiot can run a business and lose money. When millions are at stake along with hundreds of workers, it can no longer be run by the seat of pants and wishful thinking.

3. If the company is unable to make money then the owners and investors should examine the problem and consider making improvements or they should consider closing or merging. Taking other companies down with you to bankruptcy is not a plan.

4. Lay off workers when there is no work for them. Keep a small group of key people to keep the company running between projects. The reality is film and other media work are project by project. The studios do not keep crews employed between projects. If the company is located near similar companies (real VFX hub) and the industry is healthy then the workers would likely be able to find other work as it shifts from project to project. It's when companies set up in a distant location or when the actions of a few make for an unhealthy industry that this becomes a problem. Now it may seem to be better employing the workers and get some funding but that is simply eroding the industry and its better to have workers make a short term change rather than trying to work long term in an unsustainable industry.

5. Have the visual effects companies form a trade association like other industries. Put aside petty, non-business issues and work together to stabilize the industry. Have a basic code of conduct and ethics for companies to abide by.

The same problem of underbidding happens with individuals. Graduates and those starting out think they have to work for free simply because a company posts a job offer saying so on Craigslist. Too much competition makes them more than eager to work for nothing which in turn causes companies to consider lowering all wages. When companies start dropping experienced professionals to hire cheaper labor (another poor business plan) then what do the newer workers think will happen to them in a few years?

Some workers go out on their own with the intention of truly being independent contractors but these people almost always underbid as well. Frequently they charge less than they were making while working for a company. Some may choose the same rate but they fail to understand even the basics of business. When you're working for a company it costs the company more than simply your pay check.  Most of the time there are benefits, taxes or other costs that you may not be aware of these. These may be another 20-40% above your pay. As someone working for themselves now all taxes will need to be paid by you along with health insurance, your computer, software, etc. It starts adding up quickly. Vincent Laforet has written about the cost of doing business as an independent photographer. 

Place a value on what you do. Do not underbid. Consider the long term consequences. If both companies and individuals are only focused on being the cheapest above everything else, then the quality and the creativity will fail along with the business.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Film Subsidy Bubbles

Film Subsidy Bubbles
Dangers to those in the subsidized areas even if they may not be aware of it.

Someone on an email group questions why subsidies for visual effects were bad and why would we want to do away with "Our subsidies".

First off they're not our subsidies. The film studios are the ones who lobbied for them. They're the ones who profit from them. Not the vfx companies, not you, the vfx worker, and not the taxpayers.

All the vfx companies obtain by moving to subsidized areas is the 'opportunity' to bid on a project. Same competition. Same need to submit a bid the studios will accept.

Subsidies aren't what fund visual effects. World wide demand is what fuels visual effects. The studios make the films for a global market and most of their profits come from visual effects films. If they wish to make tent pole films they will continue to make films with visual effects. Reduction or elimination of subsidies would not cause visual effects work to disappear. What it would do is hopefully instill some basic management and planning of the visual effects to tell stories rather than abusive and excess amount of wasteful work.

What the studios gain from subsidies is someone (the taxpayers) who will cover a sizable cost of the film. This reduces their risk and allows them to make more profits, sooner. Thanks to the generosity of unsuspecting taxpayers.

It's useful to think of subsidies as what they are, economic bubbles. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Housing bubble - Banks were practically giving away home mortgages with no down payments. There was so much profit to be made some bank loan officers were forging documents. There was so much profit to be made people were rushing to become contractors and real estate agents. Many were investing their life savings on a sure thing so they bought houses to 'flip'.

Things were going great until they weren't. The housing bubble popped and was one of the main causes of the world wide recession in 2008 which we will continue to struggle with for years, perhaps decades. People were wiped out out. Even those not involved in the housing market saw their house values, retirement funds and their investments drop like a rock. Unemployment skyrocketed and hundreds of thousands of homes were foreclosed, many of them illegally.

But don't worry about the banks. They're doing just fine. They made huge profits on reselling the loans and on the foreclosures. They even got mountains of money from the government.

Tech bubble - A few years earlier there was the tech or internet bubble. People were betting their life savings on this new internet thing. Startups were happening in every other house. People were rushing to be web designers. The gold rush was on. Until it wasn't. When it all imploded many lost their life's savings.

But don't worry about the banks or rich, they got in on the IPOs of the best companies. They'd be laughing their way to the bank if they weren't already sitting there.

Silver mines - In the 1800's there were a few silver mines where silver was discovered. And almost overnight towns would spring up complete with saloons, stores and churches. People moved across the country to feed on the potential money. They either became miners or sold to the miners. And then the mine would run dry and it would all stop. Many of these towns turned into ghost towns as people fled to the next place. The entire economy for them was built around the silver mines. People lost their savings and moved on.

But don't worry about the banks or the owners of the mines, they did ok.

And if you had asked any of those people involved the day before those bubbles popped, the people would have told you everything was great. They all thought it would continue. Until it didn't.

Not creating an industry 
The film lobbyists and others who would make a profit from them, convinced the politicians of Michigan that it was in their best interest to build stages. Because they would be an ongoing profit center and employ over 6000 people. After all, they were creating an entire new industry there. And the politicians in their infinite wisdom backed the cost of building the stages (and the bonds required) by using the pension funds of the police, firefighters, teachers and others.

Then they learned the hard lesson that they weren't really creating an industry. They were simply leasing it at a high cost for a very short time. They were simply paying studios to come to their location on a film by film basis. And the studios would only bring films if they provided higher and higher amounts of cash every year. They had to compete with other countries and states and the ones to win film projects were the ones who outbid others and gave the studios more free money. Both the 'winners' and the losers were losers.

Many don't seem to see the downside of subsidies, especially if they're in a subsidized area. And just like the other bubbles, these people think everything will continue to be great.

Real World Example
Let's do a review of how this works and why it's not great for those working there. In this example I'll use Vancouver but it could be anywhere in the world.

Vancouver in the days before subsidies had their share of film production. Vancouver was a city and had a number of scenic locations for shooting (ocean, harbor, mountains, forests, city streets, snow, etc) There was some work from both Canada and the US. The lower exchange rate encouraged some projects to shoot there as well. If the subsidies never happened the  film production in that area would continue to grow at a rate that matched demand. The industry would be as stable as any production hub can be. Most of those who had film jobs would likely remain reasonably employed.

When the subsidies were created in that area they created a huge pull for all productions, especially those on the west coast. Many projects went to Vancouver along with a number of the below the line jobs. According to some of the SaveBCFilm people, over 20,000 now depend on the film industry. Many of these couldn't be filled because they had not evolved over time to the new size. This was simply a politician pulling switch. That required bringing in workers from all over the world. That required training many locals in film production.

Many jobs were lost in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, places that had evolved over the last 100 years and had maintained a certain balance. Because this was where the studios with the money were located. This is where most of the writers, directors and producers made their homes. So this eco system that had developed was being drained not due to lack of demand but simply by politics.

And in the meantime Vancouver continued to balloon. VFX companies from the US and even the UK were forced to set up shops due to the demand for this free money from the studios. This in turn required many working in the US and other countries to now move to Vancouver to continue working. The original intent for many of these film subsidies is to create more jobs for locals but in many cases the jobs are filled by foreigners. The clamor for more people and the lure of money also tends to bring out the 'for profit' schools to start pumping out even more students. So these graduates join the work force of a local industry that is already expanded beyond what it can support naturally. This while other areas are experiencing high jobless rates simply because the jobs have moved. No new jobs were created. Simply the shifting of existing jobs in most cases.

And we see this same pattern repeat itself around the world in other countries, regions and states. And the same people pushing for these in one area are in fact the same source of the funding and lobbying to push all other areas, each competing against the other but all ultimately working for the same small set of clients.

The people working in film and visual effects in areas with subsidies have now become dependent on the subsidies. They have become dependent on government handouts or welfare in a sense. The government ends up covering a sizable amount of their labor costs. And these subsidies must increase on a yearly basis and must out spend other areas competing for the same exact work.

Now you have thousands of people who's private industry jobs are in the hands of local politicians. A very large portion of the film industry (individuals, vendors, stages, sub-contractors, etc) in those areas has now expanded beyond what it would support naturally if there were no subsidies. This puts those areas in a very dangerous and fragile position. The entire structure could collapse at any moment since the politicians could pull the support, the only thing holding all of it up.

Film production and visual effects has always had ebb and flow of work so that makes it difficult but places with subsidies have additional factors to consider. If a subsidized area reduces their subsidies due to change in politics, then it will all fall down. The taxpayers in these areas won't always be so ignorant of what it's actually costing them. One day they will realize they're seeing the Emperors New Clothes re-enacted with their money. And the other thing these subsidized areas have to worry about is another location out bidding them by providing even more free money. They're competing against other locations and if they lose, they may lose big time.

Vancouver, BC has seen this in action just in the last year. Ontario and Quebec started offering more incentives and the work to Vancouver slowed down and the work in these other areas increased. Those in Vancouver also fail to see the irony when they cry foul over the subsidies when a large percentage of the work they had was based on themselves outbidding in the subsidies war. And as in all wars, there are losers.

And Vancouver and their SaveBCFilm had no control of these other political groups in other locations since they were competing with them. They had no control over their own local industry since they had built it on fictional and temporary support. They had not built a self sustaining industry with it's own content creation but rather a simple service industry greatly dependent on the good graces of local politicians (receiving money from the studio lobbyists) rather than business and talent.

And we see this repeat itself all the time. Michigan loses to Louisiana. State or area X loses to area y because of a shift in subsidies. The amount of work remains the same, it's only question is where it will go and this is now controlled by government payouts than by any other selection criteria.

So now rather than having a few healthy and stable locations for film and visual effects production, we see the work spread out to many more locations which tends to make each location weaker. Rather than a large eco system that is self sustaining, these are smaller systems which are not self sustaining. With so many new areas developing there is more competition for the exact same amount of work. And there are new areas announcing film incentives almost on a weekly basis. These areas are all fighting for anything and everything. Those jobs that were 'created' in those locations may evaporate at any time since film production is starting anew with each film and not as a permanent industry. And one thing is for sure, the work is constantly in flux and shifting around the world. No place is safe or permanent. Those on top today will likely be on the bottom tomorrow.

And because these areas have all been expanded beyond their self supporting means, they're all in danger of popping. And so eager are they to keep the work they are willing to keep outbidding others. Those who have moved there, those who trained there, those building their own businesses there and all of those working there are in a very precarious position and yet fail to notice their local industry is supported by the least reliable support. A politician. Like those in other bubbles, they fail to notice the dangers until it happens. It obvious to those on the outside but those riding the bubble fail to see it or simply prefer not to consider the reality.

And who is pushing for subsidies in all of these cases? The studios, the only ones who gain in the end from any of these and the ones who play each location off the other. But don't worry about the studios. They'll be just fine. They'll just move to the next place after your area pops.

What's happening in LA could easily happen to Vancouver, London or any other film location. And not only is it possible to happen, it will happen at some point. There's no magic that protects your area. Studios eager to make money in the short term have no allegiances since the subsidies have merely turned the discussion into a cost issue.

No problem
There are those who think that that's the way it is now and that we should get over it. They don't see any problem moving every 3-6 months like migrant workers. They see no issue with being treated as a commoditized migrant worker and they feel the best workers will win out. Sorry for being the bearer of bad news but that's not how it will play out. Just because you're willing to move doesn't mean that you can move. Many subsidies are dependent on locals (residents who have been in a location for over a year, file income taxes there, etc) and so when given a choice between you and someone who can fulfill their subsidizing criteria, your 'qualifications' may not be enough to counter the need for a subsidized worker. Some countries are difficult to get working visas and so even if work is available and you have great qualifications, you likely won't be hired. And don't forget that each area has been expanding and expanding already. There already is an excess of visual effects and film workers due to subsidies. As the work continues to shift based on subsidies you may find yourself shut out from working, regardless of your qualifications, experience, skill level or talent. Then you might consider why subsidies aren't the best for the industry and the people who work in it. Rather than being based on  quality, efficiency and cost criteria,  subsidies are only based on which politician will provide the most money.

Many of these locations that have subsidies would continue to do work after the subsidies go away. They have now built up infrastructures and experienced and talented people. It won't be as much work but it will be more stable and more long term.

Ultimately that's what we're striving for. A healthy and stable industry where quality, efficiencies and other factors are the deciding criteria on where a production does their work. These are all in the hands of the companies and the workers in those locations. Right now your local industry is in the hands of a 3rd party that you have no control over - the politicians. That may be good for the studios but that is no good for those of us working in the business.

Related Posts
Visual Effects Tax Incentives / Subsidies
Risk and subsidies
The Impact of Visual Effects Subsidies

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Impact of Visual Effects Subsidies

The Impact of Visual Effects Subsidies 

This was a post in regard to a conversation and postings on a mailing list.  I'm paraphrasing the original comments here so these are not the true quotes. I've also augmented it based on some of the discussions that followed.

Steady Employment

"While subsidies are a problem, they're not nearly as big of issue as people make them out to be.  What we really need is need is enough profits to provide steady employment and not lay people off. "

While it's a nice idea, even Hollywood hasn't employed people on staff since at least the 1940's.  The film factories used to have production people move from project to project but those days are long gone. Films, television and commercials are done on a project by project basis. Crews are hired, work the length of the project and then are laid off. The studios do not continue to pay the crews once the project is done.

No matter how much profit a vfx company may make, it will lay people off if they don't have work to do. Even places like ILM would routinely lay off half the people working there since they weren't on projects. Now if a vfx company has a contract for another project and think they can put workers to productive use in a relatively short time then they will be willing to hold on to them for that short duration. There is of course cost involved every time they have to hire someone, train them, get them up to speed, etc. But that cost is unlikely to be enough for them to hold onto the majority of people for months at a time with no specific projects or tasks.

That's how visual effects was done. With things like Harry Potter when there was a known amount of work coming in and where places in the UK were booked for 2 years in advance (in part thanks to subsidies), people got the idea that that would continue and that they were on staff. [Note that some people in subsidized areas take these things personally. I've been in the room with studio executives, vfx company managers and others. In many cases the studios don't even request a bid from a non-subsidized company. This is in no way reflects on the capabilities of people or companies in these areas, simply what has happened and continues to happen regarding the business aspects. That's the reality and that's what I'm reporting.] But since vfx is a service business and film are not scheduled based on the whims of the vfx companies, the work will continue as feast or famine. That's how projects work.

We don't make widgets at a set rate with a constant demand. We don't work in retail where there's a reasonably consistent amount of work all the time with thousands of customers. We're more like the workers at a summer park that have seasons where they hire people and seasons where they will let them go.

If management is on the ball and the stars align, then they can get in projects and try to adjust schedules to keep crews moving from one project to another but that's more of the exception than the rule.

The only places with some real control over their work flow are animation studios which control the creation of the work, the amount of work and the scheduling. And even that isn't a given if there are market issues (a film does poorly) or if an internal project gets canned, people are laid off.

The places that don't lay off people are even more likely to go under. The burn rate for hundreds of people is staggering and unless that's being compensated in some major way, it will bring a company to it's knees.

Subsidies Imapct
So while the subsidies weren't necessarily the main reason for DD and R&H problems they certainly played a role.

DD went under because the CEO saw how little margins they were making in vfx and his idea was to expand out into other related areas. Get local governments to fund much of it. Take a % of a feature film, invest in making your own animation content, start up a school, get into medical & military related media. In the end there wasn't enough real funding to cover all of that and it takes time.

R&H suffered from studios pulling work, among other things.

So why do vfx companies have terrible margins and weak contracts? Why do they have so little leverage?

vfx companies spend up to a million dollars setting up facilities in places like Vancouver, Montreal, etc.  Why do they do that, especially if money is tight? It would make sense if they were a retail chain and could get new customers. It would make sense to a mining or lumber companying wishing to access new resources. vfx have no new customers in subsidized areas. They have no more resources in subsidized areas. The only reason they setup shops there is because they are subsidized and the few clients they have demand it.

The subsidizes don't create more work, they merely spread the work around based on politics, not on efficiency. The subsidies encourage more training and local employment in the subsidized areas so you end up with more workers than the global vfx industry can support. And those workers will be fine until the subsidies in that area are reduced or another place offers greater subsidies. And that will happen just as Michigan saw with Louisiana and just as BC and UK are seeing with Toronto and Montreal. So now you see the erosion of worker wages. And those companies that expanded to the subsidized areas then have even more workers on their payroll, meaning trying to maintain staffing while low on projects becomes even more impossible.

How do California based companies such as DD and R&H compete for work? How do they lower their costs by the 60%* it may take just to match another governments subsidies? They lower their prices to the bone and then some. Add this type of competition along with the cost of opening branches all of the world and you can start to see why vfx companies are becoming weaker and weaker.

[* People ask where the 60% comes from and assume I'm making it up. It comes from the cumulative incentives offered in some of the Canadian provinces if you study their own government documents. Note this is for visual effects work done and includes things like DAVE in BC.

Disney covered some of this at the VES Production summit:
They focused on Canada where different region have different incentives. And many of the types of incentives add up. (i.e. they may have a labor incentive, a production incentive, etc so these can be  cumulative to a large amount)

"Using the example of a $1 million dollar project – in BC a production could get back $379,000. In Ontario credits can be combined to return $437,000 and in Quebec the return rises over 50% to $572,000." (from fxguide article and my notes)

So that's 57% from Disney estimates. It's also covered in the VES White paper on the state of the industry. While you can argue about the precise percentage and the requirements,  in any case it's a substantial amount, much more than simply a sales tax rebate. And still a major percentage to try to compete against.]

Subsidies encourage even more competition than would have resulted from technology and normal evolution. Free money being offered by governments has a way of distorting markets to no advantage except the final recipients. Companies in some area have grown much larger than they would have if left to their own. More people jump into the fray when they see free money. So now you have so many vfx companies that they will all underbid their actual costs in an attempt to stay in the game. And they are covering their crew costs, or at least attempting to do so, while being paid less than it actually costs them. How in the world are companies supposed to provide stable, continuous work to all their employees between projects when they can't even make profits while working on projects? And the sad part is most vfx companies are operating in the red, even those in subsidized areas.

There is a limited, finite amount of work so it's impossible to employ all the people currently in vfx all the time. The subsidies have encouraged more companies and workers than the industry can really support.

Is there little wonder why then vfx companies have so small of margins? Or that they have weak contracts and no leverage? The studios have plenty of other subsidies and companies to threaten any one vfx company with.

So no, subsidies didn't cause DD and R&H to go out of business but when you're in a weakened state of running in the red and trying to compete, the smallest bump may be your last. And this applies to vfx companies around the world. How long can any company operate in the red? Some in the UK have been doing it for at least the last couple of years. How stable do you think it is in subsidized areas where 75% work is there only be because of subsidies? Subsidies are no guarantee of stable work. The subsidies are controlled by the whim of politicians in all areas and as we know that can change quickly. And how stable do you think it is working for companies operating in the red year after year? At some point their owners or creditors will say enough is enough and close the company without warning or notice. The next DD or R&H can happen anytime, anywhere. The subsidies have created a very fragile industry and for those who think if only the companies made a little more profit and kept all their workers employed during the slow times I suggest you start looking at the actual situations, including cause and effect.

Film Production
So why have most Hollywood film crews (Directors, writers, camera, grip, sound, etc) been able to make being employed project to project work in the past? Even without the stability of permanent work at one studio? Because there was a concentration of studios in one area and each had a variety of projects in different phases at any one time. With a number of sources of employment it was likely a new opportunity would start up in a reasonable amount of time. Work on a feature and wrap that (be laid off). A couple of weeks later you may get 2 days of a commercial shoot.  Then maybe off a couple of months and then get work on a television project that may last 6 months. If you're lucky and the tv show gets picked up then you may be off for a few months and know that a project is waiting for you at the end of that time.

Some people have stated that I'm advocating for project based hires. I'm simply documenting that the work in reality is project based. We do service work for studios who do not maintain a consistent level of output of films, let alone visual effects shots. That's simply the nature of the business for better or worse. It's possible on television vfx to have a little sense of the amount of work required per week and maintain the staff accordingly. But once the show wraps for the season and has no work coming in until it ramps up again I suspect most are given unpaid 'time off', if not laid off. When there is too little work at a company they can either go into debt quickly or they can lay people off.

It was also mentioned that vfx is special, because we do R&D and pipelines and other things that we should be employed continuously and not be hired like interchangeable grips. Why vfx professionals choose to view all the crew as grips is beyond me. Maybe why they see us all as technicians. You'll notice the directors, writers, cinematographers, production designers and many others are guns for hire as it were. I don't consider any of them interchangeable.  Right how most vfx companies do hold on to key people in management, R&D and even some in production if they decide they can't risk losing them. But just because you may want to work on the pipeline does not mean you're able to continue to pay everyone from roto to animation to TDs.

And the other thing to note about R&D is it was originally all R&D. Figuring out skeletons, facial animation, skinning, texturing, painting, etc all required work. Most places had to write code to do just about everything from animating to rendering to compositing. By now you can purchase or rent software that handles the majority of those tasks to a large extent. There's even project management, databases and render queue software to handle at least a percentage of the work used to done by the pipeline people. Water, fire, hair, fur and other speciality software are all available to some extent for purchase and the number of projects requiring speciality and custom software is shrinking. For a typical show is a large shop with 30 people in R&D (full time) going to be as inexpensive or as necessary as a team which simply buys their software with minimal R&D support?


The freelance project to project work process is one of the reasons  why there are film unions. So you can go from project to project and know that there will be some minimum standard all the employers have to meet. You know they all have to follow labor laws and union regulations. You also get continuous health care, pension and other benefits even though you could be working for a different employer every week. And that's also why most people involved in film crews are paid above average working rates, because they are not guaranteed full time employment. They are taking on some of the risk themselves. Yet those in the vfx industry accept their rates as the norm and expect full time permanent employment.

The concentration of both studios and film crews in a few specific areas made all of this type of freelancing possible. It was good for the studios since they didn't have to employ entire crews permanently. When they needed a crew they simply put out the word. It was good for film workers since they could reasonably find more work at other places.  There are reasons why this types of clustering happens in certain industries. There is a reason why there are places like NY Broadway or the London West End. You have a concentration of theaters, actors, directors, musicians, etc. There are other examples of other industries clustered in specific areas. These are eco systems that have developed overtime and are somewhat self correcting as the work ebb and flows. Throw into that balance subsidies where the work is literally forced to go elsewhere and you'll soon destroy it.

If you were a dentist or retail clerk, you could probably work just about anywhere. But if your career is in a specialized field, such as vfx, then chances are you will have to go to a few specific areas. It's hard to be a professional snow skier and live in Florida. You may love to have the state fund a ski resort and fund man made snow for it so you can live in a place you like and still work in your profession but most other industries don't have the luxury of governments throwing money at things that no corporation or business person would support.

So what happens when that same amount of work is now spread worldwide due to subsidies? Now each area is setup with less than enough work and film and vfx crews can no longer easily move from project to project. Instead of having a few concentrated areas of healthy business you now have many more which are all operating in a less than healthy and stable situation. More people have been trained and employed in a specialized business than the business can truly support.

"If subsidies went away then we may be stuck with Fresno, Waco, or places in China doing the work to keep the labor costs low and we wouldn't be able to do anything about it."

More FUD. Studios do the work where they can get the quality and type of work they need, with little risk, with cost as a factor. Otherwise they'd be in China and India 100% now. And as the new owners of DD have said, most of the vfx work coming out of China now is very poor. We in vfx seem to be more than happy to make up boogeymen even when they don't exist. True, places like China and India will be getting better, especially since companies are more than happy to setup there and train their own replacements.

Subsidies also don't guarantee that they will be nice areas. Another  myth is that the current places that are king of the subsidy hill at the moment will always be the king of the hill. They will not be. Economics and politics at some point will move and shift that work and you will have absolutely no control over it. If a place that was the armpit of the world offered better subsidies and the studios thought they could make it work, then your job in Vancouver could be gone in a weeks time.

In terms of companies and people moving to Fresno or Waco - Seriously? Any business can look at some of these lower cost areas and know what it will truly cost to setup there in terms of time and money and it would take a very long time to  offset any costs, if at all. And unless there are a number of companies in the area then you don't have an eco system. In those cases you have to cover full employment even during times with few projects. Even ILM had difficulty getting people to come up to the bay area because they were the only game in town for awhile. Even better if vfx companies operated as businesses and refused to setup shops in locations that make no economic sense. And if workers took the same business stance and said no to these types of proposals.

Workers continue to undermine just how much power they have in these situations. The work is 100% dependent on the workers and yet we act like we have no leverage or say in anything. If the majority of workers simply said no, just like if the majority companies had enough guts to say no, then the industry could get back on track. But as long as there are companies and individuals more than willing to undervalue themselves and the rest of the industry, things won't change.

And you're right, there are other problems for the industry and removing subsidies won't solve everything. But subsidies are the largest problem the vfx industry faces. Anybody can come up with a very long list of problems in the vfx industry but many items on that list will be directly or indirectly caused by or linked to subsidies.

And yes, vfx companies could work more with studios and directors to do the work more efficiently. To reduce wasted time and money but again take a look at that situation.
Can a vfx company guarantee to be 60% more efficient so they can do the work less than a subsidized area? When that exact proposal has been made to studio heads, they say fine, make it more efficient in the subsidized area. And the subsidized areas offer something else - money in the bank which is much more alluring than talk about trimming costs and doing things more efficiently. A studio can call their bankers and say we have $100 million movie but Canada (or whatever country/state) has agreed to pay 60% of the costs. You (the bank) can fund a $100 million movie for just $40 million. The bank will say "Where do I sign?"

Take a look from your own perspective. You wish to have a house built. It can be built in a town a little closer and more convenient to work. And the contractor there has said he will work closely with you and can keep the costs down provided decisions are made. You don't know exactly how much savings you can make and you'll have to assume you'll need to get a loan from the bank for the full amount and pay it off.

Or the other option is to build the house in the next town. It's little more of hassle and a little further away but the town has offered to pay up to 60% of the cost of the house if you use contractors there!  No strings attached. You can go to the bank and tell them you're buying a $500,000 house for just $200,000. The appraisal shows it as a $500,000 house. Yet you only have to pay off $200,000 The bank will sign you up instantly. You could turn around tomorrow and sell it for the full amount and keep all the profit since the town has offered the money not as an investment but as a totally free gift to you. Free money is fun.

While there are a lot of problems in the vfx industry, the subsidies are top of the list. And that's the one thing we can't address as companies or as workers. We can work on business models, efficiencies and other issues but we have no control over subsidies. And yet that tends to trump all. vfxsoldier is the only one to have come up with a proposal to try to nullify subsidies so that the industry can become healthier and so companies can make a difference in their own future.

In regard to the business model solution, which could be a big win, which company will be proposing a new model (cost-plus?) to their clients? Because right now vfx companies have refused to join or create a trade association which could potentially have the clout to change the approach. Will a company attempt it on their own and will they have enough leverage to make it happen?

If anyone has other solutions for any of vfx issues please post them. We already have plenty of lists of problems.

Related posts
Visual Effects Tax Incentives / Subsidies
Risk and subsidies
Oh, the mess we’re in!
The Miracle of Visual Effects, will it continue?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sad state of the Visual Effects Industry

Sad state of the Visual Effects Industry

For anyone considering visual effects as a career and for those already working in the industry-  please check out this great article by Jeff Heusser  at fxGuide:
VFX in Los Angeles – 100 hour weeks & homeless

Puts things in perspective.

This is what our industry has come to. We who make the magic from nothing and we who generate the major profits for the studios. The studios have commoditized us and shipped jobs around the world to save pennies. Those who are experienced, talented and skilled are putting in long hours and are being forced to move to other locations around the world, away from their family and homes.

Those just starting out are being fleeced by anyone and everyone selling them on this fictional dream of fame, fortune and creative riches.

For profit schools are multiplying at an incredible rate and being funded by money machines such as Goldman Sachs to sell dreams to people, young and old. The problem is those dreams don't exist. These schools are churning out thousands of graduates to an industry without jobs. The only selection process at these types of schools is can you pay or can you sign this student loan from the government.  Your aptitude and your potential talent is never evaluated. Guidance counselors never reveal the reality of the industry you're getting into or your odds. In most cases these diploma mill types of schools teach very little of value and even those that do now have cranked out so many others it doesn't matter. It's hard to stand out and even when you do it's hard to get a job. When you do get a job you will likely be working long hours and then have to move to find your next project.

All of these students are eager to go into tens of thousands of debt. They are eager to work for free or close to free. They are eager to be exploited, to lower their value and the value of everyone else in the future, to the detriment of their real future.

The student loan bubble is the next big bubble to burst with over $1 trillion in student loans here in the US.

Many coming to this website are searching for the salary of visual effects supervisors and other positions, eager to learn about making a fortune without pausing on some of the more sobering information.

Those just considering visual effects industry as a career, save yourself. Go into something with a future. Visual effects are being used  more than they ever have (every film from hollywood uses vfx and most independents) and the technical and creative challenges are increasing but the business aspects and control of the industry have turned the love of what we do into a mess. It certainly pains me to write this as someone who has been doing this a long time. Visual effects companies are collapsing while others fiddle.

Many in the industry, even those with experience, are bailing as quickly as they can. And with a visual effects only skill set, there's very few places you can work. There are few other industries that can take people who do animation, lighting, rendering, modeling, compositing, etc. Make sure if you do go to school you gain a broader base of knowledge than just visual effects. 

There are plenty of visual effects companies around the world that have no problems exploiting recent graduates who have already been exploited and fleeced from the schools they attended. Overtime is the norm. Companies encourage it, especially since it hides the sins of poor management, and it is now such a mantra for workers that they accept it as the norm themselves.

The visual effects companies who take on many of these new graduates do so at the expense of other, more experienced workers. And why do they do it? False economics. They think that hiring people at a lower wage is how they can save money. The truth is the experienced worker is more productive, the more likely to solve the problems, and the one who can make sure the project gets done in the compressed time schedule. New people should be brought in as needed and mentored so they have a future. In an industry where experienced people are being dumped for the cheaper, inexperienced people - what do people starting a career in this industry think will be happening to them once they become experienced? It's an endless cycle.

With so many visual effects graduates eager to be exploited and companies willing to exploit them, the visual effects industry is dissolving from the bottom while pressure and other problems are dissolving the top. The end result will be an empty hull.

Now there are thousands and thousands of film school graduates every year as well. Likely many times the number of visual effects graduates. Why isn't the rest of the film industry having these same problems? Well the studios are smart enough not to hire too many inexperienced people. They know the value of experience. And everyone else working in live action filmmaking is covered by a union. This provides the studios with the experienced people they need and also protect the crews from being exploited. Visual effects is the only group not covered by a union and thus is able to be easily exploited.

Related posts
See any article on the right column under the State of the Industry

Updated 6-11-2013
I'll repeat some of the links here from the schools post since not everyone follows the links and I've added many more since there seems to be some confusion regarding this issue.

Harkin, Colleagues Say For-Profit Colleges Squander Billions and Destroy Dreams
Art Institute graduate spent 70K on degree, can't find video game job, takes up stripping instead.

New links:
Yes another video and article about another visual effects student being lied to at Art Institute in Tampa.

110 for-profit colleges accused of lying, defrauding taxpayers - video and article

Read more:

For-profit colleges investigation - Great video
For-Profit Colleges Are A Spectacularly Bad Investment

What I Just Told the Obama Administration About For-Profit Colleges
NY Times list of articles on for-profit schools

Some of those NY Times articles:
Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream
Misleading Advice for Student Borrowers
Closer Scrutiny of For-Profit Schools

For-profit colleges wrong solution to higher education problem

See vfxsoldier for more student stories.

Update 6-14-2013
Even if you work in a subsidized area you might not be paid 

Today is also another Townhall Meeting that applies to all involved in visual effects around the world.
This is a streaming event that is being held in New York today but is being streamed globally with speakers from around the world.

Starts at 6pm New York time. 3pm Los Angeles time.

More info:
VFXTownHall Streaming location.
More info

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Survey Comments

Survey Comments

I did a simple survey asking visual effects and animation professionals about their working conditions.
For more details and the results of the survey see  Visual Effects Working Conditions Survey

Keep in mind when I ask about working conditions many are surprised, even at the VES board meetings. Many of us do work in places that provide reasonable working environments and that do follow at least basics of the labor laws. But keep in mind this is a global industry. Your experiences are not the same as everyone else's and just because you may not have experienced something, doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I've heard reports of beatings and other issues in places such as India and China. Even in Los Angeles there are companies that do not pay overtime nor do they provide reasonable working conditions (air conditioning, etc). Much depends on the quality and level of the company you work for.

Also keep in mind you are likely to be required (requested?) to travel half way around the world to keep working. Will the company there be providing the same level of experience as you've grown used to? As vfx companies continue to be squeezed don't be surprised if the companies start making even more trims to not only your salary and benefits but you work experience and environment as well.

Safety is one that people seem to take for granted. Are there ethernet cables and power cables running on the floors where you work that people might trip on? Are any of the exit doors locked for security or other reasons? Is the stairway door blocked with old computers or boxes? Is it in a good area of town? Are there tall cabinets or hanging 'models' that might fall in an earthquake? Was a warehouse or old house quickly converted to a vfx company workspace?

The first question of the survey was about priorities. This was the level of concern or how important it was to the professional. From none to Highest (essentially 1-5). What are the important issues to be considered when working at a job or considering to take a job?

These were focused on issues the company has some control over (versus quality of the script, etc)
Brackets are added comments from me.

Priorities of concern 
None Low       Medium High Highest concern - (Required)
1. Safety on job
2. Working environment (temp, ventilation, etc)
3. Ergonomics (monitor placement, chair, etc)
4. Meal breaks
5. Rest breaks
6. Compensated for overtime
7. Minimizing overtime
8. Turnaround time (time between work days)
9. Health Insurance Coverage
10. Vacation time
11. Sick leave
12. Pension
13. Credits
14. Credit placement
15. Deal memo
16. Demo Material [Being able to show material on demo reel]
17. Being misclassified [Independent contractor, technician, manager, etc to avoid overtime or other issues]
18. Having to move to keep working [Are you concerned about having to move elsewhere?]
19. Other (please specify)

The second question was about how well the company you work for meets those concerns?
If a pension was high on your concern list but the company did not offer a pension plan, then it would be rated None.

How well does your current company meet your concerns? (or last if not working)
None Low Medium High Maximum

The following are a list of the comments from respondents who answered Other in either question.
The first list is those who commented on both questions (priority and company). After that are the comments regarding only priority question and last, comments regarding the company meeting those demands. Comments in [ brackets ] are my responses.

Priority and company responses

Vancouver, BC   Canada 
Priority: having a notice greater than 2 weeks before getting fired.

Company: training, introduction to the team and project

Altadena, CA USA  
Priority: training, introduction to the team and project

Company: Appreciation for work and a supportive environment focused on quality work.

Bielefeld, Nordrheinwestfalen Germany
Priority: Health Insurance Coverage is through the state, although I worry a lot about paying the Coverage!

Company: None = meaning, they didn't deliver what I wished for  Maximum = Totally satisfied with what they did  ---- don't know if I got that right! -------
[Yes, that's correct]

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: No job security, short contracts, no carrier advancement

Company:  No job security, short contracts, no carrier advancement

London,   UK
Priority: Not mentioned: Sexual Harassment Policies

Company:  Cant Answer for Credits and Credit placement yet, as movie not yet released.

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: I want to be able to have a family and not uproot them every 6 months. I make decent money but not enough to handle that without concern

Company:  They hire 200+ animators and then lay them all off at the same time making finding the next job very difficult

Los Angeles, CA   USA  
Priority: please no relocation. hard to find stable jobs when everything and everyone is constantly moving from one place to another. I want a life w/people I love *biggest priority*

Company:  had to leave loved ones behind and relocate to canada to work at this company. great studio, loved the work i was doing, but very lonely personal life. life outside of work just wasn't satisfying/happy enough, so chose to go back home. now struggling to find work at home. wish I didn't have to choose between a great work life vs a great personal life.

Barcelona, Spain
Priority: at least be heard...

Company:  it seems nobody cares about the content

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: This company went bankrupt.

Company:  This company went bankrupt.

London,   UK
Priority: I put None for Health Insurance because I happen to work in the UK where we have the NHS. But, if I have to keep moving around the world like I have over the past 10 years, this may change.

Company:  - Not compensated for overtime at all. Most people (everyone?) in London,   UK are on day rate.
- No pension that I know of.
- Not sure about film credits this time around. The last time I worked for DNeg was years ago, and I did get credit then. Of course, it was below the catering.
- I am misclassified: have a lead title informally and a senior artist contract.

London,   UK
Priority: None

Company:  Great

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: Needing to move has been the end of numerous relationships and even a Divorce. I've taken my own steps and sacrifices to minimize this but it's a major issue for most.

Company:  Work space is consistently much worse than it has to be in most companies. Even when there is a good spaces available artists are placed in the worse possible spots that can be found. Cold, Dark, Cramped, Noisy, etc...

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: Challenging work - High Priority
Being involved in meetings/dailies and not a grunt worker - High Priority

Company:  Most work is low difficulty    Not involved in creative talks or meetings.  Hired as a grunt worker to pump out finished characters.

Berkeley, CA USA
Priority: These are difficult to answer; the company I work for does a great job of meeting my needs and treating me fairly. The concern is that if we close, I'll be unable to easily find another job. So,

Company:  Again...if my company stays in business, all is well. It's just that it's looking like it might be difficult to stay in business...

El Segundo, CA   USA
Priority: I think this is a little miss leading because it assumes that everyone has experienced these situations. I for one have never been "misclassified" And NO ONE can ever offer complete job security.
[I'm not making any assumptions about what people have experienced. What are your concerns, priorities, etc?
Also I made no suggestion regarding job security in the survey.]

Company: I believe we as artist also need to look at ourselves. Everyday I see everyone around me wasting countless hours and taking 4 hours to do something that should only take 1. If we would simply work with integrity then perhaps we would not be in as much of this mess as we are. Not to say there are not sweatshops out there but we cannot put all the blame on them.
[Maybe you should help them or flag management?  This survey isn't putting the blame on anyone. Just trying to get different experiences]

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: consistent enforcement of state, local, and Federal labor laws: required, absolutely

Company:  VFX supes treated employees like servants, not collaborators; lots of going to the top of the org chart for concerns that could be resolved with more directly-targeted phone calls; complete mayhem on a project where people slept over in the building to complete a botched job by another division; bad integration of recently-acquired facilities and existing employees.

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: If the environment is abusive, I have quit with minimal notice.  In one specific case, I was threatened with being fired, and then the supervisor asked my coworkers if they knew anyone who could replace me.

Company:  Some of this is the difference between previz in a production office and previz at a vfx or commercial house.  Because production offices are temporary and on location, they tend to have older office furniture.  VFX and commercial houses tend to have better, ergonomic chairs.

Priority: Advance payment 50%

Company:  No contract


Priority responses only

Los Angeles, CA   USA,CA USA
Priority: I think marking pretty much of all these items as a "high concern" has made me realize this list should be retitled to "reasons to leave"

No location
Priority: Salary scale model for all studios to use via standardization with min 3% salary raise.

Los Angeles, CA   USA  
Priority: Compensation fee schedule for canceled bookings, Penalties for truncated or extended schedules.  Priority:  Highest.  
Parking or compensation for parking lot fees or alternate transportation where public transportation is unavailable or unworkable.  Priority: High

Mumbai, Maharashtra India
Priority: Training and development activities

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: How the management treats the artists personally.

Sydney, Australia
Priority: Salary / fair pay

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: Having to recover for sick days even thought they are specified on the contract     Having more duties than specified on the position and being told that I don't deserve a promotion and the minimum salary for the position.

Stuttgart, Germany
Priority: Less everyday working hours!

Fort Lauderdale, FL USA
Priority: Can no longer find work in Florida. Too much competition with college grads which has severely lowered wages and increased competition for the few jobs available. Over 18 years professional experience and struggling to find suitable, stable employment at a reasonable wage.

London,   UK
Priority: Breaks, vacation, safety, credits, Material and environment are already good in UK

London,   UK
Priority: i am afraid i seriously am not understanding what the above represents; MY concerns or the concerns of the company as represented by the deal memo? the wording of this is vague at best. i have responded to the survey above assuming it has to do with the deal memo content.
[Not everyone gets a deal memo of any kind. Some don't know what a deal memo is. So the question was how important is a deal memo and it's content to you.]

Burbank, CA USA
Priority: Salaries dropping, too many art school grads flooding market

Culver City, CA USA
Priority: Residuals?

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: When facilities ask me to bring in assets from other jobs they know I have worked on. I have refused to work at certain place where someone asked me to bring in something.

New York, NY USA
Priority: Re: Health Insurance / Pension - I secure my own, so provided the pay is high enough to offset those costs, they are not concerns for what positions I seek.
[So will your job always pay high enough and rise as quick or quicker than the speed health care is rising? ]

New York, NY USA
Priority: Its all about quality work and being treated as a human being.

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: Finding work

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: Contract length and job security is absolute top

Sam Francisco, CA   USA
Priority: I'm pretty lucky

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Priority: Top concern - unpredictability in length of contracts, location of work, viability of companies, future of industry.

El Segundo, CA USA
Priority: moving is NOT an option for me (or my family), so "NOT having to move for work" is "required"

Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA
Priority: I'm 50 yrs. old. I can't keep moving for the job.  I need time off. I need a vacation.  I need a like.

El Segundo, CA USA
Priority: Not sure what's going on with that last question but no, will not move just to stay in VFX
[Is having to move a high concern? And your answer is yes, it's a big concern.]

Montreal, Quebec Canada
Priority: Quality of project. Experience and learning. Who i am working with. Money.

San Francisco, CA USA
Priority: Experience and expertise is considered a detriment more and more.

Nicaso, CA USA
Priority: Opportunities to move up or lead new projects without simply doing the same 'cog' job for years

San Francisco, CA USA
Priority: Consecutive days worked is a big problem.

Berkeley, CA USA
Priority: Not sure what a deal memo is.
[Demo memo is a written agreement with the company so your pay rate, position, and other details are clearly stated. See VFX Deal Memo for more info ]

Glendale, CA USA
Priority: Note I work for a unionized company

Culver City, CA USA
Priority: Why would being force to move to keep working be a requirement that anyone would want?
[Is having to move a high concern? ]

El Segundo, CA USA
Priority: Movable start dates without compensation. Poor communication about end dates.

Santa Monica, CA USA
Priority: Loss of VFX jobs in and around the Los Angeles area, and the length of unemployment between contracts.

San Francisco, CA USA
Priority: Working on good scripts and challenging movies is very important.

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: Lack of will power, or maybe power in general, of vfx houses to push back on studios/clients regarding feedback and notes.  Endless revisions and complete changes of mind on clients part.

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: No mercy for working moms.

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: Quality of shows high, working with your friends high

Montreal, Quebec Canada
Priority: Overtime used as leverage to lower salary

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Priority: Confirmation about availability is required.  Currently only production side can has confirm, but worker can't.

Venice, CA USA
Priority: Highest concern is the frequent layoffs and employers unable to guarantee work for more than a couple of weeks.

Company responses only

Perth, Australia
Company: In the last 2 years I have worked in Sydney, London,   UK, Bergen and Perth. What I have answered here applies to all places.

Carlsbad, CA USA
Company: I am a 6-month contract worker and do not receive benefits (health, 401k, vacation, etc) from my employer

Woodland Hills, CA USA
Company: We get no overtime pay (exempt, full time) but do get royalties.
[I assume you work in games?]

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Company: I am currently working outside of a production environment since few jobs in animation remain in L.A.

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Company:  Haven't had to move… yet.

Company: I think what you're doing is a giant waste of time.  It's the not MY responsibility to force a company to do what *I* want.  I can work in another industry if I don't want to work this way.  I'm so tired of the whining.  How about getting VFX companies to simply be run by normal human beings instead of people who will take any job for any price so James Cameron will visit their facility?  The problem with the industry is not going to be fixed by a union.  It'll be fixed when all these terribly run companies go out of business and ones with sound practices take their place.
[ First the survey doesn't force any company to do anything. It's simply trying to get a guage of workers around the world. As to getting them to work the way YOU want - you have no problems if companies break labor laws or treat people poorly? So should those who have been beaten not mention it since it would be whining?

"It'll be fixed when all these terribly run companies go out of business and ones with sound practices take their place."
How do you suggest the problems be fixed? What are the sound practices and how will the terribly run companies go out of business? (Evidently we're not to speak of any of this according to your note) ]

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Company: My last employer was a pretty good place to work. This is not typical.

London,   UK
Company:  We actually got paid day-rate only. If we worked weekend we could take day-rate or comp day. No per hour OT.

Wellington, New Zealand
Company: Perhaps this should come under 'deal memo'? Length of contract - contracts seem to be getting shorter and shorter and are less likely to be honored anyway. You might get a six month contract but be let go half way through it with no or almost no notice. There is absolutely no stability

New York, NY  USA
Company: No loyalty to employees, extremely low wages

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Company: currently freelance

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Company: You don't have a place to put notes for items 4-10, so I am putting it here. In item 9, [Overtime compensation] I have to put down that I am paid a flat, because I am a salaried employee. But in item 8, [Are you compensated for all the hours you work? ] I feel like I am more than adequately compensated for my overtime, because I factored that into my salary negotiation, and I am paid what I think my time is worth. The important point here is that you don't have to be paid "overtime" per se, at an increased hourly rate, to feel well compensated for your additional time at the office. In fact, having to punch a timecard to keep track of my time would be annoying as hell. In my current situation, I come and go as I please, as long as my work gets done. I prefer that over some kind of crappy union timecard punching situation. I've done that. It's a system that works well for mediocre people who can't demand their own deals.It's not for me.

[ A flat rate is fine when both you and the employer know what the time required will be and if it's consistent. What happens when your employer requires the entire project to be done working 16hr days, 7 days a week? Did you factor that in? Does anything in your contract prevent that from happening? When your time is fixed there is no incentive for the company to avoid overtime. It's actually more cost effective from their accountants stand point to have you put in as much time as possible, since that's all free to them.

"I come and go as I please, as long as my work gets done. " The problem is for most people  working in vfx it is a team effort.  In those cases people can't come and go as they please, they have to be there to make sure the work and hand offs are made.

"punch a timecard to keep track of my time would be annoying as hell."
First there are other methods of tracking time than punching a timecard. Second, so the company has no idea how much time you actually put in? Without knowing how much time you and others are putting in how do they determine how much to bid?

"It's a system that works well for mediocre people who can't demand their own deals."
So you have full protection from anything the company decides to do? And you've never been burned even once? Congratulations. ]

Hollywood, CA USA
Company: I am on a work visa and I can never feel safe because there is always more and more lack of money which push the companies I worked for to restructure and get rid of employees

Glendale, CA USA
Company:  It should be noted that I currently work at Dreamworks and am therefore covered by TAG. But I am still very much concerned by and supportive working conditions, rates, and guild membership for all of us involved in the field.

Vancouver, BC   Canada
Company:  Too many work hours.

London,   UK
Company: I had different treatment in my previous country, in France.  I kinda threaten of legal action my employer before leaving so I get every single hour paid, with special rate and stuff. Because the first month they tried to paid me really low (nothing actually at first) because I was 'on training' ....  So I write a letter summing up a very accurate timesheet, stating roughly : Pay Me.

Miramar, Wellington New Zealand
Company:  I am not in the US.  I work at a company in a country with a national health plan.  The company doesn't provide it, but doesn't need to.

Wellington, New Zealand
Company: I'm not sure I understood this question correctly, so I answered as if high means the company is meeting my concerns, and low if not. Also I have no idea what deal memo is.
[Yes, that's correct. High means they're meeting your concerns]

Hillsboro, OR USA
Company: I had to move from California to get this job

Redwood City, CA USA
Company: concerned about layoffs / outsourcing to India and China

Los Angeles, CA   USA
Company:  This is kind of a mixture of my current employer, with whom I recently started work, and my previous employer. Where I don't yet have experience with how my current employer works (like credits or demo material - basically the last 6 lines) I've given a response reflecting my previous employer.

I think there are quite a few similarities in the comments, no matter where in the world they came from.

Keep in mind the film business is all freelance. Film crews go from one project to another (just like actors, etc) and have gaps between employment while they try to locate additional work. That's one of the reasons why film workers are paid a bit more than similar workers in other industries. It's also one of the reasons why they are unionized. Many in visual effects have gotten used to the idea that visual effects is a permanent position and the amount of work is a constant.

As always please leave comments if you have additional thoughts.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Visual Effects Working Conditions Survey

Visual Effects Working Conditions Survey

[Update:  What follows is the details of the survey and then final summery at the end.  I'm adding some of summary results here for those who simply skim.

In New Zealand 38% of the workers had worked 100hrs a week during their heavy crunch time.
Keep in mind a regular work week for most countries is 40 hours. At 100 hours that's 2-1/2 times the number of hours per week as a regular person has to put in. That's over 14 hrs a day even if you work 7 day weeks. Equivalent to 20 hrs day if it were a 5 day work week. Also keep in mind most countries and fair trade organizations have a cap of 60hrs a week total.  Anyone putting in 100hrs in a week has exceeded the limit in most countries by a full weeks worth of labor on top of the maximum.

This also wasn't simply for 1 week for most of those working. In New Zealand 13% of the workers put in long weeks for over 10 weeks. 19% put in 8 weeks of heavy overtime. 10 weeks is 2-1/2 months or likely 70+ days non-stop without a day off.

While New Zealand was the highest, most countries far exceed regular labor limits. Details in the survey and end summary.

Globally 18% of visual effects workers had put in at least one 24+ hr day in the last 2 years. Almost 1 out of every 5 visual effects workers had not stopped to sleep during a 24 hour period. In one day these people put in over 1/2 of what most people take 5 days to do.]

I conducted a simple survey of visual effects professionals and animators over the course of 2 weeks via twitter, Facebook and this blog and conducted on survey monkey. This is not a scientific survey, it's just a rough gauge of some of the issues for visual effects professionals around the world. Because no one monitors the visual effects industry there is a lack of any real data regarding companies and workers. The Croner survey is done for animation and visual effects companies so they know what the salary range is for different positions but otherwise wide spread information is severely lacking.

I posted this survey in the hopes of getting a sense for any consensus on some of the various issues visual effects professionals have to deal with. What are the priorities of vfx professionals? We talk about hours and other problems but how much of an issue are they? Do they vary by location?

I focused on issues that the visual effects companies have some control over and that are measurable. I've avoided asking about things such as respect or good projects. While important issues for individuals these are not something easily measured or controlled by the visual effects companies.

This data will be submitted and used by the VES Strategic Committee and I'm making it available here for reference.

In the end 663 people from around the world filled out the survey.
31 countries were represented.

Number of surveys done in the following countries:
  • USA             303
  • Canada         113
  • UK                 87
  • India               31
  • France            17
  • Australia         16
  • New Zealand   16
  • Germany          8
  • Singapore         5
  • Mexico             5
  • Spain                5

The other countries had less than 5 people each.
China had 3 people report and I have included that in some of the following charts just to have a data point.
27 people did not provide location information so won't be used for the location info section.

663 people responding to the survey isn't bad but with thousands of people in the industry (unknown exactly how many are in any one region, let alone the world), the sample is only a rough sample and can only represent those that took the survey. The small number of sampling in some countries can greatly skew the results so don't extrapolate these into representing a majority of cases.

I've tried to double check the calculations but if you see something amiss go ahead and flag it.

The next several charts are what the survey web site provided. After the charts are corresponding tables of the actual values. Note the values are averages. These are for all the survey results (global).

I ran numbers in Excel to get Median values, which I think are much more useful, as well as breakdown by country. These are posted at the end.

The first two questions have values of 1 to 5 in terms of no importance to highest for each topic.
Priority of 5 meant that it was a requirement or a big concern.
Company meets needs, a 5 indicated the company was doing very well at meeting the needs.

It was interesting that every topic received some 5's and some 1's, so something that was critical to some people was of very little concern to others. And that's why the averages shown in the first batch of data points is not as interesting as the median values that are listed later.

Global Medians

The following data was sorted in Excel and shows Median values in addition to Averages.

Priorities is the importance of what professionals placed on each issue.
Below is the global priority list sorted.

Country breakdowns

Here is the original list showing the comparison of different country responses.
Yellow represents values below the Global values.
Blue represents values above the Global values.

Companies shows how well the companies are dealing with the specific issues from the worker's perspective.

Yellow represents values below the Global values.
Blue represents values above the Global values.

Topics by country

Global includes all survey results, even if no location provided. All values in nearest %
Small sample sizes provide questionable results for many countries.

Summary of Results
I've just completed organizing the numbers so haven't analyzed them in detail. I will do a follow up post with comments from those taking the survey. [Comments from the survey are now up ] There are certainly some differences between locations. Some of the attitudes about priorities are likely to be relative to the perspective at that particular location.

Compensation for OT, minimizing OT, and avoiding moving are the top in most countries.
Low on the list is credit placement. Doesn't mean it's not an issue but other more pressing matters.

And to be clear anything marked as compensation pertains to being paid for Overtime when it is worked. 'Compensation for all hours worked' is just what it says. This is not to imply higher wages but simply being paid for work done.

Almost 39% receive no OverTime compensation on a global average.
Almost 36% don't know the overtime laws in their location.
14.46% get regular pay(or comp time) instead of overtime pay.

Those who had to put in 24hrs or more in a continuous day were 2nd only to those who had put in 14hrs a day.

50hr work week is most standard 'normal' week and 70hr more likely heavy week.

[Updated 6/18/2013 Added a couple more paragraphs because I want to make sure the numbers sink in and don't just appear as numbers on a chart.

In New Zealand 38% of the workers had worked 100hrs a week during their heavy crunch time.
Keep in mind a regular work week for most countries is 40 hours. At 100 hours that's 2-1/2 times the number of hours per week as a regular person has to put in. That's over 14 hrs a day even if you work 7 day weeks. Equivalent to 20 hrs day if it were a 5 day work week. Also keep in mind most countries and fair trade organizations have a cap of 60hrs a week total.  Anyone putting in 100hrs in a week has exceeded the limit in most countries by a full weeks worth of labor on top of the maximum.

This also wasn't simply for 1 week for most of those working. In New Zealand 13% of the workers put in long weeks for over 10 weeks. 19% put in 8 weeks of heavy overtime. 10 weeks is 2-1/2 months or likely 70+ days non-stop without a day off.

Globally 18% of visual effects workers had put in at least one 24+ hr day in the last 2 years. Almost 1 out of every 5 visual effects workers had not stopped to sleep during a 24 hour period. In one day these people put in over 1/2 of what most people take 5 days to do.

Those who don't work in visual effects tend to have a hard time to grasp this concept. ]

The bottom line is visual effects professionals are putting in a lot of hours, frequently beyond limits set by both countries and some industries. And many of the hours are not compensated so a majority of these workers are being exploited unless their pay is correctly calculated to cover heavy overtime.

[Update 6-20-2013 Overtime links
Overtime post
Why Crunch Mode Doesn't Work: 6 Lessons

The death march: the problem of crunch time in game development

More Productivity Myths, Debunked by Science (and Common Sense)
Myth #1: More Hours Equals More Work  ]

First, thank you to everyone who took the survey.

Hopefully this will shed some light on issues for visual effects workers around the world and help to show similarities and disparities between areas.

There have been other surveys done in the last year by VFX Solidarity, the UK VFX group and others. I'll try to post links to those here.

Updated 5/22/2013 BECTU UK survey results

This information could at least be the start of research for both guilds and trade association. More surveys will be likely coming from a number of groups including the Visual Effects Society.

I'm still pushing for workers to come up with a Code of Conduct addressing these issues.
More info in these posts:
VFX Professionals United
Global VFX Workers

If you wish to have a voice in the future of visual effects you will have to speak up and make yourself heard. Participate in surveys, post comments, post you own blog, get involved with forums, etc.

If you have other issues or solutions please go ahead and post them in the comments. Last week someone wrote a comment to a post I had, that I did not cover issues and solutions in non-LA areas. For the same effort they could have listed their specific issues and solutions in the comments.

And again, very little I've posted has been LA specific. See VFX World Wide PI talk which lists issues and solutions. With the exception of health care, ALL of the issues were world wide. Subsidies have a huge influence, good or bad, no matter where you work. We are not working locally for local markets. The visual effects industry is global with work being done around the world and with many professionals having to move around the world. Any change in any area will affect you.

Massive Overtime and unpaid work hours are problems all around the world. See the survey results.

The solutions included a global trade association and guilds among other things. For those who think guilds are LA centric, many guilds cover the entire US. Also note that most countries of the world have guilds and many have specific film related guilds, including Canada and the UK among others.  And yet there is an amazing amount of ignorance or denial regarding all of these things. See Visual Effects Guilds to learn more about guilds.

For those who wish to see improvements to this industry, have courage to stand up and be heard. It's in your hands. The time for finger pointing or waiting for someone else to solve all the problems is over.

If you have thoughts or insights based on the survey results please leave them in the comments below. If you have suggestions for future survey questions you think are important go ahead and leave those in the comments section as well.

Survey comments are covered in the Survey Comments Post