Friday, March 15, 2013

VFX World Wide Pi Talk

Last night was a great visual effects event.  Visual Effects World Wide Town Hall - Pi Day. A great many people worked incredibly hard to pull this off in the time available. (Big thank you to all of them)
We had abut 250 in Los Angeles where the event was held (Gnomon) and interconnected to New Zealand, the San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver and Austin.

I touched on this yesterday and here's the website with more info of the things going onSee vfxsoldier and links on upper right for additional info.

Below is the script notes I started with for my talk. I wasn't able to cover everything in the time provided and since I was free speaking most of it, I probably lost a few things along the way.  

I've posted a link to the YouTube of the talks and discussions at the end.  (And thanks for all the great responses and feedback. Let's keep the discussions going and lets implement some solutions ).

Suggested music for reading
Eye of the Tiger    by Survivor
Waiting on the world to change     by Jon Mayer
Changes    by David Bowie
A change is going to come    by Sam Cooke

I’m Scott Squires, started on Close Encounters, started up and ran Dream Quest for a few years, was at ILM for 20 years and I run the Effects Corner blog.

I am a VES Board member but today I’m speaking as an individual,

This event is aimed at all VFX professional worldwide. Film, TV, Commercials, and similar art forms

Each year we as the vfx community pushes the boundaries of what we can do. We develop the art, skills and technology to do more and more. This last year we have seen incredible work. Our efforts have allowed filmmakers to tell any story. We have made the impossible, possible. We are involved in not only most Hollywood films but also almost every form of moving image content. All films that were up for best picture this year used visual effects. The studios are reaping large benefits from our talents. We should be celebrating instead we find ourselves scrambling for coins in the gutter.

We have allowed visual effects to NOT be considered for creativity, collaborative and quality. We have allowed the discussion to simply become a decision of costs.

Films do not hire the key creative’s based on how inexpensive they are.

With the bankruptcies of R&H and DD and closing of other companies I the last 6 months, it’s clear that our industry is out of balance.

Major Problems

These are basically government funded corporate subsidies for select industries in select areas. Politicians are controlling who wins and who loses. The evolution of companies is no longer based on creativity, collaboration, quality and efficiencies. No matter how great a company is they can’t compete with a 50% or more discount funded by the deep pockets of governments. Subsidies do not create jobs, they simply move them. VFX companies are forced to setup expensive branches in locations with subsidies. The vfx professional is now forced to move from place to place like a migrant worker. We still work in offices and the moves are only based on these politics.

The taxpayers in those areas are paying a high price. Louisiana recently discovered that they make less than 16 cents for every dollar spent, even factoring the intangibles and the multiplier effect. No unbiased report I’ve seen has shown any benefits to the taxpayers in those areas.

Building an industry based on subsidies means building it on a house of cards, ready to collapse when the subsides go away. And they will go away. The subsidies are one of the next bubbles to pop. They are temporarily. Film subsidies require constant feeding.

Another location will provide better subsidies or your subsidies will go away. The BC film industry is seeing that with work now going to Ontario and Quebec. UK companies are now setting up branches in Montreal.

If tomorrow Antarctica announced a 70% subsidy, the studios would be on the phone to all vfx companies and the vfx companies would be scrambling to setup in Antarctica and requiring many employees to pickup and move if they expect to keep working. 6 Months later a small island in the pacific will offer more and the cycle will repeat itself. This is ridiculous and as insane as it sounds. Yet this is what is happening. You can see a time lapse version playing out in the US. Michigan was top dog a short while ago. They are no longer top dog and now have shutters studios and businesses simply because they falsely believed they were building an industry.

Everyone in visual effects is affected by the subsidies.

Too much competition
The amount of visual effects in films and other entertainment has exploded in recent years. But there is still too much competition. The subsidies have caused a distortion in evolution. Companies are trying to get a small profit from the projects. The companies have no leverage due to this imbalance. Large companies, even in subsidize areas, are underbidding the actual cost of the projects. Anybody with common sense can see that doing projects in the red will end in the company going out of business.

Broken business model
The visual effects business model is a fixed bid. A fixed bid for a creative process that starts as simply vague writings and has a fixed deadline. We are the only industry in the world that operates this way for a process with so many unknowns and so many changes, large and small. Construction requires blueprints and selections. Any changes are billed and deadlines are extended. The fixed bid is an insane way to work and results in companies going out of business. And it should be pointed out that when these companies go out of business they leave a trail of unpaid workers. Because at the end of the day the workers bear the brunt of all of this. It’s not the studios or the companies.

Massive Overtime
Unions fought and won to help make a 40-hour week standard. Most countries have a maximum allowable number of hours a person can work. The Fair Trade Association that Apple, HP and other companies belong to that covers China and other countries has a cap of 60 hours. In visual effects many of us start at this number of hours and increase from there. As vfx professional we’ve already exceeded what both many countries and associations allow. In there UK they have a maximum hours of 48. But vfx workers are required to sign a waver when they start.  As overtime goes up, productivity goes down. There are now health studies clearly showing the impact to workers health when worked over 50 hours. Why on earth are we working the hours we’re working.

Unpaid overtime
Many putting in these hours are doing so unpaid. Many vfx companies are breaking labor laws by misclassifying people, making workers exempt from overtime and other questionable activities. In Vancouver they are classifying people as technicians to get around overtime laws. In the UK there are no requirements for overtime rates so many are simply given a standard day pay, if anything at all.

Health Care
This is the only US centric problem I will mention. Health care here is very expensive. Each new company you work for requires 3 months before coverage. If you work shorter than that then you will have to buy your own. That is one of the reasons why all other film crewmembers are union members, including writers and directors. Because they offer continuous benefits as crewmembers move between projects.

Problem Summary
There are plenty of other problems but we need to focus on these first.

The visual effects industry is like large ship that’s burning, sinking and headed towards a waterfall. It would make a great movie but we are all on it. All of us. There are some on the ship that see no problems, some that simply want to hold on and hope for the best or hope that someone else will come to the rescue, others argue about which to fix first and of course there are plenty that just complain without solutions.

So lets talk about the possible solutions

Vxfsoldier has started a legal team looking at the issue of subsidies under the World Trade Organization, which technically lists these as illegal under their guidelines. But beyond this there is little we as individuals can do solve this problem due to the politics and the deep pockets of lobbyists.

Making our own content
Many have suggested that vfx companies make their own content. That this would provide an alternate revenue stream that would help cover costs. But being a content company is a different business than being a vfx service company.  Some vfx companies have attempted this with varied degrees of success. It is certainly worth exploring but bare in mind large amounts of money have to be obtained and invested. It would require companies to invest large sums themselves to create the concepts, hire writers and directors as necessary. And even once this has been done there is no guarantee of success. Even the large animation studios are not always successful at doing so. If your company was successful in create such content, would you even bother being a vfx service anymore? Especially if the vfx business was still broken.

Residuals and royalties
The other notion is that vfx company’s share back ends participation. Perhaps even the workers. If you think getting more credits is hard, try to get a valid back end. There are some vfx companies that have done so with varying success. But this usually requires the vfx company to bankroll a certain amount of their own production for which they require deep pockets. And what happens if these projects are unsuccessful or make no return on investment. How deep are the pockets of the companies, especially since they work on very low profits currently.

Keep in mind people such as writers get residuals based on their union coverage. Most film crews get residuals in the form of health and benefit fund payments. When you buy a DVD a certain % goes into that fund. So again, vfx workers are the odd man out with no participation in the profits of the projects.

Working for the studios
The studios could simply employ vfx workers directly, just like they do film crews. This is the way it used to be done. There would be a direct connection between decisions the director makes and the cost, just like there is for the rest of the movie. This isn’t as far-fetched or as impossible as it sounds. There would be some benefits to workers and could be an advantage to the studios and directors as well if it were done right. But the vfx companies today offer the studios the ability to take all risks over themselves and the vfx companies also offer doing the work below costs. Hard to convince a studio to do their own when others are more eager to fund their projects and take on the risks.

Post-production supervision
A director is given so many days to shoot live action. The producer, line producer and 1st AD all encourage and guide the director to shoot their moving in the allotted time. They have to shoot so many setups a day to meet their schedule. A director is less likely to do 100 takes or change their mind after shooting a setup or ask for a lot of reshoots because they have a limited time and they have others who keep them on track. Once into post-production there is no one working with the director to keep them on track. Because the vfx is done by an outside company that may not charge for all changes and overages, the changes continue. As these changes continue workers work more overtime and the company loses more money. If the studios had a strong post-production person and treated visual effects more like live action that would stop,

Global working conditions
Just like the Fair Trade Associations and other organizations mandate a specific code of conduct for companies; there could be a code of conduct for vfx companies to adhere to if they wished. Those who do so would be clearly listed and overtime and health benefits would be clearly defined. Should a company break any of these guidelines they would be off the list. All companies on the list would be required not to subcontract to others not on the list. And the studios could not plead ignorance.

Trade association
A trade association would be made up of vfx companies. By organizing they create a unified front, with numbers comes strength and leverage. Just like a union. Companies in the trade association couldn’t agree on pricing but they could establish standards and also define their business models. The goal of a trade association is to do what’s best for the companies involved. The film studios have their own trade association for negotiating with the unions as well as take care of issues affecting all of the studios.

The VES hosted a few meetings with some companies and Scott Ross has been trying for years to get companies on board. The larger companies and those in subsidies areas have been reluctant to even discuss the possibilities. But the vfx protest that many of you were involved in has seemed to make a bit of an impression. Scott Ross will be discussing the trade association tonight.

VFX Guild
A guild and union are one and the same. As mentioned almost all others involved in the film industry are covered under guilds. Writers, directors, production designers, cinematographers, actors, etc. Please don’t stereotype unions by what you have heard 2nd hand. And please don’t bother bringing up false notions of the auto industry. The German auto industry is doing just fine with a union work force.

The union provides protection for the worker. As an individual you have very little control at your workplace. The company could drop everyone’s pay without notice. They can do things to skirt around the labor laws. A company may not pay you for a few weeks and simply say that they will pay you soon. (Dave Rand can discuss this aspect) All of this is even more possible at a time of large unemployment. You have no say over your situation. You either keep working or you quit. Those are your two options.

The guilds goal is to do what is best for workers. Workers are involved in the management of the guild and are involved in determining what is critical. The guild sets up basic working conditions and they set minimums. Everyone is still allowed to do their own negotiating higher as they choose.

And guilds are not only here in the U.S. There are in a lot of countries including Canada, UK, New Zealand and even India. China is one of the few places where unions are not allowed by law.

Solutions summary
So those are many of the potential solutions. None of these will fix all of the problems. We have different members on the panel that can discuss different aspects of some of these possible solutions. And if other have better solutions please submit them.

Workers POV
Since this is a town hall event primarily for the workers let’s take a look at the solutions they can be involved with.

From my perspective a VFX trade association would be a very good thing and help build a more sustainable business model. I would suggest to all workers to ask management if they have an interest in a trade association and would be willing to meet about one. If not, why not?

We as workers don’t control the politicians, we don’t control the studios and we don’t control the companies so lets look at the options that are left.

1. Do nothing. Hold on and simply hope you don’t end up unemployed and/or half way around the working next year.

2. Quit the business. Some have already done so and more are more making plans.

3. Unionize. We now have a large group of motivated workers around the world.  We’ve changed our Facebook images but how do we put that into real results? For real change to take affect we will have to truly be organized in a contractual form.

I know some people say they want working conditions, they want to be paid the hours they work, they want collective bargaining to get continuous benefits but they don’t want a union. The problem is you’ve just described a union. Here in the US there are specific laws and regulations. To do those things you have to be a union otherwise you’re an organization that submits petitions in the hopes someone may read it.

Ideally a union would be global but given the range of laws in each country that’s not possible. The best option is a per country union that can be loosely connected.

Some say they wish to start a union from scratch. How much time will that take to get through all governmental approvals, to get acknowledgement from companies, studios and other unions? And in the end what do you have gained?

Now there will be those that say a union will be too expensive, that the companies can’t handle it. That all work tomorrow will go to China or the cheapest place this week.  It does the union no good to create a large added cost to the companies, which cause the companies to fail. The unions would negotiate with the companies to develop a reasonable solution for both sides.

And remember, I’m not just talking here in the US. If you wish some protection as a worker you should consider joining a union. Canada, UK, etc all have the option to unionize as well. I think that once one area unionizes the others would be more interested in following.

Nothing signals we’re tired of this and we’re not going to simply wait around for others who may not fix the problem than people joining a union. It sends a strong signal to the vfx companies that a trade association is a good idea. We as union members would be connected to all other film crewmembers.  With numbers comes the strength to do great things.

There are those who want to continue to talk about all of this for the next 2 years. I don’t know about you but I’m tired of talking. In 2 years time our ship will have burnt, sunk and gone over the waterfall.

We need to understand at the end of the day the entertainment companies need what we do. They are dependent on us.

What we need now is unity and courage by everyone. That is the only thing that is preventing us from making positive changes.

FXGuide hasVFX PI coverage.

Related Posts
Pass me a nail
Oh, what a mess we're in!
VFX Business Models

Global VFX Workers

VFX Tax Incentives / Subsidies
Risk and Subsidies

VFX Union, Take 2
VFX Trade Association
Using the nail

Other web related postings
John Parenteau's Thoughts on the VFX Industry
More than 400 VFX artists protest at the Oscars, to highlight the growing problems in the VFX industry after Oscar winning studio, Rhythm & Hues (Life of Pi) recently had to file for bankruptcy


  1. After watching the podcast for Pi Day my reservations about a trade association are relaxed. I am also still fine with unionization. The world is watching and it's good to see this movement finally kick off. It is far overdue.

    One thing no one is mentioning may seem relatively minor by comparison, but there is much discussion on: the current model and stigma against people breaking into the industry. This should be addressed by the industry at large and with the incumbent changes it is now facing, what better time than now?

  2. "he current model and stigma against people breaking into the industry. '

    Can you clarify this? There's not a stigma BUT:
    1. There are only so many jobs. Just like most industries. vfx and film in general have many more students graduating than there are jobs available. These days there are even more lawyers graduating than there are jobs available.

    Lesson- The odds are against many students of getting work and remaining working. The vfx companies have no control over that. It's the market place for the work that dictates how much work is available.

    2. Some schools do a very good job of training students and making sure that only students with the initial apptitue and skill set are even admitted.
    But there are other schools that will take anyone with money or who will sign a contract for a student loan. These are simply mills where students learn very little and many are have entered a field that they may not be suited for.

    3. All schools should warn all majors about the realities (not just vfx effects but all majors. History, English, etc) It's amazing how poor 4 year colleges and universities don't cover the most basic of career planning.

    4. We as a community should be discouraging people from going into great debt due to the above. Anyone with real passion will continue on but everyone should enter eyes wide open.

    5. Companies should already have some basic training already in place. Not covering specific software packages but helping get people up and running on their own software and covering their pipeline.

  3. I know they are two separate companies but...


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