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All is not well in the VFX industry, Squires

Written By: - Date published: 9:57 am, June 18th, 2013 - 50 comments
Categories: capitalism, film, jobs, john key, overseas investment, same old national, slippery, us politics, workers' rights - Tags: , , , ,

Many in the MSM, NZ film industry and the wider public praise Jackson and Weta for the work it brings to NZ.  Weta, and Weta Digital are the life blood of Sir Peter Jackson’s Hollywood films. From the Lord of the Rings onwards, the visual effects (VFX) have been a major selling point for the films.  Weta Workshops continue with a range of work when not working on Jackson movies.

However, as told by Scott Squires, all is not well for workers in the international VFX industry, who are largely lacking access to union membership due to the conditions of their employment.

Squires (“World industry veteran”- RNZ blurb) and local VFX business owner Sebastian Marino were interviewed by Kathryn Ryan yesterday on RNZ, providing some interesting insights into the industry. Both are originally from the US, and have had to look outside their home country to get work, hence their presence in NZ.  They provide a US-centred perspective on the industry, even while, as for instance in Marino’s case, now living and working in NZ.  This, in itself says something about the state of the industry internationally.

VFX, often confused with Special Effects, are the processes that films are subjected to away from the camera. Special effects are more the fire, smoke and explosions that happen in front of the camera.  So in recent decades VFX are strongly associated with digital technologies.

Ryan seems to have brought Scott into the interview on the basis of a recent survey he did of VFX workers in diverse countries.  Squires reports on the survey is on his blog, showing that all is not well in the industry.  This was a “non-scientific” survey

of visual effects professionals and animators over the course of 2 weeks via twitter, Facebook and this blog

Squires claims that

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 main result of the survey is that, of the 663 who responded, their biggest concern was the lack of compensation for overtime, followed by “Minimizing overtime”, and “Having to move to keep working”.  Poor health insurance coverage and access to vacations are also significant concerns.  The respondents rated their current employers poorly on those issues, as well as on “Pensions”, “Credit placement” and “Deal memo” (“Deal memo is the written employment agreement with your title, rate, dates, etc.”)

Squires adds more background to this, in the Nine-to-Noon interview.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

In introducing the interviews, Ryan provides some statistics of local relevance taken from Squires’ survey: for the Kiwis who responded to the survey, 3% average a 40 hour working week. The rest do about 50-80 hrs in a “normal week”.  More than 40% said they worked more than 100 hrs in busy times: more than in other countries.  In the course of the interview, Ryan refers to input she received by informants from within the industry, who prefer not to be named.

In the interview, Marino responded to a Ryan question about the result of such things as the Hobbit taxpayer subsidies, saying that, everyone in NZ and the NZ industry benefit from the subsidies.  The rest of Marino and Squires responses were about the impact on US VFX workers of such subsidies, and about the current state of the  industry. This contributed to a picture of the US-based Hollywood industry, colonising local non-US industries.  This has resulted in some US-born VFX workers becoming industry “settlers”  in off-shore locations.

VFX workers are in a unique position within the film industry. They are not directly employed by the movie companies but by independent VFX companies, who are granted contracts by the movie studios.  There are only about 6 major corporates making the major Hollywood films, and in recent times, the numbers of trained VFX workers and companies have expanded: all following the carrot of a Hollywood dream.  This makes the competition for VFX contracts pretty intense.  The result is a lot of the less sophisticated “easy” work is contracted to low wage coountries, leaving US-based VFX companies fighting for the remaining “harder” work.

The result of subsidies being offered by non-US governments, mean that the large cohort of US VFX workers need to be prepared to move to countries like NZ for work.  Squires and Marino seem to be oblivious to the impact on the NZ workforce of this influx of skilled US workers.  Their concern was that the US ex-pats need to be able to use their expertise for a wider range of digital work, once they have relocated to NZ with their families.  Marino justified this by saying that the NZ government subsidies are an investment in “getting these very talented people here”: nothing about such subsidies being the basis for training Kiwis to do the work in the future.

Squires said that everyone working on a Hollywood movie has their union/guild, except for those working on VFX.  This is a consequence of not being directly employed by the movie companies.  When Squires started working, on Close Encounters, he was in a union because camera work was involved.  Now people in this work say they don’t need to do that.  US VFX workers don’t have health insurance because, usually it comes from a company. However, when VFX workers are moving from one project and company to another in fragmented way, “where are you going to get your health insurance?”  In past few years, some people have worked for months without any pay.  As a consequence, Squires is asking for a guild that would cover the situation of VFX workers.

Other US-based workers in the industry, echo squires concerns, such as in this online article: ‘VFX in Los Angeles: 100 hour weeks and homeless’; and a post on the Occupy VFX: Visual Effects Artists Before Profits website.

So this is the dubious situation that John Key and Sir Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit Law” and subsidies have contributed to: exploited and increasingly insecure US VFX workers; limited opportunities for Kiwis to become skilled VFX professionals and enter into this increasingly insecure and exploited international workforce; and all in the interests of big profits for the Hollywood studios.

[Update] Scott Squires has responded below to some of the points in this post, providing some extra useful information and comments.  To this point in the post (‘Squires and Marino seem to be oblivious to the impact on the NZ workforce of this influx of skilled US workers.’) Squires’ replied:

I’m not oblivious to it but there is not an ever increasing and steady stream of work. Film projects for vfx work has always been feast or famine. Any place that benefits from subsidies is simply causing work to move from one location to another. These are not creating new jobs in a global sense.  …

See Squires’ comment in full here.

50 comments on “All is not well in the VFX industry, Squires”

  1. Macro 1

    Sounds just like the match box girls of the 1890’s. So when ARE the young going to revolt?

  2. Winston Smith 2

    I’m interested to see this John Keys fault, here I was thinking hes the leader of a small country in the South Pacific whereas hes ackshully responsible for the goings on in the VFX industry

    Hes quite the mover and shaker

  3. Thanks for the write up.

    For details of the survey and many more posts about various issues in visual effects check my blog:
    Effects Corner Survey http://effectscorner.blogspot.com/2013/05/visual-effects-working-conditions-survey.html

    25 minutes wasn’t enough to cover all the issues or potential solutions.
    And to clarify a few things here:
    It’s not just US workers who have turned into migrant workers. Workers from Canada, UK, Europe and other areas are likewise having to become migrant workers as well.

    ‘Squires and Marino seem to be oblivious to the impact on the NZ workforce of this influx of skilled US workers.’
    I’m not oblivious to it but there is not an ever increasing and steady stream of work. Film projects for vfx work has always been feast or famine. Any place that benefits from subsidies is simply causing work to move from one location to another. These are not creating new jobs in a global sense. There are only so many films made a year and as a result there are only so many workers required. So the problem is each local area that provides subsidies (UK, Vancouver, etc) trains and educates people in visual effects such that there are probably twice as many or more workers than there is work. That means as soon as a subsidy changes or another location gets more subsidies then those jobs will move. They’re temporal jobs simply based on latest film. Now you end up with a number of unemployed people who have been trained at a specific task without a lot of application to other jobs. This is a poor long term strategy for anyone actually looking for a lasting career.
    It’s also a very poor investment for local governments who could have put the money in to more long term and stable investments.

    The other thing that should be pointed out the reality is the sales pitch of film incentives never matches the reality. Plenty of unbiased research shows the problems for the majority of the people in the area providing those subsidies. Sure, the government has favored a select industry and those who are able to get work in that particular industry are doing well but typically at the loss of others in that area. The tax payers money that is spent on film subsidies could have been used for public good. The return on investment for most subsidies of these types is 13-16 cents for every dollar spent. In most cases it would be better to lower taxes for all businesses in the area or to apply those funds to long term industry or public help (bridges, education, health, etc)

    More information here for those interested in the truth of subsidies:
    Visual Effects Subsidies http://effectscorner.blogspot.com/2012/08/visual-effects-tax-incentives.html

    Keep in mind Weta is the top of what they do and there are a lot of talented and skilled people working there from all over the world. Even without subsidies Weta will be going strong. But since we’re involved in a global industry it’s important for everyone to consider the impact and the future.

    • karol 3.1

      Thanks very much for such a full and detailed response, Scott. I will add a link to your comment in my post.

      For us NZ taxpayers it is useful to get as much information as possible about the impact of these subsidies and law changes impact on the local industry and workers.

    • Gosman 3.2

      This seems to ignore NZ rather unique situation in that Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor set up their own special effects company here and bid for work even if it isn’t filmed in the country. This means it is less dependent on any rebates or subsidies that Government might provide to the film industry. I’m not sure there is a similar set up in places like Australia or Canada. Certainly both Weta companies are world class.

      • karol 3.2.1

        Well, I certainly think Weta is the real success story, while Jackson’s movies ride on that, with the help of subsidies. It also has been made possible by the global digital revolution.

        However, Squires main point is that there are no more jobs internationally, just the same amount of jobs spread around the globe, in a very insecure way.

        Weta does get government grants, in 2009

        Special effects wizards Weta Digital have scored $5.8 million in Government funding for a research partnership.

        Science and Technology Minister Wayne Mapp said Weta’s investment would be on a basis of at least two-for-one.

        “It’s about growing new products and processes for export.”

        The joint partnership with TechNZ – the business investment programme of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology – is intended to accelerate the growth of New Zealand’s strong creative digital industry.

        plus the Hobbit law encompassed workers in the gaming and other digital industries.

        Weta also benefits from the work resulting from government subsidies to Hollywood movies filmed in NZ.

        • Gosman

          Isn’t that sort of grants that you lefties are big on promoting as the solution to all our problems?

          Regardless Weta digital is not dependent on the film subsidies/rebates for films to be made here.

          • karol

            Weta and the film industry are joined at the hip. that’s how Weta was able to be developed. It’s to TOTALLY dependent on subsidies and grants, but they enable them to be more more profitable than they would otherwise.

            I’m not against the grants, per se. however, if the are getting government grants, then they should be providing benefits to the whole of the country, not providing higher benefits to the top tiers and coporates at home and abroad,.

            • Gosman

              They are providing benefits to the whole country. I know very few people apart from hard core leftists like you who object to Weta Digital. Even our flake of a Mayor in Wellington is pro-Weta.

          • Colonial Viper

            Regardless Weta digital is not dependent on the film subsidies/rebates for films to be made here.

            That’s not what that fucking NZ union-busting (but foreign union supporting) rich prick Peter Jackson, or our Prime Minister, said.

            Isn’t that sort of grants that you lefties are big on promoting as the solution to all our problems?

            Grants to business people already worth hundreds of millions of dollars? No my friend, that’s called corporate welfare and it is the form of socialism that you Righties dream of.

            • Gosman

              No, Peter Jackson issue was with the filming being based here. He would still have likely engaged Weta Digital if not Weta Workshop. Weta Digital does lots of work for films that aren’t actually shot in NZ.

  4. infused 4

    50-100 hours a week, yeah, during production. According to my mate, he “creams it”.

  5. Gosman 5

    Shock horror! Highly paid IT contractors work long hours and have to sort out their own holidays.

    Whatever next? Perhaps you will provide some shocking revelation as to the Roman Catholic faith of the Papacy.

    • One Anonymous Knucklehead 5.1

      Highly paid? According to whom? Or are you just applying Gosman’s Razor*?

      I note that arts graduates make up the majority of VFX workers. I note that arts graduates are the lowest paid professionals.

      *assume whatever you need to validate your opinion.

      • Gosman 5.1.1

        I know several workers in the visual effects industry in Wellington and they are on a good rate. We are talking in the vicinity of 70 – 90 dollars per hour for a 50 hour week. Even at the lower rate and say working only 40 weeks per year is 140000 per annum. Do you think that is too low?

        • karol

          Yes, that is the holy grail that many with high levels of expertise are chasing.

          And what of those internationally that work for months without pay? What of the fact that movie corporates are drawing massive profits, while many VFX workers are not fully compensated for the long hours they work? What of the insecurity of the work, where some go for long periods without work? What of the lack of health insurance, pensions etc, – especially for those working in the industry in the US?

          • Colonial Viper

            Funny how Gossie always assumes him and the people he cares about is going to be accepted into the club of the 10%*, instead of being fucked over like everyone else.

            *I’m becoming aware that everyone in NZ is in the club of the 10% compared to conditions internationally…

            • felix

              Look CV, as long as someone’s doing well then the system is Working. Just. Fine.

              • Colonial Viper

                I once stood within 50m of Peter Jackson and with his radiant aura felt like a capitalist god myself. It was a religious experience.

          • Gosman

            It isn’t the holy grail. That is the standard rate most visual effects professionals working in the industry would expect to be getting in NZ.

            BTW if you guys are so big on this get them to join a Union. Before you reply that a Union won’t be able to negotiate their contracts for them surely they do more for workers than negotiate employment conditions.

            • felix

              Has everyone met Gosman, visual effects industry expert?

              • Colonial Viper

                Doesn’t Gossie know that without union collectivisation that rate is going to keep deflating over a short amount of time?

                And that many of the workers in the industry are contractors…and when there are no projects on, they get zip.

                • felix

                  Still, $90 an hour is nothing to be sneezed at.

                  Averaged over 12 months that could be as much as 10 grand a year.

                • Gosman

                  Yes and that is why they get the rate of 70 plus per hour. Even if they only worked 20 weeks per year the least they would earn is 70,000. How many NZer’s earn 70,000 for working only 20 weeks?

                  • felix

                    Apart from the one you just made up?

                  • felix

                    ps Gos they don’t “get” 70 plus per hour.

                    That’s what they charge out at. They’re contractors, remember?

                    • One Anonymous Knucklehead


                      $70 ph on contract = about $23 ph in the hand = about $46k pa.

                      “Highly paid”? Gosman’s full of shit as usual.

                    • Gosman

                      Ummm… where did you get the $23 per hour figure from?

                    • One Anonymous Knucklehead

                      Stuff published this in February so apologies if it’s old news: VFX artists’ not-so-special treatment.

                    • Gosman

                      Still no mention of the $23 per hour figure. Where did you get this from?

                    • One Anonymous Knucklehead

                      Just a rule of thumb Gossie: contractors (who want to stay in business) need to charge about three times what they expect to earn in salary.

                      Only a rule of thumb, but the point is that if you’re contracting, $70 ph charge-out rate is not your take-home pay: the real figure is significantly lower.

                    • Gosman

                      I’m a contractor earning in the vicinity of those figures and what you state is rubbish. Tax and overheads really only take up 30 to 40 % of the amount not two thirds as you suggest. I take it you aren’t an IT contractor then?

                    • One Anonymous Knucklehead

                      So, it’s not $70k then, is it?

                      More like $42k.

                      Not exactly “highly paid”.

                    • framu

                      you forgot to budget for investment

                      i was always taught the thirds method – 1/3 for tax, 1/3 for equipment/software, 1/3 for your pocket

                    • Gosman

                      1/3 for equipment/Software? What sort of Contractors do you think these are? All of that is largely provided for by the place they work at.

                      Where did you get $42,000 from One Anonymous Knucklehead?

                    • One Anonymous Knucklehead

                      From my knuckle head. It should say $42 ph.

                    • framu

                      sigh – learn to read gosflop – i said it was the method i was taught if your going to be a contractor/freelancer

                      not what every single person working at weta should be doing

              • framu

                “Has everyone met Gosman, visual effects industry expert?”

                hes also a union expert, and lets not forget investment banker – such a busy lad

            • karol

              Did you read my post, Gos? I address why the VFX workers are not unionised and report that Squires is asking for a guild that will cover their circumstances.

              • felix

                Read the post? You think he’s got all day to read posts??

                What with all the visual effects industry work he does every week of the year he barely has time to write comments, let alone read the posts.

              • Gosman

                Well good luck with getting them involved with that.

            • framu

              ” That is the standard rate most visual effects professionals working in the industry would expect to be getting in NZ”

              no its not – your talking complete bollocks again

              yes there are some who would earn that – but some isnt most

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