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: globalisation, hobbit, Unions, VFX, Weta
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.
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. …