The failures of visual special effects

Written By: - Date published: 11:30 am, March 20th, 2013 - 45 comments
Categories: film, International, internet, social democracy, twitter, Unions, workers' rights - Tags: ,

life of piI “attended” a fascinating “town hall” meeting last week of artists from around the world in the Visual Special Effects sector. Ignited by the failure of the company Rhythm and Hues (despite recently completing most of the special effects for the film The Life of Pi and winning award recognition for the work), these workers have started to consider how the structure of the industry is leading to their exploitation and vulnerability

Workers attended meeting in LA, San Francisco, Austin, Vancouver, NZ, London, Brazil and many other parts of the world and were hooked up together through the internet. Clear from the twitter feed was that workers were also joining in from India and other countries and that the issues discussed are universal.

The format for the two hour meeting was a series of presentations by a panel with questions and comments from those attending either directly though the link or by social media. The key concerns were well expressed and widely accepted.

Firstly the industry is dominated by a few major studios who effectively broker and fund these films, contracting out all the creative content. When it comes to special effects, the studios are contracting the work to stand-alone companies who are underbidding to win work, making them vulnerable when extra work is demanded or who are simply under pricing their bids under pressure. These companies are in competition with each other and also more and more of the work is being done in low wage countries putting additional pressure on price. Basically the business model is faulty and designed to suit only the studios.

The second issue is the subsidy system being demanded by studios which sees countries and states using tax payer money to subsidise these films and busily out-bidding each other all around the world. It is common practice for the studios to directly bargain with national and state Governments for big subsidies, playing them off against each other and taking money that would otherwise be used for social services to make their films. The artists talked about chasing work around the world as the subsidy benefits shift. They complained of raising their kids by phone, of not being able to get decent health care or security from this ever shifting sand, and of the futility of these subsidies when they are not accompanied by any bottom lines regarding ongoing commitment of the industry to the country or state or to any guarantees around decent work. The workers reported many states now refusing to engage in this game and they called on all Governments to stop the practice. They are considering legal action in regards to WTO and other trade rules.

Finally they talked about the lack of organisation in the industry – both the employers and the artists – neither are well organised and they are being played off against each other to the detriment of both themselves and the industry in which they work. One person talked about being involved in 5 company failures and losing wages in each. One talked of losing his house and being unable to stay in the industry. All talked about the lack of recognition for what they now contribute to these films. They not only do a great deal of work now in films but they are also both creative and innovative. They are at the cutting edge of the challenge a film like the Life of Pi creates and are creating more and more intellectual property and making these films look better and better. As one person put it – they are lucky if the credits mention them after the catering. Personally I couldn’t give you one name of a star in this industry – they are invisible.

These workers are talking together to formulate a plan – the plan includes encouraging employers to work together through a trade association to challenge the business model and work together on what they need to thrive. As was pointed out at the meeting – many industries have trade organisations that work as a lobby, on information sharing and which takes a co-ordinating role. The studios have one! The workers also want representation and voice – there was debate about what this looks like – but the desire is clear – they want some leverage to improve their lot and secure their future in the industry. Thirdly they want the dignity of recognition for their work – for their creative contribution to be acknowledged!

I found two things very challenging about this meeting:

  1. First was the fear – I felt if for them too (Hobbit lesson number one!). Many workers got up and talked about the fear they had of organising. This meeting could be watched by anyone and I believe some will be targeted now for just being there. They expected no mercy from the studios for their issues and clearly repercussions were a real possibility. Interestingly they discussed the need to recognise that the workers in this industry from India and China also had a desire for decent work as well and these workers did not want to be continually in low wage jobs.

    The workers then talked about the appalling conditions they work in all countries – including in the video game industry – very very long hours, many hours not paid and a total expectation that they will work any time, any place. Insecurity and risk was a key feature or these stories.

    When a question was asked about Chinese workers, one participant, without irony talked about the lack of human rights in China and how Freedom of Association in China was a risk! This was in a space where almost every worker that spoke said they felt that exercising these rights was dangerous at least to their job security in their own country. Clearly this fear is real and in my view it is too trusting if all the focus is on the big bad studios. While the employers in the industry may support these workers in the first instance and form a trade association to improve the business model – I bet they won’t then support these workers organising themselves in the same manner. They should – because it is also in their interests that workers raise industry wide issues like this, but in my experience – they shouldn’t be relied on.

  2. The second thing I found interesting and challenging was the lack of flexibility in the Union model being discussed. The model was traditional and did not respond to what these workers were saying was their real needs in the industry nor in my view did it provide an answer to the consensus regarding the challenges in the industry. I use the capital U in the first sentence of this paragraph because it really was a discussion about Unions with a capital U rather than unions – the possibility of organising collectively as workers to meet their needs and give them leverage, in the manner which they can see is powerful and realistic. This is very controversial – especially for me to say, and I do so with a bit of naivety about the situation in some of these countries in regards union potential. The lack of flexibility in my view lead to a discussion about whether or not to join a Union – rather than what would a union look like that would help crack the issues identified and how the work could be done safely. The main Union format on offer was to sign a “check card” and somehow initiate enterprise based collective bargaining within a business model where this may simply reinforce the weaknesses identified in the industry rather than sort them. It was clear to me that while many wanted to join a union, most did not see the enterprise based recognition model as realistic and some saw it as clearly dangerous to them.

The fact is the industry is structured to make Unionisation dangerous unless it is done in a manner that can tackle that danger. So what is the answer? Well it is not really for me to say in the sense that I don’t quite get the local legal arrangements but it seems to me the number one desire of the group was to collectivise to enable strategising together on way forward

Goal one: Collectivise

There are unions in the sector clearly especially in the USA and Canada. These unions could modify their model to allow these workers to join quietly in order to initially facilitate the discussion. If these workers each made a contribution by way of a union fee and were supported to meet, discuss, research, design and strategise in the first instance this would be a start and very reassuring. This model could be made available by union movements in other countries as well.

Goal two: Political issues

These workers want a voice on the political issues – they want lobbying on subsidies and status. This could be a priority action of this union membership – to promote some stars, to explain some techniques and innovations and to point out the downside of subsidies and create the political momentum to get this part of the model changed. The creative skills of these new union members could be used in innovative ways to do this collectively.

Goal three: Leverage

These workers want leverage for both the companies they worked for and themselves. A good project identifying potential for leverage could be developed and implemented. I would think this would include a formal and regular relationship with the new Trade Association if it gets going, or with willing players if not. It would include working with the other national and international unions in the industry (SAG, British Equity etc) to build relationships and win support for the key issues. It would build up the union membership – training recruitment leads, producing material, keeping everyone informed. It should include direct contact with Governments about the industry and should use the training schools for support. It should seek support from employers in the industry to support and promote the union membership so it can truly be a right and not a risk. As I say, this is a creative group – I reckon together they could be very inspiring in the methods they use.

Goal four: Gaining improvements for those that work in the industry

Clearly these workers want improvements – it seems to me that this has to happen at the studio level in the first instance. Supply chain pressure is needed – this is a long term strategy to put pressure on the studios to agree to industry based standards for these workers and implementation of these standards through the supply chain – basically only contracting with Special Effect Companies that sign up to these standards – therefore securing for those employers that want to improve conditions and security for their workers, the level playing field required to do it. This, in relevant countries could also include provision of health care insurance etc. This will come as leverage is built.

So all of these things would be beneficial and in my view fit within the mandate of a social organisation called a union to which these workers should belong. It could provide a safe and progressive programme of resourced activities to achieve the issues identified at the meeting. It should be a union and not a guild – this is what these workers need – and ideally it will be a union already in the industry that is able to link these workers together and support them, with the commitment and confidence of workers in the industry and work towards real change. The US laws allow anyone to join a union without the card check. The card check is only needed to gain formal recognition by the employer for bargaining. I don’t think, at this point at least, the card check and what it delivers is what these workers see as working for them. The real question is are unions up for recognising this?

And why is this relevant to NZ – The issue of unionisation with a big or small U is very much on our agenda. Looking at Forestry for example – telling these workers to join a Union and we will collectively bargain with their employer (all small contractors competing for work) is a nonsense and doesn’t ring true with these workers anyway. The problem here is the shape of the industry – the forest owners encourage and like the model as it exists because it leaves only them with power, and they will have to be pressured to change – forest workers can join a union that can do this. It can lobby on their behalf, raise the key issues in the industry, and allow them to have a voice. We are working on offering this model – easy and safe association meeting their needs and tackling the structure of the industry.

New successful social movements (including unions) are springing up around the world to represent workers that find themselves in non traditional industries or situations – street sellers organisations that want insurance and to live free from police harassment, migrant workers that want protections from unfair deportation and protection from unfair employment practices, youth who want employment and voice across the three or four jobs they may hold. Some of these organisations are huge and growing – they are unions with a small u and in my view hold out hope for workers in the global industry of film special effects.

I greatly admired the artists that turned up and spoke at the meeting. They were passionate about their jobs and each other. They showed great respect for those they work with and for. They simply want a fair go as all workers do, and I think it is in the industries interest and in the interest of all of us who love the movies that they get one!

45 comments on “The failures of visual special effects”

  1. lprent 1

    I really really feel for those workers who have been bitten by failing companies and lost pay in the VFX fields – both movies and also the even more massive and very similar games industry. In the last few decades the only time I haven’t been paid was working for a local games company that lost their financing in the GFC.

    I was left about $10k out of pocket and scrambling to find a new job. The small team of programmers have a lot easier job doing that than the much larger team of graphics artists and animators – most of whom I saw still looking for work quite some later on the net.

    I decided after that, that working for games companies or films was a lousy way to make a living. All of the programmers who’d specialised in games had carried the can during at least one other of these failures. The graphics and animation people even more so.

    • Ben Clark 1.1

      I’ve certainly been involved in my share of company failures / “restructures” in my time in the entertainment industry as a programmer.
      Took a smaller haircut than Lynn in the above mentioned one (got out early), and got my wages in full in previous ones (in UK), but it’s not a stable industry (games / vfx).

      But it is a very exciting industry, so employers feel able to take advantage. If you don’t want to put in the unpaid hours then you’re obviously not “passionate” about it enough and there’s someone behind you who will… (programmers there’s some scarcity at least, but everyone else…)
      But there are good employers too. And those that don’t take advantage and don’t work the long hours actually get better results. You’re not so creative or motivated when you’re knackered…

      Anyway, pleased to be working in the “real world” now – may not be as “sexy”, but the hours and the pay are better… (and there’s still good problems to solve, which is the important part for a programmer).

      • lprent 1.1.1

        As well as the pay; the hours really were excessive (and that is saying something bearing in mind the hours I spend on various forms of work), and it was unproductive and dissatisfying in terms of coding (I’m as immune to glamour of particular jobs as I am to politicians charm).

        I prefer the “real world”.

    • infused 1.2

      Games companies are a dime a dozen now. Never use to be, now it is… what was this game company? Phone/Web, or platforms like PC/XBOX etc…

      Mobile game developers come and go like the wind. If you are a talented programmer, you will have no issue getting a job.

      Like point #1 of this post, a lot of programming work is now outsourced to India.

  2. karol 2

    Thank-you for such a detailed and useful report, Helen.

    I had assumed that VFX workers were the least vulnerable section of film workers in NZ, as indicated by them coming out in support of Jackson over the Hobbit, and the success of Weta.

    Maybe they just give that impression because of fears of opposing the exploitative system?

  3. Rich 3

    I get the impression that (in NZ, but probably the rest of the developed world) people work in big-studio SFX because it’s seen as glamorous (at least compared to doing GST changes for a supermarket). This means the industry can enforce low wages (especially on an hourly basis) and of course excludes those who need to earn a better living (those without rich parents or savings).

    As an industry, it isn’t a particularly valuable or sustainable one and we’d be better off if government funding went to the grassroots end of the film industry (NZ On Air got roughly the same amount of money as the Hobbit to produce over 900 hours of television).

    • erentz 3.1

      we’d be better off if government funding went to the grassroots end of the film industry

      Makes a lot of sense — the idea here shouldn’t be to make Peter Jackson richer, but to make more Peter Jacksons. Fund more small, local productions, this can enable more talent to have their chance of being discovered, and would it also not provide a smoothing effect for employment inbetween the big productions? Maybe it’s not needed…

      Unrelated: Speaking of PJ, I recently watched his West of Memphis documentary — there’s an amazingly ironical part in the film where Peter talks about how he and Fran hate big bullies who pick on the small guy. Who is the bully now.

      • geoff 3.1.1

        the idea here shouldn’t be to make Peter Jackson richer, but to make more Peter Jacksons.

        Eeek! One’s more than enough thanks

        • SHG (not Colonial Viper) 3.1.1.1

          Yeah! Goddamn tall poppies. We should cut them all down.

          • Colonial Viper 3.1.1.1.1

            Cut down anyone with the potential to compete with today’s well established very wealthy tall poppies you mean.

      • MrV 3.1.2

        And I suppose this extends to the Robyn Malcoms of the world, who now they have established their name in the acting world can cease sucking on the public tit, to allow others to get their chance?

        • Colonial Viper 3.1.2.1

          Only one sucking on the public teat is Peter Jackson who cried poor and wanted millions more in tax breaks, and being a half billionaire you could call him already established.

  4. Saccharomyces 4

    That areticle was a bit TL:DR, did skim it though.

    One thing I will say is the real failure of special effects is the deployment of them (along with the ubiquitous stupid bass drop) by big budget studios to wow the punter without having to worry excessively about good stories or acting.

    • infused 4.1

      Yeah I got to point #1.

      Shorter posts if you want people to read it.

      Weta seem to be doing well. I know quite a few people there.

  5. George D 5

    When Labour is next in power, how do we change the law to allow unionisation to happen?

  6. Scott Squires 6

    Thanks for the article. There’s a bit of confusion in the article regarding unions.

    The entire US film industry is unionized with the exception of visual effects (and composers but that’s a separate issue) Directors, writers, cinematographers, actors, etc are all union.

    “modify their model to allow these workers to join quietly in order to initially facilitate the discussion. ” There is no visual effects union. And by law you can’t simply join a union unless you’re employed at a union shop. To do that you have to submit rep cards (in secret). When enough have submitted for a given company then the US labor laws kick in and an official (secret) vote is held. If majority vote for union, then it’s now a union shop. There are specific laws in the US related to Unions so I’m not sure where the flexibility is supposed to come into play. And legally employers can not fire people for discussing the union or attending an event where the word union is used.

    Unionizing would certain encourage companies to consider a trade association. After the protest that was held a few more large companies have been at least willing to discuss a trade assoc. If that protest had happened this probably wouldn’t be discussed. Without a union the companies may simply slip back to being individual companies without a group.

    “it seems to me that this has to happen at the studio level in the first instance. Supply chain pressure is needed – this is a long term strategy to put pressure on the studios to agree to industry based standards for these workers and implementation of these standards through the supply chain” And exactly who is putting pressure on the studios to achieve this? The big if is will there be a trade association, if so, how long will that take and will their intent be on the workers standards?

    ” to point out the downside of subsidies and create the political momentum to get this part of the model changed. ” Fighting subsidies is a huge , time consuming and costly battle. You have politicians taking money from tax payers and deep pocketed lobbyists pushing. New Zealand should be well aware of it and it’s problems. (And the issues of the film unions in New Zealand)

    “It would include working with the other national and international unions in the industry (SAG, British Equity etc) to build relationships and win support for the key issues”
    Win support from who? Almost everyone else on a film is hired by the studios. The visual effects workers are not. Most are hired by companies.

    • Helen Kelly 6.1

      Hi Scott
      My understanding from the AFLCIO is that workers are free to join unions without the card check as I would expect in terms of freedom of association. The card signing system is for union recognition by the employer but many many workers simply join the union without this and never seek recognition or never reach the threshold needed.

      “And by law you can’t simply join a union unless you’re employed at a union shop.” And legally employers can not fire people for discussing the union or attending an event where the word union is used.

      My understanding from the AFLCIO is that workers are free to join unions without the card signing system as I would expect in terms of freedom of association. The card signing system is for union recognition by the employer but many many workers simply join the union without this and never seek recognition or never reach the threshold needed. Have a look at what the lobstermen are doing to join a union. http://bangordailynews.com/2013/03/15/business/growing-number-of-lobstermen-looking-to-unionize-gain-voice-in-augusta/

      Legally you cant sack union members but you need to spend a day in my shoes! But actually in this industry with all the insecurity they simply dont employ people again.

      “And exactly who is putting pressure on the studios to achieve this? [ supply chain pressure] ”

      It cant be just the companies in this sector. Workers are already putting pressure on through the campaign and this can be increased. Other workers in the industry especially those directly employed by the studios and powerful can use this security and power to raise the issues and get support. Other unions in the industry can support this as SAG did here for our performers. Film viewers can be included and so can investors. You will have seen in my post I discussed our forestry sector. Turns out a major investor in one of our forest comapanies is Canadian teacher union pension funds – we will be contacting them about our issues here – it is called leverage and flows from solidarity.

      . ” Fighting subsidies is a huge”

      Yep but politically controverisal enough to get traction (and in a sexy industry)

      Win support from who? Almost everyone else on a film is hired by the studios. The visual effects workers are not. Most are hired by companies.

      Yep this is why they are in a good position to support this work.

      thanks for the feedback

      regards
      Helen Kelly

      • Helen Kelly 6.1.1

        sorry for the double up in this reply – I am overseas and facing technical challenges – not sure how the edit function works! Hope you can work your way through my reply and work out the “he said” “she said” issues!

        • lprent 6.1.1.1

          Hi Helen. There is rather a lot of interest in this post.

          I’ve beefed up the primary server to prevent the time-outs we were getting a few hours ago. We’re getting waves of page views as it gets recommended around face book, and circulates around e-mail groups. Some of the IP’s on the logs are from parts of the net I have never seen before. You did warn me 🙂

          But the interest looks sustained and the servers are now handling it without major problems….

          BTW: good post

          • Helen Kelly 6.1.1.1.1

            thanks – not sure what that all means but yes my email has gone mad with people asking for more info and maybe having a bit of trouble reading the site? Interesting.

            • lprent 6.1.1.1.1.1

              They probably would have had a problem at about 8pm NZDT and for the next hour – the database server was getting overwhelmed. We got half a days normal load in an hour. I threw more grunt on to it and turned on a cache. That fixed it.

              Should be ok now.

  7. ghostrider888 7

    it was a dense article Helen.

    interesting to see the continued development and refinement of avatars; does not bode well.

    Life Of Pi? one of the best thematic movies ever made imo. 🙂

  8. illuminatedtiger 8

    Great article Helen – many thanks.

    Where do you think the VES fits into this?

    • Helen Kelly 8.1

      Hi thanks – I am not sure. I thought it was a little unfair that they were criticised given they were simply working in the frame that currently exists and now the sand is moving. That is for the membership to decide and if they are influential (cant tell from here), then people should join and influence its policie etc.

  9. ghostrider888 9

    You are an amazing human being Helen
    Carpe Diem
    http://books.scoop.co.nz/2012/07/17/poem-learning-revolution-by-john-elijah/
    Amor Fati
    Be Well.

  10. JTDesign 10

    There are very similar issues affecting the field of graphic design, and I’m having an increasingly difficult time making a living. I have a lot of friends in the VFX industry, and I hope they are able to successfully organize. Unfortunately, I don’t think my industry will ever be able to do the same. After 20 years in design, I may need to find something else to do to provide for my family.

    • RedLogix 10.1

      Hard lessons forgotten.

      In medieval times skilled workers had guilds which transformed over time into various forms of professional associations for the middle class and unions for the trade workers.

      Our mistake is thinking that all our clever technology makes us wiser than our forefathers…

      • Draco T Bastard 10.1.1

        In medieval times skilled workers had guilds which transformed over time into various forms of professional associations for the middle class and unions for the trade workers. got banned because the capitalists wanted to pay workers less.

        FIFY

        • Colonial Viper 10.1.1.1

          Only in part; the other part was that you couldn’t keep techniques like rope making and candle making secret in the modern age.

  11. bad12 11

    Not much i can do about a crap New Zealander making crap films except not watch them, which i happily do, even switching off the free to air broadcasting of the barefoot ones little fantasies,

    People must sooner or later wake up to the fact that they as a mass have a vast amount of power in the use of the Boycott of a product as a means of protest,

    The internet the perfect tool of organization through sites like here at the Standard and social media like FaceBook….

    • MrV 11.1

      Yeah, you show them, boycott the big companies by using … wait for it … Facebook.

  12. chris73 12

    Just for some perspective the estimated budget for the lord of the rings trilogy was 281 million and the box office was 2.92 billion

    The estimates for the hobbit trilogy is between 600-900 million and thus far has earned just over 1 billion (with 2 films to go)

    • felixviper 12.1

      What do you mean, Chalupa?

      • chris73 acualy is Dolan 12.1.1

        Just thought some figures thrown in might help…or not

        • Colonial Viper 12.1.1.1

          It already earned just over a billion dollars and Jackson still wanted tax breaks from NZers.

    • bad12 12.2

      Yeah McDonalds make burgers that without the secret sauce taste like warmed up plastic, and in my opinion only moderately less so with the sauce added,

      That’s a billion dollar industry as well which only goes to prove that one hell of a lot of people happily eat s**t and pay for the privilege to do so,

      Now which country did you say that the billion dollars of takings from the latest piece of fluff offering from the bare-foot one will be deposited in…

  13. str0be 13

    I was following along with the townhall meeting very closely, and a couple of things came up in the comments that I thought were potentially very interesting and largely unaddressed.

    First, the tax subsidies (aptly called out as kickbacks) could be addressed through legal action through the WTO, instating Tariffs on international effects work to balance out the unlevel playing field. This wouldn’t fix the inter-state subsidy imbalance, but it would help keep the big US studios from outsourcing.

    Second, royalties/profit sharing/partial-ownership of the property. After a movie has made back it’s initial investment, the creator studios should see a percentage of the profits, and ideally distributed to the artists as well. The partial ownership model could involve establishing stocks or shares in the property, and studio bids would include purchasing these stocks. If the movie makes money, the studios receive a dividend, and if the movie is a profit loss, those losses are distributed among a larger field, and thus don’t bankrupt entire facilities.

    I’m no expert, but I thought these were interesting angles to view the issue from, and potentially start steering this Titanic away from the iceberg.

    • lprent 13.1

      …through legal action through the WTO…

      WTO doesn’t come cheaply and/or quickly. I’m thinking about the very expensive decades that it took the NZ government to get the Aussies to allow our apples into their country because they had a largely cosmetic disease prevention barrier – that wasn’t straight forward. Anything that is problematic is long and expensive. Tax subsidies are one of the more problematic areas for the WTO.

      Similarly tariffs from where to where? Tariffs are something that the WTO was specifically set up to deal with. So putting in a tariff to restrain trade only requires a complaint rather than an expensive argument. It is still slow but with a rather inexorable result.

      The question would be who would take these actions.

      The second ‘angle’ is better idea since all that requires is a change to contracts between companies. The problem is that it requires that the effects companies cooperate across a number of countries so the studios don’t cherry pick suppliers. This is likely to cause legal issues in restraint of trade legislation in various countries as well.

  14. s y d 14

    Oh man…how do you collectivise when every ‘self employed’ geezer thinks they have to to outwit, outsmart and undercut the next dude in a white van/black audi/18 wheeler.
    Our working lives have become a farcical imitation of survivor papatoetoe (or wherever)

    This is the New NZ way…

    The only collectivising I see is in the corporate world, maybe something there but I don’t have an answer. Maybe just being able to ‘talk’ to others could be the catalyst….

    Basically it’s going to take a change in mindset from dog eat dog to share it out and find fun/valuable things to do instead of acting like A holes all the time.

    Too many A holes on the shopfloor

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