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State of the Union – for the VFX Industry

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State of the Union – for the VFX Industry
My thinking on why a Union for the VFX industry is going to be a hard battle.

The discussion that sparked from Phillip Broste Open Letter to Ang Lee and from Lee Stranahan’s Open Letter To James Cameron: Fairness For Visual Effects Artists, has been heated and has been echoed over and over, if you haven’t read them, do so.

Everyone’s saying that a union would help working conditions, pay and even credit placement. That we’d be paid for the long and many hours VFX artists work, be recognized by the industry they help fuel, and most importantly, not outsource jobs overseas for a much lower rate. That all sounds great —> in theory.

Many say VFX is becoming the biggest and most important aspect of an industry that is heavily relying on blockbusters to make serious monetary returns on investment. True. And the Visual Effects artist is becoming more and more indispensable.

Visual Effects are also starting to creep up in cost, and productions want it to be less and less, and faster. Productions want to know the cost off the top, then pit that number against other competing shops to bring down the price, while still maintaining their original scope. Productions also potentially ask for more later down the line, usually for things that end up being out of scope from the original proposal. That’s fine, I know once I start a project, I do whatever to make it the best I can in the time I have. My name is attached so I want it to shine. Chances are that other people and shops feel the same way. Sure they’ll fight for more money – do they get it? I don’t know.

This whole mess started with us. We initially agreed to work on the project for the experience, the credit, the clip on our reel. That they would “make it up on the next one” and the next one never came. We set the precedent – that the credit is worth more than the dollar. Artists have great reels, and producers have big houses.  How do we put the genie back in the bottle?

From the studio perspective – there is no problem.

Why VFX will be an outsourced industry going forward.

Is there a way to outsource an actor? A director? A DOP? First AC? Crafts? Grips? Electrics? Stunt people? VFX Supervisor? These are people that NEED to be on set – there’s no way around it – there is no way to email in a lunch break! Or to ftp a stunt guy smashing through a window. Sure you can email a script but writers are usually trying to sell completed work. Just imagine finishing vfx work and then trying to sell it! Point being, VFX is something that any talented artist, anywhere, can do. They don’t need to be on set – except for the VFX Supervisor and his team. He’s not going to bring every single vfx artist. They are where they need to be — at the office by the computer — and that could be anywhere.

VFX is difficult detailed work that takes a blend of science and artistry to do. The best of the best upper class artists will always have good work lined up. The lower class artist will do it for nothing but the experience, but it’s the middle class that will have to compete for the remaining dollars. Because of the need of the film industry it takes an army of artists to work on any good sized film. So if you have pay an army and you had a choice to get an army for much less to do the heavy lifting – would you?

I find it interesting that with and after Star Wars Episode One no one really complained when the VFX industry started to explode in Australia and New Zealand. Many artists moved or were asked to join them, and over the last decade that industry has grown and produced great work. Why did studio work go there? Above any other answer – it was cheaper.

Productions for many years have gone to countries and locations that made it cheaper to shoot. They would then take the post and set up shop in another location. Now they can do post over the internet – with no real physical location, even render farms are being outsourced. So it’s a virtual farmer’s market of talent – they pick and choose what best suits them for their price.

To every producer “It’s cheaper doing it this way” is the keystone to making it on budget. If a prop lamp costs $400 the producer will ask, “Do we really need a lamp?” Same goes for vfx and motion design. Why would a producer WANT to pay X Dollars an hour for a high end VFX artist when they can get a full team somewhere over the internet for the same rate, if not less? I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing – it’s just the thing.

I believe starting a union, unfortunately, will just make more productions move out of town to where ever it’s the cheapest to prep, shoot, and post. Productions don’t know if money will be made, so the smaller the investment, the better it is for them to find the cheapest way to produce.

Many people find it hard to define why these artists are so important, why to use them instead of the overseas artists, and why a union is needed to keep the work here. And when things that are hard to quantify, are therefore just ignored entirely.

The only thing that seduces me on the union thing is to actually create rules for the hours. I think the hours are often abusive. That is why right now all artists, be it vfx or motion design, use the Freelance Standards of Practice , enforce it as an anonymous LA-area freelancer did in his cautionary tale. So at least we as a community start setting the rules and living by them, instead of waiting for some one else to do it. In the long run good things will come of that.

If you are a good artist, having to work in a brick and mortar shop may not be in your future. Learn and use Freelance Standards of Practice, set up a workstation at home, get a high speed connection, and set your work to stun!

Rafael Ludwig

 

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