If you’ve been watching/reading ‘Game of Thrones’, you’re familiar with the ‘Night’s Watch’, a non-partisan, defensive military order depicted in the series.  Leaving the past behind, recruits ‘take the black’ , pledging their lives in service of the realm.

My personal quest to escape VFX has been underway for quite some time.  These days I stand on the sidelines, observing the struggle of VFX artists to find a unified voice to represent the interests of rank and file artists.  The form of this collective voice is yet to be determined, although I personally suspect that all paths point toward the formation of an IATSE affiliated VFX union.

If the recent postings to VFXSoldier’s blog, especially regard to the DDMG ‘pay to work’ fiasco are any indication, the most immediate need is for someone to hang up the wacom stylus and fully dedicate themselves to industry reform as primary occupation.

IATSE had, until recently, employed Jimmy Goodman in effort to rally VFX artists.  TAG has their champion, Steve Kaplan.

Scott Ross has undertaken his own windmill tilt, advocating the formation of an industry trade organization.  (I see this as a necessary component, but the reality is that we are many sheep, discussing farmers.  Best of luck to Scott, but I find his battle is not necessarily one that we can directly influence without achieving some form of artist solidarity first.)

A quick perusal of vfx blogs, Facebook and Twitter will turn up names and aliases that should now be familiar to any informed VFX Artist.  Dave Rand, Scott Squires, Joe Harkins, Jeff Heusser, Lee Stranahan.  There are also the well intentioned VES players, the delightfully militant ‘Rolling Red’, the enigmatic VFXSoldier him/herself, etc.    The dramatis personae is a veritable host of divisive characters.

I must assume that IATSE has the resources to approach and offer safe haven employment to one or more of these individuals in a formal outreach and information dissemination capacity.  However, IATSE must be prepared for and open to the possibility that the end result may be a rejection of IATSE and the formation of something ‘new’.  Let’s consider it partial payback for the vast and non-participatory VFX driven box office contributions we’ve been making to the healthcare and pensions of their existing membership.

With all due respect IATSE, we don’t need another Jimmy Goodman.

We need a seasoned VFX Artist, with the scars to prove it, who can speak to us… if we ever intend to build an organization to speak for us.

What is needed now, is for someone to ‘take the black.’

Once again, best of luck – I’m back to the sidelines as I have my own, non-vfx irons in the fire.  Failure means I have to once again pick that wacom pen and jump into the fray.  Ideally, it’ll be a better place than I left it.

Getting out while I still can.

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

Soon after hitting ‘publish’ on my last entry, I made a decision.

It is in my and my family’s best interest for me to switch careers and get out of vfx.

This was the best decision I had made in quite some time and to be honest, I’m now healthier and happier for it.

Good luck.

Deadline Hollywood Daily linked this article from the MPAA about the record breaking, 2010 world box office and tossed in a barb about the Hollywood guilds for dramatic effect.

When I read the article, what I see is that VFX laden and computer animated films dominated the 2010 box office.  Period.  End of story.

This isn’t new – that is the way it has been for my entire career.  Effects movies = Money.

We, as a craft, have substantially more power than the studios would lead us to believe.  India, China, Singapore – today, none of these places have the infrastructure to fully assume the role of any major stateside facility.  Outsourcing will continue to happen – regardless of the actions of the stateside vfx community, but a wholesale export of vfx production is not an area the studios are willing to bankroll.  I still see a robust vfx market for the US – even with a union.

Studios don’t want to be in the vfx business – VFX production doesn’t make them any money.

The actual product of vfx artists however, makes them a LOT of money.

The rest of the Hollywood guilds know this and have begun to act on it.  They aren’t blind to the fact that the lion’s share of movie budgets  go into our pocket.  Virtual sets, augmentations, digital makeup, post-3D, cg characters – we’re pushing out what were traditionally, hands-on crafts in every area of production.  What is shot on-set is just another element for us.  Big films are build in post.

We’ve busted the traditional system of the Hollywood crafts.  They are having a difficult time, passing their hard-fought bit of studio leverage from this generation to the next.  Most of that power has been channeled to us, but we’re too splintered to do anything with it.  We are just a mob of individual artists, lacking a unified voice.

The studios fear us.  They know they have been on borrowed time.

Behind closed doors, I assume they have a plan for how they will react to us at the bargaining table -  if not, they are drafting one now.

IATSE needs us.  We represent and possess some of the power they lost.  We need them, because we’ve proven we don’t know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to dealing with the studios.

IATSE, WGA, SAG, DGA – all of these guilds are attempting to negotiate their future business arrangement with the studios.  New media and non-traditional distribution are huge question marks for all involved – except us.  We’re too far removed.  In fact, at an IATSE meeting a few weeks back, it was mentioned that IATSE’s ‘big issue’ right now is piracy.

Piracy.

I guess that piracy IS an issue for you when the secondary market sales of productions fuel your health care and retirement.  VFX is so completely mercenary, only bragging rights and pride in the work even dictate that care if a movie is even released, let alone makes any money for anyone.

IATSE and the rest of the guilds must have realized that if VFX were organized, our ability to ‘print money’ for the studios, can be converted directly into leverage.  It is leverage that assures  their retirement and health care is funded – and from this, we would also benefit.

There is a lot of fear in the vfx community.  We’re afraid to rock the boat in any way.  I’m coming to grips with the reality that perhaps we’re not the ones that should be afraid.  This isn’t about us vs the vfx shops that employ us.  They are in the same boat we are.  Its about vfx artists and the studios.  It is about us and Hollywood.  We deserve  similar deal and benefits that the rest of the crafts rely upon.

It is time for us to start discussing our options.

“…There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me.”

Variety reports that Richard Edlund, VFX industry pioneer, will be involved in the creation of duMonde, a new VFX facility in New Orleans.  Unfortunately for me, Richard wasn’t my particular “Jedi Master” – at the time, I was toiling away in front of someone else’s expensive, purple computer.   However, I would like to thank him for a candid interview he gave in 1997, shortly after shutting down his vfx facility, Boss Film Studios.  In that article, Richard states:

“We [Boss] were ready to sign a contract and another big local effects house underbid us by $1 million, just to get the show. I know they were going to lose money on that show, but it didn’t matter.
It can be a vicious arena because everyone’s bidding for the same projects. And there’s not a lot of loyalty between visual effects houses, and film producers and directors [who usually decide which group] gets the contract. All the producers care about is finding some new effect, something they’ve never seen before, and to keep it under budget.”

Fourteen years later – not much has changed and we are STILL facing the same challenges plus a host of new ones.

VFX artists are an expensive group to employ.  Most of the cash that studios funnel into a vfx facility walks right out the door as artist wages… I must admit that even on a day rate, I pull down what I consider to be an impressive amount for what I do.  Although we work on cheaper versions of those purple boxes these days, the constant need to upgrade, update and stay current is a nightmare of amortization and rapid obsolescence for the vfx houses.  We, as artists, are aware of how close to the wire the entire vfx industry is operating.

We must not loose sight of that fact that VFX Industry reform or organization, MUST be a negotiation between the studios, the vfx houses and the vfx labor pool.

Production tax Incentives and rebates are the tides which determine the ebb and flow of today’s motion picture production.  Louisiana has even gone the extra step to subsidize the development of ‘indigenous’ talent, productions and labor with the goal of creating a permanent and self-sustaining base of talent in the region.  Already, a few shops already opened or announced their intentions in the area, including Worldwide FX and Bayou Fx.  We can be sure that more will follow – that is, of course, as long as the state money keeps flowing.

At the end of the day, we’re the ones that staff these facilities – and this includes the kids that will ‘cut their teeth’ under Richard’s expert tutelage.

I would personally love to work with Richard. New Orleans would be an interesting and colorful place to live and create some art.

It would be even better if I knew that in making that move, I’d be able to port my benefits and have continuity of healthcare for my family and career.

I would bet that more than a few of us would be willing to make an ‘investment’ in Louisiana VFX production – but I personally can’t afford to subsidize it with more risk and potential upheaval to my family.  For sure I can’t do it, knowing that most work is temporary and project based.

These first facilities setting up shop in ‘non-traditional’ vfx cities, are presented with an opportunity to build a foundation for industry reform – even in states with ‘Right To Work’ legislation on the books.

We’ve proven that we’re more than willing to be digital nomads – I’d just like to be a nomad with a tribe and know that when I get where I’m going – there actually will be some water in the oasis pool.  If we build that tribe, if and when that particular well runs dry, we can move elsewhere with the same resources and basic protections that other film craft-nomads enjoy.

The work is going where the money is and if we want to work, we need to follow it.  I would make an investment and relocate to a place that wanted to build a healthy, robust freelancer culture and viable, local artist pool.  To pull a quote and paraphrase a slightly different movie genre – “If you build it [right], they will come.

I urge all vfx artists, the studios, IATSE and the investors creating these vfx ‘boom towns,’ to work together – rather than accelerate a mercenary march to the bottom.

“There it is Artoo. Dagobah…. I’m not picking up any cities or technology. Massive life-form readings, though. There’s something alive down there…”

VFX in New Orleans sounds like fun…but lets do it right and build for what we and the state of Louisiana would like to be a long run.  Best of luck, Richard – I hope we heed your past warnings and learn from your experience.

Begun, the organizing has…

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

TL;DR = An IATSE VFX union needs to be explored and may be our best option.

After attending the poorly attended and ironically unorganized IATSE VFX meeting last Sunday, I made the decision to wade into the discussion and become more active in exploring solutions.

I spent a few years working under an IATSE contract for one of the major animation studios. Those years were the best pay, hours, working conditions and medical coverage I’ve seen in my 20 years doing VFX.

Unfortunately, for both myself and my small family, I live and breathe live action vfx.  Animated features are not a meaningful part of my long term career goals.  I’ve sacrificed the relative stability of the small pool of union animation facilities in exchange for career advancement and project choices provided by freelance vfx.  Picking the best shows for my career and artistic satisfaction has often led me to take work at some of the ‘darker’ facilities and exposed me to some of the shadier business practices of the vfx production world.

I was substantially younger when I started upon this much riskier road.  As I age, (got married) (had kids) (mortgage) (first actual health issues) (etc), I am faced with the realization that if I don’t reach my ultimate goals – I’ve seriously fucked myself AND my family.  Those goals, established in film school, were fueled by youthful optimism and energy. I was aware that everyone doesn’t advance to be top-tier directors/producers/screenwriters – but I knew that I was going to be one of the success stories because I have talent and I’m willing to work harder than everyone else.

I left an area of VFX that has a viable union (Local 839 – The Animation Guild) and went into an area famous for it’s systematic disregard for the basic protections afforded by California labor law.  On-set, I’ve met plenty of grips, ADs, Art Dept crew and other IATSE craftspeople who share identical aspirations as mine.  The key difference is that they are pursuing their goals from a position of leverage via their collective union locals.  If those long-term dreams don’t pan out – the ‘day job’ still affords compensation for hours worked, wage minimums, health care benefits and pension options which are tied to the productions they work on along the way.

However, my path was VFX.  I knowingly went in and I was willing to put up with almost any request that the work and Hollywood asked of me.  My eye was on the prize and I was willing to ‘pay my dues‘.  I didn’t need those benefits and protections because the ultimate payoff would make it all worthwhile.

The reality is that I have an exploitable work ethic.

I haven’t given up on my goals, but my time working in Hollywood has taught me something:

We are doing it wrong…

All of us…  The VFX Facilities, the Studios, our Federal and State governments and rank and file VFX artists…

We have a bad business model.  It needs to change.

Who can change it though?  The studios will look out for their bottom line – that will be a constant in this.  The vfx facilities missed their opportunity to form a trade organization – and we’ve recently seen how VFX facilities ‘work together’ via ILM/Pixar collusion to keep down artist wages.  Toss in state and national governments attempting to woo the studios with ‘free’ money and sweetheart deals… our industry is in the midst of a global disaster.

We know that more and more work will go overseas.  It’s simply cheaper.  We know that vfx margins are razor-thin.  Providing benefits or even ‘going legal’ under California labor law – union or not, will kill some well known vfx houses.

We also know that we currently don’t have a voice to address these issues.  Forming a second VES-like entity, even a more militant one, doesn’t seem to be the answer.  IATSE may well be the tool we need.

Industry change will be artist driven – and it will be painful for all of us.

We must explore the formation of national, IA VFX Local, with leadership pulled from OUR ranks.  Drawing on the IA’s vast experience in studio negotiations, labor law and their existing network of benefit participation, we could potentially assemble the leverage we need to have a voice in our own futures and shepherd the future of the VFX industry.

No one speaks for VFX interests during negotiations with the 350 production companies that comprise the AMPTP.  However, we do make them a LOT of money and THAT is our essential value to them.  We can’t get to the table as individual artists and the vfx facilities have proven unwilling.  If we work it correctly, VFX will have its voice.  AMPTP negotiations are the engine and venue for change.  Only there can we address the problems which face our industry.  It must be a cooperation – or at the least, mutual concessions – between artists and the major studios.

Its time to actually become part of the Hollywood system and fix the problems. Today we are independent mercenaries, hoping to land a permanent staff gigs in the shrinking pool of ‘good’ employers who land quality projects. Some of us, like myself, see VFX as a temporary stepping stone on the path to ‘real’ Hollywood success.  Regardless of our differing individual points of view, our first step is to acknowledge this:

WE are the VFX Industry.

WE need to wake up and grab the reins.
WE need to work in OUR best interests – which is the sustained health of the VFX industry and its craftspeople.

I believe that the best way to achieve this is a collective voice, lead by our own people. We must work within the existing system of Studio/Craftspeople and AMPTP negotiations that is at the core of all Hollywood production. We need to diligently explore what IATSE can do for us, then make the final determination whether the formation of an IATSE VFX Local is our best and most powerful option.

From my past IATSE experience and what I’ve heard from them so far – I suspect that it is.

-TK1099