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.