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.


  1. Rob N says:

    I agree something is needed but as I said on Soldier’s blog, I need more concrete information that I can digest. A meeting at a park is “amateur hour” to me. I need written information as to what IATSE will do and what it represents to us as vfx freelancers. I feel that smaller shops may benefit knowing that they don’t have to deal with healthcare costs and that benefits are taken care of by the organization. There will be a structure to things which is not a bad thing. I just want to know what that structure is. If IATSE is not willing to put together a simple website and explain their benefit to artists then I feel it’s all for not and they don’t want my membership dues. Very simple.

    • tk1099 says:

      The park meeting was embarrassing. That simply can’t happen again if we’re serious about this – and some of us are.

      I, for one, will become much more involved behind the scenes and online. Myself and other VFX artists will be compiling that data and boxing it up for much more ‘vfx friendly’ consumption and dissemination.

      We’re digital artists for god sakes 🙂 We can do websites and we’ve now opened a few new lines of communication to get the specific answers we’ve all been asking.

      What is different for me, after Sunday’s meet, is that I’m not going to be passive anymore.

      Its my career, my industry.. its up to me to explore the options and to fix it.

    • Vfxartist says:

      Rob N.

      I disagree with the meets being amateur hour… They are and will be a continuing and necessary part of starting and maintaining a union, albeit In a more organized and structured way. The face to face, and taking the time to debate issues in person will be part of the mechanism of authoring and negotiating contracts and updates.

      However, I agree that we need a website from iatse, and we need someone who understands vfx artist in context to their thinking and goals. Much of that I think TK 1099 has been covering quite well. I think Jim Goodman has done a good job of the behind the scenes Of talking to brass and studios about this. He has the history and connections, we just need someone to inform the troops at our level.

      In my glass half full view, I think where people think iatse has “dropped the ball” has forced the workers themselves to, well, organize themselves, which is the goal anyway. Its made artist form these websites. Its made artist meet one another and talk about labor related issues, not just bitch about them, nor just talk about the latest software. We’re the ones who are supposed to organize.

      I think theres a certain wisdom in letting vfx organizing reach its critical mass on its own. That means by the time its organized, we will be in a better position to choose our own officers, fine tune our contracts, etc, because tje bunch will be more self informed than have been lectured to by some iatse brass. Vfx has by fault, been a reactionary bunch, not premptive. This has contributed to the failure in our business. Perhaps this forced effort on our part is what we need.

      BTW, luv your site, Rob…

    • Vfxartist says:


      Regarding what you asked about smaller shops. If the vfx guild/union us anything like the animation guild. Artist can jump between union and non union shops. If its for a period of time, artist may be asked to honorably withdrawl from the guild. You don’t pay dues if you are honorably withdrawn. An artist can be reinstated by simply working for union shop again and paying the back dues that are owed. If i recall, you never pay more than a years worth of back dues, regardless how long you have been away, which is like $400. Medical takes a month to ramp up, but if you already have hours in the bank (any hours over 400 worked in a year go into a “bank”), they apply your banked hours so your medical starts right up.

      Btw, many artist that have worked for an animstion house for three or so years and left ended up with eighteen months of hours in the bank. These “hours” can be spent in continuing your full benefits and pension. So a vfx artist that likes to work part time a year while, say, working on their own Projects for the rest of the year, or a small vfx shop that gave him a more creatively challenged position, can enjoy a continuity of benefits for the duration of their banked hours, and then cobra after that.

      Of course, the motivation is to get thd artist to organize the small shop, so that the time he works there can be applied toward his years vested in the union, hence better pension and benefits. However, you can see the flexibility offered.

  2. Vfxartist says:

    Truth is, artist still have to do their part:

    Unless artist have reviewed and read the animation guild contract to familiarize themselves with an exiting labor contract:

    ….until artist review and familiarize themselves with the animation guilds motion picture health and benefits plan, which mirrors what we could have:

    …until artist have read Tom Sito’s “drawing the line” book to familiarize themselves with the history of labor, Art, and business; essentially a lesson that history repeats itself, and that everything we have today (OT, weekends, etc)  was fought for by laborers like ourselves:

    …then the artist haven’t done THEIR part.  This can all be done at NO risk to their job, which many fear from going to Meetings.. And whether you “believe” in unions or not (which is silly because its a tool, not a belief system),  you should at least inform yourself of what it is and whats out there and make an informed decision.

  3. Vfxartist says:

    Another thing artist need to do is change their culture of thinking.  Right now, if I were standing in a cliff with 100 vfx artist, and I told them “whatever you do, don’t take a step forward because you will fall, in fact lets turn around and walk back away from the cliff”.  You know what would happen?  About 70% would just stand there on the cliff, waiting for something to happen… A gust of wind, an earthquake… Some kind outside force to move them collectively, in either direction.. They just don’t want to rock the boat.  About 25% would take that step forward over the cliff just because they were told NOT to, and they don’t like to be told what to do, even if its in their best interest. The remainder 5% would walk back away from the cliff toward safety, some because they already read a map and decided for themselves on their own, others because looking ahead at uncertainty, would rather travel an alreaded treaded and safe path, while others just listen….

    Thats the culture in vfx we have to change. The 25% that walked off the cliff, most of those will never change. They have a belief system and don’t listen to reason, while others are just contrarians by nature.  Its the bulk of the 70% that have to inform themselves using the above links so that they can make an informed decision.

    And lastly, if you do decide to organize, sign a rep card. Each artist has to do their part because no one else will do it for you.  This is something by us, for us.  No one else will do it for you. The next time someone “asks” you to work late uncompensated, the next time as a staffer you feel trapped in a position or job because you don’t want to loose your staff compamy benefits, the next time a company asks you to work for free to “prove” yourself, the next time you have to chase down a company for a deal memo to lock down employment so you can plan your life, the next time a company calls you asking if they can put you on hold for four months while telling you “thats how its done”, the next time a company makes you sign their contract with their own labor laws to get around paying you OT…. think about taking a stand thats constructive, thats your legal right, and that has a history of benefiting motion picture artists and technicians.  I see people who post snarky remarks on their facebook as to how screwed up it is at their workplace, but they won’t sign a rep card.  Makes no sense.

  4. Vfxartist says:

    I found this post over at the animation guild blog. It briefly describes the history and goals of the 839 local. Thus parallels much what a vfx guild/union would offer:

    And before people ask “why don’t we just join them”. Animation is centered around sothern california, while vfx us global. Having a national union that would cover the us and canada seems wiser.

    • brandj says:

      I firmly agree with the idea of a national union. Don’;t forget your Motion Graphic Design colleagues as well. They’re often doing as much VFX + animation as you guys who work in films / tv but on shorter deadlines and in smaller shops.

      • tk1099 says:

        Motion Graphics and commercial vfx plus a host of ‘non-hollywood tv/theatrical’ disciplines raise interesting questions about a VFX national.

        I agree that there is such a blurry line that at first glance, the initial reaction is ‘yep – same deal, same jobs basically’. I think where we will see some specific vfx issues that may make this (initially, at least) less inclusive really comes down to how the benefits package is structured. From what we’ve seen and heard to this point, the contributions that fund the whole thing come from the employers, with their hourly contribution and the back end participation from the secondary (non-theatrical) sales of film and tv shows.

        Plenty of commercials are shot by IATSE crews and I know that there are rates and contracts in place for ‘new media’ productions, ‘webisodes’ and the like… so we know that there is at least some history of non-movie/tv show production work done under IATSE contracts. I have zero insight into how the finances and deals work for those.

        There are just SO many unknowns right now, that I’m going to bet we’d be initially limited to the ‘lower hanging fruit’ – which are the mid-size to larger studios, doing work on films and shows that were initiated by AMPTP signatories.

        Having said that, history does reveal a definite ripple effect of unionization. Even within non-union animation in Los Angeles, there are plenty of non-union facilities with packages that are, or claim to be, equitable or better than what TAG offers. Heck, even the wage minimums have ripples – we hear story after story of TAG’s wage mins being used in wage negotiations at non-union facilities.

        Just to make sure we get this in as well, yes – even the 5 day work week that most of us take for granted in the US, is the result of union action… Hehe – I need to read Tom Sito’s book, but I’m learning 🙂

  5. gangstabougie says:

    Great first post. I was at the Sunday park meeting, and I fully support the organization of VFX artists into a union. However, I feel I should correct one item. You mention AMPAS several times throughout the post. The trade association that represents producers is not AMPAS ( Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences ), but rather AMPTP ( Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers ). It is the AMPTP that represents over 350 American film production companies and studios in negotiations with entertainment industry trade unions in collective bargaining.

  6. Dave Rand says:

    We will never form anything new without strong leadership.

  7. Dave Rand says:

    I is my belief that has to START with the paid leaders of IATSE

    • tk1099 says:

      I’d love for that to be the case, but the cold truth is that a VFX local would need its own leadership pulled from our ranks and that knows our business from the inside. IATSE can help, but we’ve got to step up to the plate.

      We got into this mess because of bad business decisions in the early days, coupled with the studios and poor managers at the facilities making decisions that weren’t reflection of how the work is actually done.

      I loved in your podcast where you outlined the absurdity of not being on a ‘cost plus’ model for VFX. It makes absolute, perfect sense. Though that hasn’t been in the interest of the studios and the facilities haven’t/didn’t insist that we work that way.

      If we’re going to fix this – it has to be reality based we know we can’t destroy the whole thing and start over. Overseas competition and the ‘ease’ of offshoring will have to be considered. The fragile US economy, declining DVD sales, the weird no-man’s land of residuals for streaming media AND the day to day realities of vfx seat artist work.

      I don’t expect or demand IATSE to have all this worked out. I do expect them to know their own system and be able to explain it to us – but we’re in uncharted terrority here. We’re going to have to pull from our ranks to get the right minds matched with the right leverage before we can fix anything.

      Personally, I hope I can rally some vfx artists to send in a post card – but ask my wife about my business chops – as a businessman, I’m a damn good artist 🙂 We’re going to need to pull leaders from multiple disciplines to make this baby fly again.

  8. Dave Rand says:

    I had posted this under the other story, I think it clarifies my thoughts on this as we are very close on some points.

    Thanks Jason, and sorry I should clarify what I mean by leadership. I mean strong leaders (plural). I believe that needs to start with the paid leaders of IATSE, especially since they made the follow announcements:

    “IATSE has been laying the groundwork for its drive for the past year”

    “IATSE has set up an organizing committee of industry veterans to develop a strategy.”

    If we are to give them our money and sign over our power of attorney I think we deserve to know what these plans are and how they differ from the last 20 yrs of almost zero growth in the current IATSE union representing fx artists compared to the explosion of the fx industry.

    It is all about TRUST and LEADERSHIP.

    We will accomplish nothing without strong leadership.
    We need this to START with paid and chosen leaders of IATSE, later, yes unions members have a voice in election of leaders.

    Unions employ leaders for this purpose. Unions are not charities or churches or co-ops. They raise power and money and employ thousands to accomplish this.

    We need them to work harder than ever at this for it to succeed so late in the game.

    • tk1099 says:

      You make a good argument for waiting to see what IATSE can offer as they are trying to talk a good game and that they have this ‘figured out’.

      Attending the LA meet, I drew inspiration from my peers – the artists that were there where got me to start doing something. IATSE not having all this laid out isn’t a deal killer or non-starter for me. VFX is broken and doing nothing isn’t an option. I intend to fully vet what I can dig out of them – and I am willing and inspired to do that digging.

      We’re a weird group. They are old school. I find the studios to be more old school as well. Their thought process and lack of tech savvy always throws me for a loop. Hehe, I kinda think we need to mesh our guys, with their guys to translate for us when we do deal directly with the studios. Frankly, I would have been non-plussed if IATSE would have been able to field a rep that was one of ‘us’ and could act as a peer/leader and have cred within our pretty unique social structure.

      I see a need for ‘translators’ as much as we need to see leaders from IATSE and VFX step up to the plate.

  9. Dave Rand says:

    Yes I agree, old school for sure, one modern union leader I met recently reminded me of Tony Soprano. Like you I had the pleasure of working with the Guild during my stay at IMD, best gig ever, and the two Steve’s were very good at their jobs. I’m 51 so time to get more serious about benefits …your right it’s a tough sell to the younger crowd just as it was in the late 30’s at the animation studios, later those same folks realized the imortance. That’s one reason I asked for IATSE to post some historical media, and testimonials.

    Unions are big business and employ many who’s job it is service the membership and grow the ranks. I’m just asking that they do adapt to the times and do what we pay them for, what they say they are going to do. Signing cards is giving them power of attorney over a big chunk of your future and our dues pay them to keep a growing foundation and manage our future finances. That takes solid leadership.

    • vfxinsider says:

      I needs to be understood by all who are interested. IATSE will not set a mandate besides the #1 rule of union organizing, which is Inquire, Engage, Discuss, and Support.

      IF we don’t step up and act the part they will step down and wait till we are ready to do so. it’s really that simple.

      Either we lead, we engage, we sign cards and act like a group. Or they leave and that ‘s it.

      it’s that simple.

      • tk1099 says:

        We’re not going to get enough traction with most VFX artists that haven’t worked under an IATSE contract before – or those that consider themselves ‘safe’ – until we at least package the info for them in a way that they are accustomed and comfortable with. So I agree – we need to step up and a few of us be a vanguard to get that data out there. Thats finally happening in SoCal – 891/Vancouver is ages ahead of us with their presentation materials and videos.

        The information will be forthcoming – and hopefully the big question marks that remain for us with some exposure to working with IATSE will soon be answered or presented for further discussion.

        I have to admit, I’m VERY happy seeing the amount of traffic to even my little blog post. I hope we’re on the right track.

  10. vfxinsider says:

    IF your interested there is Union organisation 101. the late great Howard Zinn

    – Go onto Youtube and listen to Howard Zinn, get motivated.
    – Motivate your friends
    – plan minimum action, and Max action. Conversation is (ZERO) action
    – Above all listen to people, Don’t preach,
    – make posters, make videos, write a song, make a cartoon go up to geeks and engage in conversation.

    – get angry when you hear a story instead of getting passive or meek.

    Every labour movement in history is the mechanics of people power.

    “IF democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come-if history were any guide- from the top”

    We need to make this happen, IATSE only has one mandate. To wait for us to get involved and act on our behalf.

  11. Dave Rand says:

    Thanks for the union 101 information especially the #1 rule Inquire, Engage, Discuss, and Support as most of the constructive criticism can fall directly under all of these rules. critiques and criticisms that in the past found their audience in small meetings now are seeking their audience online. The way we communicate has evolved greatly since the union 101 rules were written. Ignoring that is death.

    Although I’m not sure which category I’d place announcing online via a magazine like Variety that a union has been laying the groundwork for its drive for the past year
    and has set up an organizing committee of industry veterans to develop a strategy, my guess would be “engage”. I’m certain most folks who aren’t aware of the #1 rule may have simply become elated that the IATSE was finally stepping up to bat for them.

    I know that the Online Town Hall meeting tried to engage IATSE to have an online meeting and was turned down, stating they wanted to do it “their way”. Maybe that’s one reason the park attendance was low. Maybe their way has become outdated, especially recognizing how scattered we have all become.

    I know that online magazines like fxGuide have tried to get a podcast going, and were told the same thing, and added that they needed to get “permission”, would that permission possibly be from their leadership? I mean someone is actually in charge and elected and paid for their leadership and decision making qualities I’m sure.

    I also know that members of the press are waiting to write something…most of which will be read online and not aloud from a park bench near the beach.

    A dear friend twittered me tonight stating ” I am critical of IATSE to IATSE. I am dn in the trenches mking suggestions. Getting on soapbox awaiting tp dn change is BS”

    ….but isn’t twitter a soapbox now…I mean anyone can read that tweet…point being we are all on digital soap boxes and wanting a forum engaged with our union a place where we can have our meetings and discuss our futures and inquire about the plan that ..and YES ….our union LEADERS have created and ask for their support. I want a LEADER to manage my health care, my employee rights, my labor contracts, and guard my pension (401k) like it was their own. I don’t want anything less, certainly not someone who will walk away if membership wains or weakens.

    I understand perfectly well since taking Labor and Management Relations in college…(although it’s one of the three C’s I got in school) and from my avid reading since, how important it is to elect leaders from the membership. However, with out strong leadership on the union side …or call it strong union paid representatives with good leadership qualities if it feels better….the activation energy is not present and the collective dies before it can even get started.

    I believe we need to take the starch out of some of these rules..break one if we have times have changed, and we need all the help we can get if we are to make up for the years of scattering and weakening.

    it’s so great to see more and more artist speaking out online, I’ve noticed a big change in just the last year. I think you should type till your fingers ache if you want to without fear of being digitally tarred and feathered. I welcome all opinions but I will not argue or let debates take an evil turn or life of their own. Fighting amongst ourselves is exactly what the powers that want us scattered and weak are hoping for.

    There are no stupid questions but we need a place to get answers and a place that leverages the information systems of our times. For me I what a union that has strong leadership within if I am going to allow them to Inquire about, Engage with, Discuss, and Support my life.

  12. Dave Rand says:

    This seems like a good spot to repost this recent news segment from 60 minutes.

    Thanks TK1099, thanks to free space like this, the union meeting that started even before the Variety announcement for IATSE’s “drive” can continue and grow without end.

  13. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by deltadave, daverandcom. daverandcom said: The largest union meeting ever has been going on since IATSE announced their "drive" chats like this lookin 4 a center: […]

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