“You will go to the Dagobah System…”

Posted: February 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

“…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.

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Comments
  1. tk1099 says:

    FYI, if you’d like to read the original Edlund article in its entirety – it’s online here:

    http://articles.latimes.com/1997/oct/20/business/fi-44756

  2. dave says:

    The sad part is that Richard has been thru this before. Boss shut down because of price competition and now he’s relying on a 30% film industry rebate to make a Louisiana location profitable. I didn’t read anything in the article that indicates that he will be competing on any basis other than price. As another wise commentator said – ‘live by the subsidy, die by the subsidy’. If Louisiana has to follow the path of many other states and revoke it’s rebate due to budget problems, how is the facility supposed to remain profitable? I think that some time in the middle of hurricane season the next few years he may realize that California wasn’t so bad after all. The tragic thing about it will be that all the folks who followed him to the bayou will be the ones paying the price with their blood sweat and tears.

  3. vfxmercenary says:

    I agree w/Dave. If you look on the duMonde website, there is a link for tax breaks right on the front page. What happens when the tax breaks go away ? Terrible business model.

    • tk1099 says:

      When the incentives go away – the work goes away. We move on.

      Currently, the effects facilities run on a model that ties benefit participation to ‘staff’ employment, proper classification of employee status and most have some form of probationary period before even those that are offered benefits, can use them.

      An organized vfx world is one of portable benefits. Move to Louisiana to work on a show at an organized facility – it counts, come back to LA – it counts… when someone opens a shop in Alaska and you work there – you have continuity of benefits.

      The incentives are here. They are a reality that is and will have an effect on how and where we work. As artists, we have our heads in the sand with our lack of ANY reaction to the market forces around us.

      If anything, opening a facility in these places, organized from day one, could work to attract talent from the traditional markets that currently attempt to ‘stay put’ in order to maintain any benefits they currently have.

      Properly organized vfx would reflect and support the reality of the nomadic, vfx workforce and business model – it make THEIR bad business model somewhat more palatable and definitely safer for us.

  4. Vfxartist says:

    Tk, thanks for posting this…

    I’m afraid, though, that this is greener pasture syndrome. I see a trend in some artist looking to jump abroad or at some other state, thinking “this is it, I’m out of LA, than God!” only to end up back in LA.

    I agree with Dave that thus doesn’t correct the business issue with vfx: no trade organizations or collective front to negotiate minimums so that a value in the industry is maintained. Instead I see people who are passionate, who are fans of Mr. Edlund, hoping that this will work. Yet thete still is no business plan that accounts for vfx problems. I see mr Edlund’s draw power, i see a tax subsidy, but no medium/long term plan.

    And i don’t agree with artist being ready to move anywhere. I have no desire to become a transient worker just so that I can work on a “cool project”. I don’t mind taking a job abroad if its of my own choosing, but not as a permanent classification of migrant worker. I see people who move all the time, and its as if they see that their efforts of hauling everything to another place will be rewarded with some new beginning. Its the same thing. In a way, its like people running away from the current problem. That this new opportunity is a shiney new thing that will be successful because its new.

    I hope this new venture works out, but i see no solutions to the core issues of the vfx biz. Subsidies mean that the money saved will be passed on directly to the client, leaving vfx with the same low margins. Vfx producers sell these subsidies specifically. It just devalues what we do, with no long term solution.

  5. VFX Soldier says:

    Great post. Nice find on the Boss Film Studios quote.

    You’d figure they would learn after New Mexico and Michigan. Look these subsidies don’t last and they were never intended to last.

    For the artist, is it really feasible to be constantly globe-trotting? Can you constantly take the kids out of school and move to the next VFX subsidy state or country?

    Or what about just a significant other for that matter? Should that person be obligated to give up their job every time you find a new project to work on in another state or country?

    You live by the subsidy, you die by the subsidy.

    • tk1099 says:

      The potential for relocation has been an element of VFX from the start. ILM in San Fran and Apogee, etc in LA set the stage for that LONG ago.

      For most of us in LA -the incentive fueled vfx diaspora has presented options rather than a need to go nomadic. LA continues to have a lot of work and plenty of career opportunities via switching facilities. The lack of portable benefits tempers this to a degree – but leaving LA is a risk. In most cases, end of project or the shuttering of whatever vfx shingle you were working for – means coming back to LA or leaving that city. Most of them are ‘one horse’ towns and artificially supported via this ‘free’ money – you may want to think twice before a 30 year mortgage on that dream house.

      I do see them as gold-rush ‘boom towns’ and I expect them to dry up when the hills stop producing.

      Personally, portable benefits and the continuity which a union offers, makes that situation more palatable. The reality is that producers move their projects around to harvest this money crop. A national VFX local would make it easier for us to survive in the world that they have created.

      When LA starts to organize, opening these incentive vfx shops, as a union signatory from day one, would probably be a good move. It would definitely make it safer for us to do the risky move and live a bit larger than our wages allow in LA, while it lasted – and we’d land softer after their inevitable collapse.

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