Thursday 2nd August 2012

by Scott Ross

It’s been over a year since the Visual Effects Society has issued their hopeful VES 2.0 letter to the industry. Many on the board of the VES have stated that there is action being taken by various subcommittees within the VES and that this is a difficult issue that needs a great deal of research and a strategic plan. I contend that the time to be effective is quickly slipping through our fingers.  I believe that given the structure of the VES, its charter as well as its management and its board of directors, make addressing the issues that the Visual Effects industry face, an impossibility.

The VES is an honorary organization whose charter is to further the art and science of Visual Effects. However, both art and science need to be well funded for those disciplines to exist. Over twenty years ago, I tried starting a visual effects trade association called AVEC ( Association of Visual Effects Creators, French for “with”). Unfortunately because of paranoia, the association never really got off the runway.  There were two meetings held but all of the major VFX companies of the day (ILM, BOSS, APOGEE, DreamQuest) were so mistrusting of each other, AVEC quickly became SANS ( French for “without”).

Years later, Tom Atkins had started making some noise about starting a new visual effects community effort, the VES.  I was at the time apprehensive about this new organization, fearful that it would not have a business component, which I felt then and now, is the critical issue facing any industry, particularly ours.  I mean, without a healthy and vigorous business climate, any industry is doomed. Lo and behold, the VES board at the time did not want the VES to be involved with business issues.

The Visual Effects Society (VES) is a non-profit professional, honorary society, dedicated to advancing the arts, sciences, and applications of visual effects and to improving the welfare of its members by providing professional enrichment and education, fostering community, and promoting industry recognition…

I decided there and then that while I love awards shows and honoring great visual effects, I fully understood that visual effects artists and visual effects facilities needed to make money to continue to make great images.  Imagery was the heart of our industry but money was the blood.  I decided that the VES while well intentioned was misdirected, and so I withdraw my involvement.

At present, and over the last twenty years or so, the Visual Effects industry has been managed poorly. The companies that support the men and women that create the outstanding and outrageous images that propel box office on all tentpole movies have been unduly taken advantage of. Dozens of visual effects companies have gone bankrupt even after creating incredible value to producers, directors and motion picture studios. Profit margins for visual effects companies have been mostly non-existant even while box office returns on these effects laden films have soared.

Recently Peter Berg (Battleship) has publicly stated that the business to be in is the visual effects business as the lions share of tentpole films budgets goes towards creating visual effects. In the past, I’ve had lots of conversations with directors that feel exactly as Mr. Berg does.  It’s hard for a Director or a Producer to understand that even though the visual effects component of a film is by far the largest line item in the budget, that given the cost structure as well as the deal structure of visual effects, there is rarely any money left to fall to the bottom line. I used to get in conversations with Mr. Cameron who constantly challenged the pricing structure of DD.  Oftentimes he would be stymied that DD’s fee was far in excess of his fees… and he was the Director, the Producer, the writer, the editor and the cinematographer!  Try as I may, he seemed to not understand that the costs against DD’s fees were oftentimes 90-110% of the actual fee. And while I am sure that Jim had expenses as well, they were far less than those of an effects company.  Bottom line, Jim could reduce his fee by 50% and still make a profit and still have a back end upside as well.  If DD had cut its fees by 50%, we would have easily gone out of business half way through production.

The issues facing the industry are complex and lengthy.  Visual Effects Workers face growing problems around benefits, overtime pay, relocation and workload to name but a few. Visual Effects Facilities, given their inability to maintain reasonable profit margins are scrambling to do what they can to stay in business. Those efforts include opening up facilities in low cost markets, chasing the tax incentive and subsidies offered by various governments and cutting labor costs wherever they legally and at times, illegally can. Much of this desperate maneuvering by the VFX facilities have further exacerbated issues facing VFX workers. Yet 18 of the top 20 box office mega hits are laden with VFX. Something here seems unfair and in need of attention.

Given various governments willingness to sponsor the VFX industry through subsidies, the relatively low cost of entry for new VFX companies and the Hollywood Motion Picture Studios pressure to lower the cost of below the line production, the globalization of VFX has truly taken hold.

With globalization in full swing, the industry seems to have been divided into 2 types of skill sets.  The super high end character animation and VFX continue to be produced by facilities in English speaking countries ( US, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). These are the effects that drive the marketing of the current tent pole films. It seems that the major motion picture studio awards these large effects contracts to the likes of ILM, SPI, D Neg, Digital Domain, R&H, WETA, MPC and The Mill. Unfortunately, because of the fear of having to cover the massive overhead that these studios carry, these VFX studios are scarred to death by upsetting the six or so only clients they have. These large VFX houses, given the ongoing cost pressure by the studios, are constantly looking for ways to lower their costs.  Each large VFX house is in a competitive bidding situation and the studio/clients take advantage of cross bidding between them. Each VFX company lowering their price, even though they don’t really know what it will cost to produce the effects asked for.  This practice, along with the fear of pissing off a major director or one of the major studios generally drives the VFX studio to lose money on their work.

Then there is the other tier of work, the less glamorous work like roto, match moves, compositing, animation effects and the like that seem to be awarded to the lowest bidders. At present, to compete in this world the work needs to be produced by low cost labor.  Today, much of this work is moving to third world countries or to government subsidized efforts.

All of the above is the result of the motion picture studios efforts, and understandably so, to reduce costs.

Most of us are aware of the direction our industry is moving. And because it continues to get worse, there is, understandably, discussion about how this might turn around.  The VES…. well, let them continue doing what they do, though they’ve shown that they cannot be effective regarding a turnaround.  Lately there has been a great deal of conversation around Unions and organizing the VFX labor pool.  The reception of a Union however seems to be lukewarm.  The Union organization process is daunting and from my point of view, it seems that it will only exacerbate the downward spiral of the industry.

A VFX Union under the auspices of either the IATSE or the IBEW, by their very nature would, even if very successful, only address workers in the US.  The Union would have to get enough cards signed showing interest from workers in individual companies. In the case of VFX, that would be a gargantuan effort if even possible.  Assuming employees of a given company decided to vote yes on being represented by a Union, what would that do?

Well, the Union would then negotiate a contract with that company governing the ways in which that specific company would compensate its employees.  Sounds great, but… having run both Union and non Union companies, I can safely say that a Union shop is more expensive to run than a non Union one. So, the additional costs of running a Union shop will be borne by whom?  Remember, the motion picture studio, the client, is constantly applying pressure to LOWER costs. Remember, the Visual Effects Facility has little wiggle room as they have no margins.  And finally, international companies without Union contracts, subsidized by their governments or located in countries with very inexpensive labor pools will offer motion picture studios even more attractive alternatives.

The next argument I hear is always an interesting one. Great artistry always wins, China/India doesn’t have the skilled artisans, we do things better and more economically. Well, yes….. for now.  It’s only a matter of time before those statements no longer hold water. Don’t believe your own hype.  Talent has no borders.  Creativity is not an American birthright. The world is becoming smaller, cultures are blending, technology democratizes art.

Is there a solution?  If the VES has been unsuccessful and Unions make matters worse, is there any hope?

One of the key issues is to understand that the VFX industry is a global one. While today’s concerns might be varied depending upon one’s geographical location, we must recognize that any solution needs to be a global solution. I believe the core issue, that influences all other issues, is that VFX facilities are not paid appropriately. If there were indeed profit margins, many of the issues such as benefits, work week, residuals, work environment and relocation would be fairly addressed. Additionally, contracts, payment schedules, control of the whims of directors and producers, change orders, turn around time need to be collectively agreed upon  by both clients and vendors alike. And finally, the issues regarding tax incentives and subsidies need to be brought to light and the governments that support those subsidies need to be educated and lobbied to understand the long term effect those programs have on the industry as a whole and their particular segment within their borders.

The first step in executing the above is the formation of an International Trade Association. And so here we are again, full cycle yet 20 plus years later.  Let’s hope that the powers that be are less paranoid today than back in the 80’s.  The time has come to organize.





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29 Responses to “What the VFX “industry” needs now is…..”

  1. Tim Landry says:

    Interesting times we live in…
    There is certainly a heightened calling for a VFX union and trade association in our post Digital Spring era. But lest we act rashly in the interest that “something” be done about the plight of VFX workers, let’s examine what we know about what unions actually accomplish:

    Look at the city of Detroit and the auto industry. Look at Twinkies. Look at the US Post Office. Look at any state or municipality currently teetering on bankruptcy. Look at the dismal state of public education. For all of these calamities much of the responsibility for the destruction and misery lies clearly on the shoulders of labor unions. And when all is said and done the union members ultimately suffer more than anyone.

    Why would we want that for ourselves? Aren’t we the smart ones on the block? Instead of embracing the same old tired labor structures that date back to the pyramids, isn’t there a better way, something outside the box?

    Actually there is. Yes, a real plan.

    After much thought and observation we’ve compiled a comprehensive outline of a VFX industry restructuring that actually addresses many of the problems and concerns of all the parties, studios, VFX facilities, and artists.

    Too good to be true? Would anyone have the courage to try it? You be the judge.

    Download pdf here:

    Even if you see problems with this proposal maybe it’ll at least get you started on thinking creatively about solutions.

    Tim Landry

  2. S.A. says:

    Dear Scott,

    When I first started in this industry, some 15 years ago, I got my first job in a commercial vfx company in Tel Aviv, used to be called Gravity Ltd.
    The guy who hired me, you might know, Effi Wizen, gave me a shot in this industry with no demo reel at all. 8 years forward and after working in Canada for a while (and shortly at Rhinoceros vfx NY), I came down for an interview at DD. I remember the day because I walked around Venice enjoying the brilliant sunny day thinking to myself, “yeah, I can see myself living and working here”.
    When it was time for the interview I came in and was led by the receptionist, past your office, into a large meeting room were 3 show supervisors and 2 coordinators were waiting.
    I thought to myself, “wow, I’m in the next room to Scott. They must really want to hire me”. After 30 min of questions of sorts, I shook everyone’s hands and left. I never heard from anyone at DD again.
    3 years later I ended up at Weta to work on Jim’s little Avatar project. Times were looking good.

    I’ve been recently thinking about my path in the industry because of the recent VFX crisis and I realized that the highlight of my career was really the first day that I started.
    My employment conditions and overall job security were at their peak back then. Hell, we were getting annual trips to Turkey and Holiday gifts.
    Looking back, it’s been going downhill since. Sure my salary is much higher now but for some reason, things feel much worse.

    I’ve been reading a lot of posts, blogs and articles recently, yours included. Lots of voices out there but you are making the most sense to me.
    Nothing new in what’s you’re suggesting or trying to do but, as you say, it’s all about timing. Maybe this is the wave you’ve been waiting to catch.

    A friend of mine recently told me, “It’s amazing that we can figure out how to voxelize bounding volume hierarchies but can’t grasp fundamental economics. Don’t sell for $9 what cost you $10 to make”.

    Thank you for your participation in voicing and putting the issues forward.
    Feel free to comment further to my email address.


  3. Bruce Borowy says:

    Hello Scott, as a fellow artist that feels the VFX industry demise here locally, I applaud you for rallying behind us artists. I myself am trying to put together a Documentary on the VFX industry past, present, and future from the view point of the artist with the hopes of educating the public further on this ever changing story and would be delighted if you would be inclined to provide commentary to add further insight on this important topic.


  4. Young artists need to organize and be better bargainers But I wonder how many people who think a union is the way to go have ever been union members. I was an IATSE camera assistant years ago and I can report that it was not a happy experience. For starters, it will be a tiered system. People will be ranked by position and pay, Jr.s, seniors, TD’s, Supervisors, coordinators etc. Moving up the ranks will require applications, committee hearings, upgrade fees etc. When you’ve got too many people in senior positions and talented young people eager to get up the ranks but can’t because of union politics, there will be lots of tension and arguments. Sr. Union members can be downright awful and abusive to jr’s because it’s in their interest.

    Instead of feeling that producers are screwing them, young unionized artists will feel it’s the union and sr union members that are keeping them down.

    The union will have to be built in a way which allows the cream to rise to the top and for incompetents to be flushed or retrained.

  5. Jean Thoren says:

    Hi Scott, I don’t think I have seen you since you so kindly came to speak at the last World Animation Celebration in 2001. Believe it or not, I am still running down that road of trying to bring the world’s producers of animation together. This is no small feat, because if you think VFX is a challenging business model, try publishing a small independent B to B magazine and website. Happily, against all odds we just celebrated 25 years, thanks to my dedicated staff! I found your blog through Peter’s blog and was happy to see that we agree that the world is a much smaller place, and it’s time to mix it up with our fellow inhabitants, and find our commonality as citizens of Earth. The paranoia regarding reaching out to our neighbors all around this green and blue ball will be our demise, whether in business or politically. My thought is that if you can’t beat them (in price) get them to bring the money to the table. Many countries around the world that we consider to be the third world, actually are enjoying a surplus (Columbia, Poland, etc.) rather than sustaining trillions of dollars of debt! …..So, it is with great optimism…..that we at AM, are putting on a World Animation Feature and VFX Summit at the California Yacht Club (a fun, seaside place to hang out, with a low F & B minimum) for three days October 28-31. I believe the model, that will be our future, lies in co-production where each participant brings their expertise to the table and owns a piece of the collective pie. It has worked in Europe over the past 20 years, where they have come from viewing each other as competitors, to becoming partners in some very successful and artistically interesting projects. Of course “MEDIA” and various public funds have supported this successful growth, but if we can get the US companies to see the writing on the wall, they may come out of their towers and listen to ideas from countries they have never visited. They may even contribute a small amount to host some new friends at our BYOB party. :)
    These people are flying for many hours, all we need to do is drive across town. As we all know, (like your Cranes) IP can come from anywhere. Collaboration and multicultural input from partners, blend to make a better, richer and more internationally viable picture. Scott, I would love for you to make a command performance for the international producers of animated movies who will fly in from all over the world. These studio owners, are spending a good portion of their travel budgets to come meet the US producers and support folks. Unlike our counterparts from around the world who welcome us warmly when we arrive in their territories, the studios here have decided not to contribute any capital to play host. Thankfully, they are loaning their talented employees for panels, for which I am very grateful. They have yet to see the value in reaching out, in spite of the success of Illumination and DWA’s recent collaborations across the pond. I think we can turn a very limited, protectionist view around, with this first of it’s kind in the U.S. event. I made the opening night gala party a fundraiser for MENDING KIDS INTERNATIONAL in the hope that the majors would join in the spirit giving back to kids around the world who watch and support their movies. So far I have no takers for sponsorship of this great charity, but I haven’t given up hope, we have 5 weeks to go! I may just have to sell individual tables and seats, which is fine. It will be a wonderful night.
    Please e-mail me Scott if you have any interest in helping us welcome these talented fellow creators. All my best, Jean Thoren, Pub. Animation Magazine

  6. Mitchell Anthony says:

    You’ve heard the old saying, “You can make money at the top, you can make money at the bottom, but you can’t make money in the middle.” I believe the big, brand name studios will be around, the small studios doing onesy, twosy projects will be around, but the midsize studios will go away. Not trying to sound flippant. But, as you know, the computer-driven VFX industry is still relatively young, not to mention this is a difficult time for many businesses what w/ disruptive technologies and competition coming from the Global Village. Could be a shakeout. I look to the past, and business cycles seem to always go the same way.


  7. Brad says:

    Wanna solve the problem? Here’s my take. VFX Executives at film studios generally report to the production people these days and not the post production people. Post people stay way clear of VFX because it is always problematic and over budget, largely because of how their bosses in production view the process; without a clue generally. So there is no collaboration to solve the possible vfx problems in post with post people before it gets into post. Post only wants to know when the shots are coming.

    Post is often vendor driven for talent, production is not (it is roster driven). Some post people are ignorant, cheap fucks, but many know that good, healthy vendors are required for success. To production people a vendor rents them a commodity; a lamp, a truck, a camera. Post people rent people and their tools, sometimes within another company structure, often not.

    I suggest film studios need to look at how their antiquated system of development, pre production, post production and distribution relate. I think VFX compnaies need to look at their business models and recognize that they can provide many other services but are not taking advantage of branching into other areas of billable work.

  8. Guillaume Wyatt says:

    I guess the VFX bubble is about to burst very soon. Time to learn something usefull, or start creating original IP instead of selling vfx.

  9. Dave Rand says:

    There’s an historical counterpart to the VES. The Academy. it was actually started by producers to quell the urge to unionize by claiming they’d help settle labor disputes. A shell really, eventually just becoming an awards show. Not that there is anything sinister afoot at the VES but the effect can be just as immobilizing when they imply a status that is really not possible given their charter.

    I agree that the current union model is not working but models change and I think both the IA and the IBEW could work much harder on that front. Don’t wait for us to line up. I’d really like to see more “in the field work”, they certainly have ramped that up lately and that is great, and more open thinking and larger budgets…because we are worth it, our leverage is THE leverage of the future. Not that they aren’t working hard it’s just that the work is not very apparent to us. There’s a some key points to the union like the 5$% residual that feeds some of the best health care and pensions available today, key selling points, that are still not explained very well or are very late in coming to the web sites. This positive stuff needs to be in our faces everywhere we turn. The key bullet points that really matter should be right up front and in plain english. Just taking a look now at there’s not mention of a residual payment, there’s a link to the MPI health plan but no mention of it there either, i may be missing it, but It should be in bold letter on page one if you ask me because every time I mention it to another artist, they at first don’t believe me and then state that if that were true they’d be very interested in that. On the IBEW site there’s a lot of work to be done there but the IBEW and the site has started including some testimonials and other information but there’s no real FAQ page yet, something the IA has right there. It’s all actually great advancement considering just a few months ago we had no online information at all and 22 months ago both sides announced a “drive” . Sorry guys but if I worked this slowly on my shots I’d be fired…..and there’d be no union guy to back me up!! These recruiters are hard working I know. Vanessa, Kaplan, Oedy all great. I think their budgets and their bosses could reflect a much stronger effort.

    As Steve Huellet puts it so well. It’s all about leverage. The VFX artists are at the bottom of the credit list, creditor’s list, and the totem pole so we get what that dictates every time simply by the law of the jungle.

    I agree with Scott a trade union may be what has to come first. If we can get leverage at that level, maybe scrap bidding and start using billable hours like the rest of the talent adopted decades ago. The directors will show up “on the vfx set” because they will need to, and the streamlining that will create is the greatest cost cutting move to be had. I’m so tired of being on version whatever of some simple effect because my lead, the vfx sup, the janitor for that matter has filled the creative void because the director’s taste, or that of the real decision maker, is visited once a month because they are under the false impression that it’s a fixed price and the best way to go. Bidding is bullshit. It’s a joke. It’s a construction business model meant to go with a blueprint. The business world is laughing at us. We are suckers. The client loses in this model. Loses so much and creates a dustbowl where their should be fruit.

    Once that model is gone there will be room for so many ideas, ideas that especially the studios will profit from, and it won’t have to be a sequel to more garbage, it can be fresh ideas that feed of the freed imaginations of the really valuable software, the minds of the VFX artists.

  10. I’m not sure compositing is as commoditized/unglamorous as you think.

    Of course, I’m biased because it’s my area of expertise…..remember, the compositor is – in essence – the gatekeeper of the image. They touch the image LAST.

    They make the final tweaks, the final adjustments to ALL the elements of the image. They make sure the image is “ready for the screen”. The other disciplines – Roto, match moving, animation effects – support them, not the other way around.

    Most compositors have the skill sets of a colorist, animator, match mover, rotoscoper, tracker, and in some cases, the DP.

    For you to lump it in with the other disciplines is….well…just not right….

    but like I said, I’m biased….it’s one of my favorite craft areas…..and the one that I do best.

  11. Tom Atkin says:

    And, now, visual effects will take a back seat for today.

    Off to see my Trojans open the season.

    Anytime…just call, but not on Saturday’s when SC is home.

    Fight On!

  12. Tom Atkin says:

    Thanks, Scott.

    I think it is important to know where you stand, and that you do truly care with no agenda other than to help.

    I actually lost your number as we have not spoken for a couple of years. Maybe, you might email it to me. Perhaps, I might be helpful (on my own) to lend support. As you know when I was Executive Director of VES “rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty” was part of the job.

    Again, I am totally removed from VES in every way… but, personally, if I can lend a hand or you wish to chat…let’s do it.

    Over the years, the one thing that is a constant is that we may not agree on everything, but we do agree on one…our mutual respect for each other.

    And for the record, I have no agenda or desire for a job. I would like to help…if I can because I do really care about the artists and the industry. My actions and commitment speak for themselves.


  13. Tom Atkin says:


    Let’s be fair in the history. You were on the founding board of VES. As soon as the board decided to frame itself as ‘an honorary society’ modeled somewhat like ASC, you took your toys and went home because the business component you sought was not on the table.

    Both of us agreed then and now a trade organization or some sort of business entity was probably a good idea. This was twenty years ago.

    You continued at DD, produced Young Lions, dabbled in films and other projects. During this time you sold DD.

    A lot of time passed and your deep interest in this area (trade organization) faded away as you did…no offense intended.

    Here we are 20 years later and you are still attempting the same concept you had then, but were too busy or not motivated enough until recently to revisit. You believe that getting the Top Tier facilities (approximately ten or so) is the basis for a trade organization. It is for companies, and it would border on collusion depending how and what the organization does. I am sure if it gets off the ground, you may seek other company members at various Tier levels, but the Top Tier runs the show. And, some one has to explain to me how a trade organization can have the power to strike its workers when negotiations do not go well. Jeff Heusser is most likely correct..both a trade organization and union go hand in hand.

    To this day, I have not understood clearly how a trade organization of companies best serves the interests of the artist? In some ways, these are even in conflict. Whose side does the trade organization take when an issue has two masters? The goals of a trade organization and its employees present, in my opinion, a slippery slope.

    With reference to VES, you did not listen 20 years ago; you did not listen when we spoke a few years ago about the trade organization concept and you wanted to engage VES in the process; and, Scott, as much as I respect your intellect and business acumen…I am not sure you are listening now.

    Not once, but twice you have gotten involved with VES, and when you discovered they could not serve your purpose you move on to the next in line. It would be fair to say that the current VES wanted to be involved, and probably with you, but that is not their mission even though they may want to think it is. I certainly cannot and do not speak for VES. Perhaps, this may be part of your problem with them. VES never has and never will be what you wanted.

    In fact, looking from a far…I have no idea what VES is anymore either. Their actions are confusing even if they are with the best intentions. Many of the posts on various sites reflect similar observations relative to their Bill of Rights and 2.0 statements and their position within the industry. Being ‘the voice of the industry’ means what? As founder, I certainly, care about VES and what it does…but, since Jeff Okun, Chair and the BOD took away my lifetime membership given to me in front of 1000 people with the membership #0000 because “I came before anyone else” on a ‘by laws’ technicality some five years ago..I am not involved in any way. And for the record, I was never notified in advance that this process was taking place until it was completed. I am not a member of VES…I was not ‘qualified’.

    For the artists…I hope you or some one else gets something going soon. After twenty years, I agree, the clock is running out to get anything meaningful done while the blood is slowly being drained out of the industry as smaller shops (and some big ones like DD) are either folding or having serious problems.

    Truly, I wish you and others all the best to achieve something positive and soon. Scott, you have the gift of leadership supported with an almost ‘killer’ business instinct, but you must convince a ‘doubting’ base what are your true motivations.

    Good luck…and, I mean it.

    • Scott Ross says:

      My intention here is simple:
      Try to help an industry that I helped build. I have no interest in running this Trade Association. I have no interest in being a VFX Supervisor, a VFX producer etc… I gave 25 years to this industry and I’d like to see it survive. Plain… and simple.

    • Scott Ross says:

      … and if you or any VES folks wanna chat about this… you’ve my number. Gimme a call.

  14. Jeff Heusser says:

    Artists may be well compensated… but at what cost? Insane schedules, many companies are skirting or outright ignoring labor laws… no vacation days, no holiday pay, no sick days – not rare, normal freelance life in Los Angeles. How many people do you know who have suffered physical issues from excessive work or destroyed relationships over it? I’ve even been to funerals where everyone knew that excessive work played a major factor.

    I think it has been proven that individuals can’t do it on their own. Why should we not get the same participation that everyone else below the line on the film gets in the way of residuals that fund health care and pension? Should we ignore that money?

    I guess I don’t buy that any of these issues will magically vanish. Facilities need a trade association and at the same time artists need to do whatever they have to do to improve their situation. Two prongs, not one with a trickle down.

    I support anyone trying to better the situation, it can’t stay the way it is.


  15. Jason Halverson says:

    So Scott. What can we artists do to help?

  16. michaelmovies says:

    Having read both this and the VFX Soldier piece, I’ve got to say that the hardest part of the road ahead is getting both the employers (facilities) and the employed (artists and technical people) to agree on what the road ahead should look like.

    A lot of the employed will push for unionization, seeing their (relatively-speaking, in the current Western economy, exceptionally well-payed) jobs being threatened by the decisions of the employer, but the employer, in turn, is only responding to the downward pressures of their own employer, the studio system. The employed will, through unionization… which (with all due respect to Mr. Kaplan), remains a highly bureaucratic, somewhat archaic, and ultimately (at least before the efficiencies Mr. Kaplan mentions kick in), quite expensive process… ultimately cost themselves even their globalized jobs in a misguided attempt at local protectionism.

    Simultaneously a lot of the employers, fearing for their own jobs, will seek to lower costs by bowing to their masters’ will and giving them anything they want while undertaking progressively lower and less survivable margins. This pressure will naturally lead to attrition, which will further exacerbate the downward spiral initiated by the workers’ original (and now collective) demands for a higher rate of pay than the combination of their (progressively less rare) talent and (progressively more automated) technology truly allows.

    At the point at which you can pump out a “skilled” artist in less than a year’s training… at the point, in fact, you can make a great deal more money pretending there is a job ahead for the otherwise unemployed and vaguely artistic than actually providing them said job… you’ve created a necessary downward movement in wages. And, simultaneously, you’ve trained those people to expect far better than merely a good life; to expect to be able to consume heavily-VFX laden pablum on a never-ending streaming buffet at streaming prices… the gyre is downward, rapid, and the center cannot hold.

    A trade organization isn’t a bad idea at all… and neither, on its face, is a union drive… but I believe that preceding both must be a collective meeting of the minds. Employers must make clear to employees exactly what their costs are, and exactly why such a huge and untenable proportion of those costs is the employees… employers must make the case for why employees must, ultimately, accept increased benefits at lower pricing, and what the employers will in turn commit to doing to meaningfully widen their net of of the market share.

    In other words, co-operation… show the employed that the employer can take the same, or greater, hit; take that collective hit and make it meaningful towards their mutual longer-term success. Those in the trenches have little reason to believe the people in charge have the slightest clue what they’re doing, and the people in charge have little reason to believe those in the trenches won’t simply desert when fortunes change.

    And both houses have created this particular plague by not talking to one another in private, while thinking they can each talk it out in public.

    • Scott Ross says:

      well said… but the issue can be addressed another way as well. The fact remains that there is indeed a “Fat Cat” in this equation. It is mos definitely not the employer ( The VFX facility) who is barely staying in business, it is not the employee ( though some might say are being paid rather hefty salaries), but the Motion Picture Studio is making some very big cash… they are the Fat Cats and if they compensated the VFX facilities in a different way, I believe that many of the issues plaguing the industry would just vanish.

  17. Pragmatik says:

    As always, a nice essay. However, you still can’t gather American companies together to fix prices or working conditions without violating laws against collusion. Also, studios aren’t going to agree to anything that costs more or offers less value. If you can find a way to get a better deal for VFX artists while providing more value at less cost to the studios, then you’ll be onto something.

    There’s another issue, too: the ground is shifting rapidly. The number of available VFX artists is increasing faster than ever before. Online and offline trade schools are churning out new artists at an alarming rate. And the software is getting cheaper and smarter. If you’re an artist making six figures, get packed, it’s moving day. Your job is going to be taken by a kid using a smarter piece of software. And don’t kid yourself; no matter how low the pay goes, as long as VFX is easier than digging ditches or tarring roofs, there will be people willing to do the job for less.

    • Scott Ross says:

      Someone once said… :”if all you got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you’re a staunch union supporter or organizer, like VFX Soldier…. every solution looks like a Union. And, btw, I understand why you feel that way, I just don’t agree with you.

  18. [...] ILM General Manager and Digital Domain Founder Scott Ross wrote a post that hastily concludes: The first step in executing the above is the formation of an International Trade Association. And [...]

    • Scott Ross says:


      I did conclude that. I have always concluded that. For over 20 years. I can assure you, it was and is not a hasty decision.

  19. Steve Kaplan says:

    “The time has come to organize.”

    As always Scott, you’re spot on. However, I do consider it my duty to counter the union statements you’ve made. Again.

    We’ve been round a few times over the Union cost issue. While I would never think to question your experience with the ILM union contract, we both know that contract was not designed to cover visual effects artists and was built off the Basic Agreement. Since that time, the IATSE has much experience in tailoring contracts to fit budgetary needs of production (Low Budget, MOW, Cable, etc).

    Would the union want to bring participation in MPI for vfx artists? That is certainly the overall goal, but its recognized that it wouldn’t be a good fit for all studios. As I’m sure you’re well aware, contract negotiations are organic beasts and everything is open for discussion.

    So, to say Unions would make matters worse, is being a bit dramatic. Especially when you’re essentially talking about “unionizing” the studios under the auspices of the Trade Organization. Organizing either group, artists or studios, is a daunting task since the idea of collective action seems foreign to both.

    However, I know one great way to get the studios talking together about a shared “issue”. Its certain to erase any trouble you’ve had in the past getting the heads of the studios together and talking about acting as a cohesive unit. Organize the artists. With union contracts in their laps, I’d bet large amounts they’d see their way clear to talking to each other.

    And there would be no greater ally to the Trade Organization than the Artists Union when the time came to negotiate with the producers. Acting collectively, meaningful and lasting change could be achieved.

    The time has most certainly come .. to organize.

    Steve Kaplan
    The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE

    • Scott Ross says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I must however, respectfully disagree with you. There is a significant difference between “unionizing” the studios and unionizing the workers. I personally have never supported the concept of changing a heroine addicts addiction by legalizing and offering addicts Methadone. I believe what I believe and I respect your beliefs as well. IMHO, Unions do have a part in this, but not until the employers have a chance to get their heads above the water line.

      It’s all in the timing.


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