Examining the VES Open Letter

Recently, the Executive Director of the VES delivered an open letter to the VFX community describing what he believes are a number of issues currently facing the VFX industry. The letter was passionate, but is his approach to the issue of globalization potentially damaging?

Its truly amazing how fast things change. Less than six months ago I was an owner of a recognized previsualization company doing work on a number films within Hollywood. Today, I’m newly employed but no longer from the perspective of being a small business owner. Hollywood is no longer my only playground and my place of work is literally and virtually all around the world. Personally, I never thought I would see that change. I liked the idea of running a business in the film Mecca of the world and it seemed like the best place, if not only place, to follow my filmmaking and vfx dreams.  Yet I truly believe there are times within one’s career when you’re presented with certain turning points that elicit dramatic change. Sometimes you have a hand in that change, other times the universe and its agents decide for you.  The key to surviving change is to stop resisting it. Once that happens you are free to take action.

Shifting gears on the job front can be a scary time for many. Today’s economic climate isn’t something you really want to play around with. When I moved to California in 1999, I was pretty amazed by the opportunity and level of talent I found here.  The 1990’s and early 2000's was a great time for CGI and VFX. The industry was approaching the peak of the computer graphics boom and I couldn’t help but feel that I struck the mother load of opportunity. Yet at the beginning of 2011 I found myself out of work and I questioned my immediate future.  Are the opportunities still endless or has globalization reduced the VFX industry to a shadow of its former self?

Recently, the Executive Director of the VES delivered an open letter to the VFX community describing what he believes are a number of issues currently facing our industry.  While I applaud the big picture Eric Roth is attempting to communicate in his letter, I feel the language he used to address the issue at hand is somewhat emotional, potentially confrontational and includes broad generalizations that seem contradictory to an honorary, global society. 

If we distill Roth’s letter down to the basics, we see the following key points:

1.     No one is leading the VFX community.

2.     Artists and VFX companies are working harder for less.

3.     Globalization is commoditizing the VFX marketplace.

4.     A unified voice for our industry is needed.

5.     VFX artists and companies need more recognition, solid benefits, and better working conditions.

6.     If we try to fix the problem it could change the industry’s dynamic forever.

While this list seems both accurate and reasonable, I wonder if Roth’s view is a bit too myopic to the local situation in Hollywood rather than what’s going on in the global VFX industry as a whole.

Anytime a group or organization wants to take a stand against something they see as an injustice, one of the first steps necessary is to identify the “others” responsible for causing the problem.  Let’s take a look at Roth’s opening salvo:

"It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the state of the visual effects industry is unsettled. Artists and visual effects companies are working longer hours for less income, delivering more amazing VFX under ever diminishing schedules, carrying larger financial burdens while others are profiting greatly from our work."

Well, there it is in black and white. Others are profiting from our work. Who are these others and how are they taking advantage of us? In Roth’s letter, the others are the film studios. But depending upon your own personal situation, the others could be your boss, your company, your client, your competition or maybe even some invisible enemy like globalization.

Outsourcing is a big issue nowadays and you don’t have to go very far to hear how someone has lost his or her job to someone overseas. But is it right to blame our perceived problems on the next person, group or organization up or down the ladder or those artists over in Nepal or Mumbai?  Well according to Roth it is:

"As globalization intensifies, the process of creating visual effects is becoming more and more commoditized. Many wonder if the current business model for our industry is sustainable over the long term."

“Our industry”? Maybe that should read “our way of life”.  I wonder what others outside of Hollywood would think about that statement.  If you’re living somewhere other than Los Angeles, such wording elicits an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Not only are the studios the problem, but also those artists outside the Hollywood system are to blame. If that wasn’t enough, Roth then switches gears and points his finger to the collective VFX community back home:

"As good as we are at creating and manipulating amazing and groundbreaking images, VFX professionals have done a terrible job of marketing ourselves to the business side of the industry."

So because of bad marketing practices and globalization the studios have elected to go elsewhere to get the job done and they also choose to willfully abuse their US contractors in the process? I think that sums up his base argument. Roth then proceeds to paint a pretty abysmal picture by stating workers in the US rarely have health coverage, companies are going out of business, profit margins are shrinking, nobody is getting proper credit and artists are “being forced” to work 70 to 100 hours per week. Is Roth purposely being confrontational? Maybe. But statements like those seem more like opinions presented to evoke a reaction. What kind of emotion does it evoke in you?

Typically someone who is unemployed or potentially disgruntled at work being lost to those overseas would likely read Roth’s words and shake a fist to the sky and yell “Yeah! Let’s stick to the man!” but then all I can think of in a situation like this is South Park’s “Goobacks” episode and the array of displaced workers complaining how people from the future took their job. While I’m sure Roth has some valid examples of companies and studios abusing its personnel, I don’t think anyone would disagree that the conditions within the VFX community have changed. However what we’re experiencing was bound to happen.

The VFX industry is in a state of change where the technology and processes associated with it are available to anyone. There’s no doubt this has its drawbacks. Powerful technology in the hands of amateurs has a tendency to produce a lot of low quality, inexpensive work. However this is normal to any industry that matures past a certain level. As an industry or company expands, it reaches a turning point where it has to reinvent itself to better accommodate the new competitive conditions in the world market.  As a result a new paradigm of operating standards emerge.

Secondly, our very industry has contributed to a condition I like to call “Over Extended Creative Freedom”.  I believe we’ve unknowingly conditioned the studios along with the next generation of directors to rely on the mantra, “fix it in post”.  This over dependence on changing things in post has caused studio execs and creative decision makers to push off critical choices to the last minute leaving a huge backlog of VFX issues to contend with. Decision paralysis sets in and expenses continue to rise because making changes so late in the game is very expensive. As a result, outsourcing has become an option for studios to help meet demand and lower costs. The problem is, the standard of living and cost of doing business in many places around the world is less than what it is in the United States. Can we blame the studios for wanting to use cheaper labor? Is it their right to choose? Perhaps...but US companies have to bend over backwards to take on more and more work in order to stay alive.  

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in taking a solely traditionalist’s mentality to filmmaking where we renounce the digital process. Nor am I saying we should ignore the situation. But what would happen if we were more responsible with our creative decisions? The “fix it in post” genie is out of the bottle and its not going back in again. I believe the only way to combat this problem is to shift our production focus from an over reliance on postproduction to better planning in preproduction.

If the VES wants to lead, then it should attempt to do so, but it should concentrate on what an honorary society does best:

1.     Provide recognition to its members both home and abroad.

2.     Increase awareness on various issues without overly politicizing them.

3.     Increase educational programs outside of Hollywood to teach higher standards and practices for those countries with fledgling VFX industries.

4.     Preserve our local history, but embrace the global community.

5.     Promote professionalism and represent all VFX artists around the world.

As a result, the VES we want will emerge but it will do so without all the bravado and defensive posturing we’re seeing in Roth’s open letter.  Perhaps then we'll find a better solution to the problems at hand.

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