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An Interview with VES Chairman Jeff Okun

Jeff Okun is not afraid to speak honestly about subjects the make some uncomfortable, nor take positions that might rub some people the wrong way. The bottom line is that everyone working in film and television today knows fundamental change is afoot in how shows are financed and produced and that the visual effects industry has taken a tremendous beating the last few years, especially in California. The question is what to do about it.

Dan Sarto with Jeff Okun at FMX 2011.

As chairman of the Visual Effects Society, Jeff Okun has the difficult and usually thankless task of balancing the wants, needs and positions of different professional groups that often sit, knuckles clenched and eyes bulging, on opposite sides of the conference table. Jeff always walks a fine line between agitator and voice of reason.  He isn’t afraid to speak his mind and does so quite frequently, possibly to his own detriment.  However, he doesn’t do so flippantly or without thought and reason.  He is not one to poke an ant hill with a stick just to see what trouble he can stir up.  He talks with passion, knowledge and conviction about pressing issues of importance affecting several thousand VES members as well as hundreds of thousands of other creative artists, producers and studio executives.   

Consequently, he is not afraid to speak honestly about subjects the make some uncomfortable, nor take positions that might rub some people the wrong way.  The bottom line is that everyone working in film and television today knows fundamental change is afoot in how shows are financed and produced and that the visual effects industry has taken a tremendous beating the last few years, especially in California.  The question is what to do about it.

Jeff's presentation this year at FMX, Politics of VFX, focused on how politics impacts film production at every level and that visual effects artists need to understand their significance in order to better navigate their careers...and sanity.

This year, I had the good fortune to sit down with Jeff and talk about some of these pressing issues.  Edited down to 4 segments, these interview videos provide a frank look at the problems plaguing the industry, how the road ahead is no less rocky than the road just traveled and how the industry needs to work together to bring about the type change that will provide more respect and a better future for creative everywhere.

Some of the interview highlights:

“The visual effects community is in the worst shape it’s ever been in.  I think they’re in some kind of freefall.  With the failures of unions and trade organizations, with the economic pressure pushing the non-existent profit margins even deeper, with the number of companies you’ve seen go out of business in the last year, two years, three years, I think you’re seeing symptoms of a very sick system.  There has to be some way to fix this thing.  How to do it, that’s the mystery. There are a lot of issues involved here, about self-respect, about race to the bottom of the barrel, meaning we must value what we do and find a way to communicate to the people that pay us, that hire us, that we’re not equipment and we’re not a dime-a-dozen, that we’re artists, no less an artist than a cinematographer, than an editor, than a writer, than a director.  Those groups of people around the world are treated with respect.”

“There needs to be a value placed on artistic talent, not by each other but by the people that hire us, whether it’s the facility that you’re working for, whether it’s the studio you’re working for, whether it’s the director you’re working for, or in general.  We’re in a bizarre period of some type of delusion where we have this perception that it’s all just a button push away, that the human face on it is meaningless, that everyone is a Leonardo daVinci, everyone is a Jules Verne because we all have typewriters, we all have paint brushes.  It’s just not right.”

“The studios, I want to be very clear here, they’re complicit in the whole thing, but they’re not guilty.  Their job, because it’s not art, it’s a business, is to get the best work for the least money.  So why not go to Digital Domain and say, “Weta will do it cheaper…Well Weta, Digital Domain will do it cheaper…Well, listen guys, MPC will do it cheaper…Well this guy’s got 5 people in his garage, why don’t they do half the show because I can get half the show done for 1/18th the price.” So what we end up doing is competing against each other and diving lower and lower because as one nameless facility said to me recently, “I would rather lose money and keep my people working then sit there having to let people go because we don’t have anything to do.  So when you take this whole business climate into account, who’s at fault, we are, because we have no bottom lines.”

“We’re [the VES] an honorary society.  That might be changing soon, or I may be going down in flames because I want to change that soon.  I’m pushing to make that change because I’m as frustrated as anyone else  that our hours are long, our wages are little, you don’t get credit 90% of the time because of rules at the studio.  There are so many inequities and it’s all derived from the fact we came to the game too late.  Contrast this with so many things.  What are the profits off the tent-pole movies? Which of those tent-pole movies were not visual effects-driven? Where is the trickle down from that? Why is it that a company like CafeFX is forced out of business because they can’t afford to do it? What are the business practices going on these days? Why are you asking visual effects companies to fund the movie? Do you pay a movie star or a director the same way you pay a visual effects facility? How is a visual effects facility able to maintain a staff, continuity of people that you’ve trained, that have learned how to work within your system and your pipeline in order to turn stuff out? There is so much stuff that is unfair.  There is no equity in this.  We’re not being respected or honored commiserate with what we’re bringing to the table.  There’s no voice out there.”

You can find all four of Jeff’s interview segments here.  Visit the FMX Channel on AWNtv to find dozens of interviews and session videos with top industry professionals such as Ken Ralston, Dave Sproxton, John Bruno, Alex McDowell, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, Richard Edlund, Harrison Ellenshaw and many others. 

We’ve got more than 200 videos to be posted in the coming weeks so stay tuned!