Tired of Keeping Your Head Down? A Modest Proposal...
The calls for the creation of a visual effects union are coming from all quarters, but how do we really go about this and for what purpose? The idea of a union brings to mind a period of time when the American economy was based on industry and the worker realized the importance of his place in the great machine. He then flexed his muscles to assure that he was given an equitable piece of the pie. How have we lost that power? How has that other part of the machinery, “business,” so gotten the upper hand that we are bidding on jobs that we know will cost us more to complete than we make? Add to that the human cost of stunningly difficult hours and circumstances that leave us reeling after delivery and wondering what hit us. Together they combine into a perfect storm of insult and injury. It’s more akin to an addiction than a career.
The simple answer is that business is controlling the economy (and the government) and is satisfied to let the American worker scramble on his way down to match the standards of living of our competitors. We’re talking about matching the standards of living of Chinese and Indian workers here. This is a much larger issue than the film community’s woes. It extends to the rest of the local economy, the country and the world. This is above and beyond the current world situation. The reversal of our present situation must start with us.
For a while we existed on the razor’s edge not knowing what side of the blade our fortunes would fall. Will we be rich or poor? Comfortable or on the street? In this time we are finding out more clearly which direction circumstances will take us. If you’ve managed to hit the golden years of a union, timing your career to start in the late 1970’s and conclude in the early twenty-first century, you’ve hit the sweet spot of the VFX wave. Many and most do not fall into this category. Rather they came later and were swept up in the erosion that followed the boom of computerized imagery. Jurassic Park heralded a gold rush as the multitude of young artists could see a way of entry into the motion picture industry. Motion control and optical printers gave way to Lightwave, Maya, Photoshop and After Effects as the cost of entry into the field plummeted from millions of dollars to mere thousands. Cracked software copies also became available so that many were able to train themselves in the darkness of their own garages and spare bedrooms, sparing many companies the cost of training their workers.
Several groups at different times have attempted to step up and retrieve the work back to California. I recall Gene Warren of Fantasy II and several other VFX professionals occupying a booth at a film equipment expo a few years ago. They were complaining that the incentives offered by Canada were illegal under NAFTA but that the federal government was ignoring the law for whatever reason. There was a petition on a clipboard that you could sign but not many signed it. They even took it so far as to launch a lawsuit in federal court but to no avail. People avoided Gene as if he was a member of the John Birch Society (which is really a stretch if you have any knowledge of Gene’s politics…) – afraid that associating with him and his cause would somehow brush off on them and that the producers would no longer give them work if they lifted their heads too high above the crowd - infected by the impulse to stand up for ourselves. You were right Gene…
The formation of a union needs to take a back seat to changing the economic climate of California so that we are on at least even ground when it comes to pricing worldwide. For me, being unsophisticated in all things political, only two possible routes come to mind. The first being sending a lobbyist to Sacramento with our agenda foremost on his or her mind. This sounds somehow expensive and requires an agreed upon leadership. Add to that the thought of squeezing money out of the members of a community of economically crippled digital artists and this approach drops off the map.
The other idea is that we start a letter campaign to the politicians in the state capital. This would only cost you a stamp and a little time. I would suggest that this letter campaign extend beyond the visual effects community to encompass the California film community at large. We should point out to our representatives that just adding some additional funding to the unemployment benefits they are now paying will take us over the top. Anecdotally there is a story around town that businessmen located in British Columbia gave a car to the head of post of a large studio for giving them so much business. Let’s subsidize our own state as other states and countries are doing. It’s not cheating…it’s the wise choice.
On the following websites you can find contact information for the governor, U.S. Senators and the California Assembly. If I left anyone out please let me know. The governor’s contact information can be retrieved from: http://gov.ca.gov/interact#contact. Senators Feinstein and Boxer’s information can be found at: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm?State=CA. The State Assembly’s website gives you the opportunity to determine what district you reside in. Once that is accomplished you should be able to extract the contact info for your assemblyman: http://www.assembly.ca.gov/acs/defaulttext.asp.
It should be made clear within these letters to the politicians that the money they invest in keeping the work within the state will be returned many times. This money will repeat throughout the state economy allowing film workers to buy clothes, eat out more often, buy homes and take vacations. Put it in your own words. Be brief. Tell them your truth.
The film community is not easily led. There are so many diverse personalities and agendas that it is more effective to place the solution into each individual’s hands independent of any leadership. Letters to the governor, our senators and state assembly seem to be the most powerful tool in our arsenal. The greatest power we have is in awakening ourselves, then awakening our representatives to the missed opportunities that exist and giving them the incentive to make changes. Once California is at least competitive with other states and countries then we can consider the creation of a union. To organize a union given the current state of affairs seems quixotic and foolish. They’re already ignoring us because we cost too much compared to the other locations and a union will not reverse that situation.
For years we’ve waited for someone to step up and take the leadership role in this battle. No one has surfaced. There are several discussions underway within groups in our community. I support them all and respect their motives. However, thus far they have not proven effective. This is beyond any organized effort. It’s just us vs. the blank page. Give them something to read. This needs to be a leader-less campaign. This is a letter campaign and it will be as effective as we can make it. Put what you know, what you think and what you feel onto a page and send copies to everyone in the state government. Maybe they just hadn’t heard enough from us yet. It’s about time they did.