California Visual Effects Industry Gets Weaker Every Day
Several years ago an article in the Los Angeles Times an unnamed producer was quoted as saying “If I don’t put a visual effects house out of business, I haven’t done my job.” Visual effects folks all over the business found themselves searching for the name of this offender and a rope. The honesty of the statement combined with the fact that we could not register our offense at this statement face-to-face with our assailant only oiled the injustice. Of course he was only saying publicly what producers have been saying amongst themselves for years. The visual effect group finds itself weaker every day. The lack of a union combined with the low cost of entry into the visual effects arena has conspired to pith our business locally. In recent cocktail parties it’s been called “a race to the bottom”. How cheap are you willing to work? The studios plot to find ways to take advantage of the desperation The computer for all the great it does also has the capacity and the inclination to be the tool of sweat shops. Unions are failing all around us. The recent and interminable strikes have so changed the face of our business that it’s hard to find the familiar dwelling within. Railing against this does not and will not change the present nor the future of visual effects.
At the VES Festival of Visual Effects several years ago I attended a presentation that featured representatives of various visual effects houses from around the world - China, India, Uruguay, Mexico and two or three other countries. The house (The Egyptian Theater) was more than half full. Each person gave a short speech about their particular company and showed their reels. Questions were held until after all the presenters had made their pitch. At that point Van Ling, the moderator, opened the floor for questions. Hands were raised and soft, polite technical questions were tossed forward and easily answered. Another hand was selected and a strong clear voice asked. “How much do you guys pay?”. Suddenly the room became encased in a frozen moment of time. You could see a pin drop. The seven presenters looked like seven deer reset into Hitchcock’s Vertigo shot. As the question was on the tip of everyone’s mind the rightness of it relaxed tensions within the audience and shifted it to the contestants. The audience leaned forward and settled in awaiting the answer. The presenters blinked back. Responsibly (bravely...? foolishly...?) the gentleman from China started to shift and to make a noise. The audience tilted still more forward - rapt. His eyes glazed, he opened his mouth and out blew “Five hundred dollars a month”. It was the audience’s turn to go frozen deer. The answer washed over the listeners tilting them back into their seats. Mouths either slowly opened or slowly closed. The dawn rose on a hundred faces. Van Ling sensing the rising ugly mob possibilities quickly inserted that this presentation was a matter of art not commerce and closed down the line of questioning.
However that horse was out of the barn, that cat out of the bag and quickly grew into the elephant squatting in the center of the room. We all have our own version of what five hundred dollars a month is. For most of us, not living at our parents or on a trust fund know that this just about covers the rent if you live under the freeway. For those in the so-called New World countries it means a house, a car and the capacity to raise a family. For studios and producers it’s just another bottom line decision. Some studios are only allowing visual effects houses to bid if they match the rates that the projects would enjoy in Canada INCLUSIVE of the generous kickback incentives. It is cheaper in the long run to focus on training foreign workers than to continue to support the American life style for anyone but themselves. That’s what makes them tick. Their humanity is rightly reserved for their immediate families and the fate of Roman Polanski. At a recent screening of Avatar in Northern California a well-known VFX supervisor quietly said to me that the mantra of the studios concerning film making in general is "anywhere but California". NAFTA anyone?