On the heels of this week’s news that VFX house LOOK Effects has closed its doors, moving staff and projects to MassMarket, a group of former employees issues an open letter in order to explain their side of events.
On the heels of this week’s news that VFX house LOOK Effects has closed its doors, moving staff and projects to MassMarket, a group of former employees have issued an open letter in order to explain their side of events.
The letter details the final weeks of LOOK Effects as dedicated and loyal staffers gave their time and talents to the struggling company in an effort help it succeed.
While it’s generally considered unpleasant to report on yet another facility’s demise, this story particularly resonates. AWN has covered LOOK Effects for years, over the course of countless projects for films including Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and it’s always heartbreaking to see the best efforts of friends and colleagues end in such a dismal fashion.
Read the full text of the letter, below:
Friends and Fellow colleagues,
This letter comes from a longtime, dedicated, core group of individuals who, until recently, worked at Look Effects. Our employment ranged from several months to almost 10 years. After careful deliberation, extensive discussions, and sincere soul searching, we think it would be best to publicly tell our tale, given the news our former company has ceased operations. Closing its doors, yet the two majority owners already have new jobs to make money for their new employer, despite the fact they owe Look Effects employees hundreds of thousands of dollars. While our frustrations are admittedly high, the love we have for the Visual Effects industry and immense respect to our fellow colleagues in the industry prompted us to discuss this publicly. We want the industry more fully informed in an effort to prevent further damage to other individuals, projects or companies.
To start, the loyalty shown to the owners of Look Effects was extraordinary. Whether it was pulling all nighters to meet deadlines (recently, some stayed at the office 60+ hours in a row…without overtime), or assisting one of our other locations by helping with technical complications (such as Noah), the dedication and professionalism of our artists to not only the owners, but to each other, cannot be questioned. When payroll began to fall behind (yet again) in the middle of 2013, instead of demanding money, we asked for communication of when and how we would be caught up. We all love the work we do and are completely aware that getting paid to do what you love is hard to come by. We also understand the difficulties that our industry has faced in recent years, so we were patient on getting caught up. However, despite repeated and consistent attempts to get clarity on this, we received little to no information, and when we finally did get specific dates, they came and went without so much as an acknowledgement.
Most of us thought about leaving after almost a year of this, and some did. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, leaving a Visual Effects job is easier said than done, especially when families are involved. Many of us decided earlier this year that the disrespect for our contributions, sheer unprofessionalism in dealing with the situation, and the amount of unpaid wages owed to us (see below) had become too much and we were forced to leave a company we once loved.
To date, a majority of us recently departed employees are owed back wages, pension pay, vacation pay, IRA contributions and business expenses. For some of us, when we left we were told the company couldn’t pay us and were given a payment plan and Separation Agreement that they strongly encouraged us to sign. After attempted negotiation and barely getting any compromise at all, the owners couldn’t even follow through on what they sent to us. Many haven’t even seen a cent of the money we’re owed.
The amounts owed to each of us range from a few thousand dollars to over $50,000. We estimate the total owed to employees is somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000-$400,000. This does not count any work that was outsourced to outside entities (also owed money) and other creditors. Several employees have filed claims with the Department of Labor, while some are conferring with attorneys about steps to take. While these owed wages go back to October 2013, the company consistently was late on pay, with little or no communication regarding updates.
Like with much of our industry, most Look Effects artists consistently worked well over 8 hour days and over 40 hour weeks. Staff employees didn’t receive overtime pay at all (Company policy. Freelancers would receive their hourly rate only – no overtime). We also put up with a lack of communication for a long time. For each of the last several years, the same pattern occurred, albeit on a slightly smaller scale – unexpected furlough days resulting in 4 day weeks (20% paycut), missed payrolls, broken promises, and little or no communication. Whether we should have left much sooner can be debated or commented on, one thing is indisputable… Look Effects employees were extremely, extremely loyal.
Late last week (August 7th), the company sent emails to a number of employees, without warning, informing them their health insurance was cancelled. That email, sent from the current CFO John Owen (the owners rarely addressed employees themselves), wrote that the cancelled policy was as of August 1st…6 days EARLIER, leaving these same, dedicated employees, AND THEIR FAMILIES, immediately without health insurance. He also went on to say that COBRA was not available-- leaving them only a week to get insurance for September and no coverage until then.
The company is now closing up after having a staff of these same 60+ people just 4 months ago, and there’s little chance of us ever being paid back (the majority of employees resigned). The core team that clients loved and those largely responsible for the production of the projects are now gone.
99% of material from Look’s demo reel is by people no longer with the company. The fact that the owners admit they owe us money, yet aren’t willing to work or communicate with us says there’s no plan in place to ensure that they follow through. It’s our understanding the owners and a few remaining employees (also owed money) are becoming employees of another company, which further validates our suspicions (Most employees had already left. 17 are all that remained, including management). There were existing projects at Look Effects, and those funds could have started some form of payback process, yet there’s been zero communication. The cherry on top is this new “division” at the new company is to be run by none other than Look Effects’ majority owners, Mark Driscoll and Henrik Fett.
The Visual Effects industry has been going through a difficult time these past few years. Industry outsiders may question our motives, some may say it’s our fault for not acting sooner. Others may even say if we don’t like it, get out. Those close enough to our industry, unfortunately, know what we’re going through from personal experience. So, regardless of public opinion, if this letter prevents one more professional in our industry from being taken advantage of, disrespected, or lied to, it’ll be well worth it. The sharing of experiences and being honest to the Visual Effects community can only help us all.
Former Look FX Employees
Jennifer Wolfe is Director of News & Content at Animation World Network.