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Protesting for Visual Effects

Visual Effects workers finally took to the streets in a protest march during the 2013 Academy Awards. But is their message clear?

So it finally happened: Visual Effects Artists came out of their dungeons to march on the streets of Hollywood. Good. I always appreciate a demonstration for a cause, because it’s democracy at its finest. For those, who don’t read Variety or the VFX blogs: I’m talking about the protest staged by about 400 VFX workers before yesterday’s Oscars.

But here’s a problem I see with the way this one was done: The cause itself is not quite clear. And that’s because two different problems are lumped together, with a third one added on, and thus the message becomes muddled.

One is a call for a VFX union, caused by overworked artists.

The second one is the disappearance of US-based, especially LA-based, VFX companies. They have gone bankrupt left and right in the past several years while most of the movies they made are reaping record profits (or at least record box office results).

The third one seems to be a call for more respect towards VFX artistry in general.

The first two are linked, but – in the current climate – diametrically opposite. I am certain that a VFX union will actually have the effect that even more VFX companies locally will disappear. LA-based VFX companies are already not competitive against government subsidized businesses in their states or countries (read: Canada). So how could it help to unionize VFX artists, which in turn makes it even MORE expensive for the employers (i.e. the ones that are already going out of business)?

So, both of these are valid causes, but they need to be kept strictly separate. I would start with cause #2, otherwise there are no VFX companies left to become unionized. (I personally would ignore #3 for now, since it has no actual relevance to the first two real-world problems)

We need to come up with actual realistic solutions, and work on getting them implemented. There are several suggestions, and I’ll just put one forward that I’ve been repeating over the past few years, and mentioned last time when I was on a panel during Siggraph in Vancouver.

I believe that the business and creative collaboration involved in creating visual effects has changed so much in the past, say, 10 years, that we need to radically re-think the model in which VFX fits into the overall business of making a movie. The days in which 400 shots made a huge VFX movie (“Independence Day” in 1996 being such an example), have long gone. By taking over 50-90% of the footage of the entire movie, and 50% and more of the budget of movies, VFX has become such an intricate part of the PRODUCTION process that it should be treated as such. And that means the creation of VFX should be handled the same way that physical production has been handled for decades. Teams of freelancers (unionized in most countries, by the way) come together for the production of the movie. Why not do VFX the same way? I have done that actually for 14 years now, through my own company, Uncharted Territory, on projects of very different shapes and sizes.

This used to be impossible due to the high cost of hardware and software. But, for one, those prices are far less significant to an overall VFX budget than artists’ salaries, and even for the big ticket items (like network switches, servers, render farms), there would be a lot of rental companies happy to step in. After all, it’s very expensive to buy an ARRI camera and lens package, too. But nobody is actually doing that for a production. They’re renting. A company like Panavision has always designed their equipment for rental only.

Also, I used to think that one disadvantage is the advancement and continuity of software and pipeline development, but even in that area, the biggest strides have been made by software-only companies like Autodesk, The Foundry, Adobe, Eyeon or Shotgun. Software developments that are project-specific are usually done on that project’s dime and time frame anyway.

That’s just my 2 cents.