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Some Inconvenient VFX Industry Truths

The major hurdle with the unionization of visual effects artists is that we would need to gain support within the walls of the studios. Unfortunately the studios have long since written off our welfare.

For years the visual effects community has been muttering to itself that we should be unionized. The major hurdle with the unionization of visual effects artists is that we would need to gain support within the walls of the studios. Unfortunately the studios have long since written off our welfare. Instead they have agreed that it is better for them to spend the money to train foreign workers than to support American level lifestyles for digital artists.  Expanding on this - corporations in general have decided that it is high time for the American middle class to compete on the global labor market with China, India, Mexico, Sri Lanka and a myriad of other countries whose workers struggle by (or not) on bare subsistence wages.  Ross Perot was opposed to NAFTA saying the treaty was “the sound of American jobs being sucked away.” He looks like a prophet today.

Lee Stranahan in his blog ( writes an open letter to James Cameron asking him to step in and help the visual effects community recoup some economic foothold in these times. All Lee seemed to be asking for was “please sir…more gruel…” Unfortunately I don’t believe that anything that Mr. Cameron might say could reverse a trend so broadly ensconced within American business or indeed global business. It is simply good business to take vast quantities of work offshore. Beyond the financial motives is the simple fact that many of these offshore companies produce excellent work. If the American worker could put forth the defense that WETA is incompetent we may be able to strengthen our position. However WETA, The Moving Picture Company and dozens of others are terrific talents and show no signs of flagging. I see no need to hold Mr. Cameron’s feet to the fire more than any other director or producer.

This goes way beyond the world of visual effects. Any idea of sentimentality on the part of large corporations is a complete folly. Lest we continue to delude ourselves any longer - corporations are comprised of individuals that make decisions that strengthen and further solidify their positions. There is no other master other than the bottom line. The only gain or loss is measured within their own personal lives and profit columns. They use a variety of tactics – lobbies, contributions to politicians, whatever necessary, etc. I wonder how much the health insurance industry paid Joe Lieberman to numb his conscience. Joe is looking out for Joe. Joe loves Joe. Self-serving politicians, financiers and “leaders of industry” coat their actions with patriotism and wrap them in religion to give it all a better smell but fundamentally they do not see themselves as middle-class Americans but world citizens. They can afford to live anywhere they wish. Going out for dinner or buying a new home or car doesn’t impact their lifestyle one iota.

They do not believe in compassion for the workers that labor for them or the people whose money they mishandle. Instead they gut and trim whatever they can from those under their auspices and build buildings with their own names on them. They fund charities with their names in the titles. They head charities dedicated to the welfare of unknown strangers at the expense of those to whom they are the most beholding. These too have their names on them. How did Michael Milken amass the fortune that allows for him to maintain a foundation in his name in Santa Monica? He simply decimated the retirement funds of thousands of families. Now that he has served his time (22 months) he generously gives the money stolen from thousands of individuals to different individuals from a building that has his name on it. With checks that have his name on them.

I’m probably not long in the world of journalism because the only way for a journalist in this environment to have access to heads of state is to avoid any inconvenient truths. It’s best to deny all the little stories that reach my ears so I don’t piss off some major player who keeps a Blackwater-sized army of lawyers with dagger-pointed fountain pens at the ready. Brooks Brothers Bullies. Recently a well-known visual effects group cut loose of one of its internal departments. Within the terms of the separation there was an agreed upon figure that each employee was to receive based on the duration of his or her service to the company. The figure that I’ve heard repeated many times was three thousand dollars per annum of service. This would have been a substantial boost to these guys who like all of us wonder where their next job will come from. Whatever you may think very few visual effects people are set for life. When the day came to sign the final separation contracts and the checks were to be handed over the company’s lawyers showed up with checks equal to one-tenth the agreed upon figure. So for example if you were expecting thirty thousand dollars for ten years of service, instead you were handed a check for three thousand dollars. The checks were affixed to the contracts that released the corporation from further exposure. The workers were essentially told to “take it or leave it” and “sign here.” Ball-point pens were extended. Paper marked. Dreams flattened.  I don’t know how far this went up the chain. Perhaps the attorneys were exhibiting incentive. Perhaps management in whose name this deed was perpetrated has no idea this injustice occurred. Someday in the not so distant future all these reliable workers will be under the ground. Their struggles and fears extinguished and forgotten, but the buildings with the names on them will remain.