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What To Do Until The Cavalry Arrives...? Follow Your Bliss...

A discussion of some of the ways various visual effects artists fill their time and their wallets while waiting for the current shortage of entertainment jobs to be over.

D-con is a rodent control product that works in the most insidious manner possible. While the product looks like dried oats, tastes like dried oats and gives the rodent the sense of a full stomach in actual fact the active ingredient in the bait blocks the animal’s ability to digest food and water. As the animal weakens it continues to feed on the bait as the only source of food it can access - ultimately succumbing to starvation while maintaining what feels to be a full stomach. What a dirty trick to pull on the other rats.

Nourishment needs to be real, not a fond hope. For many the VFX business is functioning in a similar manner to D-con. It looks like work, tastes like work but in the final analysis it isn’t nourishing. Fundamentally all the talk about unions will not come to any useful conclusion without some sort of government provided incentive. While those working in China and India are paid staggeringly low wages, workers in England and many other countries are paid better wages than their counterparts here in California. The major difference is the incentives being paid back to the producing companies by the local governments. Even if a VFX worker in a foreign country makes ten percent more than a California worker does, an incentive of sixty percent (Vancouver for example…) will reduce the studios expenses to the point that it is still much cheaper to go abroad. You can’t really point a finger at the studios. This is business plain and simple. I wonder if we could somehow convince our government to kick the money they’re paying us not to work towards employers as an incentive to bring the work back home. Talk about unions is useless unless working in California can be first made to be attractive to the studios. When it’s in the studio’s best economic interest to work in California, they’ll work in California. No sooner.

How do we cover our bills during these periods when jobs in the visual effects business are scarce or worse? The successful 1950’s recording star Perry Como is reputed to have renewed his barber’s license yearly as a hedge against his career faltering. Popular singer–barber…what’s your hyphenate? Often I communicate with various members of the VFX community and conduct straw polls to find how they are filling their time and making a living waiting for the phone to ring while collecting their 99 weeks of government backed unemployment.

It’s no great shock that the matte painters I’ve spoken with have been filling their time by painting (oils and acrylics not digitally). One is actually being paid for his efforts, while several others are painting because it’s their great joy to do so with no guarantee of remunerations at the back end. A couple of folks have taken to writing. Scripts mostly. One artist I know of is representing a line of cosmetics.

Several model-makers convene weekly to brainstorm as industrial designers – seeking to create and market items whose production could provide them a revenue stream.

One long time VFX artist has amassed a number of gold mine claims. He estimates that he has between 16 and 18 claims spread throughout the western states. Some exist on land he owns and others are mineral rights claims on government land. This is a thoughtful decision on his part based on his experiences as a child when his father exposed him to gold mining. He is able to bring up salient facts concerning the availability of gold (only 8% of all gold on the earth has been mined thus far) and is conversant on various techniques of extraction. This brings to mind the statement by F. Scott Fitzgerald that “there are no second acts in American life”. Gold mining may be this man’s second act.

When I was in my teens I spent many Saturdays and several summers working for my uncle in his antique store. Rofrano’s Antiques was located on Sherman Way just east of Coldwater Canyon in North Hollywood. He had built this business slowly over several decades and cursed though he was by a bad back (blessed say some…) managed to amass a small but serviceable fortune that took him comfortably through his retirement years until his passing some twenty years ago.  Every weekday he would drop his wife (who actually did all the heavy lifting and hard physical labor) at the store and he would follow Coldwater Canyon south through the Santa Monica Mountains into Beverly Hills where he would sit in the New York stock exchange watching the Big Board until noon when it closed. By tending to his investments so carefully he was able to make adjustments to his portfolio to coincide with the realities of the daily market and to minimize his losses. It was in this fashion that he was able to balance the various realities of business and keep his head above water.

My Uncle Mike was always full of unsolicited advice. I listened through gritted ears as frequently he told me “Ricky, always have a hobby because some day you will be making so much money with your hobby that you won’t be able to afford to go to work”. Not surprisingly it turns out one of my hobbies is antiquing. Finding salable items consists of crawling through yard sales, antique cooperatives, estate sales and flea markets. It’s a treasure hunt of a slightly different nature than mining for gold and has a similar chance at hitting the mother lode but I do enjoy it. From time to time I take to the road to scour for whatever I can find. Fundamentally it’s a treasure hunt and if I walk out of a sale without anything in my hands I consider that also to be a success. I’ve gotten too many things that have gone from some being stored in some other jamokes garage to being stored in mine. I’ve also hit a few treasures and that’s what keeps me coming back.

Some intrepid hiker, 1934.

While the goal of the exercise is to find valuable pieces for later sale or inclusion in my own collection, sometimes I instead find a piece with little or no market value but that is somehow special to me. Last weekend in a dusty cardboard box sitting on the floor of an out of the way estate sale I cobbled together a grouping of unrelated old photographs for which I paid six dollars. Within this collection there is a photograph of an intrepid hiker with bedroll, canteen and scarf all slung upon him posing with a rocky outcrop behind him. High, laced boots adorn his feet and he rests his left hand on a walking stick. On the back is the inscription “Me, as I looked on Snake River trip 1934, 2/3 way up Squaw Creek toward Seven Devil Mts.” Also in this bunch is a single photograph of five young women sitting and standing next to a body of water. On the back is written “July 4th – 08, Redding’s Mill”. There is a large photo of a family sitting on a blanket having tea with their car waiting in the background. There is also a grouping of 12 photographs that show different points of view of Mt. Tamalpais alike to Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mt. Fuji.


The standouts of this unimportant collective of forgotten people and places are two photos from the mid 1890’s each one holding the image of a little girl. These two little girls were sisters. The eldest, Grace Hungerford (Jones), poses in a velvet dress with a book, perhaps a bible, perched beside her on a tree stump that was brought into the studio as a prop. There is a draped chair to her right and behind her is a backdrop painting or photo of a path disappearing over the horizon. The fingers of her hands are intertwined and she may be said to be praying. She is about six years old.


The other photo shows a slightly younger girl of four years also with the same background. This is Barbara. While Grace has crossed in her thinking from innocent child to knowing child, Barbara is still completely inside her innocence. Her hands wrung in front of her as she looks to camera right. The image evokes an aching sweetness and charm that is simply mesmerizing in its humanity. All that humanity for only six bucks.

What do we do until the phone does ring? There’s a lot of time to be filled while we wait for the next “big one”. What is the most profitable use of the time we spend in Club 99?