Dear VFX Artist

Intro:

If you are in London, and you do VFX, I’m writing this for you.

If you’ve not read Animal Farm, go do that now[1]. In George Orwell’s “fairy tale” a farm is overtaken by a socialist revolution. [2] However it soon gets corrupted and steadily morphs from collective prosperity to enslavement by the pigs.

The book chronicles the subtle shift in language and the re-writing of history to suit the purposes of those in charge. What’s this got to do with VFX? Well the regime only succeeds because those that provide the labour, the Horses, plough on regardless, working harder and harder until they collapse. Meanwhile, living standards drop and propaganda convinces them that mouldy crumbs are a just reward.

Now before you zone out and dismiss me as a stupid socialist, I’m not. Read the book, it does a good job showing you what goes wrong with revolutions.

So how does this affect you, dear artist? We’ve all heard the rumours; and have seen the posts on variety (http://variety.com/2014/film/news/moving-picture-co-finds-valuing-artists-is-the-best-effect-1201346561/) 12-16 hour days. Dailes at 10PM. Working entire weekend. “Crunch time” that last for months.

These practices are sometimes justified. Perhaps the business depends on you working your arse off for a week. However this should be the exception. You’re not working in a hospital, that shot isn’t a cure for cancer. No one will die if go home at 6PM

Baby steps:

So what to do? Firstly, what you’re doing now isn’t working. Moaning on twitter is as useful as micturating into an arctic wind. Your first point of call is the law: http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/england/work_e/work_rights_at_work_e/basic_rights_at_work.htm and https://www.gov.uk/browse/working/contract-working-hours Find out what is illegal.

Second, read your contract. This outlines what your employer expects from you. However your contract cannot overrule the law. For example you cannot be discriminated against for not opting out of the EU working time directive. This means that despite what your contract says, you can’t be forced to work more than a 48-hour week.

You can opt out at any time. So if you’re serious about the work life balance, read this page: https://www.gov.uk/maximum-weekly-working-hours/weekly-maximum-working-hours-and-opting-out and opt out now. Until you opt out, sit down, shut up and toil until you die.

In the next crunch, write down your hours and ensure that you are complaint with the EU directive. Be sure that you keep your line manager updated.

Slightly more advanced:

Join a union. I know, I know, unions are only for the working class or the useless pricks that work in local councils.

Wrong.

Unions are a good way to demand reasonable changes without getting fired. They are a rich source of information, support and encouragement. Your current HR rep might be a goodun, but they are batting for a different side. HR are there to put bums on seats at the lowest price.

As you work in VFX your first port of call is Bectu. (https://www.bectu.org.uk/get-involved/campaigns/VFX) Part of their role is to act as an agony aunt, which is useful if you bump into tedious treatment from colleagues. However they have legal resources that you can draw on should the worst happen.

The basic role of a union is to provide a vast body of people to back you up. This means that if one person is unfairly treated, lots more act to say that it’s not OK. For example, a producer moves dailies to 10pm. If one person objects they are easily sidelined. If half the crew object, the producers are forced to take notice.

This sort of thing doesn’t actually require a union; you can form a cabal at the pub if you so wish. The crucial thing is that you agree what actions to take before hand. Start softly, there is no need to strong arm people. It can be as simple a group letter saying that the undersigned do not agree with the current proposals.

Conclusions:

Twitter isn’t your friend. It’s a vast repository of impotent rage. You need to build consensus with those about you. Band together, talk to your colleagues and create a formal letter politely asking your immediate superiors to stop taking the piss. Rescind your EU working time directive opt out, and go home at 6pm. Email BECTU and ask for a membership form. Go on, do this now.

Footnotes:

[1] Its short & simple to understand, even if English isn’t your first language.

[2] A real socialist revolution, not “Obama is a socialist”

[3] Technically they are not subsidies. A subsidy is where cash is paid to a company by the government. In the UK we have tax relief, which means they pay less tax. This allows small companies to effectively do what Google and the like do, just with the explicit backing of the government.

Prologue:

So why is VFX in flux? Well there are many reasons, the biggest of which is competition. When I first joined the industry, Cinesite, The Mill, Framestore, MPC and Dneg employed between them about 4,000 people. The pay was still shit, but you got fruit, orange juice and peanut butter every morning.

Fast forward to now, Dneg alone has something like 5000 staff world wide, with MPC and Framestore not far behind. Contrary to popular belief, Soho wasn’t founded on subsidies. The first VFX subsidies started in 2013[3]. When Soho started stealing work from Hollywood in 2008/9 the dollar was worth around 50 pence. Despite a poor exchange rate Soho was still cheaper, and it was ready to expand. There was plenty of work to go about.

Fast forward to 2011/12, the pound is cheaper and there were probably 4 times as many capable VFX houses about, something had to give. Oversupply leads to over capacity, over capacity leads to reduced prices. Eventually that over capacity withers away. Sadly, we are seeing the withering of the less efficient VFX facilities.

Rhythm and Hues went under because they couldn’t buffer the postponement of a show. This was despite having a shop in India, allowing them to exploit much cheaper wages. (something that didn’t really happen in soho until very recently.)

Subsidies distort the market, however they are a symptom, not a cause. Whilst there are many valiant efforts to impose tariffs on VFX imports, they will fail to stem the inevitable tide of work streaming to India and China. The majority of paint, roto and matchmoving is now done in India. This means entry-level jobs for keen young things dry up. Without a pipeline of trained staff, its going to be very difficult to recruit experienced Artists. (which should push up wages, assuming India can’t create their own.)

What does that mean to you right now? Well if we take the car industry’s example were are somewhere in the middle of the 1980s. Detroit was still a titan, but it was stumbling and past it’s best. Meanwhile Korea and Japan were starting to think about producing stuff of quality. Things are likely to get worse.

This pattern repeats it’s self throughout history: Silk weavers in the 1860s, Shipbuilders in the 80s, chip design in the 90s, call centres in the mid 00s. Industries rise, creates wealth, seeks cheaper labour, are turned into commodities, and the value reduced to a pittance. However there will still be a market for high-end VFX with decent paying jobs. Just as there is still mining industry in the UK.

Incidentally the cloud could prevent the rot. Firstly it will force companies to cost every render. The heavier the render, the more expensive. These costs can be passed on in a nice transparent way. (Hey producer looks at this, if you were any good at making decisions you could have been done by now. By the way, making that water more “punchy” cost you $30k) It will allow smaller shops to throw kitchen sinks, much like weta/framestore/ILM/MPC can do now.

However the cloud exchanges Capex for Opex. This means instead of being able to spend a large amount of cash upfront to buy a render farm/storage, they’d have to manage that same money over a long period.  Places like rhythm and hues would have collapsed mid show, as they wouldn’t be able to afford the render time needed to complete the film.

4 thoughts on “Dear VFX Artist

  1. Hey good article, I particularly like the prologue. I think a few vfx people are getting good work in the emerging vr and 3d online emerging markets and good luck to them. Unfortunately, I do not think the cloud will help with the billing.

  2. Good write up and views
    Forget overtime. Its not worth what you get out of it, if anything.

    Go live life, enjoy your friends and family, they care. Your company doesn’t

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