Visual Effects Artists Seeking to Unionize at Sony Imageworks

4:28 PM PST 04/19/2012 by Jonathan Handel

IATSE Animation Guild reps will hold a lunch-hour meeting Friday in Culver City as the campaign to unionize VFX artists accelerates.

Call it a tale of three Sonys: the studio’s live action crew members and its Sony Pictures Animation employees are unionized, but visual effects artists at sister facility Sony Pictures Imageworks are not – even though they work hand in glove on both live action product, such as next month’s Men in Black III, and animated films like Smurfs 2, due out next year.

That’s not sitting well with a group of SPI employees who feel that an entertainment job without overtime protections is a few pixels shy of a full deck and that the studio’s health insurance and 401(k) are just sepia-toned substitutes for a full-color union pension and health plan.

Calling itself SpiUnion, the group described itself in an email to The Hollywood Reporter as “the first group of visual effects artists that is taking a stand and attempting to organize under a Collective Bargaining Agreement.” That effort started at least a month ago, when they perplexed their estimated 400-500 coworkers by dropping union representation cards on workers’ desks overnight throughout the company without explanation, walking the mostly empty halls in the wee hours as the cleaning crews filtered in.

Even late at night, a few of their colleagues were hard at work in their cubicles creating digital magic – so engrossed in their bitmaps that many didn’t even look up when the union cards landed on their desks, according to an SpiUnion member who spoke with THR on condition of anonymity in order to avoid possible reprisals.

The member noted that these jobs for most “are more than work – they’re a passion. There’s nothing else we’d rather be doing.”

But at the same time, the source added, “there’s a lot of misery and apathy in the business,” caused by the long hours, lack of sick days, frequently poor benefits and “the stress of not knowing if you’ll have to move overseas for your next job.”

SpiUnion started with about ten people, according to the source, and has since grown.

Friday, that campaign moves from blogging and nightwalking to something a bit less bleary-eyed as officials from the Animation Guild and its union parent, IATSE, hold a lunch-hour meeting Friday in Culver City to answer questions and attempt to persuade SPI employees and other VFX artists to sign the cards, which are a key step in unionizing the workforce.

According to the source, SpiUnion started organically from within and then contacted the union. The group called tomorrow’s meeting “an important gauge to see where this movement is going.”

A Sony spokesperson told THR “Sony Pictures respects employees’ right to consider union representation and we have no further comment.”

SPI employees, in contrast, had quite a bit of comment – both pro-union and against. In an interview on the Cartoon Brew website, the SpiUnion artists who were interviewed decried as “unbelievable” the amount of “‘free,’ ‘voluntary,’ and off-the-books (overtime) worked (at SPI).”

That drew varying replies, including one that countered: “Imageworks pays you OT. It is one of the few companies that I know of that does so and according to state law. It is also one of the few companies that makes an effort to tell artists to not work for free. I hear this on a weekly basis, do not work OT unless approved, do not work beyond your approved hours.”

In response, Animation Guild organizer Steve Kaplan posted an apparent acknowledgment that the situation may not be black and white: “Sure, Imageworks is treating you well. You get your decent wage and treatment,” he said (a characterization that the SpiUnion source echoed).

“But,” Kaplan added, “as history has shown, you can’t count on that.” A union contract, he argued, is an “enforceable vehicle that sets workplace standards and conditions.”

History is complicated though: a failed 2003 attempt by the Animation Guild to organize SPI casts a shadow over the current effort. Kaplan acknowledged that in the prior effort, “the IA was (trying) to walk in and impose a contract on you,” and said the approach would be different this time. “Organization has to stem from the artists within,” he noted.

Kaplan, and IATSE representative Vanessa Holtgrewe, will be at the Friday meeting, which is open to all VFX workers, not just SPI employees.

The SpiUnion source who spoke to THR said that SPI, in the source’s experience, complies with laws regarding overtime and holiday pay. But he/she said that this is not necessarily the case at other companies – and even at SPI, most employees don’t have 401(k)’s and many don’t have paid sick days, despite working 70 hour weeks.

The source expressed hope that union representation would bring pension and health benefits – and one day might possibly even enable negotiating a cap on working hours. Wages, in contrast, seem to be a much lesser concern at SPI, at least for experienced workers.

However – underscoring the difficulty of transnational labor organizing in a world where data and workers are mobile but laws are not – VFX wages are indeed a focus of campaign by IATSE Local 891 in Vancouver, while health insurance issues are less so, due to the existence of a national healthcare system in Canada.

The Local 891 effort would encompass, among other facilities, SPI’s Vancouver operation, which SpiUnion says employs more than 100 VFX artists, a number the group says will soon rise to over 250.  A small facility in Albuquerque is closing in July, while an SPI office in India focuses on more commodified work – match moving and rotoscoping – performed by lower paid workers.

The company’s headquarters are in Culver City, as is the small unionized Sony Pictures Animation unit, which the Animation Guild says employs just 38 artists.

The VFX unionization effort is part of a somewhat broader phenomenon. Although it may seem like everyone in Hollywood has a union – and from dayplayers to directors, grips to gaffers, and screenwriters to sound designers, they do – there are nonetheless some occupations that don’t.

In the case of VFX artists, organizing efforts over the years have been hindered by a laundry list of factors, including:

• the ease of subdividing and parceling out different VFX tasks to workgroups in different companies, cities, countries and continents, facilitated by high speed Internet connections;

• the diverse nature of the work, which crosses jurisdictional lines between groups such as the Animation Guild (IATSE Local 839), Art Directors Guild (Local 800) and Cinematographers Guild (Local 600);

• rival organizing attempts by both IATSE and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBEW);

• the fact that the profession developed long after the heyday of unionization;

• the white collar, deskbound nature of the work;

• the parallels between VFX work and jobs in the historically non-union Internet and software industries; and

• the fact that VFX workers are one of the few groups who work for separate companies rather than directly for the producer – which renders irrelevant the fact that most major film and scripted television producers are signatories to the IATSE collective bargaining agreement.

Ironically, even though SPI seems to be viewed as treating its workers better than some other VFX shops, it may turn out to be a more logical starting point for unionization than its competitors, because it’s a part or affiliate of a unionized enterprise, Sony Pictures, and has a unionized sister entity, Sony Pictures Animation.

In another recent development in VFX labor, Digital Domain CEO John Textor drew fire last month for boasting that via a new operation in Florida that it called Digital Domain Institute, “30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida is not only going to be free, with student labor, it’s going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films.”

Actors, meanwhile, have their own VFX unionization issues, relating to whether performance capture work for movies like Avatar is categorized as principal or background work. Producers take the latter point of view, which would allow them to pay lower minimums and no residuals. The matter is expected to be an issue in negotiations for the 2014 SAG-AFTRA contracts, but those talks won’t take place for 18 months or more.

Bookmark The Hollywood Reporter’s Labor Page for the most in-depth coverage of entertainment unions and guilds.

Email: jhandel@att.net

Twitter: @jhandel

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