VFX Unionization Effort Struggles to Gain Traction

VFX Oscars Demonstration - H 2013

IATSE continues its push to unionize visual effects work in the U.S. and Canada, but if the campaign were a movie, it’d be a hand-cranked nickelodeon presentation, not a summer blockbuster.

Translation: Progress is slow and faltering. A town hall meeting held Tuesday night at video-conferenced venues in Burbank, the Bay Area and Vancouver drew a bare-bones crowd, far smaller than the aggregate 350 who participated in a similar event on March 14.

PHOTOS: Disney's 'Oz the Great and Powerful': Inside the Special Effects

The effort has been ongoing for more than a year; an earlier unionization attempt failed in 2003. Meanwhile, a London-based union similar to IATSE began in April a campaign to organize U.K. visual effects workers.

Meeting participants in several cities spoke of working hours that defied rationality coupled with difficulty getting paid at all. “Driving home, I swerve to avoid things that aren’t there,” said one panelist, an eerily appropriate symptom of fatigue for someone whose job is to create things that aren’t there.

From Montreal, VFX artist Diana Marie Wells weighed in. “I bought my co-worker toothpaste because she didn’t have money to afford it,” she said.

Back in L.A., an anguished young VFX worker told the audience that he had lost his job and now, “I’m losing my place.” How would a union help?

How indeed? The VFX industry is marked by temporary, globally dispersed employment, itinerant labor and razor-thin margins. The days of stable staff employment seem largely bygone.

PHOTOS: Where Wolf? In 'Twilight: Breaking Dawn,' It's All About the Special Effects

“In my opinion,” said panelist and animation artist Brock Stearn, “the ‘hire and fire’ is here to stay.”

Steve Kaplan, organizer for the Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839, suggested that unionization represented one way for VFX houses to push back against studio demands that result in long hours.

Another panelist, dooner, organizer for the Art Directors Guild, IATSE Local 800, is engaged in a parallel campaign to organize previsualization artists. He also noted that his local represents digital matte artists, but only those at studios that are already signatory to the IATSE agreement.

The two-hour meeting ended shortly after 10 p.m., at which point some of the participants returned home while others, perhaps, returned to work.

Watch the meeting here:

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

E-mail: jhandel99 at gmail dot com
Twitter: @jhandel