VFX Town Hall Urges Trade Association and Union

'Life of Pi'

"I can eat the biscuits, but God made tigers carnivorous, so I must learn to catch fish. If I don't, I'm afraid his last meal would be a skinny vegetarian boy."

Suraj Sharma as Pi

"It’s going to get worse until we do something," said VFX vet Scott Ross. However, panelists also acknowledged the difficulty of achieving the goals.

Pi Day -- a multi-city international meeting of VFX artists -- took place Thursday evening amid rising concern about the state of the industry.

VFX vet Scott Ross and others outlined a plan that involves the formation of a VFX union for VFX artists and of a trade association for visual effects facilities, all aimed at addressing the troubled VFX business model.

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“Fear has stopped us because we have six clients [the studios],” Ross told them. “We are fearful of losing our jobs; [but] we are losing our jobs. … It’s going to get worse until we do something.”

Ross -- a co-founder and ex-CEO of Digital Domain, a former GM of Industrial Light & Magic and a senior vice president at LucasArts -- also stated that through outreach “almost all” of the major facilities in North America “have agreed to investigate the possibilities of a trade association. … They seemingly want to effect change.”

“All boats rise when you establish floors and minimums,” said Steve Kaplan, an organizer with The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839. “Establishing a union here will have a ripple effect across the world.”

Multiple Oscar nominee Scott Squires would like to go further, saying that he ideally wanted a single international union. However, Dusty Kelly, of Vancouver’s IATSE Local 891, pointed out that differing national laws and working conditions made this difficult to implement, at least beyond the U.S. and Canada. IATSE is active in both of those countries.

IATSE has been attempting to organize the industry for over a year, but it’s been an uphill battle. Indeed, it’s not clear whether a sufficient nucleus of VFX artists support the idea -- or are unafraid enough of potential retaliation that they’re willing to sign union representation cards.

Complicating the matter is the job mobility of VFX artists, since organization has to be done on a company to company basis. Kaplan added that IATSE could do nothing without sufficient support for VFX workers, and that -- in order to avoid defeat -- IATSE would not call for a union election in a facility unless at least 60 percent of the VFX artists signed cards.

Cards were distributed at the event, as well as made available online.

An estimated 250 attendees participated in the Los Angeles town hall meeting, which was also streamed live and involved additional group participation from roughly 75 VFX personnel in the Bay area, 25 in Vancouver, five in Austin, and 10 in Wellington, NZ.

Ross emphasized that the key to bringing about change is timing. “I support a guild or union for the visual effect industry, but it’s in the timing,” he said. “You are going to sign [union cards] to organize VFX facilities, but the visual effects houses don’t make money. A lot of [employee “abuse”] is because they want to keep their heads above water. They are drowning.”

Alongside a union or guild, there needs to be a trade association that changes certain criteria, Ross stressed. That includes the need for communication with the studios that the business model doesn’t work (“to treat employees well, VFX studios need enough resources,” he said), standard bids, standard contracts (with cancellation policies), lobbying efforts (“we need to show subsidies don't work”), and education policies (some directors and producers “don’t have a clue”).

Kaplan remarked, “I know a great way to form a trade association -- unionize.” This would prompt the VFX houses to form a trade association in the form of a multi-employer bargaining unit, such as the AMPTP, he said. That, in turn, would allow the houses to push back against motion picture studio policies that doom them to low profit margins. One of the speaker estimated those margins as 5 percent at best.

Life of Pi could not have be made without visual effects,” Ross said. “Claudio [Miranda] won his award because of visual effects.” The film was this year’s Oscar winner for visual effects. “We are the movie and you are the stars,” he added. “Its about time the motion picture industry understood that and compensated you properly.”

Ross was greeted by a standing ovation as he concluded his remarks.

The most contentious part of the evening occurred when VFX producer Mike Chambers spoke on behalf of the Visual Effects Society (VES), an honorary society that represents an estimated 3,000 members in 30 countries. Chambers is second vice chair of the society.

VES recently called for California to increase its production incentives, and when he mentioned this initiative, it was booed by the audience. “We think [all] subsidies should be gone, too. Getting a level playing field is what its about,” he said, adding that the society is “very aware that we are a global organization representing a lot of folks with a lot of different viewpoints, opinions and needs. About two-thirds of VES members are in California, and California is on fire right now … [though] every place is struggling.”

Acknowledging that “there are certain things in VES’s charter that doesn’t allow us to do certain things” including collective bargaining, he said “we want to be part of this conversation; We want to help to bring people together and different viewpoints together to air these issues.”

When challenged by an audience member to elaborate on what VES was and would actually do, he stammered and had no concrete answer.

Ross defended VES, complimenting its activities and pointing out that it’s an honorary society that “does what it does well. However, the time has come to that we need additional societies, like guilds and unions and trade organizations, so when you fight the war, you’ve got the bullets.”

Squires told the crowd that they effectively had three options: Hold on and hope things don’t get much worse, leave the business (some already have), or unionize. “It’s in your hands,” he said. “Keeping us back is courage.”

The crowd broke into sustained applause.

VFX artist Dave Rand pointed out that he was one of many artists who was “shafted” for an estimated $1.3 million at now-defunct Meteor Studios (which was owned by Discovery Communications) for work that they did on Journey to the Center of the Earth. “We can only [improve the situation] by acquiring leverage .… We can’t look at the studios as the enemy; we just need to bring balance to the equation,” he said, noting, “we want to show [the studios] a better way to work.”

Long time VFX artists Gene Warren, Jr. lamented how much had changed in the industry since the days in which he first worked on such pictures as Terminator 2, for which he received an Oscar.

A participant in San Francisco questioned the effectiveness of a union, saying that “studios will go to where labor costs are less expensive.” IATSE Kaplan responded that his union has multiple contracts that have varying costs and that unionization “won’t bury VFX facilities.”

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The event's name is a pun, referring not just to Life of Pi but also to the date of the event, 3/14, which echoes the value of the mathematical constant pi (approximately 3.14). The day was originally floated by anonymous activist VFX Soldier and others as a day for an industry-wide VFX walkout, but not all agreed.

The film’s lead VFX house Rhythm & Hues declared bankruptcy not long before this year’s Academy Awards, putting a spotlight on the industry’s problems and prompting artists to demonstrate on Hollywood Blvd. on Oscar Sunday. It also prompted many VFX artists to change their Facebook profile picture to a green rectangle, a reference to the fact that VFX artists often work with green screen images.

A dessert offering was served at the conclusion of the L.A. town hall meeting. Fittingly, it was key lime pie.

Members of the VFX community Bill Gilman and Neha Wickramasekaran led the organization of the event, and VFX artist Mariana Acuña served as host.

VFX Soldier has made available a video of the event.

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

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