Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Tragic Plight of Hollywood VFX Sweatshops

I just completed six years tour of duty in the front lines of the Hollywood Visual Effects industry. Like any returning soldier with shell shock, I find myself horrified with what I saw there.

At first I was nestled in the comfortable surreality that is Disney Feature Animation. Sure, my name is in the credits of movies that will be treasured for all time, but it was disparaging to witness the human cost of working in such an "enviable" job. The more famous the company, the more people will do anything to work there, which makes it a buyer's market for the employers, which gives them little incentive for retention. Turns out: the big companies, though financially stable compared to startups, really offer no more job security than their "unstable" indy counterparts. During my Disney tenure, I survived so many senseless mass layoffs, that when my time finally came all I could feel was relief.

In fact, when I finally got the E-ticket to leave the mouse house, I was giddy with excitement. I had for so long been isolated in a cushy job (a rare feat in my industry) that I was excited to come back from my slumber and see how the world had progressed in my absence. After all, I had been part of the proverbial "first wave" of the CG bandwagon, which really came to fruition when hardware capable of running 3D software became consumer-friendly, circa 2000. By that time I had a Master's degree in Computer Art, and I felt like there was no reason someone with my rare technical prowess shouldn't own their own company in no time. So here I was, a recent Disney graduate, ready to take on the World. But the World was not ready. The greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression was now irrevocably underway (this was just after the housing collapse of late 2008/early 2009), but that wasn't the main problem. After all, during times of recession, entertainment industries flourish, with so many newly unemployed customers suddenly having more leisure time for movies and games. But that didn't stop the big Hollywood companies from using the fiasco as an excuse to raise their bottom lines. Job cuts ravaged Hollywood, even the giant studios that were making record profits. I was one of those casualties. But that, too, wasn't the main problem.

The main problem was bound to lead to the collapse of my industry even if a recession had not taken place. Sure, the recession provided the perfect scapegoat for the Hollywood fatcats to accelerate it, but the problem was in place long before any actual recession took place. The visual effects industry was primed for a downfall almost from the time it was born.

Thing is, outsourcing to nations that don't have unions or labor laws was discovered to be a viable option by entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry, made possible by the equally recent innovation of the internet. India, for example, created tens of animation and VFX houses almost overnight in 2000 when hardware became affordable. At first, there were grumblings in the Hollywood industry, as jobs began to be shipped overseas, but in general there was complacency, everyone trying to act politically correct and not defensive. Besides, these early overseas houses couldn't brag the quality of U.S. animation.

Fast forward to 2010. With a decade of practice, India's animation companies are now every bit as good as Hollywood houses, at a tenth of the price. If I was an entrepreneur, I'd be stupid to go with a Hollywood house. Just sayin'.

Let's not blame India, or even Hollywood execs; they are merely making the rational choice in turning to overseas labor. The problem was created long ago, during the Reagan/Bush/Clinton eras, when international boundaries were dissolved to allow companies to be freely multinational. This had the secondary effect of emasculating the unions, to the point that they are now pretty much symbolic puppets. After all, what are we going to do to raise wages for the working man? Have a strike? A sit-in? Wouldn't that just send the last of the remaining jobs to the Philippines? 

After I left the Big D, I worked in Hollywood visual effects boutiques for a year. It was there that the true horror of the new State of the Industry was revealed to me. When I arrived, I found workers complacently accepting hourly wages lower than non-degree jobs, with no overtime provided, expected to work 50-plus-hour weeks, no benefits, no health insurance, no creative input, no nuthin'. Keep in mind, these are artists with degrees, many of them at the graduate level, like mine. Also keep in mind that all the top-grossing films of our era are effects films, which should lead one to believe that effects artists should be sharing in these unprecedented profits.

To further their humiliation, these artists were scrambling for short-term contracts on TV shows and movies that offered no set dates of employment, as production schedules were always shifting. In fact, they spent much of their time "on hold" for a company; a promise to the company that they will keep their schedule clear by not taking any contracts from any competing companies, so that they would be available when needed. They were not being paid to be in these "on hold" positions. They did it under fear of being "blacklisted;" if you break your hold, you were rumored to be deemed unemployable by the VFX houses that apparently demanded allegiance, even though they offered none in return.

Then it dawned on me: the only way we could compete with the Third World was to become the Third World! We were rolling back the clocks to the pre-union era, when corporations held all the cards and workers kissed their boss's gold rings, thankful for the chance to serve their corporate overlords. Maybe this phenomenon is happening all over, but it is most apparent in Hollywood, where everyone in VFX is in their twenties - no offspring, no responsibilities - so they can afford to live like serfs for a few years to get their names in credits. And when they burn out at the ripe age of 28, Hollywood doesn't mind: the vocational schools all now offer VFX degrees, and are continuously churning out starry-eyed youth to take their place. The American Third World has arrived. Albeit with student loan debt.

It's a sad thing to witness the glory of a technological revolution with all its promise, and yet see the industry it spawned being killed in its infancy by unregulated corporate greed. America brought the world the light bulb, the automobile, Jazz, the airplane. It is sad to see our culture of innovation give way to the immediacy of quarterly profit. Yes, companies headquartered in America will continue to make great films. But when the bulk of the work is done in other countries, can we really take credit for them being "American" films?

I never heard one of my twentysomething coworkers pontificate about the prospect of full-time employment, so conditioned they'd been to expect nothing but short-term, non-benefit contract work. No wonder the burnout age for Hollywood artists is 28. 

Made me think of the words of wisdom of onetime president George W. Bush, who insisted that there were jobs Americans "aren't willing to do." Well, maybe housecleaning, Mr. Bush. Maybe cleaning latrines. Maybe. But Animation jobs? Visual Effects jobs? These are exactly the kind of jobs Americans ARE WILLING to do. Very much so. And when you send them all oversees, are we to be a nation of managers? Because there's a reason many of us did not go to school for MBA's. Many of us have no desire to be managers. Or administrators. Or coordinators. Some personality types demand to be artists and craftspeople. And we will continue to be artists despite the poverty. As we've done in the past.

For a heartbreakingly brief period of American history, you could be an artist and NOT have to live in poverty. But that light was snuffed almost as soon as it was lit. So now, as artists re-align themselves with the poverty that has historically been their calling, I ask: could there have been another way? Could unions have acted more strongly and decisively early on? Also: since the soul of an industry lies in its artists, does our soul now reside overseas? Can America never again stand on its own? Are we watching something, so recently full of life, now rapidly dying? Is it too late to revive it?

There are two solutions as I see it: give tax incentives to American companies to keep jobs local, or revolutionize the Third World such that they must adhere to the same labor laws we do as a condition of participating in the same economy. I think we need to do both. And fast.