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.


gutsbl'w said...

India and China already have labor laws and I don't think no VFX shop is abusing them. But, the difference is the low living cost in those countries, which the Hollywood execs take advantage of.

John said...

interesting post. There seems to be so much talk at the moment about VFX workers rights, been a student I'm unsure what to think about all this. Kinda puts me off, but to think about it, it wouldnt surprise me that these corps would do something like this.

viva le revolution!

rock scissor paper said...

Fantastic post.

"The American Third World has arrived. Albeit with student loan debt."

Sadly, so true.

Pratik said...

I totally disagree with gutsbl'w comment. I'm from India and the artists here are getting heavily abused by studios. We dont get paid for over time and most artists here in studios work for a minimum of 10 hours per day and most of the times on sundays too. There is no pay at all for all the extra work done and worse of all job security is not guaranteed too. Studios hire artists and make them work on impossible deadlines and when the project is over the team is fired. There are absolutely no proper laws here. Studios make big money and abuse the artists. Its very sad and shocking. Something really needs to be done to change this.

akshat said...

Wow, man what a demoralising effect this article has had on me lol since im currently learning VFX, now im a bit scared after reading this, im from india as well, and if what Pratik said is true then i dont know what my future holds for me......

Boogie Studio said...

Wow…Thanks! This is truly a great post. I work for a VFX studio in Montreal Canada and we are feeling the same pressure here as in the United States. We have had many studio closings in the last year. Some major studios have been forced to close their doors because of the lack of profit and the inability to keep a sustainable production pipeline. I also write about this subject and am also asking what could a possible answer be? I like how much thought and depth you have put in to writing this article and actually addressing the fact that this most likely stems from a political problem of another administration.

The fact is we now live in a global world. Everyone is interconnected and many studios send work projects to each other online. The costs are very low to do business with third world countries and as you mention the fact that the quality of work has gone up in these places, make it harder for a producer who is worried about the bottom line to stay in America and get a similar product for more money here. I don’t think at this point unions are an answer but I do like the idea of a tax incentive. It would take some kind of stand on the part of the artists or a spokesperson who could garner the attention that this subject deserves. It would definitely not be an easy task to have government stand in and do something about this problem, and an even harder task to sell the general public (who are seeing movies like Avatar making millions of dollars) understand, and get behind the sad plight of the VFX artist.

Most people don’t understand how the movie business works and then don’t want to. They are happy to get their end product and don’t spend much time on the workers who created the project. At Boogie Studio, we specialize in advertising, it’s a little less time consuming and demanding then big budget feature films but we have some of the best talent in Montreal and we pride ourselves on that. We hope that our work will stand for itself and that will keep bringing our clients back to use our high-end services. Feel free to check out my blog and thanks again for the eye opening article.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, it's always interesting to hear people commenting on their "right" to be well-paid in a craft that apparently everyone can do well (so the talent resource is *not* unique), and the "obligation" of "evil businesses" to "support" the artist.

Wow. It's like hearing people demand others pay for their choices ("I have a *right* to be well paid making buggy-whips!). Sure you do, Joe.

Craft and Art have *always* (like just about everything else) been subject to market behavior, and whatever people would accept. Don't like it? Oh, *unionize*! Say, how did that work out for the American auto workers? How about the American building industries? Want to know why we're still building residences with last-century building methods?

The world (and the VFX, Art, Fashion, Meat-packing, Library-science, you-name-it industry doesn't owe you anything. Work too much? Boo-hoo. No holidays? Oh, dear. No health insurance? Screw insurance, how about access to reasonably priced healthcare? Good thing Doctors are unionized.

And when all else fails, let's blame Bush.

Work is always out there. Excellent pay, etc., is always out there. Support, recognition, respect is freely available -- but only to those who know how to find it. Perhaps, instead of focusing on how to do a garbage matte, or finessing procedural shading, you should stop whining about how it's everyone *else's* fault, and learn how to become effective at working on *your* career, not whatever gig you just happened to fall into.

(What a bunch of whiny teen-agers!)

I don't worry about this comment being published, though -- it's too long, and far too much to the point.