Last night the first in a series of online town hall meetings was held – organized by Lee Stranahan, the panelists were Chris deFaria -Vice President, Warner Bros. Pictures, Jefferey A. Okun – Visual Effects Society Chair and visual effects supervisor and Scott Ross – Co-Founder of Digital Domain & former CEO of Industrial, Light and Magic. Rather that try and recap the two hours of discussion I am going to give my opinion of what I saw as the key things to come out of this discussion and what the next steps are.


It was two hours of open, frank discussion that on its own would be important but in addition to the audio discussion there evolved a back channel of discussion on twitter and ustream. The way the web event was structured guests could hear the panelists and could type questions to them, but the audience could not discuss amongst themselves, this is something Lee is looking into addressing for the next event. Users took advantage of tools on the net to fill that gap, a member of the audience has posted an mp3 of the event online, you can find the link to that as well as a lot of the twitter comments by searching on twitter for the hashtag #vfxtownhall.

Ok, now to dive into the commentary portion of this post. What did we learn from this?

If you are looking for a villian in this quest for respect and fairness for the visual effects industry, you are wasting your time. On every level it seems we are our own worst enemy. Chris deFaria raised the issue of leverage. It could not be more clear that visual effects films drive the box office, we have the leverage, what we lack is an organized front to capitalize on that leverage. Hollywood runs on leverage and we are leaving that power unused.

Lee chose the panel to represent the three parties that create visual effects – the studios (deFaria), the vfx houses (Ross) and the artists (Okun). The spotlight in this event quickly shined on the vfx houses and artists as the ones who need to step up and seize the moment. This brings me to the first action item I came up with from my interpretation of the meeting:

Action Item #1: VFX Houses unite!
The heads of all the major visual effects houses need to get on the phone with each other today to plan a meeting to be held as soon as possible. Put aside egos and competition and organize a meeting with two goals – stopping the race to the bottom that is the way the business is currently being conducted and forming a trade organization. We need a voice, a lobbying group that has a strong leader fighting for visual effects and working with the vfx houses to apply the leverage they as a combined group represent. Houses need to stop selling themselves as who can bring the lowest rate to a project through tax incentives and outsourcing and focus on creative, innovative solutions to create unique work. No one can do this alone, there needs to be more cooperation and less underbidding. There needs to be a trade association.

Moving to the artists… probably the most frustrating part of the night was when it came to discussion of the artists themselves. I say frustrating because there was not much in the discussion anyone could say that would make an artist feel better. Artists were told they need to take personal responsibility by not accepting working conditions that are abusive. Waiting for a guild or union is not the answer although I think it was clear in the discussion that everyone thinks that the formation of a guild is what needs to happen… Chris deFaria even went as far as saying that our goal should be for the studios to be on board with that to the point of insisting that work on their films be done solely with guild represented talent. Jeffrey Okun made it clear that the VES is prohibited by its charter from engaging in organizing, so this guild needs to be something new and just like the idea of a trade organization we are left looking for a strong leader to drive this process forward. I think that will happen, primarily because there are existing large unions who have to be looking at the large number of artists they stand to represent if they organized visual effects. This is an area that will take time but there are some things we can do right now.

Action Item #2: Artists Unite!
First, if you are an artist it is time to take inventory of how things are going for yourself in a big picture way. How are you progressing in the industry? How are you doing in your personal life, what are you doing towards your financial future? We need to move from a place of wonder at how cool our jobs are and what amazing stuff we get to do and understand that none of this would be possible without us. Which brings us back to leverage. What can the individual artist do? Artists need to talk to each other, continue the conversation this event has already spawned. Companies that don’t follow local labor laws or run abusive environments need to be exposed and people need to stop working there. One of our next podcasts will be with a labor attorney to talk specifics of what an individual can do and should be aware of. Artists need to talk to each other about these issues, in person and by harnessing the power of the internet.

I think this is one area where the Visual Effects Society needs to step up. There has been talk of the VES providing sample contracts or suggested terms that members could use to provide a unified front when talking to employers, that needs to happen as well as anything else VES can do to educate its members and the community at large without violating its charter. This is a critical moment in the history of visual effects, what VES does at this moment will define for many of us the value and perception of that organization going forward.

Action Item #3: Keep this momentum going
Last night almost 450 people from around the world sat for two hours listening to a discussion about the issues visual effects as a maturing industry face. They extended the conversation on twitter and other channels and that carried on into the next day. I encourage you to become part of that conversation, even if you don’t use twitter regularly check out that link above and see what people are saying about this topic. Listen to the town hall, join the next one (likely to be held in late April, we’ll let you know here when it is announced). Talk openly and loudly about the issues raised here and be an active part of the solution. There may be no easy answers but we can only move to a position of power by raising awareness and sharing information.

Thanks to Lee and the panelists for making this event happen. It is clear that we are a passionate bunch who have chosen our careers because we love visual effects, in my opinion we are going to need help applying a business model on top of that passion to move the business and our careers into the next stage. Lee has informed me that he is working on a way for last night’s panel to respond to further questions people may have and the Q&A section from the event was archived and we will be working our way through that to see what answers we can get to questions posed there that were not able to be addressed in the event.

The slides from the event can be viewed here: www.slideshare.net/Stranahan/vfx-online-town-hall-1.


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29 Responses to VFX Town Hall – how did it go, what did it mean?

  1. Great post Jeff. Really happy to see a critical mass coming together finally

    Last month in Japan, 40 or so CG leads and supervisors had a meeting to discuss the dismal state of the VFX industry here as well so its clear that vfx artists worldwide are feeling its past time to organize

    Posted by Jonathan on
  2. Recommendations for VFX Houses to form a Trade Association to talk or apply pressure on pricing issues is not a very good idea. I served on the Board of Directors for a small Trade Association, legally we were advised to never talk about pricing. This included buying and selling price. The Sherman Antitrust Act covers price fixing and includes civil and criminal penalties.

    I’m not saying a trade association is not a good idea, lots of other beneficial information can be shared.

    Jeff I appreciate your coverage of this issue over the last several months and it is easy to tell all sides are passionate about the subject. Hopefully everyone can be cautious because passion creates strong emotions and sometimes the true purpose can be lost in that emotion. Hopefully people can see through those emotions and understand that the passion is supported by the facts. The main fact being that it’s good business for everyone to find a solution to these problems. In the end the entire industry can be stronger.

    Posted by Anthony Young on
  3. Excellent recap Jeff. Well put.

    Seems with recent effects houses closing, lots of talks about how dismal the state of pay/working conditions are, ironically along with record box office sales of visual effects block busters means that VFX artists can’t hope this matter fixes itself.

    Everyone needs to get involved and committed or things will continue along the current path.

    Studios are profits driven. Its not their job to fix the pay scale issue. They will secretly hope this guild never forms because it insures the current trajectory remains and their ROI on films stays high. They are not the enemy, but they are not wanting to overpay for the same level of work that is being produced now. A catch 22 for them.

    I am a bystander, but I care for those that are suffering. I took a hard look at moving into VFX in the early 2000s, but was very concerned about what would happen if studios started sending post work overseas so I opted to enter into a field that could NOT be outsourced. I think that factor is still the greatest and most difficult situation to tackle for the VFX/post houses and any guild that emerges.

    It seems the only way you can really pull off a coup with this is if you get massive commitment. It will take MOST of the BEST talent into a guild that will force studios to then be forced to accept new pricing for VFX work. Its gotta be a grass roots movement that gets everyone moving in one direction in the boat to get it to a tipping point.

    I just hope all the young guys and gals out there realize that doing nothing and sticking with the status quo means it will only get worse year after year.

    I applaud Lee for his “Letter to …..” to start the conversation. Now it has to be taken to the next level. Each meeting now needs to be planned so that it leads to another action step (formation of guild), then grass roots campaign to get folks on board. If these things are left sitting too long without action then momentum is lost. It just so happens that recent events have forced everyone to pay attention. That alone is momentum and Lee lit the match on the fuse. Time for someone to pile up some dynamite and plan the next bon fire.

    :)

    Michael James

    Posted by Michael James on
  4. I’m a bit of an outsider on this. I’m fairly new to the field — I have done some freelance quickie jobs, but have yet to land the facility position. Still, there seems to be one obvious business choice happening that at least the larger studios are missing out on. Name recognition.

    We’ve endlessly discussed how the majority of the modern big profit films are heavy on vfx. In fact, most of the public is seeing a film based on the vfx. So why isn’t this marketed and highlighted?

    Vfx studios and crews tend to get buried in the credits. Yet a large portion of the audience is coming because of that studio’s work. If you do a little marketing and a little advertising, general audiences will learn they can expect amazing, cutting edge work from “Studio X”. The studio then becomes a draw. Audiences will want to see the latest and greatest fx from the facility. Film studios will have to fight/bid for your skills because now you are essential. Audiences want the top fx, not the cheap knock off. You’re part of the star system. You’re Brad Pitt headlining.

    For smaller studios – specialize. When I think beauty work, I think Lola. I honestly don’t know if they do anything else, but I know they do that one thing damn well! Market your essential skills.

    Make it so the film studios need you, you’re not dependent on them. When you become the box-office draw, this under-cutting will fade away.

    Posted by Scott Fedor on
    • Scott I would say that perhaps because once in a not so distant past in this very same galaxy vfx artists were so excited about proving what they were capable of doing that they sold their art/craft so low and so tech based that the contractors (studios, etc) started to conveniently see them as drones.

      Cheap, easily replaceable, disorganized and doing something that was seen as a non-essential part of movie making that with time could be automated or performed by anyone.

      Time passed, it became a essential part of movie making and yet the perception didn’t changed.

      VFX prices only changed in proportion to the structures and volume required, so most vfx companies have their business based on business model created over a dream where money was the least important part. So they are obviously unreal and can’t work in a real business world where things change financially wise.

      Why? Because people (the ones that could or should) took way too long to react. And are only reacting now because things are falling apart.

      That’s what usually happens when people feel comfortable with little.

      Not diminishing the work of the guys that clean the bathrooms of the stars, but they never should be credit before a vfx artist.

      And honestly in vfx collages like 2012 the director should be the last one credited.

      This subject is worst than quantum mechanics.

      Posted by Joe on
    • You’re thinking as a vfx person watching a movie with vfx, and not as an outsider who wants to see a movie. People typically go to a movie for the story or they enjoy the genre, and not because Studio X worked on it. Most people out there could care less who worked on a movie only that it was worthwhile for them to waste 2 hours and their hard-earned money to watch. Also, you’ll never see a trailer cut showing “From Studio X which worked on such films as…” or, “From Studio X comes the story of…”.

      There are a couple of exceptions like like Pixar, Disney and DW which do animated flicks.

      Posted by Jeff on
      • Agreed, I work in vfx and I never went to see a film because ILM, DD or Weta did the effects. That’s kinda unreal to think.

        And the only persons that would care if monkey numero 7578 worked in a movie are their relatives, friends or fellow professionals that know him/her.

        Posted by Joe on
  5. Why not “Studios, facilities and artists Unite!”

    Posted by Joe on
    • i think issues that face a facility are different than issues that are directly facing the artists. In any case its always best to have a group with a narrow focus so each concern can be addressed properly. Which makes me think that while overall guidelines can be established and set, things are going to have to be organized on smaller, local levels i.e. principles set forth by an “international guild” will have to be interpreted and implemented locally, leaving room for everyone to be involved

      Posted by Rachel Uwa on
      • Agreed, but doing it that also inevitably puts one group against the other two, and we all know this doesn’t work.

        If artists push facilities, facilities will have to push studios and studios as business oriented institutions will do exactly what they are doing now. Will cut costs and keep sending stuff out to places that have a cheaper labor or simply bypassing the facilities as whole and dealing with artists directly.

        If facilities already have a hard time understand their artists do you really think studios will?

        I really doubt it.

        As long the side of each group is fully understood by the other two and a common denominator is reached nothing will change. And I really think you can’t reach this by making “enemies” or acting defensive.

        Anyway… looking forward to see how this discussion rolls out.

        Posted by Joe on
  6. I think we we lack is highlighting our importance ,the effort which goes in making a fx shot leave alone the movie.for the lay man or even your well known producers and directors,its still a push a button job (“we ll fix up that in post”),and this attitude is what needs to be challenged…
    when the movie does well the first one to be forgotten are us artist…and ther’s no one address that….
    plus the whole setup of the industry need to be looked upon internationally ,a few guideline need to come up..hopefully this initiative can spark off things..

    Posted by sameer on
    • HA!

      First ones to be forgotten are not the artists my friend. It’s me. THe guy who writes all the tools you use as an artist.

      That guy who made the rig controlls the animator uses.

      The database dude who’s schema allowed your tasking and pipeline to flow.

      Us and IT are the first to be forgotten when its all good, and the first to be flamed when it’s all bad.

      Cheers.

      Posted by Alexander Morano on
      • Even though “artist” is somehow a loose term, don’t you consider yourself to be an “artist”?

        Trust me, technical directors and IT guys are “artists” as well. They just master a different art. Instead of form and function, information flow and function. Without people like you there would be no VFX period.

        Posted by Joe on
  7. Quite disappointing. Very few questions asked and very few questions
    answered. It cracked me up when Chris from Warner Bros. said:
    “I don’t want them to work in Canada”. I guess he forgot to mention
    Warner Bros. just opened a post house in Montreal…
    On the other side nobody mentioned those super highly paid managers
    of the vfx houses who simply are terrible. They are all artists or technical
    people promoted to make business decisions they have absolutely no idea
    about. All they care is a status quo. They like their salaries…
    They salaries is the last thing they will touch. In the same time they won’t
    upgrade some of their prehistoric hardware or networking to “save money”
    and they will have their artists work long hours without paying overtime…
    Let’s blame the artists for not defending themselves!
    Without asking those real questions, nothing will be done.
    No villains, yeah right, we are all super cool, we love each other, let’s continue…

    Posted by Jim on
    • I have to say that Chris was right in his own way. He might not want to have them working in Canada but if that’s the only way for them to make their business viable that’s exactly what they will have to do.

      Studios depend on investors and bankers. Investors and banks want their money back and if possible at least some margin of profit, otherwise there is no reason for them to take this risk and studios would cease to exist.

      Film making isn’t cheap and is as risky as the stock market, and with the current crises I’m pretty certain that finding bankers/investors to throw money into films isn’t that easy. With that in mind they must do it in way that they are still able to cope with all the flops they produce annually to keep a positive balance. Otherwise they pretty much close.

      And if they close there isn’t a single reason to have facilities and even less one to have well paid artists.

      Posted by Joe on
    • hi jim,

      i can understand your frustration but personally dont feel that the first townhall meeting was at all so bad. i used to live in a house full of union and community organizers, this stuff takes time.

      the statement that artists should be defending themselves was the worst i heard, but pointed out that the speaker clearly isnt concretely understanding of issues directly facing vfx artists at present, not surprising. what the podcast seemed to make clear tho is that there are two (well three) unique sides to the story. perhaps before artists can organize effectively, vfxhouses have to get their own “stuff” together, as jeff points out above. or perhaps in artists organizing themselves, it will encourage vfxhouses to do the same. chicken/egg?

      either way, i cant imagine that if this thing would turn into a “union” that it would include both owners of studios as well as artists themselves. reading up on unions, it seems they are generally used as a bargaining power between employees and employers, i mean, employees and employers are separate entities for a reason! each essentially looks out for its own, its just the nature of things.

      so im looking forward to all these discussions or brainstorming sessions, of artists and/or vfxhouses and/or studios, knowing that at some point, some people are going to have to put something concrete down on paper and make sense of all of this talk if any change is actually going to happen. its as if the “discussions” are the easy part in a way. and maybe being disappointed or angry about them, is a good thing, it gives fuel to the fire! and before allowing this topic to die down as it likely has many times in the past, right now we seem to need all the fuel and fire we can get

      Posted by Rachel Uwa on
  8. #1 seems like a tricky effort since any discussion between companies to agree to raise rates could get into “price fixing” territory. I imagine this effort will be a bottom to top process where they all agree on how to treat their employees and naturally let the prices rise to meet those new business demands.

    Posted by Gavin Greenwalt on
    • You’re exactly right; no trade group could do this and that isn’t anything I’ve ever heard discussed.

      Posted by Lee Stranahan on
  9. No villains doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. There is OBVIOUSLY a problem but not every problem is caused by bad guys. That’s a simplistic view only leads whining, anger and a lack of real solutions.

    Posted by Lee Stranahan on
  10. “Very few (pointed) questions asked and very few (pointed) questions
    answered.”
    Agreed. Unfortunately our business is too incestuous to allow for frank and realistic opinion to be expressed. Particularly if one is an industry “luminary.” The abuse of VFX talent has become historic. The reasons for it are many, but this is a problem that seems to defy law.

    Posted by VFX Guy on
  11. Wohoooo, a guild and a strong leader! It’s the middle ages, great progress :) Seriously – a lot of you people live in America – you can sue people! Try that in Bulgaria, where I’m from :) Just sign good contracts, and if these are violated, sue the party that violates. Don’t create a bureaucratic marxsist nightmare in VFX please :)

    Posted by Hristo Velev on
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  15. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for the recap. It’s really good to see some organized attention being paid to these issues. I thought the participants in the first Town Hall made a number of good points. The follow-on conversation that Lee Stranahan hosted about pricing and business models was useful as well, and well worth checking out at http://vfxfairness.com.

    The conversations covered a lot of territory. As a guy with a finance MBA and some acquaintance with the post and VFX industries, I thought a couple of points from the first Town Hall were particularly interesting.

    First, on the idea of “commoditization”:

    It’s a loaded word that tends to evoke strong reactions. I don’t think that Chris deFaria was saying that VFX production as a whole is a commodity–it obviously isn’t. But it’s equally obvious that the expertise and technical resources involved in VFX production are much more widely available now than they were at one time, and that this trend has greatly increased competition on the basis of price.

    Not every activity within VFX production is equally subject to price competition. I think that certain types of work or certain parts of the VFX pipeline are probably more “commodity-like” than others, and therefore more subject to offshoring and extreme pressure on pricing.

    There is a sort of Darwinian evolution in the economics of the VFX industry–it creates significant hardships for facilities and artists, who are forced to adapt or perish. But if the rules of the game change, you have to find new ways to compete.

    By the way, I think it’s also clear that the lack of collective bargaining for VFX workers (in the U.S., at least) has caused the economic burden of increased competition to fall disproportionately on individual artists and craftspeople, especially contract workers.

    On “leverage”:
    I would agree with you, too, that VFX artists *collectively* enjoy considerable leverage in the market for their services, but I interpreted Chris’s point about “finding the leverage” maybe a little more narrowly than you did.

    I viewed his comment as being more specifically about the business models (I prefer the term “value propositions”) of VFX facilities than about the leverage that the VFX industry may enjoy as a whole.

    The economic value of VFX production is not evenly distributed among all the various activities and stages of the production process, and that distribution changes over time. If you’re a facility owner, you have to keep working to figure out what your clients value most (e.g., key artistic talent; efficient coordination with remote vendors; execution of specialized types of shots, etc.) and provide more of those things, while reducing your exposure to areas in which you can’t compete effectively. Basically, you have to keep working to “de-commoditize” yourself.

    I think that’s what Chris meant when he referred to finding leverage points. Of course, the same idea applies to individual artists as well as companies.

    Anyhow, there’s lots of different stuff to figure out here. I look forward to future Town Halls and more discussions.

    Best regards,

    Ben

    Posted by Ben Webber on
    • Thanks Ben! Re-reading I fear I did make quite a leap from Chris mentioning leverage in the context you mention to a broader view.

      Posted by Jeff Heusser on
  16. The thing that was a little frustrating in just listening to the Town Hall Meeting is that some people seemed to want to stick to the “PC” response of “There are no villains” or just avoiding the issue or shifting the blame to the facilities.

    You can’t get to the point where you’re forced to have this kind of public conversation without there being a villain and it’s ridiculous to attack the facilities that are getting shutdown one after another like stack of dominoes, they are clearly not the ones in the position of power right now. Sure there are issues with facilities and their arrangements with artists, but that’s small potatoes. The larger problem is that VFX artists are are just too undervalued in an industry that’s thriving by riding on their backs.

    Ultimately an VFX/AFX Artist Union is a necessary thing, but a broader vision for that is necessary:

    -An ideal VFX/AFX Artist Union is one that basically would create a league of sorts having major league teams and minor league teams/farm systems. They could compete in the same markets, but the Union would set the ceiling and the floor for both levels. Every team would vote for it’s leadership both “locally” and “nationally” within the Union as well as on issues like working conditions, health benefits, acceptable hours etc.

    -The Studios to Facilities bidding process doesn’t work for artists for a variety of reasons. That procedure needs to be eliminated in favor of a system where the studios deal directly with the artists, via the Artist Union, and then the combination of the Artist collective and the Studio split the cost of the facility rental/lease/use 50%/50% (Very much like the Music industry relationship between Artists/Labels/Producers)

    “Membership”
    -Requirements for membership should be either people already actively working in the field, people that have earned a four year degree in some VFX or AFX major, or people having earned a post-grad. degree in some related field. The whole “Grandfathering in” type process that many unions have leave people out on the street that have invested years of their life and and quite bit of money most times to proactively pursue gainful employment in this industry specifically. The whole “Grandfathering in” process also simultaneously tends to foster racist and sexist hiring practices.

    “Ownership”
    -This is probably the most critical component of my idea. The relationship of VFX Artists and Studios has changed based on the content of what’s being produced and the “Employer/Employee” moniker is just no longer appropriate. “Partner Relationship” is accurate for what’s actually being produced and how. There are a couple of things that need to be addressed with regard to this new classification. Percentage on Gross Points (not net) are something that should be non-negotiable as well as a hammered out deal for pre-designated access to the studio promotion/distribution network for Union created original content where studios would receive Percentage on Gross Points.

    These are things I just thought of and I’m sure I could fine tune and rethink some of these things so they are better worded/structured but it’s better to articulate some solution versus articulating none and just continue complaining.

    Posted by Butch on
  17. This is a great article and the beginning of something that really needs to be discussed more. I am glad to see that a lot of people are commenting and putting some serious thought in to the state of the industry. I work for a VFX boutique style studio in Montreal Canada. I know there have been some comments about outsourcing to Canada but we are going through a similar situation here. We have had a lot of studios close down in the last year.

    At Boogie Studio, we try to put most of our focus on advertising/commercials. We create some pretty high end stuff and we don

    Posted by Dale Bernier on

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