The Visual Effects Society (VES) today released an "Open Letter to VFX Artists And The Entertainment Industry At Large" announcing VES 2.0 (text of the full letter at the bottom of this post). The letter details problems facing the visual effects industry and announces a major change in direction for the VES. David S. Cohen in Variety covered this news today with an article titled "VFX org bares new teeth" . Variety also hosted an online chat with VES leaders Eric Roth and Jeffrey A. Okun after the announcement. During this chat Okun revealed that this has been a lengthy process inside VES, taking more than 4 years. Fxguide followed up with him for more about this:
Okun: The people that started the society were adamant that there's a three legged stool needed; a trade organization, a union and an honorary society. Our role as an honorary society was to keep our nose clean of politics, it's been a difficult line to walk.
Okun explained that the VES board began a self examination starting with 'why does VES exist'? The answer was: to ensure that the artist and industry thrive. They moved on to the 'how'? This turned out to be a long process spanning Jeff Barnes term as Chair and the return of Okun to that position. They held meetings with facilities, with studios, they explored becoming a trade organization, a union.
What they realized was the industry had changed significantly since the society was formed 14 years ago. One of the biggest changes was the now global nature of the business. When the VES was formed the business was largely based in LA and San Francisco. Schools weren't graduating students in the field, computers were expensive, software was expensive, "it was a costly game to get into". All of this has changed dramatically. We talked about how VES decided it needed to redefine itself:
Okun: We found out that artists are not good businessmen, generally speaking and therefore the society is obligated to start giving them those business tools. This was again a major departure from the mission of the society and we had to have board meetings on it and it was voted that as a matter of fact it is a primary mission of the society, because that's how you thrive in this business.
An example of this new focus was on display this past weekend when VES held an online virtual town hall: Employee & Contractor Deal Point Considerations. The archive of this event is available to VES members on the VES website. Also on June 25th VES is hosting an inaugural Career Fair & Workshop.
The VES Board started in January determining what it should be allowed to do and if this was in line with what the society was founded for.
Okun: At the recent Board meeting, after a thorough report was generated, subcommittees did all their studies... what came out of it was that because of how radically the environment has changed, because there is no union, because there is no trade organization, because it's global, because we have 2500 members in 23 different countries it became an obvious choice that the society had to begin to step up to the plate. We are here to foster positive change by conducting positive and fruitful discussions with the people it affects. We're not here to be militant, we're not going to become a union, we're not going to become a trade organization, and that will frustrate some people.
Okun went on to explain that it felt really good after all this work to finally be able to talk about these changes and start to work on this new focus.
Okun: What's key is to realize is that there are no villians, in other words the motion picture studios are not the bad guys, the visual effects facilities are not the bad guys but there are market conditions and the way that the industry has evolved... it has not evolved to the visual effects best interest. We have no representation, we're the only group on a union movie that is not represented, we work long hours for reducing pay, schedules are being shortened and we're not getting paid anything extra for it. Conditions are evolving.
Okun: We've been waiting and waiting for organizations to form that have collective bargaining power or whatever powers a trade organization might have... and they haven't formed. The conditions are getting such that it's almost intolerable, now it would be irresponsible for us not to use the voice of the members. If we don't get it talked about, if we don't start looking for solutions how is it to be solved?
At fxguide we were interested in the global nature of this as we hear from artists from all over the world. Labor discussions are usually focused on the US and California yet the problems we hear about are the same all over the world. Okun said he hears the same things "we have common problems that are solvable".
We talked with Okun about the Variety online chat that followed the announcement and the negative tone of many of the comments that came up there. He expressed concern over just how unproductive that kind of attitude is and damaging for any kind of progress:
Okun: I just don't understand those kind of comments... If we don't start, then it can't be solved. The best thing in the world would be that VES starts and suddenly people join in, maybe a union gets formed, maybe a trade organization gets formed, maybe something we haven't even thought about gets formed. Right now all that's going on out there is people complaining, everyone's griping about how bad it is... you're not allowed to complain unless you throw out a solution, you gotta start moving into the positive zone, you've got to start examining.
Okun: Start talking, that's how discoveries are made, that's how changes happen. They don't happen by some secret group meeting in a dark smoky room to decide 'we're going to be wonderful and work out your problems' ... it doesn't happen in the real world. Everyone is suffering, studios, facilities and artists... there can be common solutions that will help everybody.
fxguide applauds this effort. Sadly, the internet may react with sniping comments, but maybe the time of working against each other should pass and we should take advantage of this initiative as a beginning to new dialogues. We all care passionately about film-making, visual effects and making the industry world class. Let's all step up and make it so.
Complete text of open letter from VES (link to original):
An Open Letter To VFX Artists And The Entertainment Industry At Large Visual Effects Society: 2.0
As an Honorary Society, VES has led the way in promoting the incredible work of VFX artists but so far no one has stood up to lead the way on the business side of our business. No one has been able to speak out for unrepresented artists and facilities – or the craft as a whole – in any meaningful way.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the state of the visual effects industry is unsettled. Artists and visual effects companies are working longer hours for less income, delivering more amazing VFX under ever diminishing schedules, carrying larger financial burdens while others are profiting greatly from our work. As a result, there has been a lot of discussion recently about visual effects and its role in the entertainment industry. Many feel VFX artists are being taken advantage of and many others feel that VFX facilities are operating under unsustainable competitive restraints and profit margins. There have been calls for the creation of a VFX union to represent artists’ interests while others have pushed to create a trade organization for VFX facilities to better navigate today’s economic complexities.
As globalization intensifies, the process of creating visual effects is becoming more and more commoditized. Many wonder if the current business model for our industry is sustainable over the long term. Indeed, multiplying blogs are questioning why artists are forced to work crazy overtime hours for weeks or months on end without health benefits and VFX facilities are forced to take on shows at a loss just to keep their pipelines going and their doors open (they hope).
As good as we are at creating and manipulating amazing and ground breaking images, VFX professionals have done a terrible job of marketing ourselves to the business side of the industry. In short, no one has been able to harness the collective power of our efforts, talents, and passions into a strong, unified voice representing the industry as a whole.
VES may not have the power of collective bargaining, but we do have the power of a voice that’s 2,400 artists strong in 23 countries -- and the VES Board of Directors has decided that now is the time to use it. We are the only viable organization that can speak to the needs and concerns of everyone involved in VFX to meet the challenges of a changing global industry and our place within it.
The work we do helps a lot of people make a lot of money, but it’s not being shared on an equal basis, nor is the respect that’s due us, especially considering that 44 of the top 50 films of all time are visual effects driven (imdb.com/boxoffice/alltimegross).
For VFX ARTISTS (NOT computer geeks, NOT nerds), we do not receive the kind of respect that measures up to the role visual effects plays in the bottom line. And that’s expressed in a number of very obvious ways:
Credits – we are frequently listed incompletely and below where we should be in the crawl.
Benefits – in the US, you likely do not have ready access to health care. Or a vision plan. Or a pension plan. Outside the US, unless you’re a citizen of a country with national health care, you likely do not have health care coverage either. Or have the ability to build hours for your pension. Or are eligible to receive residuals. On a UNION show we are the ONLY department that is not union and therefore not receiving the same benefits as everyone else on the set.
Working conditions – if you are a freelancer (it’s generally agreed that almost half of all visual effects workers are freelancers), because you are not covered by collective bargaining, you may be forced to work 70 – 100 hour weeks for months on end in order to meet a delivery date. And for that privilege (in the U.S.) you will also likely be considered an Independent Contractor and have to file a 1099 – and then pay the employer’s share of the tax contribution.
Many small to medium-sized VFX companies around the world are struggling to survive (or have gone out of business – (RIP Café FX, Asylum, Illusion Arts and many others). By now almost everyone in the industry is familiar with the quote from a few years ago by an unidentified studio executive that if he ‘didn’t put at least one VFX company out of business on a show, he wasn’t doing his job.’
The concern exists at every level of the VFX chain -- artist, facility and studio – how the impact of a “Fix” would affect the industry. Would it drive work elsewhere? Would it cut into the dwindling profit margins of VFX companies and put them out of business? Would it make VFX artists unhireable?
No matter one’s perspective, the interests of VFX artists can no longer be ignored.
In the coming weeks and months, VES will shine a spotlight on the issues facing the artists, facilities and studios by way of editorial pieces in the trades and VFX blogs, virtual Town Hall meetings, a VFX Artists’ Bill of Rights and a VFX CEO’s Forum (for the companies that actually provide the jobs that everyone is working so hard to safeguard).
There are solutions and we will find them.
We want the studios to make a respectable profit. We want facilities to survive and thrive in this ever changing fiscal environment. And we want artists to have high quality jobs with the commensurate amount of respect for the work they do on a daily basis. Therefore, VES will take the lead by organizing meetings with all participants in our industry in which we will make sure that all the issues discussed above are put on the table.
We are the VES and the time to step up has arrived. VES 2.0 is here and ready to lead.
If you’d like to share a comment with us you can contact us at either [email protected] or through the leadership forum on the VES website at: www.visualeffectssociety.com/forums/ves-leadership-forum.
VES Executive Director
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