VES open letter – what is the VES’s role here?

The VES has issued an open letter called ‘Call to Action’. A copy is reprinted at the bottom of this article. In this letter the VES primarily asks for two things:

1. A VFX congress for all artists around the world to discuss issues and concerns

2. Increased tax incentives for California.

The second of these points is further highlighted by including a sample letter that VES members can send to “GOVERNOR BROWN AND THE CA STATE LEGISLATURE”. fxguide presumes it is not expected all the VES members in NY, Chicago, New Mexico, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Sydney, Wellington, Singapore or anywhere else are required to lobby for tax incentives that would directly work against their own jobs.

On Twitter the reaction was immediate with an experienced artist posting:

“Dear VES: “fighting fire with fire” doesn’t mean taking a flamethrower to an already burning building. Since apparently you’re confused.” @DorkmanScott

And there was this from an artist in New Zealand:

“@VFXSociety “Stop subsidies! Stop subsidies! Ss… Subsidies! Give us subsidies!” Congrats you just kicked the global unity idea in the balls.” @JasonCampbell.

This last tweet strikes at the heart of the problem the VES faces; many people believe subsidies and tax concessions are a part of the problem and not the cure. The VES only fighting for Californian jobs seems, let us say, unusually focused on just some of its membership at the direct cost of other members.

The congress is the next major move from the VES, and the Society states “it is hoped that this effort will lead to a number of direct follow up actions that will gain consensus from visual effects artists everywhere.” The congress will be an online meetup of visual effects artists from around the world in various cities (the details are still to be worked out) during which ideas can be put forward and discussed openly and honestly, as Jeff Okun explains further in our audio interview below.

Certainly, the VES is in a hard position. Normally a union or guild, such as the Directors Guild of America (DGA), would speak for a group, but unions are very country focused. The American Screen Actors Guild (SAG) does not influence policy directly in say New Zealand (where NZ Actor’s Equity merged with the Australian Union of Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)). Thus a studio would deal with SAG in the US, and MEAA in New Zealand. If the VES seeks to form some negotiating body worldwide it has an unprecedented task ahead of it. If it chooses to reduce to just American issues, it flies in the face of its global aspirations, and risks splintering into regional separate organizations. Furthermore any localized American body would be in direct conflict with those regional bodies, especially over subsidies.

fxguide contacted several leading VFX facilities on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific for their reaction. After some discussion, all declined to comment on the record. Which begs the question – what is the VES’s role here? Is the VES speaking for the artists that are its members? The companies that support it? What should or even what can the VES do?

Does the VES want to take the place of a trade association, a union or something new?

It appears that the VES wants a central role in the discussion. After the Open Letter email was posted by the VES, fxguide contacted Jeff Okun, the Chair of the Visual Effects Society, for a response. First off, Okun replied to our request with email responses, which are reproduced below (as Okun was apparently quoted out of context in a previous article about the recent VFX protest prior to the Oscars, we have included all his comments to fxguide below, with only very minimal editing that we believe is in no way substantial).

We also talked to Okun in a subsequent telephone call, and we put these questions about the role and scope of the VES, the California subsidies and the upcoming Congress directly to him.


[fx_audio src=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/JeffOkunVES.mp3″ link=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/JeffOkunVES.mp3″]

Jeff Okun’s email responses

fxguide: At a time when many people are upset over subsidies and tax incentives, is it the official position of the VES that it is OK so long as it helps the Californian VES members? Leaving aside the rest of the world, is the VES for incentives that run against the interests of all American states other than California?

Jeff Okun: We are suddenly in a triage situation, we did what we did to staunch the blood flowing in the immediate present so that it can live long enough to attempt to solve the issues at hand. You can argue its pros and cons endlessly and find consensus on all sides of that argument. Right now subsidies exist in other states and countries. The call is an attempt to level the playing field. In the short run. It is not the job of the VES to go political in this manner. But it is the job of the VES to give our members the tools and information they need to survive.

THE BIG THING IS THE CONGRESS. Currently our industry is spending a great deal of time fighting EACH OTHER. There are factions that do nothing but provoke and cloud the bigger picture issues, derail movements and pit one point of view against the other. And they do this for their own reasons – some of which are moral and heartfelt.

It is very difficult to do everything for everyone at the same time. And in the coming days there will be announcements and invitations sent out to the ALL GLOBAL VFX WORKERs to attend this Congress – and that is important. The point is to hear all sides, find consensus where it can be found, elect or appoint representatives, empower them to walk together to present to and work with those that can actually make the changes we all need (which need to still be formally defined and agreed upon in each area).

The questions we have to answer:

1) What do we want – in detail and specific. You will find that we the artists and facility owners are not even in alignment on this simple question. We need to get a consensus or groups of consensus in order to move forward.

2) Who does the negotiating for the VFX Workers with the studios and other facilities? In other words: Who does the other side talk too?

3) Will the VFX WORKERS abide by what is negotiated or won?

fxguide: What advice do you have for all the regional members of the VES whose dues are now funding an effort to directly politically influence work to just California? 

Okun: No monies are being spent to fund this specific call to action at this time.  The call was for people to contact their government to let them know what they want.

fxguide: Is not the call for ALL artists around the world to join the VFX congress not in direct conflict with the VES promoting direct subsidies for just California?

Okun: Absolutely not!  Again, the VES is providing information for members in order that they make their own decisions and do what they feel needs to be done.

fxguide: You directly quote R&H but vast amounts of their staff and offices are not based in California. Is the VES in support of only R&H Californian workers? How do you think a R&H non-Californian artist might feel if via the VES action, R&H could get Californian subsides and these foreigners lose their jobs?

Okun: Not at all.  What good will it do anyone if California closes down?  After that geographic location who will be next?  What happens to Vancouver, London, Wellington, etc. when their incentives run out?  It is no longer a matter of keeping the work local, but keeping localities open to do the work and insuring that they get paid fairly for what they do.

fxguide: Your open letter reads like California has some right to visual effects jobs?  In the opinion of the VES what is wrong with VFX jobs being in London, Vancouver or Wellington? And if the only answer is based on tax incentives – then why push for more tax incentives?

Okun: I think you have framed the question wrong.  We are for VFX workers – everywhere.  But we feel that the artists and facilities need to be paid fairly for that work.  We do not agree that this is an “Us” vs. “Them” situation.  We are Global because the industry is global.  The issue is how to not only keep the industry alive, but thriving and with things like job continuity, fair pay for what we contribute to the project and some basic human rights as talented artists – not assembly line workers.

Copy of the Call to Action Letter:


In light of current events, the Visual Effects Society (VES), an honorary body comprised of the very best visual effects artists around the world, today issues two calls to action:

First, we call upon Governor Brown and the State Legislature to immediately expand its tax incentive program for the entertainment industry and to include a focused approach concentrated on the visual effects and post production sectors of the industry.

Secondly, because we have reached a tipping point for the visual effects industry and there is much pent up energy, anger and frustration right now, the VES, under its good offices, is organizing a VFX Congress to take place within the next few weeks to allow all artists from around the world to share their concerns to find common ground on the issues that face us today. It is hoped that this effort will lead to a number of direct follow up actions that will gain consensus from visual effects artists everywhere.  Everyone is invited and should attend.

As has become all too apparent over the past few years, and especially in the past few weeks regarding the status of Rhythm & Hues, Digital Domain, DreamWorks, and other visual effects facilities, the future for professionals who work in the visual effects industry – and the entertainment industry at large  – in California is in serious jeopardy.

We certainly recognize that we live in a global economy and in fact, VES has members in 30 countries around the world. Many of those countries – and many states elsewhere in the US – offer aggressive tax incentives – which seek to lure visual effects work to their communities and away from our state. While California finally created a tax incentive program in 2009 (AB1069, Chapter 731, which was recently extended it to 2017), it is woefully inadequate to the needs of today’s entertainment industry. In effect, thousands of talented visual effects artists are joining the unemployment lines or becoming “migrant film workers”, chasing the work outside our borders because that’s where the jobs have been going and are still going.

The amazing irony is that while 47 of the top 50 films of all time[1] are visual effects driven and billions of dollars of profits are generated yearly, the actual people who create the work are becoming an endangered species in California. In short, Hollywood, the birthplace of all this art and commerce, is quickly becoming the land where creative dreams die on the vine and pink slips for dispossessed artists are being issued at an alarming rate.

We know that there are some out there who are calling for the elimination of all subsidies & tax incentives everywhere around the world. We think that’s a great idea and if there were a magic button that could be pressed to make that a reality, we would press it in a nanosecond. Why? Because California can compete with anyone, anywhere if there’s a level playing field.

But in today’s global economy, where many hundreds of localities around the world are feverishly devising new ways to make California’s piece of the entertainment pie smaller, the fact that California’s program doesn’t meet it’s current needs (it only allocates $100 million yearly … which meets the needs of only about 20% of the work that would stay in California otherwise. For comparison purposes, New York caps its program at $420 million yearly and both Louisiana and Georgia are uncapped in the amount of incentives they offer), and is recklessly negligent to the thousands of visual effects professionals who are daily losing their jobs to other locales around the world. This not only hurts those artists, but also California’s economy because thousands of good paying jobs wind up buttressing the economies of states and countries elsewhere and the technological advances that otherwise would be birthed in California are now taking root elsewhere.

According to a Milken Institute report from July 2010, commenting on the changing entertainment industry economy in California since 2008, their “research shows that if California had managed to retain the 40 percent share of North American employment it once enjoyed, 10,600 direct jobs would have been preserved here in 2008. Furthermore, those direct jobs would have had broader economic impact, generating an additional 25,500 jobs after rippling through other sectors. If the state had maintained its former level of dominance, a total of 36,000 jobs would have been saved, generating $2.4 billion in wages and $4.2 billion in output.”

But until such time as all tax incentives everywhere are a thing of the past, California will need to take action– right now – or we’ll lose many thousands more jobs and Hollywood will soon be the equivalent of an empty storefront.

If you support this call to action for a larger incentive program in California that matches the needs of filmmakers and would keep jobs here, then send letters to our state lawmakers that urges them to get to work immediately to increase our incentive program. (Ed. Included was a sample letter to the Governor).

Additionally, for the benefit of our membership and visual effects professionals worldwide, we will work with our global VES Sections and others to promote a healthy and vibrant visual effects industry in every country where visual effects are created.  It is for all of our worldwide colleagues – here in
California and everywhere else – that we hope a VFX Congress can bring us all together in a truly meaningful way. Details of when and where the Congress will take place will be forthcoming. Together we can make amazing things happen.

As always, feel free to send us your comments at [email protected].


Eric Roth

Executive Director

Visual Effects Society

6 thoughts on “VES open letter – what is the VES’s role here?”

  1. Wish you had actually been there Jeff. I really do. Your armchair review helps us underscore one of main points presented at the protest. You can’t really participate in a production if you are not there with the artists….meaning …directors that remove themselves from the processes involved in visual effects are not really directing or even seeing the larger picture. The cost of this lack of focus is passed on to the shops. These misperceptions cause confusion and losses.

    The reason we were successful is because this group of creative individuals was asked to be just that, be creative, in contrast to being told what to do…something they have to digest every day at work.

    If you had been subscribed to @vfxunited, our main Twitter feed, You would have read :

    “there is no right thing to wear”
    “there is no right thing to say”
    “there is no right sign to carry”
    “come join your friends at the most famous intersection in the world, Hollywood and Vine, to talk about our futures.”

    And oh yeah, “Watch for the plane”.

    Our message was carried in the air and by the press. BOXOFFICE + BANKRUPT = VISUAL EFFECTS. VFXUNION.COM.

    That website spells it out quite perfectly.

    The effort was aimed at VFX artist world wide. Not the hollywood tourists. I BeLive we succeeded beautifully at creating a sense of solidarity that has never been achieved before….and lucky for us the greatest PR imaginable was given us by the academy…., which ironically was formed in the 20’s by the studio MGM to pacify the non unionized talent into thinking they had representation.

    1. Dave,
      You and Scott Squires were the ones who wanted to raise awareness of the conditions and the state of the VFX business today. Those who know your story, understand you are an artist and love doing the work you do. You also want to be able to make a living doing it. We all do.

      What you, Scott Squires, Jeff Heusser, VFXSoldier and others that have spoken out on the problems with subsidies, long working hours, non-payment of work completed (like the work on Journey to the Center of the Earth), healthcare, retirement…

      It seems that the VES has no intention of being involved in improving the state of the industry other than at an arms distance.

      Is this something the we, as artists or VFX studio owners, should refuse to work for projects that pressure us to relocate to locations that take advantage of subsidies? I think so. Take a look at some other trades and how they bid on work and how they offer healthcare and retirement to their members.

      As of right now, if the VES wants to get involved in the issues that are plaguing our industry, they may want to re-examine their charter. Right now, Mr. Okum remarks are kinda reminding me of a scene from Braveheart, when the Scottish nobles wanted to negotiate with the English. (

      At the end of the day, it is up to the VFX owners to provide better working conditions, bid on work responsibly, and think about realistic turnaround times with work (which I know Okum mentioned in the interview with Mike). It is also up to us as artists to not be taken advantage of. Don’t work for free or for less than what you are worth. Service based industries are already a race to the bottom as technology evolves and we find more efficient ways of working. undercutting irresponsibly only does more harm than good.

      We need a union. We need to come together and come up with standards for how we define ourselves as professional artists, healthcare for our members, retirement (either through investements or through residuals), and to agree to what working conditions we will accept.

  2. This is such a cryptic and confusing interview. I appreciate that it was late, but Mr. Okun contradicts himself time and time again. At first he states the the VES is an honorary society and that they cannot legally, based on their charter, be involved in the formation fo a union, trade association, etc. But then he goes on later to suggest that they definitely want to be involved in the conversation and that they feel this is “right in their wheelhouse”. I have to respectfully disagree. The VES has been terrible at communication on the salient issues related to labor, subsides and the like. I agree with Mike that what the VES does really well is to serve as an honorary society geared towards the celebration and education of the medium. I don’t understand why they don’t just stick to that. It seems that every time Okun opens his mouth on these issues the message is muddied. I’m certain that he has the best of intentions, but I don’t think that communication on the issues of the day are “in his wheelhouse”. As a VES member I find it almost embarrassing to read these open letters and listen to the chair being interviewed. He presents a caustic and unpleasant attitude to the entire debate that, in my opinion, does more harm than good. It winds up sounding divisive rather than unifying. I will not be voting for the current board members of the VES again. I’d like future candidates to command a better set of public relation skill if part of the job entails such a high profile.

    It shouldn’t be the case that another board member should have to respond and clarify the chair’s statement with yet another open letter on a blog as Van Ling did here:

    So much of the debate has been framed in this ham-fisted manner by the VES and I hope the “congress” can put somethings in order. I think the protest at the Oscars was a great day for VFX in bringing about a larger degree of public awareness, something that has been sorely needed for years.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with regards to the myriad of communications issues. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say there has been a lack of stewardship, I do believe the time has come for VES to develop a comprehensive image campaign that actually backs up its charter.

    For instance, as an honorary society, shouldn’t VES be reaching out to other guilds and societies in the film industry about what constitutes acceptable behavior when addressing our profession? When I see year after year, VFX being slammed at the Oscars, why isn’t any correspondence furnished to AMPAS, and the producers it hires, in response to these misteps? Why do we see SAG actors and WGA Writers willingly participating in the degradation of key players working to advance their craft? Not even a one-paragraph press release on the events that transpired on national/global television…Really?

    And what do we define as an education agenda? Why hasn’t VES lobbied hard to put breakdowns in the annual bake-off? This discussion has been going on for years, but barely a whisper from the honorary society that “speaks for the profession?”. Why hasn’t there been any outreach to the DGA or PGA on how to budget for VFX services – which should include all those “little dustbusters” who don’t make it to the credits? Does a press kit on the profession even exist?

    I could go on and on… There’s a very wide net out there for discussion if VES would only step outside the box and look around.

  4. International subsidies should end, because ultimately it leads to poaching industry sectors from entire countries and de-stabilizing chunks of economies is what results…because this is known already it’s why it’s illegal internationally. As far as the VES attempting to save the California movie industry, I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t live in the California, never have and I don’t work in California. The film business, which is now synonymous with the VFX business or at least a portion of the VFX business and all of the related industries has been and is essentially the bedrock of the California economy. Allowing California’s economic foundation to slowly crumble in the name of building goodwill across nation boundaries just isn’t palatable to most people in the U.S. It’s just unfortunate that because the VFX industry is not crucial and is an entertainment industry it’s flown under the radar of international litigation and broad public opinion.

    While some want to talk about the VES attempting to arrest development from other places etc., etc. the reality is that the majority of the development in these places is based on ill-gotten goods to begin with…it’s like trying to argue over ownership rights of a second hand stolen vehicle the vehicle always BELONGS to the person it was stolen from. At the end of the day you have a lot of companies that have built reputations on poached VFX work from U.S. studios. How subsidies are handled in the U.S. just isn’t an issue that’s germane until the international poaching problem is dealt with.

Comments are closed.