The story of a young actor coming to Hollywood to make it in the entertainment business is a tired cliché. Stories frequently end with the protagonist disillusioned, their dreams turned into nightmares. This is one of those stories, set in the visual effects business. It is also a true story.
Visual effects companies that have closed or gone through bankruptcy in the last 10 years (Partial list, source: Phil Feiner)
Rhythm & Hues
Digital Domain Media Group
C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures
Pacific Title & Art Studio
Howard Anderson Company
Buena Vista Imaging
The Secret Lab (TSL)
(see pre-2003 in comments below)
Movie studios have seen record box office returns for visual effects films, yet we have seen visual effects companies go through bankruptcy, workers have been left unpaid and many companies have closed. These troubles have not been confined to feature films as many of the business practices are similar for commercials, previs, games, motion graphics, music videos, and TV.
This story is not about a company, it's about a visual effects artist in Los Angeles who has been trying to make it in the visual effects world. We are protecting his identity, for the sake of readability we will refer to him using the name "Victor".
Victor is in his twenties, just starting out in the business. His work already has almost 2 billion views on YouTube and it has appeared on major network TV shows. A lot of the work is invisible, done under strict non-disclosure agreements for actors and musicians who don't want you to know that any digital work has been done. He is passionate about the work, has given up a lot to become a part of the visual effects industry, but that passion has had a price.
Victor graduated with honors from a for profit, private university in digital arts and design. Victor describes his school experience, "It was very intense, most didn't make it due to its extreme nature. I would say 10% were hired in the industry of their degree program."
After school he returned to his parents house in the midwest to send out resumes and answer ads, "After much time had passed I realized nobody would seek out a college graduate with no experience, with talent pools so plentiful locally. I started pitching myself as someone who lived in the city of the position…"
Victor continues: "...after being turned on to John Flowers work on an fxpodcast, I started following Life Zero where his travels and success with couch surfing took a hold of me. I spent the next month going to interviews and living from the couches of anyone I still knew there, mostly for a few nights. I remember the relief I felt when I was able to stay a week with someone. Augmenting that with couchsurfing.com I soon stayed with total strangers that opened their guest bedrooms to weary travelers, as I posed myself to be."
Coming into Los Angeles
Los Angeles was finally in sight when Victor landed an interview for the possibility of an internship, "Boarding the plane that day I had only two things waiting for me on the other side. I had a half promise of a couch to stay on that night and I might have an internship. My stomach turned as I boarded the plane. Like jumping off a tall diving board I just shut out everything else around me and jumped."
When Victor arrived to talk about the internship a classic scene played out. For a job seeker there is nothing else in the world, every word is analyzed and hopes are hung on any hint of opportunity. Sadly, the person on the interviewing end is often not sensitive to that. Victor continues:
"Making the 2 hour bus ride where I arrived at the deciding moment, ______ knew I was coming in - but he seemed in a daze as to why I was there. He invited me to sit and asked 'why are you here?'. I replied 'for the internship'. He seemed to nod and daze back into his workstation, then stared at it for a long time. I sat petrified as I waited. He turned to look at me while saying 'well if you want an internship grab a seat'. Pointing to a workstation, I was immediately put on a job... working till 10 pm I boarded a bus and arrived back where I was staying at midnight."
Victor's first big project at the internship reached 1,000,000 views on YouTube the day it was released. The internship was paid (as required by law) but Victor adds, "...no where near minimum wage in any state in the union."
It was clear the commute was going to be a problem. After exhausting opportunities for housing that included staying with a family friend in Orange County (worse commute) and bad experiences with Craigslist, Victor discovered youth hostels:
"There were a number of websites where you could compare prices and find out if the hostel had a bed open in a room that was desirable for you. First staying in Venice Beach, I was astonished staying in a gender mixed room with people my age from around the world. It was a whole new world."
Victor discovered a downside to the "youth" part of the youth hostel experience, growing a distaste for what he describes as, "... its encouragement of fostering the Europeans enhanced drinking capabilities, and surrounded by guys my age here at Venice beach with a guitar in their hand spouting confidently that they would make it in LA as musicians. After a 2nd night I checked out not to return."
A hostel in Koreatown that charged $19 a night for a bed in a mixed room of 6 was the next stop. Victor describes it as a little more than a house with multiple bunk beds in each room, but here he found a different experience :
"I found myself waking up every morning with the world around me, at the breakfast table we would speak about passionate young peoples topics of politics, culture, human rights and more as we got to know the new arrivals and strengthened bonds between who had been staying here. I had arrived at a commune, a new world order of youth hardly ever revealed to Americans within their own country. Every night I would go back and look forward to how the landscape of the hostel would change with it's new arrivals."
Victor finished the internship:
"... feeling accomplished but unsure if I was wanted or needed. I couldn't stay at the hostel forever, since the summer months were coming. And my ability to keep myself afloat while financially putting a strain on back home influenced me to think. My body had entered starvation mode only eating what was provided at work to cut corners, and I cut ties to set afloat once again."
Victor's next challenge was being able to show the work he had done. Getting work for reels has become a huge issue for artists, beauty and cleanup work is especially problematic. No one is supposed to know that work was even done. Victor found this out, "None of it was able to be shown, what you could get off YouTube and string together was as good as what I could put in a reel."
After a brief time out of Los Angeles chasing a lead on a job, Victor returned for an interview, "I was hired on the spot for a laughable 13 bucks an hour, but with little to no options I took it." This was a short-lived gig, followed by others and at times as much as a month passed between gigs.
A year ago Victor fell victim to a housing scam and lost a significant amount of money:
"…at this point I had no idea how to be homeless. I had no access to a shower, I had no clean clothes. Most people left (work), leaving me to be the last one out and in. But it didn't take long. My coworkers knew, but it didn't take long for my producer to catch on. 15-hour days soon became the norm as we worked on back to back to back-to-back music videos that month. And the work did not let up, for the next 6 months videos came in like never before, pay was not good, never on time. Not enough for me to leave, or even promise being on time enough for me to pay rent on time someplace, months would go on before I would see something come my way."
Victor started volunteering for overnight shifts to have a couch to sleep on, sneaking into youth hostels in the morning to use their showers. Victor explains a harsh reality:
"...the first law of being a modern day homeless, food and water are not your main need. It's hygiene. You can go a few days with out food and water. A day with out a shower and clean clothes is the kiss of death to anyone one who would consider helping you, networking with you or offering you a job. I do not know how I kept it up for 4 months [sneaking into the hostel to use shower], everyday, roughly 120 times."
After four months he was discovered at the hostel and asked to not return. He joined a gym for shower access. A lot of the food he eats is from food provided on the job, "but the food is unhealthy and the inactive lifestyle has been a health issue."
Victor has been unable to find other work because he's often working so many hours, frequently reaching 80 to 100 hours a week. The stress is so intense that he feels it is affecting his mental health and mild dyslexia is getting worse. He worries about legal remedies or going public because he needs to work and fears the company he works at the most would be put out of business.
Victor concludes, "There would be a scandal if it was ever found out that the worlds largest recording artists used a sweat shop/borderline slave labor in Los Angeles for their own personal gain in digital cosmetics/beauty."
Victor's annual income is under $10,000. In Los Angeles the poverty level for a single member household is $11,490. He has healthcare because the Affordable Care Act mandates that he can stay on his parents plan, but that coverage is effectively limited to the Emergency Room.
There is more to this story but we are being careful to hold elements back to protect Victor's identity. As I put this piece together I was conflicted... was this a story of someone going through the normal entry level process and falling upon bad luck, combined with the lack of support structure in a new town - or was it an example of the extreme result of business practices that the industry has allowed to fester?
I wish this was this first time since I have been in LA that I have heard of artists living at work, but wishing does not make it so. This is the third such case.
Many questions remain. Are the schools doing enough to prepare graduates for the real world? How can artists deal with abuses and labor law violations? How can we fix an industry where a sort of Stockholm Syndrome exists where artists love the work so much that don't seek available remedies because they worry the company they work for would go out of business if they had to pay properly or on time as required by law?
All I can try to do here in terms of wrapping up this story is to reiterate some common labor issues. These issues are common to all crafts - visual effects, previs, games, motion graphics... and cross all borders.
Union Information Worldwide:
California Department of Industrial Relations:
Facts About California Overtime:
fxguide coverage of 2010 VES event:
The 1099 Dilemma
Every artist should take the time to learn about their local labor laws. While California labor laws that are very strict, they are only as strong as enforcement - and enforcement requires that people report problems. This is extremely hard to do on a individual basis, which is how unions came to exist in many other industries and in almost every other craft in our business.
No one should ever falsify a time card, always record the actual hours worked. If you are forced to do so (it is against US Federal law), keep your own extensive records documenting every hour worked.
If you are working for someone on their property, under their supervision, you are an employee (W2), not an independent contractor (1099). Under California law employees must be paid at least twice during each calendar month on the days designated in advance as regular paydays. The misclassification of workers as 1099 is a serious offense and penalties can be severe. Artists classified as 1099 also do not have the same protections about designated paydays and often wait months for payment, also if the company goes bankrupt they are often left unpaid, becoming just another creditor.
Highs and Lows
In terms of the overall state of the business, how do we stop the self inflicted spiral? Impossible projects with not enough time or money appear on the radar and companies fight over them like hungry piranha. Sometimes they take these jobs for cash flow, sometimes for the "reel", often just because they are not business people evaluating the real cost of doing the work. When the the work is being done under economically flawed conditions the last place left to squeeze is often the artists. This is when you start to see such things as eliminating provided meals on long days, not paying for every hour worked or ignoring labor laws regarding overtime, forcing vacations, mandating unpaid time off, taking months to pay... etc.
The need for seamless, high quality visual effects is at an all time high, in every area of the business. One example, the Netflix reborn series "Arrested Development" - not a show that one would think of as a visual effect show, had 850 visual effects shots!
From YouTube to IMAX films and everything in-between the visual effects business should be on a dizzying high, instead we have allowed ourselves to be left fighting over scraps. Someone is making record profits from our work... while we have artists in our ranks showering at a gym and sleeping on couches.
Note: Photos are by Jeff Heusser and do not feature Victor.
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