VFX in Los Angeles – 100 hour weeks & homeless

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.

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”.

Meet “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

LAX3Los 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.”

Hostel Environment

Youth Hostel VeniceIt 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.”

  “My body had entered starvation mode only eating what was provided at work to cut corners…”

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.”

Invisible Work

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.”

“…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.”

Industry Extremes

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.

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.

19 thoughts on “VFX in Los Angeles – 100 hour weeks & homeless”

  1. brad kalinoski

    I wont say this is a terrible article, because it makes some decent points, but the majority of the story is well, just so inaccurate and somewhat fabricating an industry that all graduates end up this way. There are questions, does he have the actual talent to get paid more than minimum wage, just because he graduated with some piece of paper, does NOT make one an artist. Was he financially prepared to move to a city that cost of living are so exorbitant. Did the school lead him to believe, as they do a lot of students and graduates, that he will make 90,000k when he graduates.
    I started in this field 12 to 14 years ago and my first job was $7.50 an hour at a major facility. So….
    I hate that the article, and this is how I read it, tries to blame and industry for one artist that really wasnt prepared, or isnt prepared properly in all aspects. And I have seen and met, recent grads that really were fantastic artist and they are doing just fine. The ones that are lied to and told they are good and there work is good, are not working or working in a junior level getting junior pay.

    1. Agreed.I know for myself that I had to save a certain amount before moving out here to cover cost for at least 6 months and when I did arrive, I had to hit the ground running. This story only exaggerates what really occurs in the industry to people fresh out of school. It is tough and sometimes you need to work shitty jobs to get your foot into the door. I wonder if he went to a place like Fullsail where they are spoon fed lies as tuition is being collected.

    2. I know many recent grads and I am one. I can say people who don’t believe this article or say it’s not common are either out of touch and assume they know what they’re talking about or they don’t actually know any grads other than success ones. I can count on one hand how many “successful” grads I know in the industry. Imagine starting on 13-14k salary in London. Where are you going to live? How will you pay your rent? How will you eat? At work where they provide food. I have been told by a senior artist in the past to consider sleeping under my desk. Artists commute home only to discover by the time they had an hour’s rest it’s time to go back. I’ve seen Runners and juniors wear the same clothes everyday and shower at work. I know people who started out sleeping on people’s couches at work. It’s really like the article. Most people can’t live on junior pay. The only people you get the impression they want to hire are under 25’s who live with their parents in the areas hiring. Most people under 25 can’t afford to live in those areas. Then I met people starting out in their 30’s & 40’s having the same struggles even with a partner at home and a family helping them relocate closer to work. They are used up and if they are lucky they may even get a real junior job out of it.

  2. @Brad If this guy has collectively 2 billion views on youtube.. chances are he’s pretty good.

    1. It was said that the videos have 2 million views…..not necessarily his work. If it is a lady gaga music video then it isnt his work they are viewing the video for.

  3. @James – Music videos tend to get a lot of youtube hits, that figure doesn’t speak to his talent at all and we don’t how many hes worked on (or what his roles were) in his time working.

    This article makes very real points, but a lot of the blame for that hardship does not fall of the vfx industry in particular. Yes, our industry is in terrible shape and its very difficult to break in, and yes, I feel sorry for students who are mislead into taking on ridiculous student loans at these schools only to graduate into this environment. However, moving to a major city with no people to fall on, nobody to support you, no car, no money, and no solid job is a giant risk period. He would have been extremely lucky for that ballsy of a move to work out perfectly, and hes payed for it. I am a recent graduate now working in the industry, and I know many success stories and many very sad failures. The problems are real but this is a bad situation caused by terrible circumstances, only one of which being the state of the industry (although I sure am glad I’ve never worked at a music video house…eesh).

  4. “Currently, a record 47.8 million Americans are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Enrolment in SNAP has increased 70% since 2008 and currently, an unbelievable 15 out of every 100 Americans are on food stamps.” http://www.policymic.com/articles/46573/bls-unemployment-report-if-our-job-numbers-are-so-good-why-are-food-stamps-at-record-highs

    It’s not only the VFX industry that is being effected by low pay and long hours, one of the reasons Manufacturing in the US has started to grow is lower wages not just lower energy costs,

    I cannot see the VFX industry going back to times past. In years to come there will still be large VFX houses all over the world with great artists, but they’ll mainly be shop fronts with the majority of work done in lower cost countries like China and India, all we need to do is keep adapting…..

  5. Good article

    i remember in some website, a guy made 2 years learning renderman in a very expencive Uk school, he wrote in some forums that he is waiting to get hired by big vfx companie. its really sad what they make them imagine in schools just to make them pay more, they justify the high price by showing 1 or 2 success stories.

    also, lets say the truth, VFX artists around the world are kind of big kids, they dont know their rights.

  6. I remember when I arrived in LA, back in the day it was hard, really hard to get by. In 2009, depression on the corner, high unnemployment and I was a brazilian dude trying to make in the most competitive market in the world.
    This story is really similar to mine and I relate to every single line in the article but to me it was even harder, I’m from Brazil and I had to learn the hard way that L.A is not for anyone and specially if you do not fit in the Gatsby stereotype.

    I know it is kind harsh but that’s how LA works. Thats how any big city works, you need to be really good at what you do and it is still not enough. To achieve success, one must play smart and understand how the market works and find a away to achieve his goals.

  7. I used to eat out of dumpsters fairly often when I was getting started. I’d recommend Trader Joe’s, their dumpsters really expanded my eating horizons.

  8. Adding to Phil’s list.

    Matte World Digital
    Giant Killer Robots
    Tweak Films
    Banned from the Ranch

    old school closings

    1. I only included his list back 10 years – the rest of his list:

      2002 and Prior
      Available Light
      Banned from the Ranch
      Bill Cruse & Associates
      Boss Films
      Boy Wonder
      CFC – LA
      CFI Optical
      Chandler Group
      Cinergi Efx.
      Coast Productions
      Colossal Pictures
      Cranston Csuri
      CRC (Cinema Research)
      DeGraf / Wahrman
      Digital Anvil
      Digital Effects
      Digital Magic
      Digital Muse
      Digital Productions
      Disney Visual Effects
      Dream Quest Images
      Eastern Opticals (NYC)
      EEG (Entertainment Effects Group)
      EFX Unlimited Inc. (NYC)
      Encore Efx.
      Hollywood Optical
      Ferren & Associates
      Film Effects of Hollywood
      Flat Earth
      Freeze Frame/Cinefx
      Giant Killer Robots
      Gray Matter
      Jack Rabin & Associates
      LA Effects Group
      Landmark Entertainment
      Look Out Mountain
      Magi Synthivision
      Mass Illusion
      Master Film Effects
      Master Film Effects
      Meteor Studios
      Metrolight Studios
      MGM Optical Dept.
      Modern Film Effects
      Motion Opticals
      Movie Magic
      National Screen
      Netter Digital
      Optical Cinema Service
      The Optical House-LA
      The Optical House-NYC
      Pittard Sullivan Design
      Pixel Envy
      POP (Pacific Ocean Post)
      Post Group Film Unit
      Ray Mercer
      Robert (Bob) Abel & Associates
      RGA-NY (Robert Greenberg & Associates)
      Side Effects
      Skyline Digital Images
      Station X
      Threshold Digital
      Total Optical Productions
      TNT Optical
      Triple I
      Universal Digital Department
      Universal Title & Optical
      Universal Matte Department
      Van Der Veer Photo Effects
      VI Efx. – 20th Century Fox
      Vision Arts
      Virtual Magic
      Warner Digital

  9. Jonathan Howard

    Very interesting article. My heart goes out to the groms out there getting started in such a challenging industry in such an economically tumultuous era. I have a couple thoughts after reading it.

    First, something’s off balance in what is being described. If a person isn’t willing to take at least 1% responsibility for his or her own actions and their consequences, that person is going to have a tough go in life. How is one simply “victimized” by the housing crisis when he or she is staying in hostels for $19 a night? What is anyone doing moving to Los Angeles without some savings in the bank and a specific plan, with timetables, regarding work? There were some awful working conditions described, but there were also some seemingly awful personal choices.

    For example, what on earth is the point of working 100 hour weeks if they aren’t paying you enough to have fundamental needs like shelter and hygiene? Those are hours you could be spending working reasonable hours doing something else – bartender, coffee shop employee, Trader Joe’s stock guy, etc. – and NOT being homeless, which seems like a better alternative than being homeless and having invisible work on popular YouTube videos. Saying that you can’t look for other work because the 100 hour a week job you aren’t being compensated for is taking up all of your time is a bewildering statement.

    Which leads to my second question, why are we doing this? Why are artists putting up with this? If you’re smart enough to learn editing software, 3D software, compositing software etc., you can do a lot of things besides music videos, tv, commercials and film. At some point it’s worth taking a hard look at what the point is of putting oneself through this level of abuse, especially if it’s having a measurably deleterious impact on one’s mental and physical health. Is it the glamor of saying you’ve worked on a Katy Perry video? Or a Chris Nolan film? Is your life worth whatever it is you’re getting out of this work? because it seems like that’s the bargain. You get to clean up Lady Gaga’s pimples, they get to take your life for a month. You get to work on Ironman 8, they get to take your life for a year. But nothing is really taken here. The artists give their lives away. Worth a hard look at why we make that choice over and over. I don’t have the answers at all, but I don’t see that question asked nearly enough.

    At least part of the equation here is that no one is forcing anyone to do these jobs against their will, right? Especially when you’re as young and new as “Victor.” A far more difficult situation is when you’re faced with 100 hour weeks, declining wages, company closures, and you have a mortgage, marriage and children. At the early stage Victor is in, the option does exist to walk away with relatively few consequences. Wedding videography and/or editing can pay well, for example, but isn’t glamorous… at all. But, as Victor’s case proves, glamour ain’t worth much at the grocery store. There are lots of weddings in Temecula, and it’s cheaper to live out there than in LA.

    I’m happy to be wrong about 100% of this, but I don’t believe anyone in this whole mess is completely to blame. Painting Victor, or anyone, as a helpless victim is only part of the story.

    All of that said, I wish the absolute best for everyone out there going through the experiences described.

  10. Johnathan, I feel the vfx industry brings the possibility of other jobs an impossibility.
    Let’s say you take a job at trader joes, and a effects house contacts you for a gig. Do you think your boss at trader joes is going to be cool with you to take a month off so you can go work 10 hour days in Hollywood? Of course not you would have to quit that job get hired for a mouth and walk out with a source of income at the end of it. Most places will not hire you if they feel like your overqualified or will not stick around.A college degree in digital artistry makes you patently unemployable any where else unless you have prior experience you can leverage. The only successful artist I have meet working a job out side the industry were bar tenders and club promoters. Any job that you can work after hours on a flexible schedule.
    This doesn’t even cover if your graduate in a mountain of debt and you work low wage job that won’t even make minimum payments. It’s like choosing to sink faster or slower. Or even the fact this industry will pass you by if you do not keep up the longer you are out of it. I work will a senior flame artist who took a year off to be with family over seas and is having great a terrible time getting back into the game.

    1. Jonathan Howard

      Hi there Nathaniel,

      Thanks for your reply.

      I’m not suggesting someone work at Trader Joe’s in between gigs. I’m suggesting they consider forgoing the VFX gig entirely by finding a line of work that isn’t patently abusive. If the issue is mountains of student loan debt incurred while learning Maya, then all the more reason to find gainful employment elsewhere so that debt can actually be paid off, because clearly that is unlikely to occur while sleeping at one’s workstation at a soon-to-be-bankrupt VFX shop. In this regard I believe, and again I’m happy to be wrong about this, that educators need to be honest about employment prospects with their students.

      Much sympathy for the flame artist you wrote about. I went through something similar when I took paternity leave after my second child was born. I had three jobs on hold and they all fell through. It took an additional month I hadn’t budgeted for before I got work again. After my first child was born, the independent film I had been editing re-hired its first director who took over post production from me. His work on the movie proceeded to scare off financiers and I was never paid about $6k of money I was owed and didn’t even receive a credit on the end title scroll despite working on the movie for over two months. It’s a crazy line of work and one that I recommend to no one.

      I think it’s time to ask some really difficult questions of ourselves. Namely, what are we in this for? Is this the best use of our creative energy? Is creativity why we’re here, or is it the need to work with famous people – or the desire to somehow become rich and famous ourselves – and the glamour that brings along with it? Are we creating for the love of creating or is there a glamour-based ulterior motive? If so, at what point does the cost exceed the capital? I’m not seeing any of these questions asked by artists.

      I take issue with your statement regarding college degrees and employment. You can get a job that pays you pennies and works you 100 hour weeks with a degree in just about any discipline. Plenty of people change directions later in life. A college degree is not a life sentence. I have met a lot of people over the years who started out in film – as digital artists and otherwise – and have experienced success in a variety of other professions, including teaching, law, finance, real estate and even farming. Also, I’ve met people who started out doing something else and found their way into the film business. It’s up to the individual and how they choose to navigate their circumstances. Victimhood is a fallacy.

      Best of luck and much success to you.

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