For over a decade now it has been impossible for a mainstream film to be released without some form of visual effects (or VFX). Digital technologies have permanently changed the way films are made. This is most obvious when one looks at the CGI spectacles uniformly offered by the biggest films of recent years. Even films that may not look to have much in the way of visual effect tend to be chock full of them; it’s just that audiences aren’t aware of them, just as they aren’t aware of the immense work that goes into such visuals.
VFX artists are rarely big-name individuals on a par with directors or writers. Instead they are teams of people who work at studios around the world. They don’t seek the limelight, but when they do make the news it’s for something far less glamorous.
In 2013, the Oscars ceremony was marked by the protests of VFX workers in the wake of the collapse of the studio Rhythm and Hues. The bankrupt visual effects company had two Oscar nominations, and ended up winning that year for their work on Life of Pi. When the company’s VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer tried to use his acceptance speech to raise awareness of issues in his industry, he was played off prematurely by the Jaws theme music. It was seen by many as a slap in the face of VFX workers. Eventually, a documentary was made: Life After Pi, which interviewed former employees at Rhythm and Hues as well as delving into the problems that the VFX industry faces in the US and Canada.
The problem highlighted by the Rhythm and Hues story was Canadian government subsidies, which would trigger a bidding war between VFX studios to get clients, causing them to undersell their services and prevent them from making money. Issues cropped up again recently in the comments section of a Cartoon Brew article interviewing Sausage Party directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan. Commenters, claiming to be animators on the film, said that they were forced to work overtime for free, resulting in over 30 animators leaving production and going uncredited in the final cut.
The UK is a vital centre for film VFX work. Soho in particular has become a hub for studios. Yet many of the problems that have tarnished the Vancouver-based Nitrogen are also evident in the UK. Joe Pavlo, who is Chair of the VFX Union’s UK branch, says that “the problem with uncredited work is endemic in the Visual Effects industry all around the world”.
His main problem, however, is with unpaid overtime. It’s not unusual for artists to work 80-hour weeks (if not more) with no extra pay. In the UK you can choose to work more than 48 hours a week. This is called “opting-out.”
“It just seems exploitative that everybody is requested to opt-out,” says Pavlo. “[Employers] say it’s totally optional but everybody [in the VFX industry] does it, otherwise they figure that they’re not going to be hired back.” The majority of VFX artists are kept on short-term contracts that can last from six weeks to a year, so “nobody knows where they’re working a year from now.”
There is considerable pressure to accept unpaid overtime. According to a 2013 survey, 81% of animators and VFX artists “have felt pressured or bullied into working overtime for free on films”. While he doesn’t have any evidence of it being practised, Pavlo does agree that “everyone’s really afraid of blacklisting”.
This culture of fear became apparent to Pavlo as he tried to get people within the VFX industry to unionise: “Everybody agreed with me almost immediately that the union was a good idea, but then trying to get them to actually sign up, you get lots of excuses. When you really push them on the point what you find is they’re afraid that if they join the union they’re not going to get hired”. Despite this, Pavlo is optimistic about the unionisation of the VFX industry, although there have been difficulties. Recently he has organised the unionisation of the compositing department at Moving Picture Co. (MPC). Two years prior to the Cartoon Brew article, disgruntled VFX workers took to the comments section of a 2014 Variety article about MPC. The thread remains active, with the most recent comment (dated 21 July 2016) saying that MPC have been “taking artists for granted” and that “the environment is disgusting”. Pavlo had difficulty with MPC and described them as “aggressively anti-union” when BECTU (the entertainment industry union in the UK) petitioned them for union recognition.
“We did manage to get 80% of the comp department signed up to the union,” Pavlo says. “We now have over 20% of the entire workforce in London, and it’s growing.” In order for the union to be recognised, it has to include 50% of the workforce. Pavlo sees this as an inevitability.
Part of the reason for this may have to do with the support unions show each other. As VFX artists are, for better or worse, “an international migrant workforce,” Pavlo is almost certain that British animators, or at least animators that work in London, were on the Sausage Party team. As such, both BECTU and their North American equivalent IATSE have declared their support for Nitrogen Studio employees. While trade laws don’t allow for one worldwide union of VFX workers, Pavlo hopes that a coalition will allow artists to receive fair treatment no matter where they work.
Another positive sign is the arrival of a new generation of VFX artists who are less acclimatised to the culture of fear within the industry and “are more on board with unionisation.” Pavlo says that these young artists recognise that they even pay you overtime at McDonald’s. It is the veterans of the industry who tend to be more resistant to joining a union.
Being one of those veterans, Pavlo has seen the evolution of the industry from when he joined in 1995, just as digital VFX was becoming an integral part of filmmaking. Back then, “there [were] maybe less than 200 people working in visual effects doing films and now we’ve got at the minimum 2,500 people working in Soho”. This rapid growth may be a reason why the situation of working conditions has arisen. Actors, directors, and screenwriters have all had unions for decades, but the relatively young digital VFX industry remains one of the few filmmaking positions to not be fully unionised and Pavlo says that artists often forget that.
It’s now unheard of for mainstream films not to use visual effects. This is not because of the increased popularity of genre pictures. Back in 1993, Jurassic Park had 63 VFX shots. Pavlo’s latest film, Bridget Jones’s Baby (above), contains 500. “We are driving the financial engine of the film industry and yet are being held back from unionising”. Held back by what? While Pavlo has come up against higher-ups in MPC, he acknowledges that there is no cabal of evil elites actively seeking to cripple VFX artists; “it would be irresponsible of them as businesses not to exploit that [free overtime]. That’s why we need a union to tip the scales in the other direction.” Rather, Pavlo sees “this beast called capitalism” causing the woes of VFX artists. Hopefully, in this case at least, it is a beast that can be tamed.