In light of the recent attention brought to the current state of the U.S. visual effects industry and labor conditions for VFX workers, Indiewire asked VFX artist Maggie Kraisamutr to share with the world her experience as a VFX artist over the past ten years. Her story, one alternating between good treatment with benefits and insecure prospects with long hours, joins the many others we have begun to hear in the past few weeks as the greater public turns its attention to the film industry's labor practices and business ethics.
In 2003, I left the traditional animation industry because of questionable labor practices and lack of work due to global outsourcing. Since then, I have changed careers from animation to VFX. In the last decade, I have been consistently working as a freelance VFX artist from small boutique VFX houses to major corporate studios like Disney. I've worked for both the vendor side and studio side, and this recent post on Reddit.com is 100% accurate. This is the VFX industry in a nutshell.
What has happened to the animation industry a decade ago is now happening to the VFX industry. Due to poor management, bad business deals, and the comparative cheapness of outsourced labor, the VFX industry is at risk of imploding. The biggest advantage that animators have over VFX workers is that they have the benefit of union representation to standardize and protect their terms of employment. It is because of this lack of representation that VFX workers are often treated more like commodities than human beings.
In my most extreme exploitation, I worked 187 hours in a two-week pay period for a feature film that was not VFX-driven. On my last day of work, I considered checking myself into a hospital, but I had no health insurance so I decided against it. The prolonged, high stress days with little or no sleep had left me in a semi-comatose state. When I woke, it was only to find myself worried sick about when, where, and what my next job was going to be.
Another experience involved an unnamed stereoscopic conversion company that set a ludicrous goal of finalizing 300 shots in one week. The producers and supervisors took all one hundred VFX artists into a meeting room to congratulate us on reaching an all-time record high of finalizing 151 shots in one week. When the self-congratulatory applause died down, they reminded us that we were still 50% short on their goal and that we all needed to work harder and had an obligation to put in the extra hours even if it meant not seeing our families and loved ones for weeks at a time. Those who refused the overtime were not asked back once their contract was over. This was the reward we got for breaking company records.
In an industry where employees are expected to work ridiculously long hours, seven days a week with no break, one would imagine that employers would offer some kind of basic healthcare plan for their employees. Unfortunately for us VFX workers, we are not entitled to that luxury since the majority of the workforce are hired as private contractors. This is why I was deeply saddened when I heard what I thought was one of the more successful and profitable studios, Rhythm + Hues, filed for bankruptcy. They were one of the good guys who provided full benefits (an anomaly for our industry) for their extremely talented, deserving, hardworking artists and staff employees.
Many members of the VFX community are placing the blame on global outsourcing, unfair tax subsidies that distort the market, and the unrealistic demands of big movie studio executives, but none have mentioned the largely unregulated and growing number of pop-up VFX shops and the unintended affect they have on the market. These smaller vendors will often underbid each other by tossing out an arbitrary number just to get the opportunity to work on a big-budget, VFX-driven film. It’s a never ending race to the bottom and a big part of why this business model is failing and destroying the industry.
As a VFX worker, you are hired on a project-to-project basis. Hard work, dedication, and loyalty to a company will not guarantee you job security. You will likely get paid two months late, if at all, because the company is secretly running a Ponzi scheme to stay afloat from the drowning waters that is this business. Most will be forced to work under horrible conditions with no overtime pay because the young VFX worker is uneducated about fair labor laws and practices. This is the typical life of a VFX worker. This is what we are forced to endure time and time again because none of us have the guts to speak out in fear of being blacklisted.