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It Ain't Easy Being Green-Screened: One VFX Artist Speaks Out at Risk of Being Erased and Replaced

By Maggie Kraisamutr | Indiewire March 1, 2013 at 7:20AM

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. 
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Visual effects Oscar-winner 'Life of Pi'
Fox Visual effects Oscar-winner 'Life of Pi'

So, what’s the fix? The idea of forming a union has been tossed around but nobody is sure about how this would play out since the VFX community is global. As of today, VFX workers have no union representation. We are the only highly specialized and skilled field within the moviemaking industry that doesn't have union representation. There have always been "talks" about setting up a union, but no real action have been made.

While the VES has raised concerns about the state of the VFX industry, they have stated several times in recent gatherings that the VES will always remain to be an honorary society and have no intention of forming a union which is unfortunate since they have the strongest voice in our community.

The only organization that I have spoken to about forming a union was with the IATSE Labor Union at the 2012 VES Career Fair & Tech Expo. Peter Marley, an International Representative at IATSE, said that they would welcome VFX artists but they require more interest and involvement from the VFX community for this to happen.

The problem I see is that the VFX community is composed of not only artists but producers, supervisors, coordinators, and editors. Most producers and supervisors don't like the idea of unions because that would require more money out of their pockets. If a producer has a choice, they will hire the inexperienced, cheaper, nonunion laborer over the seasoned, more expensive, unionized professional. Nothing is stopping them from hiring some software jockey straight out of high school if the price is right.

We live in an age where hardware and software can be obtained for cheap and technology is obsolete the second after you buy it. The knowledge I acquired in the four years of film school can be learned in weeks by watching free YouTube tutorials instructed by a computer savvy 12-year-old. While I don’t doubt the natural talent of some of these young, budding artists, I fear that it dilutes the talent pool when a company values cheap talent over years of dedicated experience.

Since VFX is considered to be post-production, I have been told that VFX workers can join the Animation Guild or the Editors Guild.  I've met only one VFX artist who belonged to a union, but he was an editor’s assistant who happened to have enough skills to qualify for the job of doing VFX. He took the nonunion job on his hiatus under the condition that he would not receive a title credit for having worked on a nonunion film because he feared getting kick out of his union. This is a major reason why most artists I have spoken to would never consider joining a union because union members can’t work on nonunion jobs which is the bulk of the work that is out there.

'John Carter'
Walt Disney 'John Carter'

I don’t claim to be an expert on economics, business, or even the film industry but I honestly feel that the large studios such as Disney, Fox, Universal, and Paramount should take the initiative to invest in the American people and establish their own in-house VFX studio (preferably unionized) instead of outsourcing the bulk of the work to overseas to maintain quality control.

Parts of the outsourced work we receive have to be redone anyway at the very last minute by artists like myself. Much of the time we are working overtime to meet a fast, approaching deadline that the studios have already predetermined even before the movie has been shot. This is the stage where costs are inflated and rush fees are incurred. In the end, the studio loses money and the problem with film is that because we are in the business of selling art, there is no guarantee that a big-budget, VFX-driven film will make their money back. Look at what happened with "John Carter." $250 million down the drain.

With all this being said, I must give credit where credit is due. I have never felt treated more like a human being and valued as an employee while working as an in-house lead compositor at Disney. I’m not saying this because I’m trying to butter them up to save myself from being placed on their blacklist. I’m saying this because it’s the truth. My experience working at Disney has restored my faith in the filmmaking process and reminded me of why I have chosen to dedicate my life to the art of visual storytelling.

Visual effects are often associated with big-budget blockbuster movies like "The Avengers," "The Hobbit," and "Life of Pi" where the effects are placed center staged to be "oohed" and "aahed" over by the viewer. People rarely think about the other side of the industry, whose sole purpose is to erase what should not be seen. Some of us spend our time removing objects, concealing beauty flaws, and replacing environments with ones that never existed. This is what is known in the industry as invisible effects, my personal specialty.

Perhaps the reason I have a propensity for this particular line of work is because I prefer to remain unseen in my own personal life. This could explain why I have remained silent so long. Thanks to VFX Soldiers like Dave Rand, Scott Ross, and Scott Squires who have stepped up to raise concerns about the current state of our industry, I can no longer remain invisible.

I am a VFX Soldier and I will keep on soldiering on even when I am erased.l

Maggie Kraisamutr is a freelance VFX compositor and stop-motion animator based in Los Angeles, CA. She is currently unemployed and available for work. Get to know her at maggielovesmusic.com.


This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Post-Production, Visual Effects







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