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by Maggie Kraisamutr
March 1, 2013 7:20 AM
13 Comments
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It Ain't Easy Being Green-Screened: One VFX Artist Speaks Out at Risk of Being Erased and Replaced

Visual effects Oscar-winner 'Life of Pi' Fox

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We live in an age where hardware and software can be obtained for cheap and technology is obsolete the second after you buy it.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

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.


13 Comments

  • Glenn Mondshine | March 4, 2013 10:56 AMReply

    This is why progress is an oxymoron. We think new technology is always better. They don't even use film any more to shoot movies. Capitalism is a flawed system too. you cannot get honest behavior with it because it is designed to scourge the work force for profits. Capitalism is the leading cause of our economic meltdown in the U. S. as well.

  • andrew | March 3, 2013 1:25 AMReply

    As alluded to in your post, the "hidden" culprit in not just this industry but American competitiveness across the board, is the outrageously inflated US medical system. Time and again we hear of people fearing because they don't have insurance, or going broke trying to pay for insurance and medical bills. This doesn't happen in countries with true national health. If the US doesn't wake up to this constant drag, the VFX industry will be just one in a long line of imploding industries.

  • scott stambler | March 2, 2013 10:09 PMReply

    I've been a music editor / sometimes composer for 34 years. With 65,000 hours. I can pretty much say anything I want abut this business.

    Unfortunately, I don't see the studios taking any interest whatsoever. They are about profit and who they can squeeze. The last ten years, they've been squeezing a lot of people.

    Also "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." —technology can be learned by anyone. applying it creatively takes years of craft.

    What you wrote took some courage.

    best

    scott

  • MaggieK | March 3, 2013 4:42 AM

    Thank you, Scott. Just trying to fight the good fight.

  • Evan | March 1, 2013 7:06 PMReply

    I am not a VFX artist or animator. This is an issue that the filmmaking community, studios, producers, and perhaps sooner or later, government, needs to address. In the year 2013 people shouldn't be working work weeks that send people to the hospital. There needs to be a cap on these sort of free market economics, as human beings we should be making working conditions manageable for all. And shame on those that perpetuate this practice.

  • anonvfx | March 1, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Thanks for speaking out Maggie, but there are a number of errors you made regarding working union. I was a member of the Animation Guild for years, and work vfx now. I've jumped back and forth many times, and there has never been any barriers to working non-union for union members. In fact, the guild even tells you to stop paying your dues when you work at a non-union facility. People jump back and forth from Disney, to Dreamworks, to DD, to Sony, nobody cares.

    As far as wanting to join the guild, you don't need to wait for something to happen. YOU need to take the initiative. Sign a representation card so IATSE can see how many people are out there and interested. Talk to your co-workers. This takes minimal effort.
    http://vfx.iatse-intl.org/50-2/

  • MAGGIEK | March 2, 2013 5:13 AM

    Sorry, I did not mean to post this three times! Glitch in the system.

  • MaggieK | March 2, 2013 5:10 AM

    Hello, AnonVFX. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article.

    In regards to your comment about the common misconception of union members not able to work in nonunion jobs, this is only true depending on which union or trade organization you're represented by. TAG, Editors Guild, and IATSE do not impose the requirement but SAG, WGA, and DGA do. Not so sure about the Teamsters or PGA though.

    We in the VFX community are aware of IATSE. In light of recents events, many have signed a representation card. In fact, I contacted IATSE and sent them this article for clearance before submitting it to Indiewire. They are great people and are fully aware of the plight of our industry.

  • MaggieK | March 2, 2013 5:09 AM

    Hello, AnonVFX. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article.

    In regards to your comment about the common misconception of union members not able to work in nonunion jobs, this is only true depending on which union or trade organization you're represented by. TAG, Editors Guild, and IATSE do not impose the requirement but SAG, WGA, and DGA do. Not so sure about the Teamsters or PGA though.

    We in the VFX community are aware of IATSE. In light of recents events, many have signed a representation card. In fact, I contacted IATSE and sent them this article for clearance before submitting it to Indiewire. They are great people and are fully aware of the plight of our industry.

  • MaggieK | March 2, 2013 5:07 AM

    Hello, AnonVFX. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article.

    In regards to your comment about the common misconception of union members not able to work in nonunion jobs, this is only true depending on which union or trade organization you're represented by. TAG, Editors Guild, and IATSE do not impose the requirement but SAG, WGA, and DGA do. Not so sure about the Teamsters or PGA though.

    We in the VFX community are aware of IATSE. In light of recents events, many have signed a representation card. In fact, I contacted IATSE and sent them this article for clearance before submitting it to Indiewire. They are great people and are fully aware of the plight of our industry.

  • MaggieK | March 2, 2013 5:07 AM

    Hello, AnonVFX. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article.

    In regards to your comment about the common misconception of union members not able to work in nonunion jobs, this is only true depending on which union or trade organization you're represented by. TAG, Editors Guild, and IATSE do not impose the requirement but SAG, WGA, and DGA do. Not so sure about the Teamsters or PGA though.

    We in the VFX community are aware of IATSE. In light of recents events, many have signed a representation card. In fact, I contacted IATSE and sent them this article for clearance before submitting it to Indiewire. They are great people and are fully aware of the plight of our industry.

  • Lee | March 1, 2013 9:12 PM

    Yes, that 's true -- TAG wants their people to work and will not kick anyone out for working non-union.

  • Hodoor | March 1, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    This article perpertuates a seemingly common misconception... 'union members can’t work on nonunion jobs which is the bulk of the work that is out there'