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

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

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.

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.

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.

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