Have you noticed a lot of green profile pics on facebook? If you work in Visual Effects or have a friend who does, you might be seeing a lot of green on your feed. Most of my readers here work in VFX/Animation, so you should know what I am talking about.
However, I was shocked at some of my own animation student's impression of "what is going on" in the VFX/Animation field they hope to enter as a career... so let me explain.
Scott Ross, who was a top manager of Industrial Light & Magic and a founder at Digital Domain, started the ball rolling with a tweet: "I had a dream, 500 VFX artists near the Dolby (Kodak) theater on Oscar day waving signs that say 'I Want a Piece of the Pi Too.'" Since then, the plan spread online, with protest organizers launching a Facebook page, and some investing in a banner that will be flown by a plane over the theater during the red-carpet ceremonies, reading "box office + bankrupt = visual effects vfxunion.com."
PERCEPTION: Perception is what this protest was all about. It's not about punishing the VFX facilities, or the movie studios... it's about letting the rest of the world know what is going on. The KCRW Interview below reveals the perception of our industry. The director - Pete Berg sums it up at 19:24 into the show - link below.
VFX Industry in Trouble: Won and Oscar Now What?
Director Pete Berg says, "The Business to be is ILM. (Industrial Light and Magic) That is who is making all the money."
CULTURE: Most VFX/Animation studios today are nothing more than sweatshops with hundreds of artists working an average of 12-16 hour days. To make this crystal clear, the toughest run I worked in my career was 21 days (16 hour days) in a row. I seriously thought I was going nuts towards the end of that run. I have friends who have worked 9 months without a day off.
It wasn't always like this, though. I have seen the decline in culture at the studios since 2000 as CG and VFX driven movies continued to make more and more money. You would think if the movies are making more money, the folks involved would be too... right? Nope, the complete opposite has been happening. The last show I worked on was in 2011. I have purposely only accepted work from home because the culture at the studios has become one I do not want to work in.
The schedules presented today are 1/4th of what I saw ten years ago. A shot you would normally have 4-6 weeks to work on, is now bid at 4-6 days!! It is insane! No one leaves their desks. Everyone is tense, trying to make the impossible, possible. When I moved to LA in 2000, I was given benefits and sick days, permission to work out at the gym for free on lunch hours, 401k, and the animation facility even paid to move me and all of my belongings up from San Diego. Today, you will not see that. Today, your are lucky to have a job. It is a toxic, abusive working atmosphere. Why would I stay in this field?
THE BUSINESS MODEL: The VFX/Animation industry has a shaky business foundation on which to build a business model.
- very small profit margins
- no trade organizations to work towards raising those profit margins
- no unions to work on the artist's behalf
- subject to the whims of client, revisions and schedule changes
- no way to cover overhead in between show schedules
ENTER SUBSIDIES: Government funded movie productions (up to 30% of the budget) pop up in London, Vancouver, India, Singapore, China, Australia and various other places around the world. These VFX/Animation facilities find a way to pay for the overhead of keeping artists employed and the lights on, in between the schedules of each show, with this extra money in countries with lower costs than the US.
HOW CAN A U.S. STUDIO COMPETE?
The US studio has no cash flow, everything that comes in goes right back out and now their competition has the upper hand with the extra money to float in between projects and lure cheap talent with the work. I heard Scott Ross give a great analogy in an interview. He said owning a VFX/Animation facility is like owning an airline. You aren't making money unless the planes are in the air. So, you fill the seats at any price. He said VFX facilities are run the same. Get the bid in low, so you can get the cash flow in to keep the place afloat.
Runaway production, overseas competition and government subsidies have forced domestic VFX houses to survive on less than 5% profit margins. Of the many studios I have worked at over the years, five have gone out of business or bankrupt:
Cinesite: Hollywood ,
and now Rhythm and Hues.
The company behind the Life of Pi's stunning visual effects, which made the movie possible, Rhythm & Hues went bankrupt as the film just passed the billion dollar mark in global ticket sales. The CG & VFX (visual effects) facilities that make the Hollywood blockbuster movies possible bid shows at a loss. The Hollywood production companies walk away with profits. Artists who dedicate their lives to their craft get the boot.
NOT JUST VFX: The folks working in CG Animation for studios like Dreamworks, Disney, Pixar, BlueSky, etc. are feeling the push to create more profit too. See the breakdown below of recent closings of VFX and Animation Facilities.
THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM
Although the green square on facebook makes reference to the behind the scenes of VFX, CG Feature Animation is suffering the same layoffs and outsourcing. Artists at big studios working on intellectual properties fear losing their job. Staff positions with benefits and sick days no longer exist. Newbie animators with little to no experience are being hired and trained only to find a sink or swim attitude. If the newbie doesn't cut it in production, they are let go. You get three weeks to prove you can work at the same level as a seasoned artist. The race to the bottom is about to hit rock bottom. The next few months, will reveal what is in store for the industry as a whole.
I could go on about this topic, but I think this a good time to stop, take a breath and see what happens next. I will say this. I love to animate. I had fun when I first started in the business. I won't return unless the biz model and culture changes, though. I am hopeful there will be change. Artists are not asking for much... live where they already have planted roots and/or own their house and not have to uproot their families to find work every 6 months, work a respectful 8 hour day, fair pay, benefits, health care, and the like.
In the meantime, here are some more articles on the subject.