The decade of the twenty-teens is only a couple of months old – or hasn’t started yet – but already, there has been something of a shot heard ‘round the world for VFX artists, particularly those located in the U.S. Lee Stranahan’s Open Letter to James Cameron: Fairness for Visual Effects Artists has become a hot topic of discussion among VFX artists across the U.S. since its publication at Huffington Post one month ago.
Why? Because while visual effects has moved to the top of the list of what makes a bankable blockbuster movie, the artists and studios creating those effects find their own commercial viability compromised by many factors that make a career in visual effects one with high risks. And while other Hollywood-related creative professions from writing, directing and producing to cinematography right down to theatrical stage employees are typically members of unions which negotiate on their behalf, visual effects in particular and post-production in general has not united to negotiate better compensation and fairer treatment.
And that brings up another set of more complicated “Why?” questions. Why don’t the largest, most successful VFX studios turn a healthy profit? Why are visual effects artists routinely listed at or near the bottom of the end credits in a feature, with individual artists often not listed at all? And increasingly, why are individual artists finding themselves in dire personal straights, with health, financial and personal problems – destroyed relationships among them – while contributing the most in-demand set of skills to highly profitable projects?
There’s also the question of why James Cameron has been asked to answer for these grievances, when they are industry-wide and have been building for the past two decades, at least since ILM ushered in the CG animation era with Jurassic Park, yet failed to earn more than a low-single-digit percentage of the budget (let alone the astronomical earnings of that movie). Stranahan’s perception is that Cameron might be sympathetic to vfx artists and their hard work and plight working in “the best, most fun and high-tech sweatshops on earth.” Yet the complaint that “visual effects artists typically work with no contract, no paid vacation, no benefits, and often no paid overtime” can hardly be laid at the feet of one man, no matter how much his most recent success with Avatar relied on many of those same people.
In any case, the truly remarkable thing about Lee’s letter is the chord it seems to have struck among the visual effects community, one that for many reasons has been traditionally leery of unionization and collective bargaining. The questions of what it would take for a union to succeed and what specifically is at issue are complex, while overall the points that resonate seem to be relatively simple:
- Visual Effects workers are underpaid relative to the value of their contribution
- Visual Effects studios are themselves underpaid because of how they bid projects
- Conditions for some studios have deteriorated to the point where otherwise successful businesses have been pushed to bankruptcy
- Conditions for workers have deteriorated to the point where health and well-being are fundamentally at risk for some if not many
And those are just the top level issues – this leaves out questions of a globalized workforce and the “cool factor” of working in visual effects, both of which exert further downward pressure on wages, as does the roots of visual effects as a somewhat marginal craft practiced by those who have done it, first and foremost, for the love of doing it.
So when the Academy Awards ceremony is telecast on Sunday and James Cameron appears to reap more rewards from the most financially successful single piece of entertainment in history, few of use will hold our breath that he does anything significant on stage to address the complex problems of the visual effects industry – although even a small gesture in such a large forum creates big ripples. Meanwhile, even if the Oscars 2010 looks like business as usual, behind the scenes, a longstanding set of problems is coming to light.