Fairness for Visual Effects Artists: Following-Up

Dancers by (3) on flickr. CC some rights reserved.

Lee Stranahan wrote an open letter to James Cameron last week that has received a lot of attention, prompting an article in Variety and an FXGuide podcast on the issue: Why is there no union or collective bargaining for the majority of Visual Effects artists while the industry is growing and the majority of successful Hollywood hits depend on increasingly complex visual effects that demand an ever-increasing workload on the people in the field? It’s a question we’ve often asked ourselves as workers in the Motion Design and Animation industries. And we were curious to find out more; what prompted Lee to write the letter, what he’s been hearing as response to it, and what plans he has to follow up on the letter.

Lee is a blogger at Huffington Post and an educator. He also has a long history in the field of television, visual effects and motion graphics, and runs the sites Lee Stranahan, Online Producer and Film School Bootcamp.

Read the Q&A with Lee Stranahan

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Nothing will change. You are all cowards!

It would take every VFX artist and every Motion Designer to go on strike for 3 weeks. The writer strike lasted how long? And hollywood has warehouse full of scripts. If ILM, WETA, and some mograph places had there whole crews go on strike people would start shitting.

VFX and Mograph need to be like magicians and stop making video tutorials giving away all the secrets. I’d like to see a video tutorial on how to tell a producer you are NOT going to work the weekend again or on how to get some dickhead to pay the bill. Show me that video tutorial. I’d like to see a video of you on the phone with a client get screwed.

We need to look 10 years down the road and look at what we doing to our industries.

We have NO Balls. James Cameron enjoy that Billion dollars .




A well written article. Definitely highlights a lot of issues that I feel can be shared amongst most our industry


People, we are the best in this field.. We are the real magician here. I think is not necessary to close tutorials or even not to reveal secrets.. These are the things that make us more powerful every day. The point here is: “They” must to keep in mind to us, as we are and as our work (and time) value costs. Come on!!
P.S.: I hope to be understandable, my english is not so good.

Random Person

Union and collective bargaining for the VFX industry is a good idea… But when that happens the work will probably be outsourced to China.


That podcast was very interesting.

Though people on-set in ‘Hollywood’ are certainly supposed to get all sorts of benefits and protections, isn’t this frequently sidestepped (for much of the crew) by shooting in Bulgaria or some such? I’m under the impression that the Hollywood he speaks of is contracting all the time.


I know most freelancers have a month or so off per year.
What would happen if every freelancer went on vacation at the same time.
I see producers struggle to hire competent artist as is in NY. This might be a good wake up call.


I’m all for collective bargaining as long as it leaves companies free to practice alternative business models. We, for instance, operate on a partnership structure that uses profit sharing, commission and ownership incentives (more like a law or architecture firm). That model would not be possible under some union agreements. There would have to be guidelines for what work constitutes union work and what doesn’t.

That said, union strikes are one of the reasons I left the movie business. It’s just too hard to maintain steady work when every six months production is crippled.

I think we’d get as much value out of professional associations that educate artists on managing their careers, the market realities that they face, and what they can do to improve industry health and compensation.


If companies are not willing to compensate their staff for over time work or provide any paid sick days and if employment law in that country does not provide basic individual employee rights, then the only solution is to form a union. Many of us have worked 80 hour weeks and for what? We line the pockets of the company owners and to let them have $1000 lunches while they tell us they can’t afford to pay us O.T. Lets get together and form a union – stop the exploitation


there is already a union, it’s called “IATSE LOCAL 800: Art Director’s Guild.”

many bigger companies use them, mostly broadcast companies.

a small over view on this union:

– $4800 and above initiation fee.
– around $400 quarterly dues.

pretty good health benefits and 401k.
darn good freelance hourly wages.
8 hour work days + an hour paid lunch
anything over that is overtime, including weekends.
company who hires you paid 7.65% employment tax and you are on a temp. w2.

the problem is, most shops do not have the money or time to work with that kind of rules. as most of us work 10-15 hours a day sometimes 18-20 during crunch time. fortunately i am single, but i have no idea how married people with kids maintain a healthy family with that kind of intense schedule.

we all agree a change needs to be done. but union is not the answer. a stricter labor law and compensations might be. as some of the previous posts, a creative professional is exempt from overtime pay + many other laws that helps a healthy balance between work/life according to the labor law: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/fairpay/fs17d_professional.htm

the law is not on our side, how do we change it?


btw, a link to the union:



yeah changing that law would be huge. Who thought it would be a great idea not to pay OT to the creative professionals.


Actually, in California you do NOT qualify as a “creative exemption.” Any producer who tells you this is lying to you. Pretty much the only time you will be exempt from over time is if you are a 1099, or if you are supervising more than at least 5 artist.

We have some of the best labor laws in CA- the problem though, is that the penalty for breaking the labor laws is pretty much non existent. If you sue a company for non paid OT the only thing that happens to said company is that they have to pay you what they owe you. Might be different for a class action law suit- maybe someone can ask Zoic about that.

Most artist are unaware or to timid to stand up for themselves. As a professional, one should educate themselves and not let producers push them around.


Welcome to the new sweatshop industry!

So many studios/companies in L.A. operate with the most disregard and disrespect for talent, that is seen as disposable. 10-12 hr workdays with a cheap pizza dinner to satisfy their workers. Wow!
If you are a naive and a hungry 23 yr old fresh out of school with the promise of working on some “killer” work, that illusion may work, but only for so long.

Regarding obesity, this is a serious issue. Wait till you hit 30. Sitting on your ass in front of a computer for 12 hours a day, what do you expect?!

Unfortunately their is no regulation and union policies in what we do. Therefore the producers and principals of mograph shops take full advantage of their freelance workforce. And why not? There is money to be made. When producers promise clients ridiculous deadline and budget agreements, at the expense of the talent, to protect their reputation and stay competitive, it only brings down the rest of the industry. Now that overheads are smaller (no need for 100K+ Avid or Flames to be in business), but cheap desktops and cheap workforce, the industry is at the mercy of an equally exploitive advertising industry. Not to mention the broadcast and entertainment.

In some ways its the whole desktop publishing syndrome of the 90’s. “Hey, my kid has a Mac and software, why do I need to pay you some high fee to do that?”. Yes, they could also go to Kinkos (by their logic). Or they could go to India or Korea, or the downgraded industry in LA/NY, that actually is run by kids who know nothing but the latest software.


As a member of a NABET in the middle of a labor dispute I must say there are great advantages and less disadvantages of working for a union in my opinion. This issue is bigger than just unions. Unions were created because the wealthy upper class exploits the working class for their benefit.

To me this is a conflict of culture or better put a war among the classes. Corporations and big studios (upper class) see labor (working class) as a problem instead of a solution and fail to respect us as people. These large studios dont care that they exploit you, you are not a person you are a dollar figure. Once we say “no more” to being exploited they WILL move to another country where being exploited is the norm because hey, everyone else is doing it, right? This is not only a problem for artists and creatives alike but for many people in America in many different types of industries.

This fight is a fight between classes period. Until the working class (us included) actually elect a government that represents people that do the work in this country, this abuse will not stop. Im not saying unions are the silver bullet solution but something does need to change. After all…

Corporations are required, by law, to place the financial interests of their owners above competing interests. In fact, a corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line ahead of everything else, even the public good.


I don’t have any solutions to add, but it is fascinating to watch the challenges the industry faces as it matures. It seems that it was once more insulated because it was highly specialized, and now its becoming more of a commodity, and thus the prices are being driven down be people perfectly happy to shop by price. The Wal-Mart effect (?).

I always thought of the overall VFX wages/practices problem as more a VFX industry problem, but with the increasing overlap between the mograph industry and the vfx industry, its more obvious to me that you can’t just put a fence around the problem and pretend it doesn’t affect you. If it doesn’t now, it will later.

It seems the industry has to make choices as a whole to protect itself, and further than that individuals must look at what choices they can make for themselves in order to make themselves less vulnerable.

I for one don’t have much faith in the greater good winning out here. The system is greedy and doesn’t care about people. Fine then, how can I beat the system?


This is turning into an interesting discussion so I thought I’d wade in again.

It seems to be boiling down one problem: the commoditization of creative work. By that I mean the selling of creative as ‘units’, rather than outcomes. ‘What is the cost of one minute of animation?’, vs ‘what is the cost of putting asses in seats at the theatre?’.

This is an issue shared by a wide range of professional disciplines from doctors to ad agencies. In our case it’s complicated by the fact that it applies unequally across the range of creative specialties and mediums. Specialists like matte painters and sculptors have much more latitude in negotiation than specialists like roto artists. So unionization is a better fit in some areas than it is in others.

Still, unionization doesn’t necessarily solve the problem because commoditization is a necessary part of union structure. Years of experience become the measuring stick ahead of talent or skill because the organization needs a dispassionate way to qualify its members (and yes, I’m speaking from experience here). The problem is, just as not all architects are equal, nor are all motion designers/VFX artists.

This issue can’t be seen as class warfare, because that assumes that the people who start design shops are independently wealthy financial elites who didn’t mortgage their homes or take one huge debt loads to start their firms. It also assumes that they don’t face the same pressures as the artists who work for them. Both of these assumptions are simply untrue.

Commoditization has consequences for everyone, and there are no one stop solutions. Worse, it exists in a web of related issues, from national healthcare policy to software marketing.

The point of the original article is that artists are not compensated for the hit movies they are so instrumental in making. I totally agree, but I think a better model is to do what actors did: start asking for a piece of the movie (which might still require an organization to accomplish).

Whether or not anyone else agrees with me will probably depend a lot on how they view themselves and what they do. Are they a worker logging time, or are they a professional adding value?


“Union and collective bargaining for the VFX industry is a good idea… But when that happens the work will probably be outsourced to China.”

-Thats exactly right. Unions cause a lot more problems than they solve. The writers unions are strong because you cannot outsource the writing to India. Motion graphics and post work on the other hand you can easily outsource way cheaper. The only things unions would achieve is getting union members replaced by non union members. And if you try to make a law against that you’ll se all the big companies simply relocating to elsewhere.

Unfortunately what we do is [rather advanced] manual labour that anyone in India can learn just as easily.

Its capitalism. get used to it.


Certainly there needs to be more laws created to help us through this hard lifestyle that we’ve half chosen and half been involuntarily granted with. Well, laws are indeed one of the ways that this can help. To counter outsourced labor additional laws need be made to punish companies that send their work overseas. Unfortunately this brings in the necessity of enforcing those laws and enacting penalties, all of which cost time and more money as well.

VFX Wages has an interesting article about what conditions are like working in China in our industry. http://www.vfxwages.com/news/2010/jan/11/working-in-china/

Whatever happens it is the artists that remain the spine of how this industry works. They will go where they are treated best, but only if we have the courage and the cajones to go out and get it for ourselves and and believe that we deserve it.

Outsourcing is a risk that every industry save for a few is facing right now. It is inevitable and we all are going to have to deal with it sooner or later, but the question is do we let it corrode our souls while our jobs are lost to other nations and people, or do we do we go down with a fight.

I would certainly like to see even more discussion about the state of outsourcing in our industry, in the film, VFX world, LA, and as well as the commercial industry in NY, how everyone feels about it and whether or not this is a very real threat to us.

Often times I think that while outsourcing is an issue, our field is still so starved for GOOD artists that there will always be work available, especially as nations like China and India are gearing up to create enough quality and profitable content for their own countries and media industries.

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