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
Your letter to James Cameron this week has stirred up a lot of discussion in the Motion Design and Visual Effects fields about the need for some sort of professional organization that can effectively and collectively work on artists’ behalf in this industry. You’re calling for more credit, possibly for residuals or some sort of profit-sharing from studios who make millions and billions off of our craft, and for better working conditions for visual effects artists themselves. How has the response been to your letter? have you heard anything from James Cameron?
The response has been amazing. Mostly it’s been people saying ‘FINALLY – someone is talking about this!’ And interestingly, I’ve gotten a few responses from the wives of VFX artists whose lives have really been torn apart by the long hours.
There have been a few people defending the status quo but that’s great as well because it’s interesting to hear why people think the situation we have now is okay. But what I’ve taken away from all the emails I’ve gotten is that things are really bad for people personally and they are glad to hear it’s not just them.
Well, I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote that, “… visual effects artists love their jobs. They enjoy both the work itself and the ability to work on a daily basis with so many smart, creative and talented people.” I think may of us really do, and we do appreciate using our creativity to make some beautiful imagery. That’s the good part. But at the same time, the industry in which we work is high-stress and demands a lot from its workers. The pace is not something that everyone can sustain for long. You’ve actually gotten out of the business yourself, haven’t you?
My history is different than some people’s because I’ve always been about 25% working artist and 75% writer / teacher / organizer. This goes back twenty years, when I was starting user’s groups and magazines for LightWave 3D and travelling around doing seminars. I come from a video production and computer background, not a fine art background. This goes back to when I was 14 years old with a TRS-80 and working as a video production intern.
I’ve been out of visual effects work itself for a few years specifically because I know what the hours are like and I didn’t want to rip my family apart for a job. Rather than get work in VFX, I got a motion graphics job at NBC for Access Hollywood that had normal hours and benefits. So I could use my skill set in LightWave 3D or After Effects plus the production, computer and photography background I have. Then I developed health problems – diabetes (with some vision loss) and tendinitis – then made doing motion graphics all day a lot less fun. Plus I wanted to do work that was more creative than making lower thirds for Paris Hilton and get back to writing, teaching and making films.
So now, I still do graphics or effects for my own projects and occasionally for clients. And I’m teaching, which I love doing, too.
That reminds me of a freelance Motion Designer who just announced that he’s leaving the field, Harry Frank, who wrote:
“I’ve learned that happiness is not found along the path of making reality show graphics, sizzle reels, or commercials for sugar water. It is not found in the daily stress of courting new clients, while trying to get existing clients to pay their overdue invoices, while juggling three jobs that are all over budget. It is not found in a job where last minute changes and late nights that keep me from reading my son a bedtime story.”
And I think lots of us get into this career from various fields: fine art, graphic design, programming, editing. We each bring different talents and interests into it. What’s interesting is that all those things can combine in different ways, for different types of projects and purposes, from visual-effects heavy films like Avatar to the infographic and informational films of someone like Jonathan Jarvis. Is there something that all the artists in this industry have in common, that we all share, even if we have different technical skills?
Well, at Access Hollywood, I was really lucky to work with a diverse group of talents — the head of the department has production experience but he’s also a genius computer programmer who would write custom AE plug-ins and scripts. And then there were artists with great fine art backgrounds or who knew After Effects really well or who are plain good at knocking out stuff quickly. So everyone there had the chops to be doing great stuff….but there we all were on entertainment news show and there’s not a lot of chances for the world to see what that department really could do.
And that’s common, of course. That’s the trick of commercial art. Really, it’s the grind of a job. There’s a lyric from a song by The Smiths about having a job — “it pays my way and it corrodes my soul.”
So what do artists have in common? I think it’s that they started off wanting to express or create something, probably as a kid. Then the irony is that by finding workin commercial art, you lose a lot of that ability to be able to express that thing. There’s just no time.
But the thing about “starving artists’ – you seldom actually read about an artist actually starving. The papers aren’t full of stories about “Painter found dead surrounded by canvas and empty Ramen wrappers.” If people make the jump out of the commercial world, their instinct for survival will kick in and they will still be able to eat.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to work in commercial art — fine, no problem…but at least don’t screw yourself and your family. Corrode your soul if you must but don’t give up your whole life. It’s not worth it.
So, what you’re calling for in the letter is to start discussion on creating a “Union 2.0,” which you describe as “a more flexible, modern institution that takes the realities of today’s production environment into account , while still giving these artists some of the same basic protections and benefits that other crafts currently receive.” I’m curious how you think that might work, or what benefit artists would get from organizing in that way. After all there are unions that currently exist, The Animation Guild for one. What are the basic issues that this organization would need to address?
When I wrote the letter, I didn’t know much about TAG. Since then, I’ve spent a couple of hours on the phone with Steve Hulet from TAG. I like him and think he’s a straight shooter who doesn’t oversell what the union could do. But I’m neutral on which unions VFX artists should look to – or if they should look to them at all.
Here’s my general point on “Union 2.0″, which is really asking the question “If I started a union today, what would I do?” rather than trying to retrofit the old structure.
The reality is that most of the existing unions and guilds were formed decades ago. Production and distribution have changed a lot since then. So – if you were forming a guild today from scratch, you’d do it differently than they did. You’d take technology into account when organizing like websites and online meetings. You’d take things like online distribution and people working at home and the digital workflow where one person does many tasks into account.
I think that asking the ‘what if I started from scratch?” question helps even if you end up working with an existing struture. There’s a huge benefit to collective bargaining; it’s the only real way workers have power. The issue is how to go about it.
So, in the fxguide podcast that just come out on Friday, you mentioned that you’re looking to do an online town hall to get artists’ input and gauge how to move forward. Are there plans afoot for that to happen?
Yes. There are actually plans underway for three things right now…
1) A website about the the issue of fairness for VFX artists
2) An online ‘town hall’ that everyone is invited to – Steve from TAG and a couple of other people have agreed to be part of that. There are several advantages to doing this online – people from all over the world can attend and they can ask questions anonymously. And I really want people to ask questions and make suggestions…to start the discussion in a way that might not happen if they had to show their face.
3) Films / PSAs – I have plans for a few short films and a public service announcement that lays the issue out for people.
That sounds great, we’d certainly like to get Motionographer readers involved, so keep us up-to date on those plans. And I guess we’ll see after those discussions whether there’s a way for artists in the industry as a whole to move forward.
I guess what I’m hoping to see is for the industry as a whole to mature. That might mean making some harder choices. For instance, is it better to have higher wages or better benefits? Of course, you’d LIKE higher wages and benefits…but what if you had to choose? I think – this is my my perception – that better benefits are the more mature, long term choice. But whatever you think, at least that’s a mature question and at least it’s asking the question.
My advice for people is not to just wait around and hope things change. Support the big changes that are needed to mature the business, but meanwhile work on your chops and learn to market yourself. Become really really good, create something cool and promote it all over the place and then do something else cool. It’s possible to look out for yourself while at the same time looking out for the wider community – and if you do that, I think the future is very bright.
Links to more resources:
Huffington Post: Open Letter To James Cameron: Fairness For Visual Effects Artists
Variety: Vfx artist plight at issue
FXGuide: fxpodcast: An Open Letter to James Cameron
The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE: