Why Motion Designers need to have solidarity with the #VFXProtest

GREENSCREEN

I’m not seeing a heck of a lot of green avatars amongst my Motion Design colleagues, and it worries me. The green avatars started up Sunday night after Life of Pi won for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars. The team that won tried to speak out about the layoffs, bankruptcy and financial difficulties that their company, Rhythm & Hues was currently facing – and were cut off at the mic. Does that make any sense, to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and have your company on the brink of going out of business?

In Hollywood nearly 500 VFX workers protested the layoffs, the conditions they’re working under and the shifting geography of their livelihood on the streets outside the Oscars. It was the first grassroots and public demonstration around this idea that we’ve been talking about for over 3 years – a VFX Union.

For a good overall recap of the protest, the issues and what happened at the Oscars on Sunday see this post by Russ Fischer at Slashfilm. And to keep up to date with the latest developments and thoughts on it: #VFXProtest is the hashtag that started up the idea of the protest last Thursday before the Oscars on Sunday.

My twitter feed is full of the green squares, but only a few of the folks in the Motion Design & Animation world that I follow have adopted them. (And none of the major companies that do Motion Design work have. I don’t see Autodesk or Adobe After Effects turning its logo green like Trapcode, Maxon and Houdini have, either.) There are more than a few reasons for this, I’m sure. But the main one would seem to be that Motion Designers don’t think that this is their fight. It’s VFX. It’s Hollywood. It’s California. It’s the movies – everything about that industry is broken, corrupt, compromised. Movies that make billions of dollars worldwide are declared net losses on paper. The whole process is too big and too complex and too nuanced for an easy stance on it and they haven’t heard one clear concise argument or what the demands are.

But this is our fight. We face many of the same issues. We do the same work. Look at some of the leading companies in Motion Design, the Cream O’ The Crop. Look at their spots, their reels, the work they are proud of , promote and work on on a daily basis. It’s VFX. Sure, VFX with sides of graphic design, kinetic typography, 2D animation, experimental film-making, vector illustration, abstract polygons and whatever happens to be visually trendy at any given moment. But ultimately, Motion Design is VFX. VFX that isn’t beholden to photorealism, telling a narrative story or being totally invisible and seamless. VFX that isn’t all explosions, matte paintings, spaceships and superheros (though we have our share). We just have different clients.

Not all of the issues that the #VFXProtest is bringing up have an exact analogue in Motion Design, but too many of them do for us to ignore them: three-way pitches, cost controllers determining budgets, shortened schedules, lowered budgets, scope creep, getting paid overtime, proper credits, using our work in our portfolios, misclassified workers, temporary contracts, no full-time jobs, booking agreements, being forced to pay the employer’s share of income taxes as a condition of employment, signing away all moral and artistic rights in work-for-hire-contracts, illegal non-compete agreements … the list goes on.

I’m not sure a workers’ union can or ever will come to the world of Motion Design. How can a 15-person artist-owned company organize? How can an industry made up of freelancers, independent contractors, and highly competitive, talented, independent artists come together in solidarity to agree that they want to work together and make a sustainable healthy industry that they might <gasp> grow old in.

The fear of a union itself is a big issue. If a union forms, won’t all the work go overseas or to non-union shops? Well, the fact of the matter is that that’s already happening – without any union forcing it to happen. That’s the free market. And one of the only tools we have against the free market is collective bargaining. Is lowering our costs in fear of losing work a sustainable option? Is continuing to work on fixed-cost bids and continuing to make motion design workers put it long uncompensated hours a manageable way to do business?

One of the arguments FOR the entire industry unionizing – setting pay-scale minimums, enforcing labor laws, overtime and minimum turnaround hours – is that in theory it could allow VFX shops to point to the union policies now in place at their shops in dealing with their clients to say “No we can’t do that. It’ll take X more days instead. We have to abide by these rules with our workers and we don’t have the manpower to do that in the schedule without doing Y.” – and give them some leverage in negotiations which they currently don’t have.

And if a VFX Union does start up, I’m hoping that it can solve some of these labor issues at the 700-person shops in California and that those solutions will “trickle down” and be adopted by our motion design colleagues. I’m hoping new norms and standards are adopted across the board. No more day rates based on a 10-hr day. No more misclassified workers. No more 11AM start times. No more going home at 11PM. No more 1099s for folk who work in-house for six-month stretches. No more need to form an LLC just to work at certain companies. Etc. Etc. Etc!

And I think it might help all of us if more motion designers (and previs artists, game developers and everyone in related fields) are part of the dialogue that stands up together and fights for working smarter.

Adding that green square icon to your twitter and bookface avatars might be just a small step. But it lets us all know that we’re in this together.

BD532NaCEAEi7WH.jpg-large

Sign and Photo by Ardaniel.

Talking to artists since Sunday #vfxprotest it is disgusting how many LA facilities break CA law & owe so many artists so much money.

Jeff Heusser

Occupy VFX: Getting The Message Right

Post by Pixelmagic on Reddit.

Phil Tippet

fxpodcast #245: VFX roundtable – Scott Squires, Scott Ross, David Rand

VFXSoldier

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32 comments

  1. Thanks for raising awareness Bran. I am surprised the mograph community is not getting involved with this. I am also surprised that major mograph sites are not even mentioning the issue.

  2. I’m a bit surprised, too. Certainly scanning twitter and facebook for green icons isn’t exactly scientific in its methodology for gauging support, but I’d hope to hear more about it from our colleagues. I’m surprised too that it hasn’t been posted at least once on sites like Motionographer, Ventilate or Stash… yet.

  3. Great points! Since NAB is coming up, we should have some t-shirts made up. I’d be happy to wear one during my NAB presentation for MAXON. Thanks again Bran, for all the help you’ve given me personally as well as the community!

  4. Thanks for bringing this up. I’m a motion artist working for mainly corporate clients, who expect Hollywood level VFX at PowerPoint prices – it’s also 11.30pm on a Friday night and I’m still working!

  5. We, motion designers from Paris – France have all turned green since last week. I’ll share your post as it’s perfectly well written and needs to be read.

  6. Expectations in our industry constantly rise, and that’s one of the big battles that we have to keep fighting. Good luck with the spots and get some sleep!

  7. Thanks so much. This is an international industry and an international struggle, for sure. Glad you’re supporting the cause.

  8. NAB! Good point, I think it’d be a great move to organize some action and show solidarity there as well. Thanks, EJ!

  9. I’m a 10+ years experienced mograph artist who always has dreamed about get into vfx sadly here in Aruba there is close to none vfx needs as far as movies goes, i did turn my avaratar green on all my social media in total support for the vfx members as soon as i saw the vfxprotest, in solidarity for them, is sad also for us since there is soo much underbiding going on that actually makes our field even more unfare. Please make the union but also think on a way that us the mograph artist can also benefit and be included

  10. hey bran! i work as a motion designer in berlin and i feel sometimes the same problems – most of the clients have absolutelly no idea what our job is and how much time it takes to finish “just a video”. solidarity for all the vfx guys out there in hollywood!

  11. I think fundamentally what we’re seeing is the result of excessive capacity and finite demand. Basic Econ 101. Obviously there are some other complexities but big picture it seems to be supply and demand curves that are far apart from each other right now. For VFX the caveat appears to be that subsidies are skewing supply and demand even more geographically.

    So the trick, whether with visual effects or motion graphics, is to justify the rates you deserve because of superior work. Actually seems to be a fairly common dilemma in most creative fields… not being undercut by younger, less experienced or global talent

  12. I’m a multimedia designer from Portugal and i joined this fight and wave of solidarity too. I agree with you. It’s not their problem, it’s a problem of every artist and that’s why i care about this. I can’t see only this as a protest but a change to the future!

  13. Ryan: I don’t define this issue at all as one of being undercut by anyone cheaper, faster or better. Those factors will always be part of the equation for some clients. What I see as the main issue is that it’s about the vfx shops and motion design studios who ARE providing the superior work having more leverage with their clients – movie studios and advertising agencies, respectively – to ask not for more money or higher rates, but for longer schedules, smarter production processes and a more humane way of doing business that doesn’t rely on overtime and crunch time to complete every project.

    It doesn’t seem that these studios and companies are willing to stick their heads up and change the process one at a time, so I think it’s up to the workers in the shops to start talking to their management and demanding that these things change – for their own sake, and for the next generation of junior employees that will be shortly coming through the door. Paying overtime, keeping regular hours and managing schedules and scope creep may change the “we’ll do anything for a job” mentality of studio management so that we all keep producing great work and have a healthy industry.

  14. You make a great point and actually after I left my comment I wanted to go back to emphasize something I didn’t in my original comment. That being that if it’s not a matter of being undercut, VFX artists are literally just competing with so many other equally matched artists that it’s still a supply and demand problem. The reason that people are working overtime or being worked like mules is because they tolerate it.

    If conditions are horrible, you would just leave the job and move onto one of the next several good options. The problem being that there aren’t several good options to move on to.

    Studios are able to treat people like they do because people tolerate it, because if they don’t, someone else will. These Startup VFX shops apparently go into debt just to get contracts to get their foot in the door because it’s so competitive.

    So there are bad practices (fueled by the huge capacity that is so far beyond demand) in the industry, there are subsidies that are skewing the curve in the area that you’re trying to find work etc… but at its core I think, more people want to do VFX than there is VFX to do, so you have a lot of people fighting for a small pie and it sucks but the natural result is that not everyone is going to be able to get the optimal compensation that they want.

  15. Ryan: So if there were a trade organization for facilities to make sure VFX shops couldn’t take unfair contracts on and perhaps a worker’s union that mandated that people couldn’t say, work over a 48 hr week, then perhaps we might see a change in the industry that led to a less competitive environment for workers and facilities. No?

  16. Wow surprised to see this off-base article by you Bran. Your efforts on these topics are usually quite good. Motion Graphic artists DO support the VFX community, at least all the ones I meet. And yes, their fight is SIMILAR to ours, but very clearly not the exact same. IT DOESN”T MATTER: all non-union artists…. or for that matter, any non-union worker… are essentially in the same boat. A good example of this: there is no such thing as “the vfx 10hr work day”. How do I know this? Because it’s not a “motion-graphic” la or a “vfx” law – it’s California law. It applies to all working people. So, instead of saying motion graphic people aren’t doing their part, maybe you should point out the positive aspects of how this vfx labor discussion is a good thing, and that the mograph community has a dog in this fight too.

  17. I salute all of you VFX Designers. your work is amazing and it should be recognized as such.
    I am a civil engineer and although every single person interacts with our engineering infrastructure designs daily, we are also treated the same.

  18. Kurt: Not sure how this article is off-base unless you’re referring to my big generalization that there isn’t much support amongst motion designers for the #vfx protest. It’s an observation based on my own twitter / facebook / IM colleagues in motion design, nothing more. If anything. it’s a rhetorical device and a call to arms. Still off-base?

    You may mean that legally a 10-hr day is not supposed to exist. However in every studio I’ve worked at that’s been either the official or de-facto standard. It definitely exists. See the results of the Motion Graphic Design Census if you don’t think so.

  19. Dear client and agency of the design industry,

    We, motion-graphics and VFX as two sibling industries, are suffering from the global crisis as you know. I would like to take a minute from your lives with this small text that describes the situation from another point of view.

    Over the years, most of us motivated ourselves to create the best quality work possible to make both sides happy, achieve something technically possible and more importantly stand against the test of time with the power of quality. However late news (R&H,DD, many others) confirm that even “being an experienced perfectionist and trying to build the best thing possible” is not enough to stand against many other factors.

    As you know, besides big studios there is a huge section of the industry that works with the agencies rather than directly with the client. This leaves a big gap between the side that requests the top quality work and the side that gets the real work done. Also agencies apply the 90%-10% rule, keeping 90% to themselves and feeding the rest with breadcrumbs.

    So, dear client,

    I’m offering you a new perspective which I call it “transparency”. Please, please, request where your money gets spent. Request to reach us, the designers, artists, VFX teams, basically the creatives you are paying for – the real horsepower that gets your work done. Instead of bird-feeding the real mechanism, get the control over your budget and request everyone to be transparent. The real effort should be rewarded.

    And dear agency,

    We all know how important you are within the whole system. However, by supporting the bird-feed mechanism you’re causing a real collapse in an already-diseased industry; leaving us – creatives – in a complete dilemma and simply leaving the industry to death. Also remember that without the creatives, agencies would not exist.

    Please do care about the balance and not only choose what is the best for you but also choose the best for the whole mechanism. Otherwise the industry will lose the real talents who deserve more than peanuts to work. Those talents will leave the stage to newborns which will be enough for some time to help you trick the client for prices that will make you happy; but in the end the mechanism will not only stay work-less but also stay completely judge-less; which will cause a real collapse of the ideology behind all the work that is produced: Perfection.

    So, dear industry… I invite you to being more transparent; for creatives and for perfection, before it is too late. Leave us a reason to “be” before we “become” something else.

    Dear creative,

    Don’t worry. Even if the whole system collapses, you are still needed to make whatever-comes-next perfect. You were always on the edge, you will always be.

  20. @Bran

    I don’t think it would become any less competitive, VFX would just become more expensive. So actually, it might become even more competitive for artists and VFX companies as demand drops to adjust to the higher cost. Of course for the artists that do get the work, it sounds like it could be a very good thing.

    I can’t speak to global issues but a lot of the talk here in the United States seems to be that the mistreatment of VFX artists is actually already in violation of existing law, particularly in California. Even up in Canada. So it seems a very multifaceted and complex issue. I recommend the most recent FXguide podcast with a roundtable discussion of VFX veterans discussing this issue.

    I think the reason that I weighed in on this is because a big part of the reason this is an issue right now is because of Life of Pi’s Oscars and Rhythm and Hues going bankrupt…which has a strong emotional argument, but I don’t like arguments based on emotion because they typically can’t survive the barrage of reality. For example, unless Rhythm & Hues worked out some sort of percentage-based compensation for their work on Life of Pi, there should be no expectation for any additional part of the box office profit of that film beyond what they originally contracted to be paid. Otherwise, by the same emotional logic driving the Pi argument, shouldn’t the VFX companies that did work on John Carter somehow be compensated less?

    On that podcast I mentioned, one of the participants pretty bluntly stated that a lot of the problems the VFX community faces are self-inflicted, in terms of fighting so hard to retain work, that they had essentially compromised themselves. Add to that globalization and subsidies being chased from country to country and continent to continent and you have an issue far beyond the anecdotal irony of a VFX company winning an Oscar and going bankrupt in the same year.

  21. Dear client, agency, creative, and the perfectionist, I encourage not to follow a transparent ideology. To be transparent or not to be…you decide.

  22. i am currently making plans to exit the industry. I think this rat race is just going to continue and there will continue to be these kind of of uprisings. Artists have egos and can’t hang with it being merely a job. But it’s not for me…I saw it coming around 2005. Get real. Unless piracy can be controlled then this will just get worse. And if piracy was enforced many of you would be out of business anyway. It would be a rich kids’ game even more than it is… music video RIP. Commercial careers RIP. VFX RIP and soon motion design….it’s just a matter of when

  23. Bran, (cont’d)

    Powerful message hear Bran on your blog. Kudos. I have total respect for your leadership and talents. …Thanks for raising awareness about the industry for those of us out here. It’s vital young folks know what they are signing up for when they join the vfx/mograph career path. And now thats possible with the motion census, etc.
    Motion designers are losing power. And are surely to be pissed soon.

    In addition, my devils advocate to both these arguments (below)::::

    A) Lots of R&D for the individual designers too. Like when they watch tutorials, read art books, draw and work on weekends to hone their craft. Pretty much everyone I know is pretty much a fucken hermit on weekends… being FORCED to watch ungodly amounts of greyscale gorilla, aharon rabinowitz, and shit like that. When they should engaging in non-computer activities (for once). IMHO. Atleast my physician and optometrists strongly recommended to me…

    B) I’ve had to work with certain people that arrogantly swear they are “artistes” that deserve some power. Many of them are really just talented knob tweakers at best. Photoshop technicians. That look at histograms, but can’t draw and are not artists. They make stuff look nice through tutorials they saw. This is undeniable.

    C) Contrarily, and to the point of the vfx strikers, yes you’ve gotta be more and more of a rocket scientist each day. It’s nuts.

    But often on the quicker jobs they end up hacking away at knobs, sometimes unaware of really what it does and “oh!”. Done!!! Was it actually his genius? Or just brilliant software that made that idiot, a genius? Are these people allowed to strike too??? I dunno about that!!!!

    The lines of what level constitutes artistry is never in question with a studio like R & H. But at other places I can’t vouch. I’ve personally worked with questionable “artists”. They could tweak some knobs, talked shit about art, but… were not artists.

    D) There are some folks with the aptitude to work at this faster, cheaper pace. They might just be smarter than you. Can you handle natural selection of free markets?

    E) Herein lies ANOTHER problem…people say freemarket collaboration is so great…well it’s flawed with artists.

    Who is the creative “chief” of the spots and visual “sequences? Producer? Project Manager, Director? Art Director, Creative Director, VFX Guy? Writer? Motion Designer? Client with Director Titles? Client VP1 or VP2?. Everyone claims to be the “important boss” these days. LOL. Ironically, they are right!!! It’s all interdependent.

    See what I mean? This is an AWEFUL power struggle going on with too many egos. I think people really need to air this crap out. This is one of the biggest problems… aka “who is more important”. Should the studio listen to a random vfx guy that removed a few wires in flame and got paid ungodly amounts of money? Or the guy that drew the characters and designed those? He more important?

    Sorry for making such a controversial statements here. Exploring. As I believe in freemarkets, furthermore, I’m really torn on this strike for several reasons.

    1) This bankrupcy is anecdotal. R&H are nice folks, but maybe they mismanaged things too? Dunno…just sayin’. It’s possible.

    2) This happens all the time in business and in life. Life is life and death. Industries implode regularly. Natural selection. Can you fuck wit natural selection? Hostess rocked the junk food like no one else too, but now they’re gone!

    3) The world is an open field. Anyone trying to c-block the rest of the world is implying loyalty in a capitalist existence. Everyone wants their freedoms, but then they flip flop when it doesn’t benefit them. Then suddenly they want it to be “local” and “in the family”. Well, let’s see what happens homegirls and fellas. I’ll pray for you, if you pray for me. 😀

  24. Found this blog through VFX Soldier. I’ve seen Bran around on mnographer for years. How is it there are so few posts on this blog? I think we as mnographers are one step behind the VFX industry in that we are actually considered lower status.

    Yes we don’t just cater to 6 clients. But then again we still have the same problems with hold systems being abused, portfolio rights being challenged by vindictive douchebags, and getting credited for the work we do.

    I’d be willing to bet if there is not a movement to stand up to the motion industry that in 3 yrs or less it will collapse. It’s based on a very inefficient model…I’m making a living at this but I just don’t know how longer I can be a mograph “stuntman”.

    The hold system is being abused because design firms in fact have less leverage over the clients than VFX has over studios! Motion design firms (inherently small) have less of a voice to stand up to big clients!!!

    Big Clients or Small, doesn’t matter. We’ve got the same problems across the board – miracle vs deadlines, variating deliverables, false holds, filtered notes. And it’s harder for us to get stuff done when we are irritated.

    McLovin

  25. McLovin: Thanks for your comments, this blog is an archive of selected posts that I wrote previously on Motionographer, PSST! and Motion Design Association. There’ll be more as time goes on.


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