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