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A decade ago, the visual effects industry hit a creative high note when Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi — highlighted by an extraordinary photoreal CG Bengal tiger — won the VFX honor at the 2013 BAFTA awards. But the celebration quickly turned to devastation when, shortly after, in Los Angeles, the film’s lead VFX company, Rhythm & Hues (R&H), began calling artists to let them go. Recalls Academy member and former employee Gene Kozicki, “It didn’t matter if you were an Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor or a production manager with 13 years’ tenure — if you weren’t working on a show right then, you were laid off.” Weeks before its work collected the VFX honor at the Oscars, the 25-year-old studio filed for bankruptcy.
The shocking occurrence led to a reckoning in the VFX community, exposing to the world what looked like a broken business model, attributed to factors including the impact of production delays, production subsidies/incentives, and fixed-bid practices. At the time, VFX artists calculated that 21 VFX companies closed or filed for bankruptcy between 2003 and 2013, all of which created a toxic work environment for artists. They decided it was time to mobilize and urge change.
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On the day of the 85th Academy Awards, an estimated 500 VFX artists held a rally on Hollywood Boulevard to raise awareness of what was happening. Inside the Dolby Theatre, the issue received further attention for a much-criticized moment in the ceremony when, while VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer was accepting the VFX Oscar for Life of Pi, his microphone was cut off as he started to talk about R&H, and he was played off the stage to the theme from Jaws.
These events began a multiyear effort by VFX activists to improve working conditions. Among the efforts was a push for unionization, and though it had fervent supporters, it never got off the ground for various reasons — among them, one source explains, the proposed union covered North America, and at a time when incentives causing runaway production were threatening many domestic companies and jobs, there were concerns that this would further steer work to VFX hubs in countries outside industry union jurisdiction. But time has a funny way of bringing back the past. Ten years later, one camp of visual effects professionals — now in demand more than ever from studios and streamers that prioritize not only VFX-heavy tentpole films but also ambitious, world-building series — are again attempting to unionize with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
After the 168,000-strong crew union hired VFX production worker Mark Patch (Tenet, Nope) as a dedicated organizer last fall, their VFX-unionizing effort is ramping up again in 2023 as the group releases the results of a survey detailing wages and working conditions in the field (hundreds of workers were surveyed, a source says). Their hope: that by including staffers employed directly on film and TV productions in addition to those working at third-party companies, and by capitalizing on employers’ focus on other labor negotiations occurring in 2023, IATSE can finally mobilize workers in the field, all while avoiding the pitfalls faced by past organizing attempts.
This latest organizing effort began not with the artists often associated with VFX — those helping to craft virtual explosions or render fantasy environments onscreen at high-profile vendors like Weta FX (Avatar: The Way of Water) or Industrial Light & Magic (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) — but with crewmembers employed directly by film and TV productions, including data wranglers, coordinators, production supervisors and witness camera operators. While discussion about why VFX workers aren’t unionized “has been festering for years” among these client-side workers, says Gabrielle Levesque, a data wrangler on productions including Stranger Things and Lovecraft Country, conversations accelerated as film and TV projects restarted after pauses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Previously pushed projects and new projects got going at once and, as demand for streaming content exploded in addition, “everyone got burnt out. People were contacting each other trying to find availability to fill positions,” says Levesque. “There weren’t [enough] qualified people. And so it kind of hit a boiling point.”
As one veteran VFX producer describes it, “Client-side producers and supervisors are struggling to find vendors. Vendors are struggling to find artists or making the difficult decision to turn away work from returning clients. And the artists are the ones sitting at the desks having to put in the long hours. The scheduling demands, often determined by release schedules, are at the crux of the matter.”
This producer adds, “the pace of work long term wears down the creative to the point where the artist is either ineffective or completely burned out. Neither are good for the artist or the industry.”
In the summer of 2020, workers began joining a Slack group dedicated to information sharing about working conditions, jobs and skill development. Eventually, hundreds of users took part and organizing became a focus of the conversation; in early 2022, the group published the results of a poll in which production-employed staffers anonymously shared their fee information from the previous year. Though an IATSE organizer had gotten in touch with the group as early as 2020, it wasn’t until last year that worker-activists — with an assist from The Animation Guild’s (IATSE Local 839) organizer Ben Speight — began formulating “an actual concrete defined plan, which looks at workers who are in the private sector working under the National Labor Relations Act and would need to be organized employer by employer,” says Patch.
Now, in its survey shared exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of its release, IATSE is expanding on the pay-transparency poll that VFX workers published in 2022 to include more questions about working conditions and benefits. Many of the issues covered in the survey reflect what organizers say they want to resolve with a VFX union. One chief concern, for instance, is the dearth of portable health care among this cohort: The survey finds that only 12 percent of workers employed directly by productions (client-side) and 25 percent of those working for outside vendors (vendor-side) say they have received health benefits that they can take from job to job. Retirement benefits also remain elusive for the majority of these workers, with 85 percent of client-side workers not having access to these contributions, while 53 percent of vendor-side staffers were in the same position.
In reporting wages for dozens of roles in the field, IATSE found that medians ranged from $1,050 a week, or $15 an hour, for a client-side production assistant to $5,250 a week, or $75 an hour, for a vendor-side on-set supervisor, assuming a 60-hour workweek with overtime after an eight-hour day. Says the union, which additionally lists minimum and maximum reported rates in its survey, lower-paid roles including witness camera operator, VFX production assistant and junior data wrangler employed by productions “have rates which can amount to minimum wage or less (when considering unpaid overtime).” Indeed, the union raises wage theft as a key concern, finding that a majority of workers employed directly by productions report they currently are not or previously have not been paid adequately for their overtime and haven’t been paid for working through rest periods (58 percent and 80 percent, respectively). On the vendor side, over one third (39 percent) claim unpaid overtime currently or previously and 71 percent say they haven’t been compensated for working through rest periods.
This state of affairs, according to visual effects production supervisor Cathy Liu (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Interstellar), makes professionals question the longevity of a career in the field. “When we hire young crew, typically they don’t want to remain in visual effects. What’s the incentive?” she asks. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but I don’t have motion picture health and pension. I had to set up my own IRA. I have to pay out of pocket for health care.” In its survey, IATSE found that 68 percent of workers reported feeling that the field wasn’t sustainable in the long term, and that over 87 percent of all workers felt they could not negotiate individually for solutions to these benefits and wage issues.
VFX artist Maggie Kraisamutr (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began her career in the field on 2004’s CG-heavy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and says “there hasn’t been any change since.” She describes being hired at the “tail end” of a project, after studios contract with lower-priced international vendors, and facing major time pressures to deliver titles on time as a result. “So I’m working 20-hour days, you know, sometimes 24 hours. There have been times when I work 28-hour [shifts] just so I can deliver their show on time. It impacts our physical, our emotional health.”
Of course, IATSE has been here before, supporting the group of VFX workers that aggressively — but ultimately unsuccessfully — pushed to unionize the business a decade ago. Organizers maintain that this time is different, starting with their focus on including workers employed directly by productions as well as those at outside vendors. “Previous attempts were looking essentially to organize the artists of the vendors who are strategically more precarious,” says Patch. Moreover, organizers believe crew members working alongside IATSE colleagues, rather than at outside vendors, are more keenly aware of the distinction between union and non-union affiliation.
The latest plan is to organize studio by studio. Animation Guild organizer Speight, who has become a special representative with IATSE’s VFX organizing campaign, says workers will ask for voluntary recognition but prepare for National Labor Relations Board elections. “We’re not talking about transforming the industry all at once, but having strategic targeted campaigns,” he adds. Bargaining units may be small among production-employed workers in particular — perhaps of dozens or hundreds of people, depending on the studio — but IATSE is banking on the leverage that these professionals might wield given their pivotal roles in tentpole films and what workers describe as a tight labor market for their services.
IATSE is also preparing to take advantage of timing, with multiple potentially contentious labor negotiations on the studios’ and streamers’ docket this year. SAG-AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America all have contracts expiring this spring and summer and are expected to challenge streaming’s impact on their members’ bottom lines, with the WGA thought to potentially be prepping for a strike. Employers “are going to have a choice of, do they want to pick this fight with this relatively small unit of VFX workers who are just asking for equality and parity with their coworkers? Or do they want to fight us and also take on the WGA?” says Patch.
But numerous VFX vets who remember prior efforts to unionize say the same challenges remain. “I think there should be a VFX union,” one activist says, but with a caveat — it needs to be a global effort so as not to potentially steer work out of IATSE jurisdiction.
And another source points out that with evolving VFX technologies and processes, a union would need to pivot quickly to cover new roles, for instance, what new job descriptions will come with the growing use of real-time rendering technology and LED walls for virtual production.
Still, IATSE is pushing forward, even floating the possibility of a VFX union emerging this year. Says Speight, “We think it’s possible that this year VFX crews across major studios will successfully gain union recognition. But ultimately it’s going to be up to those workers themselves. We have a plan, we have the resources, we have the environment to take advantage of this opportunity — but it’s going be ultimately up to them.”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.