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Visual effects artists aim to create better work environments

The artists complain they're often employed in electronic sweatshops, working inhuman schedules, without health insurance or pensions. Their frustrations are fueling an effort to unionize.

April 20, 2012|By Richard Verrier | Los Angeles Times
  • Sari Gennis, a veteran visual effects artist, was part of a team that worked for four months straight, often seven days a week, in 12-hour shifts to complete the 3-D conversion of movie blockbuster “Titanic.” Now working on a different project, she has delayed a surgery because she can't take time off for the operation.
Sari Gennis, a veteran visual effects artist, was part of a team that worked… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

They called it the zombie walk.

After midnight, when the coffee and Red Bull had worn off, Sari Gennis and her co-workers would take a brisk stroll to make it through their graveyard shift. For four months straight, often seven days a week, a team of visual effects artists worked 12-hour shifts to complete the 3-D conversion of movie blockbuster "Titanic."

Gennis said the long hours aggravated a severe arthritis condition. She'd already had both knees replaced, and needed a third surgery, but couldn't afford to take time off for the operation.

"If I continue these kind of hours, it could kill me," the visual effects veteran said.

Visual effects is a booming business. Big-budget movies such as "Avatar," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Tron: Legacy" can spend as much as $50 million on computer graphics that drive the action — and ticket sales.

But the artists who create the effects, crouched over computers using software to create digital images, complain they're often employed in electronic sweatshops, work inhuman schedules and without health insurance or pensions.

Now some are fighting back, beginning an effort to lobby for union protection.

"We're the golden egg," said David Rand, a veteran visual effects artist who has worked on such blockbusters as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon " and "Matrix Reloaded." "We're more responsible for the bottom line than any other part of the talent. Yet we're treated like talent was back in the 1930s and 1940s."

The mounting frustrations are fueling an ambitious effort by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees to unionize the visual effects industry nationwide.

IATSE President Matt Loeb said last year that organizing these workers — more than 10,000 of whom make their homes in California — was one of his top priorities as leader of one of Hollywood's most powerful unions.

On Friday, union officials will meet with a group of workers from Sony Pictures Imageworks that is seeking to unionize.

An industry leader, Sony employs 400 to 500 visual effects workers. Sony employees say they are seeking health insurance and other benefits that are enjoyed by their peers who work on the studio's animated movies. An Imageworks spokesman said the company "respects employees' right to consider union representation," but had no further comment.

Complaints of poor working conditions, while not common against large employers such as Sony's Imageworks, Industrial Light & Magic or Rhythm & Hues Studios, are chronic at many of the smaller shops.

The Animation Guild is preparing a class-action lawsuit against several of them, alleging they are violating federal labor laws by routinely misclassifying visual effects artists as independent contractors or freelancers, even though they report to work, have a supervisor and use company equipment.

Union officials say some employers are withholding pay from workers for as long as 90 days and are using a payroll service that reduces wages by having employees cover payroll taxes that would normally be paid for by the employer.

"The entertainment industry is finding every possible way to make visual effects as cheaply as they can, but the only people who are suffering are the artists," said Steve Kaplan, an organizer for the Animation Guild, which is part of IATSE.

Executives at small to mid-size companies say providing these workers with a union contract could put them out of business. Some visual effects artists are concerned that the union drive could force more work out of California at a time when global competition is fierce.

"You can't get blood from the stone," said Scott Ross, who ran ILM in the 1980s and was a founder of Digital Domain. "Any additional costs to doing business will tank [employers]."

Effects companies based in London; Vancouver, Canada; or Mumbai can take advantage of tax credits and cheap labor to underbid California-based firms. At least half a dozen California companies have shut their doors in recent years, pushing hundreds of visual effects artists out of jobs that pay $75,000 to $150,000 a year.

The outsourcing of jobs has forced many visual effects artists to lead a migratory existence. There's even a website called Pixel Gypsies that caters to "VFX workers living away from home or from job to job." Another, called VFX Soldier, features regular commentary about the plight of workers in the industry.

Eric Roth, executive director of the trade group Visual Effects Society, says visual effects artists are so poorly regarded that the film credits are typically listed below the caterer. "Artists don't get the recognition that they deserve," he said.

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