A lot has changed in the visual-effects industry since 1902, when Georges Méliès shot a fake rocket into a man's face for the pioneering science-fiction film "A Trip to the Moon." But perhaps the biggest change is where visual effects now stand on the box-office totem pole. The wattage of star power has long been on the wane, and today's young moviegoers line up not for big names, but for big effects.
20th Century Fox
As effects-laden movies like "Avatar" become more important for Hollywood's bottom line, many visual-effects workers are seeking to form a labor union.
Visual effects are now the foremost draw for most big-budget movies, and yet conditions for the workers who create those effects have never been worse. Many VFX artists face punishing schedules, working with no health insurance or benefits to meet the demands of effects-laden motion pictures. It's a grueling way to earn a buck: One VFX artist, who spoke to IBTimes on the condition of anonymity, described "sweatshop-style graphics ... where teams of people spend hours" performing repetitive tasks in front of a computer screen.
But if recent chatter among VFX workers is any indication, the tide may be shifting. In the last few months, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees -- the largest labor union for behind-the-scenes workers -- has ramped up its efforts to unionize the visual-effects industry at long last. IATSE President Matt Loeb has said unionization of VFX workers is one of his top priorities. And in April, the union met with workers from Sony Pictures Imageworks, which employees about 500 VFX workers.
Steve Kaplan, an organizer for IATSE Local 839 (also known as the Animation Guild), also supports unionization for VFX artists, but said many workers will simply not speak openly about the issue. The industry is small, and artists don't want to risk alienating the visual-effects studios that employ them. "I believe they fear retribution," he said. "That fear would certainly be of retribution in the form of being passed over for employment and labeled a 'troublemaker' because of their support of unionization."
That fear is also apparent in the number of blogs and websites run by pro-union VFX artists, who voice their opinions behind a shield of anonymity. One such site, Occupy VFX, borrows from the outspoken ethos of the famous protest movement that began on Wall Street, with a little humor mixed in for good measure. (One post is titled "Unions: the people that brought you the weekend.")
The site is serious in its intentions, however -- outlining in detail the ways worker solidarity will improve the conditions for VFX artists. That includes fair pay, a safer working environment, health benefits and even pensions. The group also calls for the end to state tax credits that lure companies away from hub cities like Los Angeles, forcing artists to uproot their lives each time another state offers a sweeter deal. "Tax subsidies do nothing but hasten our race to the bottom," the website said.
Occupy VFX did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Of course, not all visual-effects workers support unionization. One artist, who also did not want to be named, said a strong union presence could prove to be too unwieldy in an industry that depends on the forward-flowing movement of rapid technological changes. He said he was concerned that union rules -- and the workers protected by them -- might not be able to adapt fast enough. "Just because you work now, doesn't mean you should always be the person doing that work if you're not competitive or continue to be progressive with your skill set," he said. "To the best artist goes the job. Unions may disrupt that form of innovation, and I'd hate to see it."
Kaplan, however, believes that unionization is only a matter of time. And in an industry where guilds and labor unions exist around every corner, history seems to be on his side. As more and more artists take to blogs and Twitter to voice their support anonymously, Kaplan said that others are finally opting for candor. "We are seeing some shed those masks and proudly stand openly in support," he said. "This shows that fear is giving way to an understanding that, without change, conditions will deteriorate past the point of sustainability."
After this story was published, the International Business Times was contacted by SpiUnion, an anonymous group of artists from Sony Pictures Imageworks and other VFX facilities. The group told IBTimes that its members had initiated the April meeting between Sony Imageworks and IATSE.
According to SpiUnion, "The short version is when we realized how poor our benefits were compared to the rest of the company, we got frustrated and decided to try and do something by distributing hundreds of representation cards around the buildings to artists. After we did that, we contacted the Animation Guild. They contacted IATSE."
The group added that, "Sony has a three-tier benefit system for artists. The lowest benefit tier offers no vacation, sick days, or retirement savings. The company will hire someone for just under six months and then keep "extending" their contract, so they never have to pay benefits for employees. This is while we work on the same movies for Sony Pictures Animation, like 'Hotel Transylvania,' and they enjoy benefits funded from the labor of our work. This is also true for movies like "The Amazing Spider-Man," which has a union live-action crew, and is made and financed by our parent company."
Asked how far along the workers are in the process of unionization, SpiUnion said, "The process of unionization takes place in a number of steps. There haven't been any talks (to the best of our knowledge) because not enough representation cards have been signed and returned by artists yet. The high turnover rate doesn't help, with sometimes hundreds of people being let go when a show finishes. When '50 percent plus one' of employees have returned cards, IATSE can petition the NLRB for Sony to open good-faith negotiations."
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