Improving the lives of Visual Effects workers: a list

In my opinion, the best part of the Occupy movement that swept across the globe last year was solidarity. Safety in numbers, really. The concept that by standing together as a group, we can have our voices heard, and drown out the competing voices of monied special interests and lobbyists. In contrast, one of the drawbacks of the Occupy movement was the lack of cohesive message and talking points. The corresponding conservative Tea Party movement had really one unified message: less taxation. That was the party line, so to speak, and it was effective in getting congressional representatives elected who shared similar views.

What I am putting forth here are 5 items that will improve our lives. The Visual Effects Society got something good started with the Visual Effects Industry Bill of Rights. I rather hastily wrote down four items for the “About” portion of this site. Let’s use that list as a starting point, combined with the VES Bill of rights, and elaborate on several key issues.

  1. Fair pay. This is kind of a no-brainer. However, when I read VFX Solider’s post on the working conditions in India, specifically with regard to unpaid internships, I was appalled. Here is what I propose. Every non-supervisory VFX worker, and this includes production assistants and coordinators, should be entitled to hourly pay with overtime. While this will vary from city to city and country to country, VFX workers should at minimum be paid an hourly rate that will assure a decent standard of living for wherever they choose to call home. Unpaid internships, exploitative day rates, “comp time” in lieu of overtime (which, in my experience, is rarely paid out), and delayed payment of compensation should all be things of the past. In addition, as we gain seniority, we should have the ability to accrue sick time and vacation time. When I worked in a supermarket as a cashier, a job that required little to no skill or training, I had all of these benefits. Is it too much to ask that artisans and technicians who are highly skilled and talented be afforded the same courtesy? I think not.
  2. Fair and safe working conditions. Most of the large facilities provide this to their employees. Imageworks, for example, has nice ergonomic desks and chairs, and the climate control is operational and pleasant. However, not all facilities provide this same level of comfort. There are some facilities that operate in dodgy neighborhoods. Due to the hours we work, we should feel safe walking to our cars at night, which isn’t always the case. I have seen all types of smaller facilities. Some are very buttoned up, and some have ethernet cables duct taped to the floor, and exposed wiring hanging out of the ceiling. Pixomondo in Santa Monica refuses to provide adequate cooling and ventilation in their facility, and artists are required to work in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees in the summer time.  In conclusion, if we have to sit somewhere for 12 hours in a day, we should be comfortable doing so.
  3. Portable health care benefits. This is primarily an issue in the United States and emerging markets. As a lot of you know, most facilities do not offer healthcare to freelancers at all. We are faced with two miserable options: buy your own healthcare, which covers very little and is quite expensive, or, if you happen to be one of the unlucky ones with a pre-existing condition, simply go without. We need a system that maintains health coverage no matter where we work.
  4. Portable retirement benefits. In the United States, you have two options for retirement savings which are tied to your employer: a pension, or a 401(k) plan. I can’t think of a single place that actually provides a pension. Some of the larger VFX houses offer 401(k) plans to their long term freelancers and staff employees, but if you leave, you can no longer contribute to the company’s plan. Some houses match a percentage of the employee’s contributions, but this often times comes with a complicated vesting schedule. If you leave before you are vested, which could require a commit of four years or more, you are entitled to either none or a small percentage of the employer’s contribution. A system needs to be established whereby we pay into our retirement savings regardless of where we work.
  5. Elimination of tax subsidy-based employment. Sony recently announced plans to shutter its facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Previously, the state of New Mexico offered a generous tax subsidy to film producers in order to entice them to bring work there. When they abandoned the tax subsidy due to budget constraints, visual effects houses all of a sudden have no reason to do business there, so everything is shut down. There are many people who uprooted their entire lives and the lives of their families to go to Albuquerque, and all that it got them for their effort, in the long run, was a pink slip. Tax subsidies do nothing but hasten our race to the bottom. There is talent all over the world, but it is concentrated in several cities, such as London, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Let’s make sure that film makers use VFX facilities in a city because they require the talents of the artists and technicians in that location, not because they are lured there for financial reasons.

I wish to help occupy and organize visual effects for the benefit of all involved, and these are my demands. I would love to open this up for comment, however. Are the items on this list an accurate assessment of what would improve our quality of life? Have I forgotten something that is equally as important, or made an egregious error above? Please let me know.

When we stand together, we must have the same goals for the group as a whole. Let’s put together a unified front for improving our quality of life.