Oblivion: VFX marginalized

Just finished viewing a featurette about the innovative technology used in the filming of the “Sky Tower” set piece for Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion. The full text of the article and video is available here:


While the video does indeed showcase some impressive techniques used to create realistic front projections surrounding a set, and provides very realistic lighting on the actors, there is one glaring omission.

Not ONCE is visual effects supervisor Eric Barba mentioned, nor is the work of Digital Domain. The video applauds the creation of one of the first “in-camera visual effects” with not so much as a cursory nod to the people who are involved with conceptualizing and creating them.



Short term / Long term

While our goals for good jobs for all digital artists and personnel can be found on the about section, it’s worth noting some specifics on how this site tends to operate. In our current broken system, we acknowledge that not only will that not happen anytime soon, but the corporate, underbid & cut costs at all costs mindset is racing us as fast as possible in the other direction which will only continue to eviscerate jobs and untimely create a permanent underclass where workers are constantly push to subsistence level.

It took a long time to get us here and while it doesn’t have to, we know it will take a long time to get us out. Here are short term and long term steps that must be taken to correct. If you are reading this chances are not only do you care but are also a non-passive consumer of information. If you’re far enough along that path that you’ve had the inevitable realization that your industry is disappearing from North America (US first, Canada second) and have figured out its the artists that must rise up and fight for good jobs, here are short term as well as long term steps that must be taken. And by the way, the United States has done all of these things before.

Short term: (you and me)

-Educate those who have allowed themselves to absorb 1% mis-information. An example would be the person sitting two desks over from you who says things like ”If we unionize that will make our jobs go away.”

-Organize vfx artists. You spend your lunch hour reactively bitching about the company you work for. Move past that onto proactively standing together to support the group of those who agree so you can all function as a whole.

-Action. Social networking and blogging is useful in terms or organizing but nothing will really happen without physical action. This is what the Occupy movement is about and where we aim to head if others continue to show interest. Help us build a group of VFX soldiers by letting us know you know.

Long term: (you and me and the people pushing bottom up activism that changes the public knowledge to the point where the political will is there to make these things happen)

-Strong unionization or trade unionism. This create leverage and power. “if you don’t pay all of us overtime, all of us are going to walk out the door until you do.”

-Tariffs. The train has left the station and is not coming back. No matter how organized artists are, organization at the ground level is mainly useful for working conditions and quality of life but doesn’t have a direct correlation with outsourcing to lower paying countries or other regions will worst working conditions. A tarriff says, ”hey company trying to maximize profit at all costs, you’re welcome to send that work to India so you can pay a worker 10 cents when you would otherwise have to pay and American worker a dollar, but if you do, you’ll have to pay a 90 cent tarriff on that.” While we can’t do much about other nations offering extremely cheap labor, what we can do is penalize corporations that choose to exploit that pool of inexpensive labor. At the very least, we should close tax loopholes which allow companies to send jobs overseas and pay little to no corporate income tax.

-Punish bad behavior / Reward good behavior. If the political will is there to support the 99% before the 1%, we would have the opposite of what we have now which is currently providing tax incentives to actually send jobs away. A tent-pole example of this is why most films are not shot in California even though all the studios are based in California, which is because studios are currently rewarded for bad behavior of shooting them out of state or out of country rather than being rewarded for good behavior of shooting them right on their own sound stages in LA. This draws parallels at every level of politics and an extension in another area would be rewarding companies that invest in green energy and punish companies that pollute which is the opposite of what’s happening now. Mainly thanks to lobbyists in Washington for the 1% special intrests.

-Move towards a better system. This is an entirely other subject of course but there’s no reason we can’t have a system with less economic in-equality that puts people and the well being of the planet before profits.

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.

Online security

As I begin to add content to the site, I wanted to take a moment to chat about online security.

One of the major concerns for those of us who are trying to organize visual effects workers is: what if we get caught? Legally, employers can’t do anything to an employee who is participating in an organizing drive. However, in practice, we all know that employers can certainly make life difficult for those people who choose to stand together and organize. I will cite Wal-Mart as an example.

Let’s make sure and keep our online communication safe from prying eyes. Some things to remember:

  1. If you use your workstation, and your facility runs Linux or Mac, you should assume that every command line action is logged.
  2. Without administrator privileges you can’t install any privacy software, nor can you check to see what is being kept track of.
  3. Instant messenger conversations are logged in many facilities, Sony among them.
  4. Every web site you visit and how much data you transfer is logged.

Creepy, right? Here are some precautionary steps you can take:

  1. Avoid AOL Instant Messenger. AIM traffic is rarely encrypted, so if you say anything over IM, you can safely assume that someone has the ability to read it. This goes without saying, but avoid corporate IM services at all costs. For chat, use Google Talk inside of a web browser, and be sure that you are logged into https://gmail.com instead of http://gmail.com.
  2. Avoid company email. Again, these mails are unencrypted and easy to monitor and track. Use web-based mail, such as Hotmail or Gmail, and be sure that you are using the https protocol so that everything is encrypted.
  3. Try to practice secure browsing ( https ) whenever possible. I have enabled a security certificate for this site, but it will cause a browser to display a warning since it is self-signed.
  4. If you are really concerned about your web traffic being logged, there are several options. The first, and my favorite, is to use a TOR-enabled browser. For more info, check out the TOR Project. This, generally speaking, requires administrative access, so if you bring a laptop or tablet to work, this is your best option. If you are using your workstation, you may have to use a proxy server. Peacefire maintains a list of these, which are free, but have a ton of ads.

Good luck out there, and remember to stay safe!


Welcome to OccupyVFX.

This site has just been established, with the idea to provide a better quality of life for all VFX artists, world-wide.