VFX artists, the worker bees of Vancouver’s booming digital sector, are looking for a raise

Vancouver’s buoyant film industry — which is overwhelmingly unionized — is building another driver of future economic growth with the expansion of the city’s booming digital special effects sector. These small, nimble companies, along with Hollywood giants like Pixar, generate the crashes, fires and other digital effects that are so much a part of current media and gaming production.

To be successful, these VFX firms need platoons of highly-trained digital artists. These are exactly the kinds of skilled, green jobs our city needs. But low pay and unpaid overtime, combined with the high cost of housing, are creating anger among VFX artists who do not enjoy the wages and working conditions of their unionized counterparts.

I explored this issue in this column for Business in Vancouver, published Dec. 7:

The angry man on the other end of Dusty Kelly’s phone line was a successful visual effects (VFX) artist in Vancouver’s booming film business with a very simple question.
“I do good work, I work long hours,” he said. “I want to have a family and a career. I need dental and health benefits. If I work in a warehouse, I get benefits. Why not as a VFX artist?”
It’s a question BC’s film industry needs to answer, says Kelly, corresponding secretary and an organizer with Local 891 of the International Alliance of Theatre Stage Employees (IATSE).
“VFX artists’ work doesn’t just impact the motion picture industry, it’s becoming a critical element of the industry’s production system.” says Kelly, whose union is a leading member of the BC Council of Film Unions and has jurisdiction over the VFX sector.
“Everyone else on the production gets these benefits. Why not the VFX artist?”
VFX artists create the digital space ships, massed battalions of soldiers, colossal explosions and jaw-dropping stunts that have fuelled all of Hollywood’s recent blockbusters.
Usually employed by digital arts firms working on sub-contracts from producers, they are exactly the highly-skilled creative workers Vancouver needs to maintain its competitive edge in the film industry.
Their employers compete aggressively for work in a very fast, price-conscious business. Ever-evolving VFX technologies are supplanting traditional filmmaking techniques, but VFX compensation rates reflect a classic race to the bottom.
Unlike other film industry workers, most VFX artists are working long overtime shifts for low, low hourly rates, squeezed between low wages and Vancouver’s high living costs.
While Kelly knows of a handful of top-rated VFX artists who can command $40 to $50 an hour, entry level workers frequently are held to $1,100 a week, an effective hourly rate of $27.50. Twelve-hour days are routine.
Add in ten or even 20 hours of unpaid overtime a week and the rate tumbles to $18.33, without benefits. Many employers skirt employment standards by negotiating “fixed rate” wages, or claiming that the work is exempt due to its “high tech” nature.
To rub salt in the wounds, the BC government provides a tax incentive for VFX called the Digital Animation or Visual Effects (DAVE) tax credit to help employers with labour costs, effectively subsidizing these already low wages.
Yet the demand for qualified workers is so great that the industry is working with Victoria and Ottawa to expedite the import of overseas talent under the Temporary Foreign Workers program,
In some cases, DAVE can be compounded with film tax credits for even greater savings. In February, DAVE was raised to 17.5 percent from 15 percent, as was a similar credit for digital gaming labour costs, to meet competition from other jurisdictions.
Kelly estimates there are about 30 digital effects firms in Vancouver, including 12 with their roots in Los Angeles. They employ hundreds of VFX artists on a freelance basis, none with union benefits.
That’s a situation IATSE hopes to change by creating a new collective agreement for VFX workers. Using YouTube videos, a blog (http://iatse891vfx.wordpress.com) and an online survey, IATSE is seeking connections with VFX artists and their ideas on how to proceed.
Kelly is ready for employer arguments that work will quickly vapourize if costs rise. The union understands the industry, she points out, and is a leading member of the BC Council of Film Unions, which has a long and successful bargaining relationship with producers.
Far from hurting the industry, stable wages and benefits should improve the productivity and quality of growing BC’s VFX firms.
Vancouver remains a Hollywood favourite because of the quality of its crews, its labour stability and its sophisticated studio infrastructure, Kelly notes, all operated by unionized workers. It’s time for the VFX sector to get aligned with that reality.