Inside the VFX industry: another look at wages, working conditions from employer standpoint

My Business in Vancouver column on the working conditions of Vancouver’s VFX workers, the people who produce digital special effects for the film industry, struck a nerve with many industry veterans.

As is always the case in a controversy like this, there are many sides to every story. I used much of the feedback, from an employer perspective, for a second column on this important and emerging economic success story, available in the current issue of BIV:

The news that VFX artists — the people producing the digital special affects for BC’s film industry — are being courted by organizers for Local 891 of the International Association of Theatre Stage Employees struck a raw nerve when I reported on the campaign in last month’s column.
No one, myself included, doubts the value of the emerging VFX sector, its importance to the future of BC’s digital entertainment sector, or the integrity of the vast majority of its employers.
But my inbox received a quick barrage of passionate and fact-filled letters from VFX studio owners who take issue with the claims made by the union, as well as my statement that the provincial labour tax credit for VFX is paid to local VFX studios.
In fact, the tax credit is paid to the production company, often based in Los Angeles, not the local VFX studio. I apologize for the error.
“Your plug (for IATSE) intimates that VFX artists have a tough time making a good living,” one industry veteran wrote, “which is definitely not the case.”
Although new artists are paid the $800 to $1000 a week I cited and may be asked to do overtime, he said, many earn much more, especially after on-the-job training and experience that may take months.
Overtime is carefully monitored and paid according to the law, he said, but “artists have a give and take attitude” and “won’t even bother the employer with OT” if he has kept them on during slow periods when they could have been laid off.
These skilled and efficient workers can command better wages and quickly move on if they’re unsatisfied.
Another studio manager pointed out that his firm maintains a core staff that enjoys decent wages and benefits as well as paid overtime. These employees are augmented, during busy periods, with contract workers who also receive full benefits as well as overtime and vacation pay as required by law.
The quality of new VFX workers was an issue raised by several writers. “Everyone who considers themselves an ‘artist’ or knows how to use a specific piece of software can call themselves a ‘VFX artist’ and apply for a job,” wrote another VFX studio veteran.
Only 20 percent of digital arts training school graduates may have the artistic skill to keep an industry job, he added, noting that “you can’t teach someone to be a VFX artist like you can teach someone to build a car.”
Faced with that reality, studio owners shudder at the thought of rigid pay grids or, worse, union hiring halls.
One forecast a shift of less-skilled VFX work to offshore locations in India and Asia, leaving only the most-skilled and highly-paid positions here in Canada. He questioned whether the union clearly understands the fundamental differences between the growing digital side of the industry and the conventional film sector.
Whether or not VFX artists in BC ultimately chose to seek union representation is ultimately up to the artists themselves.
There is no doubt the success of BC’s film industry is due, at least in part, to the stability, wages and benefits produced by the sophisticated partnership that evolved between film unions and employers.
The challenge for all industry stakeholders, the unions included, is to find the right response to the opportunities and challenges posed by VFX.
“Fear and animosity stir up quickly on this topic,” noted an anonymous blogger on the website of the Visual Effects Association of BC (www.veabc.ca).
“The most important thing for everyone involved in VFX to learn and take to heart – union, studio, employee and employer – is that VFX is currently the power in our branch of the entertainment business. The studios can’t live without our product or what we offer in terms of budgetary solutions.”