VFX workers want to unionize: high risk, low wages, crazy hours

A new IATSE survey of VFX workers found that two-thirds believe their working conditions are unsustainable.

This doesn’t just mean cutting the new “Ant-Man” movie. Roughly two-thirds of visual effects workers in the industry believe their working conditions are unsustainable due to a severe lack of health care, retirement options, overtime pay and training in their field.

That’s the opinion of hundreds of VFX professionals across Hollywood who participated in a survey commissioned by IATSE and IATSE. published on Wednesday in order to finally organize VFX workers as a union.

The organizers, on behalf of IATSE, spoke to the press on Wednesday about the “alarming but not surprising survey results, which also revealed that almost nine out of 10 VFX workers feel that they have no way to negotiate their rights or the solution to burnout and wages. theft and unsafe working conditions. Armed with this information, IATSE hopes to launch an official VFX union later this year. The timing may be fortunate given other upcoming labor negotiations, including a possible writers’ strike.

“These results paint a picture of an industry in crisis,” Mark Patch (“Tenet,” “Nope”), VFX associate and IATSE organizer, told the press. “It’s not just about sharing information. It’s about workplace democracy. It’s about justice. It’s about winning union representation for these workers this year.”

One of the driving forces of VFX employees is healthcare. Only 12 percent of “client-side” VFX employees, meaning those employed directly by a production company and working under studio supervision, said they had portable health care that could be transferred from project to project; 43 percent did not receive any care at all. Only a quarter of “supply-side” VFX workers and those working for larger VFX companies also receive portable health care. A third of them receive no health care at all.

(L-R): Kathryn Newton as Cassandra "Cassie" Lang and Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA.  Photo: Jay Maidment.  © 2022 MARVEL.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantum Mania”

Jay Maidment

Only 15 percent of client-side workers receive a pension, as do less than half of sell-side workers. Most of the workers on the customer side of the industry said they were not paid for overtime, sometimes working more than 12-hour days, or were forced to work lunches and meals without a meal penalty.

During the survey, employees were also asked about safety levels and available training. According to Patch, VFX workers can be thrown deep into a shoot to figure out how to capture dangerous stunts or explosions to save money and do post-production.

“These workers often have no recourse to bring their grievances to anyone other than the manufacturers who may have imposed these conditions on them in the first place,” Patch said. “This contributes to a culture of silence, as workers don’t want to be seen as difficult, as all future job opportunities are based on personal relationships.”

Finally, the survey released an extensive list that breaks down salaries for every major VFX role within the industry. At the lowest level, a client-side production assistant earns an average of $1,050 per week, or $15 per hour, assuming a 60-hour work week; a key VFX supervisor earns an average of $71.43 per hour. Without overtime pay, this can be less than the minimum wage for the lowest paid employees. Patch said that while client-side employees may receive higher weekly wages than their sales counterparts, they have little stability when a movie or show ends.

“These producers and studios are in a worldwide race to the bottom, and the costs are increasingly being passed on to workers,” Patch said. “They always try to get away with paying us as little as possible, because neither the supplier nor the client side have a standard rate between jobs. There is a wide variation, which reflects the lack of transparency that currently exists about how much workers can claim for their time.”

Efforts to organize VFX workers are not new. Unionization efforts date back to at least 2013, when the company behind the Oscar-winning effects for Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” went bankrupt and the winners were booted off the stage with the theme song “Jaws” before they could speak. Who.

LIFE OF PI, 2012. TM and ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All rights reserved./Courtesy of Everett Collection

“The life of Pi”

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Ten years ago, VFX artist Maggie Kraisamutr wrote an article for IndieWire about what she found to be untenable industry conditions, working 187 hours in two weeks. Part of IATSE’s latest manpower push, Kraisamutr shared a story with the press about collapsing at his desk while trying to finish work on a show and even seeing his chronic illness turn into “gangrene.” Since then, VFX has become more and more in demand, and many of the problems it faced have gotten worse and more widespread.

“Most visual effects workers I know can barely survive more than five years in our industry without benefiting from employer-sponsored plans like pensions or 401k,” Kraisamutr said. “I don’t see how a career in visual effects can be sustainable in the long term. As a single person, maybe, but if you want to start a family, then the odds are against you. I think we all know that this industry is not very kind to families.”

One of the reasons VFX workers are the last major group in Hollywood without union representation stems from the rapid and global evolution of the industry. Rapidly evolving technology that creates new roles overnight complicates efforts to organize workers or lobby for demands. Union membership also risks the diversion of work from the United States and Canada to overseas areas outside IATSE’s jurisdiction.

The difference in this experiment is that IATSE now highlights employees working directly at studios and production companies, many of whom work directly with unionized staff. IATSE can start organizing by studio when the VFX work is too big – and too important – to ignore.

“When they see their direct workers are all covered by collective agreements and you’re on set, the contrast of inequality is stark,” said Ben Speight, organizer of IATSE International and the Animation Guild. “We don’t have to convince or persuade VFX people that they need a common voice in their work. Employees are more willing to accept their need for organization. We believe that in 2023 there will be an opportunity to move the vast majority of workers to larger studios or VFX houses to actually gain union recognition. We are moving from protest to power.”

Are you a Hollywood worker under unfair working conditions? Do you have thoughts about the upcoming labor negotiations? Email the writer at [email protected].

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