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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Michael Sainato

‘Like being in the military’: embattled VFX artists push to unionize

Asian movie being filmed in front of a green screen, Hong Kong, China.
Visual effects work is highly skilled and difficult. Photograph: Bob Henry/Alamy

Visual effects are increasingly relied upon in the entertainment industry with the explosion of content through streaming services, but the people behind this work have reported poor working conditions, including long hours without overtime, low pay, a lack of benefits, intense workloads and productivity demands.

Visual effects (VFX) workers are currently pushing to unionize with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE ), which currently represents over 150,000 workers in arts, media and entertainment.

On the production side, VFX workers often work side by side with many IATSE members, but currently don’t receive any of the protections, compensation and benefits their co-workers receive because they work under a union contract.

Longtime VFX workers on the production side who have worked on numerous high-profile films and TV series requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Other VFX workers often work for vendors that complete VFX artist work through contracts with studios.

“We are the only major department currently working on every film set in America that is not unionized, is not organized and is not covered by the same general basic agreements and all that entails for every other person on that set,” said one VFX worker. “Every other department has sort of built-in safeguards for everything because there’s an entire system in place to protect people from being taken advantage of.”

They explained enduring extremely long hours of work to rush through production and delivery, including sleeping in the office while working 18-hour days consecutively alongside unionized workers who are paid overtime and higher wages.

The conditions have worsened in recent years, the worker argued, due to speeded-up production schedules amid a content boom. As such it often falls on VFX workers to resolve goofs and mistakes in post-production while working for vendors operating under contracts with studios where the vendors pay as little as possible.

“It’s just going to continue to be that way until something occurs that forces that to stop,” the worker added. “Everyone is trying to do more with less and faster, but every other department, when they’re being asked that, they’re at least being compensated adequately, or there are protections in place to stop them from going too far.”

IATSE has been pushing to support VFX workers for years, with workers expressing an interest. The necessity for a union has intensified during the pandemic and amid an increasing demand for their work and productivity by streaming services.

“VFX workers are literally surrounded by union standards every day at work. From union animators to live-action editors and cinematographers, VFX workers witness what a union contract can do for all the other crafts in this massively profitable industry,” said Ben Speight, an organizer with IATSE Local 839. “Now more than ever, VFX workers are refusing to abandon the work they love but are looking to transform their careers into something just as sustainable, safe and secure as other workers in the industry.”

A second longtime VFX worker described having to fight and battle for every little thing with regard to pay, benefits and working parameters when working on a new show or film, and many younger, newer workers in VFX either don’t know how to advocate for themselves or are exploited under the guise of being able to work on an appealing movie or show.

“Workers that are unionized, they can say no without the fear of losing their job. If we say no, we might not have the job,” said the VFX worker.

A third VFX worker emphasized how low the pay is for VFX workers, with base level pay starting at minimum wage or just above it, as well as the long hours, which make it impossible to have any sort of responsibilities outside of a film or show.

“It’s basically like being in the military, you have to be completely on the ball 100% of the time, and if you are not, you will get fired on the spot,” they said. “It would make our lives a lot better if we could have actual job descriptions and union roles so we’re actually hiring people up to the task and know what the job entails.”

The work in VFX is highly technical and difficult, requiring skills in photography, database coding, artistic vision and numerous other skill sets. But workers are paid paltry wages without any benefits for their work and are expected to be on call at a moment’s notice to come into work as needed.

“It’s to the point where I’m very committed to trying to organize us because I don’t want to work in this industry without those protections. It’s not worth it because you’re basically signing up to ruin your life,” they said. “Unionization is about all of these pressing needs for our living and working conditions that are overdue.”

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