#2.70 – Leave VFX, Please

#2.70 - Leave VFX, Please
#2.70 - back
sent from: London, UK. destination: San Rafael, California, USA

An ex-ILM[-er] of some fame sent out an email to a bunch of ILM alumni about his thoughts on the state of the VFX industry. It was provocative and interesting, and I asked him if I could quote it on a postcard. He agreed but preferred that he remain anonymous. What I will say, for context, is that he’s no longer in the industry, at least not directly. What I cannot quote in full here I’ll put on the blog (see below).

There is a relatively fixed demand for VFX labour.. it can only grow so much – there are only so many tentpole pictures a studio can release in a given year.
So what’s changed? You. Supply. There are too many effects artists out there.. willing to work for less than their last jobs because, hey, it’s a job.. Meanwhile, the arts education industry churns out starry-eyed Maya jockeys willing to work for even less than that.
What can be done?
1. Leave. Go back to school. Choose another career.
2. After you leave, don’t teach VFX. You may think you’re doing the world a service by educating younglings – but if they have minimum wage to look forward to, you are not helping. Stop it.
3. Put the glory myth to bed. When a talented young kid asks you for advice on how to get into the business, tell them “don’t” and hang up the phone. Stop giving talks about your work – or if you do, be sure to spend at least half your time talking about how poorly you are paid, how you have to move often, how you don’t meet anyone famous, you will never get to direct, and you have lower back and wrist ailments that will probably never go away. Make it as unappealing as possible.

Interesting, if bitter, food for thought.

Here’s the original email:
There is a relatively fixed demand for VFX labor – it goes up and down from year to year, and I guess it is larger now than when I started – but not by leaps and bounds. And it can only grow so much. There are only so many tentpole pictures that the studios can release in a given year, and each of those films has only so many shots – even if every single one has VFX.
So what’s changed? You. Supply. There are too many effects artists out there. Every time a VFX house lays people off, many of them swim to the boats left over – wherever in the world they are. They are willing to work for less than their last job because hey, it’s a job. Meanwhile the arts education industry churns out ever larger numbers of starry-eyed Maya jockeys willing to work for even less than that.
What can be done?
1. Leave. Go back to school. Choose another career. Don’t continue clogging up the supply. Not everyone can do this, but I argue that those who can, owe it to those who can’t.
2. After you leave, don’t teach VFX. You may think you’re doing the world a service by educating younglings – but if they have minimum wage to look forward to, you are not helping. Stop it. Guilds succeeded in supporting crafts for thousands of years by insisting on apprenticeship as the only method for advancement. VFX was the same for a long time – until CGI somehow changed this way of thinking.
3. Put the glory myth to bed. When a talented young kid asks you for advice on how to get into the business, tell them “don’t” and hang up the phone. Stop giving talks about your work – or if you do, be sure to spend at least half your time talking about how poorly you are paid, how you have to move often, how you don’t meet anyone famous, you will never get to direct, and you have lower back and wrist ailments that will probably never go away. Feel free to spread unsubstantiated rumors about unethical or illegal business practices. Make it as unappealing as possible.

Some thoughts – I’ve been stewing on this for a few days, and although I think he has a point, I think the fundamental argument – that it’s a supply and demand problem – is overly simplistic. If it were, then it implies that if the supply of artists went down, this would somehow fix the overall problems in the industry. What I can see happening is that if the supply of artists went down they would be paid more and have perhaps better contracts, but the fundamental conditions they’d be working under (too short schedules, difficult clients, unsustainable vfx vendor business models) would not be significantly different. The difference at the worker level can come if, as others have suggested, as a group we speak up and, in the different countries where we have a presence, organise and push for some kind of collective representation.

11/18 update – following this post, I had some thoughts about practical advice I would give VFX artists who feel they do not want to leave the business.

23 thoughts on “#2.70 – Leave VFX, Please

  1. Hit the nail on the head! I recently had a starry eyed computer science grad ask me how to get some work experience at any off the post houses in London. I told him to ring H.R , run for a while…etc…but honesty I just wanted to tell him not to bother, but didn't have the heart or courage too.

  2. hey Sagar. Yeah I think it's important not to sugar coat the present realities. In the wake of this email there was some good debate about whether it really was just a supply and demand problem, but this is definitely a big aspect of it.

  3. Oversupply of labor is one big aspect of the problem. The others are a global workplace, instantaneous connectivity via Internet and the constant improvement of both computers and software. These factors combine to alter the work of VFX artists forever.

    An ever-growing oversupply of artists push salaries down. The global workplace and Internet connectivity make new labor collectives ineffective. (You cannot strike against a company unless you can control the workplace to prevent being replaced, either by resistance or through government protection.) The speed of improvement of computers and software means the skill required of an artist is reduced. The barrier to entry is lowered, and the overabundance of workers increases even more, accelerating the reduction of compensation.

    Because VFX was not unionized, the digital revolution resulted in a paradigm shift that most VFX artists don't yet recognize. Until now, VFX artists have operated under the “highly skilled technician” business model, like an engineer or a brain surgeon. Few people could deliver their services, and there were substantial barriers to entry. Movies needed the services of these highly skilled workers, so they were well compensated. Few people even knew about these technicians, so there was a small supply of apprentices who worked their way up into the business. (See Dennis Muren's resume.)

    This is no longer the case.

    Now, every teenage kid has a camera and a laptop and is cutting mattes and doing match moves. Instead of playing in garage bands, they are making garage VFX.

    Although they don't realize it yet, VFX artists now operate under the “Actor/Musician” business model. Actors and Musicians (AM) are oversupplied, and more hopeful AMs graduate every week. A very small percentage of the best and most fortunate AMs become Stars and command top dollar. We're talking a fractional percentage. The rest of AMs are happy to have a full-time gig for blue-collar money. Many realize that they can't take the demands of the AM business forever, so they get an office job and do AM work for free on the weekends. The reason they do it is because they derive a lot of pleasure from AM work, and its difficult and expensive to mount a production themselves. Besides, they're not Producers, they're AMs, and they live for the creative satisfaction of AM work.

    VFX artists have irretrievably transitioned into the Actor/Musician model, and it's time to wake up and face reality. Either you need to get busy becoming a rock star, or you need to get used to the idea of playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

  4. forgive me if i seem a bit unsympathetic……but boo f*%*ing hoo.

    Say you've been at a big studio like ILM or Disney for 15 years. You've never had to look for another job, and you were getting a sweet paycheck. The current jobs situation must be terrifying!

    Say you're an artist from Europe who's had to look for a new job every 6 months to a year for the past 10 years, but still makes an above average wage. The instability is a but annoying, but you're used to it. It's just the way the industry (outside of CA) has been for a long time.

    Every studio is producing more and more big vfx films, and releasing them in the spring, summer, fall and holiday season. Ironically, Hollywood is absolutely useless at making films, and that is where most of the big problems stem from.

  5. “Say you've been at a big studio like ILM or Disney for 15 years. You've never had to look for another job, and you were getting a sweet paycheck. The current jobs situation must be terrifying!”

    Wow, talk about just queuing up assumption after assumption, and placing everything back as just being a bunch of whiney Californians who are finally being hit like the rest of the world has been in our industry… Wait a second, it's not CA, now it's the studios who are just guilty of making shit movies! It's their fault! That's where all the problems stem from!

    Perhaps you are okay working without overtime pay, or never seeing your family, or never being able to settle down in one location, or with moving wherever the work is. Maybe you're fine with seeing pay shrink and margins decrease, and the summertime lull grow larger and larger. Feel free to chase studios as they move from one tax incentivized area to another, but how about presenting a constructive comment to the conversation? Boo f*%*ing hoo? How about shame on you for being complacent and not caring enough about others because – hell – you've got yours!

    The conversation started on an ILM list, but was not specific to ILM itself. The post is a commentary on the greater state of the entire industry, which is in trouble. Studios are continually under-bidding each other and the artists pay the price for unrealistic bids, closing studios, and shrinking budgets. I'd argue that there is, in fact, a lack of talented VFX artists in the industry to handle the shortened deadlines and production schedules. Schools churn out graduates at an alarming rate, the majority of which will not make it. Studios would rather save money hiring someone at half cost, but those people often take 10x as long to produce something.

    VFX artists are nothing more than glorified day labourers. You get paid during a season, then you move where the next job is. It's no different than being a migrant farm hand. You harvest corn one season, then drive to the next farm and start picking apples. The sooner VFX workers stop considering themselves white collar workers, and start realizing they are blue collar factory workers, the better. Unions and trade guilds exist to ensure there are fair labour practices. VFX is the ONLY section of the film industry that does not have any sort of representation.

    I'd challenge you to find a single person who's been in the industry longer than 10 years that doesn't have plans to leave the industry at some point. Nobody sees it as a long term career option, and that is sad.

    So have fun moving for a new job every 6-12 months and accepting it as the norm and having an above average income. There will always be someone younger and hungrier and willing to do whatever it takes to replace you. Your time is limited.

  6. One big difference between Actors and VFX artist, I would contend, is that you can imagine a career as a professional actor that sees you all the way from your 20s into your 60s that provides for you and your family. It's tough, you have to deal with a lot of bullshit, you will have tough years, but actors in most developed countries are part of a union that gives them health insurance, retirement, so they can work at being professional actors with a long view.

    I think the problem with VFX artist is that it's still well paid (enough) to attract you in your 20s and 30s, but beyond, what?

    There is no clear path I see to being an in-production VFX artist in my middle-age and beyond.

  7. When you say Europe, do you include London in there or not?

    I can understand the perception that it's California vs the World, but I don't think that's true – the US artists I know have become used to being just as mobile as anyone, and got the message sooner than other parts of the world. In my experience it's the current mid/senior level group of London artists who are getting a shock that after 10 years in a fairly safe cocoon they are having to face the reality that their next gig might be in [name that non-European, not-USA country].

    I think you're downplaying how annoying the instability of being a VFX artist is, over the long term. One move every two to three years (lets be generous), OK when you're 25, 30, 35. But when you're 40, 45, 50.. ? Yes there are people who do it but at some point, what is it for? When does your family or kids say – enough, we want to stay in that high school – so then what? You're forced to do what I know a lot of people do – they move away from their families for 6 months, a year, or more. And for what?

  8. Agreed, we've all got limited life-spans at this point. Question is whether we get out before we get ejected.

    I think you make an interesting point, one that's worth exploring, about the lack of talented VFX artists in the industry. I've seen it happen time and time again on big shows at decent companies that we cannot staff certain departments with sufficiently skilled people, which flies in the face of the 'over-supply of artists' picture. In that case, how does that fit with the notion that we are little more than migrant farm workers?

  9. I agree with the supply and demand view point … the last ten years has seen huge advancements in technology, the ever increasing expectations from audiences and the hunger of major corporations to drive growth and profits. All of this has helped to accelerate the growth of VFX at a phenomenal rate (good times).

    There are also a number of external factors most seem to gloss over; the internet … people just aren't going to the cinema as much, the global recession and the fact that there are only about 5 companies supplying the market. All of this has levelled the playing field; I do believe that we have reached the pinnacle of growth in our industry. The ambitions of some VFX facilities have stretched past that and are suffer the consequences (bad times).

    The major downside is that the artists will always take the hit as they are now, rates being squeezed, having to move to global locations and in the worst cases not being able to work. Disney is a really interesting development … they have been for the last 5 years as I see it been buying smart; Pixar (content + CG capability); Marvel (what a back catalogue!); Lucas film (content + VFX capability); and more recently Hasbro (content + a route into lucrative games & merchandising). Disney will have all revenue generating angles covered from film production through to the toy market not to mention all the sequels, games & TV bits in-between.

    Is this a major threat to Paramount, Universal and Fox? It must have them thinking! It does however change the business model and cement Disney as the main producer of major tent pole productions many of which they can now pick and choose from their own library of stock. I think we are about to see a major shift in the movie business to a model that reduces the risk of huge loses like JCOM.

    I foresee more consolidation in our industry next year, in the mean-time we are all stuck in the limbo of pushed back released dates, lack of new films to bid on, with studios having to keep a close eye on the salary bill and trying to do the right thing.

    Our world is changing …

  10. “Say you've been at a big studio like ILM or Disney for 15 years.” Well, if you were at Disney for that long you could retire with: your healthcare being basically payed for until you die, a monthly pension check until you die, access to a 401k plan, decent healthcare, and many other benefits. Why? Because artists at Disney are unionized. If you spent 15 years jumping from gig to gig, facility to facility as a show-hire you will have jack shit besides what you could scrape together on your own for beenfits.

  11. Hi Ryan,

    I couldn't agree with you more. Our world is changing, and whether we like it or not, no matter how much our work is the stuff that people pay to see, we're on the wrong side of the equation.

    Yesterday I had lunch with a well known VFX supervisor, he talked about a big upcoming project that the facility doing it need to re-think their workflow and tools in order do it in less time with fewer people, because they simply cannot afford to do it any other way. They severely underbid the project to get it just to keep the lights on and to avoid laying off lots of people.

    That's the world we're in.


  12. Newsflash: people want to create. Look at any industry where creation is the key, and you'll see a lot of people wanting to get into it. Fashion, television, programming, vfx, design… all of them.

    The secret to any of these industries is not to quit to do something else, or to discourage others from joining in. It's to be better than the people who are trying to get in, or get out of their way. The idea of a bunch of got-in-firsts clutching on to their dream by discouraging others from pursuing the same dream is just about the most pathetic imagery my mind can conjure (mind you I *am* a got-in-first, not a bitter struggling-to-get-in).

    If you want to work in a creative field, raise the bar, and encourage others to raise the bar so you have something new to work toward. If you want to be guaranteed a job without the worry of new talented people coming along, then by all means leave the industry.

  13. Raise the bar. I don't see how a roto artist or shot animator or cloth artist “raises the bar”. Maybe you can raise the car doing creatively amazing things, but you're either doing independent films, RnD, or the 1% who's spectacularily talented (or a have a silver tongue) and everything lines up just right. In the meantime, the industry needs plenty of hard working people in the middle to do exactly what the brief says, and competently. There is no raising the bar when no one wants you to jump over it.

    Time and again, the solution is to look to create an undustry wide union to ensure a decent working environment, health care and pension. The studio won't do it, they're underbidding themselves into the ground; the production company won't do it, they're laughing all the way to the bank. It's up to all us snivelling cowards meekly collecting our paychecks.

  14. So let's say you have a trade union, and someone who's better and faster at roto than you comes along. Are you saying you'd like a union to protect you from being replaced by someone who's better at your job than you are?

  15. yes, raise the bar. Always be improving, always be learning. Always be closing.

    But, raising the bar when you first start out at 22, 23 means something different when you're 35, or 45, or 55, or 65.

    Who can judge what it means at age 40 to be better than an artist just starting out at 22/23? Some things you cannot compete on. If raising the bar means purely being faster/more able or willing to stay until 4am (not necessarily smarter), then at some point an artist who's in their 40s or 50s cannot compete on the same playing ground as the new people.

    And then what?

    By what you're saying here, the older person should be replaced.

    When I started in vfx, the people in film-making whose careers I venerated were people like Jerry Goldsmith, Thelma Schoonmaker, Jack Lemmon, Walter Hill, people who are/were craftspeople able to keep working and be vital into their 70s and beyond, even though I am sure there are 25 year olds who can supposedly do what they do faster/better. Are you able to look down the road and think – yeah, I'll be sitting at a desk doing vfx when I'm 60? 70?



  16. Well, I just got into the VFX industry 2 years ago and I've already had to move twice. I'm young now. But I don't want to be doing this for the rest of my life.

    All these comments are really depressing me.

    But I still love animation.

  17. How would you implement such a policy through your company's HR?

    Would you have different scales for evaluating employees based on age?

  18. so when someone say I should quit my job, leave the industry, go back to school and do something else, can anyone please enlighten me how is this better? I have to pay for school now? my curent position is just going to be replaced by someone else, and I'll have no income and have to pay for school…. dont get me wrong, I totally understand the whole frustration with the vfx industry, and the whole flat wages frustrate the hell out of me everytime I think about it, but dude, I dont think leave the field leave me much other choice on what should I do as a job

  19. I have some practical ideas about what we can do both now and down the road, which I'll be writing about soon. There are no magic answers. I think we all agree that the basic 'just leave' message isn't a helpful/happy/useful one, but I do think there are alternatives. Watch this space.

  20. I am sorry to hear that this discussion has been depressing. There are things we can do and look forward to, I think, which I'm going to talk about in more detail in an upcoming postcard.

    I think we all feel that the 'just get the hell out' message isn't very helpful, but it's more about moving forward with your eyes open and understanding the new realities we are all a part of.


  21. This thread sounds like Teamsters worrying that anyone can drive a truck, and because of that, the price of drivers is going down.

    Why the surprise that VFX has a commodity component. The nature of a commodity is to be sold at the highest price the market will bear, and when there's a lot of the commodity, the price drops. When there's a lot of roto artists, the price paid to roto artists drops. When there's a lot of Maya button pushers, the wages of Maya button pushers drops.

    The only component in the VFX commodity that cannot be mass produced is experience and real artistic judgement. FIlm schools can churn out VFX hopefuls by the thousands. but film schools can never teach experience or real artistic judgement. Experience can only be learned on the job. Real motion picture artistic judgement is only developed within production pressures.

    When I started in the VFX business, it has the sex appeal in Hollywood of Craft Service. Today, some aspects of VFX have that same sex appeal. But artistic VFX magic has been and is always what will reap rewards for the VFX artist and at the box office.

    I welcome the supposed Tsunami of VFX “students” into the motion picture business. From that tidal wave will emerge the handful of amazing talents that every generation produces.

    In the meantime, I intend to relentlessly develop my VFX artistic mojo, and enjoy the pay that flows from it.

    Make magic,


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