Blog posting highlights low pay rates, grinding workload

Though the WGA strike and the dramas among SAG and AFTRA leadership found their way into mainstream media, post-production labor issues rarely enter the consumer press.

So some in the biz perked up when the Huffington Post ran a blog item highlighting the plight of visual effects artists.

Political blogger Lee Stranahan, a one-time vfx artist and motion graphics artist for “Access Hollywood,” wrote an open letter to James Cameron asking him to speak out for “Fairness for Visual Effects Artists.”

Stranahan wrote, “The writers, composers and actors all will receive well-deserved residual payments for decades to come. But the visual effects artists don’t receive royalties and residuals. And as one visual effects artist told me, ‘even in the credits, we’re listed after craft services.’”

Daily Variety has covered the problems of vfx artists occasionally over the years, and with the production downturn and bad economy, matters are only getting worse.

With no union or guild, vfx artists often work punishing hours, without health or retirement benefits. Even when their weekly pay seems generous, they work so many hours their rate can be shockingly low.

Yet for decades now, most top-grossing films have relied on visual effects and CGI as much as — and recently, even more than — star power.

Daily Variety reached Stranahan at his home in New Mexico, where he moved with his family after leaving “Access Hollywood” due to health issues. He says he was looking for a way to use the platform to do some good for his friends and family in the vfx biz with the visibility. He hit on the idea of an open letter to Cameron, thinking, “Here’s a chance to address this topic in a way that will appeal to a wider audience.”

He filed the piece for the HuffPo’s Technology page, but the site’s editors surprised him by featuring it all weekend prominently on the Entertainment page, which gets much more traffic. It’s already been translated into French and Spanish and went viral on Twitter.

Visual Effects Society chairman Jeff Okun said Stranahan’s column is “absolutely true.”

“The fact that we have no representation means we have no voice anywhere,” Okun said, “so it’s a free-for-all from the bottom up and the top down,” where artists and studios alike must haggle for the best deal possible.

Although Okun has been outspoken, the Visual Effects Society’s charter forbids it from taking a guild or union role, and the org would have to dissolve and re-form to move in that direction, Okun noted.

Yet there is a union that says it’s eager to represent vfx artists: IATSE’s Animation Guild.

Steve Hulett, business rep for Animation Guild Local 839, said the problem is that few vfx artists are willing to try to organize their workplaces.

Local 839 tried to organize Sony Pictures Imageworks some years ago, but the vote failed.

Even Stranahan, who calls himself “liberal,” is somewhat ambivalent about labor unions. But at least one vfx artist who’s got union representation reports his life changed markedly.

Dave Rand, who led the charge to recover salaries for artists from Montreal’s defunct Meteor Studios and has since become a vocal advocate for artists, is now working at Image Movers Digital in Marin County, where he’s repped by IATSE.

“I have had by far the best year of my 18-year career in digital f/x,” he said. “I made more money, had the best lifestyle, worked with state-of-the-art technology for a company that has attracted the best talent in the industry. I’ve been treated wonderfully up here.”

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