Visual Effects Society 2.0 to tackle hot biz issues

The Visual Effects Society is morphing from milquetoast to militant.

The VES, founded as an honorary society, announced in an open letter Tuesday afternoon that it is changing its mission to focus on problem solving and advocacy for the visual effects industry. Key issues the org aims to tackle include hours and working conditions, consistent onscreen credits and employee benefits commensurate with other workers on films.

While the announcement was abrupt, the VES’ transformation is actually the result of years of frustration shared within the org and its leadership, and it was accomplisheddespite deep divisions in the org and the industry.

The letter, titled “Visual Effects Society 2.0,” declares: “In the coming weeks and months, VES will shine a spotlight on the issues facing the artists, facilities and studios by way of editorial pieces in the trades and vfx blogs, virtual town hall meetings, a vfx Artists’ Bill of Rights and a vfx CEO’s Forum.”

It’s a very different mission from that envisioned originally by the VES and its founders. VES leadership years ago looked across the biz and saw that crafts needed three kinds of org for full recognition in the movie biz: a union or guild, a trade organization and an honorary society. The VES formed to fulfill the third function, and its leaders waited for the other two to come together and handle the rest.

And waited. And waited.

Repeated efforts to launch a trade association came to naught. For more than 20 years, unions and guilds rebuffed efforts to organize vfx artists, and by the time IATSE and the IBEW announced organizing efforts last year, much of the work had moved abroad.

“No one has stood up to lead the way on the business side of our business,” the letter said. “No one has been able to speak out for unrepresented artists and facilities — or the craft as a whole — in any meaningful way.”

VES chairman Jeffrey Okun, himself a visual effects supervisor, told Variety, “We had more and more requests (from VES members), some of them quite belligerent, asking, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ ?”

Some had asked the VES to become a union. Okun and the org’s executive director, Eric Roth, said VES will not assume that role, but “we need to step up and be the voice for the visual effects side of the industry. As we move on, we will be speaking up in a much more proactive way.”

Okun emphasized that the org would remain “nonpartisan.”

“The purpose of all this is to bring the parties to the table for discussions that will yield a result,” Okun said. “While we represent the artists as an honorary society, we also represent facilities, because without them artists have nowhere to work, and studios, because without them facilities have nowhere to work.”

Okun said while it’s clear the VES’ new stance would lead to it stepping on toes, “that’s not the intention. The intention is to bring the industry together.”

Reaction from the vfx industry was mixed.

Jeff Barnes, head of now-defunct CafeFX, said he fully supports the move, and Jules Roman, prexy of Tippett Studio in Berkeley, welcomed the shift.

“I thought it was tremendous,” said Roman of Tuesday’s move, “because it put in one place all the issues we all talk about when visual effects people get together. We’re subject to so many pressures, but we know what we do contributes so greatly to movies, especially to tentpoles. It’s just confusing. So if the VES can articulate the issues for us in a concise form, it’s a great thing for the group to do.”

Vfx artist Dave Rand, who has become a prominent voice for vfx unionization, recalled trying to get the VES to act when Meteor Studios in Montreal went bust, leaving artists unpaid. “Later we did hear from them, and it was explained to us that according to their charter they could not get involved with our problems. Seems like times are changing and having VES more active in these areas, even as just a conduit or platform, can really benefit the vfx artists.”

But Greg Strause, CEO of Santa Monica-based Hydraulx, was skeptical, citing in inherent conflict of interest for the VES.

“I fail to see how they can purport to represent the best interest of artists, and represent the best interests of facilities, and to represent the industry on the global level,” Strause said. “Frankly speaking, as a facility owner, our best interest in California is not the best interest of facilities in Vancouver or London.”

Strause said he is against anything, such as a union, that would raise prices for vfx for the studios.

“The two things that are highest on our priority list would be an aggressive California tax credit that would keep jobs in SoCal, and all unions should be thinking about this. We also need an aggressive federal tax credit to keep the jobs in the United States. Those are the only two issues everybody should be talking about.”

The open letter did not address tax credits, but did cite three problem areas for the vfx industry that the VES will address:

ncredits, where vfx artists are “often listed incompletely” and too low in the crawl;

nbenefits, observing “on a union show we are the only department that is not union and therefore not receiving the same benefits as everyone else on the set”; and

nworking conditions, noting that freelancers often work in vfx shops for 70- to 100-hour weeks for weeks or months on end, while being paid as independent contractors.

Among the first things on the new VES agenda is an Artists’ Bill of Rights.

“This should spell out what is basic to each worker and what is not just fair but what is right,” Okun wrote in a text chat conducted Tuesday afternoon on Variety.com.

The VES letter said while the org may not have collective bargaining power, it has the power of 2,400 artists in 23 countries, “and the VES board of directors has decided that now is the time to use it. We are the only viable organization that can speak to the needs and concerns of everyone involved in vfx to meet the challenges of a changing global industry and our place within it.”

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