Is the VFX Biz in India Tricking Artists Into Working for Free?

VFX protest in Los Angeles, Feb.

The VFX Soldier blog reposted a message from an Indian vfx artist that was originally posted on the blog. Here’s the original post. (If you click through, note that the author is using “3D” to mean what is generally called “CG” in America, not stereoscopic 3D.)

This especially got our attention:

There is a disturbing trend in India for the past couple years in India (Especially since around November 2008, around when the recession hit) where VFX artists are forced to work for “experience” or “goodwill i.e we’ll keep you in mind” in “apprentice” or “training” positions. These apprenticeships usually last for a period ranging between 3-9 months and are generally unpaid. Some companies at the end of the term of these apprenticeships cut loose the interns stating reasons of “insufficient quality” or the more popular “We just don’t have any projects going on right now….We’ll call you”. OR They might consider extending your training to an extra three months or more, if you choose to remain unpaid for the duration. Whats more, is that you will have to repeat the whole process when you join another studio, because experience certificates and references are non-existent here (unless the studio exec is your close personal friend/relation). It appears that cheap labor isn’t good enough, now the labor is required to be free. Thats not to say that people are not selected to full-time or continual work, its just that is very rare. The end result being that the companies, get an almost inexhaustible pool of FREE Labor, allowing them to turn essentially a profit without Cost of production overhead in terms of labor. 

Consider this as the visual effects industry in California (and Canada, the U.K., France, Australia and New Zealand) fights for its life. What seems like sweatshop wages from a developed-world point of view can seem like a very good wage in the context of a developing-world economy and culture. But even those modest wages can be undercut by free labor of the kind described in the post. What subsidy or business model can compete with free?

Variety’s Naman Ramachandran, who reports on India, wrote to us some time back with perspective on wages and vfx practices in India:

The legal requirement for a semi-skilled employee in the film production industry is Rs 224.69 ($4.05) per day and for a skilled worker it is Rs 243.92 ($4.40). Assuming a 26-day work month (India works on Saturdays, too) that would make a salary of Rs 5842 ($105) for a semi-skilled employee and Rs 6342 ($114). Companies like Prime Focus pay more than this.

The amazing thing is, thanks to living with your parents, etc., you can survive on this wage comfortably. The official international benchmark for people below the poverty line is those who have purchasing power of $1.25 or less per day. In India, the official government figure is Rs 28 per day. That’s 50 cents at today’s exchange rate. If you multiply that by 26 that makes it Rs 726 or $14 per month.
The same practices are in existence across all sectors, not just film. The rise can be gradual or dramatic. After, say, 10 years of experience, upwardly mobile people can expect to earn $150,000 per annum comfortably. And before the 10-year mark, a monthly salary of $1,500 – $1,800 is considered very good in India and you can live well because of lower costs compared to the West.

Ramachandran also spoke to Rohan Desai, executive director, International Projects, at Prime Focus about reports of poor wages for Indian vfx artists, and of Prime Focus requiring employees put down a deposit, and told us this :

Salaries can be as low as Rs 6,000 at entry level and can go up to Rs 12,000, depending on experience. These are 18-19 year old kids fresh out of university or school and in some cases still in them. The industry has a high churn rate and the deposit is not only to keep them but also to encourage them to stay as they don’t want to lose employees to competitors after having trained them. Desai also said that the employees get an excellent medical package and get subsidised food at work.

Once they gain some experience, they become in demand and routinely get poached by rivals (I spoke to some and they confirmed this and also their salary levels are similar), and companies like Prime Focus pay more and more. Desai says that the growth factor is very high and people rise through the ranks rapidly. Once they have a few years experience under their belts, they can pick and choose jobs. It’s simple market economics.

Coming back to the seemingly low starting salaries, it’s important to keep in mind the Indian cultural context. The vast majority of these kids live with their parents until their late 20s and in many cases even after, in joint families. Therefore, there are no rent or food expenses. A movie ticket costs between $4-5 and eating out is pretty cheap, unless you’re splurging in Bombay’s equivalent of the Chateau Marmont. Local public transport is also dirt cheap and heavily subsidised, with the local trains and buses costing just a few cents and for those wishing to take a tuk tuk, fares average $1.

If you have a first-hand account of visual effects or animation working conditions in the developing world, or about the companies who do business there, we’d love to hear it.

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  1. san says:

    An average taxi driver in Mumbai makes around 3500 Rs.
    5000 Rs is encouraging :)
    Hollywood or Bollywood. Its a business built on people’s aspiration for fame and fortune.
    Success for some, unrealised dreams for others. Its all ‘movie magic’ and just regular life.

    VFX is a business of smoke and mirrors. All you have to do is look behind the constructed set and the reality stares you in the face. The only virtual set there is the one that is playing in your head.
    Business is nothing but dollars and cents. It is the very nature of doing business.
    The Service Industry unfortunately needs to weather it. Best bang for your buck.
    Thats the way she rolls. Supply meets demand. Next stop China.

    • Jayraj says:

      “An average taxi driver in Mumbai makes around 3500 Rs.”
      Where did u get that figure from? I took a taxi in mumbai and was got in traffic. Had a chat with the driver and he said he earns around 700 bucks everyday. Sometimes more than 1000.

      • sans says:

        Oh well! In that case we all have been taken for a ride. Taxi driving. Why didn’t I think of that earlier. :-)

  2. R. Paul Dhillon says:

    India is known for two things – corruption and exploitation. And the film/VFX business is doing both things really well! Too bad China does not have a well trained VFX force or otherwise all the exploitation would move there. Hollywood needs to deal with or the backlash will be bad for business!

  3. Jayraj says:

    This article seems to get some things really wrong. It does not mention that PrimeFocus forces its emplyess to work 2 to 3 straight days and nights .
    Also, 5000 to 6000 is not at all enough in INDIA to survive. (even if you live with your parents.)
    I dont know where your reporter gets all this information from.
    What these companies are practising is exploitation of labour.
    This practises is going to take the VFX and animation industry to the bottom if not stopped soon.

    • Govardhan Giridass says:

      If you’re living with your parents and your father and in some cases the mother is the main breadwinner, then you’re living rent-free, electricity-free, food-free. The 5-6000 Rs are yours to spend.

  4. Dave says:

    It has been well-known within some industry circles that this practice has been going on for quite a while now. It needs to stop.

  5. san says:

    Its an unregulated industry all across the board.
    Fortunately most indian kids are money savvy. They will bend over only to get enough experience but quickly walk away once they realise they’ve been done for. People change careers like changing shirts these days, once they see the money has gone away from the industry they move on quite quickly.
    Indians don’t get social security so you have to be smart to survive and that thinking is what drives the nation to keep going and looking ahead.

    I was once told about a certain individual who is a aeronautical engineer, got into the industry because of the boom in the animation business in India. He switched careers overnight because it was lucrative, 4/5 years in he has moved on because of low rates and mortgage stress.
    there are many stories like this in India.

    What the industry doesn’t get is that you can only be done once. Most people will move away as the bottom line of companies don’t reflect yours. You then have to find the next guy, re-train and start all over. No love lost. A Karmic cycle.

  6. This shows where the visual effects industry is heading and being pushed by studios. I have heard worse stories about India and China. I expect those will be made public at some point in the future similar to the Foxconn situation with Apple. Studios and visual effects companies need to work together and put an end to these types of abuses. The electronic companies and other international companies have developed trade associations and watchdog groups to provide a basic code of conduct.

    None of this exists in visual effects so many companies don’t qualify for the world wide code of conduct that exist in China. Even here in the U.S., Canada, UK and New Zealand don’t meet some of these guidelines. In many cases the abuses are breaking local and federal laws but it continues. Among these guidelines are a cap on the number of overtime hours which exists in most countries. Here in the US we start at the cap applied to China and go up from there to 90-120 hrs a week. And even though overtime pay is a requirement by federal law it’s not unusual to see visual effects companies no pay for full overtime.

    More on what can be done:

    And to clarify for the non-visual effects people- No it is not possible to hire artists with no experience to work on anything other than the most rudimentary work. This illustrates the need for knowledgeable, skilled and experienced visual effects workers to create the majority of the visual effects in all media. It also illustrates that there is very little true building of the industry in these developing areas. The intent at most companies is to simply get workers up to a level to work on the most labor intensive areas at the lowest possible wages (or free). Even here in the U.S. we see free labor being abused in visual effects. Free interns being required to do actual production despite federal laws. Students being put into production unpaid.

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