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

The VFX Soldier blog reposted a message from an Indian vfx artist that was originally posted on the VFXtalk.com 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 vfxtalk.com 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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