Superman: Man of Steel. Support the Artists! Wait a week!

VFX Solidarity

EVERYONE loves to be adrenalized by movies like The Avengers and Iron Man. Right? The films that create new worlds or recreate old worlds that we can lose ourselves in for a couple of hours.  These films are in jeopardy.  At least the quality of them are.  Do you want to continue to be able to see these kinds of films?  Do you want to be riveted by the mind-blowing realism of Richard Parker?  The thrilling battles of Iron Man?  The invisible transformation of time and worlds that allow Daniel Day Lewis to BE Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s?

Or do we want everything to regress back to the mid-90s level effects of Olympus Has Fallen?

THE BACKGROUND

The big budget, tentpole films released each summer by the six largest Hollywood film studios are made on the backs of hundreds, if not thousands of people.  Most of  those people are represented by Unions, which grew out of necessity as film grew into a viable industry.  The Unions try to protect the crew on a film through punitive measures against any studio that go beyond the rules.  It boils down to a financial hit.  Penalties for feeding crews late. Penalties for going over 8 hours in a day.  More penalties for over 12.  And more penalties if there isn’t a 10-hour recovery period between the end of one day and the start of another.  But despite these penalties, studios and producers have a specific time that the film is to be released, which is never enough time.  So crews are pushed to exhaustion, ending in faltering health, faltering relationships, and sometimes even faltering lives when crews try to drive home after the sixth 18-hour day in a row.  And these conditions exist WITH Union protections in place.

Frequently, when the decision makers are pushed against the wall on set with hundreds of people standing around waiting for the mechanics on a car stunt to be reset, they turn to the VFX Supervisor and ask, “Can we replace this in the computer?”  An experienced supervisor would probably say, “Well…technically…yes.  But it would be more effective to get it in camera.”  A less experienced, but more exuberant, supervisor would say, “Absolutely!!!”  In both cases, the producer will call this the last take, and the burden of the car stunt gets pushed to post — where people aren’t standing around waiting, while they collect 1.5x and 2x their normal rates because the shoot is in Golden Time.  They are just sitting around on computers…just watching.  I mean — what are those guys doing anyway? The computers do all the work…right?

Pushing things into post provides studios, producers, and directors with a lot of latitude.  And here is why:

  • Costly decisions can be deferred.  You don’t have to make a critical decision with a whole crew watching you and possibly have it fail.
  • Decisions can be changed.  If something doesn’t work, or the studio exec doesn’t like the color of the hero’s weapon that the prop department painstakingly designed and built.  Well, we can change that.
  • Indecision is considered a methodology.   The art department goes through many iterations of designs before they start building.  At no time can a director say, “Build me three sets and I’ll chose the one I like”.  The VFX artist is frequently asked to generate multiple versions without direction because the director can’t articulate what is in their head.
  • Flat bids prevent runaway costs. On set, if something delays production, the meter continues to run.  In post, the cost remains the same, and when hourly artists work longer days, the VFX facility eats the cost. Unless the studio actually acknowledges that their decision requires more work and agree to pay for it.
  • In the eyes of the Studios, VFX artists are no longer artists — they are a commodity.  Now that software is readily available to do what was limited to REALLY SMART and TALENTED people, studios (including VFX Facilities) are under the misconception that anyone can do this work.  Well, they are partially right.  Anyone CAN do this work.  NOT anyone can do this work WELL.  In fact, most people with a computer and Maya are not even adequate digital artists.  But regardless of this small fact, studios feel that artists and facilities are easily interchangeable — like buying Tupperware or Pyrex.  They both store food, right?
  • As a commodity, VFX artists are not artists. The studios feel that because VFX artists use a computer, rather than, say, sculpting in clay, that they are not creative and should not be considered artists, but rather, they are equivalent to an unskilled laborer screwing bolts into sheet metal.
  • Because it doesn’t require creativity, it can be outsourced as low-skilled labor. Similar to all other industries before VFX, once a trade can be passed on to other countries with lower living wages, it will be.  However, just because they can be paid better than if they were sewing zippers, it doesn’t mean that they are being treated any better than their First World counterparts.  Long hours, tight deadlines, less than optimal working conditions still pervade.
  • Government subsidies in other countries promote an imbalance.  Without a standard for what visual effects cost, studios will not choose the facility that is most capable. They will choose the one that is capable AND cheapest.  If a facility has a studio in India, or Vancouver, or Singapore, or Louisiana, then they are more likely to get the show, because they are using Tax Incentives in those areas to keep their running costs down, which keeps the budget of the film down, which increases the studios chances to make or increase a profit.  If the facility is solely in California, they can’t compete. Period.
  • “ART” is hard to monetize.  Studio executives are not artists, they are, in fact, very rarely even filmmakers.  They are businessmen.  Their job is to make money for the studio.  And that is all they do.  The product that they sell is by most definitions considered art.  And how does one put a price on that?  Well… very simply, the formula would read.  (How Many People Will Pay For It) – (Cost To Make It) – (Cost to Promote It) = My Profit.  They can only control the Cost to Make It and the Cost to Promote It.  Frequently, after the Cost To Make It is shaved so low that they end up with a piece of shit, they have to spend MORE in the Cost to Promote It to try to convince people to pay for it.  But the executives never see that.  Never.
  • VFX Artists are scattered and have no singular voice.  Nearly all groups in filmmaking on the scale we are talking, have Unions to represent and protect them.  VFX Artists do not.  Since the Studios can’t bully the Union workers, their logical victim is the one without a bodyguard.
  • VFX Industry has made itself the victim.  The VFX community is in the position it is in because they let it happen.  They did not stand up for themselves and place a value on their trade.  I think its has something to do with having something to prove.  That yes, when we are in the 11th hour, that we will be the ones to pull through and save the day.  And the studios like to say that “You are going to be our savior!  You guys really pulled through.  We couldn’t have done this without you.”  It’s hard to say, under that shower of accolades, “I know you’re in a bind, but that’s gonna take more time, and hence, more money, and we aren’t going to do it otherwise.” — because we want them to be return customers.  It’s like an abusive marriage.  And BTW, those thanks go away once the film is a success, but it’s not forgotten if it’s a failure.
  • VFX Artists LOVE what they do.  There is nothing like the feeling of working on your first show.  Someone is actually PAYING you for something that you LOVE.  How can this paradise ever go rotten?  The answer?  When others take advantage of your passion.

The VFX industry has hit a tipping point. Pressured into underbidding each other and compressed deadlines, artists are starting to leave the industry, VFX Studios are shuttering, and young, enthusiastic artists are being taken advantage of.  And it’s not restricted to the VFX industry.  The Make-Up Artists in Great Britain are standing up for their self-respect.  Every artist from the screenwriter who creates the story and words that the famous actors speak is frequently excluded from the set or the filmmaking process after he turns in his shooting script.  The special effects guys are rarely given enough time to design, test, and actualize their vision, and when it fails because of these constraints, the VFX guys are asked to replace or fix it — leading to animosity and hurt feelings between the departments.  Even guys who design motion graphics to be on TVs and monitors aren’t given a chance to prepare their stuff for the shoot.  It’s up to the VFX guys to stick them in later when the director has time to make up his mind.

The problem is ubiquitous.

Whether you support the visual effects artists; whether you think they’re all a bunch of whiny bitches and should shut up and get back to their computers; whether you think subsidies in other countries are unfair or illegal and THOSE people are taking your jobs.  Whatever your stance is on the minutia — the overarching message is this:   The workers in the film industry, regardless of their discipline, regardless of the country, should be able to expect to work in reasonable conditions with reasonable expectations, and get compensated fairly for the hard work they do.

It’s not rocket science, but it IS complicated.  Creating a Union or a Trade Association that will work internationally is going to take time, effort, and lots and lots of talking.  VFX artists cannot strike, because without a voice for collective bargaining, it will end up in naught.  Just a whole bunch of out of work talent, and probably the demise of facility that hired them.

I’M NOT EVEN IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT CAN I DO?

We call for solidarity between the artists and the audience. It is the artists, not the studios, that create the films you love to watch. We want to continue to create them, and we want you to continue to be entertained by them.

You only need to do one thing: Refuse to go see Man of Steel on the week of June 14th.

Show Warner Brothers that you, the audience, care about the artists, and you want those artists to keep bringing you the stuff you want to see.

Why Warner Brothers?  Because out of the studios who had shows at Rhythm & Hues when they revealed they were in trouble, according to the New York Times, Warner Brother was the only one who refused to help R&H continue on their shows, and instead demanded that assets be delivered back.  If you love movies as much as we do, take this very seriously, and ask your friends to skip Man of Steel, and instead go see This Is The End, with Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, and James Franco.  Don’t worry.  That will have visual effects, too!  And hopefully more laughs.

And it isn’t forever.  Just a week.  You see…the average window of opportunity for a summer blockbuster to succeed is about two weeks before screens have to open up for the NEXT summer blockbuster.  If we close that window by half, that is a significant message to the studios that they are not the important ones.

And for the hundreds of talented individuals breaking their backs on Man of Steel at the moment.  This is not a slight on your efforts or your work.  You lose nothing from having the box office revenue delayed.  You have already been paid (hopefully).  You do not benefit from residuals.  You have no stake in the success or failure of the film.  This is more than seeing your name up on the screen (again, hopefully), just after the caterers and transportation department.

Unionizing the artists internationally?  That’s hard.  NOT watching a movie for a week?  I can do that all day long.

Support the Artists.  Wait a week.

POST Man of Steel:

Looks like Man of Steel did go on to make $660M world wide. Its not Iron Man 3 or Avengers numbers, but it did fine.  And I knew it would.  The point of this call to action was not to make Warner Brothers lose money or to have the film fail.  I never hope to see a film fail.  The point was to try and get enough people to understand the problems that are prevalent in the visual effects industry…and that those problems affect the films that you want to see.  The support of enough people could have moved the needle.  Moved it enough for studios and VFX facilities to take interest in the resources they so frequently take advantage of, or at least take for granted.

Thank you to those who felt this issue is important enough to actually hold back the fanboy fervor and wait.  To those who didn’t…well…yeah…

31 thoughts on “Superman: Man of Steel. Support the Artists! Wait a week!

  1. “Do you want to continue to be able to see [these] kinds of films? Do you want to be rivets[ed] by the mind-blowing realism of Richard Parker? The thrilling battles of Iron Man? The invisible transformation of time and worlds that allow[s] or [ed] Daniel Day Lewis in[to] BE Lincoln in the 1860s?”

    When you make that many mistakes in the first paragraph of an article about quality of work, it makes it difficult to take the rest of your argument seriously.

  2. “The VFX industry has hit a tipping point. Pressured into underbidding each other and compressed deadlines, artists are starting to leave the industry, VFX Studios are shuttering, and young, enthusiastic artists are being taken advantage of.”

    This is a good thing. Yes, the industry is having a downward trend, but that is true for most industries at some point or another. As more artists leave the industry, there will be fewer people to do the work. This will result in higher pay and better working conditions as the VFX industry will become more selective in the movies it chooses to takes and can be more demanding of the movie companies. Then, people will realize that the VFX industry is a good one to work in, people will flood to it, and the cyclical nature will begin anew.

    Right now it is in the downward cycle. As more leave, it will become an upward cycle. It sucks for the people in it now, yes, but not everyone is content with their jobs. Either they allow the free market to fix the problem (as it will, eventually), or they ask the government to intervene (a poor solution since VFX jobs are world-wide).

    • That didn’t work out so well for musicians…check out your average studio agreement for most recording labels. I seriously doubt the market will “self-correct” whenever non-artists view artists and artistic products like widgets that are interchangeable. The same thing is happening in the publishing industry right now, and frankly, the only thing that will change it is if content providers begin to value their own contributions and demand better rates and conditions. There’s long been a bias by business types against anyone they perceive as doing their job “for the love of it,” which (in some people’s minds) essentially puts it in the realm of a “hobby” or something they can get for free or nearly free. After all, it’s not a “job” unless you only do it for the money, right?

  3. Pingback: VFX abuse and how audiences can help - Project Reality Forums

  4. If you want to continue to be able to watch movies like this, then you need to not undermine the importance of an opening weekend numbers to a studio. Calling a boycott for a week would seriously damage how the success of the movie is viewed by the studio exes and potentially damage the possibilities of future movie projects. Which puts jobs on the line.

  5. lets mess with the one movie that can lead the way into a series of DC movies which will also need heave vfx – generating jobs for us – great idea….

    • Of course you mean other than Justice League, Dark Universe, and whatever they’re gonna do with Robin? Studios won’t stop making VFX laden films because of a poor B.O. weekend. Those tentpoles have to make up for the 30 other movies they made this year that will lose money (and also require visual effects)

  6. Any change in the box office will not be attributed to a boycott for vfx artists’ rights, it simply won’t affect anything. Changing the structure of the industry and the vfx chain will make a difference.

    • Probably not. But what if does? Are we asking too much to deprive yourself of seeing a movie? For a week? Its not like we’re asking people to fast for 30 days in protest. And yes, changing the industry structure is absolutely essential and ultimately, the only thing that CAN be done that will make a lasting difference — and it’s being seriously discussed among the people in the industry who CAN help that change. But the more people who understand the problem, the more leverage can be built up for the case.

      • well, in this case, I don’t agree with this whole ‘Let’s not see Man of Steel for a week’ strategy. The only reason being that Man of Steel was one of the only movies I really liked working on, and had good treatment from our clients. If anything, this is the only movie that seemed to do things right, with reasonable deadlines! lol,, So I find it pretty unfair for the whole VFX society to have Man of Steel plastered everywhere as this example film that gets related to abusing artists when I personally feel that they did it right this time.. Everyone just seems to think now that Man of Steel abused it’s artists – I would beg to differ in this case.

      • I totally respect your position, Randy.. And you for that matter.

        The idea isn’t to make Man of Steel the poster child for an abusive industry. And I AM very glad that you guys at Scanline were treated well — and I hear the Weta artists were also well taken care of. Its really the Studio (Warner Brothers — not Legendary, BTW) who made themselves a target out of all the films this summer because of their public dismissal of R&H (according to the NYTimes) — as opposed to Uni and Fox, who immediately stepped up. I would have chosen Lionsgate who DID pull their shows — but Lionsgate doesn’t open big enough to do anything. And Iron Man 3 is going to open bigger than Superman — but Marvel stepped up to rally for Digital Domain when they were in trouble. And even though their intentions were not entirely altruistic, I felt that I couldn’t make the case to have Paramount and Marvel as a target (despite artists working incredible hours on Star Trek at Pixomondo — which, from what I hear will be lucky to survive the ordeal. I hope this is not the case.)

        I’m sure the work you guys did is going to be ABSOLUTELY fantastic, as it always is. And it still will be fantastic a week later.

        I miss you and your entire team! :)

      • Yeah! We miss you too Tron Sherbet Peanuts! lol!

        I just didn’t want people to be mis-informed (example. my Facebook feed blew up with people saying things like, “Man of Steel is an example of vfx artist abuse! don’t watch it!” )–When that’s totally not true. And I understand that this is only aimed at WB, which I completely support. It just seems ironic that people are mis-reading this article perhaps, and making claims that a very well executed vfx project with very reasonable deadlines is now the front cover for the “Support the Artists” campaign. :3

        Having said that, by all means – to support artists by refraining for a week from seeing ‘a Warner Bros. film’ is all good. I just hope I don’t see Man of Steel logo’s with X’s through them or something.. because then we’d all look like goofs… lol

        Hope all has been going well by the way! Hope to cross paths again – perhaps if you’re in vancouver eating ramen! haha

  7. Go see This is the End… It has VFX that you won’t see.

    We just spent 4 months of 80 hours a week in the conditions you’ve just described creating demons and building a world that the audience will believe in… Thx a bunch.

  8. What a wake-up call for movie-goers! I support your need for a total over-haul of the industry’s slave-work mentality!

  9. Sorry man, but if there is one movie this year which I am watching through a midnight show the night of release – Man of Steel is it.

    If you had mentioned any other movie, I would have probably abstained for a week – but I have been waiting for this movie since “Superman Returns” turned out to be so bad. This looks like it will put Superman back on top.

    Also, this can bring about a Justice League movie if it works well.

    So overall, good thought but not for me, at least not with “Man of Steel”

  10. Such a difficult scenario, unions started originally in the labs because of the dangerous working conditions and now the only real winners are the camera department who have stayed very strong, most other departments have been eroded. The money men have nearly always had the one objective, the holy grail of the bottom line
    The owner of one production company, who at the launch of one of their directors that I cut for, called me a parasite when I replied that I edited for his new director, so the regard for the talent that helps make the head-liner’s work has always been low as they are not seen as the cash generators.

  11. You’re quite right when you say a lot of artists are leaving VFX.

    I’m finding I’m having to take on extra freelance VFX jobs in the morning (6am) before coming to work. Though indie film producers feel they can pay virtually nothing for VFX, (they are being set a bad example from the studio execs) thinking we are expendable ‘Maya monkeys’ (insert your own software/animal alliteration)

    I even went as far to write a book to educate them on what we do so that
    a) hopefully they will appreciate the specialised skill set that we bring and
    b) they will start making better decision regarding VFX.

  12. …and when the studio sees the opening-weekend haul on a major tentpole is lower than expected, they’re gonna tighten their budgets further, putting VFX under more pressure.

    If anything, wouldn’t it make more sense to say “support VFX artists by making this movie a massive hit! Don’t wait for Netflix or even Blu-ray, see it in the theatre!”. Make studios realize that VFX *earn* them money.

  13. Where was the call for boycott on After Earth? Given its proximity to MOS, it’s need to make its money *fast* was greater, and losing a week of revenue would arguably have been more painful? MOS doesn’t have any competition on the horizon.

    • You make a good point Brijazz. When we were coming up with a single movie to try and make a statement, After Earth didn’t make the list. Anyway, there are far more compelling arguments to boycott After Earth — like, it’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan. :)

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  15. Pingback: Why I chose to not protest ‘Man of Steel’ on opening weekend | Merc Media | Visual Effects – Cinematography – Beard

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