Monday, July 30, 2012

Raising the VFX Flag


Mysteriously anonymous and often controversial activist VFX Soldier talks about the larger mission. 

By Bob Oedy
IBEW International Lead Organizer

VFX Soldier was born from the ashes of burned out artists and is widely recognized as the new voice in the fight for VFX workers’ rights.  VFX artists are the ones who give the Hulk the muscles, make Spiderman swing, Batman well... bat and sculpt J. Lo’s butt for music videos, it’s not black magic but very valuable Hollywood magic. VFX artists are the only part of the talent totem pole not part of a union which is why they end up at the bottom of the credit list and sometimes the creditors list. VFX Soldier remains anonymous to avoid being blacklisted by the entertainment industry.

Q: Where did the idea to do an anonymous blog come from?

A: The idea came from my troubles of trying to talk about unionization on an individual basis. I needed a wider platform so I took to the internet with a blog and twitter account. The basic idea to it was "A typical VFX professional thinking aloud." In order to make it effective I made it anonymous so others at various facilities could feed info that has made it on the blog.

Q: What’s the biggest obstacle VFX artists face today?

A: The biggest obstacle in my view are subsidies. VFX Professionals around the world are chasing their jobs country to country because local governments are offering huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to lure US studio work to their locations. This has made it difficult for VFX professionals to have families, homes, or savings as they pay huge costs in moving and taxes. 

Q: What topic that you’ve written about has received the most attention or response?

A: The biggest topic on my blog that has garnered the most response was my posts dedicated to recent statements made to investors by Digital Domain CEO John Textor. In candid recordings he told investors that he hope to open schools where the government would give him grants and student would pay him tuition so they could work on some of the projects they intend to make money off of. What caused the most outrage was when he declared "Free labor is better than cheap labor."

While Mr Textor has apologized, what made the story so important in my view wasn't what he said but how it proved even my staunchest opponents wrong. 

Q: When you exposed Digital Domain for charging students did you expect the response to be so dramatic?

A: Yes. As soon as I heard the audio I went on twitter and said this on March 26: "I think tomorrow's post on my blog is going to make some jaws drop.#vfx" The response was immense with follow ups happening on all kinds of websites and major newspapers. 

Q: What did you hope to accomplish in starting your blog and have you met your earliest expectations? Where do you go from here?

A: When I first started my blog I hoped to be told I was wrong and be educated by those who knew more about the industry than me. What it ended up becoming was a resource that changed the narrative; before the talk used to be "oh my job is going to India," but today it's "oh my job is going to Vancouver because of subsidies." I randomly hear people at work quoting stats from my blog.

I'm looking to start a crowd sourcing project to enlist the services of a law firm that specializes in international trade law to challenge the subsidies that hinder the VFX industry. I've met with a few law firms already and we are getting ready to go. It'll get interesting. 

Q: What career advice would you share with new artists interested in pursuing a career in visual effects?

A: It's great to love what you do but be sure to give it tough love. If you love VFX it should reciprocate and love you back. Be confident in what you do but also give yourself a healthy amount of skepticism and doubt. I've found that doubting myself along the way helped expose my weaknesses and made me address them to become better at what I do. 

Q: How did you choose the name VFX Soldier? Did you serve in the military?

A: At the time I was looking to start the blog but I couldn’t come up with a name. At one facility I was known for being quite a stanch negotiator. When I didn't get a respectable deal I left. One colleague responded in amazement to how resolute I was: "Wow. You are a soldier." VFX Soldier was born.

I have never served in the military but I was recruited and thought about joining the Marines after school, but then the VFX industry came calling :)

Q: How can my readers help you expose illegal subsidies and unfair competition efforts?

A: My hope is that they can help donate to our campaign that will begin sometime this summer.

Q: What skills do you feel will be necessary to professionalize the visual effects industry? What classes or skills do you recommend artists focus on?

A: I believe unionization and enlisting the services of a personal attorney for contracts would help professionalize the industry. On the skills side I suggest anyone that wants to get into VFX focus their studies on computer science. The VFX industry is a very small industry and it wouldn't be prudent to spend 6 figures going to an expensive for-profit trade school for such a niche industry. With a computer science major supplemented with various VFX courses online you can put yourself in a pretty good position to work in VFX or jump to a more stable IT company.

Q: What blogs, books or magazines are your favorites?

A: If I told you it would probably lead to me revealing my identity! But I do a lot of reading and I love looking at data.

Q: What lessons or challenges have you faced in your career that might help my readers?

A: Some of my most popular posts about my personal story are below:




Q: How can readers help you get your message out or support your efforts?

A: The number one thing is to stop being apathetic. Engage your industry. This is your career and your life. You should be doing everything you can to make it better. The reason why the problems persist is because we have chosen fear and silence. History is unkind to those who do that.

Q: What do you think is the cause of the inequality of compensation between VFX artists and other motion picture workers?  Why haven’t VFX artists been able to organize?

A: Much of the general inequality is due to how relatively young the VFX industry is. Many of the standards and practices that Cinematographers and editors enjoy come from the fact they've matured as an industry. VFX artists have not been able to organize due mostly to fear and misinformation.

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For commentary on the VFX Industry’s March to the Bottom go to www.vfxsoldier.com or follow VFX Soldier on Twitter at www.twitter.com/vfxsoldier .

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is This What It's Like to Work at EA?



The following is an email sent to Dave Rand.

Dave Rand receives letters as a result of using his real name in association with Meteor Studios and other issues that affect VFX artists. He hopes to dispel fear of speaking out for a good cause especially after witnessing first-hand the potential to abuse VFX artists due to a lack of solidarity and leverage.

Hi Dave,

Here is what I experienced first-hand at Electronic Arts.

I accepted a 3 month job at EA to help with promotional artwork to launch their game.  When I was interviewed, I was grilled about my knowledge of realistic character renders; hair, skin, posing, etc.  I thought that would be my main tasks.  But I remembered on their job posting, they also mentioned screen grabs of in-game action.  I was ready to help out.

On my first day, I was shown my computer and was introduced to a few key people.  Everyone was extremely busy getting ready for E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo).  I was given a few commands to get started.  No one gave me the big picture of how the pipeline worked.  On the second day, I asked about the pipeline and was given a cursory overview.  I was tasked with getting some screen grabs and was given some commands to work with the game engine.  I was introduced to another artist doing the same thing.  He had 5 minutes to show me what he was doing.  I took notes but when I went back to try for myself, my interface was missing the buttons that the other artist had.  I went back to ask him about it, but he told me he had "40 hours of work to get done in 8 hours"; so much for using him as a resource.

I tried to contact my point person; the one who showed me around on the first day.  He was nowhere to be found.  I decided to ask about some of the game characters.  At least I know how to render in Maya.  I found someone who was able to show me where to find the rigged characters and by happenstance a little bit about the game engine; something no one else had offered to show me.  Actually, I didn't even know to ask at this point.

I started doing some work on the character.  Fixing the rig and adjusting weighting issues.  I was playing with some renders when my point person came by.  He asked where I got the character from.  And when I told him I was shown where to get the file, he tells me that that isn't the most current location.  He gives me a little speech about how that part of the pipeline worked.  After that, I went back to the artist who showed me the file and asked about it.  I was told by that artist that I have the most current file.  Talk about confusion.

Then I was told I had to get some screen shots.  So back into the game I went.  But with the amount of information I had at hand, I got the most interesting shots I could.  But of course, they weren't what they were looking for.  I went from the single player mode to the multi-player mode to get other shots.  Again, I did the best I could.  When I got burned out with that, I went back to character renders.  I would email the people who needed these files to get feedback.  Most of the time, a day would go by before I would hear anything.  And most times, I would have to ask my point person about it before a comment would come back.

Now into my second week, I'm still asking people for hints on how to get the screen grabs.  But no one would respond.  Everyone was too busy with their own tasks. Eventually, I was able to find things in the game engine.  So I started making my own tools to get screen shots.  But there was still a huge aspect of the game play that I was unaware of and no one to explain things.

I was still doing character and weapons renders.  Eventually, an artist had some time to show me how to find what the latest textures were and where to locate them.  It felt good to be doing some work with the characters and weapons.

On the Thursday of my second week, I was introduced to another key person who is involved with preparing for E3.  He emailed some comments about my screen shots.  I replied back to everyone on the email list.  I said I agreed with most of the comments and would be happy to get those screen shots if  someone would show me how.  The next morning I was let go; just like that.  "This isn't working out.  We'll have to let you go”, I was told.

The interesting thing is; people came by and apologized for the craziness and offered to help, but the questions I had were very specific. Only a couple of people had the answers I needed and they weren’t available to ask.

When I accepted the job, I signed on for 3 months and passed on other jobs to take this one.  If EA realized that they made a mistake in bringing in a person who needed to be trained, they should own up to it.  If they decided that it would be faster to have someone who was already trained on the game engine to do the screen shots, then that's fine.  But what about the character renders?  Why wasn't I allowed to finish that task?  I can understand if I was fully trained and I still was unable to get the job done, I would be the first to say "get someone else".  But that wasn't the case.

I feel totally disrespected.  I've worked at facilities that had proprietary software.  They would take the time to ramp up an incoming artist.  That's to be expected.  How else would that artist be productive without thorough training?  I've been in this industry over 20 years.  I've been rehired at a number of companies.  I know what I'm doing and I'm good at what I do.  I feel EA screwed up and they should own up by paying a 2 week severance.  And I want an apology!!!  BASTARDS!!!

But when I look back, I can only fault the company as a whole.  I can't pinpoint key individuals whose job it is to get incoming artists up to speed.  Maybe that's the problem.  There is no one assigned to that task.  That task doesn't exist.  But as a whole, they should own up!

Monday, July 2, 2012

VFX Artists Feeling the Squeeze from Incentives


The following is an email sent to Dave Rand.  

Dave Rand receives letters as a result of his using his real name in association with Meteor Studios and other issues that affect VFX artists. He hopes to dispel fear of speaking out for a good cause especially after witnessing first-hand the potential to abuse VFX artists due to a lack of solidarity and leverage.

Dear Dave,

I'm up in Vancouver. I don't know if you've heard the situation up here. The big companies are almost all here now (not necessarily a bad choice, because it is beautiful). It's getting more dire every week. They are not only for the incentives. But also for super cheap labour.. They are taking advantage of every loophole in the BC labour laws. A few very good friends at Sony have been forced to sign their amended/updated contracts (5 times in the past year). MPC is doing the same thing. (their lawyers must share info).. so all of us are being stripped of any rights, benefits, OT, security. We can all be fired/laid off with no notice, no reason.

We now have to arrange and pay for our own visas. We are all classified as IT/Support, instead of film/VFX/artists now. So we are losing any hope of security or benefits. The ratio of artists is about 30 senior/intermediates, 70 juniors.. Whom we have been asked to train.. In turn, asking them to train the employees in their daughter companies in Mumbai, our jobs. My salary has been reduced to the same as when I started 15 years ago. It's kind of scary.

They are going to destroy our industry for all of us in Canada, US, and Europe. Sony is trying to force all the artists to move from LA to Vancouver. My friends are now renting out their homes in LA, and renting in smaller (more expensive) apartments here, with their families.. It's really not cool.