Hollywood’s magic sweatshops

I’d intended this morning A Trip to the Moon - Georges Melieto post the next of my Revisiting Cinefex articles, but it doesn’t seem quite right to be waxing lyrical about the good old days of visual effects when the current industry is in such turmoil. I might live a long way from Hollywood, but even I’ve sensed the shockwaves radiating out from the epicentre of the latest earthquake to hit the west coast. I’m talking about exploitation.

Put simply, many visual effects workers are working impossible hours for low pay and no access to health schemes or pensions. The problem’s not industry-wide – this article in the LA Times suggests that some of the big players like ILM and Sony Imageworks are pretty responsible employers, although recently Digital Domain have come under fire for a scheme under which interns desperate for that all-important first screen credit actually pay to work for the company.

Now, there are people far more involved than me tracking the situation far more effectively than I ever could, not least VFX Soldier and Scott Squires. And I daresay there are plenty of folk who’d argue that VFX providers aren’t the only businesses struggling, say, to compete with cheaper international suppliers. I just think it’s sad that an industry which thirty years ago was soaring on a wave of innovation and artistry is turning into a consortium of sweatshops.

I’m not suggesting it was easy before. My retrospective looks at the visual effects industry through the Cinefex lens have thrown up any amount of stories about motion control cameramen falling asleep over their equipment in the wee hours, or optical departments working 24-hours shifts, or animators breaking their backs to work in impossibly cramped miniature sets. And in the earliest days of all, when Hollywood magic sparkled against the bleak backdrop of the Depression, job security was unheard of.

What’s different about those days, I think, is the sense of pioneering spirit. If you feel like you’re riding out into the badlands to strike a path that’s never been struck before, extra miles go with the territory. Today, visual effects are used so widely (and not just for monsters and spaceships but for all the drudgery of motion tracking and wire removal and all the countless invisible things that are now possible) that the VFX machine needs an awful lot of cogs. And who wants to be a cog?

Interviewed in Cinefex #11, Steven Spielberg has this to say about the state of the VFX industry circa 1982 – specifically about the decline of the old studio special effects departments:

‘There’s no longer a little door with the sign SPFX on it, which is sort of sad … Yet we owe those departments. Men like Arnold Gillespie and L. B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank were geniuses, and I’ve just been trying to learn from them.’

It’s precisely out of those doldrums that the modern VFX industry emerged. It would be a shame to see it sail now into a different kind of troubled water. Yes, the motion picture business exists, like any other business, to make money. Nevertheless, it should still be able to learn from the past. I hope there are enough folk working out there who have kept the passion to make what we all still look to Hollywood for: magic.

2 thoughts on “Hollywood’s magic sweatshops

  1. Thanks Graham. Just a couple of adjustments -Most of those working in the U.S. at least are making reasonable pay and many of the better companies do offer basic health insurance. Part of the problem is most visual effects workers are project based so have to move to different companies as projects complete (assuming you can find work). Since health insurance is unique to each company the qualification starts all over and requires months, possibly longer than the worker will be there. The result is a lack of continual health insurance. Pensions, vacations and other benefits (that most full time jobs provide) tend to be lacking as well and aren’t continual even if they exist at specific companies. And as you point out overtime can go through the roof to the point of exhaustion. Some are paid for overtime and some are not depending on the specific company and classification.

    1. Hi Scott – thanks for taking the time to comment and straighten up some of the details. It certainly sounds as if the industry is going through what might be described as ‘interesting times’.

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