Monday, February 25, 2013

Anecdotes about Unions from the Early Days of Computer Graphics

The recent disturbances in the force involving visual effects and computer animation people protesting their lot in life is a good thing I think. I may feel that some of it is misdirected, and some of the goals and beliefs are incorrect or unachievable, but I have no doubt that the workers must organize in order to look after their interests. Even if they do not achieve their goals, they are guaranteed to not achieve them if they do not organize.

Many of us, myself included, have strong mixed feelings about unions. There are several reasons for this in my case, including coming from a white collar, intellectual family where unions were seen as good things, but for the blue collar worker. I am not sure that that association (union with blue collar) is either fair or correct, however, but it is something for me to overcome.

The second reason I never appreciated the need for a workers union or force is because I was treated so damned well early on in my career. The University of California at first and the RAND Corporation second, were very fair and good to me. Thus I had false expectations for the future.

I want to describe two events from the Robert Abel period, because I think they are relevant to this whole discussion.

Although I was only involved in computer graphics R&D, I deliberately chose working at Abel's in order to pick up what I could of other special effects filmmaking technique. So, I would hang around the camera department, and talk to Tom Barron over at Image G and so forth. From time to time, Abel's would have a big shoot on a stage and one day they were shooting a 7UP job with Bob Abel directing and Randy Roberts the art director. It was a big front projection shoot, Bob was on a crane and I was watching. I remember hearing an assistant whisper into Bob's ear "Meal penalties, Bob! Meal penalties!"

I later figured out that this meant something along the lines of "if you don't stop and let people have a lunch break by 4PM in the afternoon, then the production will have to pay everyone extra". In other words, Bob, the obsessive perfectionist, would not have stopped for lunch unless someone put a gun to his head, or his wallet.

The second thing that I saw, as we moved raster graphics into production at Robert Abel & Associates was how producers would move elements that could have been produced any number of ways into the 3D department. Why? Because if people worked 12 or 16 hour days in 3D, it did not cost them any more. 3D was on a fixed hourly rate, a certain number of hours a week. But if they did it in a department that was involved with a union (even if there were special deals with the union as there were), then people had to get paid more.

Oh, I thought as I watched. That's interesting. You mean you are willing to burn people out and damage their lives to save a few bucks? And the answer to that question, was "Yes, absolutely, we have no ethics whatsoever". Oh. Ok. Thanks.

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