Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Comments on the VES "State of the Global VFX Industry" White Paper Part 1

(this is a draft and is in progress... send comments to or leave a comment below).

The Visual Effects Society issued a report on the global visual effects industry right before SIGGRAPH 2013. I have been meaning to review this report for Global Wahrman for some time, but I have not because I did not understand it.

Its not that the report is unclear or badly written, it is in fact very well written in some ways. The problem for me was that I could not figure out what it was trying to accomplish or for whom it was intended. In particular, I could not figure out what its point of view was.

So now I have read it several times, and I think that I have the answer to my questions. It is studiously trying not to have a point of view, to be all things to all people, as it were. But to paraphrase Frederick the Great, he who defends everything defends nothing. And that is what I think we have here, a report that does mention many of the issues and many of the proposed solutions, and asks some of the right questions, but not all of course, but ultimately leaves us where we were before. Which is nowhere.

You are going to have to look up the report for yourself. Right now, Google Chrome is not letting me get the URL here for the report. Search for "VES global vfx industry report" and it should come right up.

As I understand it, this report was initiated because in light of recent events, particularly the demise of Rhythm and Hues in the aftermath of Life of Pi, the VES felt that it had to do something, anything, to respond to the dismal situations of so much unemployment, uncertainty and so forth. So they assembled a group of worthies in the industry (leaving out many who could equally be there) but certainly including a group of people who I would want involved in such a report. Nancy St. John, Mike Fink, John Nelson, Scott Squires, Bill Taylor, Peter Chiang, Ray Feeeney, Warren Franklyn, Sari Gennis and so forth. All of these people are worth listening to, that goes without saying. I felt that it was a little light on the VFX workers (e.g. digital artists) themselves, but whatever.  There was one token technologist that I noticed.

Ok, yes, there are some things I could quibble with. Did I see a mention of ageism?  I dont think I did, but hey maybe I missed it. I felt that the issue of proprietary software needed expansion, the situation is an icky one and one is kind of screwed either way (damned if you write your own software, damned if you don't). I felt that the section of what describes "the business model is broken" could be greatly expanded and frankly it would be a very dark part of the report.  IMHO the so called business model never really ever worked.  Two of the biggest problems that I see in visual effects, the fierce competitiveness between facilities and between individuals that leads to things such as underbidding a project to put a facility out of business and the character assassination that is an everyday occurrence are not mentioned that I noticed.

But I think that the problem here with this report is actually structural with the VES.  In other words, the same problem that the report has the VES has.  Arguably.  The VES does not want to say "end subsidies" because there are lots of international people out there who like subsidies (of course) even though subsidies are the number one cause of the demise of a dozen worthwhile visual effects firms in this country.  Thats pretty darn politic of them, an outsider might say, or one might use the word spineless as well.  The VES does not want to complain about facilities making people move all over the planet then laying people off, because they are also trying to represent the interests of the facilities. Somehow the VES does not see recent events as a complete disaster (the laying off of not less than 1000 people in the west coast in the last year by my estimates). Somehow the demise of the Los Angeles visual effects community is not a cause for concern (which it may not be).  The VES does not want to take a position on the massive oversupply of artists (quote end quote) but until that is dealt with no one but the facility owners or studio executives are likely to have a secure job in this field, except that these two groups don't have secure jobs either.

Subsidies? What subsidies?

Before I get into some specific suggestions, I want to pose to you the following question: is visual effects a reasonable career for a young person (or any person) to get into? Is it likely that they will have a career that lets them do such things as have a family, have a life, build a retirement fund, all those boring things that become so important as you grow older and do not have a trust fund. Is it? Is it a reasonable career? I want to suggest to you that it is not, except for a privileged few and that is the fundamental dilemma here.   To be specific, I am saying that visual effects is not a reasonable career for a person to have and that people are being duplicitous and unethical by encouraging people to go into it.   I have written much more on this topic, you can find the posts on my blog if you care to look. 

So here are some specific suggestions, some of these may be redundant to the report, but it doesn't matter. I am sure I am going to be ignored anyway.

1. Finally put together a matrix of positions / skills in visual effects to try to bring some order out of chaos of who does what and what you need to be qualified for it.  

2. Issue a strong statement about a union, I think that visual effects should have one in order to represent the interests of the workers of the USA in visual effects. An organization that can ask why their elected representatives have sat on their hands and looked dumb while thousands of jobs left S. Cal without worrying about whether it annoys the studios. Of course it annoys the studios.  (By the way, why did our representatives sit on their hands while thousands were unemployed and have to leave the county?  It must have affected their tax base.  It couldn't be slavish obedience to the studios, now could it?)

3. Issue white papers whose purpose is to educate clients on fundamental principles. A fundamental principle might be to explain why changes late in the day might be easy, or it might be very hard and explain why.  I doubt it will do much good but 1 in 100 producers actually wants to do a good job and not just fuck people to make a dollar, and so that 1 person will benefit.

4. Help create a professional development path (paths) for people in the field. This is what they should be learning, doing, whatever if they want to progress in the field and be better professionals.  Instead of just saying every person for themselves, yahoo, go say you're an effects supervisor, no one will know the difference anyway.

5. Help create a way for out of work individuals to have access to the tools they need to stay current. Without the tools, they can not practice and their skills will get both rusty and out of date and then they are completely, as the French say, es fucque.

6. Take a strong position on subsidies.  Subsidies destroyed employment in Los Angeles where a huge number of your workers have/had lives.   Sure LA may be a sucking sewer of smog and corruption, but it is *our* sucking sewer and we should defend it.

7. Finally I think that one of the largest problems visual effects has is that everyone tries to be like everyone else.  As long as they do that they will be treated like the commodity that they are.   Only by creating their own vision as artists will they be unique and be able to command a better price, or so I argue.  We do see a little bit of that in this field, but I think we should see a lot more.

I will elaborate on all of these in future posts.

I want to thank the people who took the time to write the report. No, its not what I would ideally want, but it may be the best the VES can do, given the various interests they have to accommodate, and it certainly was a lot of work and I certainly appreciate it.

1 comment:

  1. Michael,
    Thank-you for your review of the VES report. I stumbled across related VFX industry blog articles when I learned of the troubles at Rhythm and Hues. Your suggestions are spot on. For the VFX industry to survive it will need the protective structure of a union/guild system (or an equivalent to the academic tenure model) that would bring long-term thinking to the negotiation table. I have more thoughts on this vis-a-vis the damage done to our society and economy from 30 years of Reagan trickle-down nonsense, but I'll leave that for another day.
    Dennis D.