Adapt Ends, PDI Closes, Where do we go from here?

NOTEThis post is significantly revised from the version released last week. See notes below for details.

A Bad Day of News and Introspection. Monday, January 19 dealt a number of blows to the Visual Effects and Animation industry, where artists have been struggling for the last five years or more to find stable ground in an uneven, ever shifting market.

First, VFXSoldier (Daniel Lay) and Scott Ross formally announced an end to ADAPT, a valiant attempt and last-ditch effort to slow or reverse the collapse of the global Visual Effects Industry and the involuntary displacement of artists. (Sincerely, thank you guys)

On the heels of that was the news that Dreamworks Animation, long-time bastion of great employers, planned to layoff another 400 employees in addition to the 350 that were laid off early last year. Three days later that turned into 500 employees and closing down PDI in Northern California.

So now we have 500 more workers who will be looking for work in an already crowded market. If you’re new to this subject, artists and engineers in the Visual Effects and Animation Industry are often interchangeable and frequently transition between both types of company. Issues that affect one have an impact on job prospects, pay-scales, and working conditions in the other.

Prior to Adapt’s demise, it seemed to be largely held by the most senior, influential workers in this industry that there were two possible ways forward for Visual Effects.

Plan A was a 3-step approach (with a 4th step specific to US workers) that looked something like this:
Continue reading

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The Five Defenses Part 2: Structurelessness, Cooperation, and the Obstinate Individualism Complex

(Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to read The Five Defenses Part 1: Why We’re Reluctant to Take Control, which lays the groundwork for this post.)

In part one of The Five Defenses, we discussed the first of the most common defenses I’ve encountered in objection to the notion of an animation or visual-effects company that is democratically run by the artists. For simplicity, we referred to the first as “The exceptionalism complex”: the argument that someone has to run the company and the ingrained belief that exceptional companies are run by exceptional individuals.

In this piece we’ll move onto the second of the five defenses: The Obstinate Individualism Defense.


Nothing would ever get done.

(The Obstinate Individualism Complex).

The obstinate individualism complex is usually the alternate first defense to the exceptionalism complex; It’s sort of a variation on the same theme.  While both suggest that someone has to lead the company, this one implies that if the workers were vested with the power to influence the direction of the company, nothing would ever get done. It would just be too difficult to make any decisions, much less good ones.

It’s based more in the experiences we’ve all probably endured working with obstinate, difficult, ego-driven artists and/or those with no vision or drive at all.

If it’s not based in experiences with those types of people specifically, it’s grounded in the more rational reality that it can be difficult to achieve consensus on artistic or technical things, especially with independent minds, and sometimes you just need to make an executive decision. This is something I acknowledge, though I may not personally feel presents as great of a threat to the viability of a democratic company as some. Here’s why.

On Obstinate Individuals
First a few minor counterpoints. On the first point (difficult personalities), Continue reading

The Five Defenses: Why We’re Reluctant to Take Control (Part 1)

In Reinventing the Wheel Part 2: The CEO Must Go we concluded with the question:

If the CEO is the one person that stands between a thousand workers and our ability to control our own situation (…) why do we think we need to keep them around? And more importantly, why does every new solution we propose and every new company we try to start simply assume they must exist and include them in its makeup?

I’ve found, through numerous discussions, that many of us seem to have a deep frustration with the decisions of our leaders, but begin with the assumption that this basic structure is a fundamental pillar of any successful company and can not or should not be altered.

When you stop to think about it, this is somewhat perplexing given the state we recognize our industry to be in. Couple that with the fact that those of us who aren’t focused primarily on getting out of the industry are all working very hard to find new solutions to stabilize and improve our industry and ensure we have a future doing this work that is our passion.

Yet all of our current solutions and long-shot ideas are still trying to solve the problem from within this basic structure, and failing to examine the problems inherent in the structure itself.

The Five Defenses

Before we can really talk about solutions that involve a fundamental restructuring of the business, first I think we need to take a moment to lay out the most common defenses to the idea of a Steve Jobs-less company.

While some people immediately embrace the idea of an artist run studio; for whatever reason, many of our initial reactions to the idea of a VFX/Animation company owned and democratically operated by the artists tend to be critical, dismissive, and otherwise in defense of the current system. I like to believe it’s because we’re all pretty intelligent, creative people who understand that good ideas need scrutiny in order to become great ideas. At least I hope so.

Because these defenses seem to emerge from ideologies so deeply ingrained in the way we think about the business that we often have difficulty at first looking beyond them, I’ve given each defense a “complex” from which it often stems. While there are other critiques that often come up when discussing other aspects, I’ve encountered five defenses (and five “complexes”) that seem to be the most common when discussing a company with the kind of inverse accountability model implied by democratic leadership.

I should preface all this by noting that while these almost always come up in conversations about this, these were also reactions I’ve probably had myself at one point or another. Working through them, often with the help of others, has given me a bit of perspective I’d like to share.


Some
one
has to lead the company
(The Exceptionalism Complex)

The basic argument that “Someone has to lead the company” tends to be one of the first two defenses raised when challenging the traditional corporate hierarchy. It is firmly grounded in wide-eyed American exceptionalism (if not a tinge of ego and self-delusion). At its core is the notion that exceptional companies must be run by exceptional individuals. It immediately conjures glamorized images of Continue reading

New Year, New Ideas To Share…

Hello again everyone, I hope you had a great holiday and are as ready as I am to dive into a New Year of exploring radical solutions to reform our industry into one that actually exists for the benefit artists and innovators, and not just to benefit from them.

I’ve got a round of new posts in the works to publish over the next few weeks. We’ll break down some of the most significant, intrinsic and neglected issues at the heart of our industry, examine some of the reasons why we haven’t thought to change them, and most importantly share some of the ideas many of us have come to feel could provide the most stable, long-term solutions for an industry where we are the recipients of our own success, and not merely a tool for others to achieve it.

While these ideas need not be exclusive to Visual Effects and Feature Animation, I do believe that our industry is uniquely predisposed to benefit from the somewhat radical and out-of-the-box ideas we’ll explore.

In the mean-time I thought I’d share an article (which I recently re-tweeted) that covers a few innovative, young companies that are helping beat the path and lay the groundwork for democratic enterprises that exist to benefit the workers and not merely the executives and shareholders: 16 Worker Coops Redefining the Cooperative Movement

Stay tuned, we’re just getting warmed up!

Sony Pictures Extends Free Identity Protection to Former Employees

It certainly seemed like a long time coming if you were spending the last week fretting about the impact of your identity being strewn across the internet, but if you are a former Sony Pictures employee and a victim of the recent leak, Sony Pictures has finally extended temporary identity protection to you.

It seems, however, that many former employees have not yet been contacted by Sony. For those of you struggling to find the information, here is their e-mail:

AllClear ID Coverage Expanded to Former Employees

As you know, SPE made arrangements with a third-party service provider, AllClear ID, to offer all employees 12 months of identity protection services at no charge.  The company has expanded the coverage to now include all potentially affected former employees and their dependents. Dependents include: spouses, domestic partners, and/or children.

Former employees can email: Alumni@spe.sony.com to begin the AllClear enrollment process.

Frankly, 12 months seems like the least they could offer given that unprotected documents and spreadsheets full of Social Security Numbers and contact information are now permanently floating around all over the internet.

Personally, I think Sony should really just do the right thing and make this free for life for all current and former employees, but at least there is something you can do immediately. Hopefully this is not too little too late for anyone.

Reinventing the CG Wheel Part 2: The CEO Must Go

NO CEO
In the previous post (Reinventing the CG Wheel Part 1) I suggested that the root of the problems facing the VFX community has gone relatively unidentified and unaddressed in the majority of the proposed solutions. I referred to this as “the problem of the CEO” (which, for the sake of simplicity, I’m using as an umbrella term for President, CEO, Executive Director, etc.) Consider the following.

The CEO is ultimately responsible for all of the decisions made in our industry. Yes, there are outside factors that influence his or her decisions (though primarily driven by other CEOs), but at the end of the day every problem in Visual Effects can be traced back to decisions made by this one individual.

The decision to focus on profit instead of people. The decision to give into clients demands at the expense of their employees. The decision to expand (and contract) in cheap labor markets, even in the face of collapse, where often the highest reported salary is less than 8,000 USD/yr and the working conditions are described as far worse than anything we’ve ever witnessed. The decision to try to get ahead of other VFX facilities at the artists expense while refusing to work together to agree on standards that might improve the industry and maybe trickle down to the lives of workers. All the while choosing to collude against the artists, and engage in illegal wage-fixing. The hair-brained, completely idiotic decisions to try to fix their company’s crappy buisness model and razor thin margins. The bold faced lies, the dumbfounding ignorance and naivity, and perhaps utter lack of interest about the state of those they employ. And despite the climate and conditions they perpetuate, they are actually incentivized ($4,468,170/yr for example) to continue unchanged.

As more evidence of this claim, a document recently shared with me, alleged to be a part of the Sony Pictures leak, shows high praise of Imageworks President Bob Osher in his executive performance review. This praise makes no mention of creating a superior product or a rewarding workplace, but rather praises hissignificant reduction in overall headcount (230)”, “annualized savings of $4.5M through headcount reductions, and his “accelerated […] transition of Imageworks’ production and technology departments to Vancouver so the Company can continue taking advantage of the 58.4% tax rebates.” If you haven’t already fallen prey to this unquenchable executive thirst, you will soon enough.

The bottom line is that at the end of the day a CEO is incentivized to care about one thing and one thing only: profitability. How that profit is attained and to whose benefit or expense is not relevant, as long attaining it is not illegal or so illegal that the penalty negates the profits. Sure, for some it’s nice if you can attain profit and the adoration of your subjects, but that is merely a perk of the system suited to the types of personalities who appreciate it. This is not to say that there aren’t beloved CEOs around the world who appear to be good people and help cultivate a thriving company culture, but rather that – particularly in our industry – it is not required and the system incentivizes bad behavior, even in the most beloved of them.

The system that we operate within can create such antagonistic relationships between the workers and “the company”, that Workers Unions and Trade Associations are suggested to protect the two groups from each other. This is because at the core of each role, we share very different motivations.

We can shout about all of the things we see that need to change “END THE UNDERBIDDING!” “MANDATE LABOR STANDARDS!”  But in the end, many of these solutions are not actionable by those demanding them because they require agreement and action by the CEO, whose position and decisions we have no control over. But they should be, and we should.

If the CEO is the one person that stands between a thousand workers and our ability to control our own situation, then maybe the CEO must go.

In my previous post I concluded with the question:

If the problem is that the workers are being trampled on by a powerful few who don’t share their interests or objectives and there a thousand of us for every one of them; then why exactly do we think we need to keep these people around?

So why do we think we need to keep them around? And more importantly, why does every new solution we propose and every new company we try to start simply assume they must exist and include them in its makeup?

This is the moment in the conversation where people often enjoy a good snicker at the sudden exposure of apparent economic naivety and childish idealism; so before I continue, if you need to, feel free to take a moment to get it out of your system <comments section below>.

In the next post I’ll take a stab at answering the question and try to elaborate on how we could solve the problem of the CEO.

Reinventing the CG Wheel Part 1: The Problem of the CEO

CEO Approval R&H

CEO Approval Imageworks

In this series of posts, we’ll take a look at some of the reasons I’ve come to believe that re-inventing the wheel is one of the few ways we can really get this vehicle across the variety of terrain we’ve come to encounter. In the spirit of this blog, it’s important to stress the author of this post is not the lone source of these ideas. It was through many many conversations between thoughtful, intelligent friends and colleagues that these opinions were formed.

The path to the animation cooperative began, for me, by considering the one problem that can not be addressed with even the strongest workers union, the most united trade organization, the most competitive tax incentive, the best legislation, regulation, CVDs, or truckload of good intentions. It’s the problem at the heart of the broken business model, stagnating wages, excessive underpaid/unpaid overtime, decreasing working conditions, shady business practices, uninspired projects, and a diminished overall emphasis on standards of living. This is the problem of the CEO. 

ON GOOD INTENTIONS
I recall sitting in various VFX discussion groups following the massive town-hall we had after the first Oscar’s protest and listening to several different groups of individuals quite seriously discussing how they were going to start or join some new company that had this brilliant new plan that was going to fix everything. I listened with an eagerness that slowly turned to disappointment as each one of these plans led back to the same problem:  Continue reading