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:
- Neutralize the cost benefit of international subsidies that keep artists constantly on the move between London, the US, B.C., New Zealand and (newcomer) Québec. Either through CVDs or matching subsidies.
- Get the top VFX facilities together to form a Trade Association and agree on some basic standards that would ensure they were able to make enough revenue to keep artists employed and share some solidarity to fight negative pressure from the movie studios.
- Unionize to protect the interest of the workers and improve working conditions now that their situation had stabilized.
- Finally, for US workers, challenge the local subsidies that are pressuring industry professionals to live nomadically within the country.
ADAPT was attempting to address steps 1 & 2, step 3 was up to us.
Then there was a sort of impossible Plan B, a pipe-dream of magical thinking which was considered by most to be a far more challenging and risky endeavor. That was for Visual Effects companies to begin shifting their business model toward ownership of content instead of simply providing a service. The thinking was that this way they might be able to earn enough profit and residual revenue to provide stable employment and gain some independence from the external pressures placed on it by movie studios. Some companies sort of dipped their toes in the waters, like DD with Enders Game, without much success giving more fodder to those already convinced that it couldn’t work.
Aside from the politics within the industry and huge financial risks companies would face in doing this, there is one rather significant issue with Plan B: as workers employed by VFX companies we have little to no power to act on Plan B. And if you believe in or have advocated for Plan B, you’re probably used to the scorn, ridicule and general discouragement of your colleagues.
But regardless, Plan A, it seems, is dead.
LESSONS FROM DREAMWORKS & ADAPT
All of this bad news comes with a number of important lessons that help to strengthen some central tenants of this blog and highlight a potential way forward for the actual creators of content in this industry. The writers, the storytellers, the artists, the managers and producers.
LESSON ONE: The Community Doesn’t Have a Lot of Trust in Leaders.
We can’t really depend on efforts that require unanimous action from thousands of people across a scattered market. Especially when those efforts require a large degree of trust and circumstances out of our control. (Hell, one company couldn’t even agree to unionize.) For Adapt, even unanimous action from just the artists who showed up to the last Oscars demonstration wearing green and holding signs about how subsidies were damaging the industry would have been enough. But for a plethora of reasons it didn’t work. From many of the people I spoke with it either came down to a lack of understanding about what Adapt was, or skepticism about what it might become.
LESSON TWO: No Community Action Without Community Control.
You can’t do something for “the community” without “the community”. Adapt had a fundamental flaw from the beginning: It was an action for the community that did not allow the community much participation beyond a financial contribution. It asked the community to contribute to it financially, but it also asked the community to trust that two individuals, Daniel Lay & Scott Ross, were going to act in their best interest. While, like many others, I believe they had the best interest of the community at heart, the fact that Adapt had to operate under a high degree of secrecy while requiring a significant financial contribution made it a hard pill to swallow for many I’ve spoken with.
LESSON THREE: Focus On What We Can Change.
Instead of focusing on efforts requiring unanimous action from thousands across the community, or the actions of executives over which we have no influence, we should focus on what we’re capable of influencing in smaller, more cohesive and internally transparent groups of like-minded individuals. So in essence, change in our industry may require smaller groups, braving uncharted territory and paving the way for the rest of the community to follow.
Without Adapt, there is now little to no chance we’ll be able to neutralize the impact of subsidies or foreign markets on the global community. We have no power to do that, and we’re not even sure if it would work (or how long it would take studios to find a way around it). Even Adapt’s lawyers acknowledged it may only provide a temporary solution and further action would likely be needed. We definitely have no power or leverage to compel the leaders of our studios to form a trade association. Many people viewed the trade-association as necessary to the unionization effort, because otherwise we might actually harm our facilities. (side note: Weird how we are always the ones looking out for them.)
That means one of the few remaining ways forward for those of us who want to continue creating cg for live-action content is to at least look at breaking down the barrier between Visual Effects and production, and owning the entire product. But again, we have no ability to influence the decisions of our company’s executives, mostly they’ve proven to be tone-def.
So the only way we’ll be able to do it is by breaking away from them and pursuing efforts that are within the abilities of the groups we assemble.
LESSON FOUR: IP (alone) Is Not The Answer.
As PDI showed us, creating content (or pop-term “I.P.”) is not enough to create a stable environment for the artists and workers who actually create that content. Because even if your company is creating IP, there is likely going to be one person – or a select few – who are guiding and green-lighting production of content they believe, through their flawlessly predictive powers of market research and success formula’s, will make a lot of money.
But we all know those formulas are a joke, and most of the time we hate making those movies as much as other people hate watching them. I know for a fact that the directors and producers of many recent sequels and franchise films that bombed in theaters hated the work they were being forced to do. Yet in the end it’s all of those creators, the ones who knew the film wasn’t working and knew it was going to bomb, who suffer the consequences of irreproachable executive decision-making.
The only way to change that is that we also need to eliminate the barrier between executives and workers and align the interest of the “company” and the “employees”. Without involving the company (the workers) in general decision making, IP alone will not provide long-term stability.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM WITH DEMOCRACY IN THE WORKPLACE
As we know, that can’t happen at a company over which we have no control, and that lack of control has proven to be a problem. Whether that’s because we’re forced to work insane hours, chase our jobs around the world, accept declining benefits or working conditions, or because the leadership is failing to take creative risks, failing to foster innovation, insisting on the creation of products the majority of the creators feel are mediocre from the start; having no say in the direction of your company is not good for workers, and it’s not good for the industry. The irreproachable decision-making of company executives will ultimately result in the complete evaporation of any employment stability in this industry.
So eliminating that barrier begins with exploring the creation of new, more nimble companies where the creators of the product are the mutual owners and beneficiary of that product. Companies that are controlled democratically by everyone acting together in their mutual self-interest. Companies that do not exist to generate wealth for external shareholders or executives at the expense of the workers upward mobility and economic equality, but rather companies that exist to create wealth for the artists, engineers, and other workers who enable the production of the product they work together to create.
The proper name for a company structured in this way is a worker’s self directed enterprise (WSDE), also known as a worker-cooperative (not to be confused with other types of cooperative).
As a side note I’d like to clarify: by workers, we don’t just mean animation/vfx-artist. This implies writers, directors, managers, producers, artists and business people working together to create a product they collectively own.
If Dreamworks Had Been A Democratic, Worker-Owned Company
You might note, as Scott Squires rightfully pointed out, that democratic direction doesn’t mean immunity from economic hardship. I don’t pretend this isn’t true, and acknowledge that there will be struggles for even the most idyllic company. But in the case of a company like Dreamworks, who’s 6 top executives earned a combined total of $33,700,000/yr in 2013, were the workers given a say in how to deal with the string of under-performing movies, there would have certainly been options. It’s worth noting that, given a say, the workers may not have chosen to pursue those projects in the first place.
Whether that means some workers going to part-time, temporarily lowering executive compensation or senior salaries to squeeze through a trying time, temporarily cutting back on free lunches and other amenities, any variety of other cost-saving measures, or never having made that series of movies no one wanted to make and no one wanted to see to begin with: working together in their mutual self-interest, the workers would have had some options. I can almost guarantee that Dreamworks would not be stretching its budget pouring resources into its big China gamble.
It’s also worth noting this would provide an equitable solution for conditions affecting the global community artists. If you are a mutual owner and democratic participant in the direction of your company and your content, you never have to worry about jobs moving to other countries because of subsidies or anti-subsidy efforts. From London, to LA, to Canada, work and working conditions would stabilize in the locations people preferred to live. Democratic, worker-owned companies hold the potential to improve conditions and stabilize work for all artists in whichever location they prefer.
The bottom line in all this news is it’s starting to look like now might be the time for us to take matters into our own hands and take control of this industry by making plans to embrace democratic, collaborative worker-ownership and content creation.
There are many notable hurdles we’ll need to find ways to surmount. And of course, not everyone will be able to take this kind of risk (*Thanks to reader nonnymouse for pointing out this omission). It will require a few pioneers. We’re probably not going to start off creating epic live-action saga’s like Avatar, but there is a lot we can do.
Now is the time to start spreading the seed and having these conversations with our peers and colleagues. In the halls, cafes, and in the break-rooms. We need to start exploring what we can do to take control of this industry, figuring out what skills and experience we can contribute to that end, and what we can do to overcome the obstacles in our way.
WHAT HAPPENED TO US?
There are a whole lot of people who don’t believe this can work, or that it would just be too great a challenge. Worse, they see fit to insult and discourage those of us who don’t share their pessimism. They’re right about one thing, the challenge will be huge. But there seems to be this depressing mentality among many of our peers that if something fails once, it can’t work. That no matter how big the potential reward for ourselves or our industry: if it sounds too challenging, if no one has ever done it before, and if it requires us to make some temporary sacrifice and do something out of our comfort-zone, it’s just not worth the risk.
I’m always shocked by this given that we are a community built on risk taking, and built on doing things no one has ever seen before. What has happened to our resolve? What has happened to our spirit of innovation? For those who did not find ourselves here by accident, did we not all get into this industry for that very reason? Creativity? Innovation? Making the impossible real? Especially now, when the future of our industry depends on it. The risk to our careers and our industry of doing nothing and discouraging others from taking those risks is far, far greater than a few potential failures along the road.
One artist put it best when he said:
“I don’t think there is anything easy left in this town. Most people jumping into content creation “may” fail. But you may have to fail before you succeed. It ain’t gonna be easy. This future is ONLY for those who are willing to risk investing on something that may fail. The whole point I’m making is that we can’t demand jobs. We likely have to create them. If you come at it from an employee perspective of “that doesn’t sound easy” well then you are right. It’s gonna be HARD. And risky. But you don’t have any easy work, or easy choices do you? Let’s stop looking for low hanging fruit. It’s gone.”
For those of us who still love this industry and don’t want to give it up, the road ahead is not going to be easy. Are we going to go hungry waiting for more low-hanging fruit, or adapt to the trees and never be hungry again?
I’d like to extend a personal, heart-felt thank you to Daniel Lay and Scott Ross for all they tried to accomplish. All of us, even those in the community who may not yet realize it, owe them a debt of gratitude for the massive personal effort they put forward on our behalf.
NOTE ON EDIT: A rough draft of this post was mistakenly released last week in place of the finished piece, which was lost. I had to temporarily suspend the piece while I rewrote those portions. In attempting to get it back to that state, there are a number of significant updates to the content of this post, so if you feel your thoughts on the subject represented here or elsewhere online don’t reflect the content of the post, feel free to reach out.