Visual-Effects Artists Fear Vengeance If They Voice Support For Unionization

A lot has changed in the visual-effects industry since 1902, when Georges Méliès shot a fake rocket into a man's face for the pioneering science-fiction film "A Trip to the Moon." But perhaps the biggest change is where visual effects now stand on the box-office totem pole. The wattage of star power has long been on the wane, and today's young moviegoers line up not for big names, but for big effects.

Visual effects are now the foremost draw for most big-budget movies, and yet conditions for the workers who create those effects have never been worse. Many VFX artists face punishing schedules, working with no health insurance or benefits to meet the demands of effects-laden motion pictures. It's a grueling way to earn a buck: One VFX artist, who spoke to IBTimes on the condition of anonymity, described "sweatshop-style graphics ... where teams of people spend hours" performing repetitive tasks in front of a computer screen.

But if recent chatter among VFX workers is any indication, the tide may be shifting. In the last few months, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) -- the largest labor union for behind-the-scenes workers -- has ramped up its efforts to unionize the visual-effects industry at long last. IATSE president Matt Loeb has said that unionization of VFX workers is one of his top priorities. And in April, the union took the first step, meeting with workers from Sony Pictures Imageworks, which employees about 500 VFX workers.  

Steve Kaplan, an organizer for IATSE Local 839 (also known as the Animation Guild), also supports unionization for VFX artists, but said many workers will simply not speak openly about the issue. The industry is small, and artists don't want to risk alienating the visual-effects studios that employ them. "I believe they fear retribution," he said. "That fear would certainly be of retribution in the form of being passed over for employment and labeled a 'trouble maker' because of their support of unionization." 

That fear is also apparent in the number of blogs and websites run by pro-union VFX artists, who voice their opinions behind a shield of anonymity. One such site, Occupy VFX, borrows from the outspoken ethos of the famous protest movement that begun on Wall Street, with a little humor mixed in for good measure. (One post is titled "Unions: the people that brought you the weekend.")

The site is serious in its intentions, however -- outlining in detail the ways in which worker solidarity will improve the conditions for VFX artists. That includes fair pay, a safer working environment, health benefits and even pensions. The group also calls for the end to state tax credits that lure companies away from hub cities like Los Angeles, forcing artists to uproot their lives each time another state offers a sweeter deal. "Tax subsidies do nothing but hasten our race to the bottom," the website said.

Occupy VFX did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Of course, not all visual-effects workers support unionization. One artist, who did not want to be named, said that a strong union presence could prove to be too unwieldy in an industry that depends on the forward-flowing movement of rapid technological changes. He said he was concerned that union rules -- and the workers protected by them -- might not be able to adapt fast enough. "Just because you work now, doesn't mean you should always be the person doing that work if you're not competitive or continue to be progressive with your skill set," he said. "To the best artist goes the job. Unions may disrupt that form of innovation, and I'd hate to see it."

Kaplan, however, believes that unionization is only a matter of time. And in an industry where guilds and labor unions exist around every corner, history seems to be on his side. As more and more artists take to blogs and Twitter to voice their support anonymously, Kaplan said that others are finally opting for candor. "We are seeing some shed those masks and proudly stand openly in support," he said.  "This shows that fear is giving way to an understanding that, without change, conditions will deteriorate past the point of sustainability."

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