A new IATSE survey of VFX workers found that two-thirds say their working conditions are unsustainable.

It’s not only cut corners on new ‘Ant-Man’ movie. Visual effects workers in the industry, about two-thirds to be precise, feel their working conditions are unsustainable due to a severe lack of health care, retirement options, hourly pay additional and training in their field.

This is the opinion of hundreds of Visual effects professionals across Hollywood who participated in a investigation launched by IATSE And published on Wednesday in an effort to finally organize VFX workers as a union.

Organizers on behalf of IATSE spoke to the press on Wednesday about the “alarming” but not surprising survey results, which also revealed that nearly nine out of 10 visual effects workers feel they have no way to negotiate for their rights or for solutions to burnout, wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Armed with this information, IATSE hopes to launch a formal VFX union later this year. The timing may be fortuitous given other impending labor negotiations, including a potential writers’ strike.

“These results paint a picture of an industry in crisis,” Mark Patch (“Tenet,” “No”), a VFX worker and IATSE organizer, told reporters. “It’s not just about sharing information. It’s a matter of democracy in the workplace. It is about fairness. It’s about winning your union representation for these workers this year.

One of the main concerns of VFX workers is health. Only 12% of “client-side” VFX employees, that is, people employed directly by a production company and working under the studio’s supervision, said they had received portable health care that could be transferred from a project to another; 43% received no benefits. Only a quarter of “supplier-side” VFX workers, or those who work for large VFX companies, also receive wearable healthcare. A third receive no health care benefits.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”

Jay Maidment

Only 15% of client-side workers receive pension benefits, as do less than half of sell-side workers. A majority of workers on the client side of the industry said they were not paid overtime, sometimes for more than 12 hours a day, or were forced to work lunches and meals without meal penalties.

The survey also asked workers about security levels and training available. Patch said visual effects workers can be pulled into the depths of the set to figure out how to capture dangerous stunts or explosions in an effort to save money and get things done in post-production.

“These workers often have no recourse to take their complaints to anyone other than the producers, who may have ordered them under these conditions in the first place,” Patch said. “It contributes to a culture of silence, as workers don’t want to be perceived as difficult, as every future job opportunity is based on personal relationships.”

Finally, the survey released a long list that breaks down industry salaries for each major visual effects role. On the low end, a client-side production assistant earns an average of $1,050 per week, or $15 per hour, assuming a 60-hour workweek; a key VFX supervisor earns an average of $71.43 per hour. Without overtime pay, this could be less than minimum wage for the lowest paid employees. Patch said that while client-side employees may earn higher weekly rates than their counterparts who work for a vendor, they have little stability when a movie or show ends.

“These vendors and studios are in a global race to the bottom, and the costs are being passed on to workers,” Patch said. “They will always try to get away with paying us as little as possible because there is no set standard rate for job titles, either on the vendor side or on the client side. There is wide variation that reflects the lack of transparency that currently exists about how much workers can charge for their time.

Efforts to organize VFX workers are not new. A push for a union dates back to at least 2013, when the company behind the Oscar-winning effects on Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” went bankruptand the winners were played offstage by the theme song “Jaws” before they could speak.

LIFE OF PI, 2012. TM and ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All rights reserved./Courtesy of Everett Collection

“Life of Pi”

©20thCentFox/courtesy Everett Collection

Ten years ago, VFX artist Maggie Kraisamutr wrote a article for IndieWire on industry conditions she considered untenable and led her to work 187 hours over two weeks. Kraisamutr is part of IATSE’s latest work campaign and told the press that she collapsed at her desk while trying to finish work on a show and even watched her chronic illness become “gangrenous” as a result. Since then, visual effects have become more and more in demand, and many of the problems she faced have escalated and spread.

“Most visual effects workers I’ve known can barely survive more than five years in our industry without employer-sponsored plans like retirement or 401k,” Kraisamutr said. “I don’t see how a career in visual effects could be sustainable in the long term. For a single person, maybe, but if you want to raise a family, the odds are stacked against you. I think we all know that this industry is not too kind to families.

One of the reasons VFX workers are the last major group in Hollywood without union representation stems from the rapidly changing global nature of the industry. Rapidly changing technology creating new roles overnight complicates efforts to organize workers or lobby for demands. Unionization also risks diverting work from the United States and Canada to regions abroad that fall outside the IATSE’s jurisdiction.

The difference in this attempt is that the IATSE now highlights employees working directly for studios and production companies, many of whom work directly with crew members with union representation. IATSE may begin to organize studio by studio at a time when VFX work is too important – and too essential – to ignore.

“When they see that their immediate colleagues are all covered by collective agreements and you work on set, that contrast of inequality is stark,” said Ben Speight, an organizer with IATSE International and the Animation Guild. “We don’t have to persuade or convince VFX workers that they need a collective voice at work. Workers are bolder in their demand for unionization. We believe that in 2023 there will be an opportunity to displace a super-majority of workers from major studios or visual effects houses to actually gain union recognition.We are moving from protest to power.

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