A Picket Line At The Oscars: Visual-Effects Artists To Protest

Mar 1, 2014
Originally published on March 1, 2014 8:37 am

Hundreds of visual-effects artists are planning to picket the Academy Awards on Sunday for the second year in a row. They're hoping to bring attention to what's been happening in their industry.

The field is losing jobs and relocating to countries with bigger subsidies for employers. It's the result of a technical revolution that's changed the profession since it kicked off in the 70s with Star Wars creator George Lucas' visual-effects company, Industrial Light and Magic.

At first, visual effects was mostly engineers creating special effects with cameras, high-speed motors and models. Now, it's generally about digital artistry. That means special effects do not have to be done in movie studios; they could be created anyplace in the world.

Hollywood visual-effects artist Daniel Lay, who writes about the industry for the blog VFX Soldier, can easily list examples of high-profile layoffs and relocations. Sony Pictures, a former employer of Lay's, "readily had 1,000 workers, and now they're whittled down to probably less than 200," he says.

Just this week, Lay says, many of those remaining workers were given an ultimatum: Move to British Columbia or lose their jobs.

An Economic Lure To Relocate

It all comes down to foreign tax incentives, says David S. Cohen, who covers the special effects beat for Variety. Cohen says California cannot compete with the lavish subsidies studios get from Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand. He says other places can offer about 10 percent to even more than 50 percent back on the labor costs for visual effects.

Cohen says that's driving Hollywood's own respected Oscar-winning special effects production houses out of business. Hundreds, even thousands of jobs are vanishing and going abroad. Labor isn't cheap in places like Canada or New Zealand, but the incentives are too good for studios to resist.

"Why Warner Brothers needs the support of the taxpayers of New Zealand in order to make The Hobbit is beyond me," Cohen says.

Cohen says part of the problem is that digital effects artists lack unions or guilds. That lack of representation is extremely rare in show business. And while special effects is a major craft in Hollywood, it arose after the age of unionization. So the industry is disorganized, lacks lobbying power, and no one's counting how many jobs are being lost or what the long-term economic consequences could be.

Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the studios, told NPR in a statement that digital artistry is a service that's not protected by trade agreements, so they can send their work any place they want.

Attempting To Stanch The Flow

Lay, the digital effects artist, has worked on X-Men, Shrek Forever After and TRON: Legacy. Now he's trying to start a trade association to protect digital effects artists in America.

"Without us, what do you see on the screen?" he asks.

Lay says what he and his colleagues do is not like stamping out widgets in a factory. Their work is extremely technical and highly specialized.

"There are people that are painting skin textures, people who are animating lips, eyebrows, people who do explosions, people who do crumbling buildings," he says.

Most of Hollywood's biggest and most profitable movies — Man of Steel, Iron Man, Gravity — are all about special effects. People buy tickets to see the effects, Lay says, just as much as they do to see the stars.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Not everyone attending the Oscars tomorrow night will be on the red carpet. Hundreds of visual effects artists are planning to picket the Academy Awards for the second year in a row. NPR's Neda Ulaby says they're hoping to bring attention to what's been happening in their industry.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Let's start with a little context. The contemporary visual effects industry kicked off back in 1976 with "Star Wars."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic changed over the years. At first, it was mostly engineers creating special effects with cameras, high-speed motors and models. Now, it's generally about digital artistry. That means special effects do not have to be done in movie studios but anyplace in the world. Daniel Lay is a Hollywood visual effects artist who writes the blog FX Soldier. He drove over to NPR's L.A. studios to discuss the job layoffs and relocations wracking his industry. On his way, he passed someplace he used to work that offered one convenient example.

DANIEL LAY: Sony Pictures Image Works, which is located in Culver City, right nearby where we're doing this, they readily had about 1,000 workers and now whittled down to less than 200.

ULABY: And just this week, Lay says, many of those remaining workers, were given an ultimatum.

LAY: To move to British Columbia or they will be fired.

DAVID S. COHEN: Everybody's in a race to give a bigger subsidy to steal work from another place that has a smaller subsidy. And if you have no subsidy at all, it's very difficult to compete.

ULABY: It all comes down to foreign tax incentives, says David S. Cohen. He covers the special effects beat for Variety. Cohen says California cannot compete with the lavish subsidies studios get from Canada, Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand.

COHEN: Ten, 20, 30 possibly over 50 percent back on the labor costs for visual effects.

ULABY: Cohen says that's driving Hollywood's own respected Oscar-winning special effects production houses out of business. Hundreds, even thousands of jobs are vanishing and going abroad. Now, labor isn't cheap in places like Canada or New Zealand, but the incentives are too good for studios to resist. This is corporate welfare, says David S. Cohen.

COHEN: Why Warner Brothers needs the support of the taxpayers of New Zealand in order to make "The Hobbit" is beyond me.

ULABY: Cohen says part of the problem is that digital effects artists lack unions or guilds. That's extremely rare in show business. Special effects is a major craft in Hollywood but it arose after the age of unionization. So, it's disorganized, lacks lobbying power and no one's counting how many jobs are being lost or what the long-term economic consequences might be. Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the studios, told NPR in a statement that digital artistry is a service that's not protected by trade agreements, so they can send their work anywhere they want.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Digital effects artist Daniel Lay has worked on "X-Men," "Shrek Forever" and "Tron Legacy." Now, he's trying to start a trade association to protect digital effects artists in America.

LAY: Without us, what do you see on the screen?

ULABY: Lay says what he and his colleagues do is not like stamping out widgets in a factory. Their work is extremely technical and highly specialized.

LAY: So, there are people painting skin textures, people who are animating lips, eyebrows, people who do explosions, people who do, you know, crumbling buildings.

(SOUNDBITE EXPLOSION AND WRECKAGE)

ULABY: "Man of Steel," "Iron Man," "Gravity" - most of Hollywood's biggest, most profitable movies are all about special effects. People buy tickets to see the effects, Lay says, just as much as the stars. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.