23. August 2016 Johannes Wolters

Open letter der VFX Union UK: „Sausage Party and Nitrogen“

Zur Kenntnisnahme:

Die britische Vereinigung „VFX UNION UK – Unionising the Visual Effects Industry“ hat anläßlich der Vorgänge hinter den Kulissen bei „Sausage Party“ einen aufrüttelnden offenen Brief an die Animationschaffenden in England und der Welt geschrieben. Hätte sie genauso gut anläßlich der Vorgänge bei „Star Trek Beyond“ schreiben können, beziehungsweise werden nun ja bei „deutschen“ Trick-Produktionen die Artists in Taiwan, Korea, Australien auch nicht erwähnt. Jedenfalls ein sehr lesenswerter Brief, der sich dezidiert an die Animatoren, dann an das Management von Nitrogen richtet, sowie im Anschluß an alle Animationschaffenden weltweit.

Hier also zunächst das Selbstverständnis der Macher von VFX Union UK – anschliessend der offene Brief, den ich hier mit freundlicher Genehmigung von VFX Union UK hier wiedergeben darf.

We’re VFX workers, just like you. We’re industry veterans with many decades of combined industry experience at every major VFX studio in Soho. We’ve had enough of watching friends and co-workers get pressured into working countless hours of overtime on project after project. We think it’s time the VFX industry kicked its addiction to “crunch-time”. We think it’s time the VFX industry started treating its people properly, like the talented and hard-working individuals they are.

That’s why we’ve started the VFX branch of BECTU. We hope that you’ll join us, so that we can negotiate on your behalf and change our industry for the better.

Sausage Party and Nitrogen – an open letter

To the VFX & CG-feature communities,

Many of you will have heard in the last week about working conditions on the recently-released “Sausage Party”. What started in the comments section on Cartoon Brew has now been reported by The Washington Post, The LA Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and many more besides. It’s sad to say, but stories of poor working conditions are becoming an embarrassingly regular occurrence in our industry. From the infamous MPC Variety article, to the Life of Pi Oscar debacle, time and again we’ve found our industry’s troubles in the spotlight. We’ve seen reports of a client saying “If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job”. We’ve seen a facility exec tell an audience that if you don’t like long hours then you should get out. We’ve seen hundreds of VFX artists left off the credits of Star Trek Beyond. We’ve seen friends and colleagues forced to uproot their lives and move around the globe to chase tax-breaks and production whims. The question is this: when are things finally going to change?

The problems in our industry are well-known and well-documented. Whether because of over-promising to clients, underbidding to compete with tax breaks, creative mismanagement, inexperience or a simple lack of people, the result is always the same. Workers are pressured to meet impossible deadlines by regularly working late for little-to-no compensation during “crunch-time”. The “lucky ones” are rolled onto another project, where the whole sorry cycle repeats again and again until they burn out and leave. The “unlucky ones” are thanked for their hard work by being laid off. Many of us in this industry spend our lives jumping between companies and countries, trying to find a stable income and work-life-balance in a fickle industry that increasingly allows neither. And yet, our industry continues to cling to the antiquated and destructive motto that “we must deliver at all costs“.

However – things are changing. A process has started in London in the last 12 months which has given our industry a legitimate ray of hope. We launched a branch of BECTU for VFX workers in the UK, and gathered hundreds of members. We launched recognition bids at MPC and at Framestore, and we fought for representation for VFX workers at all the big London VFX studios. This has sent shockwaves through the industry. Our work is ongoing, and there’s still lots to do. However, we’ve started a process here, and we intend to see it through.

There are three groups of people we would like to address:

1. To the animators at Nitrogen. Congratulations to all of you on the release of Sausage Party. The film’s been a great success, and you should be very proud. We’re sorry to hear about the poor working conditions many of you experienced; that you encountered ‘intimidating staff into working past official studio hours, disciplinary measures utilizing fear tactics […] (such as threatening to terminate employment), implying that other departments are working overtime “voluntarily” as a reason to deny compensation’. We’re sorry to hear that some of you were threatened with blacklisting, or were denied credits for your hard work because you dared to ask for fair treatment. The fact that this happened on a CG feature – where your employer has even greater freedom over who to credit than a typical VFX vendor – makes things even worse.

To each one of you that stood up for fair treatment, by signing your petition or by speaking out to the press – a massive “well done” from all of us. It’s not easy to take a stand on working conditions in this industry (we know, we’ve been there!), and we hope that others will follow your lead. We feel – and we hope you agree – that this is a discussion that our entire industry should be having. You are not alone. The VFX branch of BECTU and its members have heard your story, and we stand with you. We hope that this is a turning point, and that management at Nitrogen listen to your concerns. But if not, you should know that you still have options. It absolutely doesn’t have to be this way. You’ve all experienced first-hand just how important it is that we have a voice in how we’re treated. This is exactly what a union is for. We know that our sister labour union in the US and Canada, the IATSE, would love to help you improve your working conditions. After all the coverage you’ve had in the press, we would eagerly encourage you to reach out to them. Nothing is impossible if you all speak to each other, talk about this, and get organised. It’s making a difference here in London, and it can make a difference for you too. Don’t let this chance to improve things go to waste. If there’s anything we can do to help, then please do get in touch.

2. To management at Nitrogen. We can’t imagine that it’s been an easy week for you. To see stories like this about your company after all the hard work on Sausage Party must be difficult. We’re not here to point fingers. We know that experiences vary by project and by team, and we don’t imagine that all of your employees are unhappy. However, judging by the number of people speaking out, there’s clearly a problem here – not just at Nitrogen, but across much of the industry. Nitrogen is not the first company to step on the giant landmine that is VFX working conditions; it is merely the latest.

It’s not in anyone’s interest – yours or ours – to see stories like this emerge every time a facility tries to talk proudly about its work after a tough project. We hope that you and other facility owners will agree that things cannot go on like this. We want to see public outpourings of anger like this and the MPC Variety article become a thing of the past. We’re sure that you do too.

Now is the time for facility owners to listen and to show leadership. Our industry is facing a crisis in working conditions, and to dismiss this outpouring from Nitrogen’s employees as the work of a disgruntled or opportunistic few would be a grave mistake. Hundreds have joined us here in the UK because there is a clear and widespread feeling in our industry that things cannot carry on the way they are. We – your workforce – don’t want a fight. We don’t want to cheat you out of money, or to make you uncompetitive. The vast majority of us just want a normal work-life balance and the chance to bring stories to life. We would love to work constructively with you to make this happen. However, we cannot do so if you bury your heads in the sand, deny the problem, or refuse to engage. We’ve spoken to many senior figures in this industry off-the-record, and we know that many of you share our frustrations in how this industry operates. We would challenge all facility owners in this industry to ask their employees to anonymously answer the following question: “What does this company do to protect me from mistreatment when a project goes wrong?”. If the answer is “nothing”, then it’s time to reach out to other facilities, and to talk about a shared solution. Without common industry-wide standards on issues like overtime, this industry will consume itself – and then we all lose.

3. To everyone working in VFX and CG features. We’ve talked to many hundreds of you now. Some of you are happy, but a great many more of you are not. We’ve heard your stories. The late nights, the weekends. The hundreds of hours of unpaid work. The missed holidays, the uncertainty of short-term contracts being extended week-by-week. The stress. The crunch-time. The fear of speaking out because of blacklisting. The trouble getting showreel material. The wage suppression. We’ve seen you share the stories, we’ve seen some of you even turn your profile pictures green. But unfortunately, sharing the stories isn’t enough. Things won’t change until we act.

Things started here in London when a group of us had enough, and decided to do something. We invited friends and colleagues out for lunch and coffee to discuss working conditions. We made chat groups, we shared ideas. We challenged each other to sign up, we set friendly challenges to see who could get the most colleagues to join. We made leaflets, we spoke out. We acted. And when we did, the facilities really sat up and took notice.

So what about you, dear reader? Have you joined a union? Have you talked to your friends and co-workers about joining a union? Because if not (and we hate to put it this way) – then you are currently part of the problem. Until we decide as a workforce that enough is enough, until we choose to establish a voice for ourselves, this steady drip-feed of horror stories is likely to continue. The facilities have had years to address these problems, but as we can see from the stream of stories like this one, their efforts to date have been sorely lacking. Crunch-time and insecurity remain rife within our industry. The next big story could be your next project. Ask yourself this: “Would I be prepared to stay in this industry and work at this level until I retire in my 60s?” If the answer is no, then it’s time to get off the fence and do something.

We would like to invite everyone around the world who’s read Nitrogen’s story and recognised these horror stories to join their local VFX union. We’ve started a process here in London. However, our recognition bids are only one piece of the puzzle. If you’re waiting for us to fix everything for you world-wide, then you’re in for a long wait. This is a big industry, and we can’t change the whole thing without you. We need to act together.

We’ve seen first-hand the improvements that happen at the workplace when workers get together in large numbers to declare “it’s time for a change“. We hope that you’ll get to see it too. There are unions and groups of people around the world that would love to help us finally improve the working conditions in our industry. The question is: will you let them?

Thank you for your time.

Kind regards,
VFX Union UK

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