13 minute 
Animated Features & Behind the Scenes & CG & Disney & Outsourcing & Overseas Production & The Biz & VFX & VFX Labor Issues

A Piece of the Pi

Have you noticed a lot of green profile pics on facebook?  If you work in Visual Effects or have a friend who does, you might be seeing a lot of green on your feed.  Most of my readers here work in VFX/Animation, so you should know what I am talking about.

However, I was shocked at some of my own animation student’s impression of “what is going on” in the VFX/Animation field they hope to enter as a career… so let me explain.

Life of Pi cost $120 million to make, its current gross is $600 million. Ang Lee and Claudio Miranda won Oscars last night for Best Director and Best Cinematographer.  Above is what their film looked like without the work of the hundreds of VFX artists whom neither man acknowledged or thanked.

THE GREEN BOX:  For all the Non-VFX, rising students and animation folk out there, the green square you are seeing on facebook is to show solidarity for the struggling VFX and animation community.  The snubs felt at the Oscars are the symptom of a very ill industry that is on the brink of imploding.  Without the hard work of VFX facilities and artists on films like the Oscar Winning “Life of Pi”, modern films would be nothing but green or blue screens and guys in funny body suits jumping around. I will attempt to explain the complex events that have led up to the current plight of our industry.

THE PROTEST:  There was a VFX protest march at the Oscars yesterday afternoon – February 24th, 2013.  From Yahoo Movies: The protest was spurred on by… 

Scott Ross, who was a top manager of Industrial Light & Magic and a founder at Digital Domain, started the ball rolling with a tweet: “I had a dream, 500 VFX artists near the Dolby (Kodak) theater on Oscar day waving signs that say ‘I Want a Piece of the Pi Too.'” Since then, the plan spread online, with protest organizers launching a Facebook page, and some investing in a banner that will be flown by a plane over the theater during the red-carpet ceremonies, reading “box office + bankrupt = visual effects vfxunion.com.”

Photo permission Jon Tojek 

Artists from VFX and animation carried signs up and down Hollywood and Vine to bring awareness to the issue.  The protest came out of frustration among the artists.  Contrary to what the rest of the world thinks, the artists working on movies are not rich. Artists receive no residuals, royalties or back-end bonuses from the award winning films they work on.  On a union movie set every person working on a film is covered.  They have a residuals, pension, health benefits, but not the post production artists.  Even puppeteers are SAG covered.  Thus, “If the work VFX/Animation/CG artists create is the main reason these movies are blockbusters, why don’t they get a piece of the pi?”

Doing it for effects … a placard held by a protester from the visual effects industry at the 2013 Oscars. Photograph: Billy Brooks

PERCEPTION:  Perception is what this protest was all about.  It’s not about punishing the VFX facilities, or the movie studios…  it’s about letting the rest of the world know what is going on.  The KCRW Interview below reveals the perception of our industry.  The director – Pete Berg sums it up at 19:24 into the show – link below.

VFX Industry in Trouble: Won and Oscar Now What?

Director Pete Berg says, “The Business to be is ILM. (Industrial Light and Magic) That is who is making all the money.”

Wowsie wow.  What a bunch of bunk.  This is why the artists protested. To set the record straight here.  More than 583$ million dollars for Life of Pi!  And, the artists who worked on it were let go without pay… huh?  What if I told Samuel L. Jackson he needs to take a serious pay cut to work on a movie?  What if I said, “Sam, we need you to take a 30% pay cut with no benefits, no residuals, and you need to work 16 hour days, move yourself and your family to another country with a higher cost of living and produce double the work your normally do in that time?”  What do you think ole Sam Jackson would say to that?  Would he still work on the movie?  Yet, the box office hits are the movies with more than 50% of the movie created entirely on a computer with animation and VFX.  Getting the picture now?

CULTURE:  Most VFX/Animation studios today are nothing more than sweatshops with hundreds of artists working an average of 12-16 hour days.  To make this crystal clear, the toughest run I worked in my career was 21 days (16 hour days) in a row.  I seriously thought I was going nuts towards the end of that run. I have friends who have worked 9 months without a day off.

It wasn’t always like this, though. I have seen the decline in culture at the studios since 2000 as CG and VFX driven movies continued to make more and more money.  You would think if the movies are making more money, the folks involved would be too… right?  Nope, the complete opposite has been happening.  The last show I worked on was in 2011.  I have purposely only accepted work from home because the culture at the studios has become one I do not want to work in.

The schedules presented today are 1/4th of what I saw ten years ago.  A shot you would normally have 4-6 weeks to work on, is now bid at 4-6 days!!  It is insane!  No one leaves their desks.  Everyone is tense, trying to make the impossible, possible.  When I moved to LA in 2000, I was given benefits and sick days, permission to work out at the gym for free on lunch hours, 401k, and the animation facility even paid to move me and all of my belongings up from San Diego.  Today, you will not see that.  Today, your are lucky to have a job. It is a toxic, abusive working atmosphere.  Why would I stay in this field?

THE BUSINESS MODEL:  The VFX/Animation industry has a shaky business foundation on which to build a business model.

– very small profit margins
– no trade organizations to work towards raising those profit margins
– no unions to work on the artist’s behalf
– subject to the whims of client, revisions and schedule changes
– no way to cover overhead in between show schedules

ENTER SUBSIDIES:  Government funded movie productions (up to 30% of the budget) pop up in London, Vancouver, India, Singapore, China, Australia and various other places around the world.  These VFX/Animation facilities find a way to pay for the overhead of keeping artists employed and the lights on, in between the schedules of each show, with this extra money in countries with lower costs than the US.

The US studio has no cash flow, everything that comes in goes right back out and now their competition has the upper hand with the extra money to float in between projects and lure cheap talent with the work.  I heard Scott Ross give a great analogy in an interview.  He said owning a VFX/Animation facility is like owning an airline.  You aren’t making money unless the planes are in the air.  So, you fill the seats at any price.  He said VFX facilities are run the same.  Get the bid in low, so you can get the cash flow in to keep the place afloat.

Runaway production, overseas competition and government subsidies have forced domestic VFX houses to survive on less than 5% profit margins. Of the many studios I have worked at over the years, five have gone out of business or bankrupt:
Digital Domain,
Asylum FX,
Cinesite: Hollywood ,
Cafe FX,
and now Rhythm and Hues.

The company behind the Life of Pi’s stunning visual effects, which made the movie possible, Rhythm & Hues went bankrupt as the film just passed the billion dollar mark in global ticket sales. The CG & VFX (visual effects) facilities that make the Hollywood blockbuster movies possible bid shows at a loss.  The Hollywood production companies walk away with profits.  Artists who dedicate their lives to their craft get the boot.

NOT JUST VFX:  The folks working in CG Animation for studios like Dreamworks, Disney, Pixar, BlueSky, etc. are feeling the push to create more profit too. See the breakdown below of recent closings of VFX and Animation Facilities.

From Reddit:

Digital Domain: September 11th, 2012 Closed Florida facility, laid off 350 employees
Pixomondo: February 24th, 2013 Closing Detroit & London Offices http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118066500/
Electronics Arts: February 21st, 2013 Extensive Layoffs http://www.polygon.com/2013/2/21/4014372/ea-montreal-los-angeles-layoff
Rhythm and Hues: Feb. 16th, 2013 Bankruptcy, Layoffs
Junction Point (Makers of Epic Mickey): Jan. 29th, 2013 Extensive Layoffs
Disney Interactive: Jan. 29th, 2013: 50 employees laid off
Sony: January 28th, 2013 Major layoffs
Dreamworks:  Feb. 7th, 2013 Several hundred upcoming layoffs http://www.businessinsider.com/dreamworks-animation-layoffs-2013-2
Technicolor: Feb. 21st, 2013 Closing Facility
THQ Jan. 23rd, 2013 Studio Closure, Massive Layoffshttp://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2013/01/23/thq-layoffs.aspx
Eurocom Dec. 23rd, 2012


TO MY STUDENTS AND NON VFX/ANIM FRIENDS:  If something doesn’t give soon, there might not be an industry for you to enter.  At least not one in the US and not one you would like to work in.

Although the green square on facebook makes reference to the behind the scenes of VFX, CG Feature Animation is suffering the same layoffs and outsourcing.  Artists at big studios working on intellectual properties fear losing their job.  Staff positions with benefits and sick days no longer exist.  Newbie animators with little to no experience are being hired and trained only to find a sink or swim attitude. If the newbie doesn’t cut it in production, they are let go.  You get three weeks to prove you can work at the same level as a seasoned artist.  The race to the bottom is about to hit rock bottom.  The next few months, will reveal what is in store for the industry as a whole.

I could go on about this topic, but I think this a good time to stop, take a breath and see what happens next.  I will say this.  I love to animate.  I had fun when I first started in the business.  I won’t return unless the biz model and culture changes, though.  I am hopeful there will be change.  Artists are not asking for much… live where they already have planted roots and/or own their house and not have to uproot their families to find work every 6 months, work a respectful 8 hour day, fair pay, benefits, health care, and the like.

In the meantime, here are some more articles on the subject.









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  1. Anonymous

    About getting into VFX, i am really worried about this. I just went to school, is 3 years, my dream is to be animator. I am not interest other careers, than animation

    What is your advice for someone like me, who just entering into animation.

    • Anonymous

      Own your own IP. Create your own character/mythology/story. Get into merchandise or comics or games or something. Not easy, of course. But VFX/animation as a service is getting increasingly tough as supply is more than demand. Own your own product, instead of providing a service.

    • Anonymous

      Learn Mandarin.

    • VFX Solidarity International

      Hey everyone, a bunch of us are organizing our efforts here:

      We’re going to ramping up an info-awareness campaign during this 2013 Summer Blockbuster Season, please check out the site and Facebook and get involved, this is a world-wide team effort.

  2. Anonymous

    Not to mention The Orphanage going under. You remember the fantastic HUD and Mark 1 armour from Iron Man 1, the interactive displays and walking armour from District 9?

    Well, they went under and, if nothing else, Iron Man 2 suffered tragically for it.

    They were a fantastic studio and I miss them. Can we please try and stop this from getting any worse?

    • Stix and Jones

      Sure, Orphanage, Centropolis, Cafe FX, Asylum FX, and many more studios have closed their doors for the same reasons. Each studio is only one show away from bankruptcy. And, it’s artists are one paycheck away from the street.

      Two things have to happen to stop this:

      1 – A trade Organization must be created.

      2 – Unions, as much as I hate them, will have to be implemented.

      I don’t buy the whole we have to start an international union thing. I believe it’s a red herring. Start the trade org and union here in the US and bite off small chunks. Many of the studios overseas are enjoying a lot of work right now and are blinded by this, so they think they don’t need a union. It’s like watching the US VFX industry in the late 90’s all over again. STUPID~!

      We get our ducks in a row with a trade org and union in the US, and show the movie studios that the talent pool here is worth the $, not to mention stop being the middle man for the studios overseas!!! and I guarantee the studios and directors will come back. They don’t want to deal with the overseas studios themselves. Pull the VFX facilities out of that equation and it will become apparent that the money spent on artists who understand English, understand American culture and how to make great VFX is worth paying more.

      Working on a union set and a non union set in production is the difference between a spam sandwich and a hangar steak.

      We need to make it obvious the difference of working with Union VFX artists with experience or a non union overseas group of artists who still are learning wire removal. We also need a trade org to handle lobbying with govt to get the work back in Cali and negotiating with the movies studios.

  3. Anonymous

    The situation is exactly the same in India, the studios are sweat-shops and the pay is pretty low for the kind of work these kids put in. I am pretty sure it’ll be the same in China or Korea or Vancouver etc..
    Also does any one know if the higher management of R&H were paid their regular salaries?

    • Stix and Jones

      Of course the situation is the same in India, China and Korea. They are the reason the work went overseas in the first place. These countries believed they could create the same quality work as us at a lower price.

      These countries are already feeling the squeeze now and are upping their prices only to find another country ready to low-ball the bid.

      That is why it is called the race to the bottom.

  4. Anonymous

    Making your facebook photo green is going to make a whopping 0 people care.

    • Anonymous

      Well, it at least got me here. And now I’ve learned a lot about an issue I didn’t had a slightly clue of.

    • Nathaniel Caauwe

      Actually, this simple awareness campaign makes plenty of people care. I have many non-VFX friends changing their profile pictures to green and sharing stories with their friends about what’s going on. That public support makes an impact by motivating VFX artists to keep the momentum going. When all is said and done, no one will look back and say that public awareness was a wasted effort.

  5. Anonymous

    Wow! I have already lived through this in my animation career here in Canada. Long hours, little pay, no full-time or benefits with the attitude that “You are lucky to even HAVE a job!”
    I’ll tell you all this, it has gotten better but I sincerely hope it improves for all so we can keep animation here in North America.

  6. Stephanie

    I worked my way up to being a Union First Assistant Picture Editor right at the beginning of the digital revolution. 35mm was conformed alongside Avid, in the cutting room.
    During my 10 years, I saw our credits go lower and lower, pay get stagnant (compared to others especially) and fewer crew, more hours…at the end I was dummying up VFX , titles, placing and editing music and doing full sound mixes for screenings…as First Asst Pic Editor.

    I served on the MPEG board to figure out what was going on. I hollered about the situation as much as I could. The reps didn’t care to address the situation. At all. The union president and other higher ups responded with things like “We are lucky to have our jobs” and “What do the hours and work matter if you are getting overtime?”

    Clearly, the situation was only going to get much much worse.

    Because of the dire future I saw, I left the movie business 7 years ago.
    And am so sad it has gotten this bad for everyone.

    Kudos to everyone standing up for what is right.
    I hope the situation changes.

    Stephanie M. Casey

  7. Theo P

    What’s even more upsetting is the attitude the artists overseas have towards those in the U.S.

    To them they believe the receive the work not because they undercut our rates by enormous margins, but because they are better and smarter than their counterparts America.

    Unfortunately, I do not see this problem getting better, but only getting worse. It won’t be until trade penalties are put in place by the federal government to dismantle the appeal of using cheap overseas labor to complete VFX, animation and post-production work. Make it something ridiculous. Force the studios in Hollywood to pay a 1000% tax on any wages paid to shops not grounded here in either of the Americas.

    • Anonymous

      I’m sorry, but this is a stupid comment.

      Artists outside the US are well aware of the role of subsidies. However, while this might be unfair, most people tend to look after their own livelihood first (yes, even Americans like yourself).

      Good to see you have such faith in the quality of your work that you’d need a 1000% tax on overseas facilities to compete though…

    • Stix and Jones

      If overseas workers think they are getting the work because their quality is better??? they are nuts. How can a talent pool with next to no experience being trained by Americans have better quality? That is just plain crazy talk.

      I wonder if the US govt will come up with laws like NAFTA where if you send a product from the U.S. like say… denim, to another country to be sewn into jeans, and import it back to the U.S. – there is a tax on that import coming back? I guess the movie studios would just release the movie overseas then to get around it?

  8. GK AJIR

    Where are all the WARM HEARTHED actors, who ask us, here in the USA to help people all over the world, such as in Africa—–? Why can’t /won’t they support and stand up for fellow Artists to get a small piece of the
    “PI” ?? Shame on you !!! These people are so vital in the production of movies, from which you, the Actors, harvest such enormous profits !
    Oh, by the way, they have hungry children too——does anyone care?
    It reminds me of a dysfunctional family who does not give a damn about their OWN !

  9. David Nethery


    Thanks for writing this excellent summary of the stinking mess the Animation and VFX industry is in today . Being informed and having a clear view of the problem is a good first step towards making things better. I intend to share this blog post with as many of my students and colleagues as I can.


  10. Anonymous

    This has been the case for most “creative” fields and it’s been accelerated by the rise of computer technology. I’ve worked in advertising for the last 10 years and seen a very similar struggle. Projects undertaken by art directors, graphic designers, editors, production artists, web developers that used to take months, and then weeks, are now expected to be completed in days or even hours.

    Sadly it’s an attractive career path to the young outsider. They’re happy to give up their livelihood and due compensation for a chance to do something “cool.”

    Then one day you wake up in your late 20’s/early 30’s (if you get to sleep) with a mortgage, a family you never see, and a very specific skill set that doesn’t translate to any other field. We may be white collared workers in theory, but we’re treated like industrial revolutionary wage slaves.

    • Anonymous

      Yep – the faster you do something, the less impressed the commissioner and the faster they’ll want it next time. Oh, and you can change that, too? Aw no, put it back the way it was.

  11. JK Riki

    Very compelling post, thanks for taking the time to write it! I wanted to respond to a few topics within.

    First of all, kudos for standing up for what you believe in and not going to the studios that are pulling this crap. If everyone did that (instead of just standing around with signs and then the very next day going back into the office) we’d probably see a real change. It starts with us, though, and no one else. Everyone has to make that call for themselves. My mother used to tell me “If you’re sick and take your medicine, you can complain. If you don’t do anything to get better, don’t cry about it.” I feel like you’re trying to get things better, instead of just crying about it sans-medicine.

    In regards to the Samuel L thing, I get the analogy you’re making, except I’m not sure it’s maybe the best example. I’d wager money that Samuel L once upon a time (when he was just some actor named Sam) had to put in crazy hours and work for very little. It’s only NOW that he gets to say “F you” if someone told him all that stuff about working for no pay. It’s tricky when you look at established actors/people, because they almost operate on a different rule set than everyone else. Whether or not they should, they do. So no you couldn’t say that to him, but you could almost certainly get some up-and-coming youngster to agree to such crazy terms because they want to “make it.” (Is that right? I dunno, but it is their call, not ours. Everyone has to be responsible for their own choice there, and we have to be responsible for ours.)

    Anyways, again, nice job on the write up and thanks for taking the time to explain it all! As an animator I feel for you guys in the VFX industry, and I hope more people will take your route and stand up for what they believe instead of just complaining about it. The hard road is hard, but it sure beats the easy-but-crappy alternative in my opinion. When all is said and done, doing the right thing is the best reward you can get.

  12. Anonymous

    Jis you oaks are tits.

    What do you want credit for? Implementing an idea? That’s like a foreman complaining he wasn’t recognised for the work he did in construction.

    1) Be professional, you nuts. They pay you. Would you rather be thanked and say not paid? Don’t ask for both, IT WASN’T YOUR IDEA.

    2) I feel I should stress this with another example. Who made Da Vinci’s paintbrushes? Do you think he bitched? NO. He was just proud to be involved. There are credits, I can read, if I cared at all I would. But I don’t. And the majority of the world doesn’t (this is why).

    3) If you think you’re justified in this because you implemented someone else’s idea, well, fuck you. And I mean that sincerely. I hope you catch herpes. Everyday you sit and make fancy pictures using a process so far beyond your puny conmprehension and you probably don’t know who provided that tool. Who got shat on for missing deadlines. Who burned midnight oil to make you whiney bitches your software. Yes. The software dev who wrote the tool WITHOUT WHOM YOUR ENTIRE GODDAM WHINING PROFFESSION DOES NOT EXIST. But they aren’t complaining. Think about that when you’re next complaining how tough your lives are.


    • Anonymous

      Er, we animators at least all have to get into programming these days and as well as understanding light, physics, turbulence, fractals, anatomy, film stock, hair, clothing (takes breath)… how to sculpt, how to draw, how an animal/human is built/walks/breathes… I’d like to see YOU rig a collarbone setup on a humanoid model. And clothe it, texture it, light it… then climb into that mental puppet you’ve got behind a glass screen and switch on that purely creative urge and give it weight and emotion and realistic movement and god forbid perfect comic timing
      …and be paid a tenth to ACT this thing of what the voice actor got..
      …and see your work, your painting, your acting, make outrageous money forever with not a penny in residuals
      …and be credited in a way that perpetuates the myth that you’re just a button pusher.

      Yes, thank you very much, we hope you coders got well paid with all the benefits etc. Don’t get too proud to be involved in your work, doing those 15-hour shifts with enthusiasm, because your payers might get wind of it and start asking why you have to sleep at all…

    • Anonymous

      Uh, actually much of the time we write the software. That’s why we have R&D departments.

      Oh, and quite often a client will come to you with a storyboard consisting of a stickman being chased by another stickman. Still quite a lot of artistic leeway there.

      Thanks for the uninformed drooling rant though.

    • Anonymous

      Just because the developers aren’t reconized, that doesn’t mean we artists can’t complain about the poor situation we were. Instead of sow the discord, we should assemble cause we have a common problem.

      If you are a lazy ass and don’t want to fight for your rights, Ok! But, don’t blame who want to!

    • Stix and Jones

      I am dumping the ability to post anonymously on this blog, because so many ridiculous and uneducated comments are being made here.

    • Paul Griffin

      Wow, you probably don’t have a clue how any of this works. I’d be pleased to educate you.

      As to your first point, many times it is OUR IDEA. Directors don’t come to us as technicians, the good ones often come to us as artists to solve both the story telling and visual problem solving of their movies. I can point out major chunks of movies that were either my idea or other scenes that had direct, major contributions from our crew. Its a hugely collaborative process, but you’d know that if you did this kind of work.

      As to your second point. Quite a few of us do create the tools we use. Some of write code or we use clever practical means to solve visual problems. That’s why most major vfx houses have an internal R&D component. When many of us started, there were no legions of programmers turning out off-the-shelf tools. It was just us, getting it done. Now there are commercial available tools and that makes it less painful, but there’s still no big shiny red button you push that magically makes this happen. The complexity of the work now is staggering so our technology makes the images possible, not easy, possible.

      As to your 3rd point? Well you don’t really have one, do you? You’re just trolling, and that’s really just kind of sad and pathetic.

      Hey. I’m not afraid to sign my name to this either.

  13. Anonymous

    It is the same everywhere… The industry in Australia has taken a massive nosedive, several studios have closed their doors, and many many people are out of work. This is a world wide vfx epidemic, it is not specific to California.

    • Stix and Jones

      No, it’s not specific to California, but it started here and the studios in Australia are part of the reason the nosedive has happened. Incentives, subsidies, etc.

      I seriously think most of you didn’t read what I wrote.

  14. Anonymous

    People who work in london, get a fraction of you 401k. No wonder hollywood is goi
    ng bust.
    Spoilt brat.

  15. Francis L. Camacho

    I have trained overseas vfx artists at a major studio who brought them over from India. They have no sense what is going on outside of their own country. One of them asked me why do we in L.A. have such a hard time finding work when they are so busy. They have no idea that the work has gone their because its cheaper and believe its because they do the same quality of work that we do. I saw firsthand what their skills are like and it was shocking. One was a lead, my counterpart, who I did not feel had the skill level to be one. So in essence I was teaching him to take my job which ended up being the case as I my contract was shorrtened because the studio decided to ship most of the work to India.

    The efforts to organize should start here first. Focus on certain issues first, we can’t solve everything in one throw. Along the way there will be battles lost and we will have to make some concessions. After all we cannot expect it to be a one-sided “gimme this and gimme that” kind of deal but thats life. And remember it will never end.

    At least something has ignited a fire of sorts. Lets keep it going.

  16. wife of VFX artist's 2 cents.

    As a wife of a compositor. I will say that it is a horrible profession for family life. My husband often time has to work 6 or sometimes 7 day weeks, for long hours for months at a time. Plus there is no job security. My children and I suffer through weekends and family events without him constantly. Forget about ever having him home for dinner. And on top of all that, as hard as he works and as smart as he is, we still struggle financially, never knowing how long he will be employed and how long it will be between gigs. Often we have had to get our own private health insurance. Having a mortgage and setting down roots for a family life is rough when houses are closing and people are relocating constantly. The job is cool, but the demand of time on the employees is unacceptable. I hate his job because of it.

    • Stix and Jones

      Agreed. I watched a woman come into the studio and walk up to the guy working next to me – his wife… she said, “…you come with me now, or I am taking the kids and leaving you.” She had his twin boys with her. He turned back to the screen and stayed there. She left. So sad…

      I should add he had worked almost 8 months in a row with no days off.

  17. sonnet121

    Nerds…making the lives of the beautiful, rich, and ambitious better at dirt cheap prices and at the expense of their own lives, since the dawn of time. From doing their work for them to holding their hands when they mess up their lives, to keeping their secrets. All for practically free.

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