Issue: Special Issue: (January 2013)

No Rest for the Weary

By: Karen Moltenbrey

In 2012, the VES recognized comicbook publisher and entrepreneur Stan Lee (middle) with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the industry. Pictured with him are (left) Marc Webb, director of The Amazing Spider- Man, and (right) actor Lou Ferrigno, who portrayed the Hulk in the TV series.

Visual Effects Society (VES) members and leadership have a lot on their plates throughout the year. They have work deadlines and projects to complete—after all, most of the members are movers and shakers in our industry. And, they have a number of VES events and initiatives to plan, execute, and participate in. Their plates are full and their cups are running over, but they continue to serve the Society with favorite mainstay events as well as new items that are “in season.”

“Every year we as an organization continue to grow. And we do a number of things worldwide that speak to our charter,” says Eric Roth, VES executive director. “We exist to honor, recognize, promote, and educate the public at large and the industry as to the incredibly talented artists and the work that occurs each year.”

To do that, the Society hosts a number of yearly events—from an all-day educational session on practical lighting for CG artists (free for members) to a lengthy presentation on understanding unions, which is a major topic right now in the VFX industry. In addition, there are town hall meetings, a yearly career/job fair, an annual members meeting, a Business Summit, screenings, a holiday party, and more. Perhaps the most anticipated event is the annual VES Awards, recognizing visual effects artists working in a number of capacities (compositing, modeling, animating, and so forth) in film, animation, games, special venues, commercials, and television.

According to Roth, the activities occur in Los Angeles as well as at the other section locations near and far. “What we are trying to do is take the pulse of the industry and recognize that, as an honorary society, our goal is to continue to provide information and opportunities for people to network and learn from one another,” he says. “We also comment on some of the larger issues that face our industry.”

VES Awards

The annual VES Awards is one of the Society’s seminal events, “the granddaddy” of them all, as Roth notes. In early February, the VES will host its 11th annual VES Awards, which recognize and honor the artists who created the most outstanding visual effects work of the year. “They say that some of the hardest things to define are those that are directly in front of you. We are helping to drive box office, and we are the ones helping to make a visceral thought process turn into a storied reality. We are the ones helping to make the impossible possible. And at a certain point, it was time for the folks who do this amazing work to actually get recognition,” says Roth of this event.

Roth points to the leadership of the awards committee, especially VES Chair Jeffrey Okun, for “taking the tiger by the tail” 11 years ago and establishing the awards process, which has grown bigger and better every year. It is now a “must-attend” event for the industry. Aside from promoting and recognizing the work and artists, the event provides an opportunity for the entire industry to come together for one night. “Anybody who is anybody in visual effects definitely comes to our show each year,” Roth says, noting that last year more than 1,000 people attended.

“For members, it is the time of the year when they get acknowledged and accorded the kind of respect for doing the extraordinary work they do the other 364 days of the year,” Roth says. “These extraordinary artists work extremely long hours, oftentimes not being accorded the respect they should, sometimes working under trying conditions. For our members, this is an opportunity for everyone to take a collective bow.”

(Left to right) VES Chair Jeffrey Okun, actor Antonio Banderas, VES Executive Director Eric Roth.

Career Fair & Tech Expo

In 2011, the group held its first VFX Career Fair, which was extraordinarily successful. A follow-up was held in June 2012 and was a global affair—held simultaneously in Los Angeles, London, and New York City.

The Career Fair is the largest such event in the world that is dedicated specifically to the VFX industry. VES members were able to meet with leading facilities looking to fill open positions— Sony Pictures Imageworks, Technicolor, ILM, and Walt Disney Animation Studios, to name a few. In addition, the event boasted education and informational segments, including exhibitions, technology showcases, software master classes, and so forth.

No date has been set yet for the 2013 event, though it will likely be in the spring. “Unfortunately, because of the way the industry is transitioning, it will be necessary [to hold it again],” says Roth. “It is one of those things we provide as a service to our members and to the visual effects industry at large. Our goal is to bring artists and companies together so they can provide win-wins for each other.”

VES Summit

In the fall, the Society held its annual VES Summit, the one event of the year that has a “true business focus” and targets business executives and high-end creatives. “It is an opportunity for everyone to speak about the business impact of what visual effects represents to the industry and the economy at large because, after all, we live in a global economy,” says Roth.

As Okun notes, this is a key event but is greatly misunderstood by the members. This particular event is not targeted to the members per se, but to bring management and top-level executives together in an attempt to get dynamic and fluid conversation flowing about the future of the industry. “We want to invite speakers who can change your perspective of how you look at the world, and we like to mix it up with technologists who are working on the next generation of things so they can give us a heads up on where they think that is going,” he explains.

To this end, the 2012 Summit hosted a “mix” of people brought together for some meaningful conversation, including George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic; Sean Carroll, senior research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology; Sam Nicholson, CEO/VFX supervisor at Zoic Studios; and others representing various visual effects facilities. Hey, wait a minute. George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic? “Yes,” says Roth. “He talked about business models for the future pertaining to space flight.” In fact, two panelists spoke about disruptive technologies and having to distribute work in an incredibly competitive environment. Sound familiar? It should; it is a problem plaguing the VFX industry, as well.

“When we put on these events, we recognize that all around the world everyone is looking for a piece of the visual effects pie. So we try each year to highlight the salient issues and become a little more big tent-like in doing this because it is not just, what are the latest business trends? It’s how to stay ahead of the curve so you can survive and thrive in the next five to 10 years,” explains Roth. “We are constantly seeking new and different ways to bring these issues forward to our attendees.”

There were a number of other discussions at the Summit, including those pertaining to television, the struggles at Digital Domain, tax incentives around the globe, and more. “It was an opportunity for us to talk specifically about VFX right now, and also talk about the future and how business models that others are trying might influence our work moving forward,” says Roth.

The Summit is a high-impact event that, says Okun, has been very successful since it started. “I am pretty sure we were the only ones doing something like this,” he says, noting that now there are about a dozen similarly themed events happening at basically the same time period. “It was a little maddening. We are going after speakers and finding they are already committed.” As a result, the Society will re-examine the Summit and possibly move it to another time of year or evolve it into a different kind of event.

What’s important, Okun says, is that what comes out of the Summit is shared with the membership. The objective of the event, however, is to make the high-level executives comfortable enough to chat about things— communication is the key, and the objective is to find better ways of doing things. “Typically, you get high-level executives in a room with artists and the direction of the discussion changes. We aim above today’s horizon line to tomorrow’s. We are looking for revolutionary, new ideas to bring to the forefront,” he adds.

Members Meeting

Not long ago the VES held its annual membership meeting. In the business portion of the meeting, the chair and executive director provided reports on items from their vantage point, while committees and sections offered updates, too. It is also an opportunity for everyone to share what they have been up to, as members have a chance to speak to their colleagues.

At the 2012 meeting, the Founders Award was bestowed on Carl Rosendahl, and seven new Fellows were named: Ed Catmull, Richard Edlund, Ray Feeney, Carl Rosendahl, Mark Stetson, Bill Taylor, and Phil Tippett.

“It is an opportunity to recognize who we are as the VES and as an organization in this incredibly important industry that is becoming more and more focused on the work that we do,” says Roth, who points out that 46 of the top 50 highest-earning films of all time are VFX-oriented. “When you put that in front of anyone and ask, what are the kinds of movies that make money, [the answer is] those with all the cool stuff up on the screen. People are not going to go see Transformers because of Shia LaBeouf. They want to see the robots. They are going to see the work that our people are doing.”

The Holiday Party

It’s no secret that the visual effects industry works hard, but it is also a group that likes to have fun. And that is what the VES holiday party offers its members—a chance to kick back and circulate among the membership. Each section hosts a holiday party, and hundreds of people typically attend. “I hear from people in other organizations how amazed and surprised they are when they come to our events and see how familiar everyone is with each other. Our people really enjoy these events,” Roth says.

Roth notes that this carries through at other VES events, as well. “Every time we have a formal program, the hardest thing to do is to get people to sit down because of all the networking and socializing going on. There is never enough time for that, even if we build in an hour or more beforehand. People work so hard [in this industry] and they really cherish the time with their colleagues and friends.”

Women in Visual Effects

One event that the VES is planning to get under way soon is a Women in Visual Effects event that spotlights successful women in the industry. The initiative began at NAB 2012, when the VES co-produced a panel (moderated by Post Magazine’s Randi Altman) featuring talented and successful female producers, executives, and facility owners in the VFX and animation industries, who shared their perspectives on navigating the creative and technical challenges that they had to face.

Roth hopes that the VES can pull together an event in the spring honoring women in the industry. “This is just such an obvious thing. There are some extraordinarily talented women in this field, but unfortunately it’s been very much a male-dominated field,” he says. With such an event, the Society hopes to shine more light on the exceptional women in VFX, in hopes of seeing more women enter the industry, starting at the school level and rising to the top ranks. It would also give the women who are now working in the industry the kind of respect they deserve and become more of an attractor for others entering the field.

Town Hall Meetings

“We get together regularly and pull together events and meetings with cinematographers, production designers, editorial, and on down the line,” says Okun. To this end, the Society is ready to launch a series of town hall meetings in 2013 that essentially focuses on best practices—in particular, how to work with different people in various roles across a production. For instance, a director may be asked to attend, along with a VFX supervisor and a producer, to talk about the best procedures so that a director is able to achieve what he would like. Another may involve production designers, art directors, rigging crew, the grip crew, costume designers, makeup effects artists, all the way down to production coordinator and office staff.

The plan is to have in-person audiences at section locations worldwide and broadcast the town hall events on the Internet. There will be a small panel with a moderator, and rather than having the group “talk at the audience,” a statement will be posed to them by the moderator and they will field questions from audiences around the world. In this way, Okun believes the VES will be able to get the top talent in the industry to participate.

“The objective is to share what is second nature to some of us more experienced people,” says Okun, himself a visual effects supervisor with years of experience on various productions. “A large number of people who do visual effects don’t really have a clue as to how it all works and what other departments’ and people’s issues, objectives, and problems are. So we want to provide a venue to all share each other’s concerns because, essentially, in the long run, it will all be melding together anyway. We are all doing virtual cinematography, virtual costuming, virtual casting with extras, virtual stunts, and virtual sets.”

Okun continues: “We believe the best practice is for us to do what we do best and let the other verticals do what they do best, and find a way to interact that is effective, efficient, and cohesive so there are no battles going on and people aren’t working with cross-purposes.”

Ostensibly, these town hall meetings can be seen as an education session aimed at visual effects, but they serve as a two-way street, Okun points out, since VFX practitioners also get to inform directors, camera operators, and designers what it is that the VFX folks do.

“When you consider what part of box office visual effects plays these days, it’s ridiculous that we are treated essentially as second-class citizens on a movie set or production,” says Okun. “So the Society, through surveys, meetings, and so forth, polls the members for their opinions on things, and we get a reasonably good sense of how things work and how we are perceived.”

For instance, Okun notes that the general public may not be aware of who Joe Letteri is, or John Knoll for that matter. “Most people in the industry know that computers do the work, and that there is software and an ILM and Weta out there,” he adds. “One of the biggest challenges we face is because we have marketed ourselves incorrectly and have done that for many, many, many, many years, and we need to educate inward now.”

As Okun emphasizes, the artist has value and a good artist, well, people should know their name, especially in this industry, because it is the artist, not the computer, that does the work. He likens the situation to a brush—using one does not make a person paint like Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, producers in various departments think it does, Okun says. “They think if you get cool software, then you can make giant waves, spaceships, aliens, and everything under the sun because it’s the computers, not the artists, that get it done,” he notes.

That is just the type of thing that the VES faces, and some of the steps it takes to educate and champion on behalf of its members, as opposed to issuing generalized statements. “We’ve become an advocate both internally and externally for visual effects, and it is an important role,” Okun says.

Attentive attendees at the VES Summit

2.0 Initiative

No one can argue that the past few years have been rough on a lot of industries, and visual effects has been hit hard. Couple that with the present working conditions of artists (longer hours, less income, no guaranteed health benefits), and studios producing more effects in less time and operating under extremely tight margins, sometimes at breakeven just to maintain staff, and the result is an unsettling situation.

“As a result, there has been a lot of discussion recently about visual effects and its role in the entertainment industry. Many feel VFX artists are being taken advantage of, and many others feel that VFX facilities are operating under unsustainable competitive restraints and profit margins,” states an open letter last year by the VES to VFX artists and the entertainment industry at large.

The letter resulted from the VES’s attempt to speak on behalf of artists, facilities, and the craft as a whole. “No one has been able to harness the collective power of our efforts, talents, and passions into a strong, unified voice representing the industry as a whole,” the letter further states. “VES may not have the power of collective bargaining, but we do have the power of a voice that’s 2,700 artists strong in 28 countries. We are the only viable organization that can speak to the needs and concerns of everyone involved in VFX to meet the challenges of a changing global industry and our place within it.”

According to Okun, the VES took some fire on the 2.0 Initiative that was started two years ago. “We got beat up by a number of people— some because we did not turn into a union, and others because we didn’t become a trade organization,” he says.

However, as Okun points out, the VES is a professional honorary society, not a union or trade organization, and is not permitted to be a collective bargaining unit for visual effects professionals. So, taking hits for actions or inactions outside the scope of what the VES is (or isn’t) is not exactly fair. But make no mistake, the Society is not skirting the issues plaguing the industry and its practitioners. Rather, its leaders are acting within its charter guidelines and bringing discussion on the big issues of the industry out into the open.

“We brought many of these issues to the forefront and enabled the entire industry to start discussing and having their points of view published. As a result, we have fostered a lot of changes, especially among the perception of the studios, producers, artists themselves, and facilities,” Okun says. He adds that prior to the VES publishing the Bill of Rights for VFX artists, facilities were not having discussions with their employees about fair treatment, nor were they aware that others were having similar issues. And many artists were not aware of what their rights were.

Union Speak

Visual effects is one of just a small segment of the North American entertainment industry that is not unionized. Recently, there has been an increase in discussion about unionization from both sides on the issue. So to keep the membership informed on the subject, the VES held an event called “Understanding Unions: The Good, The Bad & The Unknown of Forming a Visual Effects Collective Bargaining Organization,” giving members a chance to hear firsthand from qualified persons on the realities and falsehoods of what a collective bargaining agreement can and cannot do.

There were five panelists, including Scott Dougherty, executive producer/co-owner of Furious FX; Steven J. Kaplan, organizer for The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE; Ellen Shadur, attorney at Baker Hostetler; John Parenteau, managing director at Silverdraft; and Bill Taylor, ASC, VES.

During the event, real questions were posed to the experts, and real answers were provided. Among the questions: Would the formation of a union better the lot of the VFX worker and the status and health of VFX companies in North America? How would the formation of a union affect runaway production?

“The VES is neutral on the union issue. We do not take sides on it for simple reasons,” Roth states. “First, we are an honorary society. That is who we are. Our charter is to do the things I described earlier. Second, we are global and represent members in 28 countries. The union conversation is a North American one. So for us, our charge is to continue to do what we do best, which is to use our good offices to bring people together from all parts of the industry to have the kinds of conversations as a global clearing house, to bring under a single tent all the ideas so discussions can occur in the most informative way and people can make up their own mind.”

That said, Roth acknowledges that VES members and others in the industry are talking about the topic of unionization—a good deal of it from unattributed sources and unsubstantiated facts. So, the VES wanted to be sure that members had the facts. Nothing more. “So we had people who knew what they were talking about, who could give answers to questions in front of everyone with attribution,” he says. “People could then take away from it as they wish but had a chance to hear from the panelists firsthand and get their questions answered.”

Film Screenings, More

“On [the unionization topic] and other issues, we will take our cues from the membership and will continue to put on events related to what’s on the membership’s mind—whether it’s technological, creative, or otherwise,” Roth says.

To this end, the Society in December published a white paper on color management, produced by the VES Technical Committee.

Also, as Roth points out, there are always lots of VES events planned and being considered. For instance, under consideration is a film festival that may get a start in 2013, though that is not definite at this time. “These are the kinds of things we do as an honorary society,” Roth adds.

“In the fall, we have our annual members meeting and VES Summit, plus our holiday party not long after that—and those are huge events,” Roth says. “Typically, most organizations only do a few things a year, but we do a dozens of events put on by our Education Committee, our Technical Committee, or our Business Labor and Law Committee. And when we do something, whenever possible, we videotape it and put it up on our website for our membership.”

The Society continues to be forward thinking and understands that the industry of visual effects in entertainment is a global one. “And we are trying to ensure that all the members of the industry are able to succeed in doing the work that they all love,” he concludes.

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