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Issue: Special Issue: (January 2013)

The VES Defined

By: Karen Moltenbrey

It seems as if every industry has at least one associated professional group. For the visual effects industry, it is the Visual Effects Society (VES), an honorary member society.

The Visual Effects Society is the entertainment industry’s only organization representing the full breadth of visual effects practitioners, including artists, technologists, model makers, educators, studio leaders, supervisors, PR/marketing specialists, and producers working in all areas of entertainment—from film, television, and commercials to music videos and games.

“The VES represents artists who work around the world and come together to form this community to exchange information, to educate each other, to recognize and honor, and to basically elevate the perceived status of visual effects to the position it is actually playing in the industry, which is a vital component in driving box office as well creating unbelievable art—quite literally ‘unbelievable’ art,” says Jeffrey A. Okun, VES chair.

Stated clearly on the VES website is its mission statement: “The Visual Effects Society (VES) is a non-profit professional, honorary society dedicated to advancing the arts, sciences, and applications of visual effects and to improving the welfare of its members by providing professional enrichment and education, fostering community, and promoting industry recognition.”

To this end, the objective of the VES is “to ensure that the artists and the industry thrive through the collection/formation of this community,” Okun notes.

That is achieved in “a thousand different ways,” Okun says, based on the structure of the VES.

Serving its Members

The mothership—as Okun laughingly refers to the Los Angeles-based crew—is home base to the organization, with seven sections at this point scattered around the world: San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver, Montreal, Greater New York, London, New Zealand, and Australia. Soon, a section will be established in Toronto, with others expected in Brazil and India. The sections serve their specific community directly and ensure that communication flows from their segment to the rest of the Society. For instance, if an event is held in San Francisco, it is videotaped and posted on the VES website so that members from around the globe can experience it as well.

“We have town hall sessions that are broadcast live to all members. We have the annual Awards show, which brings everyone together,” says Okun. “All the sections are following the lead of the mothership to promote their sessions, which amount to educational and networking events—gettogethers for the community, so everyone can have access to people they admire. And that allows them to educate, mentor, and discuss things.”

For instance, last month the VES put on an event in Los Angeles to dissect unions, providing factual information about the topic so that the members can decide whether they want to be in a union or not, “as opposed to hearing rumor, innuendo, and nameless bloggers’ hearsay,” says Okun. “They had the opportunity to hear the facts of what a union is, what a union does, and how a union works, which are all radically diff erent from what the general public thinks it is and does.” Providing a forum for factual, important information such as that is a big priority of the VES. In addition, the Society off ers an educational series that includes online or live hands-on hardware and software training or retraining for its members. There are also various live events from around the world, including screenings (courtesy of the studios), which also serve as networking and educational events—and all VES members and the wider entertainment industry are encouraged to attend and speak.

Meanwhile, a global Benefi ts Committee has organized numerous member advantages, including discounts on hardware and software as well as training programs. And, the VES Technical Committee pulls together practitioners from around the world to address some of the issues that the members are facing—things that Okun says may not seem important at fi rst glance but may have a dramatic impact concerning the work the members perform, such as maintaining a consistent color space across the industry and standardizing fi le-naming conventions. The VES even has a best practices handbook (the “VES Handbook of Visual Eff ects”), which the group is now in the process of updating for release late next fall with information from the internal community and external sources that are of value for the members.

Membership

Recently, the VES voted in a number of new members, putting the collective total at more than 2,700 in 28 countries. But not just anyone can sign up and become a member. So-called “Active” members must have at least fi ve years of hands-on visual eff ects experience within the past 10 years and two letters of endorsement from current members. “Associate” members, meanwhile, are exempt from the active experience but must be involved in other aspects of the industry, such as public relations.

Because of the required work experience, those who join the VES are already experienced practitioners and are moving out of the first phase of their career as trainees to competency-level positions, as opposed to just starting out in the job market.

When the Society formed 16 years ago, it drew in a lot of initial members who were the top-level people in the industry. Since then, newcomers have been added to the fold, and with every passing year, those individuals are becoming more experienced and performing at a higher skill level.

How important is that membership endorsement letter? Very important. The membership committee not only thoroughly researches the history of credits from applicants, but also follows up on the letters of endorsement, comparing other letters to be sure that it is not simply a copy of a previous note sent on another person’s behalf. “The endorser needs to speak to why this person should be allowed into the Society,” says Okun. “We are not trying to get as many people as possible. We value quality over quantity.”

So, what attracts potential members to join the ranks of the VES? “I think, I hope, they join because it is considered a mark of distinction that you are in the Society. It means you have certain skills,” says Okun. “I love to say that people are joining because they actually want to effect positive change.”

Okun recalled a speech given by one of the founding members, Jonathan Erland, after receiving the Society’s first Founders Award in 2006. In the speech he stated that the VES is not a Costco, a place where you join, pay a fee, and get cool stuff; it is a professional honorary society, and when you join, it means you are ready to step up and do something.

“Our members are very active both inside the Society and outside. They see the value of joining together to make a difference in their careers and for the future of the industry,” Okun says. And that, it seems, is a perfect description of what “membership drive” is here. Once members are accepted into the Society, their status remains intact as long as they are in good standing. If they drop out and then request re-entry, they must reapply and go through the entire process from the beginning and are re-scrutinized. Only this time, the membership committee will be interested in why the person wants to rejoin, Okun notes.

Members with Benefits

Recently, members were asked to complete a survey to provide the VES with a snapshot of its membership. According to Eric Roth, executive director, the information is being compiled at this time.

One question pertains to job title. In a previous survey, a great majority of the respondents had stated they are VFX supervisors, which “we know is not true,” says Okun. To resolve this issue, the group is undertaking an initiative to redefine titles and assign definitions to them.

“Titles can get blurry. Our objective is to get all the studios and facilities to call an individual doing specific work the same thing, no matter where they are located,” Okun adds. “If they do compositing, they are a compositor. One of the great things about this initiative is that it encourages a lot of discussion between facilities and studios, and at the end of the day, once we nail that down, we can address credits on film and television, and maybe we can get them to be placed [higher in the credits.]

Okun continues: “Given what we bring to a movie or TV show, it’s somewhat dismissive to be listed after the caterer and personal assistants and everyone else. It may be we can only elevate a few credits at a time, but the point is we are aware of it. It is a long-term goal. It’s nothing you can get solved quickly, but we are walking on the road.”

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