Feds Sues Lucasfilm for Undermining VFX Artists

Earlier this year, I wrote about the poor working conditions for the animation and visual effects artists who have helped create some of most incredible (and profitable) films and TV shows of all time in an open letter to director James Cameron. In that piece, I discussed the open secret of the only major production craft that is still largely non-unionized and the subsequent dearth of benefits, security and even proper credits when the end titles roll.

That article created a stir in the visual effects industry and led to events like the VFX Town Hall meeting that brought together perspectives from the studios, facilities and VFX workers. Some of the major unions like IATSE also noticed and during the past few months, they stepped up their efforts to organize visual effects artists and animators. Such efforts stumbled a bit as the union's lack of technological savvy (they didn't even have a web site that VFX artists could look at) smacked up against the independent spirit that caused many artists to be suspicious of unions.

But the unions may have just gotten a Christmas present from two of the biggest, most well-known names in the worlds of animation and VFX. Now playing at a federal court near you, it's US vs. Lucasfilm!

That's an antitrust case that shows how Pixar and Lucasfilm conspired against their own employees. Our story begins in January 2005, when, according to court papers....

Lucasfilm and Pixar agreed to a three-part protocol that restricted recruiting of each other's employees. First, Lucasfilm and Pixar agreed they would not cold call each other's employees. [snip] Second, they agreed to notify each other when making an offer to an employee of the other firm. Third, they agreed that, when offering a position to the other company's employee, neither would counteroffer above the initial offer.

Got that? For the VFX artists who were still holding on to the idea that they were working in a free market where they were plying their trade... not so much, really. These two digital animation powerhouses worked together to keep wages down and opportunities limited for the artists.

As the complaint says....

The effect of this agreement was to reduce competition for highly-skilled digital animators and other employees, diminish potential employment opportunities for those same employees, and interfere in the proper functioning of the price-setting mechanism that would otherwise have prevailed. The agreement is a naked restraint of trade and violates Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1.

If the complaint is right, VFX artists were being stabbed in the back by companies founded by their heroes like George Lucas, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. It's no stretch to say that most of these artists who Pixar and Lucasfilms treated like cattle probably got into the business after watching Star Wars or Toy Story about a jillion times and falling in love with movie effects and the magic of digital animation. The screenwriter William Goldman once said "Never meet your idols," and apparently that advice extends to working for them, as well.

As the effects worker's rights blog VFX Soldier says,

It wasn't like they were some vfx facility with razor thin margins that needed to do this to stay in business. This was Pixar, one of the most profitable companies to ever employ vfx artists.

This is obviously going to be something that the visual effects workers will remember when the union organizers come around. If you can't trust Buzz, Woody, Luke and Yoda... who can you trust?