Open Letter To James Cameron: Fairness For Visual Effects Artists

Visual effects artists typically work with no contract, no paid vacation, no benefits, and often no paid overtime. And because of the nature of the work health problems are common.
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To James Cameron,

I'm addressing this letter to you because you and your filmshave been such an inspiration to so many who either watch or work in the movies.I'm asking for your help in addressing a problem that few in your audience haveprobably ever given a thought to -- the unfair treatment and working conditionsof visual effects artists around the world.

Visual effects films were dominant commercial forces in2009. Films like Avatar, District 9 and Star Trek allsucceeded because they brought together visual effects with great writing,acting, directing and other cinematic elements. There are other films for whichthe visual effects seem to be the primary audience motivator. Without anyslight, the reality is that people did not go to see recent commerciallysuccessful films like G.I. Joe or the Transformers movies for thescript, music or the acting. They went in droves to see the spectacular visualeffects - the "thrill ride."

For all of these films that rely heavily on visual effects, thestudios and theater owners made hundreds of millions of dollars. The writers, composersand actors all will receive well-deserved residual payments for decades tocome. But the visual effects artists don't receive royalties and residuals. And asone visual effects artist told me, "even in the credits, we're listedafter craft services."

Like most people who work in the film, television and videogame industries, visual effects artists love their jobs. They enjoy both thework itself and the ability to work on a daily basis with so many smart, creativeand talented people. However, visual effects houses can be the best, most funand high-tech sweatshops on earth. Visual effects artists typically work withno contract, no paid vacation, no benefits, and often no paid overtime. Andbecause of the nature of the work health problems such as obesity, tendinitisand carpal tunnel syndrome are common.

The thing needed is recognition of the problem and the valueof these artists. When I say "value", I'm not using that termabstractly -I mean the bottom line, practical dollars and cents value of visualeffects to the film, television and video game industries. Just take a look ata list of the world's topgrossing films of all time - of the top 30 films, every single one of themis a visual effects driven or animated film. Visual effects have meantmulti-billion dollar business for the studios.

Unlike every other craft in the film industry, there is nounion for visual effects artists. This seems to be a matter of timing as muchas anything. Modern visual effects techniques are only a few decades old, andthe digital side of the visual effects arts really only has about 20 years ofhistory as a popular filmmaking tool. The other filmmaking disciplines such asacting, directing and music composition date back to the very beginnings of thefilm industry.

This newness has left digital visual effects artists withabsolutely no collective bargaining power whatsoever. In this age of weakenedunions, many of these artists are understandably leery of the idea of unionization.Additionally, visual effects artist currently work under constant threat fromproducers of having their work sent off to India or China. (The irony ofsending creative work to a country like China that routinely censorscommunications --

Perhaps some sort of "Union 2.0" structure is needed; amore flexible, modern institution that takes the realities of today'sproduction environment into account , while still giving these artists some ofthe same basic protections and benefits that other crafts currently receive.But whatever the solution, it's important people become aware of the problem.

Mr. Cameron, you are in a unique position this Academy Awards®season. Your film Avatar has been nominated for nine Oscars. Odds are highthat at some point, you'll be up on stage accepting a well deserved award. Justas you took time recently to

Even a small statement by you will cause industry and press attentionto focus on this issue. The Visual Effects Society is awarding you awell-deserved lifetime achievement award later this month. There's no questionthat your groundbreaking films such as Titanic, Terminator 2, andnow Avatar have all fused visual effects and storytelling into moviesthat have succeeded both commercially and artistically.

For the sake of all the artists who have both worked for youand been inspired by your work, please allow whatever victories you have on Oscar®night to be beginning of meaningful discussion in Hollywood about fairness for thethousands of artists who create visual effects.

Lee Stranahan has worked in and written about visual effects for nearly 20 years and is host of the podcast FX Mogul Radio, where he interviews artists, executives and filmmakers about VFX. Crossposted at

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