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Is A “Digital Spring” For Visual Effects Artists At Hand?

Calls for unionization at an international meeting held symbolically on Pi Day.

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LOS ANGELES — Visual effects artists gathered around the world — in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Vancouver, New Zealand, Brazil, and London — connected by video link to translate a rising tide of anger into action, creating, as one speaker called it, a "digital spring" for the beleaguered trade.

In Los Angeles, where the main event took place, workers crowded into a green screen studio at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, where calls to unionize visual effects artists, to form a trade association and to end film subsidies, echoed throughout the night.

March 14, aka 3.14, aka Pi Day, was chosen for its symbolism, "the movie Life of Pi having come to represent everything that is wrong with the feature film visual effects business," according to one announcement for the event.

Life of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects just weeks after Rhythm and Hues, the visual effects house that supervised the work on Pi, announced it would be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

It did not help that Life of Pi director Ang Lee did not thank the film's visual effects team in his Oscar speech and the awards show decided to cut off the effect's team victory speech: a pair of high-profile insults that ignited the current firestorm.

The bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues was announced in early February, a few weeks before the Oscars. In the weeks since, visual effects artists have taken to the streets with public protests, mounted a solidarity campaign wherein supporters changed their online profile pictures to green screens, and in one case, threatened cyber sabotage if their demands were not heeded.

One former Rhythm and Hues employee at the town hall meeting told of former coworkers who had been turned out of their homes since the firm's closure. Job insecurity like the kind experienced most recently by employees at Rhythm and Hues was chief among the concerns at the meeting, but long hours, low pay, lack of benefits, and lack of bargaining power were also included in their grievances.

While these are issues that have plagued the industry for years, the meeting was charged with a sense that the VFX community was ready to take action.

"It really is the digital spring," said Scott Ross, former general manager of Industrial Light and Magic and founder of the visual effects house Digital Domain (which he sold in 2006, and which filed for bankruptcy in September).

Ross repeated the night's theme: "The time has come to be able to have additional societies — like guilds and unions — and like trade organization," he said. "Because if you don't have bullets, you can't fight the war."

While calls for illegal action were not heard, attendees were urged to sign representation cards with IATSE, asking the union to be their bargaining agent. An IATSE representative at the meeting said the union generally requires that 60% of eligible employees sign the cards before approaching the employer for formal negotiations.

A moment of tension occurred when a representative of the Visual Effects Society, which has called for a focus on securing greater subsidies from the state of California, spoke at the meeting. Many in the room objected to the Society's subsidies-centric appeal issued after the Oscars.

Gene Warren Jr., who started in the film industry in the early '60s on the set of I Love Lucy and went on to become a visual effects supervisor on such films as Terminator 2, said this isn't the first time that the VFX community has tried to effect change, but it might be the first time that they could win.

In 2007, Warren said, a group of artists filed a petition arguing that Canadian television incentives violated the North American Free Trade Agreement. They lost that time, he said, "because the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] is very powerful, and there was no Twitter or Facebook, no social media." Warren gestured at the crowd gathered in the room and at the screen behind him beaming the meeting to gatherings around the world. "You couldn't have this happen," he said. "This time around, we can win."