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Eric Roth

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The Real Wizards of Oz Deserve Better Treatment

Posted: 12/22/11 06:46 PM ET

Visual effects are the true "movie stars" of big studio pictures -- they turn today's movies into box office hits the same way big name actors ensured the success of classic films. In fact, 46 of the 50 top worldwide Box Office films of all time were visual effects-driven. And movies and broadcast programs you wouldn't think of as visual effects driven routinely utilize "invisible" effects to make changes to hair color, the sky, or to the background of a scene -- even creating the entire backlot and sets.

While visual effects-driven films are the ones that clean up at the box office, the visual effects artists who make the magic possible often are not adequately compensated or recognized for the contributions that they've made to the final creative product or the financial bottom line. Visual effects artists not only create fantastic visuals, we also aid in the storytelling, providing new possibilities for directors and producers who want to tell stories in compelling ways, never seen before, to actually get on the screen for everyone to enjoy.

But for the artists who create the visuals and help tell the stories we all want to see, life and working conditions are often not a happy Hollywood fantasy. Here's a dirty secret no one in the industry wants to talk about: visual effects artists and professionals are the only major group of entertainment industry workers who are not protected from labor abuses or provided with health insurance and other benefits through collective bargaining. That's just not right.

Make no mistake -- we want directors, producers and studios to make respectable profits because that means they will create more movies and TV shows that will utilize visual effects artistry and employ our colleagues. Unfortunately, though, a lot of new visual effects work gets outsourced to countries around the world because of tax incentives or lower wage rates. As that trend speeds up, many are wondering if the current industry business model will be sustainable, as visual effects facilities struggle through razor-thin margins while trying to create the cutting edge work that is expected of them.

Making a film typically takes 1-2 years, and the big studios have a lot of money invested in premiering on key dates -- usually around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day or July 4th for the big summer releases. Oftentimes, though, productions are behind schedule and the longer the beginning parts take -- such as finalizing a script or responding to production hurdles -- the shorter the time is available for the visual effects artists to create the elaborate visual effects "magic" needed. So, what happens then? Facilities hire on gobs of last-minute effects artists on a contract basis, who must work extremely long overtime hours for weeks or months on end, usually without access to either health care or other benefits.

Recently VES shined a spotlight on these issues by issuing an Open Letter to the entertainment industry as well as a "Visual Effects Bill of Rights."

What's next is to seek out cutting edge and collaborative approaches to create win/win solutions for our industry.

One such win/win might be a Visual Effects Industry Certification Program, that would verify the integrity of an artist's resume, define minimum standards of professionalism for all visual effects facilities worldwide, and also ensure that everyone everywhere uses fully licensed software so that all facilities operate on an even playing field. This might lead to the creation of a "Visual Effects Seal of Approval" that companies and studios would mutually agree to honor and abide by.

Another area where we'd like to find a win/win relates to providing health care to freelance visual effects artists connected to U.S. facilities, because we don't have nationalized health care like they do in the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. This is not only a great burden on U.S. artists, it's an extra burden on U.S. companies, because if they choose to provide such coverage, they know it will make them less competitive than their overseas counterparts.

We also want to explore how to get better credit positions in the crawl at the end of the movie for visual effects artists. While hundreds of visual effects artists tend to work on big effects shows, figuring out how to handle the logistics of credit location is a real challenge. Along the same lines, artists should have the right to show their work after the project is commercially released for the purpose of securing more work. While this sounds innocuous, you'd be surprised how many legal and other hurdles artists face when they want others to see their work as they take their next career steps.

At the end of the day it is plainly obvious that the entertainment industry's newest and most profitable star is visual effects, yet those who work in this craft get neither the compensation nor the recognition that true stardom demands. So the next time you go out to the multiplex to see the newest Star Trek or Star Wars movie, remember this: without the people who create the incredible images that will mesmerize you, interplanetary travel would look a whole lot more like a Flash Gordon serial from the 1930s rather than the mind-blowing visual phantasmagoria you're hoping to see when you plunk down your hard-earned dollars.

VES will be sharing our progress over the coming weeks and months. If you want to find out more, contact us as leadership@visualeffectssociety.com.