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Open Letter To James Cameron: Fairness For Visual Effects Artists

04/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To James Cameron,

I'm addressing this letter to you because you and your films have 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 have probably ever given a thought to -- the unfair treatment and working conditions of visual effects artists around the world.

Visual effects films were dominant commercial forces in 2009. Films like AvatarDistrict 9 and Star Trek all succeeded because they brought together visual effects with great writing, acting, directing and other cinematic elements. There are other films for which the visual effects seem to be the primary audience motivator. Without any slight, the reality is that people did not go to see recent commercially successful films like G.I. Joe or the Transformers movies for the script, music or the acting. They went in droves to see the spectacular visual effects - the "thrill ride."

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

Like most people who work in the film, television and video game industries, visual effects artists love their jobs. They enjoy both the work itself and the ability to work on a daily basis with so many smart, creative and talented people. However, visual effects houses can be the best, most fun and high-tech sweatshops on earth. 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 such as obesity, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are common.

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

Unlike every other craft in the film industry, there is no union for visual effects artists. This seems to be a matter of timing as much as anything. Modern visual effects techniques are only a few decades old, and the digital side of the visual effects arts really only has about 20 years of history as a popular filmmaking tool. The other filmmaking disciplines such as acting, directing and music composition date back to the very beginnings of the film industry.

This newness has left digital visual effects artists with absolutely no collective bargaining power whatsoever. In this age of weakened unions, many of these artists are understandably leery of the idea of unionization. Additionally, visual effects artist currently work under constant threat from producers of having their work sent off to India or China. (The irony of sending creative work to a country like China that routinely censors communications -- including the announcement of this year's Oscar® nominations -- doesn't seem to bother these bottom-line seeking producers.)

Perhaps some sort of "Union 2.0" structure is needed; a more flexible, modern institution that takes the realities of today's production environment into account , while still giving these artists some of the 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 high that at some point, you'll be up on stage accepting a well deserved award. Just as you took time recently to speak out on behalf of NASA, I'm asking you to consider taking a moment to speak out on behalf of visual effects artists and how they are being treated unfairly.

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

For the sake of all the artists who have both worked for you and 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 the thousands 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 LeeStranahan.com