Have you ever stayed to the butt end of the credits of a 21st century blockbuster?
A sad thing to do, perhaps, to keep the cleaners from clearing up the mess left by buckets of pop corn. Geek that I am, I lingered on after Man of Steel and tried to count the number of people credited for the VFX ( the special FX) After counting upto about 1200 I gave up and left the cinema to the cleaners. All those names however gave me pause for thought.
In old days of 35mm I used to work as a film editor in Soho. I never edited a feature but did work as an assistant editor on a number of them so I know something about working in the film industry.
The work in itself is enjoyable, but when production money is tight, as it often is, you sweate blood to get your job done. The pay was at the high end of remuneration for industrial work but set against that, I was freelance and would often hane long periods of unemployment between jobs. And in the UK film industry overtime was not paid. You worked the hours God or rather the production company sent; and in the last weeks of post production, 16 hour days were the norm, and you might struggle even to take your meal breaks.
When I looked at the long lists of credited Visual Special Effects workers at the end of blockbusters, I had an image. In my mind's eye I saw them as latter day oarsmen chained not to benches but to their computers, and occasionally unshackled and allowed to feed and relieve themselves.
As it turns out , this image has a grain of truth. The FX workers are feeling hard put upon according to an article by Janice Turner in Stage Screen and Radio. And the material for the rest of this piece draws on Janice Turner's article. Please note that Stage Screen and Radio is the journal of BECTU, the Union for media technicians. Janice Turner' s article may be coming from a Union perspective but it is certainly validated by my own experience in the film industry.
FX work has grown from being a small add-on to productions, and developed into complete production lines for making films that can only be made with this computer technology. The work is very labour intensive and involves a large number of teams working on different aspects of the production, at the end of which all the material generated has to be stitched together. As one worker remarked to Janice Turner: “Without special FX the Life of Pi would just have been a guy in a boat with a stuffed tiger.” Even in 3D this would not be big box office.
There are 10 big FX facility companies in the world competing for the business of the six large studios who produce the mega blockbusters. The problem is that the six large studios who commission the big contracts have created the tendering conditions where the FX companies have to compete very keenly to get the work. As Janice Turner says it has become a race to the bottom on price,: the margins for the FX companies are very thin and it is the 1000's of workers at the hard end of the tendering process, who pick up the tab. In effect subsidising the movies they create.
As with my own experience, wages for FX workers are good, but their contracts are often short term and periods of unemployment not uncommon. The workers have to put in punishing hours, to get the work done, and in the UK overtime is unpaid and work breaks begrudged.
A meeting of 100's of workers in London brought these issues into the open. Continuous 40 hour long stints in front of the computer, workers bullied into working overtime without pay. In the US there is also anger at the way the FX FX workers feel they are treated. The average working week is 60 hours and whilst overtime is generally paid in the US, health care cover is patchy. And. remembering this is a youngish work force, heart problems, sleep problems and high blood pressure are all significant health issues
The problem is compounded by the fact that this is a global industry driven by search for the best tax breaks. With companies moving from country to country, the work shifts from one location to another and many in FX industry have become a global migrant labour force.
The FX companies themselves are beginning to feel the heat. Their profit margins are too slim and in the USA, one big FX comnpany Rhythm and Hues – who did XF for Life of PI - recently went bankrupt leaving its workforce high and dry. At the Oscars this year when the award winning Life of Pi FX team tried to draw attention to their plight, the producers of the ceremony cut them off and brought on the band to drown them out.
Janice Turner reports BECTU General Secretary, Gerry Morrisey as saying: the situation where the FX companies impose more work with a short time scale and with unlawful working hours cannot continue.” The Union wants the XF companies to form their own trade association to resist being divided and ruled by the studios. And the Union is continuing its work of encouraging FX workers to join the Union and to challenge unlawful working hours and conditions.
I suspect it will be a tough long fight, but one that the workers and Unions will have to win if the industry is to have a long term future in UK Europe and USA.
Thanks to Janice Turner for an article that opened the lid on the way we should read those long lists of names at the end of the credit rolls.