Sausage Party and Nitrogen – an open letter

To the VFX & CG-feature communities,

Many of you will have heard in the last week about working conditions on the recently-released “Sausage Party”. What started in the comments section on Cartoon Brew has now been reported by The Washington Post, The LA Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and many more besides. It’s sad to say, but stories of poor working conditions are becoming an embarrassingly regular occurrence in our industry. From the infamous MPC Variety article, to the Life of Pi Oscar debacle, time and again we’ve found our industry’s troubles in the spotlight. We’ve seen reports of a client saying “If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job”. We’ve seen a facility exec tell an audience that if you don’t like long hours then you should get out. We’ve seen hundreds of VFX artists left off the credits of Star Trek Beyond. We’ve seen friends and colleagues forced to uproot their lives and move around the globe to chase tax-breaks and production whims. The question is this: when are things finally going to change?

The problems in our industry are well-known and well-documented. Whether because of over-promising to clients, underbidding to compete with tax breaks, creative mismanagement, inexperience or a simple lack of people, the result is always the same. Workers are pressured to meet impossible deadlines by regularly working late for little-to-no compensation during “crunch-time”. The “lucky ones” are rolled onto another project, where the whole sorry cycle repeats again and again until they burn out and leave. The “unlucky ones” are thanked for their hard work by being laid off. Many of us in this industry spend our lives jumping between companies and countries, trying to find a stable income and work-life-balance in a fickle industry that increasingly allows neither. And yet, our industry continues to cling to the antiquated and destructive motto that “we must deliver at all costs“.

However – things are changing. A process has started in London in the last 12 months which has given our industry a legitimate ray of hope. We launched a branch of BECTU for VFX workers in the UK, and gathered hundreds of members. We launched recognition bids at MPC and at Framestore, and we fought for representation for VFX workers at all the big London VFX studios. This has sent shockwaves through the industry. Our work is ongoing, and there’s still lots to do. However, we’ve started a process here, and we intend to see it through.

There are three groups of people we would like to address:

1. To the animators at Nitrogen. Congratulations to all of you on the release of Sausage Party. The film’s been a great success, and you should be very proud. We’re sorry to hear about the poor working conditions many of you experienced; that you encountered ‘intimidating staff into working past official studio hours, disciplinary measures utilizing fear tactics […] (such as threatening to terminate employment), implying that other departments are working overtime “voluntarily” as a reason to deny compensation’. We’re sorry to hear that some of you were threatened with blacklisting, or were denied credits for your hard work because you dared to ask for fair treatment. The fact that this happened on a CG feature – where your employer has even greater freedom over who to credit than a typical VFX vendor – makes things even worse.

To each one of you that stood up for fair treatment, by signing your petition or by speaking out to the press – a massive “well done” from all of us. It’s not easy to take a stand on working conditions in this industry (we know, we’ve been there!), and we hope that others will follow your lead. We feel – and we hope you agree – that this is a discussion that our entire industry should be having. You are not alone. The VFX branch of BECTU and its members have heard your story, and we stand with you. We hope that this is a turning point, and that management at Nitrogen listen to your concerns. But if not, you should know that you still have options. It absolutely doesn’t have to be this way. You’ve all experienced first-hand just how important it is that we have a voice in how we’re treated. This is exactly what a union is for. We know that our sister labour union in the US and Canada, the IATSE, would love to help you improve your working conditions. After all the coverage you’ve had in the press, we would eagerly encourage you to reach out to them. Nothing is impossible if you all speak to each other, talk about this, and get organised. It’s making a difference here in London, and it can make a difference for you too. Don’t let this chance to improve things go to waste. If there’s anything we can do to help, then please do get in touch.

2. To management at Nitrogen. We can’t imagine that it’s been an easy week for you. To see stories like this about your company after all the hard work on Sausage Party must be difficult. We’re not here to point fingers. We know that experiences vary by project and by team, and we don’t imagine that all of your employees are unhappy. However, judging by the number of people speaking out, there’s clearly a problem here – not just at Nitrogen, but across much of the industry. Nitrogen is not the first company to step on the giant landmine that is VFX working conditions; it is merely the latest.

It’s not in anyone’s interest – yours or ours – to see stories like this emerge every time a facility tries to talk proudly about its work after a tough project. We hope that you and other facility owners will agree that things cannot go on like this. We want to see public outpourings of anger like this and the MPC Variety article become a thing of the past. We’re sure that you do too.

Now is the time for facility owners to listen and to show leadership. Our industry is facing a crisis in working conditions, and to dismiss this outpouring from Nitrogen’s employees as the work of a disgruntled or opportunistic few would be a grave mistake. Hundreds have joined us here in the UK because there is a clear and widespread feeling in our industry that things cannot carry on the way they are. We – your workforce – don’t want a fight. We don’t want to cheat you out of money, or to make you uncompetitive. The vast majority of us just want a normal work-life balance and the chance to bring stories to life. We would love to work constructively with you to make this happen. However, we cannot do so if you bury your heads in the sand, deny the problem, or refuse to engage. We’ve spoken to many senior figures in this industry off-the-record, and we know that many of you share our frustrations in how this industry operates. We would challenge all facility owners in this industry to ask their employees to anonymously answer the following question: “What does this company do to protect me from mistreatment when a project goes wrong?”. If the answer is “nothing”, then it’s time to reach out to other facilities, and to talk about a shared solution. Without common industry-wide standards on issues like overtime, this industry will consume itself – and then we all lose.

3. To everyone working in VFX and CG features. We’ve talked to many hundreds of you now. Some of you are happy, but a great many more of you are not. We’ve heard your stories. The late nights, the weekends. The hundreds of hours of unpaid work. The missed holidays, the uncertainty of short-term contracts being extended week-by-week. The stress. The crunch-time. The fear of speaking out because of blacklisting. The trouble getting showreel material. The wage suppression. We’ve seen you share the stories, we’ve seen some of you even turn your profile pictures green. But unfortunately, sharing the stories isn’t enough. Things won’t change until we act.

Things started here in London when a group of us had enough, and decided to do something. We invited friends and colleagues out for lunch and coffee to discuss working conditions. We made chat groups, we shared ideas. We challenged each other to sign up, we set friendly challenges to see who could get the most colleagues to join. We made leaflets, we spoke out. We acted. And when we did, the facilities really sat up and took notice.

So what about you, dear reader? Have you joined a union? Have you talked to your friends and co-workers about joining a union? Because if not (and we hate to put it this way) – then you are currently part of the problem. Until we decide as a workforce that enough is enough, until we choose to establish a voice for ourselves, this steady drip-feed of horror stories is likely to continue. The facilities have had years to address these problems, but as we can see from the stream of stories like this one, their efforts to date have been sorely lacking. Crunch-time and insecurity remain rife within our industry. The next big story could be your next project. Ask yourself this: “Would I be prepared to stay in this industry and work at this level until I retire in my 60s?” If the answer is no, then it’s time to get off the fence and do something.

We would like to invite everyone around the world who’s read Nitrogen’s story and recognised these horror stories to join their local VFX union. We’ve started a process here in London. However, our recognition bids are only one piece of the puzzle. If you’re waiting for us to fix everything for you world-wide, then you’re in for a long wait. This is a big industry, and we can’t change the whole thing without you. We need to act together.

We’ve seen first-hand the improvements that happen at the workplace when workers get together in large numbers to declare “it’s time for a change“. We hope that you’ll get to see it too. There are unions and groups of people around the world that would love to help us finally improve the working conditions in our industry. The question is: will you let them?

Thank you for your time.

Kind regards,
VFX Union UK

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  • Steven Burgas

    😲 Unions will be the death of the industry, though.

    • Steve

      No they won’t. The companies and industry will be the death, because they continue to exploit the workers.

      • Steven Burgas

        Yeah, you keep saying that while you watch productions move more and more overseas, buddy.

        • Why would you cling to companies and productions that exploit their workers and impose conditions that make a sustainable work life impossible?

          If it were true that productions could not possibly operate in fair and equitable ways while remaining in developed countries (something I’m convinced is not the case), then we shouldn’t be too sad to see them go.

          I love CGI, animation and VFX, and I want to continue working in this industry.
          But not at the price of having to spend my life working under such conditions.

          There is wonderfully creative passion on the one side and then there is corrosive obsession and attachment. Let’s be careful not to confuse the two!

          • Steven Burgas

            You won’t continue working in the industry if VFX becomes more unionized because all the work will be sent overseas. Buh-bye.

        • “We don’t need unions because management will always put the workers rights and interests first” – said no one ever.

          https://twitter.com/VFXUnionUK/status/765807290553425921

          • Steven Burgas

            Say goodbye to your jobs, asshat.

          • Mitchy Mitcherson

            Hey Steve why don’t you take your childish insults and go fuck yourself while the big boys and girls of the world actually try to do something to improve their lives

          • Steven Burgas

            Enjoy unemployment! You’re no “big boy”, chump, you’re a work-for-hire hack with limited skills.

    • LSP

      Dreamworks and Disney are both unionised, and they seem to be doing fine. Indeed, Disney has been unionised since the 1940s (many of the major studios were unionised back then). See for example this history of the Disney strike of 1941:

      http://www.awn.com/animationworld/disney-strike-1941-how-it-changed-animation-comics

      • Steven Burgas

        We’re not talking about in-house studios, chump. Thanks for playing, though.

        • Explain the difference please.

          • Dusty Ayres

            He doesn’t know; like most Americans, he’s been brainwashed by three decades of anti-union bullroar to believe that if he works hard and obeys the law, he’ll be rewarded.

          • Robert

            I have been employed with UPS (United Parcel Service) for 27 years. UPS is a union company, and I am a Teamster.

            UPS is the largest and most profitable package delivery company in the world.

            UPS drivers are the highest paid drivers in the industry, enjoy ‘Cadillac’ medical benefits, and a generous retirement pension. I retire in 3 more years at age 50.

            Being a union company has not destroyed UPS, nor caused it to deteriorate. It is a shining example of a strong working relationship between the Teamster Union and a corporation.

            Sure, there are examples of companies that have failed due to unions and giving too many concessions, and certainly government unions are a drain on taxpayers with no accountability for corruption and waste.

            However, my point is that UPS and the Teamsters work together for a shared success.

            If Hollywood put their money where their mouth is, then they would stop outsourcing to non-union companies and other nations to avoid labor laws, and instead treat their workers with respect and dignity while paying fair wages, while remaining successful and paying their fair-share of taxes.

        • LSP

          Nitrogen is a CG feature house – I see nothing wrong with the comparison there. If you’re focusing on VFX houses then yes, you’re right, the comparison is not perfect. However, it shows a workforce very similar to ours, which unionised in the 1940s, and which ended up much stronger for it. No death of an industry then – if anything it ushered in a golden age of animation.

          How about you, do you have any examples of unions being “the death of an industry”?

          • alt animation podcast

            I think Nitrogen is more of a smaller VFX and animation house and then ramped up to be a feature studio for this project. So in this instance I think it might be valid to consider them as a smaller studio

    • Dusty Ayres

      What are you, Guy Caballero on SCTV forcing his one writer, Ernst Kirsch to write all of the episodes of the TV shows that air on the SCTV network for next to nothing in a damp, dungeon-like basement?

      This is what happens to people exposed to a diet of neocon corporatist propaganda for far too long.

      • Steven Burgas

        I’m a fucking realist.

        Unions help only themselves to fill their own coffers. They’re as self-serving as the studios. Fuck off.

        • Steven – debate and disagreements are welcome on this blog, but swearing at others and name-calling are not. Debate the idea, not the man. Please mind your tone, or we will start moderating your replies.

  • Cassandra

    While this is all good and nice i think that bectu doesn’t have any idea how vicious and sneaky some of the places are. What you are dealing with are major multi million dollar conglomerates not some instutional broadcaster with heavy ties to the territory that pride itself in the connection with the country. You cant force them to do anything and the mpc unionisation attempt is just here to demonstrate it. As far as the majority of the london scene knows it is not happened because the moment someone started talking about union the numbers of the team members have been cut under the legal limit ( let contract expire, probationary period terminations the works) and left work shipped abroad on the other offices. these are shops that get a lot of money from different countries so relocation costs are way lower than build a new facility at home and the recoup of those dollars happens super fast (40% back on each worker wage in mtl people) and have only 7 major players as clients. What do u think is going to happen? The only way we can get stuff to change is if there are no other way and the work law do not allow for uncompensated overtime or to move to an entirely freelancing type of b2b relationship at least we could get something back with our expenses and tax filing. Ask your friends in usa what happened when things got too tight? They moved in uk first and then started this crazy valtzer. Until then or you get a massive strike and hope for the best or these are just empty words.

    • LSP

      BECTU already negotiates with the big 7 studios via PACT for its other branches (camera, electricians, etc), so I think they already have plenty of experience on that front. See this story, for example:

      Hey Cassandra, some interesting points there, thanks for sharing. Firstly, I think BECTU already has lots of experience negotiating with the big 7 studios, because it already negotiates with them through PACT on behalf of its other branches (camera, electricians etc). They’ve had some success, too – see this story, for example:

      http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/star-wars-episode-viii-among-films-facing-delays-as-lighting-technicans-threaten-revolt-a6837796.html

      You’re right that companies like MPC could just fire their staff and move them elsewhere. But here’s the thing – who else is going to do the work for them if they get rid of all their experienced people? Not everyone can move to Canada (families, visa restrictions, etc), and even if they could, there just aren’t that many people in the world who can do the work to a high enough level – particularly those who know MPC’s pipeline well enough. They’d be massively shooting themselves in the foot, and putting themselves at a big disadvantage to the other VFX houses. Also, to state the obvious, it’s much harder for them to do mass firings and movings like this if there’s a recognised union there like BECTU to push back on behalf of the employees. It’s also worth noting that Nitrogen is based in Vancouver – even there with all their tax breaks, it still didn’t stop the pressure to mistreat workers in order to meet unrealistic deadlines.

      You’re right that law changes would be really helpful for all of us in the VFX industry. However, one fact you may be missing is that BECTU already lobbies government on behalf of its members (their head of research went into some detail about this at their annual concert this year). There was a recent proposed tax change that would have really hurt freelancers that BECTU managed to get changed. If we wanted to go the route of lobbying government for change, we’re much more likely to succeed if we have a union there with thousands of members to back our case up (and especially when that union has strong links with the IATSE in the States).

      Finally, if things ever got bad enough that we wanted to strike, we’d need a union there to help us strike legally. If workers strike illegally, there are processes the companies are allowed to do to disrupt it that they can’t do otherwise (like firing the people on strike for example). See this page for more info:

      https://www.gov.uk/if-your-business-faces-industrial-action/lawful-industrial-action

      I’d say the biggest thing holding all of us back is misinformation. Many of us don’t know much about employment law (or think we do but actually don’t), and it makes us all a lot more pessimistic about unionisation than we actually should be. There are plenty of tools people like us can use to improve our working conditions (we’re hardly the first industry in the world to face poor working conditions) – we just need to get a critical mass of people to be able to use them!

  • Brad Kalinoski

    Something that always seems to be missing is something that needs to be addressed. One of the largest reasons that studios and houses feel pressure to make working conditions so impossible, is the consistent use of studios in India and China, that use illegal software. Companies in the Europe, Canada, and the US, all pay thousand and thousands for legal software and the upkeep. The industry years ago, led by studios, spent millions on stopping pirated movies. Yet today, they use companies that use pirated software, basically not creating a even playing field for legitimate companies. Straining the profits to less than 1% by trying to meet the price expectations that illegal companies offer in india and china.
    There is no excuse for treating artist and employees with such disrespect. But, when margins are so thin, and created by companies located in the 3rd world that offer there services at cut rate prices, because they do not have to worry about the licenses and other overhead associated with it, creates this type of labor problems. We must fight this consistent use of illegal software by companies in the india, china and etc and we must make it an issue.

    • LSP

      Indeed. Are there any examples of this that you’re thinking of specifically? I don’t know much about how widespread CG software piracy is in low-cost companies, or the impact that piracy has on companies that refuse to engage in piracy themselves – if you have any further info then I’d be really interested to find out more!

      • Brad Kalinoski

        Ive spent the last three years working with Software companies turning in those that are using pirated software.
        And yes, I could and can point to many that are illegal.
        This is just one of them.

        Srini
        Assistant to Executive Producer
        SINGARAJAN STUDIOS
        Website: http://www.singarajanstudios.com
        Email:srini@singarajanstudios.co.uk
        United Kingdom: +447741888466. India : +91 9444958080, +91 9442815558.

  • Laura

    Personally, I’d rather join a union, loose my VFX job, see all productions move to India and be forced to find another way of life, than spend my entire career slaving away for no money in mass produced VFX Hollywood blockbusters that give me no opportunity for stability, pension or family life.

    Is VFX really worth breaking your back over? Would it be the worst thing ever if everything got moved to China?
    I know it’s not easy to get another job. I have only been working in the industry a few years, and I am already looking for alternative careers and education.
    I would rather have a some-shitty-day-job where I work half the hours for the same pay, than slave away at some company and not even get creative freedom, credit or proper pay.

    Many industries have gone through this struggle of getting employers, clients and managers to acknowledge the need for good working conditions. Unfortunately for the VFX industry, globalization was less of a problem when a lot of other industries where unionizing.

    I think unions are the way to go. We might have to be the ones that loose our jobs and get blacklisted, but we have an opportunity to create better working conditions for everyone in the future. (potentially)

    • Brad Kalinoski

      Ive been in this industry for 22 years, I have one BAFTA nomination and two VES nominations. And I absolutely love this career. I was in the medical field before this, and hated that career.
      To me, If you are in this for only the paycheck, and not the love of making films and telling stories, then you have the wrong career. Anyone that has only been in this field for a few years, cannot really compare.

      • Jeeze

        I’m somewhat of an outsider just chiming in, but I’m in the creative industry by trade and unfortunately “love” of a field doesn’t constitute everything. It certainly won’t pay your families medical bills. I find your comment somewhat narrow and exclusionary. Just because you want to get paid a fair wage does not lessen one’s passion for their work. Congrats on your accolades, but whether you’ve been in the industry 2 or 20+ yrs doesn’t define your talent anymore than green beans are healthier than peas. You may know more about the process in your 20+ years over some junior, but I’ve also seen artists with more technical talent in their 5yr tenure than some people claiming seniority with a blocky perspective on new constructs. Regardless of where you fit, everyone seeks a reward in some way. Kudos to you if you can live out of passion, but for others monetary compensation still remains a necessity even when they love what they do because life doesn’t stop sending bills. The message you’re sending is that it is ok for the industry to make money off of my talent without sharing a piece of that with me, the artist. No bueno.

        • Brad Kalinoski

          My point is, when you just graduate out of some school, regardless of how good it is, you do not and cannot have a grasp on the way the industry works. You also, have been mislead that you will make $50 a hour straight out of school. Totally wrong. The ones I hear complain and cry, are those that have little to zero experience in the field. They think they are owed a enormous amount of money and compensation straight out of school, and less than 1% of those graduates are even considered. There are always two sides to the story, if the working conditions were as bad as those coming out of it say they were, then why stay and finish the film, move on, go elsewhere.
          A lot of people come into this field thinking we work 8 hours and go home with a big paycheck and also under the assumption that we have weekends and holidays. Its not accurate in any way. If you are on a production of a feature film, and the deadlines are tight, then you must grin and bear it and push through, you will and are compensated by any legal company, and if not, there are more than a few ways to eliminate that problem. But dont set behind your desk, working overtime and with no days off, and complete the work and then complain about it.
          And as the one poster said, “Ive only been in this for a few years” yes, exactly and you probably came into this thinking its a piece of cake with lots of money and you work bankers hour. Relity is, Its not, you start at the bottom for little pay, we all work long hours and months without days off.
          If you are doing this for free, or below what you expect, or if you are getting screwed for not being compensated and you stayed until the bitter end, you have NOBODY to blame but yourself.

  • suztv

    I’m sort of with Laura on this one. I’m thinking of jumping ship myself.

  • RickyMarcelus

    How about changing the compensation structure and mimicking what some of the most successful game studios do. Give a piece of gross revenue of the film to the workers.

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  • alt animation podcast

    Is there a reason you specified features and not animation production in general? in my experience games and tv get it worse than features

    • Mostly because (a) it’s hard to come up with a decent, personal way of addressing every single field in the wide world of animation production, and (b) we already have quite enough work on our hands as it is! We’re absolutely aware of the issues in games, TV, etc though – and if people from those communities were to reach out to us, then we’d be very happy to help them out and spread this further.

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