You might think that pilots, who are in charge of some of the most expensive machinery on the planet and are responsible for dozens, sometimes hundreds of lives while they work, get paid handsomely. You might think that they get schedules which are planned to keep them (and their passengers) safe and which allow for a rewarding personal life when not performing their vital function. You might think those things, but you would be wrong.

Pilots get sold on the fantasy of jet-setting around the world, luxury hotel lounges, and flight attendants with tight uniforms and loose morals. In reality they are often paid relatively little, their schedules are demanding, they sleep in hotels most nights of the year, and have personal and family lives that are strained at best. So why do this demanding work if they only make a fraction of their employers’ profits?

They do it for the same reason they spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars learning to fly in the first place. Passion. They love flying, and will accept mediocre to abysmal working conditions to continue doing it.

This story is a familiar one to visual effects artists. For years they have accepted some of the poorest working conditions in the motion picture industry. Many artists experience relatively low pay, long hours without overtime, no benefits, no job security, constant relocations, and much more. They pay the price for their passion so that we get great-looking movies, celebrities get to keep their dignity using CG nudity, and the studio executives get rich.

The consequences for overworked and undercompensated pilots involve at best poor living conditions, and at worst crashes that cost the lives of hundreds. The consequences for over-stressed visual effects artists may not be as dire as those for pilots, but the fact remains that both professions are integral parts of multibillion dollar industries and deserve to be treated as such.

After all, anyone who goes to a Marvel movie does so for the visual effects. Without the effects, it’s just a bunch of actors making bad jokes and saying made up words, and we already have The Big Bang Theory. Not a single major movie is made today that does not employ visual effects artists, yet individual star actors often get paid more than entire VFX companies.

The VFX artists prop up the billion dollar movie industry, yet their piece of the pie is one of the smallest on the plate. Also they have to move to Canada if they want their pie so the studio can get government baking subsidies. Although, it should be noted that these tax havens also rarely enjoy the pie; they just get to smell it and brag to other cities that they have pie. Sad, but that’s what they get for electing politicians who support treacle-down economics.

So where does it end? The movie studios aren’t going to have a change of heart any time soon and start appreciating artists, so legislation would have to compel them. But legislation in the US doesn’t happen without lobbyists, and to pay lobbyists to make their case, the artists in the States would have to first organize into unions. Despite some attempts in the past, this has never materialized (at least, not stateside) for several reasons that continue to be points of contention among VFX professionals today. Some blame the studios, others blame artist competition, but in the end nothing changes.

Thankfully there won’t be a disaster like a plane crash (hopefully) if the visual effects industry keeps going down the path it’s on, but it still won’t be pretty. Unfortunately, the disaster that is occurring does so in slow motion; the water in the pot is coming to a boil, but the frogs have yet to take action. Who are the frogs? Well, all of us.

Most high-end VFX professionals agree that the current model is unsustainable, and things will get worse. At best, the quality of visual effects will stagnate as artists leave the profession for greener pastures and work is outsourced to inexperienced foreign companies, something which to some extend is already happening.

“But what about our actors? Surely they are the reason why people go to see blockbuster movies. We’ll still have them.” Actors are important sure, but ask Ed Norton and Terrence Howard how important they think star power is for VFX-dependant movies. People went to see Avengers for the green monster and guys in power armor, not actors who don’t understand math.

Maybe though, it won’t be that bad. It’s hard to say. Or maybe it would be worse. Imagine, if you will, a world in which every business adapts the model that the VFX industry operates under…

A VFX World

Hello, my wife and I run a racing team and I would like to purchase a car so our team can win an upcoming race. $10,000? You can do better than that, I can go across the street to the foreign vehicle manufacturer and get a motorcycle for half the price. Then what will you do?

Sell to someone else? Well fortunately for me there are only a handful of people that buy cars and I know all of them. I’ll just tell them not to come here because you are being so unreasonable. Yeah, that’s what I thought. $8,000 sounds good, a couple layoffs ought to make that work for you. If you need more people, just hire student who will accept peanuts to get their foot in the door. Easy.

This car you made me is great, but upon further reflection, I’d like it in blue instead, and lose the back seat, I don’t like the way it looks. What do you mean extra charges? We agreed on $8K for the car and since it isn’t done yet, according to me, you still owe me a car. Make those changes or you get nothing for all the work you’ve done so far.

This looks good, but I spoke to my wife and she wants a truck instead, with a spoiler. No you won’t be meeting her. She is far too busy training the driver and putting his outfit together to worry about something secondary like the vehicle that the driver will operate during the race. Get me that new truck and you’ll get your $8K.

Hey we’ve decided to have a boat race instead. We liked the truck though, so now we need a boat-truck. If you could just… What are you so angry about? I thought you loved making vehicles? Looks like you aren’t a real manufacturer, a real manufacturer wouldn’t let little things like money or the ability to have a life and raise a family get in the way of making something really great. Make this boat-truck perfect or your colleagues will call you a sell out.

This was a great race, very competitive, but we are so proud that we won! I’d like to thank my wife, the driver, the pit crew, our sponsors, the venue, the concession stand operators, the custodians, everyone who watched the race, and a bunch of my friends who had nothing to do with the race. Let’s see did I forget anyone important…nope! Now where’s my $1 million dollar prize?

This article is made possible by the help of ActionVFX. Go check out their awesome VFX Elements Library here.

Allan Torp Jensen
Author: Allan Torp Jensen

Allan has worked on visual effects for feature films and television for 20 years. He has experience of the full VFX pipeline but has focused on compositing for the past 15 years and has been a Lead Compositor and Compositing Supervisor on various shows. He has worked with the talented people at Cinesite, Bluebolt VFX, Automatik VFX in London, and Weta Digital in New Zealand. For the past five years, he has worked remotely at his own Torper Studio on various high-end TV and feature film projects.