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 Avatar, District 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
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 desrved 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.