Solidarity from Under the Bus

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“Laid off due to company-wide reduction in workforce” was the euphemism I received when I finally got canned from my VFX job in October. I had already survived a springtime massacre that happened as a result of cuts in spending from the big distributors. Then, at least in my imagination, like the iconic imagery of Neo from The Matrix (expertly designed by a previous generation of digital artists), I had continued to dodge a hail of industry attacks and layoffs until finally someone on the other side pulled my plug. I don’t mean to be coy about it but the truth is I lost my job due to the sustained strikes by the writers and actors guilds.

The impacts of the strikes have been so devastating to people in the creative fields orbiting Hollywood that a palpable sense of resentment has crept in. Many industry veterans have been out of work for well over six months already. Students graduating into this environment will be permanently set back. The few jobs that are available today are receiving 100s of applications apiece. As of writing this I’m under the impression that all the strikes are formally wrapped up and that production is resuming immediately, however common estimates say it will take until early to mid 2024 before content makes its way into VFX houses.

As always, I struggle to focus my friends’ and colleagues’ frustration on their genuine enemies. And I want to make my position very clear. Those responsible for this sustained disaster are the heads of studios, state and provincial governments, and the surreal technification of the entertainment industry. These dominating forces and transformations in the entertainment world have fundamentally altered the landscape in a way that justly demanded a response.

The prominent creative guilds have set a remarkable example of what can be achieved by collective organizing. Consider for a moment the leverage required to force concessions from these economically and politically powerful institutions. Individually those workers’ needs, like whispers in a crowd, would never have been recognized, and although I wonder why they didn’t coordinate better between the separate guilds, and although there are still some valid concerns about the respective deals, they demanded change and they got it the only way possible. By forcing it through disruptive collective action. To reiterate, by causing a scene, shutting down the machine and focusing attention on their legitimate issues.

What I really want to say is that I’m more disappointed in my own industry than I am upset at the others. The last decade in VFX, animation and even video games has been a completely disorganized free for all. An ideologically libertarian industry founded by old hippie rebels who made a lot of money and in the process neglected to create a viable business model for the rest of us. In some cases that was their explicit intention. In 15 years I’ve never once been approached by a formal union representative. Even when I wasn’t being paid overtime, or being illegally misclassified as an independent contractor, there was no organized body to take advantage of the opportunity. Even when Rhythm & Hues famously went bankrupt in 2013 and won an Oscar two weeks later there was only fleeting, disorganized solidarity. The companies I’ve worked for have never bothered to try and coordinate a trade union to protect themselves, let alone me. They desperately underbid each other into the ground, spending huge amounts of some fool’s capital to set up shop in whatever local government pays this year’s highest labor subsidy, they compete with foreign markets doing our work at a third of the cost, and the PR-arm of the industry is so bad that most of the film-going public fundamentally misunderstands what they do and hates them for doing it.

Had we built the infrastructure ten years ago, VFX artists and the industry itself would have been in a position to make our own demands, instead of sitting meekly on the sidelines, whining that it isn’t fair that those braver than us have the power, the discipline and the self-respect to improve their own circumstances, while we have nothing.

There is some light. The newer generation of artists tend to think more systemically. In fact the title of this letter is paraphrased from a colleague’s initial reaction to her unemployment. But as it stands now, we’re floating in this ether with nothing to cling to. For supposed creatives we seriously lack imagination. We have no power. No demands. No self-respect. For now at least, we are nothing.