VFX Union Meetup – May 4th

Friday May 4th.

Culver Hotel

9400 Culver Boulevard  Culver City, California 90232
12-3 pm

IATSE Representatives Vanessa Holtgrewe and TAG organizer Steve Kaplan will be back at the Culver Hotel to answer, questions, hand out rep cards, and talk about the next steps necessary to Sony to negotiate a contract for the artists at Imageworks.

We’ll either be in the dining room adjacent to the lobby or the outdoor patio area facing the Pacific 12 theaters. Look for the big IATSE sign. Water, iced tea and lemonade will be available along with some finger-foods. A sign will be placed in the lobby pointing the way to the room.

Have you heard rumors about healthcare, and 401k plans? Not sure how the retirement benefits work? What would you like to see them do for you? Come by and ask them in person! You don’t need to be a Sony employee to attend. All vfx artists are welcome.

What you need to do:

1. Tell everyone!
We’re posting around the internet, tweeting,  and talking in the halls to get the word out. But we need your help too.

2. We need volunteers willing to take back cards to work.
The discussion is out in the open now. Do not disrupt the workday with card distribution. Finish your work first, then hand out cards.

Map to the Culver:


Its best for anyone driving to the meeting to park in the Trader Joe’s lot located just east of the hotel and across the street from Imageworks, or at the Bank of America lot located on the other side of Culver across from the hotel.


4 Responses to VFX Union Meetup – May 4th

  1. Bill Birrell says:

    Dear SPI,

    I have been watching these events with great interest. As one of the founders of Imageworks, and the architect of the early business plans, I have a unique perspective on the proceedings. Perhaps I have a singular voice since I understand well the challenges faced on the business side, but I am not bound by corporate loyalty to keep silent.

    Sony Pictures Imageworks IS it’s people: the artists, the TD’s, the coordinators, the producers, the supervisors, the editors…(forgive me for not listing every job description).

    This has been true since the very beginning with Tim McGovern, George Merkert and the original team. It was true with Scott Anderson, Jerome Chen

    Many of my early battles were to gain credit, benefits, and compensation for the crew. One specific: SPE’s policy had been that corporate employees could not be credited on Columbia or TriStar movies. We were able to change that, but it was a battle.

    There has always been a cultural conflict having a VFX studio within a live action Film Studio. The executives I dealt with (now long departed) held the common view that the people involved with making the movies, from the actors and directors down to the lowest p.a. were inherently replaceable. For example, if a DP isn’t working out, go hire another one. They walk onto a set and you are up and running in a few hours or at most a couple of days.

    I tried to educate senior management that VFX just isn’t like that. The skill-sets are rarer, and the ramp up time to train on a specific production pipe is far greater. My immediate bosses got it. Some others, not so much. That is why I left the company. I would not mistreat the folks I had hired. I said, NO.

    Even though those folks are no longer running SPE, apparently some of the structural issues are still not well understood. It sounds like at least some of the team is not happy.

    In a perfect world, an employee doesn’t need a middleman between s/he and the employer. But the world is not perfect.

    The thing the team should weigh is does the middleman provide benefits that are worth the cost? This is a personal decision, and from what I see there is a healthy dialog in process about what the IA can do for the SPI’ers.

    But also be aware of the limitations on the SPI management. In the vast majority of cases SPI must compete for the contracts that pay the crew. The market sets what the producers will pay. In my experience the producer is the 800 pound gorilla in that negotiation. The gorilla’s position is only enhanced on the best projects. This effects not only the quantity of resources, but it also impacts schedules.

    Some of you may recall the crunch when FOX flipped the release dates of SPEED and TRUE LIES. It cut our schedule on SPEED from 20 weeks to 10. Yet one guy sat across the table and argued that I didn’t need to pay overtime!

    I know the character of some of current management and I am sure that they struggle with some of these same issues. These will not be resolved by the IA.

    But there may well be other benefits – portable pension and healthcare that make the overhead of the union worthwhile. The crew needs to evaluate the value of these benefits both quantitatively and in the context of peace of mind.

    That the crew will vote is as it should be. You folks are what makes SPI. It is your decision.

    • skaplan839 says:

      Hello Mr. Birrell,

      Its great that you weighed in here. Personally, it shows your dedication to the craft as a whole that you take the time to follow this blog and care about the outcome of this group.

      I have to disagree with you on some of your points, though. Please forgive my bravado, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to discuss some of these with you.

      You mention that SPI is the artists. Its a nice thought, but not true at all. SPI is a sub-division of Sony Pictures Digital Productions; which is itself an operating unit of SPE. Its a business, pure and simple and you know this. To try to humanize it by saying its a collective of artists is entirely misleading.


      As a business, SPI makes decisions regularly that aim to “better the business”. This almost always means make it more profitable. That is not to say that you didn’t once try to make some at Sony management understand the original point (the company is its employees). However, your resulting departure speaks to how those efforts were received.

      A perfect example of this would be the organization effort of 2003. Many of the artists back then voted against unionization because they felt the company understood their needs and provided for them better than they could achieve for themselves as a cohesive unit. Again, history has shown that wasn’t the case as Sony continued to do what was best for the profitability of the organization and those benefits were stripped away.

      Conversely, a union *IS* the artists. Its leaders, its executives all come from the membership. Its members are made up of artists working at contracted studios. They use the strength of their unified voices to set standards and boundaries against the company’s pursuit of profit from trampling too sternly on their backs. It secures those standards and conditions equitably through a collectively bargained agreement which they have a voice in shaping.

      As you mentioned, in the absence of a “perfect world”, a union is necessary to set and enforce these agreements for the sake of the membership and their livelihood.

      Your second point brings up another issue that supports unionization of the industry. VFX Studios, Imageworks included, are forced to operate with the production studios who have somehow managed to completely control how much money will be spent on the work that will invariably be the ultimate driver of ticket sales worldwide. Not only does this pit the vfx studios against each other in a battle to see who can race to the bottom the quickest, but adds the insult of the production studios insisting that they work in offices across the globe to chase the latest “flavor of the month” incentive that further lines their coffers.

      Your point implies that unionization of the industry could raise the cost of doing business for SPI. I’ve maintained my position that the cost of unionization is not fixed, nor is it able to be fully calculated without an executed contract in place. This is because any point of the contract is not set in stone and could be bargained out during the negotiation process. Most people point to the health and pension contributions that union contracts contain as the biggest cost driver. While its true that no union would want to lose that fringe benefit, larger vfx studios who already offer benefits of this nature could benefit from participation in the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans This is because the union is able to bargain better deals with healthcare providers based on the number of participants they represent. This is especially true for SPI.

      Finally, this point is further reason for unionization for the fact that organization and unified action is not only needed by the artists in order to change the broken business model that is visual effects. The responsibility also falls upon the vfx studios to band together and work with the unified artists to face the producers to change how this business is done. Its my understanding that when approached, the largest studios in the world have turned down the opportunity to form a group of this nature. I believe nothing would motivate them to reconsider than an organized and unionized workforce inside their walls.

      Steve Kaplan
      Labor Organizer
      The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE

      • Bill Birrell says:

        Dear Steve,

        Thank you so much for writing in response to the points that I raised. First and foremost, I think dialog about these issues will help get out information that will help the team make the decision that is in their best interest!

        Also please, you are an expert in these matters. I take no “bravado” in your analysis and positions. You may not remember, but we interfaced on a production in the early 1990’s. I found you then to be a consummate professional, and committed to the best interests of the crew.

        I fully understand your point that a company is a first and foremost a business. On a factual level, I agree with you.

        However, my experience as General Manager of SPI taught me that SPI could do nothing without its people. I could buy machines all day long, but it was and is the talented artists, engineers, technicians, etc., who use them to work with the clients to make images, characters and sequences that are the work product of SPI. Perhaps this is not an important distinction to some, but I feel that this is true of all creative companies.

        To pick an extreme example, will Apple be the same without Steve Jobs? I hope so, but I think most would agree it is a reasonable question. Now what if Jony Ive leaves as well? What if Ive’s unsung right hand man leaves too? At a certain point, Apple would cease to be able to achieve extraordinary success.

        Apple is its people, and so is SPI. And both the team and the management must factor this into their decision making.

        As far as the cost of unionization, your points are clearly stated and well. made. Again I agree that you cannot calculate the cost without a specific contract. As a former manager, I am simply stating the obvious – that the overhead of the union is an added cost in the “economy” that if all were happy and felt well taken care of would not be necessary. The economy would be more streamlined.

        This statement is theoretical. What is relevant is competitiveness. Will SPI be able to successfully compete for the desirable projects that the team wants to work on?

        I think the answer to this can be found in a corollary: do union shops successfully compete for desirable projects?

        You can fill in current details, but I believe that the industry leader in San Francisco is a union shop. I think it is an understatement to say they successfully win contracts for good projects.

        My personal experience with healthcare strongly supports your point about the power of the larger group in negotiating affordable rates.

        My ancient experience in VFX concurs that there are significant problems with the structure of the industry. As a founder who felt a responsibility to my crew, I support anything that helps those who end up baring the burden that the industry’s disfunction creates.

        Best regards,


      • skaplan839 says:

        Good morning Bill,

        I believe you have me mistaken me for Steve Hulett, the Guild’s Business Representative for the past 22 years. While I would not compare my experience with his, I hope you find me equally as professional in my demeanor.

        I agree, in philosophy, with your point regarding the people of a company. The skill and determination of the SPI workforce has undoubtedly made it one of the premiere effects houses in the world today. However, this point speaks more to the heart of the company and not the head. And its the head of any company that makes the decisions and is held accountable to forces that regularly are in conflict with the heart.

        This makes the existence and purpose of unionization clear. A union works to protect the heart of the company against its head, which at times could be interested in damaging the heart to spite the body. That analogy is a bit “out-there”, but I hope it helps you to understand my support of your theory while underlining my belief in the need for unionization. While it may be adding a layer of complexity to the “economy” of the business, I resubmit my argument that the “overall cost” of unionization could have a positive impact on the overall operational cost for the studio. To argue otherwise without the full facts is nothing more than fear mongering.

        As to your example of the union shop in San Francisco, I would need to know which shop you are referring to in order to back up and support your claim. If you mean Industrial Light and Magic, unfortunately you would be incorrect. ILM has not been a union shop for years. We look forward to working with artists employed at that facility to reestablish a healthy and equitable relationship once again.

        Finally, I think your last point speaks volumes to the need of unionization. As an operating manager of a major facility, you felt a “responsibility” to your crew. Any time I enjoyed my working relationships with my employers, I felt they carried the same responsibility on their shoulders. In today’s world where the production studios force the hands of the visual effects shops, I see those managers now turning to the “heart” of their company to support the “race to the bottom” that has been brought upon the industry. Working under the collective agreement that a union would establish would provide enforceable standards and stipulations that would offset the loss of managers with your sense of responsibility.


        Steve K

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