We spoke with visual effects legend Scott Squires about unions and Vancouver’s VFX community. This conversation has been edited for length.
Jennifer Moreau: You’ve had a long successful career in the industry. Why have you been an advocate for unions?
Scott Squires: When I started, I got into the union. Everybody in visual effects at that time was in the union. You operated a camera, or you were a matte painter or a model builder, etc. So obviously the advantage is I didn’t have to worry about whether people were going to pay me, or pay me properly, or calculate my rate or any of those types of things. We could just focus on the work at hand.
Where would you put Vancouver on the global VFX scene?
Some people are saying we’re becoming a worldwide hub now.
To be honest, obviously, British Columbia pays out $400 million a year in film subsidies. Quite frankly, part of the problem here in the States and the
U.K. and Canada and so forth is politicians using their taxpayer money to move the work around. That means there’s no stability in the visual effects community.
… From everything I’ve heard from people working up there, and I actually was up there shooting on a project, a lot of the companies try to not to pay people overtime or (they) rate people as technicians and doing all of those types of manipulations.
Another reason Vancouver attracts these visual effects companies is the weaker Canadian dollar, compared to the U.S. dollar, and we have the infamous high tech exclusion in our Employment Standards Act, so studios think they can get out of paying overtime.
In terms of the lower dollar, definitely, producers will take advantage of that, and they did that even before Canada started offering subsidies. That’s true of anywhere, whether they chose to go to Bulgaria or wherever for a lower price. That’s part of their equation. That’s all standard procedure.
In terms of the high tech, that’s the problem. I don’t think they should be classified as such, because they do work overtime, and that should be calculated as part of the pay.
They don’t pay the artists anything when they work late. In reality, they are supposed to pay them at least straight time for the hours worked. That’s a huge issue here.
Even in China they have to pay a premium for overtime. The fact they either don’t pay anything or they just pay regular time means the companies have no incentive whatsoever to void overtime. That means management can be very sloppy about how they schedule things, approving something. They can say, ‘We’re supposed to do this in 10 weeks, but let’s do it in seven, because the client asked us to, and it doesn’t cost them a dime more, because we’re just working people overtime.”
Well, as studies have proven, physically, that’s very bad for people, and obviously, from a mental and family life, social life (perspective), that’s a terrible situation. But you’re giving an incentive for the companies to work overtime, because it costs them nothing more.
Unreasonable quotas are something else people in Vancouver are complaining about. They’re given way too many shots in a limited amount of time, and they end up working overtime for free. What would you say to those people?
So that’s the whole point of having a union, because as an individual, you’re going to have a hard time fighting that. … You employ probably thousands of visual effects workers – certainly hundreds if not thousands of visual effects workers – and they are all very well trained and highly skilled and so forth, and to be treating them like that goes against everything in film production.
In film production you don’t tell a grip, “Hey, look, if you don’t get those five lights up in the hour, then you’ll have to stay late and do this.”
If a crew shoots late, everybody is paid, and the producer and the director know that.
Exactly, but with VFX, they’re getting all this free labour.
And management always makes the mistake of (thinking): “OK, another six hours of overtime is six hours of productive work.” Once again, all the studies show that after 50 hours, productivity goes down, and you’re going to be making more mistakes.
Some artists are afraid of a union drive, because they think they’ll be blacklisted by their employer. What would you say to them?
One, that’s all secret, all the names if they sign up. … Nobody knows you are on the rep card except the union. That cannot be divulged to your employer. The other thing is everybody is hoping for the easy way out.
The fact of the matter is if you want change, it’s going to take some effort. … If you’re being treated poorly, if you’re working half the rate because you’re putting in all this free overtime, what’s the point, really? Shouldn’t you be willing to stand up (against) that? Do you want to continue working for companies that take advantage of you? I just don’t understand that. … Like last year, at MPC (Moving Picture Company), there was an article on one of their key people at MPC, and they had like 600 comments about how terrible MPC was to their employees etc.
They’re considered one of the worst up here in Vancouver.
You go, wait a minute. What if all of those people actually signed a rep card? What if they decided to walk out? Just so many what-ifs. If they took the time it took them to actually write out their comments, and put it into productive use, like sign a rep card or something like that, then they could make a change.
Another fear is companies will fold if people unionize.
Look, companies are making a billion-dollar profit. Somebody’s making money on this, somebody is paying their executives. So who’s paying for all that? You guys. Why should you have to put in 30 hours of free overtime, for somebody else that’s not even (got) your back? It’s a pretty sad situation.
So what advice do you have for Vancouver VFX artists?
I guess that’s the main thing: Sign up for a union; it’s all secret; it’s all taken care of. … Please just take an hour to consider this, a half an hour, it’s worth your time, this is your career. … We’re protecting people and the business as a whole. If it’s not operated as a real business, then that’s a problem. It’s just going to sink lower and lower.
Visual effects artists have so much clout, too. Effects can make or break a film.
They are the big box office draws – why people go to the movie theatres. … And all these big blockbuster superhero movies that make all this money worldwide are dependent on visual effects. But the visual effects worker today thinks they have no power, no control, no say in anything, and they have to take whatever the company will give them. They just don’t understand how much power they have.
Right now, if you took everybody at MPC, and 60 per cent of those people said, “Look, we’ve had it, this is it,” – I try to say, “Look, then you guys have correct coverage.”
And it’s an advantage for companies, because people will want to work there.
Many people say they’re happy with their job now, but the last company they worked for was awful.
Even if people are in a nice spot now – they might be working for ILM in Vancouver or whatever – but as soon as their project is done, where are you going to go to? … Even if you could get a small company, just one company, a small company to turn union, that would be the turning point.
What’s standing in the way of that?
Fear and apathy are part of the two biggest problems. … And the other thing is: “I don’t want to be blacklisted, then I can’t work.”
First off, you won’t be blacklisted, and secondly, do you really want to work for companies like those companies that folded in Montreal? They ended up owing people months of work.
Is there anything else you would like the VFX community in Vancouver to know?
As you said before, there’s a lot of work coming into Vancouver, so all of this work, they’re desperate for good quality people, but they’re being taken advantage of. They have a huge amount of leverage in Vancouver right now, so they should take advantage of it. Now is the time they should be unionizing. Because there’s nothing to lose, they’re not going to go anywhere else.