(Source: vfxsoldier.wordpress.com) The visual effects business is one of the most bizarre professional industries to work in because some of the most prestigious and successful companies in our industry are the ones that pay the lowest.

In my last article I wrote about vfx salaries at many facilities and how I found it a bit odd that companies like Pixar Animation paid salaries sometimes 20-30% lower than other facilities.

I also wrote about how many new artists in the industry work unpaid internships and some are even willing to pay to work and get some experience. Some vfx facilities prey on that notion while others prey on the notion that they are the most prestigious place to work and therefore you should take a pay cut for the honor.

I call this the price of prestige.

Everyone Pays The Price, Even Senior Artists

This phenomenon does not apply just to new artists, it applies to many senior artists as well. One very talented senior artist I knew had three offers for his services. Two of them paid very well while the third from Pixar offered 30% less than the other two. Pixar management also mentioned that it was their final offer.

To my surprise he took the Pixar offer. It was a pay cut from his current job which he was voluntarily leaving. He said the reason why was because it was a prestigious place to work. When I mentioned this to a junior artist who was already being underpaid, he gave me a confused look and said:

I would gladly take a 30% pay cut to work for Pixar.

This notion of taking a pay cut to work for prestige doesn’t apply upstream at Disney where CEO Robert Iger routinely makes the list of highest paid CEOs. Instead you hear quotes like these from Pixar employees:

If Pixar let me get coffee for them, I’d be happy,

The Millennial Problem: How Taking Lower Pay Early In Your Career Hurts You In The Long Run

I was perplexed at this new generation of workers coming into the market. They are willing to essentially pay to work for companies without correctly assessing that earnings today could be used as a down payment for a future home, retirement, or college tuition for future children.

I read an article that mentioned some studies about our new workers:

Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’” Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

I can understand the idea behind this: Young artists eager to get their big break undercut other artists to get into the industry in the hopes the will make it big. However, they are just paying for the illusion of prestige. The terrible truth is how studies show that this hurts their careers in the long run:

what’s truly remarkable is the persistence of the earnings gap. Five, 10, 15 years after graduation, after untold promotions and career changes spanning booms and busts, the unlucky graduates never closed the gap. Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. When you add up all the earnings losses over the years, Kahn says, it’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.

Fake Studios’ Fake Pay

These days the price of prestige doesn’t apply to just prestigious projects. It applies to dubious projects also. Last year there was an uproar over a Montreal studio that failed to pay artists towards the end of work on Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Now almost one year later Variety’s David Cohen reports that the same thing has occurred at another Montreal studio for the film Piranha 3D. These were senior artists who continued to work without pay:

One of the unpaid artists, Manny Wong, told Variety that with the Meteor incident in mind, he negotiated a payment-in-advance deal, but upon arrival in Montreal, he liked the atmosphere at Fake enough to forego advance payment. He says the producer was “very upfront” with him about the pic’s financial difficulties through two crises that threatened to shut down the picture.

Now the facility owner is playing hardball according to David Cohen’s twitter page:

Marc Cote of Fake Studio is trying to intimidate his unpaid #vfx artists into silence. Artists & others: We can only help if you speak up.

Upham’s Conflict

It’s moments like these that remind me of Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan. Please watch the clip of the famous scene above at the 6:40 mark.

I’m not comparing our plight to WWII nor am I comparing shady vfx facility owners to Nazis. However, every generation has a moment to take a stand no matter how uncomfortable the situation is. For many, the price of prestige can be a price that you pay for the rest of your life.

Will you look back and find yourself being compared to Corporal Upham? Or will you be a VFX Soldier?

Soldier On.

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