Did The Toxic Film Industry Claim The Life of a Fellow Artist?

A suicide reminding us of how people break down in Visual Effects

Photo by Luidi Cardoso from Pexels, Edited by author

What if I told you a Visual Effects(VFX) artist died creating parts of the movie you were about to watch? Would the popcorn taste as good as it normally does? Would the majestic introduction impress you? Would you look to your right to receive a confirming “wow” from your mate?

I hope not.

A dark cloud formed over the VFX world early in November when the news spread. Our fellow artist, Malcolm Angell, committed suicide earlier this year. He was supposedly being pushed far beyond human limits by the VFX company he worked for. The fact that VFX companies underbid and push their employees is sadly not news. Stories of unpaid overtime, 16 hour days, 5 months of crunch, and ignoring labor laws are easy to find. If you have a friend working in the film industry, ask her if she can remember any alarming stories. Bring a mug of coffee. You will be there for a while and she will serve you some horror stories.

Mr. Angell had an impressive resume with titles most of us could only dream of – among them the Lord of The Rings trilogy and Avatar. His titles ranged from project manager to line-producer and finally VFX Producer.

CTV News (and several other media) reported the news earlier this week and it shook the industry.

The contract/trap

Mr. Angell’s contract is one of the most shocking contracts I have ever heard of in VFX. According to CTV News, he was held hostage due to a specific clause. It required Mr. Angel to pay a penalty fee of $35.000 if he left in the middle of the production.

Considering how important he seemed to be, the VFX company would be in serious trouble if he left. If this was the case, they were in serious trouble anyway. If a worker is that important, what do you do when he gets hit by a bus, gets sick, burned out — or even worse, commits suicide?

According to the sources CTV news talked to(who remains anonymous), 80 hour weeks was normal, and Mr. Angell was regularly humiliated by his bosses.

The labor laws

Most countries have laws to protect the employee and the employer. These laws exist to make sure there is a mutual understanding between the employer and employee. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure a good working environment.

In Canada, each state has its own labor law.

The state of Québec’s Act Respecting Labor Standards regulates working conditions for employees and employers working in Québec.

From this act, we can look at some of the sections that would be relevant to Mr. Angell’s working conditions.

  • 1: In this Act, unless the context indicates a different meaning,
    - (11) “week” means a period of seven consecutive days from midnight at the beginning of a particular day to midnight at the end of the seventh day
  • 3: This act does not apply
    - (6) to senior managerial personnel
  • 52: For the purposes of computing overtime, the regular workweek is 40 hours except in the cases where it is fixed by regulation of the Government.
  • 81.18: For the purposes of this Act, “psychological harassment” means any vexatious behavior in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions, or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee…
  • 81.19: …Employers must take reasonable action to prevent psychological harassment and, whenever they become aware of such behavior, to put a stop to it. They must, in particular, adopt and make available to their employees a psychological harassment prevention and complaint processing policy that includes, in particular, a section on behavior that manifests itself in the form of verbal comments, actions, or gestures of a sexual nature.
  • 102: Subject to sections 123 and 123.1, an employee who believes that one of his rights under this Act or a regulation has been violated may file a complaint in writing with the Commission. Such a complaint may also be filed on behalf of an employee who consents thereto in writing by a non-profit organization dedicated to the defense of employees’ rights.
  • 122: No employer or his agent may dismiss, suspend or transfer an employee, practice discrimination or take reprisals against him, or impose any other sanction upon him
    - (1) on the ground that such employee has exercised one of his rights, other than the right contemplated in section 84.1, under this Act or a regulation;
    - (6) on the ground that the employee has refused to work beyond his regular hours of work because his presence was required to fulfill obligations relating to the care, health, or education of the employee’s child or the child of the employee’s spouse…
  • 123.6: An employee who believes he has been the victim of psychological harassment may file a complaint in writing with the Commission…
  • 123.15: If the Administrative Labour Tribunal considers that the employee has been the victim of psychological harassment and that the employer has failed to fulfill the obligations imposed on employers under section 81.19, it may render any decision it believes fair and reasonable, taking into account all the circumstances of the matter, including the discriminatory nature of the behavior, such as
    - (4) ordering the employer to pay punitive and moral damages to the employee;
    - (5) ordering the employer to pay the employee an indemnity for loss of employment;
    - (6) ordering the employer to pay for the psychological support needed by the employee for a reasonable period of time determined by the Tribunal;

Work hours and the senior manager loophole

A 40-hour workweek is a norm for most employees. The Act Respecting Labor Standards states that a week is 7 days. A full workweek is 40 hours. After 40 hours, overtime kicks in and you must be compensated for the additional work. You may also refuse to work longer than 14 hours per day.

There is a loophole in this act and that is section 3, where an employee can be defined as a senior manager. These contracts normallyrequires you to be available at all times and that you work overtime without compensation. The compensation is baked into your salary.

Before you sign a contract like that, make sure you have done your calculations right. If you have a middle management role, are you paid several hundred thousand dollars per year? If you do the math, you will realize that by working 80 hour weeks over time, you should be a) compensated at least double what you see fair, b) calculate how it will shorten your life due to stress and impact on your heart, c) calculate how it affects your time with your loved ones.

If you find yourself calculating c), it is a sign you have taken it too far. Step down, breathe, and go somewhere else.

I have turned down contracts like these before and the salary proposed was not $500.000, but closer to $50.000. Bring running shoes to contract meetings when being hired as an employee in middle management.

Psychological harassment

Section 18.18 and 18.19 are especially interesting. Psychological harassment is illegal and judging by the quotes from Mr. Angell’s co-workers, he was verbally abused and humiliated. Both would be cases of psychological harassment.

They also claim that their concerns were reported to HR and management, but nothing happened to the reports. This violates 18.19.

122–123.15 is there to help employees. It is important to know that if you are treated in a way that you believe violates these laws, you may file a complaint or have someone do it on your behalf. Your employer can not punish you in any way for filing such a complaint — legally, that is…

If the employer is found guilty of psychological harassment, they will have to pay for damage and loss.

The $35.000 penalty fee

Mr. Angell’s brother told CTV News that Mr. Angell would have quit his job if it wasn’t for this clause. I’ve never heard of anything similar in the VFX industry.

I can’t find any labor laws that would question this agreement, but I’m not a lawyer.

In CTV’s article, Law professor Adelle Blackett says she finds the clause deeply disturbing. She refers to the Act of Labor Standards, which states that the employer must make sure the working conditions meet the act’s requirements. She also mentions the termination of the working relationship.

An employee working in conditions of freedom must be able to terminate an employment contract with only minimally necessary restrictions.
- Adelle Blackett

She does not go into the specific clause. What are necessary restrictions? Who defines that, based on what calculations? It’s all a bit vague at this point.

If the Act Respecting Labor Standards states that it doesn’t apply to you as a senior managerial personnel, are there any limits to how many hours you can work? Can they request you work 24 hours 7 days a week just because of your title?

Decades of trouble and no union in sight

A paragraph I’ve heard many times in my career is: “What on earth? Catering, and drivers are before the VFX staff on the credits. Without us there wouldn’t have been a movie”.

Catering is most likely unionized. VFX workers have little support and are often left to fight their own battles.

Will VFX workers ever unionize?

Photo by Kyle Loftus from Pexels

VFX Soldier

In 2010, a VFX artist under the secret identity of VFX Soldier managed to start a movement that shed light on the poor working conditions the business is suffering from. At the same time, the US experienced jobs being lost due to studios set up abroad. After working in several of the biggest animation- and VFX studios, he saw there was a strong need to start the process of a union in animation- and VFX. VFX Soldier later “outed” himself and revealed his identity as Daniel Lay. Mr. Lay said he experienced others were accused of being VFX Soldier and blacklisted.

The “fight” mostly happened online and you probably saw some of your friends change their profile picture to a green square. That square represented a green screen and showed support to fellow VFX artists. Needless to say, that alone didn’t do much.

VFX artists are still not unionized in most countries and witnessing how paralyzed artists are, I don’t see a union happening any time soon.

Imagine 1.500 artists quitting in the middle of production to take a stand. All movies in production would collapse because, as we all know, action movies (or most movies to be honest) is nothing without VFX. The production companies would be forced to react. I guess that one week's termination period would backfire on the companies like angry badgers feasting on fallen fruit.

1.500 artists completed the films instead and moved to the next one — with working conditions still being as poor as before.

Winning an Oscar and filing for bankruptcy

In 2013, Rythm & Hues won the Oscar for best visual effects. That is a great achievement, but it was overshadowed by the fact that the same company filed for bankruptcy at the same time.

The multibillion-dollar industry seemed to demand high-quality visuals for pennies. This took over 400 artists to the streets in a peaceful protest demanding a “piece of the Pi”, The Guardian reported.

If only they would have protested earlier so there wouldn’t have been a film at all and not only the VFX artists themselves would suffer from it.

Sexism, bullying, and pornography

One of Mr. Angell’s former employers, Weta Digital, the VFX studio behind the beautiful imagery in Lord of The Rings, is investigated due to claims of a toxic working environment.

The claims concerns sexism, bullying, and the sharing of pornographic content. One of the most shocking allegations is that there was an ongoing pornographic mailing list — A mailing list that according to former employees survived for at least thirteen years. When they started working at Weta Digital, they were able to opt out of the mailing list, but there were still talks about it in the office.

The fear of being blacklisted seems to be one of the reasons few people reported it to the management.

Final thoughts

To make a change, both employers and employees need to work together to save the industry we love.

I have talked to many VFX artists who started out happy and ended up burned out. A lot of times it is hard to know how to react and what to do.

One reason a lot of artists end up like this is that they are afraid to stand up for themselves. It can be intimidating to say “no” — It might cost you your job and your visa.

If you do not stand up for yourself, especially in this industry, you will get eaten. You will be assigned impossible tasks and you will work free overtime because you feel guilty and don’t want to limit your possibilities in the future. I don’t know if the blacklist rumors are true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they exist. I’ve been told to be careful so I don’t burn any bridges.

Would you stand up for yourself if you knew it would ruin your chances of working in the industry again? Would you stand up for yourself if you knew that losing your job would get you kicked out of the country? A lot of foreign workers depend on the working visa tied to the employer. Never bite the hand that feeds you, ey?

The problem with this mentality is that people will take advantage of you — In any industry, not only VFX.

Let me be crystal clear: I am not trying to shift the responsibilities over to the employee. The employer must do everything in their power to make sure employee’s rights are looked after and a toxic workplace is never able to grow.

Just because you, as an employee, is not the “grab your pitchforks” kind of guy, does not mean you are easy prey.

You can file a complaint to HR (in writing) and you can file a complaint to the government if your original complaint is downplayed. HR is the employer's representative, but most companies have an employee’s representative as well to assist you and make sure your voice is heard. It can be frightening to be the one to raise your concerns. It is good to know that someone has your back.

Reading through the labor laws of the province or country you work in doesn’t hurt either.

It is very important that we never jump to conclusions without sitting on all the data. It is easy to look at cases from the outside and point fingers, but be very careful about accusing anyone of breaking laws — Especially when we know little about the circumstances first hand.

Mr. Angell’s former co-workers have told CTV News about awful working conditions. We don’t know if it was in fact these working conditions that made Mr. Angell commit suicide. It could be other factors as well. The sources tell the news that he started changing and the job got to him. He also sent a mail to a friend saying “Work kinda sucks right now” and that he was doing the job of two people. It is safe to say the working conditions weren’t optimal.

Another thing we can assume is that artists working long hours is a reality in the VFX industry in general.

My role as a supervisor is about many things, but protecting my artists is one of the most important ones. I have told artists to leave work before and I’ll do it again. I’ll rather take the blame for the task not being done on time. I’m usually involved in the bidding process and I know that bids are rarely 100% correct. We have to compensate for that together. Re-bid, find other ways to work it out, and help each other. Long periods of crunch is bad planning, bad ability to adapt, and no excuse. I’ve heard stories about people who crunch for a half year at a time.

To make a change, both employers and employees need to work together to save the industry we love.

Thanks for sticking with me till the end.

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Written by

CG supervisor with 17 years of experience in the Animation- and VFX industry. Studying Design, Use and Interaction (UX) at the University of Oslo

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