Getting into the VFX industry in Toronto?

Someone asked a question in my blog post from Thursday:

This is sort of a general question but in your opinion do you think that it is worth getting into the VFX industry here in Toronto? After hearing about artists not getting paid for overtime and the general state the VFX industry is in, I am not sure what to really think. How do the VFX companies here in Toronto treat employees compared to other places?

Strap in, this will be long.  I'm going to split up your question into two parts, first about the VFX industry and then about Toronto specifically. 

The first thing anyone thinking about starting a career in visual effects should know is that you will likely work from contract to contract. Full time staff positions are fairly rare, usually reserved for senior artists that companies really don't want to lose. 

The reason for this is that the VFX industry is so competitive that the profit margins are very low. Imagine this situation:
Let's say you own a company, it's been successful so you've had to hire more people. You have to pay $100,000 every week in order to pay all your artist's pay cheques. 
A movie studio has a VFX job, you put in a bid of $130,000. Another studio puts in a bid of $100,000. What do you do?  If you don't get the job, you'll get nothing. If you bid $90,000, you'll get the job but you'll only lose $10,000, which you could probably make up on the next job, right?

There is so much competition and the companies have so much overhead that there is overwhelming pressure to keep cost low. One way to do this is to only hire people on a per project basis so that when the project is done you don't have to continue to pay them. 

Another reason for low profit margins is the fixed bidding process.  VFX studios estimate the cost it will take them to finish a shot.  If the studio estimated wrong or if the movie studio wants changes, it can take much longer to finish a sequence than originally estimated.  People have compared the process to building a house without a blueprint.  

You should also be aware that where the work goes is greatly influenced by government subsidies. You may have heard that feature film VFX work is pretty much gone from Los Angeles.   I believe ILM is the last major shop that still has a major presence in California.  It appears that the major hubs of visual effects production now are London, Vancouver and Weta in New Zealand. All three of these locations are the recipients of major government subsidies. 

Canada in general has been a big player when it comes to government subsidies.  Not only does British Colombia give these out to film studios, but so does Ontario and Quebec, so it's no coincidence that's where the bulk of expansion has been happening. Over the last few years ILM, Framestore, Double Negative, Sony Imageworks, Cinesite, and MPC (and more, that's just what I can remember off the top of my head) have all opened up satellite branches in Vancouver and Montreal. 

The problem with this is that it creates a lot of instability. What if another government gives out better subsidies?  What if your government dramatically cuts their subsidy?  It's not a stretch to think that if Sony left California for British Columbia, why wouldn't they leave BC for another location?  Would you be willing to move to another city to follow your job? Another country?  Change your child's school?

So, that being said, there are definite problems with the VFX industry as a whole. What about Toronto specifically?

The first thing I would say is that people's experiences at specific studios can be very different. I've been at studios where I've gotten along with people, the project was a lot of fun, and it was a great experience. I've known people at that same studio that didn't get along with everyone, felt they were being taken advantage of, and left with very bad feelings towards the company. Same company, two different experiences.   If you read sites like The VFX Watchers, you would think that every shop in Toronto is horrible.  The thing is, I know people who work at those studio who love it there, or they say that the issues brought up on that site are very overblown.  

Most of the companies in Toronto would be thought of as small or medium sized companies. Even the largest company (Mr X Inc., according to LinkedIn they have about 200 people there) can't compare to the size of Double Negative or ILM. I think most of the companies here have went through the following cycle:

  1. Started by artists, very small core group
  2. Worked on projects and got through it with an incredible amount of work. 
  3. With success comes growth.
  4. With growth comes pain.
  5. After the pain, they stabilize.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 at a bigger scale. 

Pain can come from technical considerations. Pipelines were usually not developed well at first. Something as simple as consistent naming conventions, making sure artists are working in the correct colour space or saving their work in the right directory can be an incredible time suck for companies as they scale in size (and these are the simple things).  

Pain can also come from the learning curve of artists who are now running a business. Managing payroll, staff issues, demanding clients, planning for depreciating hardware, it must be an insane juggling act, and as far as I know, none of the people who started VFX companies in Toronto were business majors.  To their credit, most of the established studios in the city have been around for 10 years (give or take) in a very competitive industry.

I think it's safe to say that every company in this city has made its share of mistakes. The smart ones learned from their mistakes.  Sometimes it takes a mass exodus of staff (that your company nurtured and trained) for a company to realize that you can only push people so far. That's a tough lesson, and I think most companies in the city have been through this at one point or another. 

Once a company has grown past a certain point, they simply have to evolve or their growth is what ends up hurting them. This goes from having a pipeline that maximizes efficiency to having proper policy regarding overtime. Some companies in Toronto have been through this, others are going through it, some have yet to go through it. 

How artists are treated depends on a few things, some that are in your control and some that aren't. Are artists in demand?  Was the company looking for weeks or months to find someone with your skills?  Is the project you've been brought in on running smooth, or were you brought in because things were going poorly, the staff is burned out and they just need fresh bodies to get the damn thing done?  

Something to keep in mind is that there is no union in VFX, which can be used to your advantage or which could be a huge disadvantage. For example, I've seen artists promoted to lead positions years before you would think, just because they were at the right place at the right time. They stepped up, made the most of their opportunity and leaped ahead of other artists. The lack of a union, which would probably have rules about how experience leads to promotions, really helped those artists out. 

The downside is that a union usually negotiates minimums on their members wages (among other workplace issues). For example, a police officer who worked eight years is guaranteed a minimum of X amount of dollars. This doesn't exist in VFX. You could be doing the same job as another artist and they could be making much more or much less than you. This isn't unique to Toronto, but the lack of large VFX studios here has meant that we don't have the spike in artists salaries that you would see in Vancouver. Now that some of the stereo conversion studios are setting up in the city (and planning to hire in large numbers), competition for artists should increase. 

Keep in mind that even if competition for artists goes up that a lot of what you earn will still be dictated by your negotiation skills. 

I think I've written a lot without answering your question directly. I'll try to sum up:

The VFX industry is tumultuous, filled with uncertainty. It's pretty much the opposite of a stable career (that being said, I know artists that have worked at the same company for over a decade in this city, and personally I've been steadily working as a compositor in Toronto since 2001). 
Established companies pay overtime. I have heard many stories over the years from artists that have have had issues with overtime pay, but not nearly as much recently. 

While I may be painting a bleak picture, I don't mean to be negative. I truly enjoy working in VFX. There are times when the job can be frustrating, but find me someone who isn't momentarily frustrated by their work. The hours can be long at times, but that's the case with most deadline driven industries.  As long as I'm paid appropriately and the long hours don't drag on for a prolonged period, I don't mind it from time to time.

More so than the work, the other artists I work with are a source of inspiration. I'm constantly blown away by their creativity, problem solving and good humour in sometimes trying circumstances. The people in this industry are truly special.

I hope this helped you make an informed decision about your future.  If anyone reading this has anything to add, please leave a comment.